Buying the best workstation for your needs means understanding how the CPU, GPU, RAM and storage options work together to enhance overall performance. Let’s go over those key factors so you know what to expect from your new system.
The base of any computer is the Central Processing Unit (CPU). The CPU does all the computational and processing work within your computer. Today CPUs come in many different configurations, including multiple threads and cores. Multiple cores mean that one chip has multiple central processing units. A six-core processor, for instance, has six processing units and is seen by the operating system as six physical cores. This allows for a faster system because it enables your computer to run multiple programs and tasks simultaneously. A multi-core CPU is a must for video editors — it will be an essential base for any mobile workstation.
Knowing what CPU is, you need to consider the video workflow you will be doing. In most scenarios, it can be either HD or 4K, and you need to examine the generation of the processor and how many cores it has. For example, an HD production in Premiere Pro 2021 version minimum requirements is an Intel 6th Gen, meaning that up to 6 cores are needed. The recommended specifications for 4K or higher productions will be Intel 7th gen, meaning up to 8 cores. Intel has more powerful processors, going from the i9 with ten cores and the X Series with up to 18 cores. On the side of AMD processors, you got eight cores with the AMD Ryzen and a whopping 64 cores with Ryzen Threadripper.
Of course, the more processor you have, the better the performance, but your workstation will be more expensive.
Random Access Memory (RAM) is another essential component of any workstation. RAM will not necessarily contribute to the speed at which your machine can perform processes. Still, it will contribute to its capabilities regarding the size and types of processes you can achieve. Every program, including your operating system, has memory requirements that allow them to run independently of the hard drive. This is important because using the hard drive as swappable memory will slow down your system significantly.
While DDR5 RAM is faster than DDR4 RAM, as long as you have enough RAM in general to run the programs you need, that should be sufficient. For HD productions, 8 GB of RAM is recommended. However, if you are working 4K or above, look to 16 GB or more RAM.
Error-correcting code (ECC) RAM is also something you should consider as it is not that much more expensive and adds an additional layer of data security. ECC RAM is built with an extra chip that checks data and transfers in and out of temporary storage. This transfer is a likely point for data errors that can result in corrupted files. In video production, corrupted and lost data is unacceptable, especially when working on a project for a client. ECC helps to mitigate this concern by looking for and correcting errors.
8 GB of RAM is the bare minimum you’ll want in a system, but 16 or 32 GB of RAM is recommended for most work. 64 GB of RAM or more may be needed for more intensive workflows.
GPU and VRAM
Video RAM (VRAM) is more important than standard RAM, a part of the graphics processing unit. The GPU is the central component for a quality video editing system. The GPU works with the CPU to process graphics, textures, video and everything else involving visual output. The CPU and RAM are essential for running your computer’s main tasks. Essentially, the GPU will be the workhorse of any video-based application, like Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro and After Effects.
While you may not need a dedicated graphics card to run your software, you’ll see a notable boost in performance if you have one. The GPU is a separate processing unit that comes with its RAM that processes your computer’s video output. You also don’t necessarily need a top-of-the-line GPU. A quality Nvidia or AMD unit with at least 4 GB of VRAM is recommended (6 GB or more for 4K or higher). If your budget is more flexible, professional GPUs like the NVIDIA Geforce RTX 3080 series might be something to consider.
Most video editing software supports various video cards, but this isn’t always the case with animation and effects software. Some software programs have features that don’t work with certain graphics cards. Make sure to examine the supported graphic cards list for your editing software before buying.
In addition to powerful components to run your video applications, a place to store data is also essential. Solid-state drives (SSDs) are optimal for your system’s boot drive. This is where the operating system is stored. However, it can lack storage capacity for media files. Ideally, you should use an SSD with at least 500 GB to 1 TB of space. When it comes to storage, the more space, the better. You never want to store your entire portfolio — plus assets — on one drive. You need enough space on your internal drive to store current project assets and other items.
Media files should be kept on a separate drive from the operating system to enhance your system’s speed. Storing your media files on external drives can speed up your workflow and improve your system’s storage capabilities. However, this can limit its portability. To stay mobile, you can opt for a second internal drive — usually a spinning-disk hard drive of a larger capacity. Any hard drive in your system should spin at 7200 RPM or faster.
An external device should be used for most long-term storage needs. USB 3 connected drives are fast enough for most compressed HD work; however, they’re not fast enough for uncompressed or raw footage. A single drive or a RAID array of drives connected via Thunderbolt 3 will give you the speed needed for demanding workflows. These ports can also connect to external devices used for capturing and monitoring video, so they are essential features to look for.
Meeting your needs
Ultimately your purchase decision should come down to your needs and what kind of a budget you have. If you have the budget, consider purchasing the most powerful machine you can. As with all technology, computers are quickly outdated. A higher-end machine will help future proof your investment — at least for some time. With that said, if you have a tighter budget, there are still some great choices out there that will perform well in post-production.
Ready to buy?
Check out our top picks in each category:
Ready to build? See “Your Step-by-Step Guide to Assembling a Video Editing Computer from Scratch.”
Contributors to this article include Odin Lindblom, Erik Fritts, Chris Settineri, Devin Hujdic, Luis Maymi and the Videomaker Editorial Staff.