Computing power and convenience exist in inverse proportions. The most powerful computers consume lots of space, require lots of power and make lots of noise. Buying the smallest, lightest, quietest and most portable computer means trading off computing prowess for convenience.
Buy the computer necessary for the most demanding tasks you require on a regular basis, and a bit more. For video and audio work, I need the most powerful computer we can afford. If I want to ensure the computer lasts a few years, then a desktop tower offers options unmatched by a laptop. However, I also teach and present at conferences, which means I need a way to take my work with me.
Video production is not the same as watching videos or playing games. The processing tasks differ, though they seem similar. The new High Efficiency Video Coding (HEVC) compression standard pushes the limits of computing.
A good CPU and GPU combination provide power to play back stored video or to render video game images. Designing and rendering graphics or mixing high-end audio productions makes use of more CPU processing cores than play back. The best CPUs for creating media, the Intel Xeons and AMD Threadrippers, provide worse performance than Intel i7 and AMD Ryzen CPUs during game play and video viewing.
Modern central processors have several cores. Each core is, simplistically, a processor itself. The cores must share memory resources and communication lines to other components, so doubling cores does not double overall system performance. As cores are added to a CPU design, the top speed of the CPU must be lowered to prevent overheating. Workstations with CPUs featuring a dozen or more cores perform the math needed for media creation at blazing speed. There remain only so many “lanes” via which to send the results of the computations to other components.
Games and videos often use only one or two cores, no matter how many cores are within a larger CPU. With fewer cores, consumer-class CPUs offer faster clock speeds, meaning each core of the processor runs more instructions per second. Serious gamers resort to specialized cooling systems to further “overclock” the CPUs and GPUs of the computers. Overclocking improves gaming, but it also reduces the reliability of a computer.
No video or audio production editor wants to risk reliability for playback speed.
The best GPUs for content creation are mediocre, at best, too. The Nvidia Quadro and AMD Vega Frontier graphics cards are meant for two specialized purposes: the math required to create animations and artificial intelligence algorithms. An Nvidia Quadro 6000 video card costs $7000 (or more) but is easily outpaced by the $500 Nvidia GTX 1080 for gaming and video viewing.
There are workstation class laptops with Xeon CPUs and high-end GPUs, but they have limited battery life, weigh more than seven pounds, and act as portable space heaters. Companies simply cannot, affordably, cram the power of a desktop into a convenient laptop size.
A colleague bought a Razer Blade Pro laptop for video production only to discover it was too hot to use. It melted a plastic cooling stand with two fans. Thankfully, it wasn’t on her lap.
Years ago, docking stations offered the promise of desktop power paired with laptop portability. Apple’s PowerBook Duo had a desktop-like base into which the laptop was inserted like a VHS tape. The Duo Dock offered a floppy drive, two expansion slots, video memory sockets, and even a co-processor to add computing power.
Colleagues added high-end video and audio cards to the Duo Dock. When they worked at their desk, the PowerBook had as much computing power as an expensive Macintosh. On the go, the PowerBook remained useful for basic tasks.
Basic docks remain popular, offering more device connectivity, but not additional computing power. The promise of the PowerBook Duo faded away.
My wife uses an HP laptop with the HP Advanced Dock. Various devices remain plugged into the dock, in your office, so you don’t need to fuss with connecting and disconnecting cables to the laptop. There are six USB ports; audio in and out jacks; three different video connections (VGA, DVI and DisplayPort); old-style mouse, keyboard, printer and serial ports; and an Ethernet jack. The dock also serves as a charging station.
The connectivity is nice, especially if you have a beloved old keyboard or an aging printer without USB ports. If you want more memory, a faster processor or better graphics, you need a new computer.
According to online review sites Tom’s Guide and AnandTech, a powerful laptop from Apple, Dell (Alienware), HP or Razer capable of 4K video editing and audio creation averages $2500. The best performing of these laptops (Apple and Razer) cost more than $4000 as tested, with features rivaling desktop systems. Yet, they still failed to match desktop performance.
According to tests reported on 4KShooters.net, a site for digital film producers, expensive laptop systems were consistently half the speed of much cheaper desktop computers. Encoding five minutes of 4K video required nearly 23 minutes on a new 2017 MacBook Pro, a speed comparable to Intel i7-based laptops from HP and Dell. The same video rendering required only 12 minutes on a mid-range desktop computer.
One somewhat decent solution exists if you prefer a laptop. Thunderbird 3 (TB3) ports on high-end laptops support external graphics processing unit cases. These eGPU boxes allow the use of high-end, power-hungry graphics adapters from Nvidia and AMD with some laptop computers. Add a TB3 dock with a collection of connectivity options, and—at least when sitting on a cluttered desk—a laptop approaches the power of a desktop computer.
The eGPU cases cost $250 or more for good quality. A good graphics card for content creation adds $700 or more. The TB3 dock, which will be needed to add external storage and devices, will add another $300 to the high-performance laptop solution. There are also cases for PCI cards using TB3, which allow you to add PCI-based expansion solutions to a laptop. The Sonnet Echo Express III case retails for $900. With a $2150 budget, an external docking setup for a high-end $4000 laptop might approach desktop performance. I’d rather buy a mid-range $1500 laptop and a high-end $3000 desktop I can expand and upgrade in the future. Those are the trade-offs computer buyers need to consider.