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Test Drive: MacBook Pro vs. Mac Pro, Part 2

Just to get you up to speed, let”s review. This article attempts to contrast and compare the video editing experience on an Apple MacBook Pro notebook computer and dual-processor, dual-core Mac Pro desktop. In the last installment, I detailed each computer”s specs, discussed the difference in screen size and disk capacity and the like. In this segment, I detail the subjective and objective differences in the editing experience and pass along some tips to make editing on the road more efficient.

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Test Drive: MacBook Pro vs. Mac Pro, Part 1

Although I”m more technology geek than journalist, I love a good scoop just as much as they do at The Washington Post or The New York Times. Sometimes, however, you pick a subject, do your research, and dog does, in fact, bite man and Goliath beats David in an early first-round knockout…

Let”s break editing into three basic tasks; capture/ingest, editing, and rendering. In most instances, capture is realtime, so the experience is similar irrespective of platform. Simple. With these two systems, whenever you actually render—whether to produce a file, compute Studio 1 Productions SmoothCam coordinates, or render a timeline for pixel accurate preview—the desktop will outperform the MacBook Pro by about 2:1. Simple again.

Figure 1. While editing this simple concert clip, the MacBook Pro easily kept up with the Mac Pro desktop.
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In between capture and rendering is actual editing, where the experience is much closer and more subjective. Both Adobe Premiere Pro and Apple Final Cut Pro provide flexible preview systems that can dynamically degrade playback speed and/or quality to maintain full speed preview. With simple, cut-and-paste editing, even of HDV-class source video, the subjective editing experience from a performance perspective will be very similar between desktop and notebook. As projects get more complex—either via exotic formats (uncompressed HD), exotic effects, or mulitple streams—performance begins to diverge.

Figure 2. HDV greenscreen over HDV background. No playback stoppage.
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What is surprising is how long the notebook can keep pace with the desktop. For example, in one Final Cut Pro project I edited concert footage shot with AVCHD and converted to ProRes by Final Cut Pro during ingest. I set preview to Unlimited RT on both the notebook and desktop, then added Color Correction, Desaturate Lows, and Broadcast Safe to all clips in both projects. The edits were simple; the song on stage at the time interspersed with B-roll shots of the lights, crowd, folks dancing in the isles, and such.

In this scenario, the MacBook Pro easily kept up with the Mac Pro desktop. Trimming was equally efficient; preview was realtime with no visible degradation.

Then, because the footage was handheld, I applied Final Cut Pro”s SmoothCam filter to a 6-second slice of B-roll, which was in a separate captured clip. The Mac Pro desktop analyzed the file in 3:08 (min:sec) while the MacBook Pro took 2:13. I added a Motion title; both systems previewed in realtime, but clearly dropped frames. To get a pixel-perfect preview, I rendered the title; the Mac Pro finished in 31 seconds, the MacBook Pro in 73 seconds. Again, while editing, the experience is very similar: As soon as you force a render of some kind, the Mac Pro prevails.

Figure 3. The MacBook Pro doesn”t excel at pulling multiple realtime, high-def streams.
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I then tried a sequence with two HDV clips, one superimposed over the other via greenscreen using the Chroma Keyer filter and a four-point garbage matte (Figure 2). Here again, both systems previewed in realtime with very similar quality.

Then I went for the jugular. Reasoning that the RAID system on the desktop would provide faster and more efficient file retrieval than the MacBook Pro, I created multiple copies of the same high-definition ProRes source file. Then, with one video file as the background file, I started adding the other files in picture in picture configuration and previewed. On the MacBook Pro, RT Extreme caved when I added the third video, displaying the error message shown in Figure 3.

In contrast, the Mac Pro easily retrieved and played six streams, even after I rotated each video and added color correction. Of course, how often does six-stream, realtime playback really matter while you”re editing?

Figure 4. Premiere Pro”s multicam interface.
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To answer that question, I turned to Premiere Pro, and edited a few songs from a recent concert. This project was a four-camera, multiformat shoot with one camera shooting 1280p, one DV, and two shooting good old interlaced 1080i HDV. When editing a multicamera shoot in Premiere Pro, you choose camera angles in the multicam interface (Figure 4) that displays each camera angle and that of the selected camera (on the right). You click play, all videos play, and you choose the angle by clicking on it or via keyboard shortcuts. Then you can fine-tune the edits on the timeline.

On the desktop system, Premiere Pro played all four feeds at more or less realtime—although it was clear that the DV camera, which was being zoomed about 3X to fit the HDV frame, was displayed in draft quality. On the Mac Pro, each video seemed to play about 2fps to 3fps, which was more than sufficent for the edit decisions I had to make. Basically, even on a multicam project, which is about as demanding as they get, from an editing perspective, the MacBook Pro got the job done.

Table 1. Render time in Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro.
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As I mentioned above, the desktop produced most files in about half the time of the notebook, which is not surprising given that the desktop has two 3.0GHz processors, each faster than the 2.4GHz processor in the MacBook. These results are presented in Table 1.

This tells me that both programs are effectively leveraging the available processor resources. While you never know until you test, this should mean that an eight-core system should significantly outperform a four-core system.

Overall, both systems proved very impressive during my tests. The MacBook Pro is an outstanding portable editing platform, especially if you can delay final rendering till you”re back in the shop. The Mac Pro, especially decked out with dual Cinema displays (and Matrox MXO), is a wonderful editing station for polishing your production with ferocious rendering capabilities.

Improving Notebook Editing Efficiency

Here are some tips for improving your efficiency while on the road.

1. Find the right external drive solution. Here are the respective speeds for the most relevant external drive solutions.

  • FireWire (1394a): 400Mbps
  • USB 2.0: 480Mbps
  • FireWire 800 (1394b): 800Mpbs
  • Serial ATA 1.5: 1.5Gbps

For most single-stream projects, using the USB 2.0 connector provides adequate speed and good access to inexpensive drives. The next easiest upgrade is FireWire 800 because current Macs and MacBooks have these ports. For multiple-stream projects, and/or fast transfers once back in the office, SerialATA is obviously worth looking into. You can buy an external Serial-ATA (eSATA) card for your MacBook Pro for less than $50, and there are a number of drives that support both USB 2.0 and eSATA. Google eSATA and “external hard disk” for a start.

2. Bring a good mouse and mouse pad. It sounds silly, but tiny portable mouses are much harder to manipulate, and on some surfaces (such as glass) editing without a mousepad is torture.

3. Get keyboard stickers. If you use a Bella or similar keyboard with shortcut labels on its keys while editing in your office, purchase a set of keyboard stickers (less than $20) to insert on your notebook.

4. Plan for external preview. If there”s a TV or other analog device around, you may be able to connect to it via a HDV camcorder and FireWire, Apple”s DVI to Video Adapter, or a device such as the Matrox MXO, so bring the necessary cables and ancillary gear. External preview will free up some real estate from your notebook screen. Don”t forget the DVI to VGA Adapter Apple ships with the MacBook Pro in case you have access to an older monitor or LCD panel.

5. Make your screen as readable as possible. Get familiar with display options such as Final Cut Pro”s browser text size setting (in User Preferences), which makes browser text much more readable in relatively cramped MacBook Pro screens.