Diving into video editing for the first time? Trying to figure out which is the best laptop for video editing? Here’s some advice. Don’t begin with the laptop, begin with you.
Before you even start looking into microprocessor clock speeds, internal vs. external memory, and all the other specifications with which you can compare one laptop to another. Analyze your specifications. What kind of video will you be editing? What finished product do you want?
If you’re shooting a documentary for the Sundance Film Festival*, that’s one set of requirements. Documenting your daughter’s first swimming lesson and editing out the bit where your thumb was the star of the show? Now, that leads to different prerequisites.
What Do You Really Need?
You should think about your upcoming video editing projects first for one simple reason: Cost. Higher-end specifications, such as high-resolution screens, fast processing speeds, and larger memory capacity may be preferable, but they are also more expensive. If you think ahead, you can buy what you need now and plan for future expansion. Here are some specific areas to consider:
Your content. Your laptop choice will be heavily influenced by the video you want to produce. For example, if you’re making social videos to promote your business, you’ll want the ability to create text overlay on some clips. Sophisticated audio editing capabilities and good speakers will make a big difference when editing footage from your band’s latest gig. Art projects, on the other hand, place a premium on accurate color representation at high resolution.
How you plan to work. Will you be working under time pressures? Then speed matters most. If you’re constantly on the road, you may find weight and battery life to be more important.
External gear. External gear, such as a monitor, input device, or extra storage, has to plug into your video editing laptop. You have to make sure your choice has the right kind—e.g., HDMI—and number of inputs.
Software. Your editing experience depends on matching the software you need to the hardware it requires. Not all software runs on all laptops. Consider your video editing software preferences before you’ve made any hardware choices.
With your needs in hand, you can start shopping. You’ll face a bewildering array of specifications. The tests used to create these specifications are not only complicated, but often controversial. Finding the best laptop for video editing isn’t about specs; it’s about fit. Keep that in mind as you peruse the specs.
Speed is your friend when it comes to processors for video editing. Figuring out what is actually fastest is not as simple as comparing the 0-60 times for cars. Deciding which processor is best means deciphering how much processor design matters to your work. Do you need a six core? A quad core? Or will a dual core meet your needs? What about hyper-threading? Even if you don’t want to get into that level of detail, here’s easy shorthand to follow: The higher the processor clock rate in any given processor family, the better. Right now, the clock rate for top candidates ranges from roughly 2.8 GHz to 3.6 GHz, but the numbers change on a regular basis.
RAM (Random Access Memory)
RAM is important because it’s the place where your CPU goes to get the data it uses to make your video edits. The faster that data exchange happens, the faster you can edit. Most experts agree that you need a minimum of 12 GB, and 16 GB is better. Also, there are three types of RAM—SDRAM, DDR, and DRAM. SDRAM is the oldest technology, and it will slow you down. Finally, systems may have one, two, or three channels connecting RAM to the CPU. Three is obviously the fastest, but tests related to gaming (which has similar challenges to editing) indicate that the number of channels doesn’t have a big effect. And again, the sheer amount of RAM far outweighs other considerations.
One caveat. Don’t assume you’ll be able to upgrade the amount of RAM down the road. Some laptops allow this, but some don’t.
Unless you’re planning to do only very low-end video editing, you’ll want a laptop with a graphics card. For technical reasons, systems for even mid-level editing offload graphics processing from the CPU to a graphics card with a GPU (graphics processing unit). You should avoid any laptop that doesn't take this approach. It will be too slow. Beyond that, be aware that some video editing software programs recommend (or even require) a specific graphics card or range of cards within a brand, and some graphics cards are only compatible with certain CPUs. It pays to check this out.
The key top-level specifications for graphics cards are GPU clock speed and frames per second (FPS) per dollar. However, graphics cards are very complicated and these specs need to be taken in context of the whole laptop. For example, a slow CPU will bog down any graphics card, no matter how fast that card may be.
