Last Update: March 22, 2017
I love Apple computers. I wanted to get that out of the way first. I still love them, still use them, and still think they're great for many things. I am keeping my Retina MacBook Pro and will use it as my portable solution and for everyday tasks like email, invoicing, web browsing, etc. I still have an iPhone and iPads and have no desire to switch to Android, so it looks like I'll be using Apple computers in some form for the foreseeable future.
I started video editing back in 2000 on a Power Macintosh G3 tower with Media100 editing software. Y2K had just been successfully avoided, a new millennium was upon us, and digital media creation was taking off like crazy. Just a year or two earlier, Apple started making waves in the industry with the iMac and release of Final Cut Pro. This was the beginning of Apple's push to appeal to professional content creators and artists, and it was working.
I bought my first Apple computer in 2001. It was a 733 MHz Power Mac G4 (Quicksilver) with a 40GB hard drive and a whopping 32 MEGABYTES of video RAM. I still vividly remember unboxing it and editing my first video in Final Cut Pro 3. Since then, I've personally used hundreds of Apple computers and owned 12 different Apple desktops and laptops.
But alas, all good things must come to an end... so here we are.
Why I Switched
I held out as long as I could, but it's definitely no secret that Apple has begun to lose the same demographic it tried to attract back in 2000: professional content creators and artists. Apple computers are still excellent for many creative things, but when you need a lot of CPU and/or graphics power to crunch large video files or 3D renders, Apple has continued to fall behind in that area.
Back in October of 2016, I had been using my Retina MacBook Pro for everything for 2 years and it was time to upgrade. I loved the portability and could generally get by okay editing 1080p content, and occasionally some short 4K content (usually as HD proxies). I learned to live with sloooooooow renders and exports, planning my workflow around the limitations of my machine. I found myself sacrificing too much time and efficiency for brand loyalty and portability.
At that time, my hope (along with many others) was that Apple was going to upgrade the MacBook Pro line with significant speed and performance bumps, so I held out until Apple's announcement in October. As we all know, that Apple announced fell short of many expectations, including my own. The MacBook Pros definitely were upgraded, but not like most people anticipated. The aim for thinner, lighter, and more battery life began to take its toll on Apple loyalists. After 16 years, this Apple loyalist was finally stuck. I needed a new computer, I wanted to stick with Apple, I wanted portability (if possible) AND better performance, but it just wasn't happening.
So, I started to weigh my options...
I could get a Mac Pro, which at the time was coming up on 3 years without an update. With a minimum investment of $3,000, and actually more like $6,000+ once I got the specs I needed plus a monitor, I couldn't justify that amount of money for a 3 year old machine that might also get an update in the next few months. Nope.
I could get a 5K iMac, which I considered doing for a while. However, from experience using other 5K iMacs, the graphics (and even CPU) performance still wasn't enough for the things I needed to do. It was definitely a step up from the MacBook Pro, but it didn't offer enough performance boost to make up for the lack of portability. Nope.
I could suck it up and get the new MacBook Pro. This would perpetuate the sacrifices I had been making with my current MacBook Pro, just possibly making them a little more tolerable. Maximum 16GB of RAM, USB-C only, lack of SD card slot (which I use all the time), and NO MAGSAFE (this is a huge deal since MagSafe has saved my laptop from hitting the ground numerous times). And all that for a premium, nearly twice the price of my current MacBook Pro. Nope.
Sadly, Windows PCs were finally beginning to look like the best option. For a few months, as I continued editing on my MacBook Pro and began to see just how much I was sacrificing by using it, and how little evidence there was that Apple was actually going to deliver on upgrading performance over aesthetics, I crossed over from "just looking" to "ready to jump". So I jumped.
Early on in my research, I discovered building a custom PC was going to be the best and most economical decision for me. There are some good pre-built options out there, but they're either designed for gaming (and look like Lamborghini threw up its concept cars all over a computer store) or designed for video production and priced at a premium.
