5 big improvements (probably) coming to Apple’s next MacBook Pro: Digital Photography Review

The first Apple Silicon-powered Macs have made a big impression, but it’s safe to say that after more than a year, professional users are still waiting for something a bit more powerful. The current M1 Macs churn through most photo and video editing tasks with ease, but they’re limited to 16GB of RAM, can only support a few ports, and the M1 chip is designed to prioritize efficiency rather than performance.

Fortunately, it doesn’t sound like we’ll have to wait much longer to see what the M1 “unleashed” really looks like.

According to the latest rumors from reliable leakers and analysts like Ming Chi Kuo, @Dylandkt, Jon Prosser, and Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, Apple will be unveiling a 14- and a 16-inch MacBook Pro, both using the same “M1X” SOC, as soon as late September or middle of October. And if the rumored specs are to be believed, these laptops are poised to provide every bit of extra power that professional users have been asking for.

So, what exactly is Apple planning?

We’ve put together a list of the five most exciting improvements that Apple is allegedly planning for the rumored MacBook Pros, including a little bit of context on what it all means and why we think photo and video editors should be very excited for the next evolution of Apple Silicon.

A note on Apple’s chip naming conventions

Before we dive in, it’s worth briefly going over Apple’s naming conventions for Apple Silicon, since this seems to be causing a lot of confusion online.

Generally speaking, Apple uses numbers to indicate processor generation, and the letter “X” to indicate eXpansion of that same generation. For example, the A12 processor was the 9th generation of Apple Silicon (the first generation was the A4), while the A12X was an expanded version of that same processor architecture with two more CPU and three more GPU cores.

All A12 processors used the same underlying architecture, so barring any special performance tweaks, they all should provide the same single-core performance. The A12X simply improved on the A12 by adding more cores, and the A12Z that came next managed to squeeze a bit more performance out of the same architecture by adding one more GPU core. It wasn’t until the A13 was announced that we got a proper update to the cores themselves.

Moving forward, it’s possible we’ll see all new generation chips going into high-efficiency devices while “X” and “Z” variants are reserved for high-performance devices

We expect Apple to follow the same naming conventions with the M-series that they’ve been following with the A-series. By that logic, the M1X that is rumored will power the new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros will be built on the same architecture as the M1, but will offer more CPU cores, more GPU cores, more Thunderbolt controllers, and more memory, while the M2 – which is rumored to appear in the next-generation MacBook Air in early 2022 – will be built on a whole new process node and offer better single-core performance as a result.

Moving forward, it’s possible we’ll see all-new generation chips (like the M2, M3, and so on) going into high-efficiency devices like the MacBook Air, the iPad Pro, and the ultra-thin 24-inch iMac, while any “X” and “Z” variants are reserved for high-performance devices like the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros, the next 27-inch iMac, and possibly even a future Mac Pro.

With that context in mind, here are five reasons that Mac users should be very excited about the rumored M1X and the upcoming MacBook Pros.

1. Performance over efficiency

The Apple M1X will allegedly have 10 CPU cores, 2 more than the M1. Image courtesy of Apple.

Every M1 SOC uses the same eight CPU cores, split into four high-performance cores (or P-Cores) and four high-efficiency cores (or E-Cores). The performance cores are set aside for more demanding tasks like exporting heavily edited photos, while the efficiency cores draw about 1/10th of the power and generally handle stuff like web browsing.

This sort of delegation (or “task scheduling“) between the two kinds of cores ensures that an M1 Mac is never using more power than it needs to for any given task, and it’s part of the reason why the M1 MacBook Pro and MacBook Air put up such impressive battery life figures. However, Apple’s decision to put an equal number of performance and efficiency cores in the M1 limits just how much these computers can do.

