The 2019 Mac Pro Truck

In 2010 Steve Jobs famously provided us with the analogy that traditional computers are like trucks in the modern era. Not that trucks were going away, but simply were no longer a necessity for most of us, now that the majority of the populace wasn’t engaged in farming. While trucks would continue to be purchased and used, far fewer people actually needed them, because the car covered their needs. The same was true, he felt, of traditional computers.

Jobs is often characterized as being a consumer market-driven guy, but I believe the story is more nuanced. After all, he founded NeXT Computer, which clearly made high-end workstations. Job also became the major shareholder in Pixar Animation Studios – a company that not only needed advanced, niche computing power, but also developed some of its own specialized graphics hardware and software. So a mix of consumer and advanced computing DNA runs throughout Apple.

By the numbers

Unless you’ve been under a rock, you know that Apple revealed its new 2019 Mac Pro at the WWDC earlier this month. This year’s WWDC was an example of a stable, mature Apple firing on all cylinders. iPhone unit sales have not been growing. The revenue has, but that’s because the prices have been going up. Now it’s time to push all of the company’s businesses, including iPad, services, software, and the Mac. Numbers are hard to come by, although Apple has acknowledged that the Mac unit by itself is nearly a $25 billion business and that it would be close to being in the Fortune 100 on its own. There’s a ratio of 80/20 Mac laptops to desktops. For comparison to the rest of the PC world, Apple’s marketshare is around 7%, ranking fourth behind Lenovo, HP, and Dell, but just ahead of Acer. There are 100 million active macOS users (Oct 2018), although Windows 10 adoption alone runs eight times larger (Mar 2019).

We can surmise from this information that there are 20 million active Mac Pro, iMac, iMac Pro, and Mac mini users. It’s fair to assume that a percentage of those are in the market for a new Mac Pro. I would project that maybe 1% of all Mac users would be interested in upgrading to this machine – i.e. around 1 million prospective purchasers. I’m just spit-balling here, but at a starting price of $6,000, that’s a potential market of $6 billion in sales before factoring in any upgrade options or new macOS users!

A funny thing happened on the way to the WWDC

Apple went through a computing platform progression from the old Quadra 950 and 9600 towers to the first Intel Mac Pro towers over the course of the mid-1990s to 2006. The second generation of the older Mac Pro was released during 2009. So in a dozen-plus years, Apple customers saw seven major processor/platform changes and had come to expect a constant churn. In essence, plan on replacing your system every few years. However, from 2009 onward, customers that bought those Mac Pros had a machine that could easily last, be productive, and still be somewhat competitive ten years later. The byproduct of this was the ability to plan longer life expectancy for the hardware you buy. No longer an automatic two to three year replacement need.

Even the 2013 Mac Pro has lasted until now (six years later) and remains competitive with most machines. The miscalculation that Apple made with the 2013 Mac Pro was that pro customers would prefer external expandability versus internal hardware upgrades. Form over function. That turned out to be wrong. I’m probably one of the few who actually likes the 2013 Mac Pro under the right conditions. It’s an innovative design, but unfortunately one that can’t be readily upgraded.

The second major change in computing hardware is that now “lesser” machines are more than capable of doing the work required in media and entertainment. During those earlier days of the G3/G4/G5 PowerMacs and the early Intel Mac Pros, Apple didn’t make laptops and all-in-ones that had enough horsepower to handle video editing and the like. Remember the colorful, plastic iMacs and white eMacs? Or what about the toilet-seat-like iBook laptop? Good enough for e-mail, but not what you would want for editing.

Now, we have a wide range of both Mac and PC desktop computers and laptops that are up to the task. In the past, if you needed a performance machine, then you needed a workstation class computer. Nothing else would do. Today, a general purpose desktop PC that isn’t necessarily classed as a workstation is more than sufficient for designers, editors, and colorists. In the case of Apple, there’s a range of laptops and all-in-ones that cover those needs at many different price points.

The 2019 Mac Pro Reveal

Let me first say that I didn’t attend WWDC and I haven’t seen the new Mac Pro in person. I hope to be able to do a review at some point in the future. The bottom line is that this is purely an opinion piece for now.

There have certainly been a ton of internet comments about this machine – both positive and negative. Price is the biggest pain point. Clearly Apple intends this to be a premium product for the customer with demanding computing requirements. You can spin the numbers any way you like and people have. Various sites have speculated that a fully-loaded machines could drive the starting price from $6,000 to as high as $35K to $50K. The components that Apple defines in the early tech information do not perfectly match equivalent model numbers available on the suppliers’ websites. No one knows for sure how the specific Intel Xeon being used by Apple equates to other Xeons listed on Intel’s site. Therefore, exact price extrapolations are simply guesses for now.

In late 2009 I purchased an entry model 8-core Mac Pro. With some storage and memory upgrades, AppleCare, sales tax, and a small business discount, I paid around $4,000. The inflation difference over the decade is about 17%, so that same hardware should cost me $4,680 today. In fairness, Apple has a different design in this new machine and there are technologies not in my base 2009 machine, such as 10GigE, Thunderbolt 3, a better GPU, etc. Even though this new machine may be out of my particular budget right now, it’s still an acceptable value when compared with the older Mac Pros.

Likewise, if you compare the 2019 Mac Pro to comparable name brand workstations, like an HP Z8, you’ll quickly find that the HP will cost more. One clear difference, though is that HP also offers smaller, less costly workstation models, such as the Z2, Z4 and Z6. The PC world also offers many high quality custom solutions, such as Puget Systems, which I have reviewed.

One design decision that could have mitigated the cost a bit is the choice of CPU chips. Apple has opted to install Xeons chips in all of its Mac Pro designs. Same with the iMac Pro. However, Intel also offers very capable Core i9 CPUs. The i9 chips offer faster core speeds and high core counts. The Xeons are designed to be run flat out 24/7. However, in the case of video editing, After Effects, and so on, the Core i9 chip may well be the better solution. These apps really thrive on fast single-core speeds, so having a 12-core or 28-core CPU, where each core has a slower clock speed, may not give you the best results. Regardless of benefit, Xeons do add to Apple’s hard costs in building the machine. Xeons are more expensive that Core chips. In some direct comparisons, a Xeon can garner $1,000 over Intel’s retail price of the equivalent Core CPU.

The ultimate justification for buying a Mac Pro tower isn’t necessarily performance alone, but rather longevity and expandability. As I outlined above, customers have now been conditioned to expect the system to last and be productive for at least a decade. That isn’t necessarily true of an all-in-one or a laptop. This means that if you amortize the investment in a 2019 Mac Pro over a ten-year period, it’s actually quite reasonable.

The shame – and this is where much of the internet ire is coming from – is that Apple didn’t offer any intermediate models, like HP’s Z4 or Z6. I presume that Apple is banking on those customers buying iMacs, iMac Pros, Mac minis, or MacBook Pros instead. Couple one of these models with an external GPU and fast external storage and you will have plenty of power for your needs today. It goes without saying that comparing this Mac Pro to a custom PC build (which may be cheaper) is a non-starter. A customer for this Mac Pro will buy one, pure and simple. There is built-in price elasticity to this niche of the market. Apple knows that and the customers know it.

Nuts and bolts

The small details haven’t been fully revealed, so we probably won’t know everything about these new Mac Pros until September (the rumored release). Apple once again adopted a signature case design, which like the earlier tower case has been dubbed a “cheese grater.” Unlike the previous model, where the holes were simply holes for ventilation, the updated model (or would that be the retro model?) uses a lattice system in the case to direct the airflow. The 2019 is about the same size as its “cheese grater” predecessor, but 20 pounds lighter.

There is very little rocket science in how you build a workstation, so items like Xeon CPUs, GPU cards, RAM, and SSD system drives are well understood and relatively standard for a modern PC system.

The short hardware overview consists of:

8, 12, 16, 24, and 28-core Xeon CPU options

Memory from 32GB to 1.5TB of DDR4 ECC RAM

Up to four AMD GPU cards

1.4 kW power supply

Eight PCIe expansion slots (one used for Apple i/o card)

System storage options from 256GB to 4TB

Four Thunderbolt 3 ports (2 top and 2 back) plus two USB 3 ports (back)

(Note – more ports available with the upgraded GPU options)

Two 10Gb Ethernet ports

WiFi, Bluetooth, built-in speakers, headphone jack

So far, so good. Any modern workstation would have similar choices. There are several key unknowns and that’s where the questions come in. First, the GPU cards appear to be custom-designed AMD cards installed into a new MPX (Mac Pro expansion) module. This is a mounting/connecting cage to install and connect the hardware. However, if you wanted to add your own GPU card, would it fit into such a module? Would you have to buy a blank module from Apple for your card? Would your card simply fit into the PCIe slot and screw in like on any other tower? The last question does appear to be possible, but will there be proper Nvidia support?

