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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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

The State of the NLE 2019

It’s a new year, but the doesn’t mean that the editing software landscape will change drastically in the coming months. For all intents and purpose, professional editing options boil down to four choices: Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro, Apple Final Cut Pro X, and Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve. Yes, I know Vegas, Lightworks, Edius, and others are still out there, but those are far off on the radar by comparison (no offense meant to any happy practitioners of these tools). Naturally, since blogs are mainly about opinions, everything I say from here on is purely conjecture. Although it’s informed by my own experiences with these tools and my knowing many of the players involved on the respective product design and management teams – past and present.

Avid continues to be the go-to NLE in the feature film and episodic television world. That’s certainly a niche, but it’s a niche that determines the tools developed by designers for the broader scope of video editing. Apple officially noted two million users for Final Cut Pro X last year and I’m sure it’s likely to be at least 2.5M by now. Adobe claims Premiere Pro to be the most widely used NLE by a large margin. I have no reason to doubt that statement, but I have also never seen any actual stats. I’m sure through the Creative Cloud subscription mechanism Adobe not only knows how many Premiere Pro installations have been downloaded, but probably has a good idea as to actual usage (as opposed to simply downloading the software). Bringing up the rear in this quartet is Resolve. While certainly a dominant color correction application, I don’t yet see it as a key player in the creative editing (as opposed to finishing) space. With the stage set, let’s take a closer look.

Avid Media Composer

Editors who have moved away from Media Composer or who have never used it, like to throw shade on Avid and its marquee product. But loyal users – who include some of the biggest names in film editing – stick by it due in part to familiarity, but also its collaborative features and overall stability. As a result, the development pace and rate of change is somewhat slow compared with the other three. In spite of that, Avid is currently on a schedule of a solid, incremental update nearly every month – each of which chips away at a long feature request list. The most recent one dropped on December 31st. Making significant changes without destroying the things that people love is a difficult task. Development pace is also hindered by the fact that each one of these developers is also chasing changes in the operating system, particularly Apple and macOS. Sometimes you get the feeling that it’s two steps forward, one step back.

As editors, we focus on Media Composer, but Avid is a much bigger company than just that, with its fingers in sound, broadcast, storage, cloud, and media management. If you are a Pro Tools user, you are just as concerned about Avid’s commitment to you, as editors are to them. Like any large company, Avid must advance not just a single core product, but its ecosystem of products. Yet it still must advance the features in these products, because that’s what gets users’ attention. In an effort to improve its attraction to new users, Avid has introduced subscription plans and free versions to make it easier to get started. They now cover editing and sound needs with a lower cost-of-entry than ever before.

I started nonlinear editing with Avid and it will always hold a spot in my heart. Truth be told, I use it much less these days. However, I still maintain current versions for the occasional project need plus compatibility with incoming projects. I often find that Media Composer is the single best NLE for certain tasks, mainly because of Avid’s legacy with broadcast. This includes issues like proper treatment of interlaced media and closed captioning. So for many reasons, I don’t see Avid going away any time soon, but whether or not they can grow their base remains an unknown. Fortunately many film and media schools emphasize Avid when they teach editing. If you know Media Composer, it’s an easy jump to any other editing tool.

Adobe Premiere Pro CC

The most widely used NLE? At least from what I can see around me, it’s the most used NLE in my market, including individual editors, corporate media departments, and broadcasters. Its attraction comes from a) the versatility in editing with a wide range of native media formats, and b) the similarity to – and viable replacement for – Final Cut Pro “legacy”. It picked up steam partly as a reaction to the Final Cut Pro X roll-out and users have generally been happy with that choice. While the shift by Adobe to a pure subscription model has been a roadblock for some (who stopped at CS6), it’s also been an advantage for others. I handle the software updates at a production company with nine edit systems and between the Adobe Creative Cloud and Apple Mac App Store applications, upgrades have never been easier.

A big criticism of Adobe has been Premiere’s stability. Of course, that’s based on forum reads, where people who have had problems will pipe up. Rarely does anyone ever post how uneventful their experience has been. I personally don’t find Premiere Pro to be any less stable than any other NLE or application. Nonetheless, working with a mix of oddball native media will certainly tax your system. Avid and Apple get around this by pushing optimized and proxy media. As such, editors reap the benefits of stability. And the same is true with Premiere. Working with consistent, optimized media formats (transcoded in advance) – or working with Adobe’s own proxies – results in a more stable project and a better editing experience.

