Is the New 13" MacBook Pro Powerful Enough for Filmmakers?
The 13" MacBook Pro doesn't have a discrete graphics card, but does that matter for filmmakers on the go?
The 13" MacBook Pro has never been my personal recommendation for a laptop for filmmakers unless they are a writer, producer, or production manager who doesn't need horsepower. In that case, I recommend the MacBook Air. And for directors, editors, colorists, or DPs who need the extra horsepower, something like the 16" MacBook Pro is a better fit.
The latter has always come with one killer feature, which is a discrete graphics card that makes it more powerful for editing and color grading applications. In fact, over the years I've graded 4 features on the MacBook Pro. It's not my first choice for grading, but sometimes, it's the laptop that's nearby and it has the horsepower to come through when you need it.
- 2.3Ghz intel core i7
- 32GB RAM
- Intel Iris Plus Graphics 1536MB
- 4 Thunderbolt 3 ports
- Scissor Keyboard
The 16" MacBook Pro received a massive upgrade last fall, including a new keyboard, speakers, and a microphone. But there is an even bigger reason to consider it the "default" laptop for filmmakers: you can soup it up with the most GPU power you can afford, save money on internal storage (filmmakers use externals), and away you go.
Despite my recommendation, however, the 13" MacBook Pro is far more common in the world of indie productions and with my students. The reason, of course, is cost. The starting price for the new 13" is $1299, with $100 off for students and educators, meaning you can be in a "pro" model for only $1199. Bump up memory and you could still have a very powerful machine for under $2000. Whereas the 16" starts around there and quickly rises in cost the more you add on. The price and performance ratio of the 13" is very attractive to a lot of users. It's also just a pleasant size. The 16" is a big laptop to carry around with you everywhere and the 13" just feels more like a truly portable system.
In fact, every time I went back to my personal 15" unit during my week of testing, I was always shocked at how "big" it feels. The 13" size feels very portable, light, and right in a lot of ways.
Thus the newest update to the 13" has gotten a lot of attention with my students, readers, and even other No Film School writers since it's an appealing tool at an affordable price. The main thing to figure out, though, is does it have enough power to stand up to what a filmmaker needs.
The 13" MacBook Pro is built around integrated graphics. This means that instead of having a separate, standalone graphics card, the graphics processing unit (GPU) is built into the logic board of the laptop in an integrated system. This is incredibly common in laptops and mobile devices, but it usually means less horsepower. The 15" and 16" MacBook Pro models have offered discrete graphics cards for nearly a decade now, meaning that they have both an integrated graphics unit and also a separate, dedicated piece of hardware for processing graphics.
Filmmaking programs, especially DaVinci Resolve and Premiere Pro, are GPU hungry. They'll use whatever graphics power you can give them, which is why you see setups like a tower with a Cubix Expander with 3 GPU's in it for intensive color grading applications. It's the reason for the popularity of eGPU setups, which are now supported natively in macOS.
The discrete graphics in the 16" have been something that filmmakers have grown to rely on and you will see folks firing up Resolve on the 16" MacBook Pro and coloring all the time...though always when plugged into a wall outlet, of course, since the laptop throttles graphics power when working off the battery.
The newest 13" MacBook Pro still has integrated graphics, but there is a lot of focus on the new refresh adding a lot of power to the graphics unit. The reason being the new 6K Apple Pro Display XDR. This is a massive monitor that requires a lot of horsepower to display all those pixels. The new 13" MacBook Pro is capable of running it, which means it needs beefy graphics power even in an integrated unit. Thus, when not plugged into an XDR monitor, it stands to reason that there is graphics horsepower laying around for other applications to put to use.
Physical Body and Keyboard
At this point, most folks know the physical form factor of the MacBook Pro line, but the current version with its physical escape key and a return to real arrow keys is definitely settling into a nice maturity that I think most will appreciate.
Overall, I personally love the size of the 13" and would happily switch to it for all my work if it had the power to cover it. Smaller, lighter, and more discrete than a 16", it's still the same size keyboard and plenty large enough for my larger hands to feel quite comfortable typing.
The keyboard is marvelous. It's just a genuine pleasure to be back to a keyboard that doesn't feel like it's going to wake my sleeping baby. I hated the keyboard in the 2016-2018 models so much I immediately returned my 2016 after purchase.
It was uncomfortable, it was incredibly loud, I couldn't take notes in a meeting or presentation without getting dirty looks, and this was before we heard reports of how easily it could get damaged. Even the refreshed design in 2018 suffered from a new problem, the repeat keypress error, that you needed to install special software to handle, and while the 2018 keyboard was more comfortable, the 2020 keyboard is even better.
With 2020, Apple has returned to a traditional scissor mechanism, as opposed to their fancy butterfly mechanism, for mounting the keys. This has made the whole laptop 1mm thicker, which is fine and not that noticeable. The feeling of the keys, the sound of typing, is just superior to previous models.
