When Apple announced its first batch of Macs powered by its in-house M1 processor, I was cautiously optimistic. While Apple's performance claims seemed too good to be true, early benchmarks paint these chips as some of the more powerful on the market today.
But how does that translate to real-world performance, especially where it concerns photography? Should you even consider one of these Macs when Apple has more powerful silicon on the way? These are the questions I hope to address in this post.
And, after a few weeks with one of the new MacBooks — both the Pro and the Air — I’m happy to report that the M1 is just as competent in Photoshop and Lightroom as it is in the synthetic benchmarks that keep popping up in reviews.
In fact, I can say with confidence that this first generation of Arm-based Macs are likely to stay the sweet spot for many Photographers, especially as Adobe and other creative apps add native software support — more on that later.
With that in mind, I wanted to break down my experience with the new M1 Macs from a photographer's point of view.
This post is going to focus in large part on my anecdotal experiences in primarily photographic workloads. I won’t be spending a lot of time on benchmarks as I have nothing to compare them to. Thankfully, other publications and blogs have done a great job of exploring the M1's performance potential.
If you really want to get into the nitty gritty of the M1 processor, I recommend taking a look at AnandTech’s deep dive which you can find here.
In this post, I'll be spending a fair bit of time on performance in native and non-native applications like Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. I’ll also spend some time on the hardware. While most of the changes are on the inside, there are still a few things worth noting.
What makes these Macs special?
Before I launch into my experience using these Macs, I want to take a moment to explain why the chips inside of them are so important.
For those that don't know, Apple has been designing its own chips for the iPhone and iPad for the past decade, starting with the A4 in the iPad 2 and iPhone 4. These chips were based on the Advanced RISC Machine architecture licensed from Arm Holdings, and this is still true today.
The important bit here is the Arm architecture is fundamentally different from the x86 one used by chipmakers like Intel and AMD.
Until recently, the power efficiency offered by the Arm architecure made it ideal for low-power electronics like smartphones, tablets, smart speakers and other connected devices, but a relatively poor choice for laptops or desktops which have to contend with far more demanding workloads. This is why, until now, all Macs produced since 2006 have been powered by Intel chips.
Over the last few years, Arm processors have caught up, with many now rivaling the performance of Intel and AMD's laptop chips, while consuming a fraction of the power. This brings us to today and Apple's M1.
I bring this up because it's the reason these new Macs have gotten so much attention. Apple plans to phase out all of its Intel Macs in favor of its own chips over the next year and a half.
Apple nailed the software
The new chips are only part of the story. Having the a super-fast processor is nice and all, but it won’t do you much good if none of your software works.
Getting the software right is arguably the most important part of making this transition work. And with a few exceptions, Apple pulled it off. Everything just works.
By all rights, Apple’s transition away from Intel and x86 processors to its own Arm-based chips shouldn’t have gone this smoothly. I think everyone was expecting it to be a little more painful, at least for the first year or so.
But within a few hours of unboxing my MacBook Pro, I’d all but forgotten that this thing didn't have an Intel chip in it. It just felt like any other Mac, albeit a pretty fast one.
All of this is possible thanks to Apple’s translation layer called Rosetta 2, which enables customers to seamlessly run apps written for Intel Macs on the new chip. Since a lot of apps, including most of the Adobe suite, haven't been updated to run natively on Apple's processors, this was really important to get right.
If Rosetta sounds familiar, that's because this isn't Apple's first rodeo. Rosetta 1 — then just called Rosetta — launched with the first Intel Macs back in 2006. The difference is this time Rosetta isn't a dog. In most cases, there is no discernible overhead when running Intel apps through the translation layer.
Occasionally, Intel apps might take a few extra seconds to launch after you reboot the machine, but that’s really it.
To put it bluntly, the experience is simply astonishing. Intel apps are fast and stable running on the M1, and more importantly, broadly compatible.
Photoshop and Lightroom Classic
I had no problem running either Adobe Lightroom Classic or Photoshop on the new Macs. Overall performance was excellent, far better than what you’d expect on a thin and light notebook.
Merging 13, 30-megapixel images into a single 160-megapixel panorama took just over two minutes in Lightroom Classic. More importantly, the system remained completely responsive throughout the entire process. This same task used to render my old notebook — a 2014 MacBook Pro 15 — completely unresponsive for 5-10 minutes, depending on the size of the photo merge.
Likewise, I had no problem applying multiple adjustment layers and corrections to the finished panorama in Photoshop. The only time I ran into any slow downs was when using Content Aware Fill to generate large gaps around the edge of the image.
It’s also important to remember that neither of these apps are running natively on M1 Macs, at least not yet. Thankfully, Adobe has promised native versions of its most popular Creative Suite apps by 2021, and several of them are already in Public beta.
