Apple silicon is still breaking the rules 3 years on…
Not long ago, Apple shook up what we had come to expect as the norm from our desktop or laptop Macs.
Once upon power had equated to being plugged in, tethered to a desk with large, heavy chunky machines. Asking them to carry out even the most moderate performance tasks would cause heat to billow out and fans to whir up.
Then Apple silicon happened.
It took me a little while to taste and experience it for myself. Being an old cynic I’d assumed most of the hype to be the normal hyperbole that happens with any new release from Apple.
But this time it turned out to be for real and the speed of acceleration from M1 through to M3 has been staggering.
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Apple silicon – no signs of slowing up
My first taste of Apple silicon was when I bought my heavily spec’d M1 Max MacBook Pro.
I was moving from a 2015 Intel iMac and over to a laptop for the first time. As the MacBook was going to become my workhorse (if I ever say daily driver feel free to shoot me!) I went hard with the options – 4 TB of storage and 32 GB of memory. It was never going to come cheap, but I knew from experience that spending a little extra now would benefit me down the road.
It ended up costing over £4000 and the plan was, and still is, that this MacBook should last me for 4 or 5 years. The iMac I mentioned had done 7 years of duty so I didn’t think it unreasonable to think a laptop should see me through a similar period.
Not that long after buying that MacBook Pro Apple bought out the M2 chip – so I tried that out in the MacBook Air. It’s a great Mac and it does a fine job, but being only 13 inches it’s hard to do much meaningful work on it. Hooking it up to an external display seems sorta wrong given the USP of Apple’s MacBook Air is portability.
I used Premiere and Audition on it and it performed pretty well – editing audio and video which is pretty amazing on such a lightweight fan-free Mac.
A few months ago I bought the latest addition to my Mac Odyssey when Apple launched M3 Apple silicon. I bought the newly beefed-up M3-clad iMac and I’ve loved using it.
The improvements from M1 to M3 are noticeable – particularly as this iMac is the base entry-level spec. It’s performing well above its pay grade and over the past few weeks has carried the brunt of my workload.
I’ve made a point of using it as much as possible to get a good feeling of both it and what M3 Apple silicon is all about. Being a huge iMac fan it’s felt great to ‘come home’ as it were. All of the trademark qualities of the iMac live on with this latest iteration – Apple hasn’t forgotten its heritage.
I thought it may be interesting for other creatives to know what I have used it for and what workloads I have thrown at it – sort of taking a look at my creative processes to get a better understanding of quite how good this latest M3 Apple silicon is.
So as best I can, I will walk you through a week of a content creator using an M3 iMac with only 8 GB of memory.
My week is made up of writing 3 or 4 stories a week and making one video a week.
The M3 iMac handles the writing part of my week as well as the MBP. The process is not processor-heavy and working on the 24-inch screen is a joy. I write in Ulysses and then upload that to my WordPress site. From there I then publish it to Medium. The process is slick and smooth.
The first bit of hard work for the M3 iMac is using Lightroom. I always start off the whole process of the video with the thumbnail – it seems to focus me for the rest of the week. So on a Sunday or Monday, I shoot loads of ideas as RAW images on my Canon and then pop them in Lightroom.
Typically I’ll use a little de-noise, alter the colour values and then add a few masks with some linear gradients to alter the background and foreground. Once happy it’s exported as a jpeg into Photoshop.
In Photoshop I will sometimes create layer masks, and use tools like the Vanishing Point & Lens Flare filters. Working with RAW images and jpegs on Apple’s entry iMac is a cinch – it handles all these processes with no sweat.
Next up is the big one – Premiere Pro and video work…
A large part of my week is spent in Premiere Pro.
I shoot, edit & upload one video a week to my channel and that is certainly the most taxing thing that I put my Mac through each week – but the M3 iMac has dealt with it pretty well by and large.
Recently I have switched to shooting the video on my iPhone 15 Pro Max in ProRes and log which means it’s a pretty gnarly file. The total shooting time this week for instance was 29 minutes and that came to 162 GB. Obviously, with that size file and this being the base iMac with only 256 GB of storage, I was editing from the Samsung T7 SSD – there were no delays in that at all and for basic edits, the M3 Apple silicon in this iMac dealt with it well.
Bearing in mind, as I mentioned I shot in log – it meant I had to use a couple of LUTs – one to colour correct and bring the footage back into the REC 709 colour space and the second to colour grade. Colour work is reasonably heavy work and the M3 silicon handled it well.
I don’t go over the top with plug-ins and effects but there are always a few toys thrown on the timeline. I use a lot of effects from Film Impact – they are only for Mac and Premiere Pro and I love ‘em! Apple’s M3 iMac even dealt with those well – I was able to edit at full res and the timeline remained smooth and glitch-free.
The only major issue I’ve faced is with rendering and exporting. To be honest with you, because this is my job I’ve reverted to exporting the final file on the MacBook Pro. I spec’d that machine for this workload and not only is much quicker but on one video the M3 dropped a few frames at the tail end of a video I hadn’t noticed.
But…the M3 iMac handles the large 10-bit ProRes file just fine – no complaints. If you only edit the occasional video and you’re not adding too many effects and colour grades etc. then you’ll be fine. And it is worth reminding you again that this is the cheapest M3 Apple silicon you can buy. If I was buying this as my only iMac and looking to be productive I’d probably go all out on the memory – 24 GB and either 512 GB or 1 TB of storage.
If form is to be our teacher then hopefully Apple will release a new M3 Pro Mac mini in January and if they do then I will want to get my hands on one to test. It would make for a very interesting comparison to see how much difference there is between M3 and M3 Pro. All I can say is watch this space…
The sound man
The last test that I put the M3 iMac through is audio work.
I am no musician but produce a podcast of my own (Minus Sixteen) and another podcast for a paying client. On top of that, I record and process the audio for my video in Audition as well.
Audio starts to push the Mac once you start adding plug-ins. I have a preset saved in Audition that I always apply to my audio. I record the dialogue via a Røde NTG4-A which runs through a Focusrite Vocaster One – that has some inbuilt processing on it and then the rack I apply in Audition is a Waves noise reducer plug-in first, then de-reverb, a Dresser, EQ and finally compression.
Even with all that running the M3 iMac behaves well and exports reasonably quickly.
So that is the workload I throw at my Macs every week.
I’m sure there are some more demanding workflows, but you’d have to admit that what I put my Macs through each week is pretty thorough and tests most areas of performance.
The fact that my M3 iMac has performed this well has shocked me. For it to only creak and complain on rendering & exporting a 4K video is pretty bloody impressive if you ask me.
These new iMacs were only ever meant to be used as lightweight surfing Macs if you recall – sitting on reception desks or as family computers – yet here I am using it professionally for content creation.
The speed of improvement of Apple silicon is staggering – what plans Apple has moving forward heaven only knows. How much more performance they can extract from Apple silicon I guess we’ll have to wait and find out.
One thing is for sure though, we are living through a helluva an exciting time.
The progress we’re witnessing is un-surpassed – I think we need to take time to remind ourselves of that now and again.
What next – who knows, but let’s just appreciate what we have now.
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