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