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An Overview of the Apple {Hardware} Ecosystem for Video Professionals

In this article, Sam Mestman looks at each Apple product that can shoot or edit, indicates its place for filmmaking and also tells us which models he recommends. If you re thinking of buying a new Mac, iPad or iPhone, this is for you!

Sam here… I think a lot has changed in the last few years from a gear perspective for creative pros.  It used to be that you needed to obsess over the configuration of your Mac Pro to get every last ounce of power out of it if you even wanted to think about 4k.  Now, you can probably get away with 4k Prores on your average MacBook Air.  

From a video perspective, it’s really no longer about “Can your Mac pull this off?”  It’s about, “what’s your workflow and budget so we can figure out if this machine is actually right for all the things you do, or what combination of machines do you need/can you afford that will give you the best creative experience”?  

Not only that, but when you throw in the fact that IOS devices have now become full on acquisition and delivery mechanisms for creators, well, deciding on which device(s) is right for you isn’t quite as clear cut as it used to be.  

Also, for the price of what it used to cost to get a maxed out Mac Pro with a Thunderbolt Display, you can get an iMac 5k, iPad Pro, and an iPhone X… and maybe even have some money left over.  

I’ve owned or been hands on with just about every one of these products at this point.  

Currently, I work from a combination of an iMac 5k, old school Thunderbolt 2 MacBook Pro, iPad Pro, and iPhone X.  

I’ve worked extensively with the iMac Pro, new MacBook Pro, Mac Pro trashcan and cheese grater, and Mac Mini.  I had an Apple Watch, but it drove me nuts with all the notifications and I had to get rid of it (one of the most entertaining things you can do is go to lunch with someone who has an Apple Watch and mentally count the number of times they check their notifications on their wrist while they’re talking to you… it’s like watching Pavlov working with a dog).  

Anyway, if you’re wondering how all the devices stack up these days for video professionals, this article is for you.

We’re going to go from smallest to largest.  From the iPhone all the way up to the new Mac Pro.  Here we go:

apple ecosystem iphone11pro 10 

iPhone:

Who it’s for:  Just about everyone who needs a cellphone for reasons too numerous to mention.  In my opinion, what Apple just announced with the iPhone Pro is the biggest innovation in filmmaking that I have seen in years.

The idea that your primary video camera now sits in your pocket, takes amazing stills, allows for basic editing, and allows you to call, text, and do 8 billion other things with it, is an absolute game changer for filmmakers.

For the average person, they no longer need a DSLR or Blackmagic camera. I’m not even sure what you need film school for anymore. You are going to see a quantum leap forward now in the average person’s video skills and storytelling ability, and it begins with the iPhone Pro. This keynote was beyond huge.

The Filmic Pro demo they showed was a game changer. Also, did you know that you can even shoot timecode with multiple IOS devices and add FCPX roles and metadata through things like Apogee Metarecorder and Ultrasync Blue?

The IOS mobile filmmaking ecosystem is about to get its day in the sun. The reverberations of what happens when the average person who has never made a film or video before is now able to casually make something cool right out of their pocket… I’m not completely sure the industry understands this yet.

Things will not be the same years from now. Will this be a good thing or not? Depends on your viewpoint and how you make your money. In my opinion, though, a world where anyone can make a great movie or documentary with something in their pocket is a better world, and we should not be afraid of art and storytelling becoming a universal right and tool.

The world of how the professional videographer makes money will now be emphasized around speed, turnaround time, templates, and deliverable/format understanding. You’re going to need to be able to turn around the whole widget now, make it look great, and do it quickly.

The iMovie-Lumafusion-FCPX IOS-Mac content pipeline is unbeatable for this to the average person. Apps like Filmic Pro and Metarecorder are game changers for cinematographers and sound recordists. If we thought things had become democratized, we haven’t seen anything yet. For under $500 in pro kit accessories, you can now have a full on steadicam systems with great microphones that can shoot video screenable in a multiplex.

