Wednesday 2 November 2016

In defence of the new (late 2016) MacBook Pro

"Hello Again"
On the 27th Oct 2016, at a small event, Apple showed their new upgraded MacBook Pros. Referred to as the late-2016 MacBook Pro. At the event, Apple showed only MacBook Pros, and there was no word on new MacPros, iMacs, or Mac minis. Not even a mention. And, over the next few days, there was an uproar of critical blog posts and articles slamming Apple. Particularly coming as it did, just a day after Microsoft announced their Surface Studio and Surface Book i7.

I read many of these criticisms in the past few days. I studied the spec of the new MacBook Pros. Particularly in comparison to the MacBooks I own or regularly use. A MacBook Air 11” (2014), MacBook Air 13” (2014), MacBook Pro retina 13” (2015), and two MacBook Pros retina 15” (2014, 2015). I regularly use the MacBook Pro 13” and 15” in real world pro use cases. and, I have to say, I’m not dismayed with the new MacBook Pro. At least until I actually use the new MacBook Pro for exactly the same situations that I’m currently using. 

And, for reasons that I’ll elaborate, these new laptops from Apple, won’t make me go looking to switch to a Windows laptop. The Microsoft Surface Book i7, the Dell XPS or Precision, Alienware, Razer and other models being considered, all fall short on one account or the other. For me at least. 

CPU and RAM
The CPU in this new MacBook Pro is the Intel Skylake i7, considered to deliver better performance than the existing Haswell CPUs while consuming less power, so less heat too. RAM is still 16 GB max. The reason is that Intel simply don’t have a CPU which provides better performance for equivalent power draw. So, if the CPU was any better, it would mean battery performance in the 2-3 hr range, which with a heavy duty app like Premiere Pro/Avid/Resolve may drop down to an hour or under. That wouldn’t work for my use. So also for the RAM. There’s no RAM above 16 GB which draws the same power as the existing one.

Ports
My existing  MacBook Pros have 2 Thunderbolt2 ports, 2 USB3 ports, one MagSafe power port, and an HDMI - six ports. For Firewire and GigE use converters, but rarely.

For my current use these six ports let me connect, a professional Codex transfer station, a Thunderbolt RAID, to transfer 500 GB raw camera data in under 30 mins twice over. USB3 can’t match that. Also, with Thunderbolt I can connect a Blackmagic or Aja video card to capture or playback HD video even 4k. Can’t do that over USB. USB RAIDs are much slower than Thunderbolt RAIDs that professionals simply have to use, especially for 4k video. The HDMI port lets me connect an external monitor. If I need more USB devices - like a keyboard or mouse, I use a USB hub anyway.

There are criticisms for the ‘just’ 4 Thunderbolt3 ports and no HDMI/GigE/USB3. But I can get all of those with cheap converters. Besides, the Thunderbolt3 in my use case would be connected to a monitor, or a Thunderbolt RAID, both of which will also charge my MacBook Pro, so I really won’t miss the dedicated power port. I’ll even have one less cable.

SD card is absent in the new MacBook Pro. But I seldom use it anyway. I have USB3 card readers which are fast enough and support CF and CFast cards, which I use more often than SD cards.

Connection cases
In my current MacBook Pro, one Thunderbolt goes to a Codex transfer station, the second to a RAID, and then daisy chained to a Thunderbolt2-PCIe adapter running a SAS card connected to an LTO tape drive. And the two USB3 ports go, one to a card reader, and the second to another portable drive. The HDMI port may be connected to a larger monitor. And the MagSafe to power.

So, for me, with the 4 Thunderbolt3 ports in the new MacBook Pro, one Thunderbolt3 would go (via a TB3-TB2 adapter) to a Codex transfer station, the second to a RAID (which would also charge my MBP), and then daisy chained to a Thunderbolt2-PCIe adapter running a SAS card connected to an LTO tape drive. The third Thunderbolt3 port would go to a card reader (via a TB3-USB-A adapter), and the fourth to another portable drive. If I need HDMI, I could daisy chain that from any of the existing TB3 or TB2 ports on my drives of PCIe expander. I could also use the OWC or Akitio Thunderbolt dock.

Besides, with Thunderbolt3 cum USB-C ports, I can connect anything to any port. At the moment I need to connect thunderbolt to Thunderbolt and USB to USB. Now they are the same port. And they connect any way around. 

As fas as I can tell, the new MacBook Pro will be the only laptop with 4 Thunderbolt cum USB-C ports. Other laptops have one or the other, but none seem to have 4. Maybe Apple could have made 6, but I’m sure there is a technical reason like bandwidth limits (40 Gbps x 4 = 160 Gbps)  

In the coming year or two, there will be a proliferation of professional level Thunderbolt 3 add-on devices - Thunderbolt3 RAIDs,Video I/O devices from Blackmagic/Aja, Thunderbolt3-PCIe expanders, Thunderbolt3 external GPUs, Thunderbolt-40GigE adapters and many more. So, Apple has paid more attention to ‘forward compatibility’, than get stuck with older USB-A ports. We moved on from Firewire800, we’ll move on from USB3 too.