I expect performance in both apps to improve dramatically as Adobe updates more of the Creative Suite to support Apple Silicon. For the moment, only Lightroom CC has gotten native support for the platform.
I’m particularly interested in seeing whether Photoshop or Lightroom will take advantage of the M1’s 16-core Neural Engine, a machine learning processor that other imaging apps are already taking advantage of to speed up computationally intensive tasks.
What about other apps?
In addition to Photoshop and Lightroom, I also tested out performance in Pixelmator Pro and Skylum’s Luminar 4, both of which take advantage of machine learning to accelerate and automate tedious tasks like sky replacements and subject selection.
Pixelmator Pro was actually one of the first image manipulation apps to add support for Apple Silicon support and was featured during Apple’s November keynote.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with Pixelmator Pro, the app attempts to mirror many of Photoshop and Illustrator’s core functions
I should mention that Pixelmator Pro ran well on Intel-based Macs, before Apple Silicon or the M1 were a thing, thanks to its extensive use of Apple’s Core Imaging library. With the move to Apple Silicon, the app is not only faster, but more powerful. The latest release takes advantage of the M1’s Neural Engine to speed up ML Super Resolution, a feature which uses machine learning to intelligently upscale images.
While I don’t think Pixelmator Pro is ready to replace Photoshop or Illustrator for most professional photographers just yet, it is at the very least a sneak peek at what is possible when applications are properly optimized for the hardware.
It was a similar story with Luminar 4, although like Photoshop, it is still running in Rosetta 2. Luminar is well regarded for its use of machine learning to automate meticulous tasks like sky replacements and portait airbrushing.
Skylum hasn’t committed to supporting Apple Silicon yet, but I suspect that we’re unlikely to see Luminar 4 get updated to support Apple’s new chips. If Skylum does add native support, my guess is it will be limited to the company’s latest release, Luminar AI.
Thankfully, you should have no problem running either version through Rosetta until a native version is ready. Oh, and let me know if you'd like to see a post of Luminar since its use of machine learning raises some pretty interesting ethical questions.
I could only test a limited subset of applications, but if you're worried an app you rely on won't work, this awesome website cataloging which apps work and which don't is super helpful.
The Hardware: It’s not perfect
I want to spent a little time on the hardware wrapped around the M1 chips. While there’s not a lot that’s new to talk about, there are some important factors, good and bad, that are worth considering.
While the exteriors of these notebooks may look the same as their Intel counterparts, they are very different on the inside. That means quirks and hardware defects are something to watch out for. Full disclosure, the webcam and ambient light sensor (I’m pretty sure they’re the same thing) failed on Niecie’s M1 MacBook Air after just a few weeks. This doesn’t appear to be a widespread problem, so it could just be a fluke, but it’s frustrating and therefore worth mentioning.
These teething pains are to be expected and should become less common as Apple works out some of the bigger kinks. If you do go ahead and pick up one of these Macs, AppleCare Plus+ — the company's three-year extended warranty and accident protection plan — is probably a good idea.
Stick with 16 GBs of RAM
I want to get this one out of the way first since it seems like everyone wants to know if these Macs are as memory hungry as the previous generation.
All three of Apple’s new M1 Macs come equipped with 8 GBs of RAM and can be configured with up to 16 GBs. While you can certainly get by with 8 GBs, I highly recommend saving yourself the trouble and upgrading to 16 GBs, since you can't upgrade it later. You can thank me later.
Unlike previous Macs, the memory is soldered directly to the processor die instead of the motherboard. Apple calls this Unified Memory and it does have performance implications since the CPU and GPU can access the same pool of memory much faster, but it doesn't magically make 8 GBs behave like 16.
With that said, MacOS handles memory management quite a bit differently than Windows. Through a combination memory compression and an incredibly fast SSD — like 3 gigabytes per second fast — MacOS can make 8 GBs of RAM feel like a whole lot more.
In short, if 8 GBs isn’t enough on your current Mac, it won’t be enough on Unified Memory or otherwise, and if you happen to be pushing the limits with 16 GBs of RAM, you may want to wait for the next batch of Apple Silicon Macs coming out this year.
The display is still phenomenal
Apple’s displays are still fantastic, especially for those that need a color-accurate panel.
Both the M1 MacBook Air and the Pro feature P3 wide-color gamut 13.3-inch displays (new to the Air) with a 2560x1600 resolution. Out of the box, MacOS is scaled to a very usable 1440x900, but it can also be set to 1680x1050 or 1280x800 depending on your preference.
Personally, I’ve kept the display at its default scaling as it offers a nice balance between usability and screen real estate.
Side by side, the Pro is noticeably brighter at 500 nits compared to the Air’s 400, but practically speaking, both are plenty bright for use in most conditions.