If I was going to make the switch, I wanted that computer to be worth it and I wanted the most bang for my buck. Who wouldn't? So, I set out to build my own PC that was 1) cheaper than most or all of Apple's current options, and 2) faster at video editing and encoding than most or all of Apple's current options.
Here are the specs/requirements I had:
- CPU faster than the top end 27" 5K iMac
- GPU (graphics performance) better/faster than the top end Mac Pro with dual Radeon D500s or D700s
- Ability to edit multiple streams of 4K/UHD video in real-time without using proxies
- Ability to encode un-rendered Premiere Pro sequences to H.264 quickly
- Budget: $2,200 for computer plus $500 for monitor
Given those requirements, and after a few months of research and planning, the list below is the build that I ended up buying. If you would like more details and pricing on the actual parts, click here to see the complete product list.
- CPU: Intel i7-7700K (Quad-core 4.2 GHz)
- The new i7-7700K was the top choice for my build for a few reasons. Mainly because it offered some of the best performance for the price. There were other processors available with more cores and better performance, but at a significantly higher price.
- Motherboard: Gigabyte GA-Z270X-UD5
- I wanted a motherboard that had room to grow and offered features like Thunderbolt 3 and Intel's Octane. Gigabyte motherboards tend to get excellent reviews for performance, features, price, and durability. The BiOS is simple and easy to use. I've been using it in default settings for the past 2 weeks and it's performed great.
- GPU: Gigabyte GeForce GTX 1080 XTREME Gaming
- This GPU was a no-brainer with its brute force performance. I chose this Gigabyte version through several reviews recommending it.
- RAM: Ballistix Sport LT 64GB DDR4-2400 (16GBx4)
- This RAM gets great reviews and is decently priced compared to other similar options. I chose this particular RAM also because of its short height, allowing me room for large CPU coolers.
- CPU Cooler: Noctua NH-D15 with dual 140mm fans
- This originally was a CoolerMaster 212 EVO. After a week of heavy editing and encoding, I discovered that the CoolerMaster was not good enough to handle the i7-7700K at full load. It consistently hit temperatures of 100°C, where the CPU began throttling performance to keep from overheating. The i7-7700K notoriously runs quite hot and I am going to be pushing it quite a bit, so good cooling is essential. The Noctua NH-D15 solved that issue with ease, and consistently keeps CPU temperatures under 80°C when running at full load.
- Case: Thermaltake Suppressor F31
- I wanted a case that wasn't flashy, had plenty of room for upgrades and airflow, and was quiet. This case fit all of those requirements and I have been very happy with it.
- System Hard Drive: MyDigitalSSD BPX M.2 NVMe SSD (240GB)
- This is a somewhat newer and value priced SSD brand. I chose it mainly for price knowing that my system drive wasn't going to do a lot of heavy lifting. All my media is housed on other hard drives, so I just needed a system drive that was fairly fast to hold Windows and apps. These drives get great reviews from sites like Tom's Hardware and 4.5 stars on Amazon. The 5-year warranty is also nice to have. So far, I've been very pleased with it.
- Fans: Noctua NF-S12A 140mm (4x case fans)
- Proper air flow in your case is critical, especially when pushing the CPU constantly. Noctua fans and coolers are an industry standard and highly regarded as some of the best. These were a natural choice.
- Wireless TP-Link Wireless Dual Band PCI Express Adapter (TL-WDN4800)
- Power Supply: EVGA SuperNOVA 650 P2 80+ Platinum Certified Power Supply
- One thing I knew I didn't want to go cheap on was power. When you're pushing a video editing system, you want everything to run smoothly and reliably. Clean and consistent power is essential for that. So, I chose this Platinum Certified power supply as a recommendation from several review sites. With my system running around 400 watts max as it is configured right now, the 650 watt power supply leaves me plenty of headroom if I want to make any additional upgrades or add drives.
- Monitor: Dell 27-Inch Ultra HD 4K Monitor (P2715Q)
- This is an excellent monitor. It's built well and looks excellent, especially for the price. The only other monitors that can compare to its quality are twice as expensive or are the higher end brands like Eizo or NEC.
