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What Workstation do you need for After Effects in 2021?

Article Image Craig Hume - MD @ Utopia

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Hey folks, welcome to another exciting What the Spec blog. This week we will be looking at all you need to be able to build an awesome After Effects workstation - the incredible app that acts like Photoshop for video and allows you to create effects like this fire and so much more.

This blog is going to focus on how to get the very best performance out of After Effects. I'll do this by looking at four key areas, CPU, GPU, RAM and Storage. If you have questions about any other components like, case choice or Power Supply hit me up in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them there. Keep in mind that each part has earned its place through actual testing and benchmarking as well as real world customer feedback. 

So let's start with the the CPU

So what CPU is best for After Effects?

The CPU is a very important part of any After Effects workstation. However, be aware that a more expensive CPU doesn't always equal better performance as there is a limit to the number of cores that After Effects can effectively take advantage of.

While older versions of After Effects (2015 and older) worked well high core count CPU configurations (including dual Xeon systems), due to the removal of the "Render Multiple Frames Simultaneously" feature the current version of After Effects actually runs better on more affordable CPUs that have a lower core count but higher operating frequency.

Currently, the CPUs we most often recommend for After Effects is the AMD Ryzen 9 5900X, followed closely by the AMD Ryzen 7 5800X. Intel’s Core i9 10900K 8 Core is also a solid choice here. There are the incredible AMD Threadripper CPUs that can give you a wee bit better performance, but most users will find better value investing in more RAM or faster storage than blowing your budget on a Thread Ripper for After effects. 

You mentioned CPU cores, so do more CPU cores make After Effects faster?

After Effects gets better at using multiple cores all the time.But, 8 cores is generally seen as the sweet spot. The exception to this is if you use the Cinema 4D renderer which works better with more cores. For this look at the likes of the AMD Ryzen 9 5950X or the Intel Core i9 10980XE.

Does After Effects work better with Intel or AMD CPUs?

Like I said, if you’re going top end then After Effects now works great with both Intel and AMD. I’m loving AMD just now, but both offer great options for After Effects.

OK, what about Xeon CPUs for After Effects?

The assumption is often made that the more expensive the processor the better it will perform, but this is very dependent on the apps you are going to be using. Xeon chips are not a great option for After Effects, the extra features they bring to the table, like EEC memory support, large cache and enterprise level reliability don’t benefit After Effects performance and come at a large financial premium. Stick with Intel’s Core series chips or AMD’s Ryzen chips for the best performance in Photoshop. You will still see Xeon chips getting mentioned on various forums as a good choice, but this is just down to the fact they used to be the only option when wanting large amounts of RAM or for dual CPUs systems. I promise they offer no benefit to After Effects in 2021.

How about a Dual CPU setup for After Effects?

Historically this used to be a really good option. After Effects had a feature called “render multiple frames simultaneously” - this benefitted those with more cores greatly. Now Adobe has moved it’s rendering support over to GPUs. So in 2021 Dual CPUs - Nope, it just doesn’t make good financial sense. As mentioned before if you are using the C4D plugin then consider better value options like AMD’s Ryzen 9 5950X. For all other usage a single high speed CPU is all that’s needed for the win in After Effects! 

What features in After Effects use GPU power?

After Effects shares rendering technology with Premiere Pro. Everything from Colour Balance, Curves, VR effects and blurs all use your GPU. A full list of these features are available on the Adobe site. I’ll drop a link to the list in the description of this video. Top tip time - make sure Mercury GPU acceleration is enabled for best performance.

To enable it, select File > Project Settings, click the Video Rendering and Effects tab, and set the Use option to Mercury GPU Acceleration. Depending on your computer and GPU, you may see multiple such options.

What GPU is best for After Effects?

The good news is that After Effects is still more reliant on CPU power. This means you don’t have to spend the world on a top end graphics card to get the best from After Effects. If you take our recent test of the very latest 3080Ti, a GTX 1660Ti is only about 10% slower. This makes the sweet spot for price against performance the GTX 1660Ti. It's my personal favorite - goto graphics card for After Effects users in 2021. Keep in mind other applications in your workflow may have a GPU requirement that is higher than After Effects. Take all of them into consideration before making your final choice.

How much VRAM (video card memory) does After Effects need?

