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Five tips for Using Final Cut Pro X on an Old Computer

Old Typewriter

Old Typewriter
Are you using an old computer to edit video?

I am. I’m writing this on a mid-2012 MacBook Pro. It’s also my main video editing computer.

Considering that as I write this, it’s December 2016, that makes my computer a little over four years old — ancient in computer years.

That said, I’m pleasantly surprised at how this machine handles video.

If you’re like me and using an old computer, then here are five tips that can help make things go more smoothly on your aging hardware…

1. Edit with proxy footage on an old computer

“Proxy footage” sounds like a technical term, but don’t let that throw you off.

Proxy footage is footage that stands in place for other footage.

That’s it. Super simple.

Here are the basics of how the proxy concept works:

Let’s say your computer struggles to play back full resolution 1080p video.

Because of that, you create lower resolution, lower bitrate files and use them in place of the original files while you’re editing. These are the proxy clips (or proxies).

For example, if an original video clip is 1080p, then the proxy clip might be 720p at a lower bitrate which is easier for an older computer to play back.

It’s not a wildly difficult process to manage if you have to do it yourself, but it can be a bit confusing.

Luckily, one of the useful features in Final Cut Pro X is that it makes using proxy footage super simple.

I’ve talked about the details of how to use proxy clips before, but here I’ll just summarize the process.

  1. Select the video clips in the Browser.
  2. Control-click (or right-click) and choose “Transcode Media > Create proxy media”.
  3. Wait for FCPX to create the proxies.
  4. Switch your Viewer settings to show proxy footage.
  5. Edit your project.
  6. Switch your viewer settings back to regular footage (non-proxy) before exporting (Sharing, as Final Cut Pro X calls it).

If you’re using an old computer to edit your video project, then this super simple proxy workflow can smooth things out for you.

You might even be able to say goodbye to the dreaded “dropped frames” warnings.

2. Close down all other apps

Are you a multitasker? I suppose I am (for better or for worse). I commonly have multiple apps open on my computer simultaneously.

And inside one app (such as a web browser), I might have dozens of tabs open at once.

Apps use memory and processing power. Open the Activity Monitor app included with every Mac (find it in the Utilities folder), and you can see the effect different programs have on your memory and processor.

My experience is that Final Cut Pro X, Motion, and Compressor all speed up significantly when I close down all other programs.

In fact, sometimes I’ll restart my computer before working in those programs, just to make sure my computer is fresh and ready for the upcoming tasks.

3. Use a fast external drive and connection

It’s standard practice to keep your raw footage on an external hard drive attached to your computer.

The speed of that external drive can have a big impact on your ability to edit.

Without digging into all the technical numbers, I’ll summarize: the faster the external drive (and the connection from your computer to that drive), the better the video editing experience.

If the external drive is a Solid State Drive (SSD), it’s likely very fast.

If it’s a RAID, it’s likely very fast.

If it’s a standard 7,200 RPM spinning hard drive, it might do the job (or maybe not).

If it’s a slow 5,400 RPM spinning drive, it will likely struggle.

And assuming your drive is fast enough, you also need a fast connection.

Thunderbolt is fast. USB3.0 is fast. USB2.0 might not be fast enough.

(A lot of this depends on the bitrate and codec of your footage).

4. Buy a top-end computer

This tip might come to you a little late, and the advice certainly isn’t for everyone.

When I purchased this mid-2012 MacBook Pro, I bought the highest-end one within my budget. In this case, it was a 2.7 GHz i7 model with 16 GB of Memory. That’s not bad at all considering it’s 4 years old.

At the time, it drove the price of the computer up significantly, but I’m convinced I’ve been able to hang onto this computer longer than I would have if I had purchased a machine with lower specs.

Have I gotten an additional year or two years? I don’t know exactly. But I do know that it still handles HD video pretty well and it still has more life left in it yet.

People often ask me which Mac they should get for their video editing, and I always recommend the highest-level machine they can fit into their budget.

Video editing benefits from more power, so you might as well get more power if you can.

It reminds me of the saying “Invest in the best, and only cry once.”

5. Transcode overnight because old computers need the extra time

The truth is that no matter how much you optimize your setup, you’re still limited by your computer’s processor speed, system memory, and graphics card memory.

And of course, this can have an impact on your video work.

It can especially slow down processor-intensive things like transcoding video.

I like to start big transcode projects at night and let my computer work hard while I sleep.

Exporting a Master Video File can take a while, but what takes even longer is transcoding the Master Video File into a Delivery File (such as an H.264 MP4 file for web delivery).

Depending on the project, it can take several hours. Some projects could take days.

Conclusion

These are my main tips for optimizing your video workflow on an older computer, but there are other little things you can do too.

For example, you could shoot and edit 30p footage instead of 60p.

The faster 60p frame rate requires more processing power to play back, so it might make sense to consider your computer’s limitations as you make shooting decisions — such as the frame rate you’ll use.

And finally, if you use your computer to make money with video, then sometimes the smartest thing to do is invest in a new computer.

If you believe the old saying “time is money”, then a faster computer could potentially help you save money, or make more.

But that’s a decision you’ll need to make on your own.

Personally I’m trying to get as many “miles” out of my old machine that I can.