Avid Media Composer is the dominant editing tool in major markets, but mainly in the long-form entertainment media space. Many of the top trailer and commercial edit shops in those same markets use Premiere Pro. Again, that goes back to the FCP7-to-Premiere Pro shift. Many of these companies had been using the old Final Cut rather than Media Composer. Since some of these top editors also cut features and documentaries, you’ll often see them use Premiere on the features that they cut, too. Once you get below the top tier of studio films and larger broadcast network TV shows, Premiere Pro has a much wider representation. That certainly is good news for Adobe and something for Avid to worry about.

Another criticism is that of Adobe’s development pace. Some users believed that moving to a subscription model would speed the development pace of new versions – independent of annual or semi-annual cycles. Yet cycles still persist – much to the disappointment of those users. This gets down to how software is actually developed, keeping up with OS changes, and to some degree, marketing cycles. For example, if there’s a big Photoshop update, then it’s possible that the marketing “wow” value of a large Premiere Pro update might be overshadowed and needs to wait. Not ideal, but that’s the way it is.

Just because it’s possible, doesn’t mean that users really want to constantly deal with automatic software updates that they have to keep track of. This is especially true with After Effects and Premiere Pro, where old project files often have to be updated once you update the application. And those updates are not backwards compatible. Personally, I’m happy to restrict that need to a couple of times a year.

Users have the fear that a manufacturer is going to end-of-life their favorite application at some point. For video users, this was made all too apparent by Apple and FCPX. Neither Apple nor Adobe has been exempt from killing off products that no longer fit their plans. Markets and user demands shift. Photography is an obvious example here. In recent years, smart phones have become the dominant photographic device, which has enabled cloud-syncing and storage of photos. Adobe and Apple have both shifted the focus for their photo products accordingly. If you follow any of the photo blogs, you’ll know there’s some concern that Adobe Lightroom Classic (the desktop version) will eventually give way completely to Lightroom CC (the cloud version). When a company names something as “classic”, you have to wonder how long it will be supported.

If we apply that logic to Premiere Pro, then the new Adobe Rush comes to mind. Rush is a simpler, nimbler, cross-platform/cross-device NLE targeted as users who produce video starting with their smart phone or tablet. Since there’s also a desktop version, one could certainly surmise that in the future Rush might replace Premiere Pro in the same way that FCPX replaced FCP7. Personally, I don’t think that will happen any time soon. Adobe treats certain software as core products. Photoshop, Illustrator, and After Effects are such products. Premiere Pro may or may not be viewed that way internally, but certainly more so now than ever in the past. Premiere Pro is being positioned as a “hub” application with connections to companion products, like Prelude and Audition. For now, Rush is simply an interesting offshoot to address a burgeoning market. It’s Adobe’s second NLE, not a replacement. But time will tell.

Apple Final Cut Pro X

Apple released Final Cut Pro X in the summer of 2011 – going on eight years now. It’s a versatile, professional tool that has improved greatly since that 2011 launch and gained a large and loyal fan base. Many FCPX users are also Premiere Pro users and the other way around. It can be used to cut nearly any type of project, but the interface design is different from the others, making it an acquired taste. Being a Mac-only product and developed within the same company that makes the hardware and OS, FCPX is optimized to run on Macs more so than any cross-platform product can be. For example, the fluidity of dealing with 4K ProRes media on even older Macs surpasses that of any other NLE.

Prognosticating Apple’s future plans is a fool’s errand. Some guesses have put the estimated lifespan of FCPX at 10 years, based in part on the lifespan of FCP “legacy”. I have no idea whether that’s true of not. Often when I read interviews with key Apple management (as well as off-the-record, casual discussions I’ve had with people I know on the inside), it seems like a company that actually has less of a concrete plan when it comes to “pro” users. Instead, it often appears to approach them with an attitude of “let’s throw something against the wall and see what sticks”. The 2013 Mac Pro is a striking example of this. It was clearly innovative and a stellar exhibit for Apple’s “think different” mantra. Yet it was a product that obviously was not designed by actually speaking with that product’s target user. Apple’s current “shunning” of Nvidia hardware seems like another example.

One has to ask whether a company so dominated by the iPhone is still agile enough to respond to the niche market of professional video editors. While Apple products (hardware and software) still appeal to creatives and video professionals, it seems like the focus with FCPX is towards the much broader sphere of pro video. Not TV shows and feature films (although that’s great when it comes) – or even high-end commercials and trailers – but rather the world of streaming channels, social media influencers, and traditional publishers who have shifted to an online media presence from a print legacy. These segments of the market have a broad range of needs. After all, so called “YouTube stars” shoot with everything from low-end cameras and smart phones all the way up to Alexas and REDs. Such users are equally professional in their need to deliver a quality product on a timetable and I believe that’s a part of the market that Apple seeks to address with FCPX.

