Observations About the Upcoming MacPro

It’s Not Unexpected

A week before the announcement of the new MacPro I had dinner with a videographer who was quite passionate about his need for a new MacPro, and what he needed it to contain. I warned him that the next generation would most likely not have a standard tower size or configuration, would likely offer Thunderbolt 2 as the expansion solution, instead of internal options, and would have excellent native  graphics capabilities, though it might be some time before third party graphics options would be available. This was all clear from the general direction Apple has been moving in, and from the areas they have been showing interest in. That forms a fairly good description of the new MacPro in advance. And having that sense of the device has allowed me to think less about the tech specs, and more about the concepts and applications of the machine, now that it has been announced.

Courtesy of Apple Inc.

Courtesy of Apple Inc.

Who is it For?

Without belaboring the specs, the key take away is that this is a fast graphics machine. Still photography long ago ceased being the standard by which computers were tested. 3D rendering and video tasks have taken over as the heavy lifting tests. And this machine is all about fast memory, fast internal storage (I hesitate to call it a drive) and fast communications protocols to external devices. Which pretty much describes video editing. Not that it won’t be great for many other uses, but anything you can do conveniently, without delays and slowdowns, on the latest iMac, is not a candidate for the (as yet undefined) much higher price tag of the upcoming MacPro. Photographers working with huge layered files or composites, those wishing to work with multiple HD (and 4K) screens, and those wishing to access large numbers of images quickly, may find justification, but basic photo editing won’t really need the capabilities of this machine.

Screen Shot 2013-06-15 at 5.02.25 PM

Courtesy of Apple Inc.

Why is it Groundbreaking?

Apple’s key advantage over other companies in the industry is the ability to customize and integrate all components of software, hardware and communications. Here, this takes the form of integrating all the high powered, heat creating chips into a unified core. This allows better heat transfer, which should have implications for longer life, improved performance, and with the custom cooling system, lower noise. All in an elegant little package.

Courtesy of Apple Inc.

Courtesy of Apple Inc.

Why is it Risky?

Another  unique decision was forcing all other high speed functions to Thunderbolt 2. This is an external data transfer system so fast it vies with the fastest internal data protocols, with the added flexibility of not having the components be internal. This allows the device to be small, and the expansion to be totally fluid, as it does not need to fit specific expansion bay sizes and numbers. The risks of this forward-thinking strategy include the current lack of Thunderbolt 2 accessories, the long lag time it took before Thunderbolt 1 accessories trickled onto the market, the premium cost of Thunderbolt devices, the small market size (which may not lure as many third parties to produce such accessories) and the need for companies accustomed to creating only internal products, such as video cards, to create external products. Which leaves those companies responsible for their own heat dissipation schemes for those external enclosures as well.

Courtesy of Apple Inc.

Courtesy of Apple Inc.

Conceptual Design

Good design consists of determining what the key aspects of a project are (selecting too many dilutes them all), and how best to express those elements. In the case of the new MacPro, Apple has emphasized speed, centralized cooling, reduced size, and the external nature of everything else. This is a legitimate design list, and rethinking the computer’s size, shape, and other factors based on this short list is excellent design. Whether it is excellent marketing is yet to be seen.  

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2013. Website: CDTobie.com Return to Blog’s Main Page

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Apple Announces Plans to Build Macs in the USA

Original Image, Courtesy of Apple, Inc.

Original Image, Courtesy of Apple, Inc.

Designed in California; Built in the USA?

It has been all over the tech new sources today that Apple CEO Tim Cook announced that Apple plans to build a line of Mac computers in the United States. This is welcome news. But it was not clear from reports just what type of Macs will be built in the US, or where.

As Goes Apple, So Goes the Industry

The Tech Industry has used Apple as its free design shop for decades. Recent and ongoing lawsuits may stem the tide on the most blatant of the copies; the ones where a typical consumer might not even notice that it isn’t an Apple device, as the Apple products have been so closely emulated. But even if competitors now feel obliged to make their products visually distinguishable from Apple’s (and the recent crop of “UltraBooks” cloning the look of the MacBook Air don’t show much indication of that), the industry is still following everything Apple does closely, and emulating much of it.

But Will Others Follow Apple’s Lead in Manufacturing Locations?

