Next desktop computer upgrade figured out

posted by Jeff | Thursday, March 23, 2023, 7:57 PM | comments: 0

After two weeks of intense noodling, research and testing about what I should do for computer upgrades, I finally have a decision. I'll explain that momentarily. With that in mind, it's pretty weird how I'm so worried about making the wrong choice here. I mean, I bought a light for the documentary for $500. It doesn't do anything but light. The right tools cost what they do. But the thing is that, unlike a lot of the video nerds online, I'm not using all of my gear for work that I get paid for the way they do. If they spend $3k on a computer instead of $2k, it's not even a blip on their radar. I, however, am spending on a passion project, so the math is different.

The conclusion ended up being to go the Mac route. It's not so much that it's the perfect solution, it just looks like it's the more economical one. That's weird to say out loud about Apple hardware. At first, I thought about just not buying anything new, and use my laptop docked to a boatload of storage. The problem is that it wouldn't work with my backup solution. Every file that I generate gets backed up to a NAS at my house, and also gets backed up to a cloud provider. For that backing up to happen, the storage has to be plugged into the computer, and my laptop would definitely not be connected any time that I'm doing something other than editing video. And make no mistake, because Spectrum sucks and is still capping upstream bandwidth at 10 Mbps, it takes a week to back up a weekend's worth of shooting. But also, I had this arrangement once before, so I know how poorly the backup situation works.

There are some pros and cons to the Mac solution. The biggest pro is that I get a huge amount of desk space back, enough to get some real speakers. The biggest con is that storage is going to be in a separate box on the desk when it comes time to buy more hard drive space, which is inevitable. It seems like a reasonable trade though. I've confirmed that SSD's over USB 3.2 gen 2 or Thunderbolt 4 are plenty fast enough for 4K video, to edit right off the drives. I can tuck the SATA SSD I have in my PC now into an external enclosure, and it'll be good enough to edit from as well.

So how did I arrive at this decision? The variable to isolate was that the Mac has a lot of video encoding capability built-in, as do the newer Intel CPU's. But the rub is that video editing software relies heavily on the GPU as well. I could see on my laptop how well these M2 Macs eat video, so I did some simple scrubbing over timelines and exports, all to/from an external SSD, and the CPU's and GPU's did not get overworked. Maybe that doesn't even matter, because the processor in the Mac Mini is the same one in the laptop. It's a known workable solution.

For the Windows machine upgrades, I first tried to figure out where my bottlenecks were. I benchmarked all of my drives, and they're all plenty fast enough. Then I did the same scrubbing and exporting tests with the same source material, again, from the external drive. Watching the CPU and GPU graphs, the CPU would sometimes get crushed, so clearly going to the new i9-13900K would be a no-brainer, and all things considered a pretty good value. The GPU that I have also gets crushed to 100% as the screen waits to catch up, and it appeared to take the bulk of the load in timeline scrubbing as well, which was very concerning. The next step up in the overall scale of GPU's after the one I have currently runs about $450 for about a 10% increase in performance. To make a meaningful GPU leap, I'd have to spend at least $600, which blows the whole cost curve. I would be looking at $100 more than the Mac Mini, and there are some hidden costs as well. I would have my "new" computer, but half of one sitting around. That one would need a case and power supply to become whole enough to pass to Simon, so another $200 at minimum, or it becomes landfill fodder. And of course the Windows computer would become a small space heater, too.

I can't easily tell how well the theoretical Windows computer would do encoding with the new CPU/GPU combo, but another thing that made me lean toward the Mac is how effortlessly it can work with ProRes files, which Intel can't do at all, and the Mac also seems to eat H.265 easily, like oddly better than H.264. You can see where that optimization lies. So if you're editing in DaVinci Resolve with the usual camera codecs and raw formats, the Mac seems tuned for those. You have to spend more in the Windows world to get the same performance. Several YouTube comparisons seems to confirm this as well.

So after four years with a desktop PC, I'm going back to a Mac. Obviously I'll continue using the same monitors. I thought for sure I'd go the Windows route, but to get where I want I would definitely have to spend more. Outside of video work, much of what I do is in a browser, and dev work I can do on either platform. But the video editing is owned by the Apple silicon.


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