A photographer’s review of the M1 Max Macbook Pro

I’ve had my hands on the brand new 2021 Macbook Pro (M1 Max) for a few weeks now, does it live up to the hype? Yes, absolutely. I’m stunned by how good this computer is in so many regards. This is unquestionably the best computer I’ve ever used for photography and I wanted to provide a detailed review from a photographer’s perspective, as well as some tips on how to make the most of the transition.

First, some quick background. I’ve been using a fully-loaded 2018 MacBook Pro (MBP). This includes a 2.9GHz 6‑core i9 Intel processor, 32GB memory, Radeon Pro 560X GPU with 4GB of GPU memory, 4TB SSD, and 15″ display. And thanks to a free battery replacement last month from Apple (the original battery was swelling, probably from being continuously charged during Covid), it’s still just like new. But time has moved on and I’ve nearly run out of internal storage, I’ve been eager for a lighter laptop to carry on photography trips, and of course I’m eager to get my hands on anything that will cut down the time I spend waiting while processing images and video. So I’ve been literally waiting to hand my money to Apple the moment they released a Pro version of Apple Silicon.

Within 15 minutes of the machines going on sale, I’d bought mine. It was an easy decision to buy every option except the 16″ as a professional doing photography, software, and video. I opted for a smaller screen and battery life to save some weight. My 15″ 2018 feels hefty at 4.0lbs and putting 4.7lbs on in my photo backpack for a 16″ screen (and some extra battery life) didn’t sound like fun. With all the other upgrades, my 2021 MBP includes the M1 Max with 10-core CPU, 32-core GPU, 64GB unified memory, and 8TB SSD storage. Of course, it also includes all the standard features like a greatly improved screen, better speakers and mic, upgraded web cam, HDMI port, SDXC card reader, and MagSafe.

The tests below reflect my maxed-out 14″ computer, but I’m using this for business and most photographers should probably just buy 14″ or 16″ with the basic 10-core CPU, 32GB RAM, 2-4TB SSD. 64GB and an upgraded GPU are nice for photography, but the gains are smaller (64GB is nice if you work with a lot of large files and the upgraded GPU is nice if you edit a lot of video).

 

Photoshop benchmarks:

I’ve just released a free benchmarking tool for Photoshop called G-Bench. The gains with M1 are very real and very impressive. Here are a few highlights (all tests on a high-resolution image from a Nikon D850):

  • On average, the M1 Max completes tasks in Photoshop in half the time of the 2018 MacBook Pro (57s weighted test time vs 110s).
  • Filter / Reduce noise takes only 10s vs 25.
  • Surface Blur takes only 9.5s vs 25
  • Field blur takes 2.5s vs 8.5.
  • Brush lag is effectively gone even with a 2000 pixel soft brush.

On the other hand, there are some areas where the gains are very small. Saving smart objects (15 vs 16s) and compressed TIF files (21 vs 24s) is barely changed as the bottleneck here is CPU clock speed, and the M1’s impressive gains are generally other categories of performance. Of course, if Adobe were to optimize file compression for multi-core CPUs at some point, then we could expect to see huge gains as well.

Equally surprising to me was how much of a performance hit was caused when running under Rosetta2. I’ve generally been told there is about a 20% loss of performance, but it’s much larger. The weighted test time nearly doubled (57s vs 112s). That made it slightly slower than my 2018 MBP. It’s impressive that the machine can keep up when running under emulation, but you’ll definitely want to run natively as much as possible.

Note that I’ve run these tests on a 14″ M1 Max. There are rumors of a high-power mode for the 16″ version, which amounts to being able to run the processor hotter (faster) due to better cooling with the larger chassis. If that comes to fruition, I’d love to hear what times you see running the same benchmark. I would be very surprised to see any benefit in Photoshop, as there’s almost nothing I do in Photoshop that drives the fans much above the minimum. Heavy imports in LR, video exports, or other activity that causes loud fans for a long time is the kind of task where I would expect some possible benefit (certainly Photoshop might benefit under a heavy multi-tasking scenario).

 

Other performance tests:

I haven’t created benchmarks for these other apps, but wanted to share some comparisons running identical tasks on both my 2018 and 2021 laptops.

