Apple has released a new model of Mac computers, the Studio. It comes in two versions the M1 Max and the M1 Ultra. The machines are impressive and fast. They are not for everyone, some people will always want a PC, not least of which due to the desire to run an NVIDIA card, which is still sadly a long way off any Mac roadmap it seems. But if we assume you are in the business of wanting a Mac, who does the Studio suit? We explore the Mac Studio from the point of view of effects editing and compare it to the MacBook Pro.
If you are after just insane speed at any price – the Ultra is the fastest Mac ever made. It has the latest (double) Ultra chip which screams fast in every metric. The problem is we already know there is a faster Mac coming. Apple tipped its hat to the fact that the Mac Pro would also move to the M1 Chip. Unless you have a killer trust fund ($$) or you bought Bitcoin at $12, – if you want the fastest thing going, you may want to wait for the Mac Pro which at this point one can only guess will set records for speed and performance. As much as one might fancy a Mac with an M1 Ultra chip, the M1 Max Studio is really worth considering, but here the story is more complex.
If you want an iMac with an M1 chip, the current entry-level iMac in all its various colors, is a winning machine. But this is not an iMac Pro, but just the regular iMac. We bought one and it is smart, sharp and looks great. The footprint is small, as it seems to magically be only as big as a normal monitor and 10 times as pretty to look at. For a VFX student or producer who works from a desk – the M1 iMac is a winner. But with the advent of the Mac Studio machines, Apple has discontinued the iMac Pro. We personally liked this machine a lot. It was big enough to edit on, both in terms of its spec and the larger 27″ screen but the last update was Aug 2020 and there was never an M1 version of the iMac Pro.
Many people have pointed to the Studio as the logical step for the iMac Pro, a sort of modular deconstructed iMac Pro – providing as it does, a separate computer from the new 5K Studio monitor. What you gain in modularity, you do lose in desk space. The new Studio is similar to two Mac Mini’s sitting on top of each other. The size is in part to reduce noise. The new Studio is, near as damn it, silent. Certainly, in our tech lab, it has to be the quietest computer in the whole place.
The interesting question with the Studio M1 Max is to compare it to the M1 MacBook Pro. Unlike the iMac Pro, the MacBook Pro was upgraded to an M1 Max chip along with a lot of other desirable upgrades like the new keyboard, audio, and screen. While others may debate Ultra vs. Max, the issue for many VFX and editing professionals is more likely to be a choice between the M1 Max Macbook Pro or M1 Max Studio.
Of course, both computers can drive the new Studio 5K Display, and other additional monitors. It is worth noting that the new Studio monitor is really nice in its own right. It is only 600nits so it is not a full HDR monitor, which would require it to run at least 1000 nits, but it does have Apple’s genius monitor engineering for stable color and quality. The Studio 5K monitor is not cheap but it is a lot less expensive than the top-of-the-line Pro Display XDR. The flagship 32-inch 6K Retina monitor displays up to 1600 nits. The top-of-the-line Pro Display may lack a built-in webcam but it offers a drop-dead brilliant 6016 by 3384 pixels. The 5K studio is a lot more affordable than the Pro Display XDR but both monitors display remarkably stable and consistent imagery. For our industry, the under-reported aspect of these monitors is how a normal uncalibrated retina monitor displays remarkably similar colors in any consistent room lighting. This may not be a sexy headline on a promo video, but if your clients like the look of the edit on the 5K, it will look (almost) identical when they are grading the footage in another suite. This one aspect alone makes Apple monitors valuable. Not to labor the point, but even the iPad Pro screen looks almost identical. Apple makes your images appear similar, if not the same, on vastly different devices.
But back to the M1 Max MacBook Pro vs the M1 Max Studio.
The Macbook Pro has its own HDR monitor at 1,000 nits sustained full-screen, 1,600 nits peak, which means its screen is actually superior to the Studio for HDR work, but only 3456-by-2234 native resolution vs the 5120 by 2880 pixels on the 5K. On this basis, let’s park the monitor comparison and just examine just the computer performance. The Studio with an M1 Max is actually very similar to the MacBook Pro. Apple has published numerous specs but the problem with benchmarks and specs is that they are hard to translate to one’s actual production experience.
