The MacBook Air as a Final Cut Pro video editing machine
Everyone is talking about the new MacBook Air that was announced by His Jobsness yesterday at Macworld 2008 in San Francisco. I think you’ll find that the majority of people’s initial reactions are not glowing and positive as is the buzz with most newly announced Apple products. Yesterday was a far cry from the fan fare surrounding the iPhone announcement last year at Macworld or even all-but-forgotten Mac Mini in ’05.
I’m a professional video editor so I’m going to be looking at the product from this specific professional point of view and trying to see where or if this could fit into any post workflow. Before you yell – yes, I do understand that this computer is clearly not “designed for” the video professional – but I still think it’s a fair question and no doubt one that will be asked. It’s not uncommon for a product designed for one thing to get adapted by a community and be used in ways the creators didn’t originally envision. I did, after all, go over a year using a Macbook (not Pro) as my main editing system at home even though Apple doesn’t officially support this for Final Cut before upgrading to a Mac Pro this year – and I cut some fairly high profile jobs on this with nobody knowing or caring. As for the MacBook Air – I haven’t seen one of these in person yet I’ve only seen the specs, the keynote, and the pictures but I’ll share my initial thoughts with you.
First – a quick glance. I’ll list the good and the bad, along with a score on a scale of 1 to 10 on how important that is for the video professional.
1. Ultra portable and really thin. (2/10 comment: the difference in size and weight between say a MacBook Air and a MacBook Pro is probably negligible to an editor)
2. Apple-chic – will get stares. (2/10 comment: most editors I know could care less what their equipment looks like)
3. Can extend desktop to a 1920×1200 external monitor (9/10 comment: more or less essential to have an option for extra workspace with any serious creative app)
4. The solid state drive option should blow away traditional hard drive speeds, but you pay for it. (7/10 comment: disk speed is huge to most professional editors, but not all DV editors would ever tell the difference)
5. Cool new gestures with the trackpad (3/10 comment: Will you be gesturing with Final Cut Pro? Probably not.
6. Fits in an envelope? (no comment)
1. Limited connections, NO FIREWIRE. (10/10 comment: this is probably a deal breaker for 95% of you out there)
2. Non existent upgradability – no user replaceable hard drive or ram like the Mac Books (8/10 comment: 2 gigs of ram isn’t bad, but definitely on the low end of what you’d want in an edit system)
3. No optical drive – installing software wirelessly sounds like a hassle (5/10: this effects probably any end-user equally. If you need to load something from a DVD, you need to use their other options)
4. Speakers are mono and apparently sound very thin (not surprising) (3/10 comment: not too huge as most laptop editors are probably using headphones or powered speakers)
5. No ethernet jack – but you can get an Apple branded USB external (2/10 comment: annoying, but no big impact on the video producer)
6. 4200 rpm drive on the stock option (7/10 comment: similar to my comment about the SSD drive – you’d like to see at least a 5400 if you’re editing, preferably a 7200 drive)
7. Pricey! Yikes! (9/10 comment: even professionals love deals. What reasons would someone pick this over a MacBook Pro – especially given the price difference?)
8. The battery is internal like an iPod (5/10 comment: annoying, to be sure – but probably not a huge deal to an editor)
Let’s tackle the first question that has already been asked on the forums – can this thing even run Final Cut Studio? My guess is that since spec wise it is more powerful than older G4 laptops that can run Final Cut studio and similar to my MacBook that is already running Final Cut Studio – then yes it should be able to install the software. You can forget about Motion and Color right off the bat as those applications have more demanding requirements for video cards and the MacBook Air comes with an Intel GMA X3100 graphics chip that just won’t cut it with those programs. But I see no reason why Final Cut Pro wouldn’t be able to install, launch, and run decently.
But now we have to talk about the biggest thing from a post production standpoint that Apple left out and that is the lack of a Firewire 400 or Firewire 800 port. As most hobbyist and DV editors know – firewire is crucial for getting your footage onto your computer. Without a firewire connection this results in what I would guess is about 95% of the Final Cut Pro user base having no ability to load footage onto this computer. Without this connection the only way you can work with media (on the fairly limited internal hard drive mind you) is to transfer it over. This is not that difficult if you’re shooting with a solid state camera such as the HVX200 or Sony PMW-EX1 and can bring it over USB (I think that’s how footage is transferred from these cameras but I’ve never used one) but it’s a hassle if you actually have to capture from another computer to use the MacBook Air. This is a glaring omission from the video editor’s point of view – yet not one that is shocking considering who this computer is clearly designed for. This makes it clear that Apple has no intention of marketing this product to editors as their higher end laptops give editors most everything they need and more. Again, I’m looking at this from the standpoint of someone who might be potentially thinking about this option as an editor and I am not making the argument that the decision to leave out firewire is bad or saying “shame on Apple” for doing it – I am however just pointing out how big a deal that is for someone who maybe had the thought that this would be something they could use with ease for editing.
Price would also factor heavily into one’s decision to buy a system like this and I think when you see how much the MacBook Air is and start to compare it to a computer like the MacBook Pro the choice becomes clear. For $100 less you can configure a MacBook Pro system with a larger screen (15″), a faster processor (2.2GHz Core 2 Duo), a faster and bigger hard drive (120gb 5400 rpm), a DVD superdrive, a much faster graphics chipset (NVIDIA GeForce 8600M GT 128MB), and all the ports you’ll need (Firewire 400, Firewire 800, ethernet, ExpressCard34, multiple USB). What are you losing with the MacBook Pro vs the MacBook Air? It’s just a little bigger and a little heavier – but that’s it.
Upon a thorough look – it is clear that the MacBook Pro is the computer of choice for the video editor. In fact, it’s pretty silly to even think that anyone at all will adopt the MacBook Air for this purpose when the MacBook Pro is there with a lot more features and a smaller price tag – but inevitably I’m sure it will happen and I’d love to hear your experiences with this setup when you do get it up and running and your decision on why you went with this.
I’ve been trying to figure out what application a computer like this might have in production where it would excel over a MacBook Pro and I’m having a hard time coming up with even one. Maybe as a lightweight and ultra portable screen for a teleprompter system – but even thinking of it as such is a stretch. Anyone else have any ideas? Please enlighten me with your thoughts!
Well that’s it – hope you enjoyed my thoughts on this. Again, I know that to some of you even opening up the discussion on this as a possible editing machine is probably high treason – but I think it’s always a fair question to ask and some people might not really know the details on exactly what this machine is lacking and how that would effect the editor. I’ll leave it up to the community though to take this product to a whole new level and do things with it I never thought was even possible.
Maybe I’ll take a look at the Modbook for video editing purposes in my next installment!