Do you have additional tips that I didn’t mention? Please add them to the comments below…

24 thoughts on “Five tips for Using Final Cut Pro X on an Old Computer

  1. I have a 2008 MacPro 3,1 with 14 gigs of ram. I’ve been using FCPX 10.3 and editing 4k footage from my Panasonic GH4 using proxy media. Do you think more ram would help? and if so, how much ram would really make a difference? (ram is expensive for this machine). Thanks

    1. Hi Larry. If your current setup is working, then I suppose there’s no need to have the extra cost of more RAM. :)

    2. I have one of the 3.1 machines myself. I just put 32gigs for $79 off of eBay. But first: hack your machine up to 5.1. Takes 4min. Including reboot. Put an ssd drive in for your boot drive ($100 maybe and get a Samsung black 800 series). Next get a new video card. Most of our programs use GPUs and the older mac cards are not up to it. Any gaming card with Cuda & openGL will work. You just lose the apple boot screen and even that can be fixed. If you have a dual processor machine, your golden. You can replace the CPUs with 6, 8 or 12core processes. This is a huge difference and your machine will serve you well for years. If you have a single processor, upgrade to a 6 core ($80 aprox. on ebay). You will be pleased with how this machine will work with Resolve, premier, Avid, etc. All the info to do this stuff is on the MacRumors forum. Power to older machines!

      1. Ha, this is great info!

        If anyone wants to try this, as always, proceed with caution and make sure you have great backups. :)

  2. Great info as usual..:)Thanks Izzy

  3. Thanks for the great tips you include here. I use an early 2011 15″ MacBook Pro with 16GB of RAM including a 27″ Thunderbolt display. This setup works well for me. One thing I’ve adapted to (literally as well as figuratively) is the changing connectivity schemes that have evolved from Firewire (400 and 800) to Thunderbolt (1 and 2). My older computer is actually more versatile when it comes to connecting to some of my older FW hard drives.

    1. Oh yes, I’ve made several of those adaptive changes myself — though I’m no longer using a computer with Firewire. :)

  4. Thanks Izzy. Your information is always very useful.

    1. Happy it helps. Thanks!

  5. I edit a lot of holiday footage on my 2011 MacBook Air i7 1.8GHz 4GB RAM.

    Not a lot I can do internally , of course, but, I added a OWC Thunderbolt2 Dock. It is backwards compatible to Thunderbolt1 on my machine and means I can access the USB3 speeds of the drives and it decreases render times significantly by being able to read from one drive and write to another.

    I also use Clipwrap to transcode all my AVCHD footage before I start, making it an FCPX compatible codec. This greatly improves performance of FCPX while editing.

    I also often output only a 540p or 720p final video for web to save time. I upload this straight away usually because I am eager to get something finished and online as soon as possible. I then let FCPX create a Master File in 1080p overnight when I am not using the computer. I can then upload it if I need a higher resolution copy online.

    1. I love comments like this because it might give other readers ideas on how to handle similar issues. Thanks!

  6. Whoa! This came sooooo handy! Thanks a lot, man! ^_^

    1. Sure thing. Happy it helps! :)

  7. Thanks! Good to read how an expert handles an ‘every-day matter’ (and sometimes problem) like this. I’m using almost the same MacBook as you do and in general it works ok but sometimes the computer does have a hard time though.
    Since i almost always do my editing on my internal drive, do you think it would make a difference in speed when i got an internal SSD instead of my ‘oldfashioned’ HD?
    Best regards, Mark

    1. It’s generally best to put your source footage on an external drive, but yes an internal SSD is usually much faster than a spinning drive.

      You might look at attaching an external SSD via Thunderbolt as an option. :)

  8. I have a 27″ 2010 iMac with 256GB SSD and 8GB RAM, with quad-core i7 processor.

    I just completed a two and a half hour wedding, burned to BluRay.

    As I’m only a hobbyist, most of my gear is old. The two cameras used were a Canon HV30 and HV40. Tape is king!

    The iMac sailed though it all. No crashes. No freezes. They are some machine.

    1. “Tape is king!” Ha, I love it! :)

      Thanks for the comment!

  9. nice text from your. well done. I bought a new macbookpro touch bar. heaviest that exists. I still have my old macbookpro 13″ 2011,2.3ghz, 4 DDR, Intel HD 3000 384 mb. upgrading with higher RAM and SSD hard disk or rather sell and buy 1-2 years older model for backup editing? Thx you. Greeting from Belgium

    1. Glad it helps. :)

      Hmm, based on that quick detail I’d probably lean toward selling the old model and getting a newer one. Up to you though!

  10. Hi turning off FCPX background rendering also speeds things up, especially when you are at the rough cut stage. Then, just render when needed and/or when the final product is closer to ready.
    If the project is long (e.g. a one-hour documentary) it is best to break the overall project into smaller projects and then put them together.

  11. Thanks for the tips. I was ready to edit everything using proxy media. After 5 years of OS and software updates, my 2011 Mac Pro with 16 GB RAM became a Mac Slow, and editing in FC Pro X went from lightning fast to snails pace. Over the past few weeks, I’ll replaced the 5 year old hard drives with SSDs. It’s like a new computer. Boots up in less than one minute, apps open faster, fewer spinning beach balls, and Final Cut is back up to speed.

  12. Newbie here – it’s an education just reading the comments – thanks all! Running Mavericks on a 2009 iMac, 16 GB, 3.06 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo. FCPX performs pretty well with some beachballs on rendering and crashing at times, but I definitely am going to take some of these suggestions. Thank you Izzy!

    1. Sure thing. I’m glad the info helps. :)

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