GPU
A few Windows laptops now come with an nVidia 1060 and some even with a 1080. But none are as light or have as less power needs as the AMD Polaris GPU that the new MacBook Pros offer. Even Microsoft chose to go with the older 960 series GPU for their Surface Book and Surface Studio. And the Razer needs an external GPU with power to deliver performance. So, unless the AMD 455 in the new MacBook Pro isn’t as fast (for my video processing needs), as the GPUs my current MacBook Pros have, I should be fine with this new AMD GPU.

There are already solutions for an external GPU over Thunderbolt2 for the current MacBook Pro. But they are limited by Thunderbolt2 bandwidth. With 40Gbps available over Thunderbolt3, its just a matter of time before someone comes up with an external Thunderbolt3-PCIe expander which will accommodate and run GPU cards like the nVidia 1080 at full bandwidth. That’s an elegant solution, and it will also charge the MacBook Pro.

Display and touch
Like the new 2016 iMac, these new MacBook Pros have a P3 colour space display. This us huge if one is going to watch video destined for professional delivery - like cinema DCPs, and other deliveries. Finally we have a calibrated display while working. I haven’t come across a comparable Windows laptop with this feature yet.

Many Windows laptops have touch screens. I’m not sure this is a very desirable feature. For one thing, with the oily food we eat, my screen will be one mess of finger smudges, and the other, you really can’t do any serious editing with your fingers. They simply come in the way. The Touch Bar might be a better idea. And the keyboard an mouse work fine too. Have been since 1993 anyway.

Operating System
My current MacBook Pros run MacOSX or macOS which no other laptop will run. There is at least one application I use regularly, which is Mac only. the Codex Production Suite or Codex VFS. And I regularly need to read and write ProRes files. And run FCP. Some Windows laptop may let me do one or more of the above, but none will let me do all of that. 

So, all things considered, if the new MacBook Pro offers me better performance for the video and data work that I do, I’m all for it. And I’m sure it cannot be slower than existing models I have. If anything, its lighter and thinner, and has better battery life. And, has 4 ports Thunderbolt cum USB-C, P3 display, a large trackpad, Touch Bar, faster SSD, which isn’t all there in any other laptop yet.

So, new MacBook Pro, as far as I’m considered “Bring it on”.

Monday 26 September 2016

Sharing a drive between a Mac and a PC

Best practices that I follow when I need to share a hard drive (or even a USB 'pen' drive) between Mac and Windows.
I format the drive depending on which platform (Mac/PC) is going to do the maximum read and write with data on the drive.
So, for example if I'm going to do a lot of work on a Mac, I format the drive on a Mac (as HFS+ with GUID Partition Table), and then on Windows use HFS Explorer or MacDrive to do the occasional read/write on a PC.
Conversely, if I'm going to do a lot of work on a PC, I format the drive on a PC (as NTFS), and then on Mac use Paragon NTFS to do the occasional read/write on a Mac.
This applies to editing with FCP7/X or Premiere Pro on Mac, or even working with Photoshop or Excel/Numbers.
If at all I run into a problem with files on a drive, I usually repair it on the native platform. Meaning, if an NTFS drive has problems, I repair it on a PC. Or, if a HFS+ drive has problems I repair it on a Mac. Never vice versa. To repair a drive on a Mac I use Disk Utility, or if that fails, then I use Disk Utility.
And, all my data is usually backed up in two places. I use Carbon Copy Cloner or ChronoSync to keep two drives or even folders on drives synchronised with the same data. For smaller files (like FCP/Prem projects or spreadsheets, documents, or even pictures) I use DropBox, Google Drive, or iCloud to keep a copy safe.

I completely avoid MS-DOS or ExFAT for shared drives, as they are problematic over a long period.

Tuesday 24 May 2016

Importing custom built (CTO) Mac systems - are they worth it?

In countries where Apple does not have an official online store, like in India, Apple sells Mac computers of certain fixed configurations. These can be seen on their country specific web site. So, if you wish to buy a Mac - MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, iMac, or MacPro - in India - you will need to choose from these configurations. 
But, in places where Apple has an online store, you can buy higher configurations called CTO (configured to order) systems.

First let's look at the highest configuration Mac you can get in India (with comments on upgradeability by the user)

MacBook Pro 15”
2.5GHz quad-core i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD
 - Rs 1,99,900
(You can’t upgrade RAM or GPU but you can upgrade the SSD yourself)

iMac 21.5
3.1GHz quad-core i5, 8GB RAM, 1TB 5400rpm drive, IrisPro 6200 GPU shared VRAM
 - Rs 1,23,900
(You can upgrade the drive but you can’t upgrade the RAM, CPU or GPU yourself)

iMac 27
3.3GHz quad-core i5, 8GB RAM, 2TB fusion drive, R9 M395 GPU 2GB VRAM
 - Rs 1,88,900
(You can upgrade RAM and drive but you can’t upgrade the CPU or GPU yourself)

MacPro
3.7GHz quad-core XeonE5, 12GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Dual AMD D300 2GB VRAM each
 - Rs 2,49,900
(You can upgrade RAM and SSD but you can’t upgrade the CPU or GPU yourself)
or
3.5GHz six-core XeonE5, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD, Dual AMD D500 3GB VRAM each
 - Rs 3,29,900
(You can upgrade RAM and SSD but you can’t upgrade the CPU or GPU yourself)

