Editing raw video on a $900 Hackintosh (with $5000 Mac Pro levels of performance)

DaVinci Resolve

With the raw format becoming affordable for the first time this year (Blackmagic Cinema Camera, Red One, Ikonoskop) many aspiring filmmakers are considering taking advantage. But to edit raw you need to up the ante on the hardware side.

What is the most suitable (and affordable) editing rig for raw – Windows, Mac Pro or Hackintosh?

Why not get a Mac Pro?

First I must say that for professionals who need a reliable solution quickly, to go the Hackintosh route isn’t suitable. It is a risk whether it will work properly, a risk whether you have the expertise to make it work and a risk in terms of the time it could take to get it working reliably. For aspiring filmmakers though, the Mac Pro isn’t suitable because of cost / value. Apple effectively charge you $4000 for the operating system on a top of the range Mac Pro compared to the same hardware on a PC – way more than Apple premium on MacBook hardware running OS X. Mac Pro hardware is almost identical to common Intel and NVidia PC hardware costing many times less. Also there’s not been a major hardware update for the Mac Pro line since mid 2010, and this year’s update was very minor. There’s speculation the next Mac Pro may be the Apple product they plan to build in the USA next year but there’s no confirmed release date or specs yet. Resolve needs a NVidia CUDA graphics card and the latest Mac Pro uses ATI / AMD graphics and an extremely underpowered version at that. The situation is poor so Apple only have themselves to blame if people are embracing Hackintosh hardware.

Why not just use Windows?

This was the route I originally planned to go down. I chose a Dell XPS 8300 from eBay for just €600. However I found switching back and forth between two differently designed operating systems was inelegant (I use my MacBook Pro for everything else other than Resolve). On top of that, I am not a fan of the user interface design methods Microsoft employs, nor their approach to Windows 8. The last straw was reliability. Whereas in my experience Macs ‘just work’ I found myself dealing with Windows drivers, updates and strange bugs more often than I was actually editing. Windows works great for some people but I prefer OS X.

Enter stage left, MacHack

Let down by both Apple and Microsoft, I researched a third solution. A Mac Pro without the unattainable price tag. As a Macbook Pro user, the install files for the latest OSX – Mountain Lion were downloadable from the App Store since I’d already purchased it. I used UniBeast to install these on my PC. The disclaimer is that this is against the EULA (End User License Agreement) of OS X so not an officially supported solution.

All hail, Machack! That shalt be king hereafter

OK let me say right now – getting a Hackintosh to work is a bloody nightmare. If you plan on being up and running in a few hours for an important edit, forget it. You ideally need to set aside a whole weekend, stay up late, and don’t book any work for the next 2 weeks. OK I am being cautious and there is a 30% chance it will ‘just work’ but why risk your neck for it?

It starts simply enough.

UniBeast runs on your existing Mac / MacBook and installs the Mountain Lion files on a USB drive or SD card in a USB card reader which need be no more than 8GB.

Then you set your PC in the BIOS control panel to boot from this USB drive, and UniBeast boots into the Mountain Lion installer as if on a Mac machine.

Once the Hackintosh is 100% setup and optimised there really is no difference between the Mac Hack and the Mac Pro. Performance is absolutely superb, even better than what is possible on even the best off the shelf Mac Pro and a big step up from even the latest MacBook Pro Retina or iMac. But there are number of pitfalls to watch out for.

So with that in mind, here are some helpful pointers for jolting your frankenrig into life.

1. Don’t use an internal sound card

Get the Creative Labs Recon USB or Sound Blaster HD USB. These just work and offer great audio quality. Onboard motherboard audio is unstable. For internal Sound Blaster cards or similar you need the open source VoodooHDA drivers which are even more unstable and crash OS X with glee whenever given the chance. It allows the sound card to conflict with all manner of other drivers and hardware. It isn’t worth persevering with since USB sound solutions are so cheap.

Even the $20 Aureon Dual USB sound stick offered better audio quality than my MacBook Pro and a digital optical output and the Recon USB is a step up again. I’ve had no issues with lag or latency and Resolve works fine. You can even feed the optical digital audio out to an audiophile grade A/V unit and drive studio quality monitors through it.

2. Don’t scrimp on RAM

Memory is so cheap these days it isn’t worth cutting corners, especially when it comes to Resolve. Opt for a minimum of 16GB.

3. RAID hard drives together

Raw editing is demanding on drive performance. RAID allows you to configure multiple hard drives as one drive, and spread the read / write workload across them for better performance. External E-SATA NAS boxes are available but start by using all the available SATA ports on your motherboard and have 3 standard hard drives (as large as you can find) and 1 SSD. I recommend using the SSD for the main boot drive where OSX is installed. This doesn’t have to be large, 120GB will be just fine and very affordable at around $80. This increases the responsiveness of the computer and allows you to load apps quicker as well as boot the system quicker.

Editing raw off one internal hard drive won’t work unless it is an SSD and these are too small for editing more than an hour’s worth of raw footage. The solution is to buy three 3TB hard drives for $120 apiece and configure them in a “Striped RAID 0”. Disk Utility in OSX will allow you to set this up after the installation is complete. Performance is 3x that of a single hard drive and you can use the Blackmagic Speed Test utility (free in the App Store or with the camera) to check this. Just be aware that if one hard drive fails it takes the others with them so use it as a working drive and if possible keep a backup of your footage somewhere else.

