M1 Mac mini performance

If you have an iMac and were wondering if a new M1-based Mac would be better for your video-editing workflow, here’s a discussion of the performance of the M1 Mac mini (and by extension, the other M1 Macs) compared to a top-spec iMac from a couple of years ago, mostly talking about Final Cut Pro.

Because blogs have mostly died, I’ll be posting this on Twitter too. A lot of this is based on my YouTube video, but reading the text is probably going to be quicker.

There’s no doubt that the new M1 chips are a huge step up in CPU performance. 

On Geekbench, here’s the gap between my 2017 iMac (4GHz, a crazy 64GB RAM, and a Radeon 580 GPU with 8GB VRAM) and the cheapest M1 Mac mini (8GB RAM). The Metal performance is where the iMac wins, and more modern GPUs can do much better than this.

Simple performance tests show a clear win to the M1 Mac mini. Both machines were smooth at playing back 4K H.264 footage, as you’d expect, and the M1 was faster to export. (By the way, I used ChronoX Pro for most of these benchmarks — it’s great.)

Multicam footage showed the first issue with the M1 Mac mini: a RAM problem. With H.264 footage, the 8GB M1 struggled to show playback of four angles at once, while the iMac was fine, and a 16GB M1 MacBook Pro did fine too. Optimising to ProRes also fixed this.

Modern codecs are a strong point for the M1, and 10-bit H.264 from the GH5 performed much better on the M1 than on the iMac, which has always struggled with these files.

It’s the same story for 10-bit HEVC, from the GH5 and the iPhone 12 Pro:

Here’s an issue. When adding a few titles, overlaid graphics, and drop zones with 4K video inside, the M1 dropped frames when the iMac does not, and RAM isn’t the problem. Dropping to Better Performance and dropping the resolution to 1080p didn’t fix it either.

I repeated this GPU-heavy test the next day, and while the iMac was still usually 100%, it *sometimes* dropped a frame or two if under load from other apps. The iMac always did better, but this test is still near the limit of its capability.

Ramping up to some really complex titles from LenoFX.com and motionVFX.com, the iMac did better than the M1. The very first generator is very slow on both:

…but the iMac won even without it.

Compressing to 10-bit HEVC via Compressor, with hardware encoding made active on the M1, shows just how much faster that can be. If you need to export a lot of 10-bit HEVC, and you don’t have a Mac with hardware encoding (such as a pre-2020 iMac) then you need one.

Compressing a much longer video (22 minutes, a TV show pilot I’m shopping around without success) showed that the M1 is much better at HEVC and ProRes than it is at H.264, which the iMac was faster at. Sharing services are fine with HEVC, but a client’s random computer? Maybe not.

Handbrake was much much faster on the M1, so perhaps FCP can improve? 

A quick and dirty Motion test, overlapping thousands of animated, replicated shapes, was a clear win to the M1. Many operations in Motion are CPU-bound and not GPU-bound, and this is obviously one of them.

The big question, then: should you shift to an M1 Mac? If you do simple edits or rely on modern codecs, you could have a really good experience. Essentially, if your main Mac is currently a low-end Mac, the new M1 Mac is likely to be better than it at everything.

But… if you work with more complex graphics, you might be better waiting for the new Mac with a more capable GPU to match the amazing CPU. Do get 16GB of RAM if you want to tackle more complex tasks. But probably the biggest issue is plug-in compatibility. 

While FCP itself is working well on Apple silicon, many complex video and audio plug-ins are not, and it could be a little while before they’re ready. Adobe and Microsoft apps aren’t native yet either, so you won’t see a huge speed boost on those today.

In summary then, if you’re a professional relying on plug-ins, you can’t do your job yet. If you’re a Premiere or Resolve editor, you won’t see the same speed boost yet. So if you need to wait for software, maybe wait a little longer for an even better Mac?

The new Macs are great, but the next ones will be even better. If your workflow currently uses a lower-end Mac, #FCP and few plug-ins, you’ll be very happy with an M1 replacement, but many pro workflows can’t take advantage just yet. But the future is bright.

Looking forward, the current performance gap is only more striking when you look at how much faster iOS device CPUs have been getting:

Especially when compared to Intel’s desktop/laptop CPUs (as used in the top-spec iMac each year) where the only real gains have been in multi-core performance:

Add all that up, and over the past five years, the A-series chips have gotten 5x faster on single-core performance, and 7x faster on multi-core. Compare that to the chips in the best iMacs, which have only gotten 1.2x and 2.1x faster.

If Macs are potentially in line for 20% speed boosts every year, I’d certainly prefer to get a nice OLED TV as a monitor, and use a Mac mini Pro as my main Mac, swapping it out every year for a much faster model. But since the Mac mini Pro doesn’t exist, I’ll have to wait and see what Apple comes up with.

