4K Storage: How Fast is Fast Enough?

thunderbolt_cable_appleI’m still patiently waiting for DigitalRev to notify me when the Lumix GH4 will be available in Hong Kong. According to 43rumors.com, the only cameras which have shipped have been sold in the U.S. This represents a shift in strategy by Panasonic, which aims to increase its presence in the North American market. To kill time, since David Vickers hasn’t published any more DaVinci Resolve tutorials since January, I’ve been poring over reviews of storage solutions for the massive files I’ll be creating once I have the camera in my hot little hands. The two most promising solutions at the moment appear to be LaCie’s Little Big Disk Thunderbolt 2 and WD’s My Passport Pro: the former for online editing and the latter for storing the mammoth files or offline editing in the field.

Meanwhile, over at Andrew Reid’s EOSHD forum, a reader asked which laptop under $2,000 would be best for editing clips from the Lumix GH4, to which I replied that, to the best of my knowledge, no laptop at that price point could handle online editing of 4K footage. I suggested getting a desktop instead.

As Andrew wrote in his GH4 4K Production Diary,

The good news is a Macbook Pro 15 Retina and iMac 27″ will edit the GH4′s 4K material at full resolution if you just have the clip on the timeline and no effects. If you add effects and multiple tracks then you need to drop the playback resolution to 1/2 or 1/4.

The soon-to-be released LaCie Little Big Disk Thunderbolt 2 is capable of reaching read speeds of 880MB/s over the iMac’s first generation Thunderbolt interface, which is faster than the iMac’s internal drive, and would certainly yield an increase in performance. A drawback of using the computer’s internal drive for editing is that, as Larry Jordan has written,

The boot drive is actively used by the OS and applications and all background processes, which take priority over any data playback. This means that data needs to wait until the OS is done with the disk before playback can occur. This tends to lead to choppy playback.

When the new iMacs come equipped with Thunderbolt 2, they will be able to take full advantage of LaCie’s stupendous read speeds of 1,300MB/s: double that of iMac’s current 1TB Fusion Drive; and it should churn through 4K files like nobody’s business. The downside is that the LaCie only holds 1TB (remember, 1 hour of GH4 4K footage takes up 45GB of space, and that’s with no transcoding to ProRes) and will retail for a whopping $1,299, or half the cost of a configured 27″ iMac. Just the same, at the moment, it’s the only DAS I would consider for desktop 4K editing.

I still fail to understand why so many filmmakers would spend thousands on camera bodies, lenses and accessories, only to skimp on their computer and storage. I’m just a hobbyist, but these are professionals, whose very livelihood depends on a fast and efficient workflow. Only they know the answer to that question. According to Lloyd Chambers,

… a professional needs a computing system that takes into account current and future needs, reliability, backup and expansion.

The wrong choices can mean spending more money for less performance, inadequate storage capacity, confusing backup, or workflow configuration that does not utilize the best approach.

Which brings up another point: that of machines whose fastest interface is USB 3. At the moment, to the best of my knowledge, no spinning disk drives can saturate Thunderbolt, let alone USB 3, for that matter. As SSDs drop in price, they could become the preferred way to go; or hybrid drives, like Apple’s Fusion Drive. The way I see it, the only way to future-proof your investment is to go with a Thunderbolt equipped machine that can handle the bandwidth required by 4K.

Meanwhile, USB 3.1, which is said to match 1st generation Thunderbolt speeds, is expected to hit the streets toward the end of this year. At the same time, Intel is at work on “Alpine Ridge”, the third generation Thunderbolt controller, with double the bandwidth of Thunderbolt 2.

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