8K video is here, but can your PC handle it? Here are the specs you need for ultimate media production.
Andrew LanxonEditor At Large, Lead Photographer, Europe
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
The launch of Samsung's Galaxy S20 Ultra and Note 20 Ultra as well as Canon's EOS R5 show one thing: 8K video is going mainstream. Packed with pixels, videos shot at this resolution can offer tons of opportunities for post-production, not to mention crystal-clear footage when viewed on compatible
But 8K files are big and stuffed with more data than most of today's computers are properly able to handle, which means it may be time for a new editing system. A top-spec 8K-capable machine won't come cheap (our test build was over $7,000) and would be overkill for many creators who don't work with 8K footage. But those who are able to offer 8K production to clients will have an advantage over those who are still getting to grips with 4K. And charging a premium for the extra demands of an 8K workflow means that a system like this could eventually pay for itself.
But what components are going to work best? Is a maxed-out CPU better than tons of RAM? What's the best GPU to handle Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve? I set out to build a system that would be able to chew through tomorrow's increasingly demanding media without breaking a sweat.
Building for big files
Our desktop PC needs to easily cope with editing 8K video. But more than that, it needs to be able to handle raw 8K footage from both prosumer cameras like the new Canon EOS R5 and pro cameras like the Red Helium. It has to handle huge file sizes and complex projects, running real-time effects on 8K footage without using proxy files, lower resolution versions of your video clips that are easier to edit. It needs to be future-proof for at least the next couple of years.
It needs to also be able to handle other media tasks, too. Many video producers need to also produce still images, while many still photographers are finding it necessary to incorporate video production into their work. So it needs to be an all-round media-munching powerhouse, able to chew through 8K workflows as well as it can handle complex layer work in
I also want it to be a demon when it comes to
, too. Because it can't all be work, can it? Many producers will have these systems in their home offices -- particularly when the coronavirus has forced many to work from home -- so by having a powerful gaming rig at home means money saved on not forking out for the next Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5.
The best PC hardware for video and photography
Before choosing the right components, it's important to know what the different pieces of software need to run well. While Adobe and others give "suggested" system requirements in order to be able to run software at an acceptable level, there's little official information on what you should buy in order to run the software like a beast.
I first started designing my dream system using information from US-based PC builder Puget Systems, which publishes a wealth of information about components and benchmarks.
Let's start with the CPU. Neither Premiere nor Photoshop scale well with a higher number of processor cores beyond a certain threshold, instead working better with fewer, faster cores. For example, the AMD Ryzen 9 3950 X 16-core processor was "the fastest CPU" custom PC builder Puget Systems had tested for Lightroom Classic and Photoshop (as of November 2019) and was called "terrific" for both Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve Studio. It outperformed pricier AMD processors that had 32 cores, but with slower clock speeds.
Don't forget the GPU. Both Premiere Pro and DaVinci Resolve will benefit greatly from a higher-end GPU with plenty of VRAM. Photoshop, however, only uses the GPU for a handful of specific effects (including blurring, sharpening and using Camera Raw). For handling 8K footage, at least 10GB of VRAM is recommended.
Titan RTX was consistently a top performer on Puget's tests for media production and with a whopping 24GB of GDDR5 VRAM, it more than meets requirements here. It'll also be a monster when it comes to gaming. Nvidia has recently launched the new RTX 3090 graphics card: I'm yet to test this, but its biggest improvement seems to be in gaming prowess, rather than media production.
Moreover, Nvidia works closely with companies like Adobe, RED and BlackMagic to optimize its cards -- and their software -- through a program it calls Nvidia Studio. Nvidia's RTX series of graphics cards are specifically built with 8K production in mind, so a powerful card like the Titan RTX was a no-brainer for this build.
Max out the RAM. My assumption has always been "the more RAM, the better," and it turns out I'm absolutely right. For working with 8K video in Premiere, 128GB of RAM is recommended. Similarly, at least 64GB is suggested in Photoshop if you're working with huge document sizes. I regularly work with enormous files, having over 40 full-resolution (30.4-megapixel) raw images open as layer stacks at once, each with masks and effects applied.
Budget for plenty of storage. Traditional hard drives are slow, which means that reading and writing massive 8K files via Premiere can be a real bottleneck for your speed. NMVe SSD cards offer massively improved read and write speeds, but also come at a significantly higher price. A good solution then is to use multiple drives -- a fast SSD for installing Windows, along with a larger, cheaper HDD for your archives and general storage which doesn't need to be constantly accessed, especially if you'll be dealing with terabytes of files.
But because I'm in the UK, I took what I learned from my hypothetical Puget build and worked with Nvidia and UK-based PC builder Scan.co.uk to put together a comparable machine that would be a powerhouse for video production, for photography and also for gaming on the side. The rig was provided on a loan basis by Scan for the duration of the testing for this piece and some testing with 8K-capable devices. Here's what we went with:
CPU: 16-core AMD Ryzen 9 3950X
GPU: Nvidia Titan RTX
RAM: 128GB, 3,200MHz
Storage: 2TB Corsair MP600 PCI-E 4.0 NVMe M.2 SSD (4.95GB per second read speed, 4.25GB per second write speed) plus a 2TB Seagate Barracuda HDD (7,200rpm)
RoG STRIX X570-E, with high-speed USB3.1 type-C connectivity for connecting external drives.
