Assessing Apple Silicon

New M1-powered MacBook Pro lives up to promises

I finally found some time over the holiday break to put Apple’s new 13-inch MacBook Pro through its paces. At face value, this new laptop looks identical to the original MacBook, but its secret sauce is its Arm-based system-on-chip Apple M1, and I’ve been impressed so far.

To really test the new platform with some heavy lifting, I decided to work on video content. I typically use Adobe’s Creative Cloud suite of apps, but the only one that offers native support for the M1 chip at the moment is Photoshop, through a beta version. Although this lacks some features, it’s an excellent proof of concept.

One thing I noticed when I fired up the Creative Cloud app on the new laptop is that it launches using the Rosetta 2 emulator, which translates apps built for Intel so they run on Apple silicon. However, when you launch the Photoshop beta almost all the Adobe processes switch to the Apple architecture. I’m assuming this is a clue that Adobe, as it has stated, is working hard to optimize its entire suite for the M1.

Adobe Premiere Pro isn’t currently optimized for the M1 processor, so I turned to another program I use regularly, Blackmagic Design’s DaVinci Resolve Studio. Its latest public beta of Resolve 17 has native support for Apple M1 so it’s a perfect test environment.

Working on a 4K video at 24 frames per second using the Blackmagic RAW format at 12:1 compression, the 13-inch MacBook Pro delivered flawless performance in the timeline, with super smooth video playback even with colour correction applied.

In contrast, to achieve the same level of performance with the same footage on Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 in Premiere Pro — not a like-for-like alternative but a useful comparison nonetheless — I had to drop the preview resolution to 1080 pixels or lower.

Running a Blackmagic RAW speed test, which is supported natively on Apple M1, and using the Metal rendering engine, the M1 was capable of playing back 8K Blackmagic RAW video at 50 frames per second at 5:1 compression, and 8K video at 30 frames per second at 3:1 compression. On the Surface Book 3 I was only able to reach a 6K Blackmagic RAW resolution at 30 frames per second at 5:1 compression, and 4K at 60 frames per second at 3:1 compression. Check out the screenshots below for comparison.

Video rendering speed using Apple’s M1-powered MacBook Pro (left) and Microsoft’s Surface Book 3 (right)

To test rendering performance, I put together a 30-second video from footage shot with 4K Blackmagic RAW at 12:1 compression, applied colour correction on each of the clips and added some music.

Astonishingly, the M1-powered MacBook Pro took just 24 seconds to render the video as a QuickTime H.265 file using hardware acceleration. On another decent machine I’d expect rendering to take as long as the length of the clip, so this was impressive speed.

As we noted in our research when the new Macs launched, a new chip strategy wouldn’t normally get as much attention as Apple’s announcement did, but I firmly believe the company’s transition to Arm on Mac has big implications for developers and the future of computing. It’s one of the reasons why I thought it was worth spending some time running a few tests to see whether the new platform really could achieve what Apple promised.

Having seen the M1 in action, I’m convinced Apple’s transition to the Arm platform is a logical silicon strategy. It offers numerous benefits in terms of power consumption, architectural consistency, more compact design and other advantages.

Intel will continue to support Mac products that need higher performance for some time, but it seems inevitable that Apple will shift a growing proportion of its line-up to Arm. This will have a far-reaching impact on Apple’s ecosystem of hardware, software and services, and underlines the strong position it holds in computing devices, be they wearables, smartphones, tablets or PCs.

I have to admit that I was sceptical when I saw all the glowing reviews of the M1 chip, but the results I got in my own tests confirmed that it offers a big leap in performance. It’s going to be fascinating to see the evolution of this project as Apple rolls out the M1 to more machines, and more software companies deliver versions of their apps with native support for the chip.

Device specifications:

  • Apple MacBook Pro, 13-inch, with an Apple M1 system-on-chip, 16GB of memory and 1 TB of storage;
  • Microsoft Surface Book 3, with an Intel Core i7 1065G7 at 1.3 GHz, 32GB of RAM, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1660 Ti with Max-Q GPU and 512GB of storage