That’s where the M1X comes in and shifts the balance. Not only is Apple rumored to be adding two more CPU cores to the new SOC, according to Bloomberg’s Mark Gurman, but those cores will also be divided into eight P-cores and only two E-cores. We probably won’t see a wholesale doubling of performance here, but with twice the performance cores and two more CPU cores overall, we expect the M1X to do a lot better in demanding photo and video editing tasks that haven’t been GPU accelerated.

Actually, we expect it to do better in both… but more on that later.

2. Return of the ports

It’s been 6 years since the last Retina MacBook Pro with an SD card slot and HDMI port was released. Photo by Kārlis Dambrāns, CC BY 2.0.

One of the most exciting rumors surrounding the upcoming 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros is that Apple may finally give us a few ports that aren’t Thunderbolt/USB Type-C.

It has been six years since Apple switched to an all-Thunderbolt port configuration on the MacBook Pros, which means it has been six years since we started complaining about living that dongle life. And we haven’t stopped. Don’t get us wrong, we love Thunderbolt for its speed and versatility, but the loss of the HDMI port, SD card slot, and MagSafe charging was a serious blow to many loyal Apple users. I personally held on to my mid-2015 Retina MacBook Pro for a lot longer than I otherwise might have as a result…

Well, no more, apparently. According to Gurman, the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros will bring back a plethora of ports, including an HDMI port, a UHS-II SD card slot, some form of MagSafe magnetic charging connector, and three Thunderbolt/USB-4 ports. As a bonus, there are even some rumblings that the Touch Bar – that Apple “innovation” that never really caught on – is going away and being replaced with a proper function row.

If even one or two of these ports return to the Mac, we’ll consider it a win. Really, any world in which the MacBook Pro replaces the TouchBar with a proper function row and reinstates the SD card slot is a world we want to live in.

3. MiniLED Liquid Retina XDR display

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro uses a miniLED “Liquid Retina XDR” display with over 2,500 individually controlled local dimming zones. Image courtesy of Apple.

For photo and video professionals, the most impressive piece of technology Apple has released in the past year wasn’t the M1 SOC… it’s the miniLED display inside the 12.9-inch iPad Pro. It’s a phenomenal LCD display with proper HDR chops, and famed analyst Ming-Chi Kuo claims that the next-generation MacBook Pros and the next MacBook Air will all benefit from the same technology.

The so-called “Liquid Retina XDR” display is special because of just how many tiny LEDs make up the backlight. Underneath the LCD of the 12.9-inch iPad Pro are over 10,000 miniLEDs bunched into sets of four to create a total of 2,596 “local dimming zones” that can be turned off individually whenever the content is on that part of the screen is supposed to look truly black. On the other end of the spectrum, the LEDs can hit a retina-searing 1600 nits peak brightness on part of the screen or 1000 nits sustained across the entire screen.

All of this together means that the miniLED Liquid Retina XDR display can help creators produce and reproduce HDR content at the highest standard with near-perfect contrast and minimal blooming – something we’ve previously only seen from very large, very expensive monitors like the Dell UP3221Q or Apple’s own Pro Display XDR. (Yes, I know MSI already released a laptop with a miniLED display, but the Creator 17 only has 240 local dimming zones so don’t @ me).

Apple’s ability to miniaturize this technology to the point where it could fit inside of a 12.9-inch display is an incredible feat of engineering, but it’s hampered by the fact that hardly anybody uses the iPad for professional content creation. We can’t wait to see what serious photo and video creators do once they get their hands on this display technology inside of a proper laptop.

4. A lot more RAM

The M1X SOC will allegedly come with either 32GB or 64GB of RAM, doubling or quadrupling the unified memory on the M1. Image courtesy of Apple.

Anyone who has used an M1 Mac will tell you that the “unified memory architecture” (UMA) used by Apple Silicon is blazing fast. That’s why 16GB of unified memory in an M1 Mac can often keep up with twice as much of the more traditional RAM sticks you’ll find in most PC laptops. That said, if you’re working with hundreds of 50MP+ raw files from a camera like the Sony a7R IV, or you plan to pick up the new Fujifilm GFX 50S II, that 16GB limitation does begin to affect your performance.

