The audiovisual performance is very much alive as a medium. I’m just coming off two festivals full of inspiring, stunning live visuals (alongside installations and virtual reality artworks). (One was MUTEK Mexico, the other the AV-centric Lunch Meat in Prague.) Live visuals are the definition of an edge case, to be sure – artists appropriating technology developed primarily for gaming – but life is beautiful on the edge.

The big demarcation point in computers for visual work is really the absence or presence of a dedicated GPU. Intel’s integrated tech has gotten better on paper, but it’s still in my experience fairly useless for even simple video performance in practice. Shared memory and shader incompatibilities often cause massively unpredictable performance. They also tax the CPU which you’d rather dedicate to audio if you’re running A/V shows solo.

Now, that being said, it may not be so important which GPU you have – that’s dependent on whether visual artists are pushing performance into gaming territory. VR applications are still more involved.

Keeping up with the complicated permutations of graphics chips is a specialization in itself. Fortunately, we have others doing that work for us.

Microsoft’s original Surface Book broke ground by offering the option of a dedicated NVIDIA GPU. Those have been in a multitude of notebook computers under a grand, but they’re still fairly novel in tablets. The dedicated GPU lives in the “dock” component of the machine – the bit with the keyboard – so you lose its functionality if you detach the tablet. But since you can operate the tablet flat in docked mode, that’s just fine.

The original GPU was a bit anemic – roughly equivalent to a 940M and with only 1GB of memory. That’ll be fine for some users, meaning the now steeply-discounted original model is worth a look if you’re just doing some light VJing (and it still I think bests the new 13″ MacBook Pro, which has no GPU at all).

But for more power, Microsoft has updated the GPU in the new Surface Book, which is probably the machine to consider first. As with the original, you’ll pay more for the dGPU model, but I think it’s well worth it.

Microsoft has added a Maxwell NVIDIA 965M. That’s a perfectly good, middle-of-the-road gaming GPU. It’ll cost you, to be sure. Microsoft’s price points here look a lot like Apple’s, in fact, running about $2800 with decent internal storage. But for that price, you get a full tablet touchscreen and pen input in comparison to Apple’s tiny touch strip. (Yes, yes – I know that the Touch Bar isn’t intended to replace multi-touch. But the value comparison remains if you’re doing visual work.)

Plus on Windows, you get an OS that is, frankly, more interesting, with support for Kinect 2 and apps like vvvv and TouchDesigner. If you just want bang-for-your-buck in the GPU category, or a faster GPU, there are substantially better options from MSI, Asus, Dell, Alienware, and the like – this would really be about the Surface Book’s hybrid tablet capabilities. (But that counts for something.)

It’s also interesting that Microsoft is naming the GPU in the specs this time. Perhaps a bit embarrassed by the weak chip in the first-generation model, technical data didn’t even call out the chip by name. And the 965M isn’t a custom chip, either; it’s an off-the-shelf NVIDIA GPU you see in other notebooks, so comparison is pretty easy.

In Apple’s corner, meanwhile, Apple gives you GPUs from AMD.

Ars Technica has some analysis
AMD reveals Radeon Pro 400 series GPU specs, as used in new MacBook Pro

Apple’s choices, while pricey, are more configurable than Microsoft’s. (That seems fitting, since Microsoft can point to the entire PC ecosystem if you want a different GPU – Apple is the only game in town.)

And this time you get not one but three choices on the MacBook Pro range:
Radeon Pro 450
Radeon Pro 455
Radeon Pro 460

These are a current generation chipset, too, whereas Microsoft has opted for the previous generation of their NVIDIA.

The Radeon Pro 950 is a newer architecture, but it’s roughly in the same ballpark as the NVIDIA 965M – strictly talking pipeline and bus width and so on. Actually, it’s new enough that it’s possible this graphics chipset, and not the development of the Touch Bar, was what determined the release date of this Mac generation.

If you’re willing to pay more, the Radeon Pro 460 starts to give you more serious 3D performance. But Apple simply doesn’t offer current desktop-generation performance. NVIDIA has started to cram that kind of power into laptop-ready chips.

I think it’s worth being critical of Apple for this – and this is why I have been repeatedly saying that Apple is ceding a big chunk of the pro market to Windows. At the very least, at least Apple used to offer desktop-class graphics performance in their desktop range. But with the iMac languishing and the Mac Pro literally never having seen any update of any kind, your only shot at a new GPU is actually this Radeon Pro 460, spending something like three grand to get it baked into a notebook computer.

There’s another problem, too. By exclusively choosing AMD as the vendor and not NVIDIA, you miss out on the interesting computational stuff being done via NVIDIA’s GPU-native processing (CUDA). That includes things like the crazy algorithmic work with machine learning.

It makes sense here to compare the Surface Book and MacBook Pro, in that they’re the flagship design showpieces of the two principal rivals in the market. Even making the comparison that narrow, though, I think there’s not much contest. The Surface Book is the more creative machine. Its GPU isn’t terribly impressive, but the choice of NVIDIA still opens up a lot of interesting experimentation. And you get touch and pen input right away. (The fact that the iPad Pro is an option doesn’t really encourage me, either – that says then maybe you just buy a cheap PC laptop running Windows and an iPad Pro, in place of the Surface Book!)

Don’t get me wrong: the AMD choice makes sense for doing what Apple clearly set out to do. Drive the main graphics apps, push lots of pixels to an external display, cost as little power and heat as possible.

The problem is, that middle-of-the-road choice knocks out a lot of more creative possibilities. And it’s expensive.

From there, you have a multitude of PC choices if you don’t crave the convertible form factor of the Microsoft offering. Oh yeah – and you get ports and physical function keys, too.

If it seems like I’m being hard on Apple, I’ll say this to conclude: it’s a very, very strange thing when suddenly many artists and developers who have been loyal to macOS since the start are telling you they’re shopping for a PC. I’m not being hyperbolic.

If you can get a significantly more powerful machine and pocket as much as $1000, well, that’s fairly compelling.


AMD’s Polaris Architecture [MacBook Pro]

AMD Radeon Pro 450 [MacBook Pro]

Reddit discussion of the original Surface Book

Surface Book Tip: Manage the Discrete GPU [ on the original model, though still slightly relevant]

NVIDIA GeForce GTX 965M [the chip just added to discrete GPU models of the Surface Book]

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