Mobile editing in 2017: Will your next Mac be a Surface Book?

It’s been a busy October with Apple and Microsoft both announcing a refresh to their portable offerings. Is it finally time to think the unthinkable? What will power your Starbucks edit bay in 2017?
In the ever-changing world of the digital creative there have been only a few constants to anchor our sanity: 1) Net 30 payments will take at least 60, 2) It won’t be fixed in post but it will be your fault, and 3) If you edit video for a living you do it on a Mac. Even at the turn of the century as the PowerPC architecture creaked along next to snappy Windows NT 4.0, the faithful mostly pressed on through the kernel panic reboots and sad Mac faces. But here in the twilight days of 2016, it may be time to contemplate heresy: could your next Mac be a Windows Surface Book?

Windows 10: the OS that doesn’t suck

I have a theory: Microsoft secretly designed Windows 8 to be such a woefully frustrating and inadequate user experience that by the time Windows 10 arrived, the update would seem in comparison to be the epitome of a svelte, innovative and modern operating system.

Truth of the matter: Windows 10 doesn’t suck. Gone is the clunkiness and bloat that in years past left me sanitizing my hands as I fled back to the elegant minimalism of OS X. Windows 10 shows up to work as a clean, easy to navigate environment. The biggest compliment you can probably make of an operation system is that it doesn’t get in the way as you go about your business and this8-start1 seems true of Windows 10.

At a basic operational level there are elements I like in both OS X and Windows. I happen to love the column navigation in OS X, but I prefer the modal operation of embedded file browsers in Windows, with the omnipresent copy, paste, create, move and delete. As to the other fear that typically keeps Mac users away from a Windows box: these days those who practice safe surfing typically testify that viruses and spyware don’t rear their ugly heads. I avoid running antivirus software on my production machines for performance reasons and have yet to be taken down by a
virus (knock on wood and all that).

Software for hardware

Traditionally one of Apple’s greatest design strengths has been the way its software is carefully tailored to its hardware. In contrast, one of the greatest shortcomings for software provider Microsoft has stemmed from the need to support an almost infinite variety of hardware configurations.

Enter the Microsoft Surface and now the Surface Book and Surface Studio. These devices have earned grudging respect from the tech critics. At last Microsoft has a clear hardware target to design for (or at least a favored focus in bug squashing efforts). Of course the big question for Pro Video Coalition readers is: How does it handle digital video work? With the healthy upgrade just announced in the Surface Book i7, it’s time to take a look.

Comparing apples to Apples

screen-shot-2016-10-27-at-5-43-25-pmIt’s always difficult to compare devices running different operating systems, but since we’re focused on a specific task–digital video production–we can take a reasonable stab.

For the purposes of comparison we’ll look at the late 2016 Surface Book with Performance Base, configured with a Core i7, 512GB SSD and 16GB RAM, and the late 2016 15-inch Macbook Pro, configured with 2.7GHz Core i7, 512GB SSD and 16GB RAM. Both come with the identical MSRP of $2,799.

Software

We’ve already talked about the OS, so I’m not going to belabor that here. What’s more important is the actual software you use to create content. On the editing side of things, with one exception all the major players are available cross-platform: Avid Media Composer, Adobe Premiere Pro (along with the rest of the Creative Suite), EditShare Lightworks, and Blackmagic Da Vinci Resolve.

That one exception is of course Final Cut Pro X, a new version of which was quietly announced alongside the new Macbook Pro hardware. This isn’t a review of the app, but here’s my quick take: The new features are a great, comprehensive improvement to the feature set and user experience. Having said that, the fundamental design “philosophy” of the app remains unaltered. So if you love Final Cut Pro X already, you’ll love it even more. If you prefer more conventional timeline approaches, the new Final Cut Pro X is unlikely to change your mind.

To me Final Cut Pro X best suits a boutique, individualist workflow. A lot of the enterprise workflows present in applications like Media Composer are either absent or require somewhat clunky workarounds. And perhaps that’s exactly how it should be. After all, Apple is ultimately a consumer-facing company with an image (and history) of democratizing the high end for those who think different, the “rebels outside the system.” Trading off enterprise complexity for simplicity of operation seems to be perfectly in line with the company’s mission.

