It’s that time of year when Apple announce a load of new toys and I spout a load of nonsense about it. So if you are interested in just geeking out for a bit, you’ve come to the right place, otherwise I’m sure the bosses have treated us to some of their epic content and that might be more up your Strasse – and I’m not being sarcastic for once.
Apple’s WWDC was with us just over a week ago and while this is normally a software only event showcasing the latest versions of MacOS, iOS, etc, they sometimes use it release new hardware and occasionally give us a sneak peak of something that will come later in the year. This year was no different really, the software updates all look good and for once there are some genuinely useful features to the phone app such as a transcript of voicemails as they are being recorded so you have the chance to pick up the call as you are filtering it. I can see that being very popular. Overall however the entire software stack is just that little bit better than before, and as ever it’s all free. Once you factor in the upgrades to the various plugins, and utilities we have that always require and upgrade with each MacOS update.
For a software conference, the focus this year was on hardware for a change. There were three Mac updates, and a brand new product called Vision Pro, which I will come to later.
The updates for the Mac were the 15″ MacBook Air, M2 versions of the Mac Studio, and an Apple Silicon version of the Mac Pro. Let’s start with the Mac Pro. Don’t buy it. Move along, nothing to see here. It has the same System on a Chip (SoC) design as the Mac Studio with M2 Ultra, but it has more I/O ports (8 x Thunderbolt 4 rather than 6, and an extra 10G Ethernet port) and most importantly the ability to add PCI-e expansion cards. These cards however are limited to things like audio or video capture cards and as a product it is laser focused on audio and video engineers working on big films. It cannot accept any high-end graphics cards, full stop, so it has the same graphics performance as Studio as it uses the same M2 Ultra chip. It also has a significantly less memory compared to the old Intel Mac Pro it replaces – 196GB compared to 1.5TB.
As the Studio and Mac Pro are essentially the same now barring the case with PCI-e slots and a bit more I/O, there is a £2500 price difference between them. It’s was difficult to compare it directly before, but I’ve always said the Mac Pro is overpriced by around £2500-£3000 because Apple had to put so much engineering into that case to support the very high end configuration, which most people wouldn’t buy anyway. Ironically when you get to the high end, the Mac Pro simply doesn’t go high enough. While it had a single 28-core Intel CPU with 1.5TB RAM, the competing PC workstations had double this – 2 x 28Core (or higher) CPU’s and 3TB RAM. The PC workstations also supported Nvidia graphics cards which are an absolute must for high end graphics, compute and AI work.
So the Mac Pro was never great at the high-end and wasn’t worth it unless you absolutely had to have a Mac. And those customers who were using lots of PCI-e cards have moved on to either a PC or a Mac with Thunderbolt based versions of the audio and graphics products they were using. This is why I say move on, nothing to see. The Mac Pro is a dead-end product targeted at an ever decreasing number of users as those who would have bought it moved on. Priced at £7199 for the entry level machine it is too expensive for the enthusiast market that traditionally bought these along with business users. Apple needed to create this machine however to have the ‘halo’ product in their lineup and also some of their bigger customers will insist on the full product stack as part of their tender requirements. It will sell in very small numbers and while it may be around for another few years unless Apple start making their own GPU’s or have an ever bigger chip than the Ultra with more RAM, etc then it’s just a tickbox product. I honestly believe Apple wanted to create a much more performant version of the Mac Pro but couldn’t make it work, and had to release a product now as they are already over the 2 year marker they set. I could be wrong and they could fix the scalability issues of their chips with M3 or M4, but until then it is just a very niche product.
The Mac Studio however is fantastic. It replaces the Mac Pro as most of us don’t actually upgrade our computers so no need for all this internal expansion, and it also in some respects replaces the iMac, although at an increased cost when you factor in the external display. Apple have updated the Mac Studio with M2 Max and M2 Ultra chips and upgraded the performance of the HDMI ports to allow for higher refresh rate screens on that port. Otherwise not a lot has changed – more CPU and GPU cores and a bit more RAM, plus some other bits internal to the M2 chips to make them go faster. My opinion. You don’t need the M2 Ultra, you don’t even need the M2 Max version. Unless you are doing a load of video editing both of these are overkill. I’m currently running a Mac Studio with and M1 Max, entry level except the SSD which has been upgraded to 2TB. Here’s the how much I have been pushing that machine over the last month.
The spikes in the graph were from playing a game (No Man’s Sky), and even that doesn’t really push it. And the same goes for RAM.
I know the Mac is not a games machine and most reasonable spec PC’s will absolutely kill it in this respect, but I compared the same game on the Xbox X (they current high-end Xbox) and it’s night and day. The Mac Studio is significantly faster in the same game, so it does have more than enough graphics performance for our needs.
My advice for those of you looking at the Mac Studio is to look at the Mac Mini with M2 Pro first, and then if you find you do need a Studio because of the extra ports, etc then get a refurb. The Mini when spec’d out is very close to the price of the Studio, but now there is an M2 version of the Studio the M1 prices should come down making it a no-brainer – get the older one and put the extra money towards a model with more storage as the base CPU is fast enough.
The absolute killer Mac product that was announced this time round however was the 15″ MacBook Air. As photographers this is the ideal product for us. Just remember you don’t need more than 16GB RAM, and you don’t need to max out the storage, as older projects can be moved to a NAS or an external disk. Otherwise if you go too mad with the spec you make it too close to the price of the MacBook Pro, and missing one of the key points to the MacBook Air – low price. The combination of low price, light weight but a big screen is brilliant and Apple will sell millions of these. Given that I have worked on an M1 Air for over a year as my main machine, I can safely say photographers and those of us who just need a laptop do not need anything more than this. This for 90% of users is the best Mac on sale today.
Finally we come to the unusual new product that is the Vision Pro. It looks like an expensive pair of ski goggles, but is actually a virtual/augmented reality headset. These have been around for years, and have generally been very heavy pieces of kit that look ridiculous, are expensive and are usually vomit-inducing to the wearer as the refresh rate of the screens is so slow. They have been aimed at gamers and haven’t been that successful. Apple have take a spin on this and aimed it not at gamers, but at every day use – make your Mac screen infinitely bigger so it fills your entire field of vision, watch a movie on a massive screen, take video calls and edit documents at the same time. The build quality looks epic, but it still looks ridiculous. And it’s expensive at £3500. There will be enough people out there with enough disposable cash however to try this because it is an Apple product. I don’t think any other company could have pulled this off, not even Google or Amazon. So while it might look a bit daft for now, given a few years it will look like a pair of glasses. Or will it. You see Mr Musk is also working on implants and has been given go ahead for human trials – make people able to walk again, etc. Combine a miniature version of Vision Pro with implant technology and you can see where this is going. Add some AI. And you have a living breathing version of the Cyberpunk game. I think in the short term this could be an interesting toy for some, but long term. Place your bets…. I might get myself on one of those first trips to Mars and open a bar called The Last Resort.