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]

  • James

    the apple news to me is perplexing. They were historically a computer to shed mediocrity, at least on the hardware side. I think you’ve added further insight on why this image is chipping away. For one, they’re a huge company now, right? It’s very difficult to implement anything but very incremental change. They’re probably already feeling the Newton of their generation via the apple watch.

    Then factor in most of their engineering problems are now addressing economic questions. The game is no longer maximization but rather optimization. Lowest cost for at least recognizable quality. Pareto line for gaining market share, not accommodating niche, outlier performers. If your objective is to take over the world, you’d be more interested in putting one in every household with predicable results than accommodating a pioneering few with exceptional user case scenarios.

    So I feel like we’re entering the era of a 2-party system (while Linux is more like moving to Canada?) Windows is happy to win your vote with it’s manner of handling data and resources and updating driver patches via mandatory updates.

    As for the dribble of technology that I’ve been watching on the stories here, with adapters up the wazoo and a secondary keyboard screen, I assure you when the time comes, I will be brushing off another box from my cache of 2012 models that sits right next to the tower of canned soup.

  • Dubby Labby

    It’s more, simple Peter.
    If you need powerful graphics go DESKTOP Windows machine (or cluster wit h Touch Designer).
    If you need some visualism look at ATV and Metal Api, there is where Apple is focusing: improving their platform as usual.
    If you need a music machine any Apple machine will bloat any windows one for the OS (aggregated devices ie) or even an iPad (pro if you can).
    If you need pro machine for design: Apple.
    3D and gaming? PC…

    Nothing has changed, all had changed. Apple going on prosumerism merging macOS with iOS… Die hard video/3D is a truck, Post-pc Apple target aren’t trucks anymore.

    Edit: Another option for Vjing/3D is external gpu. Remember these people modding pci-e cards to make them work with macs (thunderbolt). It could be possible do it with new usb-c? Maybe Apple didn’t update the athunderbolt display because is getting ready an standalone dock with all the power of mac pro…

    • Mit Tim

      “If you need pro machine for design: Apple.”

      I believed that for the last 20 years, until I saw the MS Surface Studio. I just need to learn loving Winblows.

      Posted from my Mac ( for how long ? )

      • Dubby Labby

        Adobe and Affinity are the tools. The problem which people don’t “catch” is past, present or post-pc.
        “If you are designer today” is not the same of “will you still be designer when the new “buyed machine” get payed?
        Revenue is the key word.

  • Mark Coniglio

    I wish that some of us in this industry (meaning those who have relied on Apple past innovation in terms of media playback, user interface, etc.) could have a sit down with Tim Cook. I would _really_ like to understand what the internal thinking is on their part. What are your goals for the “Pro” line at Apple? Does Apple believe that creatives like us are an insignificant part of the market share for the “Pro” Macintosh products? (Peter… can’t you get Tim on the line for us? 😉 )

    I would add that your statement about creatives that are now ready to switch to Windows – especially in light of the recent Mac Book Pro release – is most certainly not hyperbolic. One of the Isadora team (yes, Izzy runs on Windows too) made exactly that switch, and I’m frankly considering the same. (I could go on about the uselessness of the TouchBar for me – pointing my mouse and clicking something is arguably a whole lot faster than reaching for a “key” that is not part of my touch-typing vocabulary – but ultimately that’s not the point here.)

    What I want to know is if Apple will ever again give us the innovation and computing power required by cutting-edge visual processing applications. I’ve felt that the answer to this question has been “no” for a few years now. This latest release gives an even more substantial backing to my inferred answer to that question.

    • Mit Tim

      ” Does Apple believe that creatives like us are an insignificant part of the market share for the “Pro” Macintosh products?’

      Hi this is Tim 😉
      Yes , creatives sucks. They are an insignificantly small part of the overall computer market, and yet they are the most demanding customers. They constantly need updated machines, they’re often more tech-savvy than the average consumer and they’ll flood forums with complaints if we don’t deliver, etc…
      Basically it’s just not worth it.

      We could stop completely catering to this market overnight ( which probably represents less than 1% of sales of the overall already tiny 13% overall Mac sales), and nothing even remotely bad will happen to us. They’ll cry over forums for a couple of weeks, move over to Winblows, and they’ll be quickly forgotten. And we could reutilize all the resources affected to making machines for them into making better selling iPhones ( where the money is) and better emojis.

      There, now you know. Now stop whining & worrying and learn to love the bomb..uh… I meant Winblows

      • Mark Coniglio

        OK. Point made “Tim.” I just went and checked and in fact Mac sales were lower than even you said: 12% of total revenue for Q4 2016. But I do wonder about the 1% figure. But in the end, you’re probably right. Note the quote in this article on Apple’s financial statement: “Luca Maestri [Apple’s CFO] complained about the year-on-year comparison here… Hopefully new Macs will dazzle us on 27 October.” Oops.

  • David Warman

    Anybody know the Audio latency? Meaning, external audio input to a quality USB 2 interface feeding a DAW such as Cubase or Pro Tools, mixed and effected, and back out through the interface to speakers? We need reliable better than 20 msecs (better than 5 for pro drummers) and to my knowledge no Windows (or Linux) OS or hardware has ever come close. It is just not bred in to the lowest levels. Audio is a much more demanding Hard Real Time process than pretty much any other task you might run, including video. And human ears much less forgiving of delays.

    • Linas

      emmm… how come i run a cubase session right now as i type with 8ms output latency, on a pretty crappy pc? and if i had better cpu(I3 4150 at the moment) i could probably lower my buffer level to 128 or 96 to get about 5ms of output latency, and i have a “nothing fancy” NI Komplete audio 6 audio interface. Your Windows knowledge is kinda ancient now.

  • lala

    Adobe needs to step up their game on iPad,
    You can export psd but not import and mess with it …

    Somebody else said it before do you really want to run maya on a portable device?

  • Mark Coniglio

    To add insult to injury, I just learned this: they killed the startup sound. Now you will be greeted with reassuring silence if you reboot. 🙁

  • Robin Parmar

    No-one I know working in VR development would ever use a laptop. in fact, they have a hard time rigging powerful enough desktops. Laptops are consumer tools for reproduction, not tools for development. I might have missed that important distinction in the article.

  • Todd Barber

    You say, “The Radeon Pro 950 is a newer architecture…” I think that is supposed to say 450.