Apple has, yet again, made a major change in computer hardware. The trillion-dollar tech company has moved on from Intel and switched over to its own Apple Silicon, built on ARM architecture. The new chip is found in the Mac Mini, MacBook Pro, and MacBook Air, which are already shipping.
We got our hands on a 13" MacBook Pro with the new M1 chip to see if it's something filmmakers should consider, or if it's better to hold off.
Let's dive in.
SoC (System on a Chip)
Before we dig into the particulars, we should spend some time going over what makes these Mac different from previous versions.
For the last 14 years, Apple has built their computers around Intel architecture. This was great since it made it easy to move applications back and forth between PC and Mac, which was harder on previous generations which used the PowerPC architecture Apple used the 14 years before that. This made for some real advances for Apple in the marketplace, plus, it was great for developers.
The new chip is called the M1 chip. The new system is called Apple Silicon, and it's built on the ARM architecture, which is what is used in iOS. This will make it easier for developers to have an app run on an iPhone, iPad, or Mac, for instance. It will have some obvious benefits for filmmakers as our favorite iOS apps can now run on macOS.
But that isn't the only reason Apple made the switch.
ARM systems are designed to do more while consuming less power. This is the key to the change. Most filmmakers know that an Intel Apple laptop throttles power significantly when you're unplugged from the wall outlet. This meant that filmmakers showing up to set with a 16" MacBook Pro were immediately hunting to plug in and get the most their computer can deliver.
ARM-based Apple Silicon should be able to deliver more of its horsepower while running on battery, and that battery should last longer. This is one of the keys to why the M1 is interesting for filmmakers. We always want to plug into wall power, but sometimes we need to do an edit on an airplane, train, or out in the middle of nowhere. ARM should make that easier to do, while the machine will also stay cooler.
It's also important to understand that the new design is built around an SoC (System on a Chip), which more tightly integrates components than the previous system.
Gone are the days when you would hunt for systems with the RAM and video ram (or VRAM) when shopping for a video editing and color grading machine. With the M1, both the CPU and the GPU are able to use the same shared memory, called unified memory. This way, when more processing moves over to the GPU for something like rendering, there will be more unified memory available that was previously usually available as dedicated VRAM.
There are a lot of very sophisticated people doing tests to generate raw benchmarks out in the world. If you don't already follow Barefeets, they are among the best, and they have already launched some pure numbers on the M1 versus Intel that are worth a look. Those numbers are insanely impressive in terms of how fast the new M1 Apple Silicon chips are running versus Intel, especially since the programs they tested, like Lightroom, are not optimized for Apple Silicon, and thus, run through an emulation layer.
In addition to Barefeets, you should also check in with Dork in A Tent, a popular DIT blog, who has been testing the new M1 based Mac Mini, and it's undeniably fast in pure testing.
However, benchmarks can show you one thing, and real-world tests are another matter altogether.
What matters is how the whole system works together. If the CPU is super fast but its connection to drives is slow, work in Resolve or Final Cut will be slow. What matters to filmmakers is how fast will the render be compared to the Intel chips and who smoothly will our work be.
Can you tell these machines apart? Physically they are nearly identical, but inside they are worlds different.
I fired up DaVinci Resolve and Premiere and was immediately impressed. I set the new 13" MacBook Pro with 16GB of unified memory next to the May 2020 13" MacBook Pro with 32GB of memory, and in every test, the M1 was faster. Of course, a new machine will be faster, but the old machine is only from a few months ago and has twice the system RAM.
When rendering out a 1080p source upscaled to 8K in Resolve, I got 3-4fps on the old system and 12.5fps on the M1.
Copying 90GB of files took 2:08 on the old system, 2:06 on the M1. And most impressive of all was that unplugging the M1 didn't dramatically slow down the render. It still kicked up around 11-12 fps and occasionally up to 12.5fps.
Apple Silicon appears as though it will absolutely be ready for filmmakers straight out of the box. It is worth noting that DaVinci Resolve 17 ready to work natively on Apple Silicon.
Adobe is a different matter. At the moment, the software isn't ready for Apple Silicon, but it is in development.
In order to run vintage Intel applications on Apple Silicon, Apple developed a translation layer called Rosetta 2. This means that aside from a small warning when you install the application that it isn't native to Apple Silicon, you shouldn't notice any difference. The software should just work. The curiosity is if it will work more slowly since it's running through an emulation layer.
