Apple opened their October event with a young musician creating an Apple-inspired music track in a dingy garage filled with gear worth tens of thousands of dollars. Some viewers commented on the unrealistic portrayal of a creative professional. But I felt like I was looking in a mirror.

If Apple’s target market for the new MacBook Pros with M1 Pro and M1 Max processors are scruffy weirdos in grungy surroundings with suspiciously killer kit, I am dead-center in their cross-hairs. By day I’m an executive software-maker at Maxon, helping create Cinema 4D and the Red Giant tools. By the other half of the day, I’m a filmmaker and a photographer working out of a no-frills loft in beautiful downtown Emeryville California, home to Pixar and potholes, Bay Bridges and burning trash bins. Like the camera-ready A. G. Cook, I have a Pro Display XDR perched on some reclaimed barn lumber. Unlike him, my work involves nits as much as it does decibels.


Yes I Have One

This won’t be an exhaustive review, but I’ve had a 2021 MacBook Pro for a few days now, and I’ve been able to do enough with it to weigh in on whether it might have a place in your hipster garage of pro-ness.

This maxed-out silicon configuration is almost exactly what I would buy for myself, except I might opt for the 2TB SSD. With 2TB the price for the 14″ totals $4,099, for 4TB, add $600 USD.

You can indeed configure these machines well into the $5,000 range, but that is not new for Apple’s highest-end laptops.

What is new enough is the the melding of the M1 unified memory architecture with a “pro” specification. A laptop with a 64GB GPU and an SSD as fast as RAM from 10 years ago is so weirdly new that it has a lot of would-be garage-pros confused about where their sweet-spot configuration might be.

The Lazy Pro

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I’m not a Mac Pro guy. I just know myself well enough to know I’ll be too lazy to pull apart my computer and swap out parts.

When Apple announced the Trash Can, I recommended folks consider spending the same money on two iMacs. My habit at the time was to budget a replacement maxed-out iMac every three or so years rather than spend more on an ostensibly upgradable Mac Pro.

This frequent-iMac-upgrade plane worked great for me for about a decade. With each new machine, everything got better — CPU, GPU, storage, memory, and display.

This culminated with a machine that seemed to suggest Apple agreed that iMacs are ideal for professional work. When Apple released the iMac Pro, I immediately bought two iMacs-worth of it. Four years later, with ten CPU cores and 128 GB of DDR RAM, it’s still my solid workhorse. I frequently have a dozen apps open at a time, and it runs 24/7 executing automations and remote and local renders. The iMac Pro is incredibly stable — I might restart it once a month or so. I never hear its fans over the other noises in my studio.

While I’ve had to work hard to find any apps that will push its CPU to the limit, the same has not been true for GPU. I color graded a 20-minute short in 4k on this machine, and it did eventually get a bit bogged down.

At the four-year mark, the iMac Pro is about ready for a replacement. After the impressive launch of Apple’s home-grown M1 processor, I’ve been thrilled to imagine what the next pro iMac might look like. What I did not expect is that a laptop might beat it to the punch in replacing my trusty desktop powerhouse.

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A New Old Design

I gotta be honest, I made some kind of sound when I opened the box. Maybe like a half-gasp, half chuckle. This thing just looks great. You will get mad at yourself for being so happy that Apple has brought back things it willfully removed, like useful ports and keys. But you’ll get over that quickly as you bask in the sense that Apple has made this thing just for you, you professional garage weirdo.


Touchy Bar

I was open to the Touch Bar when it was first introduced. We jumped on supporting it right away in Slugline. I notoriously love alternative input devices, whether it be color control surfaces or keypads, trackballs or touchscreens. What I came to realize though was that however promising the Touch Bar was, it was never an additional input method. It came at the expense of function keys — and as boring as function keys are, they are damn useful. The Touch Bar not only failed to be better than the thing it stole real-estate from, it also didn’t work reliably, and seemingly failed to hold even Apple’s attention. I applaud Apple for trying it, and feel bittersweet to see it gone. I hope that Apple won’t stop experimenting with ideas like this, and listening to their users about the results.

From “Courage” to Humility

That uncharacteristic willingness to admit that a grand experiment did not pay out is perhaps the single most dominating vibe of these computers. Apple is not known for graciously admitting a mistake, yet here we have laptops that have so resoundingly repudiate their design assertions of the last half-decade that it’s hard for us pros to not feel at least seen, if not downright vindicated.

