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Building the Ultimate After Effects Computer
School of Motion teamed up with Puget Systems and Adobe to develop the ultimate After Effects computer.
We get asked a lot questions at School of Motion. How do I become a freelancer? What should I charge for projects? What hair gel does Joey use?
However, one question that constantly gets stuck in our heads is, how can I make After Effects run faster? This is probably a question that you’ve had at least once in your career. If you do a quick search you’ll likely find tips and tricks on numerous forums and sites, with plenty of contradicting information along the way.
For a while now we’ve wanted to tackle this subject, but instead of simply figuring out a way to make After Effects run faster the team pondered a far more interesting question, can we build the world’s fastest After Effects computer? We laughed, caught our breath, and then that look came across everyone’s eye. The same look that inspired Experiment Fail Repeat and the $7 vs $1K Experiment. As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti, this project was going to happen...
It was clear that we were about to go on a journey - a quest to build the world’s fastest After Effects computer. We enlisted the help of director Mike Pecci to document the process and the result is this sleek video, in-depth article, and computer building guide. Along the way we had help from our friends at Puget Systems and Adobe. This turned out to be an epic project that exceeded our expectations. It was full of geeky terms, puns, and coffee...so much coffee. We hope you find the results to be helpful and fun. Enjoy!
Editors Note: We were not paid by Puget Systems to create this content. We simply love the work they do and believe they are a fantastic resource for Motion Designers.
Below is a collection of everything we learned from the experience. Let’s take a journey together and see what it takes to create the ultimate After Effects computer...
A Quick Computer Component Overview
We totally understand if hardware isn’t your strong suit. So before we go too far let's stop to chat a little bit about what each hardware component does in After Effects.
CPU - Central Processing Unit
A CPU, or central processing unit, is the brain of your your computer. In a way a CPU is a lot like the engine on your car, but instead of horse-power CPUs are measured in GHz. Generally, the more GHz your CPU is capable of computing, the faster your computer will perform in After Effects.
There have been some major shifts lately in CPU technology. Up until recent times you could really only buy CPUs with Dual (2) or Quad (4) cores, but Moore’s Law seems to have set in and we are finding CPUs now with 8 cores, 12 cores, 18 cores, and more. We’ll talk more about how this relates to After Effects below.
GPU - Graphics Processing Unit
A GPU, or video card, is a different type of processing unit that, in the past, was simply used to draw what you see on your monitor. However, in recent years many applications have begun to leverage it to do real processing tasks. Whereas a CPU might have a few cores built into the processor, GPUs can have thousands of cores capable of processing a huge number of program instructions at a time.
Video cards also have variable amounts of dedicated memory on the card called vRAM. The more vRAM you have, the more information your video card can process.
RAM - Random Access Memory
RAM is quick storage that your computer can use to read and write data. RAM is a faster way to store information (like previewed frames) than a disc cache (more on that below). RAM is a temporary location that After Effects can put working files. In general the more RAM you have the faster After Effects will run.
Hard Drive & Storage
Storage devices currently come in three main flavors:
- HDD: A Hard Drive Disc (Slow, cheap, mass storage)
- SSD: A Solid State Drive (Fast and a little expensive)
- NVMe: Non-Volatile Memory Express (Super fast and expensive)
All of these drives can be used in After Effects, but if you’re serious about speed you really only need to stick with SSD or NVMe drives. For After Effects speed is preferred to size. You can always backup your files on a slower drive after your project is complete.
Ideal After Effects systems will use up to 3 different hard drives for a single project. One to store your applications (OS/software), one to store your project files, and one to write preview files (called a disc cache). You don’t have to have multiple hard drives when working in After Effects, but as you’ll soon learn it’s important to separate out your hard drives to increase performance.
How Fast is the Average After Effects Computer?
The first step to building the ultimate After Effects computer is to figure out what the average worldwide benchmark scores are. So to help us gather some information about the hardware speed of professional motion design computers, we sent out a poll to our community asking them to run the Puget After Effects Benchmark on their computer. Scores were all over the place, but in general the scores at the top were from systems that were created using specs from Puget's website (I’m sensing some foreshadowing). The average scores were as follows:
- Overall: 591
- Standard: 61
- Cinema 4D: 65
- Tracking: 58
The fastest overall computer score pulled a benchmark score of 971. Coincidentally the winner, Bas van Breugel, used Puget’s After Effects hardware recommendations to build his machine a couple months ago. Side note: Check out Bas’s website, his team is doing some super cool automation work.
With the high score in hand we now had a single mission. Defeating the final Bas...
A Chat with Adobe
Before we could start building the ultimate After Effects computer, we needed to get some advice from the source. So we reached out to the Adobe After Effects team and asked if they would give us some guidance on building a render-horse. The team said yes, we did a happy dance, and we prepared for a very nerdy chat…
In general, the After Effects team was very excited about their recent updates and shared their excitement for future After Effects releases. The team is constantly looking at ways to improve the performance of After Effects and their excitement was contagious. The entire chat was about how to make After Effects run faster, here are some takeaways from the meeting:
- Higher CPU speeds are better than more cores for After Effects
- It’s best to have a high-capacity RAM and GPU. More is better.
