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For a long time, professionals the world over have been using Apple computers to create some of the most notable content available. It says something about a company when its customers refuse to use anything but the products made by that company. While it may seem “cultish” to some, there’s a good reason for it. Apple computers have generally always been stable, reliable, innovative, and run some fantastic professional software with aplomb. Full disclosure—I am a Mac user and I own an iPhone, but the reason I own them is not necessarily because they look great on the outside, but because they always do what I need them to do on a consistent basis, including video editing on my Mac (I say this as I type it at home on that very same Mac, using Apple’s Pages application). All Mac computers have the capability to edit video on some level, complemented by wonderful industry-standard software suites including Apple’s own Final Cut Pro, Adobe’s Premiere and After Effects and, more recently, Avid’s Media Composer. It’s safe to say that, basically, with any Mac you buy, you can edit video. So let’s look at some of the models offered that are conducive to video editing and post production.
The iMac is such a ubiquitous design, it’s nearly an icon of the all-in-one concept. While I was in college, every one of my media-related classes would feature rows and rows of iMacs loaded with professional-level software. I learned many techniques that I apply today, in Final Cut Pro, on iMacs that ran the software quietly and without interruptions of any kind; leaving me to my work. The sleek, unified design has evolved over time, but the power—it has always been about the power. The iMac has been a mainstay on the desks of professionals for many years because of that power inside the chassis, which takes up little desk real estate and provides a beautiful display. This statement about the display is truer today than ever, with Apple’s Retina panels. The iMac has been thinned, almost impossibly so, in stature, while becoming more powerful on the inside.
This year, 2015, has seen updates to the entire iMac line with the arrival of new 21.5 and 27" models. For pro video work, the 27" model is probably the better choice, because as you will see below, its internal hardware updates are quite substantial. Looking at the actual screens, both tiers now have high-resolution retina displays, providing 4K resolution on the 21.5" model and huge 5K on the 27" model. Having extra screen real estate is always important for video editing, especially when critically analyzing high-resolution video. 4K video is becoming increasingly popular and with that, editors like me have to be able to see every pixel to check that our shots are adequately sharp. In addition to the massive resolution, Apple did not rest on its laurels and just roll with the panel used in the previous model, it was updated so it can display almost the entire p3 color space. This is important if you are doing color grading on wide-gamut images created by high-end cinema cameras.
The new generation of 27" iMacs is also the first to feature the new 6th-generation Intel® Skylake™ processors. These new processors promise greater efficiency and faster speeds, absolutely essential qualities when dealing with such a slim body as the one found on the iMac. While the 21.5" iMacs have integrated graphics, yet another upgrade to the 27" iMacs comes by the way of the discrete graphics card or GPU. All GPU options available are now part of AMD’s latest R9 300 series graphics, which also promise a slight bump in power without producing excessive heat. Professional applications like those from Adobe, with their Mercury Playback Engine built into Premeire and After Effects or Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve, which uses CUDA or OpenCL, leverage the power of the GPU to a great degree for rendering video and effects in real time. The most powerful GPU offered on the 27" iMac is the R9 m395x, which offers 4GB of vRAM and 2048 cores, and translates into being able to render high-resolution video in real time, essential for monitoring footage.
Another important aspect of both model iMacs for video is the presence of the Thunderbolt 2 interface. With the potential to carry 20 Gbps of data, as well as 4K video over a single port, high-resolution and even RAW video files can be read in real time from external drives, provided your drives can support the speeds and your computer has enough horsepower to play it back. You can also use outboard video equipment like the AJA Io 4K and Blackmagic Design Ultrastudio-series products to output your video to an external monitor with full 10-bit color reproduction (something to which Apple is bringing native support). Thunderbolt 2 can also be adapted to other ports, such as a Firewire port for legacy DV support. The iMac offers dual Thunderbolt 2 ports for versatile connectivity. Four USB 3.0 ports, which provide up to 5 Gbps speed, complement the Thunderbolt ports for connecting more storage and other necessary peripherals, such as card readers.