But, from an Apple online store (Dubai) you could get

MacBook Pro 15”
2.8GHz quad-core i7, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD
 - AED 12,699 - Rs 2,33,045

iMac 21.5
3.3GHz quad-core i7, 16GB RAM, 2TB fusion drive, IrisPro 6200 GPU shared VRAM
 - AED 8,799 - Rs 1,61,480

iMac 27
4GHz quad-core i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB fusion drive, R9 M395 GPU 4GB VRAM
 - AED 12,799 - Rs 2,34,880

MacPro
3GHz 8-core XeonE5, 32GB RAM, 512GB SSD, Dual AMD D700 6GB VRAM each
 - AED 27,199 - Rs 4,99,120
or
MacPro
2.7GHz 12-core XeonE5, 64GB RAM, 1TB SSD, Dual AMD D700 6GB VRAM each
 - AED 38,399 - Rs 7,04,640

There is no dealer who sells these CTO Mac in Rupees here in India. The only way to get one of these is to either import them from a dealer in, say, Dubai, Singapore, or Hong Kong - the nearest online Apple store to India. Or to fly out to one of these countries and bring them back with you. You will, however have to pay customs duties on return and even possibly excess baggage on the flight (in the case of the iMac). The MacPro could be carried as hand baggage, since its small and not too heavy. (5 kg)

Customs duty is between 17%-28% as far as I can ascertain from websites like cybex.in or duty calculator. Depending on what the machine gets classified as. That is, 17%-28% of the value as fixed by the customs person on arrival. If you have an invoice they may consider that as the value, or else they will do a lookup and fix a value to it. So, for instance if they fix a value of Rs 2 lakhs, then you’re looking at Rs 34,000 - Rs 56,000 customs duty. 

So the price of the above CTO configs with 28% Customs duty will be…

MacBook Pro 15”
2.8GHz quad-core i7, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD
 - AED 12,699 - Rs 2,98,298

iMac 21.5
3.3GHz quad-core i7, 16GB RAM, 2TB fusion drive, IrisPro 6200 GPU shared VRAM
 - AED 8,799 - Rs 2,06,694

iMac 27
4GHz quad-core i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB fusion drive, R9 M395 GPU 4GB VRAM
 - AED 12,799 - Rs 3,00,646

MacPro
3GHz 8-core XeonE5, 32GB RAM, 512GB SSD, Dual AMD D700 6GB VRAM each
 - AED 27,199 - Rs 6,38,874
or
MacPro
2.7GHz 12-core XeonE5, 64GB RAM, 1TB SSD, Dual AMD D700 6GB VRAM each
 - AED 38,399 - Rs 9,01,939

So, is getting a CTO iMac really worth it?

In my opinion, for a MacBook Pro and iMac 21.5” the extra cost is not worth the performance boost you will see even in the most demanding applications. However, in the case of the MacBook Pro 15” you’re most likely to get out of Customs without paying duty as one laptop is duty waived. Even then, it’s not such a good deal.

In the case of the iMac 27” you’re going to have to pay Customs duty. But you may have to pay only 17%, or the Customs officer may assess it as the highest value iMac available in India since he cannot see the machine spec without turning the machine on which he’s unlikely to do. In which case it could cost as less as Rs 2,21,000 including duty. That is a good deal and the performance increase with an iMac i7 with a 4GB GPU is noticeable.

However, compared to carrying an upgraded (CTO) iMac 27” for 3,00,646 from Dubai to India, against getting a 4-core MacPro in India for Rs 2,49,900 and adding even a 4k display, I would go with a MacPro 4-core against a CTO iMac 27”

By the way, there are resellers who sell the iMac i7 in India on eBay. I saw two
Apple iMac 27” Retina 5k Display 4.0ghz i7 3tb Fusion 32gb, M395X 4gb - Rs 3,31,398 all incl
27" APPLE iMAC 4.0Ghz i7 RETINA 5K 512GB PCIe+6TB HD (6512GB) 32GB RAM M395X 4GB - Rs 4,20,353 all incl
Straight to your home by courier.

Here too, for these prices, a 4-core MacPro bought in India against Rupees is a better deal.

One more thing. Buying a CTO iMac in foreign currency and carrying it in, or even buying it online, may not let you claim depreciation or income tax benefits in India. This could be a big consideration. Besides, maybe there are warranty issues to consider for self-imported Mac systems.

So, bottom line. Most CTO Mac configs aren’t worth the trouble and expense of importing into India. 

What about a hackintosh - meaning, an assembled PC hacked to run the MacOS. Is that a good deal? Many say they are, and some say they aren’t. I have very little direct experience and the few occasions I saw a hackintosh running an editing software like FCP or Avid, it was not stable enough. This was a few years ago, and maybe things have changed now. One of these days I might find time and build one myself. If and when I do that, I’ll share the experience. 


Till then, my vote is for getting a ‘real’ Mac made by Apple. In India and in Rupees.