Over the last 5 years, computers have gotten smaller and more powerful. A new laptop today is usually more powerful and more capable than a similarly priced desktop from just a few years ago.
However, if you aren't planning to move your studio setup around a lot, then a desktop computer can give you more power at a lower cost than a similar spec laptop.
This guide will walk you through all of the components you need to look for in a computer and exactly what specs you need to run Pro Tools to it's full power without slowing down your work flow. Unless you're one of those technology wizards who can build their own smart home and already knows how to build a computer from scratch, I'd recommend buying an off the shelf option since you know it will work as soon as you get it out of the box.
Technology is always updating and improving and a computer that was considered top of the line just a few years ago is going to be left in the dust by anything that came out this year.
There are a ton of options out there when it comes to choosing a desktop computer.
You can build your own by choosing every component individually or you can buy a prebuilt, off the shelf option.
Unless you're a computer whiz who already knows how to build a computer from scratch, I'd recommend buying an off the shelf option since you know it will work as soon as you get it out of the box.
Another benefit is that off the shelf options already have the graphics card installed. With all of the craze around bitcoin lately, the price of graphics cards have skyrocketed and it's not uncommon to pay double the MSRP for a good graphics card today.
By sticking to prebuilt computers you can avoid paying these crazy prices and use your money elsewhere in your studio.
How to Buy the Right Computer Parts to Run Pro Tools
To choose the components for your PC, it's best to start from what the manufacturer, AVID, recommends.
For both PC and Mac, Avid recommends:
- An Intel i5 processor (see our guide to choosing the best CPU) or better
- At least 8 GB of RAM
- Multiple USB ports for iLok authorization and Coreaudio ports for connecting an audio interface.
But those requirements are just the minimum for Pro Tools in 2018. In the future, with new versions of the software, those requirements are likely to go higher and higher as the software gets faster and more resource intensive.
We'd recommend looking at some Intel i7 processors and 12GB of RAM or more. These small upgrades will help future proof your computer a little bit and will only add about 10% to the cost of the computer which we think is a good value.
Choosing the Right CPU (aka Processor)
If you ever wondered why adding endless numbers of reverb plug-ins freeze up your session, you should read this twice: all those plug-ins, all the real time automation, everything that happens inside of Pro Tools depend on the processor.
Some plug-ins consume little resources while other consume a lot - reverb plug-ins are a good example of ones which consume a lot CPU power.
If you ever start to work with mid-sized to large sessions you will definitely need at least an i5 processor. If you work on larger sessions then having an i7 will provide a noticeable benefit. Since an i7 is only slightly more expensive than an i5 processor we strongly recommend you spend the extra money on a more powerful processor.
Also look for all those smart technologies in the processor like Hyper Threading, Smart Cache Memory, Turbo Boost and others. They sound like marketing gimmicks but they are real features that have real world performance boosts. Don't spend too much time trying to understand exactly what each one means but just know that they'll make your computer faster and more pleasurable to use.
If you want to read more in depth about CPUs, check out this article learn more about the processors that are out there and which ones work best with Pro Tools.
Memory Requirements (aka RAM)
The best way to think about RAM is that the more the better.
This isn't usually true with computer parts. You can't really add more processors or more graphics cards. But RAM is one of the components where you should buy as much as you can fit in your budget.
RAM (Random Access Memory) is the fastest type of storage that a computer has.
The best analogy is a library. Your hard drive is like the shelves in a library. It can hold a ton of data just like a library can hold a ton of books. But if you want to find an individual book you have to walk all the way to the back shelf and look for that book. It takes a long time.
RAM is like the shelf at the front desk that shows the featured books or new releases. You can easily choose from any of the books they have there and quickly switch between them.
RAM works the same way by storing frequently used programs or recent data in memory. This allows the processor to go back quickly to the RAM and grab that data instead of going to the hard drive and waiting much longer to return the information.
One area of Pro Tools where RAM really helps is with plugins. The more plugins you have, the more RAM you need to keep your computer from slowing down.
Avid recommends a minimum of 8GB of RAM but you should shoot for at least 12GB or 16GB since it will only cost about $15-$25 more and you'll see a huge performance increase.
Connectivity - Ethernet, WIFI, USB and more
One of the areas where desktop computers have the biggest advantage over laptops is in the connection options.
Laptops are designed to be small so manufacturers have to make trade offs like limiting the number of ports for USB devices or audio inputs/outputs.
Desktops are much larger and the motherboards on the market have a huge range of options for what ports they offer.
Most desktop builds on the market have at least 8 USB ports, 2-4 video ports (usually a combination of HDMI and Displayport), 1 ethernet port, and mic and line out ports.