If their next MacBook Pro is as powerful as their new iMac, maybe I’ll go back to one Mac, connecting to more storage and bigger screens at home. If the iMac is the fastest option, then I’ll likely get one of those and a lower-end M1 laptop for on-set and training work. But that’s all theoretical.

For now, the low-end Mac line-up is an excellent choice for many people, even if it’s not perfect for post-production professionals just yet.

If you found that helpful, you might enjoy my new book, Final Cut Pro X: Efficient Editing, available now from Amazon, Packt, and others, in electronic or paper form. Use “25FCPX” to save 25% off at Amazon through the end of 2020. The X will be removed in the next edition, but little of the text changed.

There’s a free sample chapter and more info at fcpxefficientediting.com, where I will also host updates between versions.

Contacting Iain

If you’re looking for more information on Iain, please head to iain-anderson.com, where you’ll also find contact details at the bottom of the page. If you’re only looking for videos he’s made, try filmeverywhere.com instead.

This blog isn’t completely dead, but it doesn’t see many updates — apologies if you’re having trouble finding me through it.

On nutrition

While this blog has definitely been ignored for a few years now, squeezed between the instant gratification of Twitter, the friend-notification of Facebook, and the richer experience of YouTube, there are still things worth sharing that don’t fit into any of those buckets. Here’s one.

I try to stay healthy these days, and while I’m not losing weight (I could lost a few kilos) I’m not gaining it either. One thing that helps a lot is knowing how much sugar, fat and nutrition is in the food I eat, and that’s something that’s much easier here in Australia than in the US.

Almost every food item sold in a supermarket will have a nutrition information panel, and that’s true in the US and here. However, in the US, the information is only given as an amount within an arbitrary serving size, which is different for each food, with a far more prominent percentage of a “Daily Value” which may or may not be correct for you.

A pack of two Beyond Burgers, in the US (Credit: @michaelkammes)

With something like a burger patty, sure, a serving size makes sense. But for many foods, it doesn’t. Serving sizes are picked to make the other numbers look better, often useless unless you weigh your food, and

The only easy way to compare two foods is with percentages, because it’s true for any amount of food, and gives you a quick way to judge if a product is healthy or not by using rules of thumb like “avoid foods with greater than 3% sugar”. Providing nutrition info per 100g is a great way to do this, and Australian nutrition guidelines must include it. Therefore, imported products place stickers over the original nutrition info, like this:

The same exact Beyond Burgers sold in Australia.

Now it’s all pretty clear, there’s 15.9% fat in Beyond Burgers. (That’s not unusual for veggie burgers, but about triple the fat of the extra lean mince I prefer if I’m eating regular meat burgers.) That’s not clear from the US packaging unless you’re really good at mental arithmetic (18g/113g).

Here’s another example of two different cereal products. Neither are particularly healthy, but can you quickly tell which has more sugar?

Australian on the left, US on the right

The Australian cereal on the left is 21.5% sugar, easy to read from the 100g column, while the US cereal on the right is 26.6% sugar, which you need maths (8g/30g) to figure out.

Including a “per 100g” column on all products in the US isn’t going to turn around the obesity epidemic it’s facing; Australia (and the UK, and many other countries) have similar issues. But it would be a really helpful start, because the actual information is currently very well hidden indeed.

Recent videos

While I don’t have as much time to devote to YouTube videos as I’d like, here are a few of my more recent ones:

And if you have more time, here they all are!

I should also mention that I do shoot and edit video professionally too, so if you have an event you’d like to document or a presentation you’d like recorded, check out some of my work at filmeverywhere.com, and contact me via iain.a [at] iCloud.com.

Quartz Composer .qtz files working as screensavers on macOS Mojave

If you’ve upgraded to macOS Mojave (10.14) and been disappointed that your collection of .qtz screen savers stopped working, it’s good to know that you can get them working again for just a few dollars.

One of my Quartz Composer compositions
One of my Quartz Composer compositions

The app you’ll need is called Backgrounds, and it’s on the Mac App Store. This app lets you use Quartz Composer files as not only screen savers, but as desktop wallpaper as well. The developer has been responsive by email, and I’ve not had any problems.

Note: This is not a paid post! Also, a competing app (Mach Desktop 4K)  claimed to do the same thing, but didn’t work properly for me.

Review: Oculus Go

I’ll be trying to post my macProVideo articles here so they don’t get lost, and here’s my most recent:

Virtual Reality headsets have taken off in the last few years, and so far at least, they don’t seem to be a passing fad. Facebook, Valve and Sony have all made a big push into this space in a search to find the next big thing, and while the market is young, it’s expanding in several interesting directions. One is the push towards an untethered experience, and the recently released Oculus Go, from the Facebook-owned Oculus, is a big step towards that reality.

