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Why filmmakers might switch from Macs to PCs in 2010

02.10.10 @ 12:00PM Tags : , , , , , , ,

This isn’t for anyone who works at a huge corporation or has a lot of money, but for the rest of us, I think the best guerilla solution for filmmaking in 2010 will be a PC. I’ve been a Mac guy for the past four years but I suspect things are about to change; here’s why.

Steve Jobs made an interesting statement while announcing the Apple iPad: “Apple is a mobile devices company.”

As I jotted some notes for FreshDV about how the iPad could impact film distribution, that phrase stuck in my mind. What about the iMac? What about the Mac Pro? I don’t own either of those machines, but anyone who has:

  1. Money
  2. And a need to edit video

Might buy one of Apple’s non-mobile devices. After all, while there are plenty of prosumer editors using PCs, the vast majority of theatrical, independent releases in recent memory were edited on Final Cut Studio on a Mac (or on the more expensive side, an Avid). In my own case, everything I’ve done in the past four years (outside of my time at MTV) has been on my Macbook Pro. I’ve asked the laptop to do a lot of unreasonable things, like the visual FX on The West Side, and the fact that it still works is a testament to Apple’s engineering — there are actually scorch marks around its vents, thanks to too many overnight After Effects render sessions. But it’s four years old and getting long in the tooth, and for my next big project I will need a faster machine.

There’s just one problem. I have:

  1. No money
  2. And a need to edit video.

Given a certain economic climate we’re all aware of, I have a feeling I’m not the only independent filmmaker in this boat.

Take a look at this video from Adobe:

To summarize, the video shows Adobe offloading a lot of the editing machine’s workload onto the graphics card, or GPU (as opposed to the CPU), and in the process speeding up things exponentially. Why is this important? Well, as one makes the transition from prosumer/hobbiest editor to full-time professional editor, one of the most crucial aspects of the non-linear editing system (NLE) is its speed. As a part-timer you can get away with sub-par hardware and long render times; however, once editing is your bread and butter, time is money and a sluggish NLE will kill your business and/or the hair on your head.

Technically your hair’s already dead, but you know what I mean.

Anyway, this CS5 enhancement is cross-platform — it will work in Adobe’s apps on either operating system, so if you’ve got money to blow feel free to stay on the Mac and the tried-and-true FCP.

But a few things are going on simultaneously:

  1. Premiere Pro has matured; it no longer sucks like it did at version 5
  2. PCs have a wider selection of cheap graphic cards than Macs
  3. PCs have an even wider selection of cheap everything else than Macs
  4. Apple is apparently focusing more on mobile devices and is seemingly spending less time on Final Cut

So what you’ll be able to do is go buy a cheap PC workstation for $800 — which Apple can’t compete with because of the PC platform’s economies of scale, lowered warranty/support standards, and widespread availability of deep discounts — and stick a $300 gaming graphics card in it (supported cards here; apparently the nVidia GTX 285 is a good option). Voila: instant, high-powered workstation. We’re talking a capable editing machine for $1,200 instead of $3,500+ for a Mac Pro.

Of course, if you’re just editing web video, your laptop will still suffice. But key for filmmakers isn’t the ability to use lame transitions and template titling as seen in Adobe’s demo; it’s the ability to do nuanced color correction and render outputs quickly, which will improve your final product simply by encouraging more revision. In my mind, the number of times one is willing to tweak a sequence is inversely proportionate to the amount of time one has to wait for the NLE. In place of the AVCHD footage in the above demonstration, imagine DSLR-based, shallow depth-of-field shots (current DSLR codecs are very similar to AVCHD in that they are very difficult to play back in real time… until this Mercury Playback engine debuts early next year), and it’s not a stretch to see how microbudget festival fare will be edited on cheap PCs in the coming year. I like Apple as much as the next person, but their most recent Final Cut Studio was a surprisingly minor update, and unless their Mac Pros significantly come down in price, bet on 2010 being The Year Guerilla Filmmakers Start Migrating To Adobe.