It does not automatically follow that other tech companies will immediately look to move manufacturing of products to the US, however. Many of these companies are Asian-based, and would have no basis for such a move. The few international enough, large enough, and flexible enough, to possibly place some manufacturing here, such as HP, still do not have Apple’s margins on their products, meaning that such a move might either shift them from modestly profitable to unprofitable; or for others, from unprofitable to more unprofitable. So while Apple is an important precedent in this area, an immediate response-in-kind can’t be predicted.

What May This Mean for Apple Customers?

The impact on Apple customers will be modest, unless they happen to be in the tiny percentage of the US population which gets a manufacturing facility or other related job from the project. While building Apple products in Brazil may significantly lower the price of those products in Brazil’s controlled exchange environment, production in the US would not offer Americans lower prices. But the line of Apple products manufactured in the US is another factor that will affect the results.

Will it be iMacs?

The general gossip has pegged iMacs as the line most likely to be manufactured in America. There is a certain amount of sense in that, as they are larger and more expensive to ship than laptops and other mobile devices. But there is another Mac line that would make even more sense for in-country production: Apple’s tower computer, the Mac Pro. There are several reasons for this. They are also a large, bulky product, with a hefty case, that it would be ideal not to be air-shipping from Asia. But the Mac Pro is also a more specialized product line, meaning it sells in smaller quantities, making it the easiest product to set up a new facility for, and train new personnel for. And over time it has become a premium priced product for specialty uses, so the margins on it could better support US wages and manufacturing costs. And, finally, it is a product whose main markets are in North America and Western Europe; mostly heavily in California.

Gnawing Hope Returns

The possibility of Mac Pro production in the US is bound to fuel a resurgence of hope amongst Apple professional users, in fields such as Graphic Design, Photography, and Video, of a significant update to the long-in-the-tooth Mac Pro line currently being sold. No one is looking for a new case design, or superficial changes, but significant upgrades to drives, communication protocols, processors, and video cards would release years of delayed purchases at the high end of the Mac line. In particular photographers now working with video would find the price of new premium Mac Pro models worthwhile for the increased speed and capability that FusionDrives, Thunderbolt ports, and other updated capabilities would provide.

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012. Website: CDTobie.com Return to Blog’s Main Page

The New Apple iMac May Be Your Next Imaging Workstation

The New iMac (Image Courtesy of Apple inc.)

The Allure of the iMac

As the Apple iMac has evolved into a more attractive device, photographers and designers have been tempted by the increasingly alluring form factor, more powerful processors, and the larger, higher resolution screens. They have asked with each generation of new iMac if it was finally fit-to-purpose for serious image editing and graphics work. Until recently the answer was a resounding “No”. The iMac lacked sufficient backlight dimming to be used in low light level imaging environments, and the screen technology did not offer consistent color and density as the viewer moved side to side or up and down. The glossy screen looked great, but reflected too much light, making it difficult to view subtle images on it unless in a perfectly dark room, and even then, the user’s own reflection on the screen caused problems. So I was obliged to tell users that the only practical way to use an iMac as a quality imaging station was with a second, higher quality display connected to it; which was not the configuration most people had in mind.

The previous generation of iMacs finally included backlight controls that allowed the built-in display to be dimmed sufficiently to be used in low light editing environments. But the screen type still did not offer accurate viewing off-axis, the reflection issue was still present, and uniformity across the screen could still be an issue.

Apple is forever striving to improve their products, and the upcoming generation of iMacs will solve many of the limitations that kept iMacs from being acceptable imaging stations in the past.

The Promise of the Next Generation

The key change to the next generation of iMacs is that they will now include IPS (in-plane switching) screens, to offer excellent color consistency over a very wide viewing angle. The screens should also offer improved uniformity. How much of an improvement will have to wait for testing, but it should be sufficient to allow for imaging uses. And the new iMacs will be individually factory calibrated for precise gamma and white point. Gamma is the tone response curve from black to white, and is responsible for assuring that the screen shows smooth gradients, and accurate brightness for all colors. White point is a global color correction that adjusts all colors to an accurate balance.

These items are two of the three key components in accurate screen calibration. Recent Apple displays, including the iPad3, iPhone5, and 15″ Retina display MacBook Pro all have been designed to produce a very close approximation of the sRGB color gamut. It is a reasonable assumption that the new iMacs will continue this trend.