The second big question relates to internal storage. The old “cheese grater” had sleds to install four internal drives. Up to six could be installed if you used the optical drive bays. The 2019 Mac Pro appears to allow up to four drives within an MPX chassis. Promise has already announced two products specifically for the Mac Pro. One would include four RAIDed 8TB drives for a 32TB capacity. 14TB HDDs are already available, so presumably this internal capacity will go up. 

The unknown is whether or not you can add drives without purchasing an MPX module. The maximum internal GPU option seems to be four cards, which are mounted inside two MPX modules. This is also the space required for internal drives. Therefore, if you have both MPX modules populated with GPU cards, then I would imagine you can’t add internal storage. But I may be wrong. As with most things tech, I predict that if blank MPX modules are required, a number of vendors will quickly offer cheaper aftermarket MPX modules for GPUs, storage, etc.

One side issue that a few blogs have commented on is the power draw. Because of the size of the power supply, the general feeling is that the Mac Pro should be plugged into a standard electrical circuit by itself, plus maybe a monitor. In other words, not a circuit with a bunch of other electrical devices, otherwise you might start blowing breakers.

Afterburner

A new hardware item from Apple is the optional Afterburner ProRes and ProRes RAW accelerator card. This uses an FGPA (field programmable gate array), which is a chip that can be programmed for various specific functions. It can potentially be updated in the future. Anyone who has worked with the RED Rocket or RED Rocket-X card in the past will be quite familiar with what the Afterburner is.

The Afterburner will decode ProRes and ProRes RAW codecs on-the-fly when this media is played in Final Cut Pro X, QuickTime Player X, and any other application re-coded to support the card. This would be especially beneficial with camera raw codecs, because it debayers the raw sensor data via hardware acceleration at full resolution, instead of using the CPU. Other camera RAW manufacturers, like RED, ARRI, Canon, and Blackmagic Design, might add support for this card to accelerate their codecs, as well. What is not known is whether the Afterburner card can also be used to offload true background functions like background exports and transcoding within Final Cut Pro X.

An FPGA card offers the promise of being future-proofed, because you can always update its function later. However, in actual practice, the hardware capabilities of any card become outstripped as the technology changes. This happened with the RED Rocket card and others. We’ll see if Apple has any better luck over time.

Performance

Having lots of cores is great, but with most media and entertainment software the GPU can be key. Apple has been at a significant disadvantage with many applications, like After Effects, because of their stance with Nvidia and CUDA acceleration. Apple prefers that a manufacturer support Metal, which is their way of leveraging the combined power of all CPUs and GPUs in the system. This all sounds great, but the reality is that it’s one proprietary technology versus another. In the benchmark tests I ran with the Puget PC workstation, the CUDA performance in After Effects easily trounced any Mac that I scored it against.

Look at Apple’s website for a chart representing the relative GPU performance of a 2013 Mac Pro, an iMac Pro, and the new 2019 Mac Pro. Each was tested with their respective top-of-the-line GPU option. The iMac Pro is 1.5x faster than the 2013 Mac Pro. The 2019 Mac Pro is twice as fast as the iMac Pro and 3x faster than the 2013 Mac Pro. While that certainly looks impressive, that 2x improvement over the iMac Pro comes thanks to two upgraded GPU cards instead of one. Well, duh! Of course, at this time we have no idea what these cards and MPX units will cost. (Note – I am not totally sure as to whether this testing used two GPUs in one MPX module or a total of four GPUs in two modules.)

We won’t know how well these really perform until the first units get out into the wild. Especially how they compare against comparable PCs with high-powered Nvidia cards. I may be going out on a limb, but I would be willing to bet that many people who buy the base configuration for $6K – thinking that they will get a huge boost in performance – are going to be very disappointed. I don’t mean to trash the entry-level machine. It’s got solid specs, but in that configuration, isn’t the best performer. At $6K, you are buying a machine that will have longevity and which can be upgraded in the future. In short, the system can grow with you over time as the workload demands increase. That’s something which has not be available to Mac owners since the end of 2012.

Software

To take the most advantage of the capabilities of this new machine, software developers (both applications and plug-ins) will have to update their code. All of the major brands like Adobe, Avid, Blackmagic Design, and others seem to be on board with this. Obviously, so are the in-house developers at Apple who create the Pro Applications. Final Cut Pro X and Logic Pro X are obvious examples. Logic is increasing the track count and number of software instruments you can run. Updates have already been released.

Final Cut Pro X has a number of things that appear in need of change. Up until now, in spite of being based around Metal, Final Cut has not taken advantage of multiple GPUs when present. If you add an eGPU to a Mac today, you must toggle a preference setting to use one GPU or the other as the primary GPU (Mojave). Judging by the activity monitor, it appears to be an either-or thing, which means the other GPU is loafing. Clearly when you have four GPUs present, you will want to tap into the combined power of all four.

With the addition of the Afterburner option, FCPX (or any other NLE) has to know that the card is present and how to offload media to the card during playback (and render?). Finally, the color pipeline in Final Cut Pro X is being updated to work in 16-bit float math, as well as optimized for fast 8K workflows.

All of this requires new code and development work. With the industry now talking about 16K video, is 8K enough? Today, 4K delivery is still years away for many editors, so 8K is yet that much further. I suspect that if and when 16K gets serious traction, Apple will be ready with appropriate hardware and software technology. In the case of the new Mac Pro, this could simply mean a new Afterburner card instead of an entirely new computer.

The Apple Pro Display XDR

In tandem with the 2019 Mac Pro, Apple has also revealed the new Pro Display XDR – a 6K  32″ Retina display. It uses a similar design aesthetic to the Mac Pro, complete with a matching ventilation lattice. This display comes calibrated and is designed for HDR with 1,000 nits fullscreen, sustained brightness, and a 1,600 nit maximum. It will be interesting to see how this actually looks. Recent Final Cut Pro X updates have added HDR capabilities, but you can never get an accurate view of it on a UI display. Furthermore, the 500 nit, P3 displays used in the iMac Pros are some of the least color-accurate UI displays of any Mac that I work with. I really hope Apple gets this one right.

To sell the industry on this display, Apple is making the cost and feature comparison between this new display and actual HDR color reference displays costing in the $30K-40K range. Think Flanders Scientific or Sony. The dirty little HDR secret is that when you display an image at the maximum nit level across the entire screen, the display will dim in order to prevent damage. Only the most expensive displays are more tolerant of this. I would presume that the Pro Display XDR will also dim when presented with a fullscreen image of 1,600 nits, which is why their spec lists 1,000 nits fullscreen. That level is the minimum HDR spec. Of course, if you are grading real world images properly, then in my opinion, you rarely should have important picture elements at such high levels. Most of the image should be in a very similar range to SDR, with the extended range used to preserve highlight information, like a bright sky.

Some colorists are challenging the physics behind some of Apple’s claims. The concern is whether or not the display will result in bloomed highlights. Apple’s own marketing video points out that the design reduces blooming, but it doesn’t say that it completely eliminates it. We’ll see. I don’t quite see how this display fits as a reference display. It only has Thunderbolt connections – no SDI or HDMI – so it won’t connect in most standard color correction facilities without additional hardware. If, like all computer displays, the user can adjust the brightness, then that goes against the concept of an HDR reference display. At 32″, it’s much too small to be used as a client display to stick on the wall.

Why did Apple make the choice to introduce this as a user interface display? If they wanted to make a great HDR reference display, then that makes some sense. Even as a great specialty display, like you often find in photography or fine print work. I understand that it will likely display accurate, fullscreen video directly from Final Cut Pro X or maybe even Premiere Pro without the need and added cost of an AJA or BMD i/o device or card. But as a general purpose computer display? That feels like it simply misses the mark, no matter how good it is. Not to mention, at a brightness level of 1,000 to 1,600 nits, that’s way too bright for most edit suites. I even find that to be the case with the iMac Pro’s 500 nit displays, when you crank them up.