Laptops for video editing vary significantly in the number and types of ports they have for external devices like a monitor or a hard drive. It is very important to think ahead about what items you’ll need or may need down the road, because if there’s no port for them, you’re out of luck.
If your content involves music or important ambient sound, accurately hearing what you’ve got is obviously important. The speakers in some laptops are dramatically better than others. You don’t need specifications to evaluate them; your ears will do just fine. Many editors prefer to listen with headphones, which are nearly always superior to laptop speakers. For videos where audio is primary, consider adding external reference speakers.
As a rule of thumb, you’ll need about twice as much hard drive capacity as the size of your source file—even three times more if you’re doing anything fancy, like lots of special effects. But don’t forget, you not only need to store source files for editing, you have to store the finished video as well. Video files take up a lot of room; 500 GB is probably the minimum, and 1 TB is an even safer bet.
Luckily, you don’t have to depend solely on the storage available inside your laptop. External hard drives can help maximize storage capacity while keeping costs in line. For the hard drive itself, you can choose between standard hard drives (HDD) with spinning discs, and solid state drives (SSD), which are faster and have no moving parts. SSDs, however, are more expensive. A hybrid solution can give you the best of both worlds: A fast onboard SSD to handle working files with and a large external HDD for storage.
You also have to think about the interface between an external hard drive and your laptop. You don’t want to be put on hold every few minutes while you wait for a file to transfer. There are several options, ranging from a low of 6 Gbps (USB 3.1) to a high of 40 Gbps. (Thunderbolt™). The more files you’re going to be pulling up from your hard drive, the more important this number becomes.
“When you edit video, there are a ton of elements fighting for space on the screen.”
The All-Important Screen
Your video editing laptop screen will make a big impact on your editing experience. Not only are you going to be staring at it for hours on end, you are also relying on it to give you enough information to make the right editing decisions. Here are the key criteria.
The standard sizes for laptop display screen are 13.3”, 14”, 15.6”, and 17.3”. Bigger is better—at least when it comes to screen dimensions.
Independent creative director Christopher St. John uses video in both advertising work and when promoting and obtaining funding for theater projects. “When you edit video, there are a ton of elements fighting for space on the screen,” he says. Those elements may include five or six timeline tracks, lists of clips and other resources you’ve gathered and prepped, special effects menus, and special effects controls, plus the editing screen itself.
There’s only one problem with the larger screens. They drain your battery faster, which means a shorter amount of valuable working time—plus it will require extra time to recharge.
There are three types of LCD panels, and the type you choose makes a big difference.
- TN (Twisted Nematic) panels are common and cheap, but you get what you pay for—a bad choice for video editing
- IPS (In-Plane Switching) panels are the preferable choice
- IGZO (Indium-Gallium-Zinc Oxide) are rare, expensive, and the highest quality option for the professional videographer
Resolution is a fairly straightforward specification with several levels available, all defined by the width by height (WxH) in pixels. The most common are:
- High Definition: 1920x1080. This is also known as full high definition (FHD) or 1080p
- Apple Retina*: 2880x1800
- 4K: 3840x2160. This is sometimes referred to as Ultra High Definition or UDF
The majority of laptops have much lower resolution than the 1920x1080 that most videographers would agree is the low end of acceptability.
There are several scientific definitions of the “color space” offered by laptop screens, but it’s easiest to think of it this way: The color space is the number of different colors a monitor can display. The most common is sRGB, (standard Red, Green, Blue) although Adobe RGB* runs a close second. Manufacturers often express color fidelity as a percentage of sRGB, and it’s usually over 100% because sRGB doesn’t cover all the colors the eye can perceive.
Looking into the Future
One thing is certain about the future of video editing: The files are going to get bigger. With 4K cameras becoming more common, and virtual reality on the way, when it comes to capacity and processing power, today’s luxury will be tomorrow’s necessity.