You can see it clearly in our Lightroom Classic vs Capture One Pro comparison. Once we got up to 100MP files, the M1 Mac mini takes almost twice as long to export when compared to our AMD-based and Intel-based laptops with 32GB of RAM.

For professional photographers and videographers who are dealing with hundreds of gigabytes of 8K video or high-resolution medium format files, the best thing Apple could do is raise the RAM bar… and that’s exactly what they intend to do. According to Gurman (again), the next-generation 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros will be available with either 32GB or 64GB of RAM. No mention of a 16GB variant, and Gurman doesn’t say if Apple will reserve the 64GB configuration for users who buy the 16-inch MacBook Pro, but the ability to double or quadruple the amount of unified memory is a huge win for content creators.

The downside, of course, is that this move to on-chip memory means we will never see user-upgradable RAM in an Apple Silicon Mac, but at least now there’s a benefit to this setup other than “thinness.” Soldering the RAM to the motherboard is almost always a lame design choice… fusing it onto a SOC is another matter entirely.

Will Apple charge a ridiculous amount of money for the upgrade to 64GB of unified memory? Almost certainly. But at least we’ll have the option for more than 16GB of RAM, and hopefully, the performance benefits of UMA make this upgrade a little (or a lot) less painful.

5. More graphics horsepower

Photo and video editors will get a lot more GPU power in the upcoming M1X MacBook Pros. Image courtesy of Apple.

If there’s one major downside to the move from Intel to Apple Silicon, it’s the fact that Apple may be dropping discrete GPUs altogether. While the 7- and 8-core integrated GPUs available in the M1 SOC perform admirably, we think Apple will need to do a lot better if they want to win over the creator class.

That really only leaves us with two options.

Either Apple must increase the number and performance of the GPU cores inside of their M-series chips until a discrete GPU is unnecessary, or they will need to bring back support for eGPUs so that power-hungry users can soup up their graphics horsepower during heavy computing tasks. It sounds like Apple could potentially do both.

According to several different leaks, the M1X SOC will be available in 16- and 32-core variants that could offer performance on par NVIDIA’s GTX 1650 and RTX 3070, respectively, while sipping less than half of the wattage. If these rumors turn out to be true, the M1X will offer the most powerful iGPU experience on the market, offering more than enough power for most GPU-accelerated photo and video editing tasks.

However, even if the M1X meets these expectations, we would also love for Apple to bring back support for eGPUs. For now, only Intel-based MacBooks support eGPUs, but according to French publication Mac4ever, M1 Macs can detect eGPUs when they’re connected, just don’t have the necessary drivers to put them to use. This could simply be a holdover for Intel-based Mac users on Big Sur, or it could be an indication that eGPU support is coming for more “professional-grade” users of Apple Silicon Macs. We sincerely hope it’s the latter.

Final Thoughts

The next MacBook Pros may come with more ports, more power, more RAM, and no more Touch Bar. Photo courtesy of Apple.

As with any and all rumors and leaks, nothing is real until Apple stands up on stage and makes it so. That said, this is probably the most exciting combination of rumored specs we’ve ever seen for a modern Mac device.

Given the power to performance to price ratio of the M1, it was already easy to recommend an M1 Mac to the majority of amateur and enthusiast users. That’s why we called the 24-inch iMac ‘the best starter Mac for creators.’ But the few remaining limitations of M1, combined with the incredible performance we’ve seen from the latest AMD and Intel-based laptops rocking NVIDIA RTX 30 series GPUs, make it harder to recommend an M1 Mac to professional power-users.

If even two or three of the five improvements mentioned above make it into the rumored 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros, the scales will have well and truly tipped in Apple’s direction. If you’re a Mac user, that’s obviously great news; if you’re a PC user, that’s also great news… because it means Intel, AMD, and NVIDIA will need to innovate that much harder to earn your business.

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