Editing & Color
Like most of the country dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, I've been staying at home. That means I had to make do with whatever footage I had available, and without a comparable 13" MacBook Pro from last year, I couldn't do a head-to-head test.
Luckily, the wonderful BareFeats tests everything and is able to do a pure test between this model and last year's model. It shows improvements in graphics-heavy tasks of up to 25%. That number is impressive as a raw data point, but doesn't it matter in the real world in the apps we actually use?
The first thing I wanted to play with was RAW video, specifically using 8K REDCODE RAW. One of the nice features of most RAW formats is that you can adjust the playback quality, and with the 13" MacBook Pro, you definitely can't play the full resolution 8K clip, but you can play it at 1/8th resolution.
While 1/8 resolution seems bad, it's actually sufficient considering the screen size. You rarely have the video full screen while editing. You usually have a timeline and bins and other tools up, so you just need the video to look good at about 1/4 the size of your screen. I was able to fire up 8K footage at 1/8 resolution and play around and work quite easily in Resolve, which gives you a playback speed indicator that shows a green dot when full 23.98fps playback is achieved.
In a way, though, RAW video is an easy test since you can easily turn down its quality. H.265 video, specifically 4K H.265 video, is the real test and lead to the biggest surprise. A 4K H.265 video played just fine in both Premiere and Resolve. H.265 is notoriously harder to unpack than H.264, but Apple has integrated H.265 into its laptops since 2018, and it really shines here.
The fact that I could build up a timeline of H.265 clips in Premiere and play them at full quality without stuttering or choking the system was amazing. Now, to be fair, a lot of the credit goes to Adobe, Blackmagic Design, and the Apple team on Final Cut Pro for optimizing playback speed and software/hardware integration. That said, the hardware is able to support the demands being placed on it.
My test unit did come with 32GB of RAM, and I think that is a useful area for filmmakers to consider the upgrade. As you work with longer projects, more RAM is going to help the system process and background cache, and that money is likely worth it.
Additionally, while it can process H.265 footage, the fans do immediately kick on full and it's clear the system is working. To that end, I would still recommend transcoding your footage to ProRes for longer projects, and probably down to 1080p ProRes files for a better experience. However, if you have a fast turnaround H.265 project that's short, you can likely get away with leaving it in its original codec.
I also tested ProRes 4444 playback as well with some 6K files, fully expecting it to fail, but even there it was able to play 6K ProRes 4444 files with ease. I would never recommend a 6K ProRes workflow—if you are going to transcode and reconnect to RAW later, you might as well transcode to something lightweight like 1080p. I did have some files from a VFX job in that format and they played well, too.
All of those tests are basics in editing footage without adding a ton of plugins. Integrated graphics are going to really struggle if you start to pile up GPU intensive activities like noise correction in Resolve or heavy color grading in Resolve. In fact, with pretty much every test I did, all it took to turn playback back down to stuttering was adding a single noise correction node. That is something most of us working off laptops are used to, however, and there are workarounds, including node-caching, to make it doable.
One thing to remember with the 13" is that it supports Thunderbolt 3, which means you can go out and spend $299 at the Apple store to get an external GPU that is fully supported by Apple.
For a long time, eGPU's weren't natively supported in macOS and required a lot of workarounds, but now they are. There are a few (including the Blackmagic eGPU) that speed up graphics-intensive tasks like noise correction. This is a huge benefit for filmmakers that want both power and mobility. An eGPU isn't going to speed up tasks like downloading footage or processor-heavy tasks like Photoshop, but if you want to apply noise correction to an entire feature film, an eGPU will be a lifesaver.
Many reviewers have noticed that this feels like a half update. The graphics get an update, but not the speakers or the microphone, which got huge updates on the 16" unit. That actually doesn't bother me, since I'm not sure filmmakers should be evaluating the sound from any laptop speakers. Yes, the speakers sound great on the 16", but most filmmakers will probably still connect to studio monitors or just a set of good headphones like the Sony MDR 7506 for evaluating sound. And no matter how nice the microphone is on the laptop, it will never replace a good external.
What I was looking for in this laptop was simple. Are the integrated graphics going to be enough for filmmakers? For editing, the answer seems to be yes, though I'd still recommend transcoding your H.265 footage to ProRes and maybe working in 1080p proxies.
It feels a bit like this is Apple letting the 13" drift apart from the 16" into separate arenas. The 13" won't just be smaller, it will likely always lack the top of the line hardware of the 16" version, including speakers, microphones, etc. For some filmmakers, that is okay.
If the trade-off to that is a lower price point, a smaller form factor, better battery life, and more energy into graphics, it's a trade-off worth making. As much as I dream of a 13" with a discrete graphics card, I don't think it will be coming.
For now, the 13" is finally coming into its own as a viable choice for filmmakers. If you expect color or full 3D VFX to be a big part of your freelance life, you should splurge for the 16". For editorial, and even light color grading and titles work, this year's 13" feels like a doable platform.