This display is listed as $5K without a stand. Add another $1k if you want a matte finish. Oh, and if you want the stand, add another $1K! I don’t care how seductively Jony Ive pronounces “all-u-minium,” that’s taxing the good will of your customer. Heck, make it $5,500 and toss in the stand at cost. Remember, the stand has an articulating arm, which will probably lose its tension in a few years. I hope that a number of companies will make high-quality knock-offs for a couple of hundred bucks.

If you compare the Apple Pro Display XDR to another UI display with a similar mission, then it’s worth comparing it to the HP Dreamcolor Z31x Studio Display. This is a 32″ 4K, calibrated display with an MSRP of right at $3,200. But it doesn’t offer HDR specs, Retina density, or 6K resolution. Factor in those features and Apple’s brand premium and then the entry price isn’t that far out of line – except for that stand.

I imagine that Apple’s thought process is that if you don’t want to buy this display, then there are plenty of cheaper choices, like an LG, HP, Asus, or Dell. And speaking of LG, where’s Apple’s innovative spirit to try something different with a UI display? Maybe something like an ultra wide. LG now has a high-resolution 49″ display for about $1,400. This size enables one large canvas across the width; or two views, like having two displays side-by-side. However, maybe a high-density display (Retina) isn’t possible with such a design, which could be Apple’s hang-up.

Final thoughts

The new 2019 Mac Pro clearly demonstrates that Apple has not left the high-end user behind. I view relevant technology through the lens of my needs with video; however, this model will appeal to a wide range of design, scientific, and engineering users. It’s a big world out there. While it may not be the most cost-effective choice for the individual owner/editor, there are still plenty of editors, production companies, and facilities that will buy one.

There is a large gap between the Mac mini and this new Mac Pro. I still believe there’s a market for a machine similar to some of those concept designs for a Mac Pro. Or maybe a smaller version of this machine that starts at $3,000. But there isn’t such a model from Apple. If you like the 2013 “trash can” Mac Pro, then you can still get it – at least until the 2019 model is officially released. Naturally, iMacs and iMac Pros have been a superb option for that in-between user and will continue to be so.

If you are in the market for the 2019 Mac Pro, then don’t cut yourself short. Think of it as an investment for at least 10 years. Unless you are tight and can only afford the base model, then I would recommend budgeting in the $10K range. I don’t have an exact configuration in mind, but that will likely be a sweet spot for demanding work. Once I get a chance to properly review the 2019 Mac Pro, I’ll be more than happy come back with a real evaluation.

©2019 Oliver Peters

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Minimalism versus Complexity in Post

The prevailing wisdom is that Apple might preview the next Mac Pro at its annual WWDC event coming in a couple of weeks. Then the real product would likely be available by the end of the year. It will be interesting to see what that brings, given that the current Mac Pro was released in 2013 with no refreshes in between. And older Mac Pro towers (mid-2009-2012) are still competitive (with upgrades) against the current run of Apple’s Mac product line.

Many professional users are hoping for a user-upgradeable/expandable machine, like the older towers. But that hasn’t been Apple’s design and engineering trend. MacBooks, MacBook Pros, iMacs, and iMac Pros are more sealed and non-upgradeable than their predecessors. The eGPU and eGPU Pro units manufactured by Blackmagic Design are, in fact, largely an Apple design with Apple engineering specifications intended to meet power, noise and heat parameters. As such, you can’t simply pop in a newer, faster GPU chip, as you can with GPU cards and the Sonnet eGPU devices.

What do we really need?

Setting emotions aside, the real question is whether such expandability is needed any longer. Over the years, I’ve designed, built, and worked in a number of linear edit suites, mixing rooms, and other environments that required a ton of outboard gear. The earliest nonlinear suites (even up until recently) were hardware-intensive. But is any of this needed any longer? My own home rig had been based on a mid-2009 Mac Pro tower. Over the years, I’ve increased RAM, swapped out three GPU cards, changed the stock hard drives for two SSDs and two 7200 RPM media drives (RAID-0), as well as added PCIe cards for eSATA/USB3 and Blackmagic Design monitor display. While at the time, each of those moves was justified, I do have to wonder whether that investment in money would have been better spent for computer model upgrades.

Today that same Mac Pro sits turned off next to my desk. While still current with most of the apps and the OS (not Mojave, though), it can’t accept Thunderbolt peripherals and a few apps, like Pixelmator Pro, won’t install, because they require Metal 2 (only available with newer hardware). So my home suite has shifted to a mid-2014 Mac Book Pro. In doing so, I have adopted the outboard modular solution over the cards-in-the-tower approach. This is largely possible today because small, compact computers – such as laptops – have become sufficiently powerful to deal with today’s video needs.

I like this solution because I can easily shift from location to home by simply plugging in one Thunderbolt cable linked to my OWC dock. The dock connects my audio interface, a few drives, and my primary 27″ Dell display. An additional plus is that I no longer have to sync my personal files and applications between my two machines (I prefer to avoid cloud services for personal documents). I bought a Rain Design laptop stand and a TwelveSouth BookArc, so that under normal use (with one display), the MBP tucks behind the Dell in clamshell mode sitting in the BookArc cradle. When I need a dual-display configuration, I simply bring out the Rain stand and open up the MBP next to the Dell.

Admittedly, this solution isn’t for everyone. If I never needed a mobile machine, I certainly wouldn’t buy a laptop. And if I needed heavy horsepower at home, such as for intensive After Effects work or grading 4K and 8K feature films, then I would probably go for a tower – maybe even one of the Puget Systems PCs that I reviewed. But most of what I do at home is standard editing with some grading, which nearly any machine can handle these days.

Frankly, if I were to start from scratch today, instead of the laptop, tower, and an iPad, I would be tempted to go with a fully-loaded 13″ MacBook Pro. For home, add the eGPU Pro, an LG 5K display, dock, audio i/o and speakers, and drives as needed. This makes for a lighter, yet capable editor in the field. When you get home, one Thunderbolt 3 cable from the eGPU Pro into the laptop would connect the whole system, including power to the MBP.

Of course, I like simple and sleek designs – Frank Lloyd Wright, Bauhaus, Dieter Rams, Scandinavian furniture, and so on. So the Jobs/Ive approach to industrial design does appeal to me. Fortunately, for the most part, my experience with Apple products has been a positive one. However, it’s often hard to make that work in a commercial post facility. After all, that’s where horsepower is needed. But does that necessarily mean lots of gear attached to our computers?

How does this apply to a post facility?

At the day job, I usually work in a suite with a 2013 Mac Pro. Since I do a lot of the Resolve work, along with editing, that Mac Pro cables up to two computer displays plus two grading displays (calibrated and client), a CalDigit dock, a Sonnet 10GigE adapter, a Promise RAID, a TimeMachine drive, the 1GigE house internet, and an audio interface. Needless to say, the intended simplicity of the Mac Pro design has resulted in a lot of spaghetti hanging off of the back. Clearly the wrong design for this type of installation.

Conversely, the same Mac Pro, in a mixing room might be a better fit – audio interface, video display, Thunderbolt RAID. Much less spaghetti. Our other edit stations are based around iMacs/iMac Pros with few additional peripherals. Since our clients do nearly all of their review-and-approval online, the need for a large, client-friendly suite has been eliminated. One room is all we need for that, along with giving the rest of the editors a good working environment.

Even the Mac Pro room could be simplified, if it weren’t for the need to run Resolve and Media Composer on occasion. For example, Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X both send real video to an externally connected desktop display. If you have a reasonably accurate display, like a high-end consumer LED or OLED flat panel, then all editing and even some grading and graphic design can be handled without an additional, professional video display and hardware interface. Any room configured this way can easily be augmented with a roving 17″-34″ calibrated display and a mini-monitor device (AJA or BMD) for those ad hoc needs, like more intense grading sessions.

An interesting approach has been discussed by British editor Thomas Grove Carter, who cuts at London’s Trim, a commercial editorial shop. Since they are primarily doing the creative edit and not the finishing work, the suites can be simplified. For the most part, they only need to work with proxy or lighter-weight ProRes files. Thus, there are no heavy media requirements, as might be required with camera RAW or DPX image sequences. As he has discussed in interviews and podcasts (generally related to his use of Final Cut Pro X), Trim has been able to design edit rooms with a light hardware footprint. Often Trim’s editors are called upon to start editing on-site and then move back to Trim to continue the edit. So mobility is essential, which means the editors are often cutting with laptops. Moving from location or home to an edit suite at Trim is as simple as hooking up the laptop to a few cables. A large display for interface or video, plus fast, portable SSDs with all of the project’s media.

