System Performance Explained

Often I get ask by someone about system performance. “Hey man, I just got a new laptop, so why is it so slow?” Or “My Mac was so fast yesterday, I boot up today and it’s dragging!”

The short answer is that there is no short answer. We’re talking computers, not drink coasters. I can tell you why your drink coaster isn’t working, because it’s not made of an absorbent material. Your Mac on the other hand (and this goes for all computers, all operating systems, all applications) is a bit more complex.

In this blog post I’ll cover the three main factors in a computer running video and/or audio production software; System configuration concerns, hard drive concerns and third party software concerns. This basic information should help you evaluate an existing system, or a new one when making a purchase. Plus, I’ll give a regular
maintenance routine to avoid problems down the road, as well as links to troubleshooting resources for your system when you have issues.

*Hardware referenced in this article is based on June 2018 configurations offered on Apple Inc’s web site.
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1 - Minimum System Requirements
I’ll start here, as this is where the first mistakes are made. It’s not just Apple, but all software developers, all hardware developers, they all state the minimum requirements for their product to function at its most basic. I wish they’d go further and state what is required for major, professional, huge sized workloads, also.

a - THE RAM ISSUE
Final Cut Pro X, Motion 5, Compressor 4 all state that you need a minimum of 4GB RAM, with 8GB RAM required minimum for 4K / 3D titles / 360º video. HOGWASH! I’ve yet to see a system edit 4K video smoothly with only 8GB RAM, short of a simple 30 second TV spot.

There should be added; “If you work professionally, or on Project timelines in excess of 15 minute durations, 16GB RAM minimum is strongly recommended.”

To clarify RAM; LPDDR3 is 3rd generation RAM. The LP denotes “low power” consumption, made for laptops, mobile phones, tablets, things that run on batteries. So your MacBookPro is using an earlier generation of RAM made to run at very low power, save your battery, and isn’t as efficient. In a 15” MacBook Pro the RAM used has a processing speed of 2,133MHz.

On the other hand, an iMac Pro uses 2,666MHz DDR4 RAM, 4th generation RAM, and uses lots of energy compared to LPDDR RAM. First up, that’s a difference of 533MHz in process speed, second it uses lots more energy to be a bit more powerful. So your MBP isn’t as powerful as an iMac Pro, for starters, is because the RAM is not as efficient nor as fast. But that MBP can still edit video, it will simply struggle with the RAM when working with multicam clips and long form 4K+. And there is more to the whole complex performance issue…


b - THE GPU ISSUE
The GPU is your “graphics processing unit.” That’s the chip that processes all the graphics for your screen output. These have gotten very sophisticated and today are used for processing other types of data, such as for video editing. The GPU in a 15” MacBook Pro is a Radeon Pro 560 with 4GB of VRAM (video RAM). That’s pretty nice, until you compare it to the iMac Pro with dual Vega 64 processors (that’s TWO processors working together), each having 64GB VRAM each. Plus that VRAM is way faster than what’s on the MacBook Pro. So when processing some effects, playback, some encoding, etc, there’s a huge difference between the two Macs. 3D text, compositing, effects all take their toll on the GPU.


c - THE CPU ISSUE
The CPU is your “central processing unit” and is the heart and soul of your computer. Not all CPUs are created equal, as is with RAM and GPUs. The MacBook Pro can come a quad core (meaning you have 4 of these) i7 CPU at 3.1GHz and 8MB cache (cache is like on-board RAM). The iMac can come with a Xeon W, 8 core (minimum) 3.2GHz CPU with 19GB cache. I think you can easily understand the vast difference in these numbers. Bigger numbers are better, you can see where this is going. Need I say more?


2 - Hard Drive Requirements
This is one of the most vital areas to video editing. Do NOT put your Libraries and media on your system drive! They should be on a fast secondary drive, and here’s why.

In your home, you have Internet access. That Internet connection has a limited bandwidth. So many kilobytes of data per second can be transferred, that is the speed limit, you can’t change it. The same is true with a hard drive. There is only so much data that can be transferred, per second, that’s its speed limit. So how does this effect video editing?

a - THE SYSTEM DRIVE ISSUE
Your operating system and the apps you use have to write/read/erase/re-write/re-read/etc/etc/etc tons and tons of hidden “working files” in order to be efficient. That eats up a bit of the system drive’s bandwidth. You can’t change anything about this, you don’t want to.