The SD card slot is back. Its removal was a bet on a wireless future — a bet that no working photographer would take today (I once watched a Sony employee struggle for a good portion of an hour to link a Sony camera to a Sony phone). SD cards were useful but not exclusively so in 2016 when they were obliterated from Apple’s laptops. Back then, bigger DSLRs shot to bigger and faster CF cards as well . But in 2021, SD card speeds have earned the smaller storage sticks a place in even my Sony a7RIV, where every shutter click results in a 62MB file.

The HDMI port speaks for itself, but it’s the return of MagSafe that feels like the most profound reversal of course. There can be no sensible explanation for why it was removed now that we’ve seen how it can so perfectly coexist with USB-C charging.

And then there’s the keyboard. Inverted-T arrow keys, of course. Function keys are not only back, they’re full-height. That’s a statement, as is the black surround. Apple is visually emphasizing what’s both new and old, in a way that seemingly pays homage to the titanium G4 PowerBook, the Mac that set the course that Apple’s laptop designs have been sailing on for 20 years.


Of course, it also ensures that folks at the coffee shop will know you have the new one. And the combined package does that thing Apple excels at, where a new design makes your existing device instantly feel old and clunky.

Welcome to Mac-y Notch

Both the 14″ and 16″ MacBook Pro models feature a notch at the top of the screen where the FaceTime camera and display-related sensors reside. On paper it seems like this will take getting used to, but in practice it’s quite easy to forget about — except in Cinema 4D, which already has a hard time fitting all of its menus on smaller screens.


Two key takeaways for the notch: First, it’s pure bonus. The screen below the notch is the typical Mac laptop 16:10 aspect, and the notch area adds 74 pixels more for the (now slightly taller) Monterey menu bar to straddle it. So you’re not losing one notch’s-worth of screen, you’re gaining the two “ears.”

Second: Finally the bizarre menu bar transparency Apple added a few macOS revisions ago makes sense. Choose a dark wallpaper image, leave Reduce Transparency off (for me, this is a change from my usual Mac setup), and enjoy a dark-mode-esque menu bar into which the notch all but disappears, even when the system appearance is light.

The Display

Part of the reason that the best Macs have built-in displays is that Apple makes the best displays. I wrote about the Pro Display XDR and Apple’s EDR technology at the end of last year, and since then Apple has miniaturized their mini-LED backlit displays to fit in an iPad Pro and now these laptops.

Mini LED not as pure an HDR delivery method as, say, OLED, where every pixel is individually addressed. As with the 12.9″ iPad Pro, you can spot the characteristic blooming artifacts around starfields and bright titles against black. But only if you’re in a pitch-black room and looking very closely.

Think about it this way — Apple touts 10,000 LEDs, which sounds like a lot. But that roughly measures out to a grid of, say, 132 × 76 LEDs. So the HDR-nes of these displays is far lower resolution than an Apple Watch Series 3 screen.

A fanciful rendition showing how the LED backlight array is coupled with a traditional LCD panel.

It shouldn’t work as well as it does, but for the most part, the display simply looks great — and then when you throw some real HDR imagery up and those 1,600 peak nits kick in, it transforms into a shockingly gorgeous thing.

But, crucially, not just gorgeous — your absolute best bet for the correct gorgeous, under a variety of viewing conditions.

The TLDR of a future @prolost post is basically: If you want to do color management right, buy a recent Mac with a built-in display\u2009\u2014\u2009and that's it. I'm sure it won't be controversial in the least. \uD83D\uDE2C

The TLDR of a future @prolost post is basically: If you want to do color management right, buy a recent Mac with a built-in display — and that’s it. I’m sure it won’t be controversial in the least. 😬

I’m not quite ready to open those floodgates today, but I’ll reiterate the sentiment: Apple’s displays are calibrated, profiled, accurate, and consistent, at a commodity level. The same display can show color-accurate HDR right next to color-accurate SDR.

Which makes it all the more frustrating that Apple doesn’t make a sensible monitor to attach to these new computers.

How do you demonstrate an HDR display? Obviously you take an HDR photo, display it in HDR on the HDR display, and then take another HDR photo of that. Then you make an animated GIF of exposures to show how the HDR highlights compare to the white of this page. Obviously.

My hope is that the Pro Display XDR is like the 2011 Tesla Roadster — an open ploy for the money-is-no-object customer to fund the development of more broad-market options. If an 12.9″ iPad Pro can sell for $1099, then surely Apple could sell a larger version of that display, sans computer guts, for less than $6,000?

The 2021 MacBook Pro displays are miraculous. But these laptops desperately want to be connected to one or more additional displays.

Because they are taking a real shot at replacing your desktop.


Max Out the M1 Max in your Macs?