An installation built with this philosophy in mind can be further simplified through the use of a shared storage solution. Unlike in the past, when shared storage systems were complex, hard to install, and confusing to manage – today’s systems are designed with average users in mind. If you are moderately tech savvy, you can get a 10GigE system up and running without the need for an IT staff.

At the day-job shop, we are running two systems – QNAP and LumaForge Jellyfish Rack. We use both for different reasons, but either system by itself is good for nearly any installation – especially Premiere Pro shops. If you are principally an FCPX shop, then Jellyfish will be the better option for you. A single ethernet cable to each workstation from a central server ‘closet’ is all that’s required for a massive amount of media storage available to every editor. No more shuffling hard drives, except to load location footage. Remember that shared storage allows for a distributed workflow. You can set up a simple Mac mini bay for assistant editors and general media management without the need to commandeer an edit suite for basic tasks.

You don’t have to look far to see that the assumptions of the past few decades in computer development and post-production facility design aren’t entirely valid any longer. Client interactions have changed and computer capabilities have improved. The need for all the extra add-ons and do-dads we thought we had to have is no longer essential. It’s no longer the driver for the way in which computers have to be built today.

©2019 Oliver Peters

It is time to reconsider Final Cut Pro X?

While Final Cut Pro X may have ultimately landed in the market sector that Apple envisioned, the industry widely acknowledged that the original launch could have been better managed. Many staunch Final Cut Pro (“legacy”) users were irrevocably alienated. That’s a shame, because FCPX wasn’t a bad design when released – merely incomplete. In the eight years that have followed, the user base has grown to more than 2.5 million (April 2018) and the application sports the widest third-party support of any editing software.

I have certainly gone back and forth in my own use of FCPX, depending on whether it was the right tool for a given job. I cut a feature film with it back in the pre-10.1 days when it was a bifurcated application with separate Event and Project files. Since then, I have also used it on plenty of spots and corporate videos. Although my daily workflow is largely Premiere Pro-based now, I regularly use Final Cut Pro X when appropriate, as well as Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve and Avid Media Composer. Modern editors need to be NLE-multilingual.

I realize that winning Oscars and cutting large-scale productions isn’t what the majority of editors do. Nevertheless, these types of productions give any product street cred. You are probably aware of Focus and Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, but there are certainly others that have used FCPX. Hollywood studios films are dominated by films cut with Avid Media Composer; however, short films cut using FCPX have won the short film Oscar category for two years in a row. While largely invisible to many US viewers, major international productions, on par with Game of Thrones, have been edited using Final Cut Pro X.

If you were one of those FCP7 users who jumped ship to another tool, then maybe it’s time to revisit Final Cut Pro X. There are many reasons I say that. In the past eight years, Apple has added wide codec support, LUTs, HDR capabilities, vastly improved color correction tools, and an easy method of working with captioning. Final Cut is clearly the better tool in many situations and here’s a quick overview why I feel that way.

What productions are best with FCPX?

Final Cut Pro X is capable of handling all types of editing, but it’s more ideal for some than others. The biggest differentiator is turnaround time. If you have to get done quickly – from ingest to delivery – then FCPX is hard to beat. It handles media better than any other NLE without the need for the beefiest hardware. Want to cut 4K ProResHQ on a two-year-old MacBook Pro? Then FCPX shines. That makes it a natural in broadcast news, promos, and sports. It’s also perfect for non-broadcast event coverage. Frankly, I’m surprised that US broadcasters haven’t gravitated to it like various other broadcasters around the world – especially for cutting news stories. The workflow, interface, and low hardware requirements make it well-suited to the task.

Station promo production might be questionable for some, but stop and think about the use of Motion Templates and how that technology can be applied to broadcast design. Final Cut features the unique ability to use templates that any user can create and publish as an effect out of Apple Motion. Therefore, custom effects, animation, and graphics can easily be created specifically for a station’s bespoke look.

For example, a broadcast group or network that owns multiple stations in different cities could have one creative team develop a custom station graphics package for each outlet, simply by using Motion. Those templates could be deployed to each promo department and installed into the individual FCPX edit systems. This would allow each editor to modify or customize time and event information based on the published parameters without mistakenly deviating from the prescribed graphic look. That’s a broadcast creative director’s dream.

A simple hardware footprint

Obviously Final Cut requires Apple computers, but there’s easy connectivity to media from external Thunderbolt, USB, and ethernet-based storage. Some facilities certainly need elaborate shared storage systems for collaborative workflows, but others don’t. If you are a creative editorial boutique, all of a given project’s proxy editing files can be stored on a single SSD drive, allowing the editor to easily move from room to room, or home to work, simply by carrying the SSD with them. They can even be cutting on a laptop and then bring that in to work, connect to an external display for better monitoring, and keep rocking. With the advent of external GPU systems (eGPU), you can easily augment the horsepower of middle-level Macs when the need arises. 

No external i/o hardware is required for monitoring. While I recommend a simple audio i/o interface and external speakers as a minimum, there are plenty of fixed-location systems where the editors only use headphones. AJA or Blackmagic interfaces to play video out to an external display are optional. Simply connect a high-quality display to the Mac via HDMI or Thunderbolt and FCPX will feed real video to it full screen. Premiere Pro can also do this, but Media Composer and Resolve do not.

Third-party ecosystem

Some of Final Cut’s deficits have developed into a huge asset. It enjoys one of the best ecosystems of third-party tools that enhance the application. These range from translation tools from vendors like Intelligent Assistance and Marquis Broadcast, to a myriad of plug-ins, such as those from FxFactory and Coremelt. Final Cut already comes with a very solid set of built-in effects filters – probably the most useful variety of the various NLE options. Even better, if you also purchase Motion, you can easily create more effects by building your own as Motion Templates. This has resulted in a ton of small developers who create and sell their own variations using this core technology.

You certainly don’t have to purchase any additional effects to be productive with FCPX, but if you do, then one of the better options is FxFactory by Noise Industries. FxFactory is both a set of effects and a delivery platform for other developers. You can use the FxFactory interface to purchase, install, and manage plug-ins and even applications from a diverse catalogue of tools. Pick and choose what you need and grow the repertoire as you see fit. One of the first options to start with is idustrial revolution’s newly revamped XEffects Toolkit. This includes numerous effects and title templates to augment your daily work. Some of these employ built-in tracking technology that allows you to pin items to objects within a shot.

Apple’s latest feature addition is workflow extensions. Adobe introduced this technology first in its products. But Apple has built upon it through macOS integration with apps like Photos and now in Final Cut Pro X. In short, an extension allows direct FCPX integration with another application. Various extensions can be downloaded from the Mac App Store and installed into FCPX. An extension then adds a panel into Final Cut, which allows you to interact with that application from inside the FCPX interface. Initially some of the companies offering extensions include frame.io, Shutterstock, Simon Says, and others.

Subscription

A sore point for many Adobe customers was the shift to the subscription business model. While the monthly rates are reasonable if you are an ongoing business, they have caused some to stick with software as old as CS6 (yikes!). As more companies adopt subscriptions, you have to start wondering when enough is enough. I don’t think we are there yet and Creative Cloud is still a solid value. But if you are an individual who doesn’t make a living with these tools, then it’s a concern. Adobe recently raised eyebrows with the doubling of the monthly cost for its Photography plan. As it turns out this is an additional pricing plan with more storage and not a replacement, but that’s only evident after the website page appears to have been quickly fixed. Predictably this gives competitors like ON1 an avenue for counter-marketing.

Concerned with subscriptions? Then the Apple professional applications are an alternative. Final Cut Pro X, Compressor, Motion, and Logic ProX – coupled with photo and graphics tools from Affinity and/or Pixelmator – provide a viable competing package to Adobe Creative Cloud. Heck, augment that with Fusion and/or DaVinci Resolve – even the free versions – and the collection becomes a formidable toolkit.

The interface

Naturally, the elephant in the room is the FCPX interface. It’s what simultaneously excited and turned off so many FCP7 users. In the end, how you edit with Final Cut Pro X does not have to be all that different than your editing style with other NLEs. Certainly there are differences, but once you get used to the basics, there’s more that’s similar than is different.