If you are in the world of the more traditional post facility or production company, then those users listed above may be market segments that you don’t see or possibly even look down upon. I would theorize that among the more traditional sectors, FCPX may have largely made the inroads that it’s going to. Its use in films and TV shows (with the exception of certain high-profile, international examples) doesn’t seem to be growing, but I could be wrong. Maybe the marketing is just behind or it no longer has PR value. Regardless, I do see FCPX as continuing strong as a product. Even if it’s not your primary tool, it should be something in your toolkit. Apple’s moves to open up ProRes encoding and offering LumaForge and Blackmagic eGPU products in their online store are further examples that the pro customer (in whatever way you define “pro”) continues to have value to them. That’s a good thing for our industry.

Blackmagic Design DaVinci Resolve

No one seems to match the development pace of Blackmagic Design. DaVinci Resolve underwent a wholesale transformation from a tool that was mainly a high-end color corrector into an all-purpose editing application. Add to this the fact that Blackmagic has acquired and integrated a number of companies, whose tools have been modernized and integrated into Resolve. Blackmagic now offers a post-production solution with some similarities to FCPX while retaining a traditional, track-based interface. It includes modes for advanced audio post (Fairlight) and visual effects (Fusion) that have been adapted from those acquisitions. Unlike past all-in-one applications, Resolve’s modal pages retain the design and workflow specific to the task at hand, rather than making them fit into the editing application’s interface design. All of this in a very short order and across three operating systems, thus making their pace the envy of the industry.

But a fast development pace doesn’t always translate into a winning product. In my experience each version update has been relatively solid. There are four ways to get Resolve (free and paid, Mac App Store and reseller). That makes it a no-brainer for anyone starting out in video editing, but who doesn’t have the specific requirement for one application over another. I have to wonder though, how many new users go deep into the product. If you only edit, there’s no real need to tap into the Fusion, Fairlight, or color correction pages. Do Resolve editors want to finish audio in Fairlight or would they rather hand off the audio post and mix to a specialist who will probably be using Pro Tools? The nice thing about Resolve is that you can go as deep as you like – or not – depending on your mindset, capabilities, and needs.

On the other hand, is the all-in-one approach better than the alternatives: Media Composer/Pro Tools, Premiere Pro/After Effects/Audition, or Final Cut Pro X/Motion/Logic Pro X? I don’t mean for the user, but rather the developer. Does the all-in-one solution give you the best product? The standalone version of Fusion is more full-featured than the Fusion page in Resolve. Fusion users are rightly concerned that the standalone will go away, leaving them with a smaller subset of those tools. I would argue that there are already unnecessary overlaps in effects and features between the pages. So are you really getting the best editor or is it being compromised by the all-in-one approach? I don’t know the answer to these questions. Resolve for me is a good color correction/grading application that can also work for my finishing needs (although I still prefer to edit in something else and roundtrip to/from Resolve). It’s also a great option for the casual editor who wants a free tool. Yet in spite of all its benefits, I believe Resolve will still be a distant fourth in the NLE world, at least for the next year.

The good news is that there are four great editing options in the lead and even more coming from behind. There are no bad choices and with a lower cost than ever, there’s no reason to limit your knowledge to only one. After all, the products that are on top now may be gone in a decade. So broaden your knowledge and define your skills by your craft – not your tools!

©2019 Oliver Peters

Apple iPad Pro

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Mark me down as a happy Apple iPad user. It’s my go-to computer away from home, unless I need to bring my laptop for on-site editing. I’ve even written some of my magazine stories, like NAB reports, on it. First the original iPad and now a new Air 2. While I don’t consider myself a post-PC computer user, I could imagine that if I didn’t need to run tools like Resolve, FCPX, and Premiere Pro, an iPad Pro could function as my only computer.

For this review, Apple loaned me the 12.9″ 128GB WiFi+Cellular iPad Pro, complete with all the bells-and-whistles, including the Apple Pencil, Lightning-to-SD Card Camera Reader, Case, Smart Cover, and Smart Keyboard. The Pro’s A9X processor is beefy for a tablet. Other reviewers have noted its performance rivals Apple’s smallest MacBook with the Intel Core M CPU. Since the iPad Air 2 processor is only one step down, you won’t see that much difference between it and the iPad Pro on most iOS applications. However, the A9X delivers twice the CPU and graphics performance of the Air 2’s A8X, so there is a difference in driving the larger 12.9” Pro screen, as well as with multitasking and animation-heavy applications.

