Computers and video editing have gone hand-in-hand since at least the 1980s, when the Video Toaster joined forces with the Amiga to herald a revolution in desktop video. Less than a decade later, digital video began to replace the analog tape standard, and from there it was only a few more years before high-definition video even began to displace film in Hollywood. And through it all, computing power went up and prices went down for everyone, professionals and consumers alike.
No matter what your budget or level of skill may be, there’s a way for you to have serious digital video editing power. You may need:
- a web app to trim phone footage into the next viral video,
- a dedicated computer to produce a regular series of reports,
- or a full-on studio workstation to create your own independent film masterpiece.
1. $0 – $500 Range: Use What You Can Get. Chances are, you have or can acquire a PC or Mac that can handle basic video tasks. If you’re primarily looking to put together short videos for viewing on the web, you can get solid results from a decent notebook PC (and especially from a Macbook), or even from a more humble Netbook or iPad.
PROS: With low (or even no) investment, there are plenty of free or low-cost software options available, including Windows Movie Maker, iMovie, online Web apps such as YouTube’s surprisingly useful Video Editor, and the entry-level versions of pro software from Adobe, Apple, Sony, and Avid. Using available hardware is a great way for beginners to get the basics without being overwhelmed with pro or “prosumer” options and technical requirements. With some skill, creativity, and luck, it’s all you’ll need to create viral videos and even some amateur/independent short features.
CONS: Between ugly compression rates, dropped frames, and infuriating sync issues, you won’t be doing any favors to your content. You’re basically limited to short vids with lowered resolutions and frame rates. If video editing is anything more than a hobby to you, expect to be frustrated quickly with the limitations of budget hardware and software.
2. $500 – $1500: Build or Expand On What You’ve Got. If you’re comfortable with DIY computers, there are plenty of ways to turn a mainstream home PC into something far more suited for video, or to build your own from individual components. The trick is to know what will work best for your chosen software; pro-level tools such as Premiere, Vegas, and Media Composer all have specific requirements. The most important component is obviously one or more PCIe video card with multiple-monitor support.
Although you can get great results with higher-end gaming cards, the ideal card will feature AMD’s FirePro or Nvidia Quadro chipsets. Keep a close eye on the various CPU, chipset, and motherboard strengths and weaknesses. Among other things, onboard video is a no-no (and even onboard audio will not satisfy serious video producers). Other than that, the important factors are memory (at least 12GB DDR3), storage (several Terabytes of 7200 or even 10,000 RPM HDDs using SATA 6.0 Gb/s, ideally in a RAID array), and connectivity (FireWire is less of a must-have than it used to be, but still very important).
PROS: You have the ability to start small with free and/or consumer-level elements, and work your way up to serious pro power as your budget and confidence increases. This is where you can start to get familiar with industry standard software such as Adobe Premiere, Avid Media Composer, Sony Vegas, and others. Knowing how your software and hardware works together will enable you to create the best possible video editing environment for your needs, and troubleshoot any issues that arise. A piece-by-piece DIY approach lets you get the most for your money, too.
CONS: this approach requires you to have up-to-date knowledge of both digital video and PC hardware (i.e., a few days of research probably won’t cut it). It’s very easy to get stuck with components that don’t work well together, causing untold frustration when you spend half of your time troubleshooting dropped frames or waiting through system bottlenecks. And ultimately, it’s probably not much less expensive than having a video system made for you, and you won’t have the same level of support.
3. $1500 – $3000: Video-Ready Computer Systems. If you’re starting from scratch with a bit of cash and no wish to build your own, there are a number of options that will give you powerful video performance right out of the box. An obvious choice would be one of the current generation of Apple iMacs with Core i7 CPUs and the Thunderbolt interface. Simply add Final Cut Pro, Premiere, or Media Composer, and you have a video editing system that (with the right skills) will enable you to produce results comparable with nearly any professional editing studio.
PROS: Apple makes wonderfully integrated systems that are rightly admired for their high quality, user friendly power. Even video pros that use PCs for everything else tend to swear by Apple when it comes to serious video work. I’ll wager that half of the videos you’ll ever watch will have been put together on a system no more powerful than this.
CONS: Nobody has ever accused Apple of being cheap; although you get quality components and support, you’re still paying for the name, and that’s money that could have gone toward more important elements (like a better HD camera, for instance?). Plus, your customization and expansion options may limit you to a single upgrade path (if any).
4. $2000 – $8000: Purpose-Built Video Systems. If you’re ready to play in the big leagues, why not start with a computer designed for video from the ground up? There are plenty of ways to get the knowledge and experience of seasoned video pros and PC builders working for you. For an excellent place to start, take a look at Rain Computers’ [http://raincomputers.com/] breathtaking desktop and mobile systems.
PROS: there’s no substitute for having every part of your computer designed and optimized to do one thing. The know-how of the builders will make sure that there are no sticky technical incompatibilities or speed bumps, and they’ll have tested it thoroughly beforehand and provide you with support for some time to come.
CONS: It’s a big investment for a PC that you won’t be (or shouldn’t be) using for things like email, Facebook, surfing the net, and playing games. Nevertheless, most so-called “video editing computers” are simply made up of readily available (albeit high-end) consumer components anyway. If you really know enough to select the right options, you’ll probably be able to build something comparable or better for much less money. And you should be prepared for at least some of your expensive, cutting-edge system to be obsolete within six months to a year.
5. $8000 – $20K (and up): Professional Video Editing Workstations. The top of the heap for video editing. When you know that you’re serious, there’s no substitute for a fully-integrated network of hardware and software. Despite an increasingly wider range of competition over the last 10-15 years, your top choice is still an Avid system based on either Mac or HP workstations. Go turnkey for convenience, or consult with a pro for a custom workstation build.
PROS: the best there is. You’re working at the same level as major film and television studios, and there’s nothing to prevent you from taking your ideas all the way.
CONS: Serious investment, in both money and the learning curve. At the time of this writing, expect to pay at least $8K – $15K for a pro-level turnkey workstation, and considerably more for a custom installation. Unless you’re independently wealthy, this solution is only truly ideal for people (or businesses) that are prepared to devote themselves to a career in professional video production.
The past few years have provided countless examples of how creative and skilled people can get amazing results out of some very limited tools. The idea, the skill, and the right source material are still far more important than the technology you use to put it all together. But if video editing is something that you’re serious about, you’ll find that better software and hardware will increasingly reward your efforts, and open up new avenues of expression.
Over at CableTv.com we play around with all kinds of different media options, to include video editing. We have used the $500 dollar option more times than not. It is fun for us to put together something awesome with very little. If you would like to see some of the stuff we have put together message me on Twitter. @TimlCooley