Isn’t imitation the highest form of flattery? You only have to look at Adobe Premiere Rush or the new Cut Page in Resolve 16 to realize that just maybe, others are starting to see the value in Apple’s approach. On top of that, there are features touted in Resolve 16, like facial (actually shape) recognition or adjustment layers, that were there even in FCPX 10.0. Whether this all is blatant copying or simply a tip-of-the-hat doesn’t matter. Each company has come to the conclusion that some workflows and some newer editors need a faster and more direct user interface that is easily scalable to small and large screens and to single and dual-display systems.

I realize that many out there will read this post and scream Apple apologist. Whatever. If you’ve shifted to PC, then very little of what I’ve said applies to you. I make my daily living with Apple hardware. While I recognize you can often get superior performance with a PC, I don’t find the need to make a change yet. This means that Final Cut Pro X remains a great option for my workflows. It’s a tool I can use for nearly any job and one that is often times better than most. If you rejected it eight years ago, maybe it’s time to take a second look.

©2019 Oliver Peters

NAB Show 2019

This year the NAB Show seemed to emphasize its roots – the “B” in National Association of Broadcasters. Gone or barely visible were the fads of past years, such as stereoscopic 3D, 360-degree video, virtual/augmented reality, drones, etc. Not that these are gone – merely that they have refocused on the smaller segment of marketshare that reflects reality. There’s not much point in promoting stereo 3D at NAB if most of the industry goes ‘meh’.

Big exhibitors of the past, like Quantel, RED, Apple, and Autodesk, are gone from the floor. Quantel products remain as part of Grass Valley (now owned by Belden), which is the consolidation of Grass Valley Group, Quantel, Snell & Wilcox, and Philips. RED decided last year that small, camera-centric shows were better venues. Apple – well, they haven’t been on the main floor for years, but even this year, there was no off-site, Final Cut Pro X stealth presence in a hotel suite somewhere. Autodesk, which shifted to a subscription model a couple of years ago, had a demo suite in the nearby Renaissance Hotel, focusing on its hero product, Flame 2020. Smoke for Mac users – tough luck. It’s been over for years.

This was a nuts-and-bolts year, with many exhibits showing new infrastructure products. These appeal to larger customers, such as broadcasters and network facilities. Specifically the world is shifting to an IP-based infrastructure for signal routing, control, and transmission. This replaces copper and fiber wiring of the past, along with the devices (routers, video switchers, etc) at either end of the wire. Companies that might have appeared less relevant, like Grass Valley, are back in a strong sales position. Other companies, like Blackmagic Design, are being encouraged by their larger clients to fulfill those needs. And as ever, consolidation continues – this year VizRT acquired NewTek, who has been an early player in video-over-IP with their proprietary NDI protocol.

Adobe

The NAB season unofficially started with Adobe’s pre-NAB release of the CC2019 update. For editors and designers, the hallmarks of this update include a new, freeform bin window view and adjustable guides in Premiere Pro and content-aware, video fill in After Effects. These are solid additions in response to customer requests, which is something Adobe has focused on. A smaller, but no less important feature is Adobe’s ongoing effort to improve media performance on the Mac platform.

As in past years, their NAB booth was an opportunity to present these new features in-depth, as well as showcase speakers who use Adobe products for editing, sound, and design. Part of the editing team from the series Atlanta was on hand to discuss the team’s use of Premiere Pro and After Effects in their ‘editing crash pad’.

Avid

For many attendees, NAB actually kicked off on the weekend with Avid Connect, a gathering of Avid users (through the Avid Customer Association), featuring meet-and-greets, workshops, presentations, and ACA leadership committee meetings. While past product announcements at Connect have been subdued from the vantage of Media Composer editors, this year was a major surprise. Avid revealed its Media Composer 2019.5 update (scheduled for release the end of May). This came as part of a host of many updates. Most of these apply to companies that have invested in the full Avid ecosystem, including Nexis storage and Media Central asset management. While those are superb, they only apply to a small percentage of the market. Let’s not forget Avid’s huge presence in the audio world, thanks to the dominance of Pro Tools – now with Dolby ATMOS support. With the acquisition of Euphonix years back, Avid has become a significant player in the live and studio sound arena. Various examples of its S-series consoles in action were presented.

Since I focus on editing, let me discuss Media Composer a bit more. The 2019.5 refresh is the first major Media Composer overhaul in years. It started in secret last year. 2019.5 is the first iteration of the new UI, with more to be updated in coming releases. In short, the interface has been modernized and streamlined in ways to attract newer, younger users, without alienating established editors. Its panel design is similar to Adobe’s approach – i.e. interface panels can be docked, floated, stacked, or tabbed. Panels that you don’t want to see may be closed or simply slid to the side and hidden. Need to see a hidden panel again? Simply side it back open from the edge of the screen.

This isn’t just a new skin. Avid has overhauled the internal video pipeline, with 32-bit floating color and an uncompressed DNx codec. Project formats now support up to 16K. Avid is also compliant with the specs of the Netflix Post Alliance and the ACES logo program.

I found the new version very easy to use and a welcomed changed; however, it will require some adaptation if you’ve been using Media Composer for a long time. In a nod to the Media Composer heritage, the weightlifter (aka ‘liftman’) and scissors icons (for lift and extract edits) are back. Even though Media Composer 2019.5 is just in early beta testing, Avid felt good enough about it to use this version in its workshops, presentations, and stage demos.

One of the reasons to go to NAB is for the in-person presentations by top editors about their real-world experiences. No one can top Avid at this game, who can easily tap a host of Oscar, Emmy, BFTA, and Eddie award winners. The hallmark for many this year was the presentation at Avid Connect and/or at the show by the Oscar-winning picture and sound editing/mixing team for Bohemian Rhapsody. It’s hard not to gather a standing-room-only crowd when you close your talk with the Live Aid finale sequence played in kick-ass surround!

Blackmagic Design

Attendees and worldwide observers have come to expect a surprise NAB product announcement out of Grant Petty each year and he certainly didn’t disappoint this time. Before I get into that, there were quite a few products released, including for IP infrastructures, 8K production and post, and more. Blackmagic is a full spectrum video and audio manufacturer that long ago moved into the ‘big leagues’. This means that just like Avid or Grass Valley, they have to respond to pressure from large users to develop products designed around their specific workflow needs. In the BMD booth, many of those development fruits were on display, like the new Hyperdeck Extreme 8K HDR recorder and the ATEM Constellation 8K switcher.

The big reveal for editors was DaVinci Resolve 16. Blackmagic has steadily been moving into the editorial space with this all-in-one, edit/color/mix/effects/finishing application. If you have no business requirement for – or emotional attachment to – one of the other NLE brands, then Resolve (free) or Resolve Studio (paid) is an absolute no-brainer. Nothing can touch the combined power of Resolve’s feature set.

New for Resolve 16 is an additional editorial module called the Cut Page. At first blush, the design, layout, and operation are amazingly similar to Apple’s Final Cut Pro X. Blackmagic’s intent is to make a fast editor where you can start and end your project for a time-sensitive turnaround without the complexities of the Edit Page. However, it’s just another tool, so you could work entirely in the Cut Page, or start in the Cut Page and refine your timeline in the Edit Page, or skip the Cut Page all together. Resolve offers a buffet of post tools that are at your disposal.

While Resolve 16’s Cut Page does elicit a chuckle from experienced FCPX users, it offers some new twists. For example, there’s a two-level timeline view – the top section is the full-length timeline and the bottom section is the zoomed-in detail view. The intent is quick navigation without the need to constantly zoom in and out of long timelines. There’s also an automatic sync detection function. Let’s say you are cutting a two-camera show. Drop the A-camera clips onto the timeline and then go through your B-camera footage. Find a cut-away shot, mark in/out on the source, and edit. It will ‘automagically’ edit to the in-sync location on the timeline. I presume this is matched by either common sound or timecode. I’ll have to see how this works in practice, but it demos nicely. Changes to other aspects of Resolve were minor and evolutionary, except for one other notable feature. The Color Page added its own version of content-aware, video fill.

Another editorial product addition – tied to the theme of faster, more-efficient editing – was a new edit keyboard. Anyone who’s ever cut in the linear days – especially those who ran Sony BVE9000/9100 controllers – will feel very nostalgic. It’s a robust keyboard with a high-quality, integrated jog/shuttle knob. The feel is very much like controlling a tape deck in a linear system, with fast shuttle response and precise jogging. The precision is far better than any of the USB controllers, like a Contour Shuttle. Whether or not enough people will have interest in shelling out $1,025 for it awaits to be seen. It’s a great tool, but are you really faster with one, than with FCPX’s skimming and a standard keyboard and mouse?