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Many specs are the same between these two models, with the exception that the iPad Pro includes a total of four speakers and adds a Smart Connector to be used with the Smart Keyboard. In addition, the Pro’s touch screen has been re-engineered to scan at 240 times/second (twice as fast as scanning for your finger) in support of the Apple Pencil. On March 21st Apple launched a second iPad Pro model using the same 9.7” form factor as the iPad Air 2. Other than screen size, the two Pro models sport nearly identical specs, including A9X processor, four speakers, and Smart Connector. Now there’s also a Smart Keyboard specifically designed for each model. Since I tested the larger version, the rest of this review is in the context of using the 12.9” model.

The big hallmark in iOS9 is multitasking, which lets you leave two applications open and on-screen, side-by-side at one time. You can go between them and slide the divider bar to change app size or move them completely on or off of the screen. This feature is superb on the iPad Pro, aided by the bigger screen real estate. It’s not quite as functional on the other iPads. However, many applications and web pages don’t feel quite optimized for the larger screen of the iPad Pro. It often feels like pages are slightly blown up or that there’s a lot of wasted space.

Accessories

df1216_ipadpro_pencilThe iPad Pro starts to stand out once you accessorize it. You can get an Apple case, Smart Cover and/or Smart keyboard. The covers magnetically attach to the iPad, so be careful. If you hold or lift the heavier iPad Pro by the cover, it can detach, resulting in the Pro potentially dropping to the floor. Both the Smart Cover and the Smart Keyboard can fold into a stand to prop up the iPad Pro on a desk. When you fold the Smart Keyboard back into a cover, it’s a very slim lid that fits over the screen. The feel of the keyboard is OK, but I prefer the action of the small, standalone Apple Bluetooth keyboard, which I use with my own iPad. Other reviewers have also expressed a preference for the Logitech keyboard available for the Pro. These new keyboards are enabled by the Smart Connector with its two-way power and data transfer, so no battery is required for the keyboard.

The new Apple Pencil is getting the most press. Unlike other pointing devices, the Pencil requires charging and can only be paired with the iPad Pro. The Pencil is clearly a blast to use with Pixelmator or FiftyThree’s Paper. It’s nicely weighted and feels as close to drawing with a real pen or pencil as you can get with an electronic stylus. It responds with pressure-sensitivity and you can even shade with the side of the tip. For drawing in apps like this, or Photoshop Express, Autodesk Graphic, Art Studio, etc., the Pencil is clearly superior to low-cost third-party styli or your finger. FiftyThree also offers its own drawing styli that are optimized for use with the Paper application.

df1216_ipadpro_53paperAs a pointing device, the Apple Pencil isn’t quite as good, since it was designed for fine detail. According to Apple, their design criteria was pixel-level precision. The Pencil does require charging, which you can do by plugging it into the iPad’s lightning port, or directly charging it by using the regular lightning cable and charger via a small adapter ring. When the Pencil gets low on juice a warning pops up on the iPad Pro’s screen. Plug it into the lightning port for a quick boost. Apple claims that fifteen seconds will give you thirty minutes of use and my experience bore this out.

The final accessory to mention is the Lightning-to-SD Card Camera Reader. The lightning port supports USB 3.0 speeds on the iPad Pro to make transfers fast. Plug the reader into the lightning port and pop your SD card into the reader. The Photos application will open to the contents of the card and you can import a selection of clips. Unfortunately, there is no generic way to transfer files into the iPad using SD cards. I’ve been able to cheat it a little by putting some renamed H.264 files into the DCIM folder structure from a Canon 5D camera. This made everything look like valid camera media. Then I could move files into Photos, which is Apple’s management tool for both camera stills and videos on the iPad. However, it doesn’t work for all files, such as graphics or audio tracks that you might use for a voice-over.

Using the iPad Pro as a professional video tool

Is the iPad Pro better for the video professional when compared with other tablets and iPads? Obviously the bigger screen is nice if you are editing in iMovie, but can one go beyond that?

df1216_ipadpro_filmicproI worked with a number of applications, such as FiLMiC Pro. This application adds real camera controls to the built-in camera. These include ISO, white balance, focus, frame rates, and stabilization controls. It was used in the production of the Sundance hit, Tangerine, and is a must-have tool if you intend to do serious captures with any iOS device. The footage looks good and H.264 compression (starting at 32Mbps) artifacts are not very visible. Unfortunately, there’s not shutter angle control to induce motion blur, which would smooth out the footage.

