Apple have just released three new computers with an M1 chip. Are they any good for photo editing machines?
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Apple have very recently released three new computers based on their brand new ARM M1 chip. The three products are:

  • MacBook Air 13"
  • MacBook Pro 13"
  • MacBook Mini

All of the above products are the entry level models. They all share similar innards and all have the same M1 chips powering them.

Apple's new M1 powered Macbook
Apple's new M1 powered Macbook

The initial reaction from the tech world is that these new Macs are quite a revolution in terms of processing power and battery life - especially when their cost is taken into consideration. In some tasks and benchmarks they are showing performance equal to or better than some of the higher end Desktop CPUs from Intel at a much lower power rating.

So should you buy one to use as a Photography editing machine?

The Short Answer

Easy: No, not yet.

The Longer Answer

The performance of the M1 based Macs is quite impressive. From the photo and video editing performance I have seen, the M1 chip handles even 45 Megapixel images quite readily.

Zooming, panning and adjusting sliders in Lightroom all happen with zero lag. Scrubbing 4K video is buttery smooth and exports happen lightning fast.

All this on an entry level machine.

So, why shouldn't you buy an M1 powered Apple (yet)?

Hardware Limits

First, let's look at some of the potential pitfalls you might run into on the newly released hardware.

All of the M1 machines released so far have a maximum of 16GB of RAM. This is the first reason I would hesitate to buy one of them for a Photography workflow. The 16GB of RAM is shared between the CPU, GPU and other ancillary functions.

Although 16GB is probably enough for most basic editing tasks, and Apple does seem to have worked some 'magic' into the way the RAM is managed - you could start to run into RAM limitations if you want to do any serious editing tasks; stacking, merging, compositing or working with many adjustment layers would start to push 16GB to the limit.

I am sure (as sure as you can be without having inside knowledge anyway ;) ) that higher-end machines will soon be released that will allow for a safer 32GB or more of RAM.

The next, and possibly more important, limitation is the number of Thunderbolt (USB-C) ports that these new machines have.

Two.

Thunderbolt 3 Ports on a MacBook Pro
Thunderbolt 3 Ports on a MacBook Pro

If you buy the MacBook Air or 13" Pro and you're charging the machine you're left with a single USB port to connect any external devices. For photography you would typically want an external monitor, hard drive, card reader, gigabit ethernet cable... and possibly more.

With only two ports, you would almost certainly need a dock - which might be OK on a MacBook mini tethered to a desk, but would certainly be a bit of a pain for a mobile machine.

It is good news that each of the ports runs on its own bus and both ports can be used at their top speed at the same time. Previous two-port MacBooks had the two ports running off a single bus - meaning they had to share bandwidth between themselves.

The lack of eGPU support also might be of concern to some. When using Topaz Labs AI or DxO PhotoLab in my photography workflow things are greatly sped up when I attach my MacBook Pro to an external Vega 64 eGPU. Unfortunately eGPU support has been dropped on the new M1 Macs and, although the GPU embedded in the M1 chips are capable - they aren't as powerful as a dedicated graphics card when it comes to the compute grunt needed for AI applications. It isn't clear if eGPU support will come to later models - but you can almost bet that the GPUs of the higher-end machines will be more capable.

Software Issues

Aside from the potential hardware limitations, there is also the software side of things to consider.

Because them M1 Macs no longer use an x86 processor, applications written for intel based machines will need to be recompiled by MacOS to run on the ARM processor. When you first run an x86 application on an ARM Mac it will go through Apple's 'Rosetta 2' software to prepare it for life on an ARM machine.

This isn't a perfect conversion and until software developers catch up and fix any underlying issues you may run into some software compatibility issues with the new M1 Macs. This will take a bit of time.

I have read of several popular photo applications not working. Capture One recently tweeted:

Devs will no doubt first patch their software across as quickly as they can, and will probably eventually compile native ARM applications - but until they do so you can expect to run into some issues or have to look for alternative software in the meantime.

How Long Should You Wait?

A great question. Unfortunately those that know the answer aren't allowed to speak about it (I certainly don't know).

Apple have said they will be moving all of their hardware over to the ARM platform over the next two years. It is likely that they will upgrade the higher end MacBook Pros in 2021 and will probably also update their iMac, and Mac Pro machines at some stage as well.

The higher-end machines will most likely feature an even better specced M1 chip (M2?, M1x?), will offer more RAM, a better GPU and more ports.

By this time the Software developers will have hopefully ironed out any issues with Rosetta 2, or even better, will have ported their applications to native ARM code.

They will be some very impressive machines indeed that will crunch through even the most demanding photography and video workflows - with much better battery life than today's laptops to boot.

Intel and AMD should be watching very closely (and hopefully reacting!). Microsoft should also be taking note.