The good news for both systems is that companies like DaVinci (Blackmagic) and Adobe have nearly entirely moved to M1 native implementations of their applications. We tested the new Studio with the new Adobe Premiere and compared it to Apple’s FCP-X and Blackmagic’s DaVinci Resolve. There is no doubt that FCP-X on the Studio is the fastest and smoothest to use. This should come as no surprise given the Apple team behind it, but it is noticeably better and the best user experience of the three.
On FCP-X we loaded an 8K project with some brilliant footage shot by the award-winning Mark Toia. Mark is a huge supporter of shooting on RED and we tested with a set of 8K R3Ds shot in Asia for 8K Sharp TVs and Malaysian Tourism. The playback was very smooth, without any lag at all. The system just feels extremely responsive.
FCP-X can’t import Blackmagic Raw clips, however, there is a third-party app you can buy to enable BRAW import in FCP-X. FCP-X continues to be such a powerful system and it has also evolved to have matched many grading features, similar to the DaVinci Resolve.
DaVinci Resolve, was also loaded with Mark’s Toia’s 8K R3Ds running at 30fps and some sample Blackmagic Raw clips from the award-winning DOP John Brawley. John posted some sample clips he shot in Canada using the new Ursa Mini Pro 12K camera on his website. Naturally, Resolve natively handles the Blackmagic footage.
We loaded a mix of 12K, 8K, 6K, etc at 24fps. In Resolve, The RED 8K R3D doesn’t play in real-time at full debayer until we dropped the timeline to 2K. In Resolve, 12K BRAW clips play fine on the Mac Studio, even at full debayer.
Premiere Pro does import 8K R3D and 12K BRAW, after one installs the Blackmagic Raw software. Playback is fine, but it doesn’t feel as responsive as FCP-X. The Lutmetri color grading effect seems buggy at times (the curves panel and color keying), but not unworkable.
One of the biggest aspects of new computers is dealing with Machine Learning (ML). Many of these tasks are not adequately reflected in benchmarks but they can be very computationally expensive, and they are increasingly important. We test drive a series of three complex ML tasks using Adobe’s Neural Rendering, via Sensei. Given the ease of running a macro in Photoshop we took in a high-res TIFF image and used Sensei to add a sky replacement, we then inverted the image and added another (to mimic reflection in the water, inverted again, and did an ML-based depth blur. This is not a perfect test, but it is indicative of ML functions that are both useful and complex to execute. To add context, we compared both the M1 Max Studio and M1 Max Macbook Pro with the older iMac Pro (without an M1 chip). While both M1 Max clips were within a couple of seconds of each other, the iMac was around half as fast. An enormous incentive to move to M1 either way.
It is worth noting that the graphics in these M1 Macs can power a high array of monitors. It is also the case that the 5K monitor only really works with a Mac, given it doesn’t even have an on switch let alone normal HDMI inputs or plugs. Price-wise, the M1 Max MacBook Pro is approximately 20% cheaper than a similar M1 Max Studio with the Studio Monitor. But a MacBook Pro with an additional 5K Studio Monitor will be about 15% more. Exact numbers depend on not only configurations but that the Mac Studio does not come with a keyboard, mouse, or trackpad. On one’s desk, the footprint is smaller than the Studio but it is much bigger vertically.
Bottom line is that it is definitely worth moving to M1 – but which M1 Mac? If you desire to go on set or travel in this post-COVID world, then the MacBook Pro is brilliant. When at your desk, you can either use its bright inbuilt HDR screen or connect it to the new Studio 5K monitor, if you choose to spend the extra cash. If you are looking to have a flexible workspace that can be upgraded then the Studio really scores. We confess to having used many Mac monitors years after their companion Mac machines were upgraded and replaced. Other than HDR grading there is no reason why one would need to upgrade your monitor as much as your computer.
So annoyingly or wonderfully, Apple doesn’t make it easy. Both M1Max machines work depending on your application and lifestyle.
Footage used for testing provided, shot, and copyright Mark Toia and John Brawley.