  • Gigapixel AI did the same enlargement in 180s vs 30s (ie, the old machine took 6x longer!)
  • Rendering a 20-minute 1080p video from Final Cut Pro X took 2:02 on the new laptop vs 8:43 (a whopping 77% reduction in the time to export, ie the old machine took 4.3x longer)
  • Rendering a different 19-minute 1080p video from ScreenFlow took 9:06 on the new laptop vs 14:03 (a 35% reduction in the time to export, ie the old machine took 1.5x longer). This project was slightly more complex (many more cuts and a second audio track), but nothing that I believe would account for the different times here. The benefits can’t be explained as simply as “this machine is built for video”. Yes, all video apps benefit greatly, but there is an enormous advantage for apps which have been specifically optimized to use multiple cores, GPUs, and Apple Silicon (in general, probably more than just running native).

As you can see, the there are generally gains across the board. For apps which are optimized for performance, the gains can be truly astonishing.

As a general observation, I generally find that the usage of the GPU is much higher on the Apple Silicon laptop. Some of this is the WindowServer process from MacOS, but some is showing for the apps themselves. Both video apps showed greater usage of the GPU, which may come from the native version of the app, MacOS on Apple Silicon, or both. The GPU still shows a lot more relative downtime  than the CPU, but the gap is smaller than on the Intel machine.

Beyond speed: how is the rest of the 2021 M1 Max?

There is a LOT to love about this new laptop beyond just faster speeds and better battery life. A quick rundown of my favorites:

The silence! This is probably my favorite part of the upgrade. The 2018 laptop routinely runs the fans full tilt, which measures 44dB (sound measurements taken near where my head would be during regular use via the Decibal X app on iPhone). When running my benchmark test, it quickly ramped to around 28-30dB and then the full 44dB shortly after that. This was as loud as I could make it, even when pushing LR full tilt by re-rendering standard, smart, and 1:1 previews for 300 images. The 2018 laptop makes fan noise that I can hear all the time, even when it’s sitting completely idle and registering around 23-24dB, which is the ambient sound of the quiet room in our house.

The 2021 is so quiet that it hardly ever exceeded the 23bB ambient sound. I can’t hear it idle without putting my ear near the keyboard. It only got up to 26dB at the most challenging parts of my Photoshop benchmark. The reality is that so little Photoshop work uses 8-10 cores for extended periods that you just aren’t making it hot. So I did the same LR test to rebuild 3 x 300 previews. This finally got it revved up to a maximum 44dB. So it isn’t that the new machine is more quiet at the maximum fan speeds, it’s that it almost never uses them while the old one routinely does. You are hardly ever going to hear this machine unless you’re rendering video or doing a batch processing of a large number of images.

The battery life! I ran my benchmark test 3 times on each machine starting from 100%. The old machine has a battery that’s only a month old, so I’d say this is a pretty fair head to head. Both were running the latest versions of Photoshop and MacOS Monterey and without apps running in the background. Not only did the new machine finish in half the time, it still showed 95% battery charge vs only 68% by the time the old machine finished. The improvement is astounding.

The screen brightness for me has jumped from a maximum of 500 to 1600 nits. Does it look “three times” brighter? Definitely not, but it is clearly brighter and this will be extremely nice when I need to use the laptop outdoors or in bright ambient conditions. And the quality of the screen is much better with deeper, richer blacks via the mini-LED technology (which only uses a bright backlight behind pixels that need it, so that it doesn’t show through the dark pixels). The blacks are clearly much darker and the whites are clearly brighter, so the contrast ratio on this display is excellent.

There have been concerns about the risk that this new display may show “blooming”, or a bit of a halo around bright pixels isolated against a dark background. I can confirm that I do see this, which is because mini-LED lights small zones (not individual pixels). That said, it’s minimal, I wouldn’t notice if I weren’t looking for it, I can see it sometimes on the old display, its not as bright as the minimum black on the old display, and I already do a lot of my critical editing on a 27″ Eizo anyway. So even if you’re shooting the moon or little stars against a black night sky, I wouldn’t be concerned with this.