The NLE (video production software) or DAW (music production software) you use needs to stream media in real time from the hard drive. Each video clip in a Project timeline is its own video data stream. Every audio clip is its own audio data stream. You have dialogue, music, sound effects all playing at the same time, there’s multiple audio data streams going from the hard drive to your CPU for routing and processing, all at the same time, all eating up lots of bandwidth. The same with video clips. These video streams especially eat up a TON of bandwidth.

So in order to keep a computer system efficient, we place all our media and Libraries on a FAST, secondary hard drive, so that the operating system and the apps have plenty of bandwidth to do their work, and the NLE and/or DAW apps have plenty o bandwidth to do their work. Combining them will clog up the bandwidth, causing both to perform poorly.


b - THE SECONDARY HARD DRIVE ISSUE
Not all secondary drives are created equal. But you saw that coming, didn’t you? You want to get a USB 3 or Thunderbolt drive. If it is a spinning disk drive, you want a 7200rpm drive. The 5400rpm drives are way too slow to process your video and audio data. The other alternative is an SSD drive, which is faster, but more expensive and doesn’t come in capacities as large as spinning disk drives (as was promised years ago). Plus, the larger the drive, usually the faster it can operate. So you want a fast internal drive, and a fast secondary (external) drive.

RAID is another option for a secondary external drive, when using USB 3 or Thunderbolt connections. This is an enclosure that uses several drives at once to speed up the input and output of data. Basically, it increases your bandwidth. RAID 0 is recommended for 2 drive systems, but if one drive fails, you’ve lost everything, so run daily backups. RAID 5 is recommended for 2-4 drive systems. If one drive fails, the others take over and you don’t lose your data. This does not replace a backup, as if another drive fails, you’ll lose all your data. RAID 6 is recommended for 5+ drive systems, and can handle up to 2 drives going bad before you lose everything. Again, RAID is not a backup, but increases speed, and in 5 & 6 configurations, gives you a temporary safety net, but that safety net is NOT a hard backup.


3 - Third Party Plugins (Addons)
Finally we have to address third party developers. Most are amazing, helpful, have your best interest at heart, and produce some fantastic work. But again, not all plugins are created equal. Some need to use complex operations and have embedded media and won’t playback as easily as others. They also won’t export as fast as others. Some are very simply, light-weight, playback just fine, and export quickly. So when you see a degradation in system performance while editing, evaluate what third party plugins you’re using. If they’re doing complex things, then it is reasonable to expect extra strain on the overall system. You should also check to be sure you have the latest version of those plugins, a version that is compatible with the version of the NLE or DAW system you’re running. These third party products get updated for bug fixes and efficiency from time to time, so keep up with them. For questions about third party plugins I strongly recommend you contact the developer directly.


4 - Routine Maintenance
a - Weekly
• Verify each drive have at least 15% of their total capacity left as free space, and this is most vital for the system drive. Remember those hidden working files I mentioned? This covers that issue! Your drive is FULL when it hits 15% unused space!
• Run a daily
bootable backup for when (not if) your system or secondary drive dies. Again, this is when, not if, I’m a retired IT engineer, trust me on this, please.
• Launch Disk Utility (inside the Utilities folder, which is inside the Applications folder) and run First Aid on all drives. And get your seasonal flu shot for yourself!

b - Monthly
• Run Disk Warrior to repair the directory on all of your drives. Directory corruption is the leading cause of data loss. Once the directory is bad, you can’t tell if the drive is damaged or just corrupted, and either way you’ve lost all your data.
*NOTE; Disk Warrior is not yet able to repair APFS formate drives in High Sierra / Mojave yet, but Alstoft is working on an update.



5 - Troubleshooting A Problematic System
All computers and operating systems glitch, a lot, so here are some links to help you evaluate a problematic system.

• I have a listing of troubleshooting links on my
Support Links page.

• Apple’s
Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor and Logic Pro X troubleshooting pages.

• T. Peyton via Frame.io has a good article
here.