The implications of this are staggering for the video industry… and it’s only going to improve every year from here on out.

Model you should buy: Get the iPhone Pro with a minimum of 256GB ($1149 or higher). Minimum 256 GB. Yes, the iPhone is expensive compared to what a smart phone used to cost, but when you think about the fact that it can largely replace your DSLR at this point for the majority of what you might be shooting, on top of also making calls and doing all the other things it does in your life… the ROI on it becomes obvious.  

Some people might say go with Android, but know a couple things… IOS handles sound quality WAY better than android does and is a huge differentiator for filmmaking.  Also, IOS is pretty much a killer feature if you’re planning on pairing your phone with a Mac or iPad for editing.  

I’d recommend staying in the Apple ecosystem if you’re at all interested in mobile filmmaking.  You might save a couple hundred bucks in the short term with Android… but, like most things in life, factor in your hourly rate going with bad sound and a wonky workflow, and you quickly realize you should have just gotten an iPhone.

For most people, their smartphone (sadly or not) is the single most used object in their lives… why would you want to cheap out on this? Get the gold standard if you can afford it and you plan on making content with it.

Killer Apps: Filmic Pro, Apogee Metarecorder, Lumberjack, Cinamaker, MovieSlate, Shot Lister, Shot Designer, frame.io, Helios Pro, Artemis Pro… a ton of others out there, but please let me know any glaring omissions you use day in-day out.

Creative use case:  This is the perfect tool for generating short form doc and social media content, as well as an intro filmmaking tool for students.  It’s also great as a recording device when paired with something like the Apogee Clipmic and their Metarecorder App.  

The camera on the iPhone is phenomenal for an intro film camera, and its portability for home movies/stills/instagram content is unmatched.  When you pair it with a Gimbal and a microphone, it becomes a steadicam, or get an Iographer and it’ll connect to a Tripod.  

Also, if you want the world’s most lightweight rig for shooting your family vacation, buy the Apogee Ambeo headset, and you’re golden.  You can even put lenses on it.  If you start visualizing your iPhone as a really inexpensive configurable rig for filmmaking, you take on a whole new view of what your phone really is to you.  Also, iMovie/LumaFusion for the iPhone can be a great way to do quick and dirty instagram content that looks nice.

apple ecosystem ipad 

iPad:

Who it’s for: Students especially as an all-in-one laptop with a phenomenal camera that they can learn filmmaking with.  Additionally, an extremely versatile filmmaking tool for a variety of use cases on top of doubling as a great laptop for 90% of what people need to do with them.  

A great screen for video content too.  It is also robust editor while using iMovie/Lumafusion that’s great for hobbyists/journalists who need to turn around content quickly.

Model you should buy: iPad Pro 11-inch 512GB ($1149) or higher or iPad Pro 12.9 inch 512 GB ($1349) or higher if you intend on using your iPad as a camera also.  Note: I didn’t find all that much relevant for video pro with the new iPad announcements. Hard disk too small and only shoot 1080p. Decent learning tool, but nothing relevant for anyone who is serious.

Why these models:  Only the iPad Pro will shoot 4k video.  Also, none of the other iPads can go up to 512 GB.  If you’re not planning on using your iPad as a camera (or are ok with HD with a less impressive camera), but instead want to use it as a filmmaking tool (movie slate, shot designer, control center for Metarecorder, etc.) and as an edit bay with Lumafusion/iMovie for short form content, the iPad mini and iPad Air can also both work as they’ll go up to 256GB.  Still, I’d say the iPad Pro is the way to go unless you’re really budget conscious.  

Creative use case:  iPad Pro can really double as a laptop for most users and journalists.  I choose it over my laptop for most things these days (but make sure you pair it with a nice keyboard).  It’s more compact and you get REALLY used to the touch screen really fast.  