Bottom line: if you love Final Cut Pro X stop reading and go buy a new Macbook Pro. (No, don’t try to make a Hackintosh. Many of us have tried it and loved it for a few minutes. Then the OS tried to update itself and…) If you’re working with another NLE, the hardware platform is less of an issue in these days of cross-platform development…sort of. The big exception here is the flavor of graphics hardware, but we’ll dig a little deeper into that in a moment.

Beyond editing software, there are a sprinkling of other software applications that may limit your hardware choice. On the audio side, Logic Pro is Mac only since being acquired by Apple years ago. There are obviously a myriad of cross-platform and Windows-only alternatives, but if you’re committed to using Logic then the Mac is obviously your only choice.

On the 3D DCC side of things, 3D Studio Max and Motionbuilder are both Windows only (well, I still have a Motionbuilder 7.5 license running happily under El Capitan, but that’s not something Autodesk officially supports). For the most part all the other major packages–Maya, Cinema 4D, Houdini, modo, Lightwave et al–tend to run equally well on either platform.

The one last note in terms of software: there are many apps on the utility side of things that tend to be Windows only. Looking at playing Blu-rays or stereoscopic video on your Mac? You’ll probably need to boot up into Windows under Bootcamp. So in terms of general pipeline work and specialty tasks like motion capture, Windows may be the better (or only) choice.

The gizzards–CPU, RAM, battery life and internal storage

Microsoft have been a little non-specific in their hardware announcement, except to say that the new Surface Book contains a “6th generation Core i7.” Of our Macbook Pro comparison system we know a little more: it’s a 6th generation quad-core 2.7GHz Core i7. We’ll assume for the sake of this article that the Surface Book’s CPU is comparable, but given the generous battery life quoted for the mbp13rd-tb-2016-spgry-orange_pr_00-0008-052-printSurface Book it’s conceivable that the included i7 is a little less powerful. As an aside: neither laptop is using the latest generation of Intel CPU–that would be the new 7th gen Kaby Lake, already available in other manufacturers’ laptop offerings.

RAM and internal storage are a match on both machines, again with a slight question mark hanging over the vague specs published so far for the Surface Book.

The big differentiator here is battery life. The Macbook Pro boasts “up to 10 hours” of battery life while the Surface Book claims the staggering number of “up to 17 hours.” Now those of us who have edited render-intensive video sequences on a laptop know how that the “up to” refers to those users who type documents in TextEdit with the Wifi and Bluetooth disabled. Nonetheless, 16 exaggerated hours of battery life have to be a significant improvement over 10 exaggerated hours, right?

The new hero: the GPU

Now we get to one of the big dividers between the two platforms: the choice of GPU. Microsoft has gone with an offering from Nvidia and its GeForce line; Apple has stuck to its cosy relationship with AMD and its Radeon line. As I mentioned in a previous article, all the action in Moore’s Law these days seems to be in the GPU department, so choice of GPU is a big deal.

nvidia-geforce-gtx-965m-and-960m-revealed-in-latest-drivers-466497-2Here’s the first big divisor: CUDA vs. OpenCL. CUDA is Nvidia’s proprietary API provided to developers for the implementation of general purpose computing on the GPU. OpenCL is an open standard proposed and adopted by AMD for the same purpose. CUDA is only available on Nvidia, OpenCL is available on both platforms, but tends to run more efficiently on AMD graphics cards.

Since OpenCL works on all platforms, wouldn’t it be a no-brainer to a developer to choose OpenCL over CUDA? Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Nvidia have been very responsive to developers working with CUDA, and the general word among developers is that working with CUDA as an API is a much more pleasant experience. And then there’s the efficiency CUDA milks out of the Nvidia cards that just isn’t there under OpenCL.

As a result there are several applications that either run better using CUDA, or use it exclusively. (On the 3D GPU rendering side of things, leading engines Redshift3D and Octane Render only support CUDA.)

All in all, that should make the Surface Book a better fit for high-end video and digital content creation work, what with its Nvidia hardware.