- After Effects doesn’t use multiple GPUs. A single GPU with high vRAM is the goal.
- Memory (RAM) cache is always faster than disk cache
- There isn’t a clear winner to the AMD vs NVIDIA debate for GPUs.
- It really matters that your GPU drivers are up to date. (Editor's Note: Mac drivers are updated with iOS updates)
It should be noted that all of the information above may be out of date soon as updates happen very frequently. Technology changes super quick and as a result recommendations will change.
With all this sweet knowledge in-hand we were feeling inspired to build a computer. It’s time to take a field trip to Seattle… (insert adventure music mix-tape).
Building an Ultimate After Effects Computer with Puget Systems
We arrived to Seattle full of giddinesss. After grabbing a coffee we drove down to Puget Systems, a custom computer manufacturer that specializes in workstations for content creators, studios, VFX artists, designers, and editors. Puget is basically Disneyland for computer nerds. As soon as you walk in the doors it’s clear that Puget is testing, building, and geeking-out over computers to a level that is beyond anything we’ve ever seen.
From thermal scanners to benchmark laboratories, Puget’s meticulous attention to detail is seen in all their work. Matt and Eric at Puget were kind enough to give us an inside look at how the computers are built and tested.
After an incredible tour we presented our findings from Adobe with Puget. As active computer testers, the Puget confirmed everything we learned and helped us spec out the ultimate After Effects computer. So over a take-out tray full of Seattle’s world-famous chicken teriyaki, they shared exactly how they planned to build the Ultimate After Effects computer.
The complete specs can be found below, but we were curious, could this machine beat Bas's score of 971.5? After the machine was built we tested out our new system named "Johnny Cache" to see what he was made of. We sat at the computer with nervous anticipation. Had we come all the way to Seattle just to fall short of our goal?...
The benchmark test started and we waited. After a few minutes of anxious anticipation the score box popped up on the screen... 985. We did it.
What is the Best Computer for After Effects?
Let's break down the hardware specs of this computer. Currently the fastest computer for After Effects is this custom-built “Johnny Cache” system from Puget Systems. Sure, there will be faster configurations that come out over the next few months and years, but for now here is the fastest After Effects computer that we know about:
Johnny Cache: The Ultimate After Effects Computer
- CPU: Intel Core i9 9900K 3.6GHz (4.7-5.0GHz Turbo) 8 Core 95W
- RAM: Crucial 64GB DDR4-2666 (4x16GB)
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 8GB Dual Fan
- Hard Drive 1: 512GB Samsung 860 Pro SATA SSD (OS/Applications)
- Hard Drive 2: 512GB Samsung 970 Pro NVMe PCI-E M.2 SSD (Disc Cache)
- Hard Drive 3: 1TB Samsung 860 EVO SATA SSD (Project Files)
- Price: $4,223.64
This configurations is the exact same as the computer we created in the video above. As you can see the CPU speed is incredibly fast, even though it is ‘only’ 8 cores. It has a healthy amount of RAM and a very beefy GPU. We also have multiple fast hard drives including an NVMe drive for the disc cache. This allows us to place our project files, disk cache, and applications on separate hard drives, which will increase performance.
Jean Claude Van RAM: Another Great After Effects Computer
If you’re looking for a more entry-level option here’s a nice computer that also packs a punch.
- CPU: Intel Core i7 9700K 3.6GHz (4.6-4.9GHz Turbo) 8 Core 95W
- RAM: Crucial 32GB DDR4-2666 (2x16GB)
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2060 6GB Dual Fan
- Hard Drive 1: 512GB Samsung 860 Pro SATA SSD (OS/Applications/Cache)
- Hard Drive 2: 500GB Samsung 860 EVO SATA SSD (Project Files)
- Price: $2893.71
Puget estimates that this configuration to be 10% slower in After Effects than Johnny Cache, but at a much lower price point. The drop in RAM capacity is probably one of the biggest hits with this configuration over the “best” system above.
Side Note: We had a lot of other After Effects related computer puns: Lebron Frames, Rambo Preview, Elon Mask, Keyframe Durant, AdobeWanKenobi… We can do this all day.
So you want to actually see your screen huh? Well you’re going to need a monitor. Below are some monitor recommendations from Puget. The After Effects team also noted that there shouldn’t be any dip in performance from having dual monitors vs a single monitor.
If you want to get REALLY fancy you could look into a BenQ monitor. These monitors come in 100% Rec.709 and sRGB color space. If you do a lot of color correction or touch-up work these monitors are incredible for only a marginally more expensive price.
The Best After Effects Computer: A Downloadable Guide
To help you build the fastest computer possible we’ve created a free downloadable guide to assist when buying or building your next computer. This guide should be used as a reference and we’ll try to keep it updated with newer information as it comes available.
Buying vs Building a Computer
As you probably are well aware, you don’t have a to be a computer scientist to build a computer in the 21st century. Using online tutorials and guides (like the Puget recommendation page) you can source the best parts for you. However, we’ve found it incredibly helpful to go through partners like Puget to purchase a killer machine. This allows you to buy a professionally built machine at a good price point without the fear of messing something up. Plus, there are always people you can talk to if you run into any issues with your machine.