The article also include a technique to create a tiny, narrated 360° slideshow, perfect for sharing a series of still 360° images in a headset:

Export with File > Share > Send to Compressor. In Compressor, create a new MP4 preset, using HEVC as the codec, setting data rate to 10000Kbps, limit the frame size to 4096 wide, and frame rate to just 1fps. This will let a 2 minute video take less than 40MB, giving you a file that’s easy to transfer and load, but which tells a full story.

Read the whole article here.

Processing Photos

I take a lot of photos, and if I’m processing them live at a conference, I’ll probably use Lightroom from Adobe. However, that product has recently pivoted and been renamed Lightroom Classic CC. A new product has taken over its name, “Lightroom CC”, and while it might be nice, its core limitations of a single library where every image is uploaded to the cloud are both instant product killers for me. The existing Lightroom Classic CC still works, but naming it “Classic” seems a clear sign that the product’s days are numbered — and that’s a huge shame. While I love its capabilities and the quality of its output, it’s never been that fast, so it’s time to look for alternatives.

I should note that Photos, free with macOS, has been improving steadily (Curves finally in the High Sierra version!) but without proper bulk copy/paste of adjustments and deeper metadata control, it might not suit my needs. I haven’t switched to High Sierra full time, but when I do, I’ll give it a good look.

Still, there are other third party options. Recently I reviewed Luminar (2017) for macProVideo.com, and I liked it very much:

Luminar is that rare piece of software that hits the sweet spot for many users. It’s got the power to do what you want now, plus the features you’re going to want once you learn about them. It’s easy for novices to get into, but it doesn’t limit what professionals can do either. If you like photography, Luminar provides a solid image processing toolkit that can make your images really sing. Recommended. 

The newer Luminar 2018 will be updated to include digital asset management (i.e. multiple photo management like Lightroom) next year, and I’m very much looking forward to checking that out.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for an alternative to Lightroom, give Luminar 2018 a go? The same company also offer Aurora HDR 2018 for fans of HDR photography, and while I’m more into HDR for video myself, it just won App of the Year from Apple. Worth a look, and use the promo code “FUNWITHSTUFF” to save $10 on either app.

Full disclosure: yes, these are referral links, but it’s nice software, and there’s a free trial.

On HFR (High Frame Rate) video

Here’s a technical post about frame rates in video. Exciting, right?

Most higher quality shows in Australia are shown at 25 fps, and the whole image updates every second — this is Progressive, the p in 1080p. All our devices are progressive too — TVs, computers, phones, tablets. Feature films (shot on film or digital) are also progressive.

Broadcast TV signals are different. It’s all delivered as interlaced — 50 updates per second, half the image (a field) at a time. A field is every other horizontal line, meaning that an object that moves will be a little blurry. You can present progressive material within an interlaced stream, and it looks just like true progressive content. However, reality TV, sports and news are shot natively in interlaced. We’ve grown to associate a lower frame rate with feature films and high-quality drama, and a higher frame rate with “cheaper” content.

Modern TVs remove the interlacing, but also default to making all content look like it’s been shot at a high frame rate. By making this “smooth” look the default, a lot of people have been convinced that “smooth is good”. I (and many others) hate it though, and turn it off straight away. Partly because I don’t like the look, partly because with films it’s not what the filmmaker wanted, partly because the glitches (artifacts) that are visible when all those extra frames are invented are quite distracting. At the end of the day, though, the old “smooth means cheap” rule is not as absolute as it once was.

Most modern DSLRs only shoot progressive, because that’s what filmmakers (and computers) want. My new GH5 (lovely camera) is mostly used to shoot 4K at 25 fps, because that’s what I want to edit and deliver. However, it can also shoot in 50 or 60 fps in 4K, and up to 180 fps in HD. Mostly, that’s great for slow-motion, shooting a higher number of frames per second, but playing just 25 of them every second.

But it’s now possible to actually deliver 60 frames per second — HFR, or high frame rate. It’s still progressive, so there’s no artifacting, and it’s natively smooth, to keep fans of that look happy. The higher frame rate also brings with it a lower amount of blurring of objects in motion, and that’s a two-edged sword. When everything is perfectly sharp, it doesn’t feel like a story being told — it feels like actors on a stage. Turns out that a higher frame rate might be more realistic, but that’s not actually a good thing. Plus, those who hate the look still hate the look.

Any time a new technology is polarizing, or difficult to adopt, it will struggle. 3D struggled because of the glasses or headsets, because some people can’t see in 3D, and because it made life hard for creators. Even video games didn’t really adopt it much. It was present on the PS3, rarely used, and it’s now gone from PS4.

HFR is definitely polarizing; it destroys the suspension of disbelief and looks cheap to many. Still, it probably won’t go away like 3D did, because cameras will support it for slo-mo, and TVs need to support higher frame rates too. Plus, it may become more popular on YouTube — even if only for gaming. That gives it a decent chance at gradual acceptance, even if we aren’t going to see many more movies using HFR for a while.