Like most software developers, Adobe maintains a list of system requirements for After Effects that can be used to help ensure the hardware in your system will work with their software. However, most "system requirements" lists tend to cover only the very basics of what hardware is needed to run the software, not what hardware will actually give the best performance. In addition, sometimes these lists can be outdated, list old hardware revisions, or simply outright show sub-optimal hardware.
Because of how inconsistent those lists can be we've taken the time to perform testing to determine what hardware runs After Effects the best. Based on this testing, we have come up with our own list of recommended hardware - as well as specific configurations tailored with these recommendations in mind.
When it comes to CPUs there are two main specifications that define the capability of a CPU:
- The frequency directly affects how many operations a single CPU core can complete in a second (how fast it is).
- The number of cores is how many physical cores there are within a CPU (how many operations it can run simultaneously).
Whether a high frequency or high core count CPU is better depends on how well a program is designed to take advantage of multiple CPU cores (often referred to as multi-threading). While After Effects used to perform best with high core count CPU configurations, our testing has shown that with the newer 10 core Intel CPUs and the latest version of AE, there is no longer any need to use an expensive dual Xeon configuration in order to get the best performance. Not only are they rarely any faster than using a single CPU, in many cases it is actually slower!
To give you an idea of the performance you might see across the Core i7 CPUs included in our recommend systems - and how they might compare to a dual Xeon workstation - below is a chart based on our After Effects CC 2015.3 CPU Comparison article:
In the chart above, you can see that the Intel Core i7 6850K is an excellent CPU for After Effects. The 6900K and 6950X are faster for some tasks (primarily motion tracking), but those CPUs are mostly useful if you workflow also includes heavy work in Premiere Pro where those CPUs can provide large performance benefits.
This chart is also great proof that you no longer need a dual Xeon workstation in order to have the best experience in After Effects. Whether you have a dual Xeon system using CPUs that have a high operating frequency (such as the E5-2643 V4) or ones with a large number of cores (E5-2690 V4), both are around 10-15% faster than the Intel Core i7 6850K.
Video Card (GPU)
With After Effects 2015.3 (and continuing in 2017), Adobe began the process of increasing the amount of GPU acceleration used in their software. The following effects are now able to utilize the GPU to greatly increase performance:
Added in AE 2015.3:
- Lumetri Color
- Gaussian Blur
Added in AE 2017:
- Brightness & Contrast
- Find Edges
In addition to these effects, the increasing integration with Cinema4D make the GPU a much more important part of an After Effects workstation than ever before.
However, although After Effects can now utilize the GPU, we have found that even a mid-range video card will give the same performance as a high-end card. So while having a GPU can increase performance by up to 10X for some effects, spending more money on a faster GPU will likely not result in any performance gains.
However, for users that work with Premiere Pro or other programs that can utilize higher end GPUs more effectively, we also included a number of GPU options that are not strictly necessary for AE. In Premiere Pro especially, not only will a good GPU improve the time it takes to encode a video, it can also drastically increase the amount of your timeline that can be scrubbed without needing to generate previews first.
For all Adobe products we generally recommend using a NVIDIA GeForce card, although NVIDIA Quadro cards can be a bit more reliable over the long terms and are required if you want to be able to use 30-bit color or a 10-bit display. Performance-wise, however, GeForce cards will always give you much higher performance for your dollar.
Additional Resources (After Effects and Premiere Pro):
Depending on the length, resolution, and complexity of your projects, After Effects can often benefit from having very large amounts of RAM available. Larger amounts of RAM allows AE to store more previews in RAM rather than on a cache disk which can result in smoother playback. Using a fast SSD as your cache drive can mitigate some of the performance loses, but no hard drive or SSD is as fast as RAM.
In general, we recommend 64GB of RAM as a starting point for moderate After Effects usage or those just learning to use After Effects. If you work with very complex projects, however, you may need 128GB or even more RAM. Keep in mind that if you use other programs at the same time as After Effects, you will need enough RAM for all of them at the same time. Be sure to set the amount of RAM you want to leave free for other programs in "Edit > Preferences > Memory" to keep your system from bogging down due to there not being enough RAM free for the rest of the system.
One suggestion we always make is to consider what you will be doing in the future. If you think you will be increasing the resolution of your video files or increasing the complexity of your projects we highly recommend taking that into account when deciding on how much RAM you need.
Storage (Hard Drives)
For After Effects (and most other post-production software packages) we generally recommend a three hard drive configuration. For your primary drive (with the operating system and the base After Effects installation) a SSD is highly recommended as it will greatly improve how fast the OS and programs startup. A large secondary SSD is great for your active projects as well as being the location of your disk cache. For long term storage where the high speed of SSDs is typically not required, a larger traditional hard drive is a good choice as they are still much cheaper per GB than SSDs.
One important factor we want to point out is that with the higher performance of modern platter drives the old recommendation of having an SSD or RAID array for your export drive is no longer accurate. SSDs or RAID arrays are great for improving the time it takes to open, save or generally move around files, but for actually rendering projects there should be little difference between exporting to a platter drive, an SSD, or even an ultra-fast PCI-E based NVMe drive.
Often overlook, quality audio is a critical part of any video editing workstation. Depending on the quality and number of audio channels you need, there are three types of audio devices you may want to use:
- Onboard Audio - Included on most motherboards, the quality of onboard audio has improved dramatically over the years. However, since the audio chip is on the same PCB as the rest of the motherboard there can sometimes be issues with signal noise which can degrade the audio quality. This is not a factor if you use digital outputs for stereo or 5.1, but if you use headphones or analog speakers the quality may not be as good as what other dedicated audio devices can provide.
- Internal Sound Card - A common choice in workstations that need high quality audio, internal sound cards can often deliver excellent sound quality for a relatively low cost. The downside to many of these devices is that the required software is often bloated and geared more towards gaming than audio/video production.
- USB DAC - Currently our top recommendation for video editing workstations, external DACs are an excellent option for high quality sound. Not only is the quality excellent, but there is rarely any driver conflicts and there are a wide range of options to choose from. While the DAC that is right for you will depend on the inputs and outputs you need along with any special capabilities, we have a number of USB DACs on our configure page if you simply need high quality stereo output for either headphones or speakers.
Recommended Systems for After Effects
Utilizing an Intel Core i7 CPU with up to 10 cores, this workstation provides the best possible performance for After Effects in a compact package.
While physically larger than the Compact Workstation, this system allows for up to 512GB of RAM and a wider range of storage options.