Overall, the iMac is an extremely well-rounded choice for professional video editing, compositing, color correcting, or even some visual effects (you will want the beefiest iMac you can get if you want to start dabbling in VFX processing), which doesn’t take up any more space than a monitor would. This reviewer likes the iMac quite a bit, possibly enough to try and obtain one in the near future.
I can’t help but love the MacBook Pro. It’s both powerful and portable—exceptionally so in the case of the 13.3" Retina model—and still sports the trend-setting aluminum unibody design for which Apple is so well known. The MacBook Pro Retina Display line was updated in 2015 to include Force Touch on the already wonderfully smooth trackpads and updated discrete graphics in the higher-end 15.4" models. Pro video users who want a mobile computer as their main editing platform will want to have discrete graphics for that extra processing boost that can be applied in certain programs. However, the processing power offered in the non-discrete graphics models (all 13" and lower-end 15" models) is nothing to shake a stick at, and is definitely adequate in a pinch or for some lighter editing on the go. Case in point: my own 13.3" MacBook Pro from 2010 can run Final Cut Pro (7) and edit HD video with no problem. I can even get by editing 4K ProRes on occasion!
The Macbook Pro 15.4" was the first Mac to get the Retina Display treatment. I remember seeing it for the first time and being taken aback at how much resolution Apple was able to cram into such a space. The Retina Display experience has changed since then, and as application support has increased, the screen continues to be one of the best to be found on a laptop—in this writer’s opinion. For reviewing HD video before or after an edit, or simply enjoying a quick respite on YouTube or Netflix, the Retina Display doesn’t fail to please.
A great application for a small, light, and powerful computer such as a MacBook Pro—that any professional can appreciate—is for on-set work. Mobile DIT (Digital Imaging Technician) setups can be centered around a MacBook Pro running checksum programs to ensure that all media from the day’s shoot is securely copied and backed up to prepare for the editing stage. Proxies can also be made for client review or a quick rough edit before the shooting day is done—talk about productivity! Thunderbolt 2 is also featured on the MacBook pro, offering the same blazing data-transfer speeds as the iMac. Copying RAW or 4K footage should be a cinch. While there are two Thunderbolt 2 ports, you may want to save one for adapting to Ethernet or breaking it out to other ports with a Thunderbolt Dock, as the other port offerings are sparse because of the thin chassis. Dual USB 3.0, an audio I/O port, and an HDMI output are the only other ones offered at this time.
The notable aluminum unibody design has function beneath the aesthetics. It provides a sturdy frame for the internals that can take more than a few knocks. I’ve used my own MacBook Pro through more than five years of transporting it, docking it at my desk, dropping it, and putting it through other rigors known to imaging professionals and college students alike. Yet, it’s still alive and kicking.
This brings us to the head of the Mac lineup, the venerable Mac Pro. Introduced in 2013 at Apple’s WWDC (World-Wide Developers Conference) to much critical reception, Apple’s most powerful computer to date is certainly an intriguing one. It sports an industrial design and cylindrical form factor that is unprecedentedly small, yet very functional, inspiring some rather trite nicknames. When a colleague of mine looked over and saw it on my computer screen, he remarked “looks like a nice coffee mug, can you order me one?” Well, while some may mistake its outward appearance for other household objects, the inside of the Mac Pro is a force to be reckoned with. Underneath the cylindrical sleek metal outer shell hums an Intel® Xeon™ processor and dual workstation-grade graphics cards. All the hardware runs under the nearly silent top fan that cools the entire Mac Pro.