To make real production viable, you would need camera rigging and accessories. The weight of the 12.9″ iPad Pro makes it tough to shoot steady hand-held footage. Outside in bright daylight, the screen is too dim even at its brightest setting. Having some sort of display hood is a must. In fact, the same criticism is true if you are using it to draw outside. Nevertheless, if you mounted an iPad or iPad Pro in some sort of fixed manner, it would be very useful for recording interviews and similar, controllable productions. iOgrapher produces some of these items, but the larger iPad Pro model isn’t supported yet.

df1216_ipadpro_imovieFor editors, the built in option is iMovie. It is possible to edit external material, if you brought it in via the card reader, DropBox, iCloud Drive, or by syncing with your regular computer. (Apple’s suggested transfer path is via AirDrop.) Once you’ve edited your piece, you can move the project file from iOS iMovie to iMovie on your computer using iCloud Drive and then import that project into Final Cut Pro X. In my tests, the media was embedded into the project and none of the original timecode or file names were maintained. Frame rates were also changed from 29.97fps to 30.0fps. Clearly if you intend to use this path, it’s best for video originated on the iPad itself.

df1216_ipadpro_touchedit_1If you want a professional nonlinear editing tool for the iPad, nothing even comes close to TouchEdit, an app developed by feature film editor Dan Lebental (Ant-Man, Iron Man, Cowboys & Aliens) and his team. This app includes many of the tools an editor would expect, such as trimming, titles and audio mixing, plus it tracks all of the important clip metadata. There is a viable workflow to get clips into – and an edit list and/or movie out of – the iPad. Lebental started with a skeuomorphic interface design that borrows from the look of a flatbed editor. The newest version of the software includes the option for a flattened interface skin, plus a portrait and landscape layout, each of which enables somewhat different capabilities. TouchEdit is attractive as an offline editing tool that definitely benefits from the larger size and improved performance of the iPad Pro.

Final thoughts

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I used the 12.9” iPad Pro for three months. It’s a wonderful tool, but also a mixed bag. The more ample screen real estate makes it easier to use than the 9.7” iPad models. However, the smaller device is tweaked so that many pages are displayed a bit differently. Thus the size advantage of the larger Pro model is less pronounced. Like all iPads, the Pro uses the same iOS operating system. This holds back the potential of the Pro, which begs for some sort of hybrid “iOS Pro” operating system that would make the iPad Pro work more like a laptop. Naturally, Apple’s position is that iPads are “touch-first” devices and iOS a “touch-first” operating system. The weakest spot is the lack of true file i/o and a visible file structure. You have to go through Dropbox, iCloud, Photos, AirDrop, e-mail, or be connected to iTunes on your home machine.

The cost of the iPad Pro would seem to force a decision between buying the 12” MacBook and the 12.9″ iPad Pro. Both are of similar size, weight, and performance. In John Gruber’s Daring Fireball review he opined that in the case of the iPad Pro, “professional” should really be thought of in the context of “deluxe”. According to him, the iPad Pro relates to the regular iPad line in the same way a MacBook Pro relates to the other MacBooks. In other words, if an iPad serves your needs and you can afford the top-end version, then the Pro is for you. Its target market is thus self-defining. The iPad Pro is a terrific step up in all the things that make tablets the computing choice for many. Depending on your needs, it’s a great portable computer. For the few that are moving into the post-PC world, it could even be their only computer.

Originally written for Digital Video magazine / CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2016 Oliver Peters

Apple’s New Mac Pro

df_mp2013_4_smThe run of the brushed aluminum tower design that highlighted Apple’s PowerMac G5 and Intel Mac Pros ended with the introduction of a radical replacement in late 2013. No matter what the nickname – “the cylinder”, “the tube” or whatever – Apple’s new 2013 Mac Pro is a tour de force of industrial design. Few products have had such pent up demand. The long lead times for custom machines originally ran months, but by now, with accelerated production, has been reduced to 24 hours. Nevertheless, if you are happy with a stock configuration, then it’s possible to walk out with a new unit on the same day at some of the Apple Store or reseller retail locations.

Design

The 2013 Mac Pro features a cylindrical design. It’s about ten inches tall, six-and-a-half inches in diameter and, thanks to a very dense component construction, weighs about eleven pounds. The outer shell – it’s actually a sleeve that can be unlocked and lifted off – uses a dark (not black) reflective coating. Internally, the circuits are mounted onto a triangle-shaped core. There’s a central vent system that draws air in through the bottom and out through the top, much like a chimney. You can still mount the Mac Pro sideways without issue, as long as the vents are not blocked. This design keeps the unit quiet and cool most of the time. During my tests, the fan noise was quieter than my tower (generally a pretty quiet unit) and the fans never kicked into high.