Initial Thoughts on the Computer and Process
PC building has come a long way in the last 20 years. Everything is pretty much plug and play. I have never built a PC, only tinkered with them back in college and replaced RAM or hard drives. Despite that, I had a fully functional system ordered and built within 24 hours. The process is very straightforward and there are great tutorial videos online from sites like NewEgg and Linus Tech Tips.
PCPartPicker is your friend. It has a great and easy to use interface that will walk you through the parts needed for a build. There are also parts lists from others so you can get an idea of cost and performance for certain parts. It will also tell you if there are any glaring compatibility issues with the parts you choose, which can save you a ton of time and stress.
Local stores are useless and expensive for most PC parts. I live in a large metro area with hundreds of computer/electronics stores like Fry's and Best Buy. Even Fry's (a very large electronics store with aisles full of PC parts) only had a couple parts I wanted. They typically don't carry the newer stuff and most parts and accessories appeal more to gamers and hobbyists. Even more, Fry's was 10-20% more expensive for every part I needed. Bye, Felicia. I got everything I needed from Amazon with Prime shipping.
Windows 10 has been extremely solid, and dare I say, as solid as Mac OS. It installed in less than 10 minutes, which Mac OS has never come close to. Drivers were updated automatically in about an hour and I didn't have to do anything extra or manually install any drivers. I was worried about some graphics issues when I first got Windows 10 installed. The desktop wasn't sized correctly on my monitor and the task bar was cut off. However, those issues got resolved once the proper drivers were updated. There's a lot of things I still love about Mac OS, but using Windows after being Mac OS only for quite a few years has actually been a positive experience.
Update (3/22/2017): Windows has been great, with only a couple of minor annoyances like the inability to preview files easily in Explorer (I got extremely spoiled by Quick Look in macOS) or 1Password not working in Edge. Other than that, it's been stable. No BSODs, driver issues, or failures.
Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Audition have been extremely solid as well. Premiere Pro feels quite different on Windows as opposed to the multiple Macs I've edited on. There are, and have been for a while, some glaring issues with Premiere Pro on Mac OS. I've had issues in Premiere on multiple systems and multiple clean installs of Mac OS for the last few years, including glitchy preview files, slow renders and playback with Mercury Transmit, crashing with various audio effects, and the notorious click and drag issue with items in the Project bin.
Update (3/22/2017): Adobe apps have been excellent and by far more solid on Windows than on macOS. The only issues I've had so far are 3 errors from the Lumetri effect in Premiere Pro. The errors didn't crash Premiere, but would cause previews to not show or playback to be jittery. A simple restart fixed them every time. However, this ONLY happens after 4+ hours of non-stop editing in the program, after I've moved a lot of 4K footage around. It's not nearly as annoying as the Lumetri errors and random crashes I've had on numerous macOS systems with Premiere Pro.
With video editing, especially when encoding video or doing other CPU-intensive tasks, heat is your enemy. CPUs get hot fast, and the i7-7700K is known for running hot. You need a great air cooler or liquid cooler for your CPU to keep things in check. My goal was to keep temperatures under 90°C at all times, even under full load. The only way to do so was to use a huge heatsink cooler like the Noctua NH-D15. With it, temperatures stay at or below 80°C at all times, even when encoding to H.264.
The i7-7700K is pretty dang good, but the GTX 1080 is an absolute BEAST, as we'll see next.
Speeds & Benchmarks
This is where it gets interesting. As I said before, I wanted a computer that could outperform most of Apple's desktop options while being cheaper as well. I knew a custom PC was going to perform well just from my research and benchmarks, but I didn't really know what that was going to look like for my exact setup.
Using Cinebench R15 and Geekbench 4, I tested the performance of both the CPU and GPU for my build and compared those results to various Apple computers. So, how did it do?
