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The Next Upgrade to My 2010 Mac Pro

 

I am a video editor who uses Final Cut Pro X. I'm considering an upgrade, and was wondering whether it would be worthwhile to invest in more RAM in my 2010 Mac Pro (with SSD boot disk) to improve editing performance. I tested it against and an early 2013 MacBook Pro, and drew the conclusion that I need a new processor, not more RAM.

Updated June 23, 2014: Two factors invalidate my results below. First, during my test, I had the MacBook Pro set to not report dropped frames. Once I told it to report them, there were just as many as the Mac Pro. Second, the Mac Pro was noticably "snappier" once I copied the project to my SSD. My revised recommendation is that I should be editing from the SSD and using internal HDDs as local storage only. I also note that all tests were carried out using the camera original H.264 codec, neither proxy nor optimized media.


Test description

Would more RAM make a difference for the Mac Pro? I wanted to compare performance between a newer machine running a consumer processor and an older machine running a professional processor. I tested making the same edits to the Mark Peach project on these two machines:

  • MacBook Pro Retina, 15-inch, Early 2013
  • Mac Pro Mid 2010

Evaluation

RAM is not the issue. Processing power is the issue.

There is a distinct "feel" to editing on each machine: The MacBook Pro is "snappy" and the Mac Pro is "hit or miss", getting less responsive as the project nears completion.

To an editor, these little lags add up to disrupt fluidity of thought and action, creating friction that slows down the process and hinders creativity and punishes attention to detail.

Recommendation

My recommendation is that our next upgrade to our editing hardware be to purchase a new machine. We've gotten a lot of life out of the 4-year-old Mac Pro, but now that the limiting factor is its processor, it's time to upgrade the whole machine.

The current generation i7 processor available with the MacBook Pro Retina 15" and the iMac 27" is enough for our current editing needs. We do not need a Mac Pro.

Details

Some of the details leading to my conclusions:

I noticed that video editing is nowhere near as RAM-intensive as I had imagined. It's all about processing power. As soon as I started editing on the MBP, it heated up and the fans roared to life. I opened Activity Monitor and saw that the CPU usage for the FCPX process had jumped from 2% to 300%. As long as I was editing, this number didn't drop below 100%. RAM, by comparison, never exceeded 3 GB of 16 GB available.

I opened the project on the Mac Pro and repeated my edits. Activity Monitor yielded the same results: high CPU usage, conservative RAM usage.

A major difference in performance was that the Mac Pro dropped frames frequently, whereas the MacBook Pro dropped only one in roughly the same amount of time.

A minor difference in performance was that the MacBook Pro could wake from idle and make and edit whereas the Mac Pro paused with a spinning beach ball for a while.

It all comes down to processing ability, and the Ivy Bridge i7 outperformed dual Xeon processors in my test. This is corroborated by this benchmark study, and by the notion that the processing power on the market improves year by year.

Nagging doubts

Although my Mac Pro's boot disk is SSD, my media for this test was on my HDD. This one differenc may be all the difference.