If you have specific needs for your studio like firewire or eSATA, make sure you find a motherboard that has those ports. Every studio setup is different and in the same way that you'd future proof your desktop by adding more RAM or a faster processor, you should choose a motherboard with connectivity options that will meet your needs in the future.
If you have 4 USB devices right now, don't buy a computer with only 4 USB ports. You'll inevitably want to expand your setup later on and you'll find yourself restricted if you didn't plan ahead and build that extra capability into your machine from the get go.
Storage - HDD vs SSD Hard Drives
Up until the last 5-7 years, computers came with HDDs, hard disk drives. These were spinning discs that would store the information and they were very slow.
When solid state hard drives (SSDs) came along they brought a huge speed increase. If HDDs were like the books on a library shelf from the analogy we used earlier, then SSDs were like having Usain Bolt as your librarian running back and forth to retrieve the information.
SSDs still aren't as fast as RAM but they're significantly faster than HDDs.
In almost every instance it's a better idea to choose a solid state hard drive over a traditional spinning disc hard drive. The only downside is price. SSDs cost more and typically have a smaller amount of storage.
For a specific amount of storage you can expect a SSD to cost about 2x-3x the price of a HDD.
What does this mean for you?
Only buy as much SSD as you need, probably around 128gb. This main SSD is where you can store your operating system and Pro Tools software and any other programs you use frequently.
Then you can use a secondary HDD with much more space to store all your files. This lets you get all of the performance gains of a SSD without paying the high price tag to store everything on a SSD. Using a HDD to store files is a smart strategy and one we highly recommend to save money and maximize the value of your studio setup.
If you'd like to read more in depth on storage choices, check out this article which has a run down of the best storage options on the market today.
Best Computers for Pro Tools - Our Top Picks
Now that you know what to look for in each of the components, here are the top 3 pics for best desktop PCs to run Pro Tools.
Apple iMac Review
Apple is a brand that is well known for reliable, powerful and stylish computers and the iMac does not fall short in any of those categories.
You can choose which processor you want, ranging from a 2.3GHz processor all the way up to 3.8GHz. This means you can find the fastest processor that fits your budget to maximize performance.
Another cool feature of the iMac computer is that you can order it with a fusion drive. A fusion drive is a combination of flash based storage (like a solid state drive) and a normal hard disk.
The computer stores the most used files and information in the non-volatile, flash memory for faster access and uses the rest of the normal hard disk to store everything else. In a way you get best of both worlds - storage space and fantastic speed.
The iMac also comes with your standard port offering of USB ports, ethernet, SD card readers, etc. There are a lot of different iMac models out there so you can shop around and find the right one for your needs.
CyberpowerPC Gamer Ultra GUA3400A Gaming Desktop
Don't be fooled by the 'gamer' tag on this computer. Gamers demand high performance from their computers so harnessing this power to run Pro Tools actually makes a lot of sense.
This is one of the best options if you are looking for a Windows based computer to run Pro Tools because of the beefy processor and graphics card which will make this machine fly when you're using it in the studio.
This computer comes with the AMD FX-6300 3.5GHz six core processor, 8GB of RAM, a 1 TB hard drive and Windows 10 64 bit edition.
It also has a much beefier graphics card than you'll find in most iMacs with the AMD Radeon R7 250 2GB card. It's a great card for playing video games but it will also handle a lot of the workload when running Pro Tools that would normally be sent to the processor in other computers.
Acer Aspire All in One 23.8" Touch Screen Computer
In the last few years, computers have gotten faster but they've also started including touch capabilities in certain models. If you've never used a touch screen computer before it might seem gimmicky but when you think about how you use your cell phone it actually makes a ton of sense.
Being able to quickly switch between using a keyboard and mouse and touching what you need on the screen is super convenient and you won't be able to fully appreciate until you've tried it.
In addition to the touch screen capability on the Acer Aspire, it's sporting an Intel i5-7400T processor running at 3.0GHz.
It also has 12GB of DDR4 RAM which is the newer version and faster than the DDR3 you'll find in most other desktop PCs.
The hard drive is 1 TB at 5400 RPM which is slower than normal. Most HDDs run at 7200 RPM and this is one of the biggest disadvantages of this computer.
There are other models out there with better hard drive options but you'll be paying a higher price so you'll have to judge what exactly you need and whether the trade offs are worth the cost savings.
Buying the best computer to run Pro Tools is a big decision and one that you should spend a lot of time researching.
A computer is a huge investment and if you choose wisely it should last for several years to come.
I recommend really getting your priorities on paper - what are you going to use it for, film scoring or making pop songs with five instrument tracks? How many hours a day? Do you work with Pro Tool as a hobby or do you wish to turn pro? No matter which category you fall in, remember that technology quickly becomes outdated so buy something that you can use for at least a few years before it loses its value and try as much as possible to plan ahead to help future proof your investment.