There have also be questions and concerns about the notch. I mostly don’t notice it, but it does leave fewer options at the top at times when the menu is really crowded. It also has some quirks where things can be effectively rendered behind the notch, which I assume will be fixed in short order with an update from Apple. But for now, it can be pretty confusing / frustrating, as important system icons may be completely hidden. A quick workaround is to switch apps (as an app with fewer written menu commands will show more icons). Given that the real change here is actually giving you more display at the top corners (rather than taking something away from the top-middle), I’m perfectly ok with it (as I’m sure Apple will fix the glitch with hidden content soon enough).

The thing I miss most in this display is simply the size, which was a conscious decision on my part to save weight. 14″ is noticeably less space one you add in toolbars for LR and PS, but it’s fairly subtle. I’m seeing 20 images in grid view in LR instead of 24. In Photoshop, I can click <tab> to hide and show the side panels quickly to see more of the image in rare cases where I’d want more. I’ll see how I feel after a few road trips, but I suspect I’ll be sticking with 14-15″ sizes over 16″. If Apple were to shave weight by cutting battery weight, that’s a tradeoff I’d happily take. I can reverse that tradeoff anytime by bringing my HyperJuice 130W USB-C, which is an amazing product and good for a full charge on the go.

The new FaceTime HD webcam is amazing. The noise is substantially improved, feels like switching from ISO 1600 to ISO 200 on your camera. The color rendering is much better, with skin tones looking much more natural. And the boosted resolution provides a meaningful improvement in detail.

The sound of the speakers is incredible on both machines. The 2018 is slightly louder, but I’m comparing a 15″ to the new 14″ chassis and I don’t know if the new 16″ performs differently. I would say that the 2021 sound feels slightly more enveloping and less like it’s coming from a little device in a specific part of the room. I’d say I slightly prefer the new sound.

A built-in SD-card reader (SDXC) is awesome to have again – one less adapter to carry, lose, or forget. And not having to worry about forgetting an HDMI cable removes some stress for making presentations.

 

How to get maximum speed and compatibility with Universal / Apple Silicon apps vs running Intel under Rosetta2:

The migration from Intel to custom Apple ARM chips means better performance and battery life, but also the need for new software and some limitations. Apple has done a remarkable job with “Rosetta2”, which allows you to run legacy apps on Apple Silicon. But to get the best performance, you’ll need to run “universal” or native apps. If you right-click an app and see the application kind listed as “Intel”, you’ll be running under Rosetta2 (if you see “universal” or “Apple Silicon”, you’re ready to run native). It’s so seamless that you might easily not realize that you’re running Rosetta2 and missing out on better performance. If you use Apple’s Migration Assistant to transfer all your existing data from your old laptop to the new one, then you’re very likely bringing over Intel apps and will need to upgrade or reinstall.

I found that all of my Adobe apps were all installed as the Intel version, even though universal versions of Photoshop v23, Lightroom v11, etc all exist. This is presumably Adobe installing only the software your machine needed at the time it downloaded, to save space on your computer. To upgrade to the much faster native versions, just uninstall (be sure to keep settings) and then install again. When you install directly on your Apple Silicon computer, the Creative Cloud Desktop (CCD) will install the universal versions of the apps.

I found this was also the case with some other non-Adobe apps. Some of these could be updated to universal apps, and some are only available as Intel apps at this time. There’s an easy way to review everything (without having to right-click for “get info” on each app). Go to the Apple logo at top left / About this Mac / System Report / Software / Applications. Make sure the display is wide enough to see the far right column for “kind”. Click that column to sort it and look for apps listed as “Intel”. If you see anything as “32-bit (unsupported)”, this is so old that it cannot run on any computer running any of the three most recent major versions of MacOS (you’d need 10.14 or older). If you see “Apple Silicon” or “Universal”, those apps are ready to run natively.

One more thing to know about the universal apps is that they contain both the Intel and Apple Silicon versions of the app, which means you can run natively or under Rosetta2. Running under Rosetta2 may unlock some features in the app which have not yet been migrated to the native version. In Photoshop, this includes CEP panels and the Shake Reduction filter. If you’re trying to find an extension panel under Window / Extensions (legacy), you’ll need to run under Rosetta or install a newer UXP version of the same plugin (Lumenzia v10 and all versions of Web Sharp Pro run natively as UXP panels). If you wish to launch a universal app under Rosetta, please see here for details. Adobe also lets you run under Rosetta if you go into the Creative Cloud Desktop app, click the … icon, and then choose “Open (Intel)”. The normal open option there will use Apple Silicon (and is noted in the tooltip). If you don’t see those options, then you haven’t yet installed the universal version of that app.

