Buying Our First iMac for Video Editing

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My son Max has volunteered to help athletes at his high school edit video of their game highlights to send to colleges. The athletic department devotes an Apple iMac to this purpose and also has some Windows 7 laptops.

Since my sons all have an interest in filmmaking, thanks to YouTube, we're going to buy an iMac that will be devoted to editing video and find classes to help them nurture their inner Akira Kurosawa. As a Windows and Linux guy, I'm not sure what we need to purchase. I have a few questions for Mac gurus reading this post:

  • How much iMac do we need to edit video, in terms of hardware, memory and disk space?
  • Is Apple iMovie sufficient, or should be we looking at Final Cut Pro?
  • What other software should we get?
  • How upgradeable are iMacs?

We'd be buying the Mac from an Apple Store, so if there are service or training plans to get (or avoid), that advice would be helpful too.

The high school produces video in several formats. Some are VOB, BUP and IFO files, which I think are the standard DVD format. The others are in either Quicktime or AVI.

I don't think the school has Final Cut Pro, so my son will be using iMovie on the Mac and Windows Movie Maker on the PCs at school.

I tried unsuccessfully to pull VOB files into iMovie. A Google search led me to advice that Toast Titanium can convert that format to one iMovie likes, but when I tried to do that with Titanium 6, a dialog informed me that I needed "Toast with Jam."

Please help me become an Apple snob. I don't want to have to ask a Genius.


1) How much iMac?

I use a 3-year-old iMac to do video editing with no problems whatsoever. In fact I usually have a bunch of other apps open at the same time and have no trouble.

2) iMovie v FC

I have only used iMovie and haven't really run up against a challenge it couldn't handle. If Max learns iMovie (and it is easy) upgrading to FC will be a snap.

3) Other software

None is really necessary. What did you have in mind?

4) Upgrading

It can be a challenge to upgrade the internal hardware of an iMac, but I am not sure it will be necessary. A dedicated external HD will be a nice extra so Max can work on his files elsewhere if necessary. Plus working on an external HD is usually faster than the internal drive.

What did you have in mind?

We don't need the iMac for anything other than video editing, web browsing and some schoolwork -- if we can network it over to a printer on a Windows box.

I'm surprised that an external HD would be faster. How do they connect to the iMac?

I don't see why it couldn't connect wirelessly to the printer.

Well, I guess the idea is that machines often use disc space as memory with large files. If the file being worked on is on an external drive the memory is coming from the internal. If you are not using a great deal of internal disc space it may be moot.

This information came from my wife who is a media librarian at Dartmouth. YMMV.

Oops. The external HDs connect either via USB or FireWire.

"I'm surprised that an external HD would be faster. How do they connect to the iMac?"

From my understanding the internal eSata on the iMacs is much much faster than FW800 or USB2.0, eSata is faster as an external drive too.

Making eStata external.

I am a long time Mac user who works with audio and video. Here's my 2 cents worth from my experience:

* How much iMac do we need to edit video, in terms of hardware, memory and disk space?

- Max out the RAM. Don't buy cheap RAM and DON'T BUY IT FROM APPLE - Expensive. Get "Crucial" brand.

- Get the top of the line model. Check out the Apple Store. They have 'refurbished' models that had some part replaced but are new for all intents and purposes with full warranty, etc. Save $'s. I've found it pays to get the top of the line ... they stay usable for several years. You save money in the long run.

- Use an external drive for the video files. 2 TB's wouldn't be too much. Even if you only use 1 TB, it's never a good idea to fill a hard drive more than 75% full. Hitachi makes solid 2 TB drives that work well with Macs and they stand behind them if they fail.

Long term as he gets better and does more video:

- Create a "RAID Array" for 2 or more external hard drives to dump the video to. It's easy to do. The drives will work more efficiently. I prefer Firewire external drives for everything but backup. Lacie Firewire drives have worked flawlessly for years in my experience. A 'Mirror RAID Array' would be preferable. If either drive fails the other will have a carbon copy of the work.

Lacie makes great Firewire drives. I still have some 10 years old that have never hiccuped.

* Is Apple iMovie sufficient, or should be we looking at Final Cut Pro?

For what you've described, iMovie will work fine for the time being.

* What other software should we get?

Order it through his school. They can get deep discounts for "Educational" versions on any software he might use.