Of all the Mac computers out there, the Mac Pro is offered with, by far, the highest-spec hardware. The top stock configuration has a Xeon processor with 12 cores, 12GB of vRAM split over dual 2048 stream-processor-loaded AMD FirePro D700 graphics cards, and 64GB of DDR3 RAM with ECC (Error-Correcting Code—important for complex computing workloads). This configuration can blaze through RAW and 4K video workflows riddled with effects, compositions, color corrections, blur nodes, and anything else you throw at your editing workflow—within reason—and the Mac Pro will hardly break a sweat. If you gun it hard enough, you may even be able to hear the fan! As supply and demand would dictate, a configuration like that will cost you a pretty penny, though. But hey! I can still dream right?
As a workstation, the Mac Pro is an interesting beast. While it is inherently powerful, the internal expansion is rather limited. But, with Thunderbolt 2 ports (six of them), storage and fast connectivity shouldn’t be an issue, in most cases. You will need to save Thunderbolt ports for displays (the lone HDMI output is limited to a 30 Hz maximum refresh rate); the Mac Pro can support up to three 4K displays simultaneously for a view-encompassing, drool-worthy workstation setup. If you find yourself in need of standard PCI-E connectivity, you will have to look to an external box that can connect via Thunderbolt, such as the Sonnet Echo Express to hold your PCI cards (please note that external graphics cards are not officially supported as of this writing).
What’s more interesting however, is that the compact cylindrical design is rather versatile, as far as placement is concerned. You can put the Mac Pro on your desk, on the floor, inside a rackmount, or even take it with you! The Mac Pro is small enough to fit into a large backpack. I can’t recall any other full-fledged workstation that can reasonably do that (it’s not a perfect solution, as carrying a giant 4K monitor with you might be troublesome). The portability factor makes having the Mac Pro as part of a larger DIT cart a good-use case. And what’s more, after you’re finished with it, you can just take it back with you and plug it into your home setup at the end of the day.
With all that computing prowess and external connectivity, it’s hard to find things the Mac Pro can’t do. From 3D rendering, to video editing, to portable DIT functions, the Mac Pro really has the bases covered. With all these Macs, it seems like video editing is in their genes. But where do we go from here?
Ah, yes, the iPad. Some view it as being stuck in some sort of limbo; it’s not quite a computer but not a smartphone. Any way you slice it, the iPad can be a valuable tool for the video professional. It can roll as a camera (see my article on that topic here), but in my opinion, the iPad is more interesting for the editing side of things. The new iPad Pro is supposedly capable of editing multiple streams of 4K video. That’s pretty incredible, if you think about it. A device with no fans, an ARM-based processor, and little space imposition to speak of can handle 4K video better than my own Mac? This has me intrigued. While the iOS platform is still relatively sparse in terms of direct professional video applications—as in no major NLE (Non-Linear-Editing) systems are available yet—it’s very interesting to think of the possibility of editing high-resolution video on such a device. Using the intuitive tactile input provided by the touchscreen to manipulate video files while lying down on my couch? That would be something! I’m saying this like it can’t be done yet. It can be. Bentley Motors shot a series of ads completely on the iPhone 5s and had the initial edits done on iMovie using iPads! I know iMovie is not something you would generally use to edit a fully professional production, but as a proof of concept, this is really all I need to see to demonstrate that the iPad could be reckoned as a force in the pro video world sooner than we may expect it to be.
Practically speaking, the iPad can run many major apps that can be lifesavers for any video pro. From slates to shot-list makers to storyboarding software, if there is something to be done during the production of your project, chances are there’s an app that will help with that. For further reading, this article by my colleague, Chris Gold, points out some of the better apps that are available to filmmakers and help make their lives a little bit easier.
From the MacBook Pro to the iMac and up to the Mac Pro, Apple has a great lineup of products that can satisfy video editors, 3D animators, DITs, and more. Even the iPad shows the potential of what can be done on mobile devices in the future. Apple computers have evolved and continue to evolve, becoming more powerful and more stylish with each iteration. Yeah, it’s nice to have a pretty computer, but for we who involve ourselves in the world of professional video production, it’s the hardware that’s inside that counts and Apple’s comprehensive selection of Mac computers is a reflection of that.