What’s up with Apple?

Way back when, my first computer was a PC running Windows 3.1. By 1999, I was ready to get a “real” computer, meaning something I could use for Photoshop, so I bought my first Mac. It was an OS 9.0 G4 tower. Ever since then I have bought a new tower every 2-3 years. I currently have a 2010 2.4 ghz 8 core machine. Its been great for Photoshop, Lightroom and everything else. Now that I have moved into video production, no amount of tweaking has given me the video editing machinery that I really need.

It’s sort of like upgrading a bicycle. You can hang all kinds of fancy parts on it- but if the frame isn’t up-to-date, you are throwing money down a rat-hole.

Over time I have added large fast drives, upped the RAM to 36 GB, and installed an NVIDIA Quadro 4000 graphics card to take advantage of the CUDA acceleration built into Adobe Premiere Pro. I also upgraded to Premiere Pro 6.0 since Adobe has been improving performance with each new release. The last thing I did was add a Matrox Mojito card in order to speed up exporting .h264 files and also to add a calibrated LCD TV monitor to do color grading.

I have been able to get by hanging new parts on the thing, but the bottleneck is clearly the out of date processor- the “frame” so to speak. I keep the Activity Monitor app open constantly as I work in PP, and usually see a solid cube of green as all 8 cores are at the limit. “Riding on the rivets” in bicycle terminology.

In previous years, whenever this happened, I’d splash out for a new tower, and enjoy 2-3 years of (more or less) smooth workflow. Now Apple has let me down. Even a laptop or an i-mac has more modern processors then a new Mac Pro. These newer intel CPU’s have circuits specially designed to unwrap .h264 codecs. This has become an essential feature, largely because of the DSLR video revolution.

Although there are many variables to consider when designing a video editing workflow, the root decision is whether to edit a large lightly compressed codec, or a smaller (in terms of disk space) more highly compressed codec- such as one of the .H264 variants. Apple developed their Pro-Res codecs at a time when computers really couldn’t handle editing the highly compressed .H264 codec. Over time, it appears that Apple became wedded to the so-called transcoding workflow, while Adobe became the innovator with Premiere Pro designed to playback & edit .H264 in real time. The advantage is that you save the time it takes to transcode footage, and you save considerable disk space since Apple Pro Res creates a disk footprint 1.6 x greater than the original footage. If you are like me, you’ll probably want to hang onto the original footage as well, so you are looking at storing and backing up almost 3 times more data than if you used the Adobe-decode on the fly-workflow. Final Cut 7 users didn’t really feel the pinch of not having 64 bit processing so much because they had to use Pro-Res for editing anyway. Sure 64-bit would have made things better, but 32-bit still worked. On the other hand, putting the footage on a fast RAID 0 arrangement was one way to speed things up because Apple Pro Res is disk intensive rather than processor & RAM intensive. Adobe Premiere Pro is just he opposite, being mostly processor intensive, then RAM intensive and then GPU (graphics card) intensive, in that order.

OK, so where does that leave us with the Mac Pro? Maybe folks at Apple don’t even consider the needs of folks who use Adobe Premiere Pro, but it has become painfully obvious that the need for a multi-core, high ghz, modern CPU with .h264 decoding built in, is not being addressed. You can still buy a new Mac Pro, but it won’t have what you need for native DSLR video editing.

The need has become so great that many previous Mac folks are switching to HP workstations and others willing to suffer in other ways are building “Hackintoshes”.

I’m still holding out hope that Apple will build a new Mac Pro, perhaps using the new Ivy Bridge processors. Unfortunately similar rumors surfaced last year after the release of the Sandy Bridge processors and nothing materialized.

All of this wouldn’t be quite so bad if Apple had chosen to create a Final Cut 8, designed for 64-bit processing and therefor suitable for .H264 editing. Instead they came out with Final Cut X, which by all accounts, was not what video professionals had been looking for.

Clearly Apple has turned it’s back on the creative community that put the panache in Apple’s reputation to begin with. After years of creating a strong niche market in the video community, Apple has seemingly treated that niche market with a corporate shrug.