- Norton Utilities for the "Speed Disk" program to defragment drives. One needs to "Optimize" external drives frequently. Discarding files is like cutting up continuous analog tape into little pieces scattered all over, with the tape machine spools having to fly back and forth to find the bits and pieces of what was once contiguous tape. Optimization puts the file fragments back together and makes the hard drives work efficiently. Norton Speed Disk is what I use for optimization. I wouldn't use the virus protection. Keep the computer off line.

* How upgradeable are iMacs?

Not very much so. Get a honking fast one now. That'll do your son well for the next few years.

Good luck.


When he does move to Final Cut Pro buy him a tutorial DVD:


I meant to say "Academic Versions" when referring to buying the software through his school to save $'s. A LOT cheaper. I buy quite a lot of software through eBay sellers for personal use. Same software, much cheaper. Even the Academic versions are cheaper there.

BTW, since Apple moved to Intel processors there isn't a heck of a lot of difference anymore except for the OS. I use Macs for my main audio DAW's and video programs. Putting together a rocking PC is less than half the cost of Mac. Also, as opposed to an iMac, he can have more Firewire ports. I believe the iMac only has 1.

If you go the PC route, side by side monitors would be the ticket so he can have multiple windows open and move windows around. All it takes is a video card that supports two monitors. Easier work flow. Westinghouse makes great monitors. Again, factory refurbs are the same as new (same box, same warranties) and a lot cheaper. eBay has several refurb sellers and Westinghouse (like Apple) has a page where you can buy them.

I use a mix of Macs (3) and PC's (3).

If he's planning on using it online, Apple might be the best route because idiots are spending far less time writing viruses for Mac. But, he has to be careful. Any porn site will be an open invitation to trouble LOL.

Couple last thoughts (didn't want one post to be too long):

I'd get two identical external drives for the video files:

One to use for editing from and one to back up to. There's nothing worse than having a drive crash and losing all that work!

Sometimes when working with huge file sizes the file registries get corrupted and the disc won't mount. Tell him not to freak out. There's a program called "Disk Warrior" that'll rebuild the file registry.

Hitachi makes a really nice USB drive for $100 optimized for use with Mac OS. Their hard drives are workhorses. All he'll need to do when they get home is open "Disc Utility" (Applications>Utilities>Disc Utility) and format the drive for Mac OS. I buy mine at Office Depot or Office Max. They run frequent sales on them.

It should be formatted "Mac OS Extended". No need for "Journaling" unless his software programs recommend it.

One other program you might look at is "Quicktime Pro". It has more options for video compression, which is vital when using YouTube or, in cases when the final product is more than an hour long, for DVD burning. If he plays around with different compression rates he can find one that is small in size but high in quality. Especially with HD. Once compressed, he can move YouTube-sized (10 minutes or less) from home to school on a flash drive.

How to Convert commercial and non-commercial DVD's to iMovie

A few comments have been made about the benefits of using an external drive for the video files. This is a MUST, especially with as much editing as it sounds like your son will be doing.

Never put video files on the internal drive. It'll make it work much too hard seeking all that data while trying to run the OS and applications at the same time.

For using an external drive to get files from Mac to PC I have one called "Mac Drive" that enables me to plug a Mac formatted external drive into a PC and read the files. About $20 for one computer, $30 for two (your iMac and the school's).

They have a trial version that'll run for a little while to try it out.

"Please help me become an Apple snob."

Start wearing a beret and hanging out at the local coffee shop. Worked for me.

I know I am way late on this, but video is just about all I do these days. Of all that I underestimated, the amount of hard drive space I would need to both have and specially *manage* takes top billing.

IMovie is a good place to start, but if they really do get the bug, FC Studio will be what they want. And it IS a big jump, mainly because the metaphors used by most editing systems is very different from what iMovie uses. Apple correctly (IMHO) rethought the UX for editing "cool home movies" with iMovie, but it is dramatically different from how you work in other tools. That said, the important thing is still the "grammar" of the edit, and they can learn and perfect that in iMovie just as well as FC.

But I am guessing that eventually they will want to do things like motion graphics, and Apple's motion is just about the most fun and rewarding piece of software I've used in years.

I have the latest iMac (cannot recall specs off hand), and it handles everything I need to do with HD video. What an awesome time for them to really be getting into video. Not having to deal with ingesting media from a tape-with-timecode makes it a million times simpler and more fun.

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