Ironically, if you look around the Blackmagic Design booth there does seem to be a nostalgic homage to Sony hardware of the past. As I said, the edit keyboard is very close to a BVE9100 keyboard. Even the style of the control panel on the Hyperdecks – and the look of the name badges on those panels – is very much Sony’s style. As humans, this appeals to our desire for something other than the glass interfaces we’ve been dealing with for the past few years. Michael Cioni (Panavision, Light Iron) coined this as ‘tactile attraction’ in his excellent Faster Together Stage talk. It manifests itself not only in these type of control surfaces, but also in skeuomorphic designs applied to audio filter interfaces. Or in the emotion created in the viewer when a colorist adds film grain to digital footage.

Maybe Grant is right and these methods are really faster in a pressure-filled production environment. Or maybe this is simply an effort to appeal to emotion and nostalgia by Blackmagic’s designers. (Check out Grant Petty’s two-hour 2019 Product Overview for more in-depth information on Blackmagic Design’s new products.)

8K

I won’t spill a lot of words on 8K. Seems kind of silly when most delivery is HD and even SD in some places. A lot of today’s production is in 4K, but really only for future-proofing. But the industry has to sell newer and flashier items, so they’ve moved on to 8K pixel resolution (7680 x 4320). Much of this is driven by Japanese broadcast and manufacturer efforts, who are pushing into 8K. You can laugh or roll your eyes, but NAB had many examples of 8K production tools (cameras and recorders) and display systems. Of course, it’s NAB, making it hard to tell how many of these are only prototypes and not yet ready for actual production and delivery.

For now, it’s still a 4K game, with plenty of mainstream product. Not only cameras and NLEs, but items like AJA’s KiPro family. The KiPro Ultra Plus records up to four channels of HD or one channel of 4K in ProRes or DNx. The newest member of the family is the KiPro GO, which records up to four channels of HD (25Mbps H.264) onto removable USB media.

Of course, the industry never stops, so while we are working with HD and 4K, and looking at 8K, the developers are planning ahead for 16K. As I mentioned, Avid already has project presets built-in for 16K projects. Yikes!

HDR

HDR – or high dynamic range – is about where it was last year. There are basically four formats vying to become the final standard used in all production, post, and display systems. While there are several frontrunners and edicts from distributors to deliver HDR-compatible masters, there still is no clear path. In you shoot in log or camera raw with nearly any professional camera produced within the past decade, you have originated footage that is HDR-compatible. But none of the low-cost post solutions make this easy. Without the right monitoring environment, you are wasting your time. If anything, those waters are muddier this year. There were a number of HDR displays throughout the show, but there were also a few labelled as using HDR simulation. I saw a couple of those at TV Logic. Yes, they looked gorgeous and yes, they were receiving an HDR signal. I found out that the ‘simulation’ part of the description meant that the display was bright (up to 350 nits), but not bright enough to qualify as ‘true’ HDR (1,000 nits or higher).

As in past transitions, we are certainly going to have to rely on a some ‘glue’ products. For me, that’s AJA again. Through their relationship with Colorfront, AJA offers two FS-HDR products: the HDR Image Analyzer and the FS-HDR convertor. The latter was introduced last year as a real-time frame synchronizer and color convertor to go between SDR and HDR display standards.  The new Analyzer is designed to evaluate color space and gamut compliance. Just remember, no computer display can properly show you HDR, so if you need to post and delivery HDR, proper monitoring and analysis tools are essential.

Cameras

I’m not a cinematographer, but I do keep up with cameras. Nearly all of this year’s camera developments were evolutionary: new LF (large format sensor) cameras (ARRI), 4K camcorders (Sharp, JVC), a full-frame mirrorless DSLR from Nikon (with ProRes RAW recording coming in a future firmware update). Most of the developments were targeted towards live broadcast production, like sports and megachurches.  Ikegami had an 8K camera to show, but their real focus was on 4K and IP camera control.

RED, a big player in the cinema space, was only there in a smaller demo room, so you couldn’t easily compare their 8K imagery against others on the floor, but let’s not forget Sony and Panasonic. While ARRI has been a favorite, due to the ‘look’ of the Alexa, Sony (Venice) and Panasonic (Varicam and now EVA-1) are also well-respected digital cinema tools that create outstanding images. For example, Sony’s booth featured an amazing, theater-sized, LED 8K micro-pixel display system. Some of the sample material shown was of the Rio Carnival, shot with anamorphic lenses on a 6K full-frame Sony Venice camera. Simply stunning.

Finally, let’s not forget Canon’s line-up of cinema cameras, from the C100 to the C700FF. To complement these, Canon introduced their new line of Sumire Prime lenses at the show. The C300 has been a staple of documentary films, including the Oscar-winning film, Free Solo, which I had the pleasure of watching on the flight to Las Vegas. Sweaty palms the whole way. It must have looked awesome in IMAX!

(For more on RED, cameras, and lenses at NAB, check out this thread from DP Phil Holland.)

It’s a wrap

In short, NAB 2019 had plenty for everyone. This also included smaller markets, like products for education seminars. One of these that I ran across was Cinamaker. They were demonstrating a complete multi-camera set-up using four iPhones and an iPad. The iPhones are the cameras (additional iPhones can be used as isolated sound recorders) and the iPad is the ‘switcher/control room’. The set-up can be wired or wireless, but camera control, video switching, and recording is done at the iPad. This can generate the final product, or be transferred to a Mac (with the line cut and camera iso media, plus edit list) for re-editing/refinement in Final Cut Pro X. Not too shabby, given the market that Cinamaker is striving to address.

For those of us who like to use the NAB Show exhibit floor as a miniature yardstick for the industry, one of the trends to watch is what type of gear is used in the booths and press areas. Specifically, one NLE over another, or one hardware platform versus the other. On that front, I saw plenty of Premiere Pro, along with some Final Cut Pro X. Hardware-wise, it looked like Apple versus HP. Granted, PC vendors, like HP, often supply gear to use in the booths as a form of sponsorship, so take this with a grain of salt. Nevertheless, I would guess that I saw more iMac Pros than any other single computer. For PCs, it was a mix of HP Z4, Z6, and Z8 workstations. HP and AMD were partner-sponsors of Avid Connect and they demoed very compelling set-ups with these Z-series units configured with AMD Radeon cards. These are very powerful workstations for editing, grading, mixing, and graphics.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Are you ready for a custom PC?

Why would an editor, colorist, or animator purchase a workstation from a custom PC builder, instead of one of the brand name manufacturers? Puget Systems, a PC supplier in Washington state, loaned me a workstation to delve into this question. They pride themselves on assembling systems tailor-made for creative users. Not all component choices are equal, so Puget tests the same creative applications we use every day in order to optimize their systems. For instance, Premiere Pro benefits from more CPU cores, whereas with After Effects, faster core speeds are more important than the core count.

Puget Systems also offers a unique warranty. It’s one year on parts, but lifetime free labor. This means free tech and repair support for as long as you own the unit. Even better, it also includes free labor to install hardware upgrades at their facility at any point in the future – you only pay for parts and shipping.

Built for editing

The experience starts with a consultation, followed by progress reports, test results, and photos of your system during and after assembly. These include thermal scans showing your system under load. Puget’s phone advisers can recommend a system designed specifically for your needs, whether that’s CAD, gaming, After Effects, or editing. My target was Premiere Pro and Resolve with a bit of After Effects. I needed it to be capable of dealing with 4K media using native codecs (no transcodes or proxies). 

Puget’s configuration included an eight-core Intel i9 3.6GHz CPU, 64GB RAM, and an MSI GeForce RTX 2080 Ti Venus GPU (11GB). We put in two Samsung SSDs (a Samsung 860 Pro for OS/applications, plus a faster Samsung 970 Pro M.2 NVMe for cache) and a Western Digital Ultrastar 6TB SATA3 spinning drive for media. This PC has tons of connectivity with ports for video displays, Thunderbolt 3, USB-C, and USB 3. The rest was typical for any PC: sound card, ethernet, wifi, DVD-RW, etc. This unit without a display costs slightly over $5K USD, including shipping and a Windows 10 license. That price is in line with (or cheaper than) any other robust, high-performance workstation.