Case: Corsair Carbide 678C ATX, offering up to six slots for expansion with additional storage as needed.
I paired all this with a super comfortable, wireless
Logitech MX Master
keyboard and mouse, my existing 27-inch
monitor, along with production
including a BlackMagic Atem Mini Pro live streaming switching deck and a
Intuos Pro graphics tablet.
Buying vs. building yourself
Unless you're an experienced expert with a deep knowledge of the components you're working with, it might be worth buying a PC through a professional PC-building firm. I'm certainly no expert, but I've cobbled together a couple of
in my time. I approached them basically like Lego, clicking the parts together and pressing the on button.
While I'd done a ton of research about what components I'd need for the tasks they'd be performing, I had little expertise on how well they will all work together. Are they all compatible? Will they be supported by the motherboard? Will the power supply be enough to run it all? Will they all fit in the case? That's where a lot of DIY system builders run into trouble.
But the biggest risk for me is in the building. Even a small mistake could damage components or ruin them altogether. With the cheap PCs I'd built before that wouldn't be a huge disaster, but a clumsy mistake in putting this rig together could be extremely costly.
Builders should be able to put the system together safely, ensuring that everything is optimized, from the airflow for cooling to the BIOS settings and the software on the machine. They should also stress-tested the machine once it had been built to ensure it's running exactly as it's supposed to.
The company you buy from is also likely to offer some kind of after-sales service to help solve any problems that may occur. Scan, for example, offers a three-year warranty on its builds, which is a great peace of mind, considering the initial high price.
Using the new PC
While I have the PC, it'll be replacing my 2017 MacBook Pro, which has a 3.1GHz, quad-core
Core i7 processor, Intel HD graphics and 16GB of 2,133MHz RAM. It's been a good sidekick, handling moderately demanding image editing in Photoshop reasonably well. But I've noticed a real slowdown, particularly when working with many layers in Photoshop and it struggles with working with 4K footage in Premiere. It's not helped by the fact that the 500GB SSD is always running out of space.
Once the machine arrived, it was time to power it up and see what it's like. In real-world use, I found the desktop to be superbly capable. It easily tackled editing 6K raw footage from BlackMagic's 6K Pocket Cinema Camera and 8K raw footage from both Canon's EOS R5 and the Red Helium (using test files from Red's website) without much noticeable slowdown, even with real-time effects and stabilizing taking place. It's extremely stable and I've found I've had no trouble in continuing to work in Photoshop while big video projects export in Premiere. For busy media producers jumping between tasks, this thing is a dream.
I've found it super capable for livestreaming while photo editing in Lightroom and Photoshop, using BlackMagic's ATEM Mini Pro streaming deck and OBS livestreaming software.
It perhaps should go without saying, too, that it's an absolute monster for gaming, handling games like Project Cars 3, Red Dead Redemption 2, Forza Horizon 4 and Control on max settings while still maintaining extremely smooth frame rates. Control, for example, played at a steady 40 frames per second at 4K resolution, with all settings on maximum and with ray tracing enabled. Nvidia's more recent RTX 3080 cards will be even faster than the Titan RTX for gaming.
Is it worth the money?
£6,000 for a PC is a lot of money in anyone's book. But a machine like this is an investment and potentially a very smart one for creators who want to upgrade their workflow to include 8K. And 8K will eventually barrel its way into all our lives like an out-of-control steam locomotive. It's not just a novelty for people who can afford the astronomical prices for a Red cinema camera, it's here on prosumer DSLRs from Canon. Hell, it's even on our
This system has been built very much with 8K video in mind, so still photographers who don't work at all in video could probably save themselves a sizable chunk of money and go for a more modest system. Similarly, if you do work in video but 8K production isn't on the cards, then spending this much on a system is overkill. You could get away with half the amount of RAM, a smaller (and cheaper) SSD drive for installing software and a much lower-end graphics card, all of which will save hundreds off the final price.
But creators who are able to offer 8K production to clients will have an advantage over those who are still coming to grips with 4K. And charging a premium for the extra demands of an 8K workflow means that a system like this could eventually pay for itself.
My tips for building your own PC
Use a professional PC builder
I highly recommend using a pro builder like Puget, Origin PC, Digital Storm, Maingear or Falcon Northwest in the US, or Scan in the UK. Not only will they be able to advise on what you'll specifically need from a PC, depending on what you're planning to do with it, but they'll be able to safely build and test it for you.
Having a custom build like this means you're only spending money on the components that are going to make the biggest difference for the tasks you're doing. An off-the-shelf build is designed to suit a broader audience, which may include upgrades to areas that you aren't likely to notice. That said, be wary of the upsell.
Understand what components you need
If you mostly just want to browse the web and casually edit some of your iPhone pics in Lightroom, you don't need to spend a lot on a PC. Far from it. Take the time to think about what you need from a computer and then look at what components might be best.
Future-proof as much as possible
Technology moves quickly and today's powerhouse PC will be tomorrow's average system. If you build a PC now that only hits the "minimum" specs of the software you're using then its usable life will be shorter before you have to spend more to upgrade the components. It's worth investing a little more in your system now to avoid it becoming obsolete too quickly. Again, this is something you can discuss with a pro building company.