Make sure each partition in the RAID is the same size, don’t for example mix 2TB and a 1.5TB drives or partitions, as this will result in many TBs of wasted space. The total RAID drive size can only be a multiple of the smallest drive.

I avoid the high RPM models (7200) on reliability grounds. A big cache makes a difference on the 5400RPM drives – look at the Western Digital red series NAS drives which have 64MB caches rather than the usual 8MB or 16MB.

4. Compress your raw archives after editing is complete

It isn’t feasible currently to archive hundreds of hours of raw footage. It simply takes up too much space. I recommend keeping the benefits of a raw workflow by recording in raw, but once the footage is edited and graded it is desirable to then convert the raw to one of the following formats:

  • ProRes 422 at 2400 x 1350
  • H.264 80Mbit ALL-I at 2400 x 1350
  • CineForm raw at 2400 x 1350

CineForm maintains the benefits of raw but in a more compressed format.

This isn’t a perfect solution and deleting master files forever may be hard to swallow, but it is simply the only feasible option for most Blackmagic Cinema Camera users.

5. Use MutliBeast to enable all hardware components in your PC

There are some essential apps for getting your Hackintosh up and running. MultiBeast installs drivers to enable hardware functionality. SystemInfo shows you what that hardware is. KextInstaller allows you to install the more obscure hardware drivers you downloaded from the internet which aren’t offered in MultiBeast.

6. Approach USB 3.0 with caution

OSX is fussy when it comes to USB 3.0 and it can cause you a lot of reliability hitches. My Dell motherboard USB 3.0 ports all fell back to USB 2.0 because the chipset is an Intel one and not supported in OS X. You need the NEC chipset and this can be had in the form of a PCIe controller card for as little as $20. With this you gain back a couple of USB 3.0 ports but risk reliability issues.

If you’re using USB 3.0 make sure Resolve is using its disk based database system not the open source Postgresql system which conflicts with the CalDigit / Lacie USB 3.0 drivers provided by MutliBeast, otherwise Resolve won’t get past the loading screen. Alternatives to USB 3.0 are E-SATA for external drives and Thunderbolt which the Blackmagic Cinema Camera can take advantage of too. However USB 3.0 hardware is far cheaper and external USB 3.0 drives are more commonly available.

7. Very important – get the right NVidia graphics card

The most important hardware component for smooth raw editing in Resolve is no longer the CPU. It is absolutely essential to get an NVidia graphics card, and a high end one. By high end I mean from the gamer / consumer line not the pro Quadro line which is somewhat outgunned for far less money by the gamer cards. NVidia have taken note of this and so there’s somewhat less performance improvement to be had from their latest GTX 6 series cards in CUDA. CUDA is a set of instructions which allows the brute force number crunching of the GPU to be used like a CPU programmable unit by software, not just 3D gaming. The older 5 series cards like the GTX 570 and 580 work superbly. They do however require more power and tend to have nosier fans. You may need to upgrade the PSU (power supply unit) of your PC if you opt for the most powerful 5 series cards. Most PCs have a mediocre 450 Watt PSU and ideally you need a high quality 600 Watt PSU for the GTX 580. Don’t just buy one based on wattage, is really is the quality of the power supply that matters as well.

The GTX 580 is double the price of the GTX 560 Ti which runs quietly and doesn’t require a more powerful than average watt PSU. However you can only get away with the most basic Resolve editing and grading with the cheaper card and it isn’t very future proof. It is better to opt for the GTX 580, 670 or 680.

With the latest GTX 670 and 680 cards you won’t see much of a performance increase over the 580, rather a reduction in power consumption and fan noise. The GTX 580 second hand will give you the most bang for buck when it comes to performance alone. The cards have various amounts of video memory from 1GB to 4GB. You can edit Blackmagic Cinema Camera raw with 1.25GB of video RAM but running Resolve and Premiere at the same time will require 3GB. For Red 4K raw 4GB is preferable.

8. Set the SMBIOS to Mac Pro 3.1

I found setting this to anything else was the recipe for OS X not even booting up. One of the apps that you use to configure the Hackintosh is called Chameleon. The SMBIOS setting is part of this. If any setting in here is causing the machine not too boot, it is helpful to unplug the SSD, put it in the other machine via a USB dock and edit the Chameleon configuration file.

9. Be armed with Google and a spare Mac

It’s reasonable to expect lots of obscure crashes when first getting the Hackintosh running. It is essential to have a spare machine which you can surf the internet on and access your Hackintosh boot SSD on via a USB dock. I found it very useful to have a USB external drive caddy which I could plug my Hackintosh SSD boot drive into and get at the system files from my MacBook Pro in order to delete any drivers that had caused kernel crashes during the boot sequence or reconfigure the Chameleon boot loader options.

10. Useful links

Getting started guide – use UniBeast to install OSX on your PC – http://www.tonymacx86.com/61-unibeast-install-os-x-mountain-lion-any-supported-intel-based-pc.html

Chameleon boot loader (configures the Hackintosh boot / BIOS settings) – http://www.osx86.net/view/3478-chameleon_2.2svn2138_kernelcache_support_…html

A guide to Multibeast (configures the common hardware drivers – ‘KEXT’ files) http://www.macbreaker.com/2012/08/multibeast-5-mountain-lion-guide.html

Important disclaimer: Installing OSX on a non-Apple computer is against the EULA (End user license agreement)