The three drives in this system deliver different speeds and are intended for different purposes. The fastest of these is the “D” drive, which is a blazingly fast NVMe drive that is mounted directly onto the motherboard. This one is intended for use with material requiring frequent and fast read/write cycles. So it’s ideal for Adobe’s cache files and previews. While you wouldn’t store the media for a large Premiere Pro project on it, it would be well-suited for complex After Effects jobs, which typically only deal with a smaller amount of media. While the 6TB HGST “E” drive dealt well with the 4K media for my test projects, in actual practice you would likely add more drives and build up an internal RAID, or connect to a fast external array or NAS.

If we follow Steve Jobs’ analogy that PCs are like trucks, then this is the Ford F-350 of workstations. The unit is a tad bigger and heavier than an older Mac Pro tower. It’s built into an all-metal Fractal Design case with sound dampening and efficient cooling, resulting in the quietest workstation I’ve ever used – even the few times when the fans revved up. There’s plenty of internal space for future expansion, such as additional hard drives, GPUs, i/o card, etc.

For anyone fretting about a shift from macOS to Windows, setting up this system couldn’t have been simpler. Puget installs a professional build of Windows 10 without all of the junk software most PC makers put there. After connecting my devices, I was up and running in less than an hour, including software installation for Adobe CC, Resolve, Chrome, MacDrive, etc. That’s a very ‘Apple-like’ experience and something you can’t touch if you built your own PC.

The proof is in the pudding

Professional users want hardware and software to fade away so they can fluidly concentrate on the creative process. I was working with 4K media and mixed codecs in Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Resolve. The Puget PC more than lived up to its reputation. It was quiet, media handling was smooth, and Premiere and Resolve timelines could play without hiccups. In short, you can stay in the zone without the system creating distractions.

I don’t work as often with RED camera raw files; however, I did load up original footage from an indie film onto the fastest SSD. This was 4K REDCODE media in a 4K timeline in Premiere Pro. Adobe gives you access to the raw settings, in addition to Premiere’s Lumetri color correction controls. The playback was smooth as silk at full timeline resolution. Even adding Lumetri creative LUTs, dissolves, and slow motion with optical flow processing did not impede real-time playback at full resolution. No dropped frames! Nvidia and RED Digital Camera have been working closely together lately, so if your future includes work with 6K/8K RED media, then a system like this requires serious consideration.

The second concern is rendering and exporting. The RTX 2080 Ti is an Nvidia card that offers CUDA processing, a proprietary Nvidia technology.  So, how fast is the system? There are many variables, of course, such as scaling, filters, color correction, and codecs. When I tested the export of a single 4K Alexa clip from a 1080p Premiere Pro timeline, the export times were nearly the same between this PC and an eight-core 2013 Mac Pro. But you can’t tell much from such a simple test.

To push Premiere Pro, I used a nine minute 1080p travelogue episode containing mostly 4K camera files. I compared export times for ProRes (new on Windows with Adobe CC apps) and Avid DNx between this PC and the Mac Pro (through Adobe Media Encoder). ProRes exports were faster than DNxHD and the PC exports were faster than on the Mac, although comparative times tended to be within a minute of each other. The picture was different when comparing H.264 exports using the Vimeo Full HD preset. In that test, the PC export was approximately 75% faster.

The biggest performance improvements were demonstrated in After Effects and Resolve. I used Puget Systems’ After Effects Benchmark, which includes a series of compositions that test effects, tracking, keys, caustics, 3D text, and more (based on Video Copilot’s tutorials). The Puget PC trounced the Mac Pro in this test. The PC scored a total of 969.5 points versus the Mac’s 535 out of a possible maximum score of 1,000. Resolve was even more dramatic with the graded nine-minute-long sequence sent from Premiere Pro. Export times bested the Mac Pro by more than 2.5x for DNxHD and 6x for H.264.

Aside from these benchmark tests, I also created a “witches brew” After Effects composition of my own. This one contains ten layers of 4K media in a one-minute-long 6K composition. The background layer was blown up and defocused, while all other layers were scaled down and enhanced with a lot of color and Cycore stylized effects. A 3D camera was added to create a group move for the layers. In addition, I was working from the slower drives and not the fast SSDs on either machine. Needless to say this one totally bogs any system down. The Mac Pro rendered a 1080 ProRes file in about 54 minutes, whereas the PC took 42 minutes. Not the same 2-to-1 advantage as in the benchmarks; however, that’s likely due to the fact that I heavily weighted the composition with the Cycore effects. These are not particularly efficient and probably introduce some bottlenecks in After Effects’ processing. Nevertheless, the Puget Systems PC still maintained a decided advantage.

Conclusion

Mac vs. PC comparisons are inevitable when discussing creative workstations. Ultimately it gets down to preference – the OS, the ecosystem, and hardware options. But if you want the ultimate selection of performance hardware and to preserve future expandability, then a custom-built PC is currently the best solution. For straight-forward editing, both platforms will generally serve you well, but there are times when a top-of-the-line PC simply leaves any Mac in the dust. If you need to push performance in After Effects or Resolve, then Windows-based solutions offer the edge today. Custom systems, like those from Puget Systems, are designed with our needs in mind. That’s something you don’t necessarily get from a mainline PC maker. This workstation is a future-proof, no-compromise system that makes the switch from Mac to PC an easy and graceful transition – and with power to space.

Originally written for RedShark News.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Blackmagic Design eGPU Pro

Last year Apple embraced external graphics processing units. Blackmagic Design responded with the release of its AMD-powered eGPU model. Many questioned their choice of the Radeon Pro 580 chip instead of something more powerful. That challenge has been answered with the new Blackmagic eGPU Pro. It sports the Radeon RX Vega 56 – a similar model to the one inside the base iMac Pro configuration. The two eGPU models are nearly identical in design, but in addition to more processing power, the eGPU Pro adds a DisplayPort connection that can support 5K monitors.

The eGPU Pro includes two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports with 85W charging capability, HMDI, DisplayPort, and four USB-A type connectors for standard USB-3.1 devices. This means you can connect multiple peripherals and displays, plus power your laptop. You’ll need a Thunderbolt 3 connection from the computer and then either eGPU model becomes plug-and-play with Mojave (macOS 10.14) or later.

Setting up the eGPU Pro

With Mojave, most current creative apps, like Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, Resolve, etc. offer a preference selection to always use the eGPU (when connected) from the application’s Get Info panel. This is an “either/or” choice. The application does not combine the power of both GPUs for maximum performance. When you pull up the Activity Monitor, you can easily see that the internal GPU is loafing while the eGPU Pro does the heavy lifting during tasks such as rendering. External GPUs benefit Macs with low-end, built-in GPUs, like the 13″ MacBook Pro or the Mac mini. A Blackmagic eGPU or eGPU Pro wouldn’t provide an edge to the render times of an iMac Pro, for example. It wouldn’t be worth the investment, unless you need one to connect additional high-resolution displays.

Users who are unfamiliar with external GPUs assume that the advantage is in faster export and render times, but that’s only part of the story. Not every function of an application uses the GPU, so many factors determine rendering. External GPU technology is very much about real-time image output. An eGPU will allow more connected displays of higher resolutions than an underpowered Mac would normally support on its own. The eGPU will also improve real-time playback of effects-heavy timelines. So yes, editors will get faster exports, but they will also enjoy a more fluid editing experience.

Extending the power of the Mac mini

In my Mac mini review, I concluded that a fully-loaded configuration made for a very capable editing computer. However, if you tend to use a number of effects that lean on GPU power, you will see an impact on real-time playback. For example, with the standard Intel GPU, I could add color correction, gaussian blur, and a title, and playback was generally fine with a fast drive. But, when I added a mask to the blur, it quickly dropped frames during playback. Once I connected the eGPU Pro to this same Mac Mini, such timelines played fluidly and, in fact, more effects could be layered onto clips. As in my other tests, Final Cut Pro X performed the best, but Premiere Pro and Resolve also performed solidly.

For basic rendering, I tested the same sequence that I used in the Mac mini review. This is a 9:15-long 1080p timeline made up of 4K source clips in a variety of codecs, plus scaling and color correction. I exported ProRes and H.264 master files from FCPX, Premiere Pro, and Resolve. With the eGPU Pro, times were cut in the range of 12% (FCPX) to 54% (Premiere). An inherently fast renderer, like Final Cut, gained the least by percentage, as it already exhibited the fastest times overall. Premiere Pro saw the greatest gain from the addition of the eGPU Pro. This is a major improvement over last year when Premiere didn’t seem to take much advantage of the eGPU. Presumably both Apple and Adobe have optimized performance when an eGPU is present.