With the iPad Pro, you can start a project in iMovie (and very soon you’ll have FCPX Xml export for Lumafusion) and finish it on your Mac, which can be a very attractive workflow for a lot of people who have a home system with a bigger screen that they do most of their real work on, but want something they can start on that’s portable.  Some great use cases for the iPad Pro as a creative device for filmmakers:

  • Shoot and edit 4k content with Filmic Pro and Lumafusion/iMovie.  The perfect all in one tool for the beginning filmmaker.
  • Have it control audio recording of multiple IOS devices with Apogee Metarecorder , or be its own recording device (you can apply FCPX audio roles as well).
  • Use it as a Smart Slate using Movieslate App
  • IOS Logger for Lumberjack
  • Have your Scripty use it for Shot Notes X/FCPX/Premiere workflows with Numbers or Google Docs
  • The perfect tool for the Director/AD/DP for shot list/shot design using Shot Lister/Shot Designer/Artemis Pro

apple ecosystem ipad2

Major flaws:  The biggest pain honestly, at the moment, is that there are some glaring apps that have not been optimized for iPad yet (Instagram and Skype, I’m looking at you… and iMovie/Lumafusion workflow for Instagram content would be amazing).  

Especially if you’re shooting and cutting content for IG, this can be especially annoying as you’ve basically got to airdrop it to your iPhone to post effectively.  

Also, I don’t think the Numbers, Pages, Keynote experience holds a candle to the Mac versions yet, unfortunately, and I still use my laptop for those a lot.  

Additionally, the dongle thing (Steve Bayes says I should call them adapters, but I hate them so I call them dongles) and going between lightning and USB-C between your iPhone/iPad gets surprisingly confusing and annoying (Apple, please just go USB-C across the board already), especially as neither the iPad nor iPhone have USB/HDMI/Headphone jacks so you need sets of each for both which becomes progressively more maddening the more you need them or the more you reach into your bag and pull out the wrong dongle.  

apple ecosystem ipad plane

Also, when you’re on a plane or monitoring audio on set with Metarecorder and you need the USB-C to lightning adaptor for your headphones for things like the Ambeo headset to plug into your iPad, you kind of want to punch a wall… you want to punch the wall even more when you realize all of the headphones in your bag don’t plug into the TV the plane provides so you need to use the awful headphones provided by the airline… this is very much a first world problem… rant over.  

Also, surprisingly annoying if you want to use the iPad as your primary laptop… there’s no forward delete key and the emoji key workaround doesn’t really work.  You’ve got to relearn using the shft-alt-arrow modifiers which is a bit annoying.  

That said, I still think I prefer the iPad Pro as my primary laptop with an iMac 5k as my primary edit station over having a MacBook Pro.  Also, with the advent of the coming iPad OS, this will become an increasingly more relevant conversation for a lot of people.  We’re rapidly approaching an inflection point here, I think.

The Mac Ecosystem: 

apple ecosystem mac mini 

Mac Mini:

Who it’s for:  Great for assistant editors in a workgroup as an affordable machine that isn’t going to do intensive high end 4k editing.  Additionally, a fantastic video lab machine for k-12 students.  Also, a fantastic Mac based media center that you can run professional screenings with.  

Model You Should Buy: 

  • 3.0GHz 6‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz)
  • 16GB 2666MHz DDR4
  • Intel UHD Graphics 630
  • 256GB SSD storage
  • 10 Gigabit Ethernet (Nbase-T Ethernet with support for 1Gb, 2.5Gb, 5Gb, and 10Gb Ethernet using RJ‑45 connector)

Cost: $1,399

Why this Model: I’d buy this model because the 4-core Mac Mini will be underpowered for editing.  You need a minimum of 16GB of Ram to run FCPX effectively.  Also, if you plan on connecting to something like a Jellyfish, you’ll want the 10G port.

apple ecosystem mac mini2

If you’re planning on using as a media center/theatrical projector, you may want to up the storage, but 256GB should be plenty for most use cases.  The only real drawback vs. the Macbook Pro or the iMac honestly is the GFX card is pretty underpowered vs. those machines.

