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A pro photographer tests Apple's M1 MacBook

Apple's new silicon offers great improvements for creative pros, but it doesn't do everything, yet.

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

As a professional photographer, I was intrigued when Apple ditched Intel's chips and instead started using its own M1 silicon in the MacBook lineup. The performance boosts Apple promised were appealing -- as was the supposed battery life improvement -- but I was nervous about having to run my professional software on a platform that wasn't yet properly supported by some of the tools I use every day.  

I've spent some time now with the 13-inch M1-based MacBook Pro (with 16GB RAM) and have run it through a variety of tests to see how well I can work on it. Is it a safe upgrade for photographers or other creative professionals? Or should you wait for promised software updates? 

Apple using its own chips might seem like a small change that you'll never need to think about, but it has a big impact on how software will run. To get the best performance, the programs you use will need to be rewritten to properly take advantage of the new hardware. 

That's potentially a problem, as it requires software developers to support two versions of their products; an Intel version and an Apple M1 version. At the time of writing, Adobe has released an M1 version of Lightroom, but not Lightroom Classic (the version that I, along with most photography pros, still use). The industry-standard Photoshop only supports M1 when you download the beta version, and Adobe hasn't officially given any kind of timeline for when all its Creative Cloud suite of apps will fully support Apple M1.  

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

So it's useless for photographers?  

Not at all. While these apps aren't optimized, they will still run, thanks to Apple's Rosetta 2 software, which allows Intel versions of software to run as normal. That means any app you'd normally want to use on your MacBook will still be able to run on the new model without any difference in how it operates, and you likely won't see much in the way of performance degradation, although that can vary app by app.  

In my hands-on testing, I found the M1 versions of Adobe's apps to run extremely swiftly. Lightroom ran lightning fast, and allowed for extremely swift editing and exporting. Even Lightroom Classic (the Intel version) still ran well when used via Rosetta 2.  

The improvements are noticeable when using M1-optimized versions. I tested how long it took Photoshop (both in Intel and M1 beta versions) to align 19 full-resolution raw images and then to merge them into a focus-stacked image. It's a technique I use regularly in my product photography, so it's important for me to have good efficiency here.  

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Intel-based Photoshop, via Rosetta 2, took 50.3 seconds to align the layers and 1 minute, 37 seconds to merge them. I compared that to an exceptionally powerful Windows desktop PC that was built with an AMD Ryzen 9 3950 X CPU, Nvidia RTX Titan graphics and 128GB RAM, specifically to be a beast with editing photos and 8K video. The PC took 20 seconds to align the layers and 53 seconds to merge them -- a clear victory for the PC.   

I then ran the same tests on the beta version of Photoshop that supports Apple M1. It took 22 seconds to align the layers and 46.6 seconds to merge them -- a faster overall time than my immensely powerful editing rig was able to achieve.   

In the M1-supported version of Lightroom, it took the MacBook 6.4 seconds to import 100 raw images, edging out the PC's time of 7.1 seconds to complete the same task. 

Total time to complete focus stack in Adobe Photoshop (align and merge layers)

MacBook Pro (Intel version of Photoshop)
147.2
MacBook Pro (M1 optimised Photoshop beta)
69.5
Windows PC
73.2

Note:

Shorter bars equals better performance

The story was similar when it came to exporting video in Premiere. The Intel-based version of Premiere took 6 minutes, 25 seconds to export on the M1 MacBook, but the optimized M1 beta version took about half the time, at 3 minutes, 24 seconds. For reference, my desktop did the same export in 1:20.  

Total time to export Full HD video in Adobe Premiere

MacBook Pro (Intel version of Premiere)
385
MacBook Pro (M1 optimised Premiere beta)
204
Windows PC
80

Note:

Shorter bars equals better performance

Other software that isn't optimized still runs as normal, and you'd never know that you're running "emulated" versions of software, as the machine's overall performance is still excellent. It took 51 seconds to import 100 raw images into pro image-editing software Capture One, and the desktop wasn't much in front at 48 seconds. Capture One has said an M1-optimized version is coming in an update, but we don't know exactly when this will be. 

Pro video software DaVinci Resolve Studio is also available in beta for M1, and I found it was extremely quick to use, with no issues previewing 4K files in a timeline.  

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Andrew Hoyle/CNET

Overall I'm impressed. Even when running unoptimized versions of apps, the M1 MacBook Pro still puts up a hell of a fight against a superpowered editing PC, and the fact that it's able to outperform the PC on some tests when using M1-optimized beta apps is astonishing. I'm certainly excited about what performance improvements we'll see as more developers fully optimize their software for Apple's silicon.  

If you're a photographer and considering upgrading, I'd absolutely say the M1 MacBook is a safe bet. At the very least you'll still be able to use all your current software as normal via Rosetta 2, and in time when official M1 versions are released, those performance boosts -- and likely the battery life savings as well -- will be extremely welcome.

Read more: MacBook Air M1 review: Big changes from Apple silicon and Big Sur

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