The in-house developed M1 architecture that powers Apple’s latest machines allows them to be sleek and power-efficient, but there are still some things it can’t offer professional users.
Ever since Apple unveiled the M1 System on a Chip (SOC)—the CPU/GPU/RAM combo pack that powers the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro, MacBook Air, Mac mini, and the redesigned 24-inch iMac – the creative world has been buzzing. It’s fast, it’s power efficient, it barely needs to be cooled, and since it was designed by Apple for an Apple operating system, the M1 system is optimized to within an inch of its life.
The M1 is a preview of coming attractions
In so many ways, the M1 has done more, and done it better, than anyone dared hope when plans for Apple Silicon were first announced. So why are many users clamoring for a “pro-level” M1 that has yet to be released?
The problem is that the M1 was never meant to power professional-grade hardware. It’s a preview of coming attractions – an extraordinary appetizer designed to serve the enthusiast and amateur community, while tantalizing pros with a mere taste of what’s possible. Seven months on, the pros are getting impatient.
|Maxed-out M1 Macs top out at 16GB of memory and 2TB of storage, among other limitations.
Photo by DL Cade
From a pure performance perspective the M1 Macs are already professional grade, at least among laptops. Especially with apps that either can’t or won’t take full advantage of a discrete GPU, performance is within spitting distance of the most powerful PC laptops on the market.
In benchmark after benchmark, the M1 iMac we’re currently reviewing (stay tuned) either kept pace with or outperformed higher-specced machines like the Razer Blade 15 Advanced and ASUS G14 – computers that sport 8-core/16-thread CPUs, NVIDIA RTX 30-series GPUs and twice the RAM of any M1 computer.
|24-inch iMac||Razer Blade 15 Advanced||ASUS Zephyrus G14|
|CPU||M1 8-core||Intel 10th Gen Core i7-10875H||AMD Ryzen 9 5900HS|
NVIDIA RTX 3080
16GB DDR6 VRAM
NVIDIA RTX 3060
6GB DDR6 VRAM
|RAM||16GB Unified Memory||
|Storage||1TB NVMe SSD||1TB NVMe M.2 SSD||1TB NVMe M.2 SSD|
|Display||24-inch 4.5K LCD||15-inch 4K OLED||14-inch QHD LCD|
Take Adobe Lightroom Classic for example. We ran import and export benchmarks on all three of the machines shown above, building 1:1 previews on import and exporting 100% JPEGs that were heavily processed using an identical preset. Tests were run on 100 Canon EOS R6 raw files, 100 Nikon Z7 II raw files, 100 Sony a7R IV raw files, and 100 Fuji GFX 100 raw files.
In an effort to make the times as comparable as possible, we used the studio scene photo from each of these cameras and simply duplicated it 100 times.
You can see the results in both table and graph form below:
|EOS R6 Import||EOS R6 Export||Z7 II Import||Z7 II Export||a7R IV Import||a7R IV Export||GFX100 Import||GFX100 Export|
The situation is similar in Premiere Pro, although the iMac’s lack of discrete GPU begins to take a toll. Using a 4K test video made up of 8K Sony a1 footage – complete with titles, Lumetri color grading, stabilization, etc. – we rendered previews in 4K ProRes 4:2:2 and exported in three different formats: the master file (using previews), an H.264 file, and an H.265 file. We also applied Warp Stabilize to a 15 second clip from this same project.
The M1 is slower than the Intel-based Blade 15 and AMD Ryzen-based ASUS G14 in all but Warp Stabilize, but the difference isn’t huge. It’s approximately 12% slower at render and 18% slower at encoding H.264 and H.265 files.
|Render All||Export Master||Export H.264||Export H.265||Warp Stabilize|
Intel recently released its 11th Gen Tiger Lake H-series processors, which should make the next generation of Intel-based machines even faster, but my point stands: these PCs boast some of the most powerful CPUs and GPUs on the market, and the M1 holds its own against both of them despite some inherent limitations – an integrated GPU, only 16GB of RAM, and minimal cooling.
From a pure performance perspective, there’s not much more that we could ask for. So what exactly is the problem?
The issue with the M1 is not raw benchmark performance, it’s that it was only designed to run on enthusiast-level hardware. Except for the 12.9-inch iPad Pro – which is still limited by iPad OS – each of the four M1 Macs currently available would be considered “entry-level” in their particular product category. In effect, Apple has packed professional performance into four computers (and an iPad) that were never aimed at professionals.
Many of the design choices that Apple made come down to limitations of the M1 SOC itself. There are only so many lanes available on a chip this size, and that translates into some frustrating bottlenecks: the maximum amount of RAM is 16GB, the maximum amount of storage is 2TB, and the maximum number of true Thunderbolt 4 ports is only two.
The M1 iMac and Mac mini offer a little bit more connectivity. The Mac mini has an HDMI 2.0 port and two USB Type-A ports while the iMac can be configured with 2 additional USB Type-C ports that are not Thunderbolt. Both can be configured with Gigabit ethernet, and you can upgrade to 10 Gigabit ethernet on the Mac mini. But all five M1 Apple products suffer from the same 16GB RAM and 2TB internal storage limit.
For many professional users, these limitations make every M1 Mac unusable from the get-go. And so we wait…
The potential for what’s next
|You can configure the latest M1 iMac to have a total of four USB-C ports, but only two are Thunderbolt 4 capable.
Photo by DL Cade
It’s almost like Apple didn’t realize just how capable the M1 would be. As the first generation of Apple Silicon inside the Mac, it was always supposed to be the “entry-level” chip that would power Apple’s smallest, lightest, and thinnest devices (and the relative affordability of these machines further reinforces this). But the M1 has done so well that there are very serious comparisons between the tiny Mac mini and Apple’s flagship Mac Pro tower. Comparisons that the Mac mini sometimes wins.
The entire creative industry is practically salivating, not because the M1 isn’t good enough, but because the M1 is already so good. If this is what Apple was able to achieve in a tiny package with only 8 CPU cores, 8 GPU cores, and 16GB of RAM, imagine what future Apple Silicon Macs will be able to do with proper cooling, 16 or 32 cores, and 32GB or 64GB of unified memory.
There’s potential for a beefier computer that prioritizes performance over thinness
Despite the M1’s professional-grade performance, there is currently no Apple Silicon Mac with enough ports, enough storage, enough RAM, or even the right design sensibility for professional workflows. The potential is there, we’re just waiting for Apple to realize that potential by creating a larger M1X or M2 and packing it inside of a bigger, beefier computer that prioritizes performance over thinness and professional applications over pretty colors.
Until they do, you’ll continue to hear grumbles from the professionals in the audience. We’ve seen what’s possible. We’re ready for the main event.