How Apple has made creative pros happy again

For many creative pros, Apple has lost its way over the past few years. While always innovating in interesting ways, its core products for us – the Mac, in desktop and laptop forms – lacked the performance or usefulness of PC rivals. Its groundbreaking forms like the iPad Pro could only do so much for us – fantastic for sketching and ideation but unable to allow us to take a project to completion (unless you’re a illustrator using ProCreate, perhaps).

There appeared to be a focus on slightness and grace over performance – targeting those who liked the appearance of creativity in their business or personal lives, rather than providing for the needs of those of us for whom creativity is core to what we do.

But that appears to be about to change, if the line-up of products demonstrated on Monday at Apple’s WWDC keynote is anything to go by. Even the minor updates tell their own story: Apple added the latest generation of Intel Core processors – 7th-gen ‘Kaby Lake’ chips, fellow codename nerds – to the new MacBook Pro shortly after Dell and HP did similar to create the Precision 5520 and ZBook Studio G4, rather than lagging up to a year behind as it had in previous years.

While Apple has largely just updated the MacBook Pro in line with its rivals, it’s pushing things forward in one area: graphics. The next version of macOS (High Sierra) will support external graphics – and demoed a external-hard-drive-looking box from Sonnet that connects via Thunderbolt 3 and houses a AMD Radeon RX 580 graphics card. This is an officially ‘VR Ready’ card, and Apple is offering the box for VR developers. Read: Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar review.

If you want to create VR experiences on a PC laptop, you’ll have to look to one of Dell or HP’s huge 17-inch laptops – though you could argue that lugging a 15-inch MacBook Pro and an external graphics box around is even more of a pain.

New chips, new iMacs

The new ‘Kaby Lake’ iMac also arrives just behind Dell’s brand new Precision AIO 5720 and ahead of any ‘7th-generation’ upgrade to HP’s Z1 G2 all-in-one workstation – proving that you don’t need a PC for the best of what’s available across chip, memory, storage, graphics and display in a single shell. Those at the highest-end may be disappointed by the lack of Xeon processors and ECC RAM – but this is coming in December with the iMac Pro. That might seem like a long time away, but that’s because the Xeon chips that Apple is putting inside iMac Pros aren’t the same as those used by Dell and HP for their all-in-ones.

The Precision AIO 5720 and Z1 G2 both use 'mobile’ Xeon chips – i.e. processors designed to be used by laptops, which have two or four processing units (cores) per chip. This is usual for all-in-ones – Apple uses mobile Core processors in the standard iMacs. But the iMac Pro will have desktop Xeons with 8-, 10-, or 18 cores per chip – which won’t be available from Intel until later this year (with new branding like credit cards).

You don’t need to use Xeon chips for that number of cores – Intel announced Core i9 chips with just those amount of core a few weeks ago – but the difference in performance between mobile chips and desktop chips is marked when you’re working with muitl-threaded applications that really use all those cores. You’ll really see it in areas like video and animation, but you’ll even see some benefits in the likes of Photoshop from a 8-core chip over a 4-core one. The 18-core Xeon sounds super-powerful but this is likely just a big number that sounds impressive during keynotes and in marketing materials. Chips with high-numbers of cores have low clock speeds – so are actually less powerful in most creative apps (it's different for servers). For example, the ‘best’ current Xeon chip for workstations is the 12-core, 3GHz Xeon E5-2687W – whereas the 18-core E5-2695 runs at 2.1GHz.

What you do get from Xeon processors is greater reliability, including from ECC (error-correcting code) RAM – so you’ll have fewer crashes, especially if you do long renders on your computer rather than a server or online service.

The iMac Pro will be followed by a new Mac Pro – which could be just a ‘headless’ iMac Pro so you can choose your own monitor, or a full-spec dual-processor beast. Unlike Core chips, Xeon processors can used in pairs – as seen inside top-spec workstations like the Dell Precision T7620 or HP Z840. These are just for the most demanding of video-editing, VFX and animation tasks. And that’s where Apple faces another issue – hardly anyone uses Macs for those tasks.

The iMac and MacBook Pro are incredibly popular with professional graphic and digital designers using tools from InDesign to Sketch, illustrators across the mediums and forms, and motion graphics and CG artists and animators using the likes of Cinema 4D and After Effects. But large VFX and animation houses have pretty much standardised on Linux outside of the art department – with medium-sized companies and smaller ones creating high-end work in the likes of Maya or Nuke favouring Linux or Windows (with the same caveat). Video editors have largely switched to PC as Premiere Pro has usurped both Avid and Final Cut over the past couple of decades.

The high-end is unlikely to be tempted to move to Apple – they’re more interested in replacing powerful desktops with thin clients and datacentres – and the mid-range is also a tricky sell. Instead the new Mac Pro – and the iMac Pro to some extent – may serve primarily to show the majority of designers and artists that Apple can indeed build the biggest and the best, even if what you’ll ultimately end up buying is more a modestly specced and price iMac or MacBook Pro.

A need to draw

What would likely be more useful than a new Mac Pro for the majority of professional creatives is for Apple to look again at how we interact with our Macs. The company has told us it’s firmly against touchscreens on computers – citing the muscle strain of using a touchscreen laptop – but there are many situations where the finger or pen are superior to a trackpad or mouse. Sketching on a Surface Pro in Photoshop that you can quickly work up in the full app. Editing video or page layouts in a cramped train seat on a Dell 5510. Drawing on a Surface Studio in the drafting table position (though you could just plug a Wacom Cintiq 27QHD into any Mac I suppose).

The company essentially killed off its main attempt at touch innovation – the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar – when it failed to release a keyboard for the new iMac with a similar feature at WWDC. Without a big number of users with access to a Touch Bar, few software developers will add support for it to their apps.

We’d love to see Apple’s take on the Surface Pro, or the Surface Studio, on Wacom’s MobileStudio Pro – or something truly innovative.

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