6GB is the sweet spot here, while you can get away with 3GB, I would suggest 6GB gives headroom for 4K and above screens as well as multi monitor setups. Almost all new GPUs will have 6GB of RAM so you should not have any problems here.

I’ve heard Quadro is good, can I use one of those cards for After Effects?

Quadro cards are super reliable - for mission critical projects this can mean they are a worthy investment. However, for most users GeForce will offer better value. Quadro cards can easily be 4-5x the cost and won’t offer a performance increase in After Effects. At Utopia we have also found GeForce cards from top brands link PNY to be incredibly reliable.

Is NVIDIA or AMD best for After Effects?

In recent tests we have found little difference between Nvidia and AMD cards of similar specs, however I have historically always prefered Nvidia - this comes down to the stability and reliability of their drivers - generally speaking Nvidia are rock solid. In a recent announcement Adobe also let users know that they were developing more features specifically for users with Nvidia cards. For me, Nvidia with its stability, wide support and Studio drivers wins here.

Should I go for a GeForce RTX Card for After Effects?

Right now, both the RT cores (for ray tracing) and Tensor cores (for AI operations) found on RTX cards have no use in After Effects.  This means the aforementioned GTX 1660Ti is still the best option. However, if you are making plans for future proofing your setup and have the budget Adobe could well release an update that takes advantage of RTX cards unlocked potential.

How much RAM does After Effects need?

After Effects can eat RAM for breakfast. The length, resolution, and complexity of your projects will all have an impact on how much you need. Extra storage options can act as a buffer here and i’ll talk about that in a bit. In the meantime, after some quick maths taking into account how many seconds playback you are working on x the frames per second x the resolution of your image x the colour depth we will see how roughly how much RAM we need. In short, lots. Even basic projects will take up 32GB of RAM, with higher resolutions or frame rates hitting 64B or more. Keep in mind, your storage or cache drive will help out if you run out of space in RAM - but performance will take a hit. Also keep in mind that most After Effects projects you will be working in will be 10 seconds or so, - keep this in mind if working new to After Effects - keep your projects as short as possible to improve workflow.

What type of storage drive should I use for After Effects?

OK, you have basically two options, mechanical hard drive or some type of solid state. Mechanical drives are awesome for long term storage, they offer vast amounts of space for relatively little money.  SSD and M.2 SSDs, on the other hand, are more expensive, but offer huge performance gains for the money. The faster M.2 NVMe drives in this segment are worth considering as they will help with system boot and application load time - I’ve done a whole video on these which I will link below. My recommended minimum for Photoshop is to have at least one good sized SSD, but next I’m going to share my sweet spot configuration for those of you looking to get the very best out of your workflow. 

What storage configuration is best for After Effects?

For everyday use, a single drive will do you just fine, but if you want a pro-level setup then you would be best to think about having upto three drives...oh yes, getting the best performance means a little more than your normal setup.

Your first drive will be for Windows, After Effects itself and any other applications you use, like Premiere. An SSD or M.2 NVMe if your budget allows is what you want here. 

Second, you want a working drive for your photos and other photoshop files that you are using in your projects. Mechanical drives are OK for this, but again if your budget allows SSD or NVMe will ensure a slick workflow.

Finally, if you are looking for the ultimate setup you can add a third drive for what's called a scratch disk. This drive will only hold your temporary files and again should be an SSD or NVMe drive.

Technically you might also want a forth drive for long term storage. Something like a Western Digital Red drive would be ideal. Keep in mind not all mechanical drives are not all cut from the same cloth. Some brands are more reliable than others and models within brands are designed for different purposes. Watch this space for a full video on mechanical drives coming soon.

So to conclude, this would be my ideal After Effects build that offers best value / against performance.

AMD Ryzen 9 5900X - Great single threaded performance.

Nvidia GTX 1660Ti 6GB GPU

32GB - 64GB RAM

500GB+ NVMe SSD Primary Storage

500GB+ NVMe SSD Project Files

250GB+ NVMe SSD Scratch Disk

4TB WD RED HDD - Storage Drive

If you're interested in buying an After Effects workstation from ourselves then please check out our range of high-performance After Effects systems in the link below. If you have any questions about After Effects or anything tech-related drop a comment below. Cheers everyone!

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