It was interesting to listen to the ATP guys struggle to figure out their ideal configurations. Spoiler alert: none of their decisions will make any sense to you.

But it’s a real challenge, because the speeds and feeds stats we’re so accustomed to are now intermingled and out-of-scale. What is the importance of RAM on these new integrated systems? I’ve been doing genuine production work on my M1 Air, and it only has 16 GB of shared memory. The new architecture makes our old assumptions obsolete.

Typically a big reason I splurge on RAM is for the playback cache in Adobe After Effects. But Apple‘s latest SSDs could be as fast as the RAM in your last computer, so when After Effects reverts to its disk cache, you may not notice.

I think I have an answer to how you should configure these new computers. You’re going to hate it. But first…

Some Performance Numbers

This is not my thing. I’m not a fastidious hardware tester, and I haven’t had much time with this MacBook Pro.

Worst of all, being me, I ran the most extensive tests using Adobe After Effects, which is not M1 optimized, and has never been famous for using multiple cores well.

Prepare to hate this part. Hit me up on Twitter and tell me what paces you’d like to see me run this thing through.

After Effects: Ignore the Cores

The first test project I chose was 300 frames from my film TANK. This is a deep and complex After Effects project with hundreds of comps, tens of thousands of layers, and a rats nest of complex expressions.

I was delighted to see that my trusty iMac Pro turned in per-frame averages around 27 seconds. This is at least twice as fast as when I actually rendered the film, an improvement that has to be almost exclusively due to the improved JavaScript expressions engine. Good job, After Effects team!

I chose After Effects for my testing because it matters to me, but After Effects is not an ideal tool for measuring a computer’s raw power. While cooking my TANK frames, the ten cores of the iMac Pro hovered at about 15–20% utilization. This lack of parallel processing ability in my most-used creative app is a big part of why I chose the iMac Pro configuration I did — the 10-core was the best choice for single-core speed.


Now that we’ve established that my CPU test is utterly ridiculous, let’s double down and compare it with After Effects running on a computer that the After Effects team has probably never seen, under emulation. That’s right, at the time of this writing, After Effects runs under Rosetta 2 on M1 Macs.

So how fast did the pretend computer running on a real computer render 300 frames of my short film?

Minutes to render 300 frames of TANK. Shorter bars are better.

Let that sink in: After Effects is about as fast running in emulation on the M1 Max as it is on a $10,000 desktop computer from four years ago.

In a crazy stroke of fate, my entire block had a power outage the first full day I had with the M1 Max. So my first test render was sans juice.

Once the power was restored, I launched the same render again, now with the MacBook Pro powered via USB-C. And then I got a reminder of why I hate doing these tests.


Why was the render slower under AC power? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s the common “new device syndrome” that plagues tech reviewers. When a Mac (or iPhone or iPad) is newly set-up, it has a lot of housekeeping to do: syncing account data and photos, checking for updates, and various other background tasks which, under Monterey, could include scanning every single photo in your library for text to OCR.

My guess is that some of these tasks had been paused under battery power, and resumed once I plugged-in, stealing a few cycles from After Effects.

A few days later I re-rendered the sequence and got results identical the battery test. But that’s still very notable: After Effects did not push the M1 Max hard enough to engage any kind of power throttling. In fact, the laptop never even got noticeably warm during these renders.


I rounded out my testing with my Intel 16″ MacBook Pro (2.4 GHz 8-Core Intel Core i9) and my M1 MacBook Air (16GB). The 16″ got right in there with the iMac and M1 Max, and got hella loud and hot in the process. The M1 Air quietly and coolly chugged along to provide the only result not within a margin of error with the others.

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Minutes to render 300 frames of TANK. Shorter bars are better.

Adobe Premiere: More Testing Needed

I loaded some 4k ProRes footage into Premiere and layered a few Magic Bullet Colorista corrections on top, including a key and an animated mask. Then I added Magic Bullet Renoiser for grain, and a light pinch of Mojo. I set the preview resolution to full, and pressed play. Silky smooth, even at full-screen.

Unlike After Effects, Premiere is M1-native, as are the Magic Bullet effects. So this is a reasonable test, and a very promising one.

There’s a lot more to test here. I plan on de-archiving the 20-minute short film I graded in Premiere a few years ago, the one that started to bog down my iMac Pro. A big difference there is that the footage is XAVC, which Premiere has to work a lot harder to decode. In my limited testing, Premiere did not love heavily inter-frame compressed footage on the M1 Max any more than it does on my Intel Macs.

