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Final Cut Pro X Performance Test
Iain Anderson on Tue, March 18th 8 comments
If you have the need for more speed in your FCP editing and rendering work, read this insightful real-world test by Iain Anderson comparing major Mac models across a number of FCP X tasks.

In a departure from our usual tutorials, today we’ll be taking a look at how fast FCP X can get on the latest equipment. We’ve got a new iMac, a new Mac Pro, and some older Macs too, and we’ll be putting them through their paces on real-world-ish 1080p and 4K workflows, all with 2 minutes of ProRes HQ source material sourced from the Blackmagic Production Camera 4K, used at original size (strictly speaking, 3840x2160) and also downscaled to 1080p. Lots of tables, a little discussion—and many thanks to Ben Balser for providing test results for three of his Macs. Let’s go!

Our Macs

  • Mac Pro 2013 (the brand new cylinder model 6,1 from late 2013): 3 GHz 8-core, dual D700s, Pegasus P2 16 TB Thunderbolt in RAID 5 for storage, 32 GB RAM
  • iMac 27” (top of the all-in-ones for now, model 14,2 from late 2013): 3.5 GHz quad core i7, GTX780 w/4GB, 2 x Seagate Backup Plus drives in RAID 0 for storage, 24 GB RAM
  • MacBook Pro 15” (a top mobile Mac, model 11,3 from early 2013): 2.6 GHz quad core i7, GTX750M, Pegasus P2 16 TB Thunderbolt in RAID 5 for storage, 16 GB RAM
  • MacBook Pro 13” (a cheaper mobile Mac, model 10,2 from early 2013): 2.5 GHz dual core i5, Intel HD Graphics 4000, 2 x Seagate Backup Plus drives in RAID 0 for storage
  • Mac Pro 2008 (the older model 3,1 from 2008): 2 x 3.2 GHz Quad-Core Intel Xeon, ATI Radeon HD 5870 internal secondary 1 TB SATA for storage, 16 GB RAM

Compressor Downscaled Export from 4K ProRes to 1080p ProRes HQ

The kind of thing you might do when converting masters from one format to another at the highest possible quality. Overkill for many of us, but the way we converted our original 4K footage to 1080p for these tests.

Pic 1
Table 1

Exporting a Master File

How long does it take to export a Master File, in ProRes format, with no rendering needed? This is important for archiving and if you want to compress to other formats from a single master.

Pic 2
Table 2

Exporting to H.264

How long does it take to export a full-size H.264 file? The 4K version is Master File set to H.264, while the 1080p uses the Web Hosting preset on Faster Encode. This is what you might send to YouTube or Vimeo, or give directly to a client for playback. You could work with it for re-editing if you had to.

Pic 3
Table 3

Export to Master File with Gaussian Blur

A test to see how quickly a single, simple effect can be applied during the export process. Note that exporting without rendering is almost always faster than rendering alone, let alone rendering and then exporting. During export, rendering is greatly accelerated.

Pic 4
Table 4

Export to Master File with Triple Effects (Directional Blur, Rain, and Underwater)

A test to see how quickly three more complex effects can be applied during the export process.

Pic 5

Note: MBP 13” results of 4310 (extrapolated) and 418 are just too painful to contemplate, and are omitted from the graph to keep the scale in check.

Table 5

Note: MBP 13” 4K extrapolated from time of 862 painful seconds to reach 20%. Just don’t.

Render Triple Effects

To show how long rendering on its own takes compared to simply exporting without rendering.

Pic 6

Note: MBP 13” results omitted from the graph to keep the scale in check.

Table 6

Note: MBP 13” 4K results extrapolated/inferred. Don’t do it.

Motion Atmospheric—Open (1080p)

A raw speed test for Motion fans, opening the preset and timing a RAM Preview.

Pic 7
Table 7

Compressor Encoding

Compressing a 4K file using the Video Sharing 4K preset, and a 1080p file using the Apple Devices HD preset (both single pass).

Pic 8
Table 8

Conclusions

First: Is it worth rendering before exporting? Not usually. Background rendering is still useful if your Mac won’t play back a sequence without rendering first, and if your Mac is idle, there’s little harm in letting it do its thing. Still, it’s not worth waiting for a render before you export, because render + export of a rendered timeline is almost always slower than simply exporting. One strange exception: the older Mac Pro (and only that Mac) was faster to export after rendering on 4K footage on the three-effect test. Curious.