Despite the small size, all components are workstation class and not mobile or desktop products, as used in the Apple laptops or iMacs. It employs the fastest memory and storage of any Mac and is designed to pick up where the top-of-the-line iMac leaves off. The processors are Intel Xeon instead of Core i5 or Core i7 CPUs and graphics cards are AMD FirePro GPUs. This Xeon model is a multicore, single CPU chip. Four processor options are offered (4, 6, 8 and 12-core), ranging in speed from 3.7GHz (4-core) to 2.7GHz (12-core). RAM can be maxed out to a full 64GB. It is the only component of the Mac Pro where a user-installed, third-party upgrade is an easy option.

The Mac Pro is optimized for dual graphics processors with three GPU choices: D300 (2GB VRAM each), D500 (3GB VRAM each) or D700 (6GB VRAM each) GPUs. Internal storage is PCIe-based flash memory in 256GB, 512GB or 1TB configurations. These are not solid state drives (SSDs), but rather flash storage like that used in the iPads. Storage is connected directly to the PCIe bus of the Mac Pro for the fastest possible data i/o. The stock models start at $2,999 (4-core) and $3,999 (6-core).

Apple shipped me a reviewer’s unit,  configured in a way that they feel is the “sweet spot” for high-end video. My Mac Pro was the 8-core model, with 32GB of RAM, dual D700 GPUs and 512GB of storage. This configuration with a keyboard, mouse and AppleCare extended warranty would retail at $7,166.

Connectivity

df_mp2013_5_smAll connectors are on the back – four USB 3.0, six Thunderbolt 2, two Gigabit Ethernet and one HDMI 1.4. There is also wireless, Bluetooth, headset and speaker support. The six Thunderbolt 2 ports are split out from three internal Thunderbolt 2 buses, with the bottom bus also taking care of the HDMI port.

You can have multiple Thunderbolt monitors connected, as well as a 4K display via the HDMI spigot, however you will want to separate these onto the different buses. For example, you wouldn’t be able to support two 27” Apple displays and a 4K HDMI-connected monitor all on one single Thunderbolt bus. However, you can support up to six non-4K displays if you distribute the load across all of the connections. Since the plug for Thunderbolt is the same as Mini Display Port, you can connect nearly any standard computer monitor to these ports if you have the proper plug. For example, I used my 20” Apple Cinema Display, which has a DVI plug, by simply adding a DVI-to-MDP adapter.

The change to Thunderbolt 2 enables faster throughput. The first version of Thunderbolt used two channels of 10Gb/s data and video, with each channel going in opposite directions. Thunderbolt 2 combines this for two channels going in the same direction, thus a total of 20Gb/s. You can daisy-chain Thunderbolt devices and it is possible to combine Thunderbolt 1 and Thunderbolt 2 devices in the same chain. First generation Thunderbolt devices (such as monitors) should be at the end of the chain, so as not to create a bottleneck.

The USB 3.0 ports will support USB 1.0 and 2.0 devices, but of course, there is no increase in their speed. There is no legacy support for FireWire or eSATA, so if you want to connect older drives, you’ll need to invest in additional docks, adapters and/or expansion units. (Apple sells a $29 Thunderbolt-to-FireWire 800 adapter.) This might also include a USB hub. For example, I have more than four USB-connected devices on my current 2009 Mac Pro. The benefit of standardizing on Thunderbolt, is that all of the Thunderbolt peripherals will work with any of Apple’s other computers, including MacBook Pros, Minis and iMacs.

The tougher dilemma is if you need to accommodate current PCIe cards, such as a RED Rocket accelerator card, a FibreChannel adapter or a mini-SAS/eSATA card. In that case, a Thunderbolt 2 expansion unit will be required. One such solution is the Sonnet Technologies Echo Express III-D expansion chassis.

Mac Pro as your main edit system

df_mp2013_2_smI work in many facilities with various vintages of Mac Pro towers. There’s a wide range of connectivity needs, including drives, shared storage and peripherals. Although it’s very sexy to think about just a 2013 Mac Pro sitting on your desk with nothing else, other than a Thunderbolt monitor, that’s not the real world of post. If you are evaluating one of these as your next investment, consider what you must add. First and foremost is storage. Flash storage and SSDs are great for performance, but you’re never going to put a lot of video media on a 1TB (or smaller) drive. Then you’ll need monitors and most likely adapters or expansion products for any legacy connection.

I priced out the same unit I’m reviewing and then factored in an Apple 27” display, the Sharp 32” UHD monitor, a Promise Pegasus2 R6 12TB RAID, plus a few other peripherals, like speakers, audio i/o, docks and adapters. This bumps the total to over $15K. Granted, I’ve pretty much got a full system that will last me for years. The point is, that it’s important to look at all the ramifications when you compare the new Mac Pro over a loaded iMac or a MacBook Pro or simply upgrading a recently-purchased Mac Pro tower.

