It has been two and a half months since Apple announced the new M1 SOC Mac mini, MacBook Air and 13” MacBook Pro. So after a good couple of months with a 13” M1 MacBook Pro, I thought I’d put together my findings to help those out there who are thinking of buying one.
If you visit this site on a regular basis, you’ll know that last year I took the decision to ‘downsize’ from a 15” MBP to a 13” MBP as my main machine for email, browsing, writing articles etc. More or less anything but heavy FCP/Motion/Photoshop work - that’s why I have an iMac Pro.
So the smaller form factor wasn’t really an issue for me. I’m still benefiting from not having to lug a larger laptop around all the time.
One note here, my old 2012 retina MBP was fixed by taking it apart, hoovering out the dust/fluff/toast crumbs from the inside and then reseating the SSD. It is now one of my fleet of ‘Mac laptops through the ages’ that powers the daily homeschooling.
So let us start with the obvious, the form factor.
Externally they are the same. No. Nearly correct, the Intel 13” model used to be available in different two case options. Depending on the processor, one had two Thunderbolt 3 ports and one had four. There’s also a very slight difference in the key labelling, but one you would never notice if they weren’t side by side.
Is only having two ports a problem? If you are going to use it on the road for general surfing and email, then no. If you want a second monitor, another drive attached AND the power charger, then yes, it is slightly limiting.
If you have chosen the M1 two port model, then you will probably end up with a dock to help connect to other peripherals and wired internet. Hopefully I’m getting my hands on the new USB-C Travel Dock E from our sponsors OWC to try out.
Other than that, it is the same well designed, well built laptop we have come to expect from Apple.
M1 SOC, GPU and RAM
There are many reviews and videos out there that test the speed of every component down to the millisecond. How dull. But what I will do later is try out some real-life projects on both the Intel 13” and the M1 13” to see how they compare.
This, I think will give a much better idea on the magnitude of speed and performance increase. Will I end up posting one of those stupid mouth open shock pictures you see gracing YouTube tests?
But first, let’s address the worry about two possible weaknesses in the new machines.
We have always been told that a discrete GPU is essential for heavy image processing apps like Final Cut Pro and Motion. Also with only 16 Gig of RAM available, surely this will limit the power of the apps running on the M1 MBP.
This is true for previous Intel models, but not for ’System on a Chip’ M1 Macs. You can’t really compare the two.
As all the CPU and GPU processing happens on a single chip, they can both address the same storage. This avoids the system having to move data between each which leads to much faster processing times, a lot less heat generated and thus, better power consumption.
If you have moved over from a similar Intel machine, then possibly the biggest thing you will notice is the increased battery life. This is incredibly liberating for a user who has for the last 30 years carried power bricks around with him. (And stupidly left them everywhere.)
Go and visit a client and just take the M1 MBP. Work on the train there, spend an hour with them designing and work on the train on the way back. Then watch a film in bed. All on one charge.
The M1 chip laptops have set the ‘usability’ bar high for other manufacturers to get over. At the moment, the rivals haven’t even changed into their athletics kit as they don’t have Apple’s 5‑nanometre process technology.
I think Apple have sold thousands and thousands of these machines already. I’m pretty sure that after a few months, they will say this has been the fastest adoption of a change in processor that they have seen.
Big Sur on M1
Having gone through the Motorola 680XX to PowerPC and the PowerPC to Intel CPU changes already with Apple, I’m impressed with the way they have made this upgrade almost seamless (See later for plugin problems).
If you have been using Big Sur on an Intel machine, then the change over to M1 silicon will not be a problem. More and more apps are being rewritten for the new silicon and those that haven’t will run seamlessly after being converted in the background using Rosetta 2.
Instant on is... well, instant! Initially, it is slightly hard to convince yourself that you haven’t left the computer on, it is that quick to the login screen. You also get very used to not waiting for anything, which is a bit frustrating when you go back to your Intel model.
Final Cut Pro Export Test
You get an inkling that FCP is going to be fast on the M1 MBP when you launch the app. If you get more than one bounce in the dock then something is wrong, it starts up that quickly.
Rather than run speed tests on the SSD and single core/multicore Geekbench tests that we have seen everywhere, I thought I’d try out some real projects.
To make everything even, I kept the FCP Library on an external Samsung T7 drive and exported to that as well. As for the cache, I set that to the desktops, something that I see myself doing more and more for speed.
I also made sure that both machines were running the same version of the Big Sur macOS (11.1) and FCP (10.5.1)
Before every test, I cleared all the generated Library & Project files and did a reboot of the app. I timed the speed of export of the Projects to the T7 using the normal Apple ProRes 422 export preset, the same setting for the timelines.
I also did every test twice and the results are an average of them both, they weren’t that different anyway.
The first Project was a short 15 second effect and title-heavy ad. This included colour corrections, repositioning, moves and multiple graphics overlaid at a time.
INTEL Export 14 seconds
M1 Export 7 seconds
The second was a twelve minute part of a broadcast show. This was mainly built from MXF camera originals, but some of the clips were in two-camera multicams with multi-channel-WAVs. It also include a few Motion-built graphic templates and music as WAVS.
INTEL Export 5 minutes 29 seconds
M1 Export 3 minutes 33 seconds
So on the short project, the M1 exported in half the time. On the longer project there was a considerable speed gain, but not twice as fast. This is probably due to the MXF codec, I would expect the machine to perform better if all of the media involved was in ProRes flavours.
I’m a little disappointed with the render times, maybe I was expecting more from having listened to the Apple presentations. Taking a look at the small print at the bottom of the 13” M1 MBP web page, their benchmarks were conducted using Projects of 10 seconds, 55 seconds and two minutes. Also the '5 times plus' render speeds are for 3D graphics on the timeline, not exporting out a programme part made from rushes.
I'd also like to add here that again, FCP is NOT using any renders to help speed up exporting. We were not using them here, but this has been a real problem with the last few updates of the app. I cannot understand why this hasn't been fixed.
The Plugin Problem
If you only use plugins that have been built with Motion, then you won’t find a problem moving over to the new machine. However, if your favourite plugin contains any custom coding, then it’s bad news.
The move to Apple silicon requires coded plugins to use the new FXPlug4 architecture that runs the plugin externally ‘out-of-process’ to FCP. The problem is that this is still work in progress and apart from a couple of exceptions, the main plugin developers are all waiting for bugs to be ironed out before their products will run on the new machines.
Every cloud does have a silver lining. I expect once the problems have been resolved, a whole new range of functions and plugins will be possible using the M1 chip’s Machine Learning.
Expect fast shot detection, real-time repositioning for different aspect ratios, advanced tracking, face detection/recognition and to borrow K-Tel’s tag line from the 70’s ‘and many more’.
The new M1 SOC 13” MacBook Pro is a great machine and so is the previous Intel model!
There will be customers who will buy M1 machines and use them without problem and without realising the change of silicon inside. Apple has made the transition almost invisible unless you go looking for it.
Should you buy one? Yes, but with a few caveats.
The lack of Thunderbolt ports can be limiting, add a power cable and you will only have one free. If you are running plugins that require FxPlug 4, then be prepared for them not to function or even load until that problem is sorted out.
Apple were always going to start by upgrading the machines at the bottom of their range and work upwards. So we must remember when thinking about editing on the M1 chip that the MacBook Air, 13” MacBook Pro and the Mac mini are base models. To misparaphrase D:Ream, ‘Things can only get faster’ as we expect Apple silicon iMacs, 16” MacBook Pros and MacPros in the future.