Tech Corner


IN THIS ISSUE – 
1st Qtr, 2017
LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

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Electronic picture and sound editing started on a variety of computer platforms. Ediflex may have been the breakthrough system, using dedicated hardware. The sound editing system, Fairlight, also had dedicated hardware and programing. Lightworks was a Windows PC-based picture editing system. Avid Media Composer was first introduced on Apple OS and hardware – as was Digidesign’s Pro Tools. As time passed, Apple Macintosh computers have increasingly dominated the world of Hollywood picture and sound editing.
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A large majority of feature films and episodic television are edited on Avid Technology programs, either Media Composer or Pro Tools. Many of the finishing re-recording stages are Pro Tools based. But what if Apple has decided to get out of the Macintosh business? There is strong evidence they are heading that way.
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The Mac Pro standalone tower, often called the ‘trashcan,’ hasn’t been updated in three years, since its release in December 2013. The previous Mac tower, the Power Mac G5, aka the ‘cheese grater,’ was replaced by the Mac Pro in 2006. The Mac Pro allowed user upgrades. And is still heavily in use in Hollywood. “We use a combination of Westmere (cheese-grater) and Ivy Bridge (trashcan) Mac Pros on the lot and we have had good experience with both,” says Adam Imada, director, production and post system solutions, Sony Pictures Entertainment. Asked about the future of post equipment for his department, Imada replies, “We are going to continue to invest in Ivy Bridge Mac Pros (at least for near term) because [they have] shown to be reliable to run Media Composer, our support staff finds them easier to manage and mitigate viruses and, lastly, editorial seems to be more familiar with Apple’s operating system.”
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Erin Michael Rettig is a sound engineer for 20th Century Fox Film’s Post Production Services. He manages all the feature sound editorial editing systems. “Our recent computer setup is made of 30 machines that I maintain and administer.” That includes four trashcan Mac Pros, and 26 cheese grater Mac Pros. His thoughts about hardware: “We are heading cautiously into the future.” Fox Studios’ current solution for broken and failed systems is to buy spares and upgrade them. Nearly all their previous generation Mac Pro systems are the highest level CPU available, Intel 12 core i7 processors, and all have had their internal boot drive replaced with faster solid state drives (SSD). What about moving to PCs? Rettig said, “We are starting to explore PC hardware, but the user experience is very important. And with PCs, the users all prefer Macs.” At Sony Studios, Tommy Pham installs and maintains editorial systems on the lot. “I was once an all-out Windows person, but switched over to Mac because of the little or no downtime.
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We’ve got Power Mac G4s running non-stop still! Windows systems were too vulnerable to attacks from viruses and malware that were crippling our editorial facilities.” Yeah. Sony. No kidding. Says Adam Imada: “In the coming years we see editorial potentially wanting to work in a 4K environment which will require I/O hardware, monitors and larger storage solutions. This is something that is on our map but we want to be sure that it can be done effectively and efficiently in real world environments before making any sizable investment.” So unless there is a significant workflow change, the hardware is likely to remain the same.
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The same is true at Fox. “We might get another three years with the present hardware,” says Rettig. But what about ME! I have a 2014, 15-inch MacBook Pro (MBP). I edit documentaries, large format films, and episodic series on it every day. I want to have the best system available. And it may no longer be an Apple. The latest MacBook Pro release from Apple has enjoyed high sales. And lots of criticism; much of which bemoans Apple’s lack of upgrades in the Mac Pro, the Mac Mini, and lack of significant upgrade of the MacBook Pro. Because of the lack of CPU and memory improvements, and the removal of every connector except the rare USB C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, some are saying it would be more appropriate if Apple dropped the label, ‘Pro.’ On the MacBreak Weekly podcast episode 531, Alex Lindsay, who works in computer graphics and video production at his company, PixelCorps.tv, said, “I don’t think Apple is making hardware for professionals anymore.”