Dollar for dollar, though, I’d say this is the best value you’re going to find for the budget conscious editor and that HDMI port/multiple USB ports are a weirdly precious commodity these days (it’s actually the main reason I’ve stuck with my Thunderbolt 2 Macbook for this long).

Creative Use case:  You can get a lot of bang for your buck with these and some cheap desktop monitors for the average asst. editor or k-12 student in a video lab.  Additionally, I think the Mac Mini is the perfect computer for theaters/film festivals/backyard screenings.  Forget DCP’s, just run 4k movies from the HDMI 2.0 port off the prores master files.  It’s a no brainer for this use case.  

apple ecosystem macbook air 

Macbook Air:

Who it’s For: Extremely budget conscious video pro who need something portable but can’t afford a Macbook Pro and for some reason an iPad Pro won’t work for them.  Honestly, not really recommended for filmmakers. 

Model You Should Buy:

  • 1.6GHz dual‑core 8th‑generation Intel Core i5 processor, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz
  • 16GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory
  • 256GB SSD storage
  • Intel UHD Graphics 617
  • Touch ID
  • Force Touch trackpad
  • Two Thunderbolt 3 ports

Cost: $1,499.00

Why This Model: It’s really the only acceptable model capable of running FCPX (needs 16GB Ram to run effectively).  Graphics card is underpowered, though… it’ll be fine for light work, but the Macbook Air was not designed for editing in my opinion.

apple ecosystem macbook pro 

Macbook Pro:

Who it’s for: People who need to do a lot of remote/on the road editing, or who move a lot between home and office in terms of where they need their heavy duty machine to be.  This is an incredibly powerful laptop for editing/video work, handles 4k/8k RAW easily, and in general is capable of handling just about anything you throw at it without breaking a sweat.  Works as a primary editing machine that you can attach a couple displays to for a traditional high end experience that can then easily be detached if you’re traveling.

Model You Should Buy:

  • 15-inch Macbook Pro 
  • 2.6GHz 6‑core 9th‑generation Intel Core i7 processor, Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz
  • Retina display with True Tone
  • Touch Bar and Touch ID
  • 16GB 2400MHz DDR4 memory
  • Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB of GDDR5 memory
  • 256GB SSD storage
  • Four Thunderbolt 3 ports
  • Backlit Keyboard – US English 

Cost: $2,499

Why This Model:  For me the above configuration is the best bang for the buck you’re going to find for video pros (but obviously upgrade if your budget allows).  In terms of the order of where I’d put my money in terms of upgrade, I’d vote internal storage to 512 GB, then I’d skip to the 8core model, then RAM 32GB (unless you’re using an app that you know is crazy RAM intensive, at which point this would come first)   

You definitely want the 15-inch for the larger screen.  I’d say save some money and get the 6-core instead of the 8-core as this won’t make a hugely noticeable performance difference.

(I’ve noticed the 8 core taking longer to render than the 6 core – Editor)

Same with going with 16GB Ram over 32GB.  Always max out the GFX card though by default.  Also, I’d recommend getting some affordable 1 or 2TB external flash storage for your media (OWC makes some really good cheap things portable flash drives) over spending the insane amount of money Apple wants to charge you to have it on your boot drive.  

In general, just about all your media will live on external storage anyway, so I always try and save money on the boot drive for edit stations.  Also, you’ll want some kind of connector dock for the reason below (OWC makes some good ones here 

Major Flaw: DONGLES (adapters)!!!  This is my major gripe honestly with the Macbook Pro.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve been boned by not being able to plug in an iPhone/USB drive/HDMI into one of the high end laptops that somehow have none of these ports anymore.  Pros need to be able to work with whatever the situation requires, and unfortunately, a lot of situations still require something without a USB-C port.

apple ecosystem imc5k

iMac 5k:

Who it’s for: In my opinion the iMac 5k is now the perfect machine for the everyday editor.