What This Means to the Graphics User

Having precisely calibrated gamma and white point and a close-to-sRGB gamut in a display means that, even without custom calibration or color managed applications, images in sRGB (the standard for the web, and the color space most consumer digital cameras and smartphones attempt to match) and video using the common Rec 709 video standard will all be displayed correctly. The iPad 3, iPhone 5, and 15″ Retina display MacBook Pro offered this color gamut, but did not have the precise gamma and white point correction the new iMacs will offer, so were reasonably accurate in displaying sRGB and Rec 709 files, but still required calibration to correct the gamma and white point for  professional caliber color display. The new iMacs should be able to do this right out of the box.

Whether custom calibration will improve the iMac display’s initial state is yet to be seen. But the iMac displays will be factory calibrated with a spectro-radiometer, just as Datacolor Spyder display calibrators are, so recalibration over time using a hardware calibrator should be aligned nicely to bring the iMac color back to the same standard it was calibrated to at the factory.

New iMac with Editing Software (image courtesy of Apple inc.)

The Potential Deal-Breaker

There is one factor that may interfere with the use of the upcoming iMacs as imaging workstations. If Apple is so proud of the in-factory calibration of the displays that they write this data permanently to the video card, and do not allow the user to flash updated data from display calibration tools to the video card, then the improved accuracy of the new iMacs will be relatively short lived, and offer no way to keep the device in calibration over time. There is no indication that Apple will break with current open standards for display profiles and calibration data, but it is worth looking into before purchasing a new iMac specifically for serious imaging work.

The sRGB Taboo 

Marketing for wide gamut displays has convinced most serious image editors that sRGB is not a sufficiently large color space for their imaging work. The reality of the matter is that AdobeRGB shares the same Red and Blue primaries as sRGB. The only area where it displays increased color saturation is in saturated Greens. These fluorescent greens won’t be clipped from your files by using an sRGB display, they will simply not show their increased saturation on screen. It is not difficult to live with this display limitation in most types of image editing. Professional image editing is very effective on the Retina display MacBook Pro, with its IPS screen and sRGB gamut. Using the new iMac would offer a larger screen (though not as many pixels) at the same color gamut, and would offer consistency between desktop and laptop for Retina MBP owners.

Other Features Valuable for Imaging

Current imaging processes involve large, high bit files, and demand lots of disc space, lots of memory, fast data access, fast data transfer, powerful graphics processors, and powerful main processors. The new iMacs offer excellent specs in all these areas. Of particular interest is the option to use hybrid drives, where a spinning hard drive and a smaller amount of solid state memory are combined in one virtual disk. More frequently used apps and files will automatically be moved to the much faster solid state  memory, speeding commonly used processes.

Video Editing Looks Promising Too

The features above are all valuable for video editing as well as still imaging. Thunderbolt file transfer speeds, SSD drive options, Core i7 processors, Turbo Boost processor speed tuning, and the advanced NVIDIA graphics cards are of particular value for video editing.

New iMac with Black Magic camera, and RAID drive stack (image courtesy of Apple inc.)

Other Possible Alternatives

The MacPro tower has not had a major overhaul in years. If an update is released, then the advantages of more drive space, flexibility in adding special cards and more memory, and other advantages will make this an excellent machine for demanding processes such as advanced video editing. But these special features will be far less necessary for still imaging.

In the other direction, the 15″ Retina display MacBook Pro is the first Apple laptop capable for serious image editing. It’s resolution of 2880 by 1800 actually exceed the resolution of the new iMacs; but on a much smaller screen. The MacBook offers even less flexibility for user-customization than an iMac, but it offers the advantage of portability. Even more portability is available with the 13″ Retina display MacBook Pro, further compromising screen real estate for device portability, but the 13″ model now being released should have all the accuracy and resolution advantages of the previously released 15″ Retina MBP, just with a smaller screen.

For those who prefer a standalone desktop monitor, for various reasons, including wider gamut, the Mac Mini offers a cost effective single-display solution, though external monitors can be used with the iMac and MacBook Pro models as well. Apple has made it progressively more difficult to calibrate an external wide gamut monitor with recent OS versions, but they have been made aware of this issue, and we expect that they will correct the situation in future OS updates.

Not Just a Prettier Face

No doubt the new iMacs will be the most attractive iMacs ever. And many serious imagers will be tempted to buy one as an imaging machine. Until it is possible to test the new iMacs it is impossible to be sure just how well they will function for such uses. But on first inspection, it appears that they may make a very good image editing system, at accessible price points. Once it is possible to test the new iMacs, a follow-up article will provide further information.

Credits: C. David Tobie, Copyright 2012. Website: CDTobie.com Return to Blog’s Main Page