For photography, the display on either model is a marked improvement over my old 15-inch Retina MacBook Pro, which is neither as bright nor as color accurate.
And for those concerned about productivity on a 13-inch panel, Apple is rumored to be bringing a 14-inch MacBook Pro with an even more powerful M-series processor to market sometime in 2021. So, it might be worth the wait.
Finally, it’s worth noting that Apple still refuses to add a touch screen to their Macs. If this is a deal breaker for you, Microsoft is rumored to be developing its own chips for use in its Azure public cloud and Surface laptops and tablets.
It only supports one very-high resolution external monitor
While we’re on the topic of displays, the new M1-equipped MacBook Pro and Air only support a single external display up to 6K. Only the M1 Mac Mini supports two.
I suspect this won’t be a problem for most people considering these machines, but it's something to be aware of if you’re already rocking a dual monitor setup.
It is possible to add a third display via an iPad and sidecar, but the iPad will suffer reduced color accuracy and compression artifacts when connecting over WiFi.
I’ve also read about people using DisplayLink adapters to add additional monitors in software, but I haven’t tried this for myself.
The lack of dual monitor support seems to be a limitation of the M1 processor more than anything. I’m quite confident that future Apple Silicon Macs won’t be limited in the same way.
The battery life is as good as everyone says
One of the big selling points of the new MacBooks is the absurd battery life enabled by the M1 processor, and for the most part, these claims hold up to scrutiny.
Apple claims 17 hours of web browsing on WiFi on the Pro and 15 on the Air. This might be true on a brand new machine, but you’re likely to run into battery vampires once you start installing Intel apps.
In my limited testing — I’m rarely that far from a charge cable these days — I consistently got between 10 and 14 hours battery life out of my MacBook Pro, while running a mix of Safari; productive apps, like Ulysses, Spark Mail and Slack; imaging apps like Photoshop, Lightroom and Luminar; and the occasional game.
I have to say being able to run processor-intensive apps without worrying about draining your battery in a matter of minutes is quite liberating.
It’s quiet. Really quiet
The M1 Macs are also surprisingly quiet. During my normal work day, the fan on my MacBook Pro never once spun up, and my MacBook remained cool to the touch.
The only time I managed to get the fan spinning was when I attempted to rerender approximately 5,000 smart previews in Lightroom Classic. The fan came on after about 10 minutes and stayed on for the remainder of the 35 minutes it took to finish rendering the previews.
For burstier workloads, like editing photos, the MacBook Air really should be on your radar. It’s $300 cheaper than the Pro, offers near identical performance, and is completely silent since it lacks a fan altogether. Seriously, if weren't for the increadible endurance of the Pro, I would have bought the air.
However, for more intensive workloads, like rendering longer videos, I would recommend checking out the Pro. Its active cooling does make a difference during prolonged tasks, where the fanless Air will eventually throttle.
Two really fast ports
The last thing worth mentioning is that unless you’re going to plug your camera directly into the computer, you’re going to need a dongle.
Both the M1 MacBook Pro and Air feature two USB 4.0 type C ports. These do support Thunderbolt 3, which provides a whopping 40 Gb/s of throughput each, but you’ll still need an expensive hub to take advantage of them.
USB-C hubs, on the other hand, don’t offer the same throughput as Thunderbolt and can be a bit flaky, but they’re a relatively inexpensive way to add additional functionality to your Mac.
I’ve had good luck with this one from Anker. It features gigabit networking, a UHS-I SD-card reader, two 10 Gb/s USB-A ports, a USB-C port for data (also 10 Gb/s), HDMI 2.0 (4K 60Hz) and power delivery passthrough up to 85 watts, when using a 100 watt adapter.
Setting the bar
In my opinion, the most impressive thing about this latest crop of MacBooks is that Apple has once again managed to change up the discussion around what is possible with a thin and light notebook.
Workloads that used to require larger, more powerful, and often more expensive computers are now only possible on Apple’s lowest-specced Macs, but they’re fast — like actually fast.
If you’d asked me a year ago, hell even six months ago, if you could color grade highly-compressed 4K video on a fanless notebook, I would have laughed at the idea and said something about having better luck on an iPad.
Suddenly that’s not as crazy as it might sound. What’s more, Apple will be rolling out new and more powerful Macs in short order. But for most photographers, I think these new macs are the sweet spot in Apple’s line up.
With that said, you need to know what you’re getting into. If you can test one out before buying, I would. And, don’t be surprised if you run into bugs in software, or worse, a hardware issue. These are after all first-gen products.
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What do you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below:
- What are your thoughts on the new Macs?
- How about the M1 processor?
- I'll be writing a followup later this year, what would you like me to test?