Geekbench 4 Results (CPU Multi-Core)
- My Build: 17967
- iMac (27-inch Retina Late 2015) with i7-6700K (4 cores): 16540
- Mac Pro (Late 2013) with E5-1650 (6 cores): 16509
- MacBook Pro (15-inch Late 2016) with i7-6820HQ (4 cores): 12898
My computer has an 8%, a 9%, and a 39% increase in CPU performance over the 27" 5K iMac, 6-core Mac Pro, and new 15" MacBook Pro, respectively. The 8% and 9% increases may not sound like much, but you need to consider that the 6-core Mac Pro (with comparable specs to my build) starts at $5,200 and the 27" 5K iMac (with comparable specs to my build, or as close as possible) costs $3,150. When you compare the price/performance ratio, it's actually a huge deal.
The CPU performance is only part of the picture, though. The GPU performance is where it really begins to make sense.
Cinebench R15 Results (GPU)
- My Build: 148.2 fps
- iMac (27-inch Retina Late 2015) with M395: 94.5 fps
- Mac Pro (Late 2013) with Radeon R500: 85.9 fps (Radeon R700 actually scored lower at 74.8 fps)
- MacBook Pro (15-inch Late 2016) with Radeon 460: 114.7 fps (That's actually kind of impressive)
For GPU performance, my build scored 148.2 fps on Cinebench R15. This is a good test for how the computer will not only handle 3D rendering, but also real-time video editing and video rendering (like Premiere Pro preview renders or doing multicam edits of 4K video clips). Well, the results were more dramatic than the CPU tests, but that's to be expected with the GTX 1080 and its 8GB of video RAM. It is 50% faster than the top of the line Mac Pro and 27" 5K iMac, and about 30% faster than the top of the line MacBook Pro.
Real World Results
Benchmarks are great, but what about real world use cases? Well, I've got details there as well.
After 2 weeks now of heavy 4K/UHD video editing (around 60 hours so far) on the PC, I'm very happy with it and blown away by how much more efficient I am in my editing and workflow. I have successfully cut 3 4K/UHD streams of video using Premiere Pro's multicam feature without having to transcode to proxy files. The only bottleneck I have now is external hard drive speed. I can still play 3 streams of 4K/UHD in real-time, but there is a small hit in frame rate. However, it's not bad and doesn't prevent me from making cuts at the right spots while doing a real-time multicam edit. I will be adding a couple SSD scratch drives soon, so that will help.
The biggest change I've noticed is H.264 encoding. The i7-7700K is by far not the fastest CPU out there, but it does offer excellent performance for the price. I am consistently getting 30-minute plus 4K/UHD Premiere Pro sequences (unrendered preview files) exported to 1080p H.264 faster than or equal to real-time (30 minute sequence exports in 30 minutes or less). This is also without any overclocking or performance tweaks to the hardware, just stock performance.
Update (3/22/2017): Here are some numbers from encoding 1080p24 ProRes LT files to H.264 comps for Vimeo. The sequences and footage were both 1080p24. I exported 4 separate sequences from Premiere Pro to Media Encoder and these were the results:
- Total Sequence Runtime (h:m:s):
- Export Settings:
- 1920x1080 @ 23.976 fps (Progressive)
- VBR 1-pass
- 10 Mbps (target and maximum)
- Audio: AAC 320 kbps, 48 kHz, Stereo
- Total Encoding Time (m:s):
Windows startup is snappy, around 10 seconds, and there is no noticeable lag on any task I try to do.
Why Not Hackintosh?
When planning my build, I considered a Hackintosh for a few minutes, but that's all. I wanted something that was reliable and stable, and there are too many risks involved with Hackintosh builds. Plus, there's limited compatibility with parts and I believe I got way more bang for my buck by sticking with Windows.
Bottom line, my PC build is cheaper AND faster for video editing (sometimes by quite a bit) than any Apple laptop or desktop available today. I know there are upsides and downsides to both Mac and Windows platforms, but so far the upsides of speed and flexibility are in Windows' favor. I know I'm still in the honeymoon phase, and Windows will have its issues probably, but so far I have no regrets in the switch and everything has met or exceeded my expectations (which were pretty low being a loyal Apple user for so long). Time will tell, but it's looking good so far.