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.
- Select the video clips in the Browser.
- Control-click (or right-click) and choose “Transcode Media > Create proxy media”.
- Wait for FCPX to create the proxies.
- Switch your Viewer settings to show proxy footage.
- Edit your project.
- 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.
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.
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…