Real world performance

df_mp2013_6_smMost of the tests promoting the new Mac Pro have focused on 4K video editing. That’s coming and the system is certainly good for it, but that’s not what most people encounter today. Editors deal with a mix of media, formats, frame rates, frame sizes, etc. I ran a set of identical tests on the 2013 Mac Pro and on my own 2009 Mac Pro tower. That’s an eight-core (dual 4-core Xeons) 2.26GHz model with 28GB of RAM. The current video card is a single NVIDIA Quadro 4000 and my media is on an internal two-drive (7200RPM eSATA) RAID-0 array. Since I had no external drives connected to the 2013 Mac Pro, all media was playing from and writing to the internal flash storage. This means that performance would be about as good as you can get, but possibly better than with externally-connected drives.

I tested Apple Final Cut Pro X, Motion, Compressor, Adobe Premiere Pro CC and After Effects CC. Media included RED EPIC 5K camera raw, ARRI ALEXA 1080p ProRes 4444, Blackmagic Cinema Camera 2.5K ProResHQ and more. Most of the sequences included built-in effects and some of the new Red Giant Universe filters.

df_mp2013_3_smTo summarize the test results, performance – as measured in render or export times – was significantly better on the 2013 Mac Pro. Most of the tests showed a 2X to 3X bump in performance, even with the Adobe products. Naturally FCP X loves the GPU power of this machine. The “BruceX” test, developed as a benchmark by Alex Gollner for FCP X, consists of a 5K timeline with a series of generators. I exported this as a 5K ProRes 4444 file. The older tower accomplished this in 1:47, while the new Mac Pro smoked it in just :19. My After Effects timeline consisted of ProRes 4444 clips with a bunch of intensive Cycore filters. The old versus new renders were 23:26 and 12:53, respectively.  I also ran tests with DaVinci Resolve 10, another application that loves more than one GPU. These were RED EPIC 5K files in a 1080p timeline. Debayer resolution was set to full (no RED Rocket card used). The export times ran at 4-12fps (depending on the clip) on the tower versus 15-40fps on the new Mac Pro.

df_mp2013_1_smIn general, all operations with applications were more responsive. This is, of course, true with any solid state storage. The computer boots faster and applications load and respond more quickly. Plus, more RAM, faster processors and other factors all help to optimize the 2013 Mac Pro for best performance. For example, the interaction between Adobe Premiere Pro CC and SpeedGrade CC using the Direct Link and Lumetri filters was noticeably better with the new machine. Certainly that’s true of Final Cut Pro X and Motion, which are ideally suited for it. I would add that using a single 20” monitor connected to the Mac Pro placed very little drag on one GPU, so the second could be totally devoted to processing power. Performance might vary if I had two 27” displays, plus a 4K monitor hooked to it.

I also tested Avid Media Composer. This software doesn’t particularly use a lot of GPU processing, so performance was about the same as with my 2009 Mac Pro. It also takes a trick to get it to work. The 2013 Mac Pro has no built-in audio device, which Media Composer needs to see in order to launch. If you have an audio device connected, such as an Mbox2 Mini or even just a headset with a microphone, then Media Composer detects a core audio device and will launch. I downloaded and installed the free Soundflower software. This acts as a virtual core audio device and can be set as the computer’s audio input in the System Preferences sound panel. Doing so enabled Media Composer to launch and operate normally.

Whether the new 2013 Mac Pro is the ideal tower replacement for you comes down to budget and many other variables. Rest assured that it’s the best machine Apple has to offer today. Analogies to powerful small packages (like the Mini Cooper or Bruce Lee) are quite apt. The build quality is superb and the performance is outstanding. If you are looking for a machine to service your needs for the next five years, then it’s the ideal choice.

(Note: This unit was tested prior to the release of 10.9.3, so I didn’t encounter any of the render issues that have been plaguing Adobe and DaVinci users.)

Originally written for Digital Video magazine/CreativePlanetNetwork.

©2014 Oliver Peters

Thinking about the Tube

df_mp_1Desktop computers had been on a trajectory of faster performance based on Moore’s Law until they hit the wall just under the 4GHz mark. Then came a variety of ingenious technological workarounds, including hyper-threading, multiple processors (CPUs), multiple cores within a single processor and finally, offloading processing to one or more graphics display cards (GPUs). All of these solutions have benefitted content creation professionals running edit and graphics software. With all of that effort, no one seems to have taken the effort to re-imagine how the hardware should work, nor whether the hardware is really built for what software developers are doing. For example, few applications really make effective use of multiple CPUs in a computer.

