After Effects Performance (2012)
The performance of Adobe After Effects - on a number of different systems using different processors and different operating systems - turns out to be messy and unpredictable. I had hoped I could come up with a magic equation based on the speed of the processor multiplied by the number of threads and be able to spit out a prediction on how fast After Effects will behave, but it didn't turn out that way. Processors from AMD and Intel behave differently. Different generations of processors from Intel behave differently. One variable that was remarkably consistent was the version of After Effects - C4, CS5, CS6, it didn't matter, at least with the project I was working with.
NOTE: This assumes you have enough RAM. A RAM-starved After Effects makes the angels cry. I'd say 1GB per processing thread is a reasonable minimum. Considering you'll need RAM for other things in your system, 12GB of RAM on an 8-thread system should be a minimum, but you might as well go 16GB: RAM previews are nice, eh? Heck, if AE is your bread-n-butter, get 32GB. Trust me.
My failure to come up with an After Effects performance equation that would bear my name for generations to come did yield some interesting data, however, and I've summarized it here:
|Speed||Threads||Processor||Date||Machine||AE Render Time||Geekbench||Price|
|4.5Ghz||8||AMD 8150 (OC'd)||Oct. 2011||homebuilt||331 seconds||11,689||$1,295|
|2.66Ghz||12||Intel Xeon 5650||March 2010||Mac Pro||309 seconds||19,632||$6,459|
|3.4Ghz||8||Intel i7 2600||Jan. 2011||iMac 27"||296 seconds||17,856||$2,799|
|3.2Ghz||12||Intel i7 3930k||Nov. 2011||homebuilt||200 seconds||14,060||$1,690|
|4.6Ghz||12||Intel i7 3930k (OC'd)||Nov. 2011||homebuilt||149 seconds||18,561||$1,690|
* The Speed is what the processor operates at while rendering in After Effects. All of these processors throttle and the maximum speed cited by marketing drones is often only for one core. The Speed listed here is accurate for the task at hand.
* This is the Date of the processor's release, not the Machine. All of these Machines are brand new as of May 2012.
* Render Time of my custom project, which you can download and test here. Lower is better.
* Higher numbers are better for Geekbench.
* For Price? Lower is better, eh?
Failure in science is a good thing (contrary to what hysterical anti-science new age hippies and old-fashioned Jesus freaks might say), and my negative results do allow me to make some interesting (if controversial) conclusions. Other than the AMD outlier, the Intel chips seem to get faster by date, with the old March 2010 Xeon 5650 being the slowest. The numbers I've presented here don't account for the price/value of these systems either and the AMD system is definitely the most economical. Unfortunately, another conclusion I have to make is that the current Mac Pro system being sold by Apple as of May 2012 (2x 2.66Ghz, 16GB) for about $6,500 is just not a good value for After Effects: I would definitely recommend getting the gorgeous 27" iMac for quite a bit less than half the price (and hope that Apple has a Mac Pro ace up their sleeve in the very near future). For you Windows folks the news is also good: Whether you build your own or order a beast from HP or Dell, grab a fast multi-core/threaded machine with plenty of RAM and you'll be happy as a clam.
Finally, it's also interesting to note that the After Effects performance numbers didn't match up with the generic GeekBench scores for these machines, which is exactly what I hoped I'd be able to tease out of these systems. The old Mac Pro rocked the general benchmark, but faired poorly on my render test. Could that be the way I set up my project? What if different effects were used? Excellent questions. Please, feel free to challenge my methods and come up with a test of your own. I would love to expand this and see how useful these tests really are.
ADDENDUM: I should add that on a particular machine, there is a direct relationship between processor speed and After Effects performance. So with the 3930k machine above, accidentally knocking the processor back to 1.2Ghz means it gets really slow and overclocking it to 4.6Ghz (where it's running comfortably right now) results in an improvement of about 133% and brings the Render Time down to 149 seconds, which is more than twice as fast as the Mac Pro that costs four times as much.