What Did Apple Just Do?

Apple's 2019 World Wide Developer Conference—what seasoned veterans call dub dub—had a keynote with some things of interest to photographers. Here's a quick analysis:

  • The iPad is about to become much more useful for location photography. That's because the file system has been more exposed, and you can now mount a card/camera/drive and see and use the contents directly. Apple pointed out that Lightroom on the iPad will be able to now work directly with image files from a camera, instead of those having to go through the Camera Roll first. Good news, for sure, though you're going to want an iPad with lots of storage. A couple of cards' worth of raw files is likely to fill your iPad to capacity.
  • The iPad is about to become more useful for desktop users. That's because your iPad will be able to be used as a second screen. Actually, more than a second screen: with the Apple Pencil, it can be something like those Wacom tablets with a display; you could make direct corrections on your images using the Pencil (think brush tools). Given that the latency on the Pencil is now a ridiculously low 9ms, this really will be a nice feature.
  • Apple Photos is getting better organization, more processing features, and the ability to do that processing on videos as well as stills. Nothing earth-shattering, but Apple is slowly dialing in on making Photos more useful and easier to navigate with a phone full of images.
  • If you have a depth-capable iPhone, it'll get better. The Camera app has added a new Portrait Mode and the ability to more finely adjust (faux) lighting. I suspect there are some additional bits we'll find out about when the next generation iPhones are introduced, too.
  • If you're one of the 1%, there's about to be a computer that will keep you from saying that Lightroom runs too slow ;~). The upcoming Mac Pro returns to the tower design, and while the look is a little off-putting at first, the capabilities are mind-blowing. Up to 28 cores—both Photoshop and Lightroom these days are efficient at using multiple cores—, up to 1.5TB of RAM (yes, I wrote RAM), up to two Vega II GPUs with 64GB of their own memory, enough power to run a small house, 8 PCI-express slots (two of them are used in the Apple configurations), up to 4TB of SSD, support for up to eight (!) 4K displays, and much more. The base unit—more on that in a moment—has four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two USB-A ports, two HDMI ports, and two Ethernet ports if I'm reading Apple's information right. But if you're headed towards maximum configuration (with dual GPUs), I think you have at least eight Thunderbolt 3 ports (and as many as 12). If you thought that Apple was underwhelming with the previous Mac Pro, well, they've cranked the gears up the opposite direction this time. 
  • If you want a bigger, better display, there's about to be one of those, too. The Apple Pro Display XDR is a 32-inch Retina 6K display with an astonishing constant ability of 1000 nits of brightness, HDR capability, Apple's usual P3 wide-color gamut, 10-bit color depth, True Tone, all with a minimal 9mm border. Oh, and it rotates into portrait mode on the optional stand.

Of course, none of these things are available today. Virtually everything Apple announced or discussed in the keynote has a "fall availability" on it, which can mean anything from early September to late October in the translation. 

The other thing we need to discuss is price of that new hardware. 

The base Mac Pro is 8 cores, 32GB RAM, 256GB of SSD, Radeon Pro 580X GPU with 8GB, with no display for US$6000. Sound sort of familiar? 

The base iMac Pro is 8-core, 32GB RAM, 1TB of SSD, Radeon Pro Vega 56 GPU with 8GB for US$4700. Plus you get a 27-inch 5K Retina display for free.

It really does seem like Apple is building out some level of choice for the media professional now. Technically, you can enter with a Mac Mini and your own display, upgrade to a well-configured iMac 5K Retina, upgrade further to an iMac Pro, or go all out with the new Mac Pro.

For photographers? I'd say that if you're looking for the best bang for the buck, it's still in the iMac 5K Retina line. An 8-core, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD, base GPU model with 27" display runs a bit over US$3500 right now, and that's more than enough machine for most folk (though photographers are going to want some Thunderbolt 3 RAID drives for image storage and backup). Yes, you can get a Mini with 6 cores, 32GB RAM, 1TB SSD, but no GPU or display, and you're already at US$2200. 

For videographers? That iMac Pro and Mac Pro start to look more tempting, particularly if you're pushing 4K raw or higher through your workflow. But you'll pay for that privilege. A Mac Pro with 8K video oomph and that new display is likely to set you back over US$13,000. And you still have to add storage. 

To some degree, the Mac Pro is a "be careful what you wish for" surprise. You wished for everything in an aluminum kitchen sink. You got it. Plus some. Probably not the computer for most of us. But I'll bet I start seeing a bunch of them in high-end studios and on video sets and editing bays very soon after the Mac Pro is released. 

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