Add to this the financial aspect, which points to the growth in laptops and tablets to the detriment of traditional desktop computer sales. Is there even a need for a desktop machine that caters to professional users? Into this uncertainty comes Apple with the new Mac Pro, which I’ve euphemistically called “the Tube” in my title. df_mp_6Apple is the king of re-imagining. After months and years of wondering whether Apple still cares about professional computer users, they blew away the audience at their annual Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC) with an innovative new design for the next generation of Mac Pro desktop workstation. Like anything Apple does, a lot of legacy technology was dropped, which has drawn both praise and criticism. Those of us in the camp that predicted few or no slots and more use of Thunderbolt had largely guessed right. But the rest of this machine’s design is literally thinking “outside of the box”.df_mp_2

Right or wrong, the Mac Pro that Apple plans to ship represents design and engineering innovation that IBM, Lenovo, Sony, Dell, HP and others are clearly incapable of delivering. All of their products tend to follow the standard PC “box” formula, with the notable exception of HP’s Z1 – itself a copy of Apple’s iMac. Naturally the round design raises concerns about rack installation and so on, but very few desktop systems used by video pros have that need anymore. If you think round is odd, then take a look at the design of supercomputers like those from Cray.

df_mp_11The new Mac Pro is clearly intended to put the maximum horsepower literally on (or under) the desk of the working video editor, graphic designer, animator, scientist and others. As noted above, many applications don’t make efficient use of multiple CPU sockets, so the Mac Pro seems to be limited to a single CPU, but based on new Intel chips that have a maximum of 12 internal cores. Apple is banking on increased reliance on the GPU to deliver visual performance. Out of the gate, there are two built-in GPUs. Clearly this will benefit core Apple creative software, like Final Cut Pro X, but also others, including DaVinci Resolve and many of the Adobe products.

df_mp_3Look more closely at the video subsystem of this machine. Apple is designing a machine geared for 4K production and post. With multiple GPUs and built-in HDMI output using the 4K-ready spec, the new Mac Pro should be able to cut 4K content “like butter” and handle all monitoring tasks (computer monitoring plus video) without the need for external devices from AJA, Blackmagic Design and others, unless the user has a definite need for these. My guess is that’s why you’ll have the extra GPU horsepower, more so than accelerating FCP X effects.df_mp_5

Connectivity is now based on USB 3.0 and Thunderbolt 2.0. The latter is a 20Gb/s bi-directional data pipe and this Mac Pro has three such busses split over six ports. While there’s been a lot of discussion on the web about whether this is adequate compared with the current PCIe standard, I think it’s too early to say one way or the other. Firewire – once Apple’s darling – has been relegated to history’s dust bin, right next to SCSI, floppy diskettes and other older technologies. In any case, if you need more connections, then Thunderbolt adapters and/or an expansion chassis will be the way to go. Just like Apple’s philosophy with FCP X, this new Mac Pro is more of a “platform” than an all-inclusive solution for people who have every possible type of need. It’s the “hub” that will handle the majority of pro requirements and if you need more, you’ll have to augment the “hub” with third-party products and devices.

df_mp_9That brings us to cost. The internal pieces of this machine aren’t cheap. It’s anyone’s guess what the price will be. There is at least the potential for it to be relatively expensive. On the other hand, Apple has a lot of leverage with its supply chain and may have incentive to offer the machine at an artificially low price. They will be flying the “Made in the USA” banner with this Mac Pro and they also have added more in-house R&D centers across the US. So, in coming years, more of the internal guts could become Apple-manufactured, which could reduce production cost. My guess is that the retail price will be somewhere in line with current Mac Pro machines. After all, a fully-decked-out, current 12-core Mac Pro aluminum tower isn’t cheap either.df_mp_7

In any case, this will be a very low-volume machine. It’s the sports car that defines the brand. Apple may or may not decide to make it profitable. Another variable we don’t know is whether the technology used, such as dual internal GPUs, will be integrated into new iMac models. In that case, a small number of users will actually buy the Mac Pro. Many will drool over it and then end up buying a decked out iMac – no slouch, by any means. df_mp_4Thus, the “halo” effect. You’re attracted by the shiny, black Mac Pro, but purchase the iMac, which generates more bread-and-butter income for Apple. Unlike any other technology company, Apple assesses its bottom line using a holistic approach. If a product contributes to the total revenue of the company, then it’s deemed important to have and to develop, even if that product by itself is not profitable (though, that’s usually not the case with an Apple product). No one outside of Apple’s executive level really knows for sure.

As a video editor, I love what Apple is doing with this machine. Does it work for my needs and will I buy one? I don’t know yet. Depends on price and actual performance, but it’s certainly on the wish list at this point.

©2013 Oliver Peters