When CS5 debuts (supposedly in April), you’ll be able to put together a very capable, Adobe-based PC editing machine for very little money. If my projects are in motion at the time — and barring any new developments in the Mac camp — I plan on doing just that. When I do, I’ll post a step-by-step guide for buying the right components and assembling a dirt-cheap, fast PC editing workstation. If you’ve already got Adobe’s suite for your Mac, you can crossgrade; I suspect 90% of filmmakers are using torrented copies of the Creative Suite anyway.

For DIY filmmakers, having your own inexpensive equipment is of paramount importance. DSLRs have drastically lowered the price of entry on the shooting side, and the GPU is about to lower the price of entry on the editing side.


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  • Anyone with an inexpensive PC can cut a film. Grab a pirated version of Avid Media Composer, Sony Vegas, CS4 or even Linux open-source options.

    Many users of the Mac went that way by default – a long-standing notion that Mac = design and Windows = business. That thinking is obsolete but the new generation of Mac users chose that path because they are tired of dealing with Windows.

    A struggling filmmaker with no money has to do whatever it takes to get their project done: borrow, rent, use Windows Movie Maker. But there is a world beyond the “no-money-struggle” when $800 computers won’t be a concern. Ultimately it’s about telling a story and the equipment doesn’t really matter regardless of what it costs.

  • I just built a hackintosh and it is as powerful as the fastest Mac. I do use FCP once in a while for things that haven’t been created on the PC side (Plural Eyes etc), but I find myself editing more on the PC side. I haven’t done a comparison test but PC just seems faster and more choices on third party stuff. It’s really not much of a difference beyond that and I have to say a PC is a hell of a lot cheaper.

  • Good point Mike — I should’ve mentioned the hackintosh aspect of cheap PCs. Build a cheap PC and install OS X on it… have your cake and eat it too.

    Lifehacker’s got a great tutorial on this for anyone who’s wondering:

    How To Build A Hackintosh With Snow Leopard, Start To Finish

  • Well for the $900 you will spend anyways configuring a good editing machine, there is no reason not to create a hackintosh. If your configuring skills are questionalble usually you can give it to your companies IT guy as they love to build these kind of things. Not only is it good to have but you can usually shut up any Mac fanboyz when you tell them this is faster than any Mac out there…not much you can respond to with that. But really they are so much the same that it’s pretty idiotic to be preaching about one being better than the other. One IS cheaper than the other though ;)

  • BTW I’m talking a dual boot hackintosh, it wouldn’t be smart to create it Mac only and rely fully on that.

  • I just want to say I’m exactly in the same boat as your Ryan.

    I’ve had my MacBook Pro since 2007 and love it. But with today’s throughput in video post production I am definitely moving up soon to a new machine. What I can tell you is that is definitely going to be a Mac.

    Your article makes very good points, price is a factor. It always has been with Apple, but the same thing made me go out and buy a MacBook Pro in 2007 versus a PC and spend all that more money is the same thing that is going to happen when I buy a new Mac again, this time around.

    It’s not only the hardware, it’s the software. Yes Apple is a mobile devices company, but what they really do is software. Without that, the iPhone, iPad and Macs are nothing. Anything from Final Cut Studio to the new Aperture 3 with video support is what makes a Mac a Mac. And yes, hackintosh is a solution, but I would rather have peace of mind and spend the money.

    In terms of realistic options where does that leave a guy like you and me? Well, let me put it this way, I’m not swimming in a sea of money either, but I know what my priorities are. Besides the world of filmmaking, my computer encapsulates my life, from pictures, to connecting, to watching tv shows, movies, music, web, games, etc… I love the hub that a Mac has brought to me that I love. Can you do all that with a PC? Sure. Can you do it the same way? I don’t think so. In that regard, I see that extra few hundred dollars as a sound investment in a Mac, and as you said your MacBook Pro was a work horse, your next Mac will be too.

    iMac 27” with core i7 is done better than the current base Model Quand AND Octo-core Mac Pros. It’s $2000, I mean, seriously? This would’ve been a dream, two, hell, even one year ago.

    On a separate note, I absolutely love your site, I’m sendin it out to all my contact list and facebook. Keep up the great work, thanks for givin back to fellow filmmakers, trust me it’ll all come back to you.