Second: It seems that the hardware encoding support that so greatly speeds up H.264 single-pass encoding on most modern Macs doesn’t work on the Mac Pro. The dual GPUs don’t quite compensate for dedicated hardware accelerated export in the consumer CPUs, but they’re great at everything else.

Third: Storage speed matters, and a Fusion Drive is faster to write to than a pair of nearly-full USB3 drives stuck together in RAID 0. One example: the 37 seconds exporting 1080p to RAID 0 was just 31 seconds to a Fusion Drive. For maximum speeds, keep your active files on a fast solid state drive or Thunderbolt RAID, but also bear in mind that the Pegasus 2 Thunderbolt RAID tested here is among the newest and therefore fastest devices available. That means that if your drive is fast enough, a top-end MacBook Pro can be faster than a top-end iMac.

Fourth: When the rendering gets tough, a Mac Pro can be much faster than an iMac, which is much faster than a MacBook Pro. Simpler workflows don’t really tax these Macs enough, so other factors like storage speed become the bottlenecks. Different collections of effects will have different bottlenecks, so expect mileage to vary quite a bit. (For example, on the triple effect test, the new Mac Pro and MacBook Pro are much faster than the iMac on the 1080p test, but at 4K, the Mac Pro is barely ahead and the MacBook Pro is way behind—odd indeed.)

Fifth: Older integrated GPUs, like the HD 4000 in the 13” MacBook Pro, really struggled with anything more than simple workflows, but were OK at straight H.264 exports, even beating the Mac Pro on some tests.

Sixth: If you have an older Mac Pro, it’s probably worth an upgrade. Even a modern iMac or MacBook Pro will definitely outclass it with a decent storage solution. CPU is far from the only factor at play these days.

Final Words

Benchmarks are only useful when they can speed up your workflow. By knowing what kind of editing you’re doing, you can judge whether your work falls mostly on the simple or the complex side of the fence. Personally, I work in 1080p, use a fair few titles and have at least one effect on every clip, for color correction. I need grunt, but I export to H.264 a lot, so an iMac is probably a good choice. I’d be waiting for a MacBook Pro, but I’d need a Mac Pro for higher resolutions. Your mileage may very well vary.

If your editing needs are on the more moderate side, an iMac or a MacBook Pro can be sufficient, but if you’re tackling 4K, then a Mac Pro will be the way to go. And don’t discount the impact of a fast storage system—all of these tested Macs are using storage faster than a single external spinning drive. Best of luck!

Comments (8)