How Future Proof is this Information?
It’s impossible to tell how long this information will be relevant. After Effects' architecture will almost certainly take more advantage of GPUs in the future, so it is possible that upgrading GPUs will help you increase the performance in the future. The great thing is that with a PC, you can do that at any time. With a Mac it ain’t so easy...
Mac or PC for After Effects?
After consulting with dozens of artists, engineers, software developers, and experts we have come to a simple conclusion; If speed and performance are important to you, get a PC for After Effects. Macs can be fast, but they will ultimately never perform as great as a similarly priced PC. PCs offer you the following advantages:
- Bigger Bang for Your Buck
- Faster Speeds
- More Customization
- Easier Maintenance
- Modular Hardware
Of course switching from a Mac to a PC will take a little bit of a learning curve, but you’re a smart cookie. You’ll figure it out.
It should be noted that Adobe does not prioritize development for PC over Mac.
What If I also use Premiere Pro?
If you use After Effects there’s also a pretty good chance that you edit your video in Premiere Pro. Unlike After Effects, Premiere Pro benefits from more CPU cores and a more powerful GPU. If you buy the 'Johnny Cache' system above you’ll see great results in Premiere, but if you are looking for something that will get the best average performance from both applications Puget has designed an awesome computer for you (see below).
Both After Effects computer configurations above are actually going to be really good for Premiere Pro and have plenty of power for most 4K editing workflows. The Johnny Cache system is actually almost identical to Puget’s Premiere Pro “4K Editing” recommended system. It's hard to beat the Johnny Cache computer at anywhere close to the price point.
Are you working on incredibly high-end editing projects? Well, if you are editing above 6K or doing heavier things like color grading, you will see a big jump by using this ridiculous system below. This is a system that is great for Premiere Pro and After Effects.
Editor-in-Chief: Premiere Pro + After Effects System
- CPU: Intel Core i9 9960X 3.1GHz (4.0-4.5GHz Turbo) 16 Core 165W
- RAM: Crucial 128GB DDR4-2666 (8x16GB)
- GPU: NVIDIA GeForce RTX 2080 Ti 116B Dual Fan
- Hard Drive 1: 512GB Samsung 860 Pro SATA SSD
- Hard Drive 2: 512GB Samsung 970 Pro PCI-E M.2 SSD
- Hard Drive 3: 1TB Samsung 860 EVO SATA SSD
- Price: $7060.03
Obviously this computer comes at a cost. But if maximum editing speed is important for you or your studio, this is the computer for you. This system will be ~15% faster in Premiere Pro compared to a less-expensive 9900K system, but it is going to be slightly slower in After Effects by about 10% despite the price increase. However, the 128GB of RAM is really, really nice for After Effects RAM previews.
Pro Tip: Stop editing your videos in After Effects.
What if I want to use Cinema 4D as well?
The Johnny Cache system will run Cinema 4D pretty well, but with only 8-cores your renders will be much slower than a system with more cores, and if you're running Octane, Redshift, or any GPU renderer like that, you may want a beefier GPU or even multiple GPUs. The Johnny Cache system is designed for After Effects, so if you're doing lots of 3D, talk to Puget and they can spec you out a 3D BEAST. They literally have folks ready to help you design a computer for C4D.
What about a script like RenderGarden?
RenderGarden is a really interesting script that can utilize multiple cores to perform multi-threaded renders in After Effects. This can be a great script to maximize your render speeds, but keep in mind this only increases your final render time, not preview renders. Here's a cool demo of RenderGarden in action.
How to Make After Effects Run Faster: A Quick Checklist
We learned a ton from this entire experience. So to make the information more palatable here’s a quick summary of some ways to make After Effects faster:
- Get the Highest CPU Speed Possible, Individual core speed is better than more cores.
- You need to have as much RAM as possible, 32GB is good, 64GB is much better.
- A decent GPU is important, but you don’t have to go crazy with it. 8GB of vRAM is a great place to start.
- Keep your project files, disc cache, and application on separate hard drives.
- You need to have multiple fast hard drives.
- SSDs are great for your working project files and applications.
- Try to use an NVMe for the disc cache.
- Don’t use an HDD when working on a project After Effects.
- Make sure your GPU drivers are up to date.
- Get a PC not a Mac. Mac hardware is limited and difficult to upgrade.
The End of a Journey
With (presumably) the world’s fastest After Effects computer in-hand we decided to end our quest by throwing Johnny Cache off a bridge, because it’s not about the destination it’s about the journey.
Just kidding, Puget actually randomly gave away the computer to Motion Designer Micah Brightwell of Jonesboro, Arkansas was the winner. Congrats Micah!
A HUGE Thank You
We’d like to give a huge thank you to Puget Systems and Adobe for helping us make this video and guide a reality. We’re always incredibly encouraged by the support and encouragement from the entire motion design community from artists to developers to hardware manufacturers. Hopefully you now feel inspired to upgrade your workstation or at the very least think more about how hardware affects your motion design experience. Remember, if you ever need a system that can walk the mograph line, Johnny Cache is here for you.