    • Nick, thanks — I could go either way but really what it comes down to is what boat I’m in when CS5 comes out, both in terms of the production I’m currently working on and, of course, the money boat. I also think a factor in choosing an editing machine will be whether Adobe enables GPU acceleration on mobile chipsets; most recently they’ve said “no” but I wonder if that will change given the release of more powerful mobile cards. I’ve managed fine with editing on a laptop but if Adobe sticks to desktop-only cards I’d have a hard time justifying another laptop. We’ll see!

  • Hardware acceleration is already here. If you haven’t tasted real time editing, you’re in for a treat. Get or build a cheap PC with the fastest i7 processor you can afford, add tons of RAM and a whole lot of connected storage, stir in a screaming ATI video card. Run CS4 Production Premium on Windows 7 Ultimate, and when you can, drop in a Matrox RT X2 card. Savor the experience of hardware-accelerated speed changes and scaling, tons of effects, transitions, keying and color correction and – very little rendering, and faster encodes. Add your ideas, season to taste and enjoy!

  • You make some interesting points, but the reality is, if it’s speed you’re after, you’re not going to be able to buy or build a dual CPU, quad core i7 or Xeon machine for $800 or anything close.

    CPUs still matter. Bigtime. Not everything Adobe is building is hyper-accelerated for the GPU. Not only that but Nvidia plans to bring its new line of Fermi cards to Mac, and ATI the same with its latest wares sometime in the first half of 2010. It IS true that there will never be *as many* GPU options for Mac as PC, but you can easily update the firmware on many PC cards and make them work on a Mac too. Point being there are many ways to obtain good workstation performance on OS X or Win 7, but none of them cost only $800, or even $1000. Really efficient rendering and multi-tasking performance costs real money, simple as that.

    And for those buying into any computer-maker’s marketing hype about “editing on a laptop”, you’re bound to be disappointed. Of all the options out there, laptop GPUs, CPUs and RAM throughput, suck the worst by a wide margin. Even the fancy laptops. Edit on a workstation. Even if you have to spend more time driving back and forth from a shoot, you’ll still save time in the end analysis. That’s especially true of HD footage, RED footage, etc. Finally, don’t forget OpenCL, which is a GPU technology Apple pioneered with Nvidia. Don’t think Apple is selling the farm because of what Jobs said. They may or may not keep up with Final Cut, but if they don’t they certainly won’t stop selling computers or trying to make them more price competitive.

  • Guys, I totally agree with you; no one is going to build an OPTIMAL editing workstation for $1k. However, a lot of people only have a grand to spend, and my point is: this year, with a judicious GPU selection one can get a whole LOT of editing machine for $1k — a lot more than ever before. And this is primarily because of GPU acceleration.

    Dan, CPUs definitely still matter but their cost curve goes up a lot when you reach the upper-end. Say someone’s shooting on RED, is it better to save money and go for the cheapest quad-core CPU and then splurge on a RED ROCKET, or spend the money on a octo-core CPU? Sure, the ROCKET is $4,750. But you can spend $3,300 on Mac Pro CPU upgrades alone!

    I’m just looking at the writing on the wall, and that is that CPUs matter less when they’re given help, and there are an increasing number of options out there to do this.

    One final thing: one of the main points of this post should’ve been HACKINTOSH. My bad for not focusing on that.

  • Before anyone gets their panties in a bunch, goes out, buys a PC and throws their Macs off a roof, check this out:

    (If it’s true that is)

  • Paolo Tramannoni on 08.18.10 @ 11:56AM

    What I cannot really understand is: with the Production Premium suite costing about 1700 USD (exluding tax), why is the price of the Mac or PC so important? If you can really save on a PC, it will be a small percentage of the total price.

    In addition, maybe in the USA things are different, but here in Italy 800 USD will buy a PC without Firewire 800 or eSata ports, the slowest processor, and a mere 2 or 3 GB of RAM. Hardly enough to run Premiere.

    If I really couldn’t spend for ad editing suite, I would stay with the cheapest software (like iMovie or MovieMaker) and the cheapest Mac or PC, without even thinking to matters like the Mercury Engine or After Effects.


  • Ryan, I am making the switch from Vegas to PPro and kind of documenting my journey.