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  • bp
    This is incredible, by far the most helpful and relevant test for my purchase. I am not in the 4k world yet, although that could change very fast, but right now I am most concerned with editing things that needed to be done yesterday... 1080p from AVCHD, and I am stuck with a 2011- 21.5" iMac. Question, I am leaning towards the iMac 27" for the first time after seeing this test, as I was on my way to purchase a top of the line mackbook pro 15" and monitor. So, after ruling that out, if I only upgraded a 2 things from the basic model 27", what should they be? 1. i7 from i5 2. Fusion or Flash from the ATA storage 3. NVIDIA GeForce GTX 780M 4GB from the 2GB 4. RAM (probably will do this after). What is most important if I had to pick 2 to keep the cost down (I will be getting a mac pro as soon as my clients need 4k)? Also, is the Promise Thunderbolt that much better than competitors? If I am used to Standalone G-tech Thunderbolt (4TB), what should be my entry into RAID and why should I make the jump?
    • 5 years ago
    • By: bp
    Reply
  • Iain Anderson
    Author here, glad you found it helpful. The MacBook Pro 15" is pretty competitive with the iMac on most tests, but it falls behind when the going gets really tough. I have the iMac myself, though I've upgraded to a 4-bay RAID since this test was run with a 2-external-drive USB3 RAID, and though speeds are better now, I can't quantify or compare because FCP X itself has been upgraded since we ran these tests. For the others, I'd definitely order a Fusion drive first. Flash is very fast, but I always find myself running short of space; there are too many things which expect to be on the system drive and can only be moved with difficulty; I did that with my older Mac Pro and it was always a hassle. Next, probably the GPU. The extra RAM will help if you want to use Resolve but is unlikely to make a huge difference in other apps, but bear in mind a Mac Pro will do much, much better in very heavy tasks. CPU, not sure. Probably look at barefeats.com for really thorough comparisons. Not a hugely expensive upgrade, though. RAM can be done later, and you don't need to max it out. I've only got 24GB in mine and it hasn't given me any trouble. There's a review of a competing RAID box coming soon here. You can expect speeds of over 600MB/s with a 4-bay Thunderbolt RAID like the OWC ThunderBay IV, and you'll get less than half that with a 2-bay RAID. If you're pushing lots of streams of multicam video, then yes, it makes a difference, but if your main task is copying to or from a slower drive, it may not matter so much.
    • 5 years ago
    • By: Iain Anderson
  • awm
    Hi I am in similar boat. Just bought new 27" IMAC and considering what RAID to buy. I want speed but stop short of moving up to Macpro. I agree mostly with the author. But do what you have to do to get i7 CPU, 3TB Fusion drive (for space/speed) and 4GB video ram (effects and drive monitor). I have 16GB RAM now and can upgrade easily later if I have to. You dont have to have all these options but if you are getting a new tool you might as well just get the best possible for now and future. So far looks like a 4 drive Thunderbolt RAID 5 is where I am going to but not sure yet about the manufacturer.
    • 4 years ago
    • By: awm
  • awm
    I looked around for true scientific comparison and your article is one of the better ones, top 3 really for just getting a good snapshot without too much or too little detail. However I have some questions or comments. I am not an expert but hopefully you can shed some more light on these items for me and others. 1) Yes or no: Compressor uses GPU acceleration on IMAC? MacPro? 2) Yes or no: Your tests above employ CPU acceleration (via Quick Sync) on IMAC but not on Macpro because there is no CPU h/w acceleration with macpro. So are your tests single pass or multi pass encoding ?(quick sync only works with singe pass). 3) is there relevance in asking the question about the final image quality? I guess CPU acceleration produces worse image quality ( as opposed to s/w acceleration)? 4) Can you quantify your new Pegasus Raid against the 2 USB 3.0 drives right now, similar but not identical to your tests above, but only for IMAC? ( I have a new IMAC) ( I know you said you cant "go back" but can you just give an estimate right now with your existing setup?) 5) Can you give an estimate of the relative fan noise on Macpro vs IMAC when undergoing max transcoding? (ballpark is ok, eg 25% less, or 50% more, etc) 6) How would Adobe Media Encoder roughly compare to these results? (take a guess is ok) thanks very much
    • 4 years ago
    • By: awm
    Reply
  • awm
    I submitted a comment and questions 2 days ago which you did not approve yet. Are the comments here for show only or are you really interested in having a discussion. If its for show you just indicate that comments are closed and stop the pretense.
    • 4 years ago
    • By: awm
    Reply
  • Rounik Admin
    Hi awm, Sorry about that. We moderate all comments before they are posted to check for spam or inappropriate language. Normally we approve posts within a few hours.
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Rounik Admin
    Reply
  • Iain Anderson
    Hi - Lots of questions, I'l do what I can to answer them. 1. I'm pretty sure Compressor doesn't use the GPU, but can't be sure. 2. QuickSync is CPU (not GPU) acceleration that's on consumer CPUs only, so the Mac Pro can't do it. Yes, QuickSync has to be single pass. 3. I have a hard time picking one as better than the other. Comparison here: http://www.macprovideo.com/hub/final-cut/sharing-the-highest-quality-online-video-from-fcp-x 4. I have a ThunderBay IV myself; my colleague had the Pegasus. Roughly, I'd say it's double the speed of two USB3 drives. 5. I don't have a Mac Pro to check against, I'm sorry. You can hear the iMac spin up its fans during load, but it's not that bad. 6. Not a heavy AME user these days. Apparently AME does use CUDA hardware acceleration, but it's going to be a tricky test. I've found FCP X exports faster than Premiere as a rule.
    • 4 years ago
    • By: Iain Anderson
    Reply
  • lcotler
    Great article. Thought provoking. I think I'm going to buy topoftheline iMac primarily for FCPX. Currently, I use a 17" MBP. But it is slowing down more and more. Why? Spinning rainbow makes editing a drag. Send some advice my way. Thanks!
    • 4 years ago
    • By: lcotler
    Reply
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