Little guy making a play for his turn with the XDR

Cinema 4D and Full Metal Redshift

Again, I have only scratched the surface here, but, well, just watch:

That’s Redshift pegging the integrated GPU to render an IPR session (that’s Interactive Photorealistic Rendering) in Cinema 4D. I’ve never seen this kind of performance from a Mac.

Oh, and this was recorded while the MacBook Pro was on battery power.

Update: Some Real Numbers

This morning after posting I ran some proper Redshift benchmarks, pitting the M1 Max against a Razer gaming laptop with a GeForce RTX 3080. This is a $4,000 laptop (that is currently unavailable, like all things NVIDIA), the power brick of which feels like it weighs as much as any Mac laptop.

The M1 Max completed the Redshift render in 11 minutes, 13 seconds. The Razor took less than half that at 4:29.

But on battery, the numbers are much closer. Again, the Mac weirdly sped up without AC, coming in at 11:08, where the Razer slowed to 9:52.


The NVIDIA card with its RTX module specifically designed for ray-tracing certainly has the edge — as long as you’re plugged-in. Also worth remembering: Redshift for Mac is fresh out of beta and still in active development.

The Razer is a damn fine laptop with a touch OLED display and a GPU you can’t buy because bitcoin? Comes with free lead brick.

Issues

Not everything was seamless with my little 14″ powerhouse. It came with macOS Monterey 12.0.1, which seems very Big Sur-like in compatibility with apps I use, and has some lovely features such as Focus modes that sync with your iOS/iPadOS 15 devices. But Shortcuts, which I was excited about, is still quite buggy. The TV app failed to play purchased movies from my iTunes library, which is a bummer when you’re trying to test an HDR display. I couldn’t get Sidecar to work with my iPad Pro running iPadOS 15.1 public beta.

Adobe Premiere blazed through a ProRes encode but maxed out the CPU and then crashed on an H.265 encode.

And as port-y as the new ports are, all my three-button mice are still USB-A. So I’m still rocking’ dongles.

The Biggest Issue

…is that, like I said above, this machine wants to be a desktop. Now, me and A. G. Cook can plug ours into our Pro Display XDRs and make that happen, but unless HDR color grading is a well-paying gig for you, the XDR makes no sense.

Presumably Apple will make my dream M1 MaxiMaxMax iMac soon enough, but I’ll still want to dock my laptop to an Apple-quality display. I currently do that with the LG Ultrafine 4k, a black plastic nothing that doesn’t support EDR.

It’s time for Apple to make a display for normal garage weirdos.

How to Configure your 2021 MacBook Pro

I am in a weird position here in that I already have two of the very few Macs that are marginally speedier than these new laptops at some tasks. I also own a MacBook Air, which snuck up on me and stole my heart. It’s light, it feels fast, and it punches miles above its weight. It’s the cheapest Mac I’ve mentioned here by a healthy margin.

So my advice is this: Go big or go Air. Either max out your M1 Max, or don’t bother with these machines. These MacBook Pros exist to compete at the very highest end of laptop performance, so don’t buy one that’s not racetrack-ready.

Spending the extra money to max out my iMac Pro has kept it useful for at least a year longer than my usual iMac cycle. In that year, a lot has happened. So spending as much as you can now on a computer might buy you extra time, during which I can almost guarantee you, Apple will release something that makes these machines look old and clunky.

On the other hand, the M1 MacBook Air is just an insane amount of computer in an affordable, sleek package. If you’ve never used one, you will be shocked at how fast it feels. And if you’ve never spent five grand on a Mac laptop before, I’m not clear on why you’d start now.

I bet you hate this advice. Here’s why I feel good giving it: You will ignore it. Because you are a pro. You are in your garage with your warped priorities and your cool gear and you know exactly what you want to do with this computer. Like me and my silly After Effects project file, you may never peak those performance bars. But you’ll love knowing that you could.

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Towering Over

These days it doesn’t require much patience to have your laziness vindicated. Shortly after the release of the new Mac Pro, Apple made available the Afterburner card. This $2000 add-on offers hardware-accelerated ProRes encoding and decoding. Now that same power is essentially built-in to the iPhone 13, and these new MacBook Pros.

Apple is going hard with their in-house processors, and with these pro laptops, I think they are showing us what they believe the future to be. I would not be surprised if the days of the towering Mac full of PCI Express card slots are over. Apple has demonstrated that they can scale the M1 to be competitive with big, expensive power-hungry laptops with dedicated GPUs. We knew they were competing with Intel. Now I think it’s clear they intend to go toe-to-toe with NVIDIA as well, on the desktop as well as in our backpacks.

Time will tell. But for now, I have to decide if this laptop is going to be my new desktop.