How to buy a PC for editing video and photos

Want to edit HD video on your PC? Here's what you need

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With everything in this world turning digital, manipulating and editing vast amounts of HD video and multi-megabyte images is starting to become a job many of us have to handle.

If you're looking to put together a professional-level multimedia suite these are our recommendations for a suitable powered system.

When it comes to crunching a lot of information you can't get enough processor power. Couple that with a large amount of memory and heavy-weight tasks can be chomped through in record time. When dealing with processors it's best to think of them as the computer's engine.

Similarly to an engine, processors can run at faster speeds measured in gigahertz, but they can also have more processing cores similar to an engine having more cylinders. Today it's common for most processors to have two, but four and six core models are available. With well written software these cores can all be utilised to power through tasks in record times.

Both Intel and AMD offer multi-core processors. AMD has its affordable Phenom II X4 and X6 range. Intel has its very expensive Core i7 970 six-core processor. While the rest of the Core i7 range are all quad-core, these are all generally taken to be faster than the best AMD Phenom II X6 processors.

Next down in performance is the Core i5 range. Both the Core i5-750 and 760 are quad-core models offering similar performance to the six-core AMD Phenom II X6 processors. The Core i5-6xx range are all dual-core but offer similar performance to the Phenom II X4 quad-core models.

Which you choose is more a matter of cost. The high-end Intel Core i7 options do have inherent extra costs. The required socket 1366 motherboards cost more and the processors themselves are significantly more expensive.

Once you come down to the Intel socket 1156 options, costs between the AMD and Intel choices are much closer, with AMD being potentially the slightly cheaper one, if cost is an issue.

As with the other computer-type choices new motherboards tend to spoil you for choice when it comes to onboard options. However make sure the one you choose offer enough hard drive SATA connection, USB ports and if you need them Firewire connections.

Our processor reviews will help you choose a new processor.

Memory for HD video editing

It wouldn't matter if you chose the fastest processor on the planet if you don't back it up with enough work space to do its funky binary work thing. A key player in making a fast video or photo editing workstation is giving the processor exactly that, and to do so means installing as much memory as possible.

If you've selected a good motherboard it'll have either four DDR3 memory slots or six in the case of the Intel Core i7 socket 1366 systems. Fully populating these slots with identical memory sticks of the largest DDR3 you can afford will do just that.

Before buying your memory it's important to check that the motherboard supports the size and amount of memory you're planning on installing. Many motherboards support a maximum of 16GB total system memory, so on a four DIMM installation using 4GB sticks you're going to max-out the board. Currently 8GB single sticks are available, so only two of these could be installed in such a motherboard.

The more expensive Core i7 socket 1366 motherboard support 24GB, so again this will be maxed-out with six 4GB sticks. We wouldn't worry too much about the raw speed of the memory you opt for, people can get caught up in wanting the fastest possible, but even the slower PC8500/1066MHz memory is only going to lost a couple of percentage points slower in speed over the faster PC10600/1333MHz options.

As with gaming PCs it's important to note that for systems using more than 3GB of main memory you'll need a 64-bit installation of Windows. Until now most installations have been 32-bit and these only provided access to around 3.2GB of system memory, any more installed would be ignored.

A 64-bit installation can take full advantage of 4GB and above. If you're buying Windows 7 it comes with both a 32-bit and 64-bit install discs.

Check out our memory reviews and memory reviews for more info.

Graphics cards for video editing

Unless you're working with OpenGL 3D rendering packages you may consider the requirement of a high-end graphics card to be somewhat unnecessary for photo editing and video work.

The situation is that packages such as Photoshop CS4 and CS5 can now use the power within a modern GPU to perform complex mathematical calculations at blistering speeds, which translates into faster manipulation and filter performance.

Also your video package may offer 3D transitions that can be rendered using the installed graphics card's capabilities. It'll be down to the software and the type of graphics card it can take advantage of for example Photoshop CS5 can use both AMD and Nvidia cards to accelerate certain operations.

We've tested all the latest cards in our graphics cards reviews.

Monitors

A good visual workspace is vital when editing both video and photography. Modern graphics cards offer dual-display and greater capabilities. This enables your PC to drive more than one display at the same time with an extended desktop. This enables you to maintain one display for your editing and a second display to hold the pallet boxes, web browser, email and other windows.

As for choosing a decent monitor for professional work try to find out if the panel is TN, IPS or VA based, the latter two are far superior technologies for colour reproduction, however it can be painful information to find out.

You'll find the few 30-inch monitors that offer a beautiful 2560x1600 resolution are IPS or VA models and cost around the £1,000 mark.

Most of the more affordable 24-inch monitors that provide a good 1920x1080 resolution tend to be TN, though HP offer a number of IPS models, such as the LP2475w and there's the Dell U2410.

Browse hundreds of monitors in our monitor reviews.

Storage

If you're running lots of heavy video processing then dedicated high-performance drives are usually the primary storage option. Additionally in a professional environment back-up solutions are usually a welcome addition.

The simplest option that covers both speed and security is a simple mirrored RAID-1 solution, which is two identical drives running in tandem so if one fails there's another mirroring it. Alternatively, a full RAID-5 solution offers similar protection and speed enhancements, but over a bank of three or more drives.

All motherboards will be offering SATA 2.0 support - if not the latest SATA 3.0 - this has enough speed to transfer 286MB/s, which far surpasses the performance of any spinning hard drive's continuous transfer speed, which is to say it's good enough.

There's also the solid state drive or SSD option, these provide staggering speed but have reduced capacities and are far more expensive but you may consider these worthwhile tradeoffs.

To choose your PC storage, head over to our PC storage reviews.

Mice and keyboards

While you can't beat a normal mouse and keyboard combination these aren't the only way of interacting with your computer. Some creatives opt for the tablet input option, while these can take some getting used to they provide a more natural pen-based method of controlling and interacting with your PC.

They're not always the best way of working with general windows but when it comes to touching up images then using one is far more like working with a pencil, and offers far more control over precise work.

The best known brand is Wacom that offers a complete range from small hobby tablets, up to full A4 sized ones with displays built in to them.

For video users it's more likely that you're be looking for additional audio inputs, which are best catered for via a plug-in sound card. As this will offer 1/4-inch jacks for input, along with midi controls.

Our keyboard reviews, mouse reviews and graphics tablet reviews will point you in the right direction.

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Liked this? Then check out How to buy a gaming PC

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