|Editing HD video from DSLRs: why the right software is better than a hardware upgrade
The widespread availability of HD video recording on everything from mobile phones to DSLRs has seen us capturing events in better quality than ever before. DSLRs in particular have proven a revelation in movie capture: what they lack in video ergonomics and ease of focusing is more than made up for in flexibility and sheer quality. Indeed many professional film and television producers are adopting DSLRs for a variety of tasks from backup cameras to primary capture devices.
It sure is an exciting time, but the HD dream can quickly become shattered when it comes to editing your footage. Files which smoothly play back on the cameras which captured them can see even the fastest computers grind to a halt. Editing footage feels like wading through treacle; preview windows stutter and jerk; effects and transitions crawl; final renders could tie-up your system for hours.
It's enough to put many people off HD video and stick with the considerably lower demands of standard definition instead. But don't be disheartened: I went through exactly the same journey and finally discovered a configuration which could edit even the toughest HD content with relative ease. Surprisingly it didn't require an investment in the latest and greatest hardware either. In this article I'll share my tips on the configuration which now allows me to easily edit HD video from the latest DSLRs or camcorders - and using hardware from late 2007.
Before going any further, a quick disclaimer: this is neither a detailed review nor a group test of video editing products. I'm simply sharing the one solution which worked for me personally under Microsoft Windows. There are of course many other video editing programs available, not to mention alternative platforms, most notably the Apple Mac. I won't be writing about these here, but hope to try out and compare HD video editing on modern Macs in a future article. In the meantime, anyone who has recommendations on editing HD video on Macs or alternative PC platforms, please tell us all about them in our forum thread which accompanies this article; conversely, feel free to ask any questions concerning this article in the same thread.
Work harder or smarter?
I'll admit to being both perplexed and dismayed by my first attempts at editing HD footage from DSLRs. I had a pretty decent PC running Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 under Windows Vista 64 bit on a 3GHz Quad Core CPU with 8GB RAM. It was a fairly modern and respectable configuration, but one which became intolerably slow when fed 1080p footage from DSLRs.
The reason modern HD footage is so hard to edit is because your computer has to decode large amounts of data that's been very highly compressed. Decompressing modern formats like AVCHD / H.264 is hard enough in itself, but coupled with large HD frame sizes and typically high bit rates brings many PCs to their digital knees. The real problem though is how your computer goes about dealing with this content.
As the former hardware columnist of UK technology magazine Personal Computer World, it's not surprising to discover my solution for sluggish performance was always to throw more physical resources at the problem. Faster processors with more cores; components overclocked to the hilt; as much memory as a board could handle; super-fast storage systems. You name it, I built, benchmarked and wrote about it.
This brute-force approach tended to solve most performance issues, but annoyingly made little difference to this particular problem. It seemed no amount of hardware tweaks or upgrades to a half-decent base system would make a significant difference to HD video editing, leading me to conclude the main problem wasn't with the hardware, but the software.
During my hardware struggles Microsoft released Windows 7 which seems to solve many of the performance issues facing Vista. Later Adobe released Creative Suite 5 (CS5), which included a brand new 64-bit version of Premiere Pro, claiming significantly improved performance and greater compatibility with DSLR video files. I decided to kill two birds with one stone and delayed my Windows 7 upgrade for the arrival of Adobe CS5. Once CS5 was available I took the opportunity to install both it and Windows 7 on a new Solid State Drive, SSD. See my SSD Capacity Guide for more details.
So I achieved three major upgrades in one blow: I went from running Adobe CS4 under Vista 64 bit on a traditional hard disk, to Adobe CS5 running under Windows 7 64 bit on an SSD. Note: I was using 64-bit versions of Windows Vista and 7 in order to support more than 4GB RAM, but it's also necessary for running Premiere Pro CS5 which is only available in 64 bit. I should however note my remaining hardware configuration remained exactly the same as before: a 3GHz Intel Core 2 Extreme QX9650 with 8GB RAM fitted into an Asus P5Q Deluxe motherboard with a Gigabyte GeForce 6600 GTS graphics card and hardware-accelerated RAID 5 array for storage.
First things first: I know I was now booting from an SSD rather than a hard disk, but Windows 7 really is inherently snappier than Vista. Previously I had to wait several minutes after booting Vista for its various caching to complete before it became usable, but now Windows 7 was ready for action almost immediately after logging-in.
The real transformation though was Adobe CS5. The interface of Premiere Pro CS5 may be essentially unchanged from its predecessor but under the hood it's a completely different beast. Native 64 bit code allows the application to access all your memory, while the new Mercury Playback Engine really does seem to eat HD content for breakfast. High bit-rate 1080p footage from cameras like the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, EOS 7D and EOS 60D played perfectly smoothly in the preview window while scrubbing in the timeline took place with barely a stutter. Working with AVCHD / H.264 footage in CS5 / Windows 7 felt like editing MPEG-2 in CS4 / Vista.
