retina imac FCPX

I recently took delivery of a new iMac 27-inch with Retina 5K display. So what better opportunity to test it out than the hardest broadcast job I do all year. So how did it and Final Cut Pro X cope? The last two years were with a Mac Pro, would it be fast enough?

Every beginning of January, instead of nursing a hangover from the celebrations, I find myself in a quiet leafy part of Surrey. That is until 1300 fans turn up to make it one of the loudest and most fun sporting events of the year.

If this all sounds familiar, you'd be right. I have written about this job in 2014 when I was the first person to be handed a new Mac Pro to test out. I also wrote about it again in 2015 to see what had changed in a year.

So was I mad taking an iMac out on the road on a demanding broadcast job? Read on, I think you will be surprised.

 

The iMac arrived, a 4 GHz Intel Core i7 with the Radeon R9 M395X 4096 MB GPU with El Capitan installed. 

imac config

 

Out of the box, only 8 GB of RAM was installed, which wouldn't be enough for the intensive editing that I do. I ran the Crucial scanner to find out how much RAM I could fit in, 32 GB. This would involve removing the two 4 GB sticks supplied and installing four 8 GB sticks. 

imac config2

 

However, before I pushed the button on ordering the RAM from Crucial, after a bit of Googling I found out that the Kingston HyperX Impact 1866 MHZ DDR3L CL11 would be a better match. They were also in stock on Amazon, reduced from £120 to £69 per 16 GB.

 imac config6

 

Swapping out the RAM is a two minute job. Just rest the iMac on its screen, open the door at the back, flick a lever, replace the RAM, flick the lever back, put the door back on and you're done. No technical knowledge needed, but always good to make sure you are grounded before commencing the swap.

imac config5

 

The two main features that I was keen to look at were the GPU and the Fusion Drive. I know how fast Mac Pros can work so it would be interesting to see if the less powerful single GPU and the Fusion Drive instead of a SSD would make a difference.

The Mac comes with the new keyboard and mouse. I liked the Magic Mouse 2 as it is very similar to the original Magic Mouse. It is lighter with rechargeable batteries instead of having to carry two fat AA batteries inside. If you are like me, those batteries on the old mouse always seem to run out at the worst possible time. I've charged the new mouse a few times, but a full charge should last a month.

I still think with all the control surfaces out there, the Magic Mouse is the best and quickest tool for navigating around FCPX. 

imac config4

 

I'm not too sure about the new Magic Keyboard, it is very low profile and for editing work I like a separate number pad on the right hand side for bashing in timecodes an AP is shouting firing at me.

This wasn't an issue as I just plugged in one of my battle-worn Final Cut Pro X dedicated keyboards.

Powering the machine up, you are immediately struck how gorgeous the retina screen is. With a resolution of 5120 x 2880 and the ability to display 25% more colours than the traditional sRGB displays, the new P3 display on the iMac is stunning. More on that later when we get into editing.

imac edit1I had a spare day or two before Christmas and thought I'd build a few plugins that would be useful for the broadcast in the New Year. So why not try to stress test the graphics card with a bit of complicated 3D modelling?

As you can see from the screen grab, I built up a dart from circular font elements. The iMac performed well with no significant slow downs. Turning on motion blur had an impact on performance, but I'd expect that on a Mac Pro as well. 

One of the main advantages of Final Cut Pro X working with Motion templates is the fact that everything can be combined on an FCPX timeline and timed exactly to the frame.

There is no doubting After Effects is an amazing graphics tool, but it doesn't offer the flexibility on an NLE timeline to construct and time graphics quickly. Once you have your exported movie, nearly everything is baked in. 

We have all worked in the situation where an AP spots a better shot for a composite. By keeping things 'live' on the timeline you can make creative decisions right up to a deadline.

 

And so to the first day out on the job in an OB truck. The iMac fitted in nicely - You actually tend to forget it is a computer and think it is only a display! I think this machine is going to become the choice for a lot of editors on location edits as not only is the unit self contained, the footprint is small in a truck, hotel room or portacabin. 

 imac edit2

The only two extras were my trusty GTECH 8TB G RAID (That drive has gone around the world with me and not missed a beat) and my (I cannot live without) Anker USB3 hub and extension cable. With the USB connectors on the back, it is a real pain having to plug thumb drives in and out. Having the hub on the desk right in front of the AP helps a lot.

For monitoring, I was connected into the trucks matrix via the embedded HD SDI output of a Blackmagic Ultrastudio Express. 

 imac edit3

Good news and bad news here. After the first day of editing I noticed that I was getting a number of crashes. A bit of detective work led me to suspect the Blackmagic box, as toggling off the broadcast out in FCPX seemed to prevent any crashes. Ok, the crash dialogue box helped too!

imac edit4

 

One oddity is that with the broadcast output turned off, you can still get audio out of the Blackmagic box, but no video. This was the way I ended up working for majority of the time.