Despite needing to go an additional layer, we were still very impressed. Whatever magic Apple had to work with Rosetta 2 seemed to work just fine. Working with Premiere felt just as snappy as responsive as it did on Intel, perhaps even more soon. And things were legitimately faster. Renders that took 30 seconds on Intel took 20 seconds on the new M1. That's a shockingly big speed increase for a computer only six months newer and with half the system RAM.
Honestly I found it so shocking I ran the renders several times to make sure it wasn't a fluke. My hope was that renders would be roughly the same speed or just slightly slower, but they were a whopping 30% faster. On a feature film render or export that is going to be a major timesaver.
The new M1 based system cruised on a render upresing 1080p to 8K SUHD.
One thing to note was that while running the DaVinci Resolve 17 beta software, I did have crashes on the M1 system that didn't happen on the Intel system. Anytime I tried to load in a 12K Blackmagic RAW footage, Resolve immediately crashed on the M1, but not the Intel.
Everything else that was imported in Resolve on the M1 was fine, but just know if you're working with 12K files, you might run into an issue for now. Presumably, this is something that will be all worked out since DaVinci Resolve 17 is in beta.
You have to click "iPad & iPhone apps" every time you search, and you frequently see the same warming on most apps.
One of the promises of moving to Apple Silicon is that you can install and run your favorite iOS apps on Mac. However, this is still the early days. When browsing through the app store you see a lot of the simple message "Designed for iPhone, not verified for macOS."
In addition, the app store search is not unified between iPhones and Macs. Meaning, if you do a search on the app store on your phone for something like the Artemis Pro, it comes right up. Search for it in the Mac app store and initially, nothing appears since every single search defaults to "Mac apps."
Instead, a bunch of other apps named Artemis appear that are not the correct ones. Same with countless favorite iPhone apps. Apps are just not appearing in the Mac store at all, even with a warning.
But when you do find them, they do work. You can fire up your favorite iOS apps a run them just fine on the M1 Macs. It's actually pretty nifty.
It's worth noting eGPU units don't work with the new Apple Silicon. This is a bummer, but not a surprise.
It's not a surprise since the move to an SoC design means that everything works differently, and is optimized around unified memory. Since older eGPU's have their own memory, this would likely be incredibly complicated for the system to navigate, or possibly without benefit.
I personally hope that within six months we'll see an eGPU specifically designed to work with Apple Silicon. Thunderbolt 3 should have the bandwidth to make that possible. However, it's also possible that Apple will launch a 16" MacBook Pro next year and a new Mac Pro the year after that, and they are just so screamingly graphics powerful that an eGPU doesn't even feel necessary. Time will tell.
Apple has promised that this is a two-year transition, which means we could be waiting until 2022 for an Apple Silicon-based Mac Pro tower. This also means that, at least until 2023, you can feel confident that your Intel Mac will continue to be supported both by Apple and by third-party developers.
However, at this point, unless I had a really compelling short-term need, I would not spend money on anything Apple with an Intel processor again. I personally had debated getting a 2020 16" MacBook Pro as a "last powerful Intel machine" to keep using for my favorite legacy software, but now having actually used the new Apple Silicon, I just can't see myself investing that kind of coin in a machine that has a ticking clock on it. Rosetta 2 works well enough that it seems like it'll still be possible to keep running my favorite older software that won't move over to Apple Silicon.
Having gone through the PowerPC to Intel move, my experience then was that it was surprising how fast the PowerPC just felt underpowered.
Apple will be focusing all of its impressive array of engineers on making Apple Silicon machines run even better. Intel machines will get support for years to come, but the reality is that Apple has done something very impressive here. By moving to an SoC design they're able to leverage things they're good at to make a machine that's just surprising in its performance.
The choice between the M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro boils down to preference, personal workflow, and price.
The biggest difference on paper between the two right now is cooling power. The MacBook Air doesn't have fans, while the MacBook Pro does. If you are only doing short videos, the Air might be the machine for you. If you are a filmmaker doing longer renders and exports, you'll want the Pro for its cooling fans. With the 13" MacBook Pro M1, you're able to easily edit 4K ProRes files, give them a light grade, and render video without the machine feeling it.
The move to Apple Silicon feels like the kind of thing only Apple can pull off and will be good for filmmakers. The true test will be the 16" MacBook Pro and the Mac Pro, but based on what we're seeing in the 13" MacBook Pro, it feels like we're going to well treated by the change.