Most taxing tests

A timeline export test is real-world but may or may not tax a GPU. So, I set up a specific render test for that purpose. I created a :60 6K timeline (5760×3240) composed of a nine-screen composite of 4K clips scaled into nine 1920×1080 sections. Premiere Pro would barely play this at even 1/16th resolution using only the Intel. With the eGPU Pro, it generally played at 1/2 resolution. This was exported to a final 1080 ProRes file. During my base test (without the eGPU connected) Premiere Pro took over 31 minutes with “maximum quality” selected. A standard quality export was about eight minutes, while Final Cut Pro X took five minutes. Once I re-connected the eGPU Pro, the same timelines exported in 3:20 under all three test scenarios. That’s a whopping 90% reduction in time for the most taxing condition! One last GPU-centric test was the BruceX test, which has been devised for Final Cut. The result without the eGPU was :58, but an impressive :16 when the eGPU Pro was used.

As you can see, effects-heavy work will benefit from the eGPU Pro, not only in faster renders and exports, but also improved real-time editing. This is also true of Resolve timelines with many nodes and in other graphics applications, like Pixelmater Pro. The 2018 Mac mini is a capable mid-range system when you purchase it with the advanced options. Nevertheless, users who need that extra grunt will definitely see a boost from the addition of a Blackmagic eGPU Pro.

Originally written for RedShark News.

©2019 Oliver Peters

Editing with the 2018 Mac mini

It’s hard to pigeonhole the new Mac mini into any specific market, since the size and modular design fit the needs of many different users. Data centers, servers, and Compressor encoding clusters come to mind, but it’s also ideal for many location productions, such as DIT work, stage lighting and sound control. If you are replacing an aging computer, already own the other peripherals, and prefer the macOS ecosystem, then the Mac mini may be enticing.

The 2018 Mac mini features a familiar form factor that’s been revamped with a new thermal architecture, bigger fans, and redesigned power supply. It features eighth-generation Intel Core quad-core and six-core processor options, RAM that tops out at 64GB, and flash storage (SSD) up to 2TB. Connectivity includes four Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C ports (two internal buses), HDMI 2.0, two standard USB 3.1 ports, Bluetooth, wi-fi, a headphone jack, and an ethernet port. The latter can be bumped up to 10GigE in build-to-order machines. RAM is technically upgradeable, but Apple recommends Apple-certified service centers and not user replacement. Apple loaned me a six-core 3.2 GHz i7 model with 32GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD. Mac minis start at $799, but this configuration would cost you $2,499.

Getting started

Many have asked online, “Why is the only GPU choice an Intel UHD Graphics 630?” We are now in the era of external GPU devices and Apple has clearly designed the mini with that in mind. There are many applications where a powerful GPU simply isn’t necessary, such as standard desktop computing, like surfing the web, home accounting, and writing. But also, most pro audio, most graphics and photography, and creative editing that isn’t effects-intensive will work just fine with this Mac. If you need or want more GPU horsepower, then add an eGPU to the mix. (An upcoming review will assess the performance of the Mac mini together with a Blackmagic eGPU Pro.)

When you first unbox the Mac you will need to figure out how to connect an external display. A Thunderbolt 3 display, like the LG UltraFine 5K on Apple’s website, or a low-end display that uses HDMI are both clear options. However, if you already own a monitor that connects via Mini DisplayPort, DisplayPort, VGA, or DVI, then you’ll need to purchase a Thunderbolt 3 adapter specific to that connection standard. Other possibilities include connecting your monitor through an eGPU or a Thunderbolt dock that has the correct ports. I tested both CalDigit and OWC docks with 27″ Apple Retina and Dell displays and everything worked fine. A minor issue, but something to consider before you can even start using your Mac mini.

I put the Mac mini through its paces with Premiere Pro, Final Cut Pro X, DaVinci Resolve, and Pixelmater Pro to cover editing, color correction, and photo manipulation. Although I didn’t test the Mac mini extensively with Logic Pro X, this computer would also be a good choice for sound design, mixing, and music creation. My initial impressions are that this is a very capable computer for creative pros and that the Intel GPU is more than adequate for most tasks.

Real-world testing

I’ve been testing the Mac mini with an episode from a real production that I work on, which is a nine-minute-long travel segment edited in Premiere Pro and graded in Resolve. I also brought the Premiere sequence into FCPX for comparison testing. To me that’s more telling than any artificial benchmark score. The native media sources are 4K in a 1080p/23.98 timeline. Footage covers a mix of cameras and codecs, including ProResHQ, XAVC, H.264, and H.265. Sequence clip effects include resizing, speed changes, Lumetri color correction (or FCPX’s color tools), plus an audio mix. In short, everything that the offline/creative editor used. The Resolve grade consists of 145 clips averaging three to five nodes on every clip. To keep my render tests consistent across several machines, all media and project files were loaded to an external LaCie Rugged portable drive connected over USB-3.

ProRes and H.264 exports from each application were used to compare the Mac mini against two other Macs – my mid-2014 Retina MacBook Pro (the last series using Nvidia GPU cards) and a current 10-core iMac Pro. Premiere Pro and Resolve rendering was set to OpenCL, an open GPU standard, which still seems to yield the fastest results for these apps. Final Cut Pro X uses Metal, Apple’s method to leverage the combined power of the GPU and CPU.

Naturally the iMac Pro bested all of the times by half or more. The mini’s times – using only the Intel GPU – were actually similar to the older MacBook Pro, though noticeably faster with Resolve. The general editing experience was good, but video was a bit “sticky” when scrubbing/skimming through 4K media – thanks to the slow external drive. Once I moved the media onto the Mac mini’s blazingly fast SSD (around 2800 MB/s read-write speeds), the result was a super-responsive editing experience. I don’t recommend working with your raw camera footage on the internal drive, so if you edit large projects with a lot of media, then adding a fast, external Thunderbolt 3 drive or RAID array is the way to go. The 1TB size of the internal flash drive is the sweet spot for most editors. Companies with ethernet-based NAS shared storage systems will want to get the 10GigE upgrade when purchasing a Mac mini if they intend to edit with it.

That’s not to say the Mac mini is the most powerful without the extra GPU power. There are some GPU-accelerated effects that will definitely cause stuttering playback and dropped frames. Blurs are an obvious example. When I tested some blurs, playback generally held up until I added a mask to the effect in Premiere. But remember, I’m working with 4K media in native codecs. As a rule, Premiere Pro simply doesn’t handle this type of content as fluidly as Final Cut Pro X. I was able to push FCPX a bit farther without issues than I could Premiere. And, of course, if you want to use it, FCPX can aid the situation with background rendering.

Speaking as an editor and colorist, I’ve been happy with how the Mac mini performs. While not the most powerful Mac made, the mini is still a robust creative tool. Do you edit commercials, corporate video, or entertainment programming? If so, then there’s very little you’ll find issue with in daily operation. The mini presents a good price/performance bargain for editors, musicians, sound designers, graphic artists, photographers, and others. That’s even more the case if you already own the rest of the package.

I think it’s worth making a cost comparison before I close. You can certainly beef up the Mac mini quite a bit; however, in doing so, you should compare the other Mac options before buying. For example, let’s say you completely option out the mini and then add all the Apple store peripherals, including Apple keyboard/mouse, the LG 5K display, and a BMD eGPU Pro. That total would run $6945. Naturally those items from Apple are going to cost a bit more than third-party options. But to compare, the equivalent package in an eight-core iMac Pro with the base GPU, 64GB RAM, and a 2TB SSD would run $6599. That’s the same Vega 56 GPU as in the eGPU Pro, plus you have an eight-core Xeon instead of a Core i7 CPU. Clearly the iMac Pro would be the better choice, because you aren’t buying three enclosures, cooling systems, and power supplies. But if you don’t need that horsepower, already own some of the peripherals, or are better served by the modular design of the Mac mini, then the calculation shifts.

When I work on my own, it’s either with the MacBook Pro or an aging Mac Pro tower. My home editing demands are not as taxing as when I work freelance at other shops. I certainly would have no qualms about shifting projects like those to a Mac mini as a replacement computer, because it can deliver a reliable level of performance without breaking the bank.

Originally written for RedShark News.

For more on the Mac mini and editing, check out this coverage at FCP.co.

©2019 Oliver Peters