More Premiere Pro CS5 trials
After watching Chris Fenwicks presentation about the benefits of Premiere Pro over Final Cut I felt inspired to give adobe’s NLE another look and run a few more tests for myself.
After spending a few hours trying various things I ended up with a lot of questions and made some discoveries which might be of interest…
Before going too much further I must point out that I’m still running the free trial version of Premiere for these tests, the full version might perform differently and include further bug-fixes / enhancements. I should receive my master collection CS5 upgrade tomorrow so I’ll be able to use the full version after that.
Anyway lets continue…
The magic Mercury Playback Engine
Premiere Pro uses something called the Mercury Playback Engine (MPE) to display video content. Think of the MPE as Adobe’s quicktime in that it’s the core technology they use to decode all video codecs and display the content along with any changes or effects you apply. Where the MPE is a bit special though is that it can utilise the amazing graphics processing performance that’s built in to todays super powerful graphics cards.
The card shown above is the very sporty looking ATI Radeon 5870HD, this is the card I have in my Mac Pro and is currently the top end card that apple supply in their Mac Pro’s. As pretty and powerful as this card may be though it’s a bit of a lame duck when it comes to the Mercury Playback Engine. The technology that the MPE requires on the graphics card is something called CUDA cores and unfortunately this technology is currently only available on certain Nvidia cards, ATI cards just won’t cut it.
To make matters worse, you can’t actually configure a new Mac Pro with an nvidia card at present so even if you’re buying a new mac to run Premiere Pro you’re going to need to swap cards to enable MPE hardware support after it’s delivered.
There are actually very few GFX card options available that will provide the required CUDA cores for mac users. The only card that’s listed currently on the apple store that will provide the CUDA goodness is the nvidia quadro fx4800.
Buy the Quadro fx4800 on the UK apple store today and you would say goodbye to a whopping £1,499! Okay so it’s a lot of money but whats more important for me at the moment is that this card is getting old and is soon to be replaced. The card is also lacking the mini-display ports required to run my apple monitors so I would need to either buy new monitors or converter boxes. DVI – Mini Display converter boxes run at around £150 each and to be honest seem a messy way to solve a problem that shouldn’t exist.
Nvidia have also recently announced the Quadro 4000 for the mac. This new card is supposed to be available from apple this month and is reported to knock the socks of the fx4800 and come in at a more reasonable price to boot. At present it’s not listed in the apple UK store so I can’t get an exact price but it is expected to cost around $1,100 in the US. How that converts to £’s is anyones guess.
The nvidia website also states that the card comes with one display port and a converter is included to downsize that output to a mini displayport connector. For now I guess it’s just a waiting game to see if and when the card is listed on the apple store.
The only other option I’ve found is to use one of the now outdated Geforce GTX285 for mac cards that apple used to supply. Although a lot less powerful than the cards already mentioned the GTX285 still provides the essential CUDA cores that the MPE requires and by all accounts performs really well in general use too. The GTX285 is also lacking mini display ports though so again you would need a converter box to use apples latest displays.
These cards are no longer available on the apple store and I’ve not been able to source any other retailers that still stock them. Even Nvidia’s website no longer lists them as available to buy so the only option would be to purchase a used one. Looking on ebay turns up a lot of cards in the US listed as the mac version which are actually hacked versions of the PC cards, that’s not something I would feel comfortable purchasing or relying on in my Mac Pro though.
Software based Mercury Playback Engine
You don’t actually need an appropriate GPU for the MPE to work, it also runs in software mode if Premiere cannot locate the hardware and utilises the system processor/s instead. My Mac is pretty highly specced, it’s a 12-core 2.93Ghz machine with 16GB of RAM and an SSD system drive. As far as Macs go, it’s pretty much top spec at the moment. So how well does Premiere perform in software MPE mode?
I’ve been running a few tests this morning with some DSLR footage and it certainly outperforms FCP when it comes to editing native Canon EOS h.264 on the timeline. I could drag the clips on to the timeline and they would play back as smooth a silk, I could even layer a few clips and they still played back without problem, although I did have to change the preview settings to ‘1/2 resolution’ to stack more than three clips.Where I did start to run in to a problem though was with colour correction.
Even with a single 1080p DSLR clip on the timeline, if I apply adobe’s 3-way colour corrector the system was not able play the output back smoothly. Interestingly the CPU’s do get used to their full potential (see that apple!) but this still isn’t quite enough raw power to give premiere the ability to apply the colour corrector fluidly in real time. Of course I could render the clip but that would make this whole test pointless. If I transcode the footage to ProRes I can easily apply a 3-way in FCP without the need to render, the whole point here is to work on the DSLR footage without the need to render or transcode it.
So from my tests it appears even though I’ve got this super powerful Mac Pro it’s not going to be able to perform sufficiently well with DSLR footage in Premiere Pro. I’ll need to invest in a new gfx card and enable hardware support to see the real benefit. The big question now is how much faster will it be with a new card? As soon as I find out I’ll make sure to let you know.
Before I finish there’s just one more thing I discovered today that might be useful…
Don’t mess with my footage!
I’m really excited about working directly from my DSLR source files without the need to transcode but I did notice one thing that concerned me. Whenever I imported clips into Premiere the source files were being modified in some way. The file sizes were changing and the modified dates being updated. If I’m working directly from my source files I really don’t want those files to be messed with in any way. Of course I could make a backup, or work from a duplicate set but again that’s taking away the advantage of this workflow.
I had a dig through the preferences and think I’ve found the reason the files were being modified. In the ‘Media’ preferences there’s an option labelled ‘Write XMP ID to files on Import’ which actually sounds pretty self explanatory. Premiere is obviously writing metadata to the source clips with this enabled.
I disabled the option and imported some more clips and they were not modified. I’ll need to look into what benefits there are to having this XMP ID in the files but for now I would prefer to leave my precious clips un-modified.