This was seriously impressive stuff compared to my previous installation, especially considering the CPU, chipset, memory and graphics were unchanged. Running the OS and application from an SSD certainly made everything feel snappier at startup, but the major difference in editing performance was down to software alone: the switch from CS4 under Vista to CS5 under Windows 7.
Premiere Pro CS5 has another neat trick up its sleeve: the ability to accelerate its Mercury Playback Engine using a compatible Nvidia GPU. These include numerous expensive Quadro CX boards along with the more mainstream GeForce GTX 470 and GTX 285.
Adobe claims greatly accelerated previews, renders and encodes, but you'll note I was using a much older GeForce 8600 GTS. I'd originally planned on doing a before and after comparison with one of the compatible cards (or a more affordable one 'hacked' to work with CS5), but the fact was I was already satisfied by the performance of my existing setup as it stood. I understand the hardware acceleration really comes into its own when editing projects with multiple streams or pro formats higher than 1080p (such as 4k or uncompressed), but for my projects involving one or two H.264 1080p streams, it honestly wasn't necessary.
Note: the hack mentioned above involves a modification to the Windows Registry which essentially tells CS5 it can exploit a different GPU. I've not tried it myself and can't help if you try it and it goes wrong, but various Adobe and hardware forums have reported success with GTX460 cards equipped with 1GB of memory, such as the Gigabyte GV-N460OC-1GI.
Significant boosts in PC performance traditionally demand switching key components or even entire systems, so it's refreshing to find the heroes of this story being software upgrades. Editing H.264 video with Adobe Premiere Pro CS4 under Windows Vista was an infuriating task which has been revolutionised with CS5 under Windows 7.
Windows 7 provides a much snappier OS to start with that's ready for action moments after logging-in, while Adobe's 64-bit rewrite of Premiere Pro CS5 handles HD content with supreme confidence and ease. In almost two decades of writing about computers, I can't think of a bigger boost in performance between consecutive versions of software. Overall, it's been one of my most satisfying and effective upgrades yet.
The amazing part for me was how I achieved the desired level of performance without upgrading the processor, chipset, motherboard, RAM or graphics. Sure I may have switched the boot hard disk for an SSD which resulted in snappier startups, but this made little impact on the improved editing performance which was simply down to better software.
My core PC specification may have been considered top-of-the-range when it was built, but that was back in late 2007. In PC terms, that's almost prehistoric now and reassuringly proves even systems which are several years old are perfectly capable of smoothly editing HD video with the right software. So long as you have a fairly quick quad core CPU with 8GB RAM, you should be fine.
The key is to install Windows 7 64-bit and Adobe Premiere Pro CS5. I realise Premiere Pro CS5 carries what seems like a high price tag, but remember it allowed me to achieve the results I was after without any hardware upgrades. Many people wouldn't think twice about spending the same or even more on upgrading their hardware to achieve a desired level of performance - and while that process may benefit other applications, it also involves far greater upheaval than simply inserting a series of discs, and in this instance it still wouldn't have delivered as good an experience for HD editing.
With Premiere Pro CS5 you're getting an extremely sophisticated and capable video editing package that's used by many pros in the industry. You can also make considerable savings by going for one of Adobe's Creative Suite bundles if you're interested in other applications like Photoshop CS5. Indeed for much the same price of Premiere Pro CS5 and Photoshop CS5 bought separately, you could buy CS5 Production Premium which includes both heavyweights along with After Effects, Illustrator, Flash, Soundbooth, On Location and Encore. Finally, if you already own a previous version, there's upgrade deals available, while those in education can enjoy significant discount. For all offers, please visit the Adobe store via our Support Us page.
Many of you may understandably be wondering if or when the performance benefits of Premiere Pro CS5's Mercury Playback Engine will filter down into more affordable programs like Premiere Elements. I can't say for certain, but since the Mercury Playback Engine requires a 64-bit operating system, not to mention a high-end GPU to further accelerate its performance, it seems unlikely we'll find it deployed in the mainstream Elements version for some time.
The bottom line is if you're thinking of upgrading your PC to smoothly edit HD video from a DSLR or camcorder, you should consider putting some or even most of your budget aside for software. So long as you've got a quad-core CPU with 8GB RAM, your hardware will already be good enough. Sure if you're buying a brand new system, then by all means go for the latest parts, but I'd strongly recommend not doing so at the cost of compromising on the right software. Premiere Pro CS5 running on a good PC will thrash lesser software running on a state-of-the-art model, and could end up costing you less overall too.
Discuss this article in the Cameralabs forums.
What's the smallest Solid State Drive you can get away with? See my SSD Capacity Guide.