 I’d also say that pound for pound, it is the best value of any machine Apple makes.

I’m typing this from one now, and it basically does everything I’d ever need it to from a FCPX-video editorial perspective.  It’s crazy fast with a beautiful screen that is optimized for the typical deliverable that the average editor now works with (Web/Social).  

In a world that is emphasizing faster/better/cheaper and ROI on every aspect of a business, I don’t think there is a machine that has a better ROI than the 5k iMac for a working editor.  In fact, depending on configuration, it can actually cheaper than a souped up MBP, and the screen real estate and quality in addition to a suitable level of hardware performance, in my opinion, is still the most important thing in terms of what a working editor needs to be effective.  So, if you need a machine that is effective for 85% of what editors actually do… this is the one for you.

Model You Should Buy:

  • 27 Inch iMac3.7GHz 6-core 9th-generation Intel Core i5 processor, Turbo Boost up to 4.6GHz
  • 32GB 2666MHz DDR4 memory
  • Radeon Pro 580X with 8GB of GDDR5 memory
  • 512GB SSD storage
  • Magic Mouse 2
  • Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad – US English

Cost: $3,029.00

Why This Model: This configuration emphasizes performance with long term performance needs.  

First, I’d definitely select the 27 inch version, mostly because screen real estate for an editor is paramount, and this is unquestionably worth the upgrade… otherwise, why not just get the Mac Mini?  The iMac’s screen quality, especially for web delivery, is largely unmatched, and for all intents and purposes, if you’re not going to broadcast, you can absolutely do color correction from this machine and have it be of appropriate quality.  

From there, you typically want to select the middle of the road option when it comes to number of cores/clock speed, but for the iMac 5k, I actually recommend going with the top spec here, largely because for very little extra money, you get double the hard disk space, way more processor power, and a way better GFX card that has an extra 4GB or GDDR5 memory.

I recommend 32GB of Ram largely because this is more of a home edit machine and may have a broader long term use case than a laptop might from a performance perspective, and that RAM may come in handy a couple years from now as tech evolves.  The GFX card is solid in this machine for just about anything a traditional editor is going to do, and the one pro tip is to make sure you spend the extra 30 bucks and get the keyboard with the numeric keypad, as the little one that comes with it normally can be really aggravating.

apple ecosystem imac pro

iMac Pro:

Who It’s For: This is the machine that’s really designed for the type of editor I used to be in my all-in-one editorial/finishing days.  I think it takes the place of the old school cheese grater in terms of the role it solves for the high end editor.  

If you’re doing high end color/Resolve work or any kind of VFX or work but the new Mac Pro is overkill for you (and that goes for just about everyone honestly), you’re pretty much who they made the iMac Pro for.

If you need a single machine that’s probably going to be powerful enough to handle anything you throw at it over the next 5 years that has an amazing screen and will be the bedrock that you build your business around, this is the machine for you.  

The editor I picture using an iMac Pro is the all-in-one jack of all trades finishing editor who has an HDR display and DCI-P3 monitor in a neutral gray painted room that is ready to turn out any high end project that gets thrown his/her way.  

This is the machine for the online colorist in your typical collaborative workgroup, and it’s for the person who has zero patience for beach balls and who has a high enough hourly rate where every edge in the “time is money” argument counts.  

This is the person who an extra $3-7k means very little to over the next few years for getting the right machine in the room that will do everything that needs to be done on the Mac platform.  Also, the built-in 10G port comes in handy if you’re part of a large workgroup and you have a Jellyfish. It’s also great for VFX people.

