December 6, 2021

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What You Need to Edit Sizzling Special Effects on Your PC

It’s never been cheaper or more accessible to learn how to do advanced special effects. With a laptop, a copy of Blender, and some YouTube tutorials, you can get started playing around with CGI yourself. Turning your hobby into a job, however, might require something more powerful than your trusty Macbook. Here’s what to look for.

Before we get to any hardware recommendations, it’s worth taking some time to consider what software you’ll be using and how the tools you use will affect the computer you need. We’ve already talked about the gear you’ll need to get into video production. Photo editing tools like Photoshop have different needs than video editing tools like DaVinci Resolve, while 3D modeling software like Blender or Cinema 4D can strain all the resources in your system in ways the others don’t. The first step in deciding what kind of system to build is to identify what it will be used for.

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Should I Get a Laptop or Desktop?

For starters, while it might seem like a complicated issue, with pros and cons for each, here’s the harsh truth: If you want a beefy F/X rig, you’re going to need a desktop.

Setting aside that comparably priced laptops are often less powerful per dollar spent, laptops are usually severely limited in upgradability. If you start to reach a limit on what you can do with a laptop, you can usually upgrade the RAM, but that’s about it. Outside of external graphics cards (which can be complicated), your laptop is mostly stuck with the specs it came with. That’s not such a huge sticking point if you have the money to upgrade, but if you’re on a budget, it’s worth taking the long view.

There are exceptions to the rule—see the Mac section below, for example—but unless you have a strong need to take your effects work on the road, a desktop is going to be your best investment in the long run. Not only will you have more powerful hardware available to you, but you can upgrade it piece by piece when you need to.

What About Windows vs. Mac?

With Apple’s recent shift away from Intel, this question got a lot more complicated. As recently as last year, it would’ve been hard to argue that you could get the same horsepower with a Mac that you could on a Windows machine. While there are some areas of the industry where Mac software is standard, if you were building a workflow from scratch on a budget, a Windows PC would’ve been the way to go.

That all changed (somewhat) when the M1 landed. Apple’s custom silicon is a performance powerhouse, even in its first generation. In head-to-head comparisons with tricked out PCs, Apple’s latest M1 laptops held their own on a per-dollar basis (meaning the more-expensive PCs were twice as fast but also cost twice as much). A strong argument could be made that if you want to get a powerful machine on a budget, Macs are the way to go.

That argument would have to come with several asterisks. For starters, while some pro software, like Adobe Photoshop and Premiere Pro, has been optimized for Apple’s new silicon, many applications haven’t. They still work through Rosetta 2, but this might negatively impact performance, which, when it comes to long render times, can really add up. Apple also hasn’t released anything more powerful than the M1, and while it’s a strong processor for laptops and the occasional iMac, there’s a higher performance ceiling on Windows machines if you’re willing to spend more money.