Whilst on the job, Blackmagic released two new versions of their Desktop Video driver, both didn't fix the issue. It is interesting that reading the info on their site, it looks like they have not written drivers for El Capitan yet.

The problem forced me into doing something I don't normally do when editing in a broadcast environment. Go fullscreen.

I was shocked how good the new display was, it was better quality than our broadcast output monitor in the racks! All the colours looked correct, it had great contrast and of course was as sharp as a 1920 x 1080 timeline could provide. 

That was it, the broadcast monitor was ignored from there on. One caveat here, the screen cannot display interlaced footage but as I was working on progressive timelines that wasn't a worry. You'll have to buy me a beer to hear my trick for getting a progressive sequence out of FCPX quickly and into an EVS for interlaced transmission.

On to the editing, how did the iMac perform when I've been used to a Mac Pro?

One word. Amazingly.

The Retina iMac is a quick machine, the timelines were still very smooth and you could skim over anything you liked in the browser or timeline. Multicam interviews were a breeze. A quick benchmark here for you.

 imac edit5

Take the above 3 minute multicamera interview. My edit assistant had already ingested the media from two Sony F5s and two Canon 5Ds. Audio was on both of the F5s, interviewer on one and two tracks of interviewees on the other. That is why there are two angles with green around them.

From start to finish, clocked and ready to play out in the EVS, the operation of syncing the clips, editing the piece, switching the angles, colour correcting the angles to balance, compressing and levelling out all the audio (to avoid spill) took just three quarters of an hour. Not even time for my tea to go cold!

Remember the dart built in Motion? I used that in the coming up sections each day that get voiced by the presenter. To speed things up, I rendered the dart out in ProRes 4444 and then built another plugin with the camera shake on the video. The text was also a stand alone title but as the dart title plugin was placed on top, the camera shake 'wobbled' everything. 

 

The longest process in building the coming up was finding the correct shots and then positioning a few of them so that the text didn't obscure things. As the building of the composite was within FCPX, I could rearrange or drop items very close to air to match the producer's new running order. Yes, the last dart player Ted Hankey did smash the lens!

The iMac was proving to be a very capable machine. Another example of speed was when we realised very close to air that a VT item was needed to show all the countries that different players originated from. It is a world championship!

A bit of a scrabble to find some flags, player shots, some bokeh overlay and 3D text and we had a piece ready to, fully rendered, clocked and in the EVS in 40 minutes with about 5 minutes to go before transmission. I think the presenter talked over the top of it, but I was too busy on the next item to watch! 

 

So what could you do with a bit more time? The Head to Head piece was cut in about three hours. The first hour was cutting the two multicam interviews down. It doesn't matter how fast your machine is, you still have to listen to interviews to get the editorial content correct.

One trick I use here is to put a marker on the multicam interview on the timeline at the start of every answer. This then makes a nice numbered log in the Timeline Index that I can click on when the AP says "Go back to answer 10."

The next two hours were spent adding the polish. Balancing the splits, adding the 3D text and 3D transitions and then adding the cover shots. I really like the fact that FCPX treats a multicam clip just like an ordinary clip, so doing a custom transition from one multicam clip to another isn't a problem. Plays in real time on the iMac too.

 

So, on to the conclusion. Gorgeous display, fast, small footprint & good value for money.

If you work in the 1080 land (let's face it most of the broadcast world is) then you will not be disappointed with the new Retina 27 inch iMac. The configuration I used is more than powerful enough for most jobs. The speed of the machine wasn't ever an issue, If i had to wait for a render, then it was a matter of a handful of seconds.

If you primarily work on compositing or heavy lifting of large formats, such as 4K, RED media or large background tasks, a maxed out Mac Pro might be the better choice. You won't get that great screen though!

I never said "I wish I had a Mac Pro." The Fusion Drive gave the impression that it was 2 TB of SSD, things were very quick to load. I have worked on lower spec Mac Pros with only 512 GB of SSD and that's not enough when partitioned into two for a Yosemite and El Capitan OS install. The 2 TB fusion Drive looked very easy to partition in the new look Disk Utility.

At just over £2250 for the spec and the addition of the RAM, this machine is amazing value for money. To think you can have three of these with displays for a maxed out Mac Pro is a bit of a no-brainer if you are the one who has to write the cheques.

I have since specified the iMac on a couple of upcoming outside broadcast jobs - I like it and the screen that much.

 

A few quick thank yous to Alison, Nairn, Kate, Tabitha, Dom, Aled, Dave, James, Mark, Miles, Ben, Chris, Ross and Tim.

  

peter wigginsPeter Wiggins is a broadcast freelance editor based in the UK although his work takes him around the world. An early adopter of FCP setting up pioneering broadcasts workflows, his weapon of choice is now Final Cut Pro X. You can find him on Twitter as @peterwiggins or as he runs the majority of this site, you can contact him here.