Model You Should Buy:

  • 3.0GHz 10-core Intel Xeon W processor, Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz
  • 64GB 2666MHz DDR4 ECC memory
  • Radeon Pro Vega 64X with 16GB of HBM2 memory
  • 2TB SSD storage
  • Magic Mouse 2 – Space Gray
  • Magic Keyboard with Numeric Keypad – US English – Space Gray

Cost: $7,200

Why This Model: This one is pretty subjective honestly, but in my opinion, you’re not going to get a ton of mileage out of the 14 and 18 core processors or going past 64GB of ram for your video work for what 95% of video pros are doing with their gear.  However, maxing out your GFX card option is pretty much always a good idea and upping your internal drive to a 2TB SSD for the amount your paying is pretty reasonable from an upgrade perspective here.  

 

The New Mac Pro:

Who It’s For:  Are you the type of person that has been frustrated you couldn’t have 4 GPU’s in your Mac like you could in your Linux/PC Supercomputer?  Did you want to be a Mac user but you had to use Linux/Windows because the Mac platform couldn’t pull its weight from a hardware perspective?

Did you need 50/100G ethernet and a bunch of PCI slots for a high end baselight or Resolve system and you were annoyed that the Mac platform didn’t let you have that (shameless LumaForge plug here… but we look forward to kitting out your Mac Pro with storage that tests its limits over 100G with our BFJ)?  

Did you, in general, miss the configurability of PCI slots? Are you deep into AR/VR/digital world building?  Do you have a big facility that needs a showstopper of a Mac that can handle anything you’ll ever need it to do and not break a sweat?  Are you dealing with multiple streams of 4k Open EXR or some other absurdly resource intensive codec? Does time and performance truly equal money to you?  

Are you buying the computer that you need to run your business on for the next 10 years and you’re not sure how hard you need to push that computer from a tech/ROI perspective and $10,000 one direction or another doesn’t mean much to you? 

If the answer to all of these questions was no… the Mac Pro was not designed for you… the iMac Pro was… and that’s ok.  The Mac Pro was designed for the people who looked at what Apple released and said… “Finally! Apple has lifted any and all restrictions off of anything I’d ever want to do. I can now fully embrace the Mac platform for the work I do. Cost matters less to me than performance, ROI, and future-proofing my tech for my team.”

Model you should buy: Anyone buying a Mac Pro does not need my help with this.

We are, quite frankly, entering a post-tech world for what the average editor needs to do. Gear doesn’t matter nearly as much as story or workflow does now.  

We used to buy the biggest and best machines because we needed to push them to their limits, and I don’t think that as video pros we’ve fully embraced how far the world has come from a hardware perspective yet.  For most of us, a middle of the road iMac 5k is all we need to be happy.  

For the high end people, it’s probably the iMac Pro.  The Mac Pro, in my opinion, is for the people who truly know why they need it, and is there to remove the limits of what’s possible on the Mac platform for the people who used to complain that it was impossible to do what they needed to do with Macs.

There is no longer a good reason to have a PC/Linux box if you’re a video professional, in my opinion (but lets fight about it in the comments!).  I love what Apple did with the New Mac Pro as someone who ran LumaForge and needed to convince people to stay on the Mac platform and tell people that Apple still cared about the pro market… but now that it’s finally coming and we know what it’s going to look like after all this time…

I think the biggest compliment we can give Apple and the Mac hardware ecosystem is that most of us don’t need one anymore. But for the ones that do… well, it’s the perfect machine… and that’s what really matters. The right tool(s) for the job. There is now a Mac or IOS device for every person and every use case that allows us all to have the tech start to get out of the way and instead focus on the stories we want to tell.

That’s a lot of progress in a short amount of time. Imagine where this will all be 10 years from now. I’m not sure I can.

 

Sam MestmanSam Mestman is the lead contributor for FCP.co, the CEO of We Make Movies, and the founder of LumaForge.  He’s had all the jobs and done all the things… but and more than anything… he’s a guy who likes making movies, telling stories, and making the film industry faster, better, and cheaper.  You can follow him on IG/Twitter at @sammestman.  You can see his film community at @wemakemovies or www.wemakemovies.org

 


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