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The host, Leo Laporte, said, “Because of the Mac Pro, because it’s been so long since we’ve had an update, because of the Mac Mini. And I think underlying all of this angst really is the sense that maybe Apple is giving up on Macintosh.” These comments are mirrored in numerous magazine/online articles and tech podcasts. The latest MacBooks are underwhelming. And when is Apple going to update the Macintosh line of computers? Or is it simply a phone company now? The last show I edited on a Windows PC system was the shortlived series, Drive, in 2007. Since then every system I’ve cut on has been a Mac cheese grater, with an occasional Mac trashcan. So I want to upgrade. I was hoping the latest MacBook would be it. Maybe not. Then what should I buy? Increasingly my editing requires using VFX plugins like BCC and mocha Pro that need lots of rendering. And outputting to clients either uses the render power of Avid or Adobe Media Encoder. So if I want real power, perhaps my next laptop should be a Windows PC? Doing research into a new laptop is a daunting task. I first went to Fry’s. They have a large selection. And I mean LARGE.
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On display they have 44 laptops, with another 24 listed as available in the back. SIXTY-FOUR to choose from? And these ranged in price from $199 to $2700, from the lowest level CPU/GPU/RAM configuration to the ridiculous (a laptop that can take two GPUs and can weigh up to 10 pounds!). Best Buy provides no easier choice. Fifty-three laptops.  I honestly lost count, as they were displayed all over the place. Same range of price and specs. To get some help deciphering all the choices, I asked Tommy Phan at Sony. What would his preferred laptop be? “I would either go with the MacBook Pro 15-inch i7 or better, or HP Zbook Studio with i7 or better.”
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Untitled-7I also asked him to rank the order of importance of a laptop’s components. He responds, “Number one would be CPU, then HD, then GPU, then RAM.” To my surprise, the GPU isn’t as important in the editing environment as I thought. There are ‘break out’ boxes that would allow you to add an outboard GPU to a MacBook. Sonnet Tech makes one, as does Akitio. Pham replies, “These I/O boxes are only meant for outboard gear like an Avid Nitris/Mojo DX to produce full-quality HD picture on a client monitor. Anytime you connect any hardware, you will see a performance degradation and will impact editing. Go straight to an AJA I/O XT for additional GPU.” GPU power is a real benefit when working in 4K, virtual reality or gaming (the latter explains why I rarely see my son). Next, I went to the experts at Avid. David Pimm works with the group that does new system qualifications for Media Composer. As I explained, I’ve seen the list of computers that work with Media Composer. 
But it is as clear a list as wandering through Fry’s without glasses.
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So what are the minimum requirements for a laptop?
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Says Pimm: “Avid requires quad core Intel CPU (8 virtual cores with Hyper-Threading). Core i7 or Xeon E3 in the laptops. Currently, laptops are shipping Skylake processors (PCs and Apple MBP).
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“Memory requirement for these laptops is 16 GB. More memory is better so 32 GB in a laptop would be good.
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“Recommended GPU would be Nvidia M3000m or M4000m. GPU is only enabled for effects processing when the graphics card has 2 GB VRAM or more.”
What are their top recommended laptops?
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“HP is top dog – support is great and we rarely get any systems that fail (over 50 systems in the lab).
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“Lenovo is very good – we do not get the same number of systems to test but the ones we get are very reliable (no failures in the past couple years).
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“Apple – Lots of graphics recalls on the MBP and iMacs in the past several years. Seems like we keep getting those models!
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“Dell – We have had graphics issues on three laptops in the past six months.”
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Okay, so this led me to the HP website, to consider the ZBook Studio referred by Tommy Pham. And I’m no closer to knowing what to buy: HP offers four different categories of laptops.
The 15-inch doesn’t offer the higher GPU suggested by David Pimm. So I looked at the 17-inch screen size. The options are daunting: five different CPUs, six RAM choices, seven GPUs to choose from, four separate screen displays, six different
boot drives, six options for an additional drive and six ‘mini SSD’ drive options.
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If I choose the most expensive CPU and GPU available, it adds $3000. I could be looking at a $5000 expense.
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I’m not sure when or if I will make the jump to a new laptop. But Apple is looking less attractive. Maybe they are out of the Pro business? Who knows. They aren’t saying. And even if there are big differences in the operating system, the editing is the same.

I want and need performance.
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I’m at a crossroads. Or is that the gates of hell?