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. 

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.

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.

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”.

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