 

Important photography apps available native for Apple Silicon

  • All my software runs natively on Apple Silicon, that includes Lumenzia (v10+) and Web Sharp Pro.
  • Adobe Photoshop (v22.3+). Just be sure you’ve updated (the Apple Migration assistant will import your old Intel version onto your new M1 computer). If you cannot access Window / Extensions (legacy), the plugins below, or Filter / Sharpen / Shake Reduction, you are running under Rosetta. Just uninstall and reinstall the latest version to replace your Intel version with the Universal build.
  • Adobe Lightroom Classic (v10.3+). Same update comments as Photoshop.
  • Nik Collection. The entire collection (except Perspective Efex) got native support for Apple Silicon starting from v4.2. Aside from providing faster performance, this update is critical if you want to see all the Nik tools without having to run Photoshop under Rosetta.
  • ON1 Photo RAW (2022), which includes Resize if you get the ON1 Photo RAW 2022 Ultimate Upgrade.
  • CaptureOne Pro 22 should work natively, however I had to buy an upgrade, the license provided to me over email does not work, and customer support has yet to reply after 7 days – so I cannot comment on the software, just the support experience so far.

 

Apps not yet available as native for M1

 

As of the time I’m writing this, the following apps are not native for Apple Silicon, but do run under Rosetta2:

  • Luminar 4. This means slower performance and more importantly, you won’t see the Photoshop Plugins unless you run Photoshop under Rosetta. It is my understanding that no native update is coming for Luminar 4. Instead, Luminar fans are encouraged to update to the upcoming Luminar Neo, which process much more than just Apple Silicon support, including. Preorder now to save, if you are logged in and click the nearly hidden option at top to validate that you are a customer and you’ll be able to update for only $54 (>70% off the normal standalone price of Neo). I’m looking forward to seeing the new AI relight, AI atmostpher, AI sensor dust removal, AI portrait tools like background removal and bokeh, and more.
  • Topaz Gigapixel AI (as of v5.6). Thankfully, it runs much faster even with Rosetta on M1 Max than the 2018 (doubling the resolution of a D850 image took 31s vs 179s, which is 83% less waiting, or nearly 6x longer on the old laptop). Given how intense this application is, it’s screaming for native support and I’ll be thrilled to see how fast it can go then! Additionally, it does not yet show under PF File / Automation.
    • Note: Gigapixel uses some very interesting optimizations. On the 2018, it runs nearly entirely on the GPU with modest RAM. On the 2021, it runs nearly entirely on the CPU with much higher (2-10x) RAM usage. I’m not sure how much extra RAM matters though, as I deliberately consumed nearly all the free RAM on the computer and Gigapixel didn’t slow down a bit when it had to work with less.
  • Topaz Denoise AI (as of v3.3). While the software does not run native, the plugin does and that’s all that matters (you’ll be able to launch the plugin when Photoshop is running natively and speed is not an issue).
  • Topaz Sharpen AI (as of v3.2.2). While the software does not run native, the plugin does and that’s all that matters (you’ll be able to launch the plugin when Photoshop is running natively and speed is not an issue).
  • Nik Perspective Efex (as of v5). The rest of the Nik Collection got native support for Apple Silicon starting from v4.2. Be sure to check out my demo to make the most of Color Efect Pro. But you won’t be able to run Perspective Efex as a Photoshop plugin yet.
  • NeatImage (as of v8). No ETA on an Apple Silicon version, but they are working on multiple native updates for other products.
  • Adobe Bridge (as of v11). See Adobe’s support article for some limitations and tips.
  • i1Studio calibration software. It runs fine under Rosetta and I really don’t see any reason to care about a native build, as there are no speed or compatibility concerns that I’ve come across.
  • CEP extension panels for Photoshop (anything normally loaded via Window / Extensions (legacy) in Photoshop). You can either run Photoshop under Rosetta or update to UXP versions of these extension panels (which will show under the Plugins menu in PS). Both my Lumenzia and Web Sharp Pro software are available already as UXP panels.

Please let me know if you think I’m missing any critical and widespread photography apps from this list in the comments below.

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Greg Benz Photography