I get this question a lot: "What computer should I get for Adobe After Effects?"
I recently got a new computer and, as a heavy After Effects and Premiere Pro user, I took special consideration to pick components that are geared towards video editing and visual effects.
Before I get into too much detail, here is a quick VLOG I did on my new computer and why I chose the parts that I did:
While I answer a number of questions in the video above, let's break it down! What exactly is the best computer for After Effects?
One of the main problems with 'the best' is that it is also (usually) 'the most expensive'.
Sure, 128GB of RAM is better than 16, an SSD will read/write faster than an HDD and yes, that Geforce GTX 980 would indeed leave a GTX 240 in the dust.
But with improved performance comes increased cost and you have to ask yourself 2 fundamental questions whenever you look at buying a new computer or upgrading your existing machine:
If either of those questions is 'no', maybe you should look at pulling back your specs a few notches to stay within your needs and your budget. There are thousands of options and variations for the same components and as long as you keep some of the important aspects from this article in mind, you should be able to figure out what 'the best' computer for visual effects and film making is that suits your budget.
Let's take a look at the most important components of a computer that is geared towards film making and visual effects with tools such as After Effects, Premiere Pro and similar.
If you are mainly looking at working in After Effects, a strong CPU is the most important component you can get. While After Effects does support CUDA technology and utilises your GPU's processing power to help out with rendering, the majority of the work still resides with your CPU.
A strong, multi-core processor should be the first item on your list. I used to use an Intel i7-2700K running at 3.5Ghz and have now upgraded to an Intel i7-4790K running at 4Ghz. There are other great quad-core CPUs available both from Intel and from AMD and you should be able to find something that suits your budget.
Remember that most of the work in After Effects is previewing and rendering effects and most of that work will be performed by your CPU. It pays not to be stingy when you are looking for a processor.
Let's be honest: After Effects and Premiere Pro are RAM eating monsters!
You might get away with 4GB of RAM, but once you start to create more complex visual effects with a myriad of different layers your computer will likely start to struggle.
I recommend going with at least 8GB of RAM if you are planning on using After Effects for anything other than animating text. Personally, I currently use 16GB of Ripjaws DDR3 1600 RAM. Higher frequency is better, but remember that the max supported frequency is also bound by your CPU and your FSB (front side bus) on the motherboard.
While most motherboards now have it, make sure it has a 'multi-channel' architecture. This sounds really fancy but all it means is that there are multiple connections between your RAM and the rest of your system, allowing more data to flow to/from your RAM modules.
RAM is very important when dealing with memory hungry beasts like After Effects or Premiere Pro, but make sure the rest of your system can support whatever you decide on sticking int it.
The next most important part of a computer for After Effects, in my opinion, are your hard drives. If you can afford it I would recommend going with SSDs instead of your standard HDDs. If you haven't heard of SSDs yet, they are called solid state drives and they do not contain any spinning disks that magnetic read/write head needs to navigate. They work more like (long term) RAM and they are significantly faster than your standard hard disk drives.
Why does this matter for After Effects or Premiere Pro?
Both After Effects and Premiere Pro both need to stream all media from your drive for previewing and rendering. They also generate a large number of cache files (for previews and partial renders) that they deposit on your disk to speed up playback. The faster your hard drives are, the faster After Effects and Premiere Pro can read and write this large amount of data and you will notice a definite performance increase if you are upgrading to SSDs.
I have two SSD drives in my computer: one SanDisk Extreme 256GB for my OS and one SanDisk Extreme III 480GB for all my media and working files. I have opted to split my OS and my working files so that my computer can stream the data used for program processing and media operations in parallel.
Now that might seem excessive, but if you are strapped for cash I would recommend at least getting one SSD to place your media and cache files on if you are working with After Effects and Premiere Pro.
While a strong graphics card is advisable for running After Effects, I believe that it is - in comparison - of lesser importance. Most of the hard work is performing calculating and rendering and that is primarily the domain of the CPU.
However, NVIDIA has introduced a number of technologies over the years that programs like After Effects and Premiere Pro leverage to deliver faster performance.
One of these technologies is CUDA. CUDA enables the GPU to perform general purpose operations and allows programs to offload some processing from the CPU onto the GPU. Most modern NVIDIA cards are CUDA enabled, including the new card that I decided to go with, an NVIDIA Geforce 760OC with 2GB of memory.
If you have some spare cash you might want to consider getting an NVIDIA Quadro card instead of a Geforce. The Quadro graphics card are built for CAD and DCC operations rather than raw framerate throughput predominantly required for gaming. In short, Geforce is better for gaming, Quadro is better for 3D programs or video processing. Good Quadro cards however are a little bit pricier than their Geforce equivalent and as an avid gamer I decided to stick with the Geforce moniker.
After Effects plug-ins such as Element 3D and tools such as Cinema 4D and 3D Studio Max use OpenGL for rendering real-time previews and they will benefit from a powerful graphics card whether it's a Geforce, a Quadro or a Radeon model.
I like purchasing gaming motherboards for my builds simply because they tend to be capable of managing a fairly heavy workload with a lot of media being pushed around and have a strong focus on raw computational power. My previous motherboard was a Gigabyte Z68P-UD3R and I have upgraded to an Asus Z97 Mark 2. Both are fantastic motherboards that I can recommend.
Besides the CPU socket support - which is crucial if you want to be able to plug your CPU in - and the right DIMM slots for your RAM, I always look at the SATA connectors available when choosing a motherboard. SATA II transfer rates maxes out at 3Gb/s and SATA III doubles that with a maximum of 6GB/s. If you are using standard HDD drives, then 3GB/s will be more than sufficient, but because I have two high speed SSDs I always pick motherboards that offers at least two SATA III 6Gb/s connectors. I want to avoid potentially creating a bottle neck on my SSDs due to a slow SATA connection.
Note that even with a fast SSD it is fairly unlikely that you will ever fully saturate a 6Gb/s SATA III connection.
The core components of a computer for Adobe After Effects are the CPU, memory, hard disk drives and the graphics card. It is always a balance between what you actually need and what fits within your budget. With the myriad of manufacturers, versions and variants it might take a little bit of time and research effort, but you certainly can find out what 'the best' computer for After Effects is for you.