What complicates things is that the Surface Book incorporates a GeForce GTX 965M, a sightly underpowered card that was released all the way back in January of 2015 (about a decade in technology years). Form factor no doubt had a significant rôle to play in the choice, but it seems an odd decision given the order of magnitude increase in computer power offered by the latest Nvidia hardware releases. Laptops like the Razer Blade Pro (granted, currently available only as a pre-order) have even managed to squeeze a desktop GTX 1080 card into a “slimmish” laptop profile–albeit at a price point $1,000 over the two devices we’re looking at here. While the 1080 is more juice than we’d expect for a Surface Book, the 965M seems a little underpowered.

In comparison, the new Macbook Pro sports a new Radeon Pro 455, whatever that means. No seriously, I have no idea what that means. AMD only announced it after Apple announced it in their Macbook Pro.

So here’s the question: what’s going to run faster on your favorite GPU-accelerated app: a previous-gen Nvidia card running the more optimized CUDA API, or a next-gen AMD card running the less-favored OpenCL API? My guesses lean toward the Macbook with its new, shiny AMD processor, but until we get our hands on the hardware we just don’t know.

Outboard GPU

Something else worth thinking about: several companies provide external GPU expansion boxes via Thunderbolt connection. These run from a few hundred dollars accommodating a single card to several thousand dollars for multi-GPU expansion. The Macbook Pro with its Thunderbolt leaves the option open to add an outboard GPU on top of its default to boost render performance. This highpointstarts to stretch the whole idea of a portable computer, but it makes sense if you spend most of your time with your laptop docked to a studio setup. Know that even on the single card side you’ll end up spending close to $2,000 between the expansion chassis and the high-end graphics card.

I’m not aware of any way to add a PCIe GPU to a Surface Book at this time.
Lightning without the thunder–what gives Microsoft?

Internally the Surface Book might be speedy, but… This next issue falls into the same category as Apple taking away my “Save As…” and expecting me to thank them for it. How long has Thunderbolt been a thing? And now it tucks neatly into a universal USB Type-C connector. And yet the Surface Book is thunderless.

This to me is the main disadvantage of the Surface Book for video work. Now truth be told: there aren’t many people editing on laptops at speeds that would saturate a USB 3.0 connection (ProRes HQ UHD is just over 90MB/s; as a frame of reference, LaCie has USB 3.0 drives with published sustained rates of up to 210MB/s). But the lack of Thunderbolt precludes the use of the laptop as the center of a studio workstation with a larger high-speed RAID, especially if you want more than one stream of 4K video.

Add to that the proliferation of Thunderbolt video drives and the aforementioned GPU expansion potential, and the absence of a Thunderbolt connector is kind of a downer.

Another option: for an additional $400 or $500 ($400 on the Macbook, $500 for the Surface Book) you can configure either device with a 1TB SSD drive. Partition that into a system and data partition and now you have an SSD scratch disk worthy of a video edit station.

VR

The bad news? The Surface Book’s previous gen graphics card comes in just under the minimum requirements for the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive headsets. The good news? This isn’t a reason to buy a Macbook instead: support for VR on the Mac is currently so poor as to almost make it a Windows-only game anyway.

Dear Apple: You made an iPad Pro and the best you could do was an OLED strip?

I want to tap the screen people! Hey, I’ll admit the OLED thing is cute, but how many times have you left your iPad on the couch and then tried to tap the back button on your laptop’s display? And if you’ve spent any time with a competent Windows touch display, you’ll see the appeal.

Admittedly a hinged display is not the ideal touchable surface pressure-wise (which is one of the reasons why the reversible nature of the Surface Book’s hinge is so cool), but I’m always surprised macbookoledat how much I can do on a touch screen laptop. Having to get the mouse pointer from one corner of the screen to the other using a trackpad is a drag (pun fully intended).

Enough ranting. Perhaps time will prove me wrong and the OLED strip will be the best thing that happened to computing since the mouse. (Perhaps I’ll be wrong about that puck thing Microsoft has for its new Surface Studio too; perhaps it won’t spend its life in everyone’s top desk drawer gathering dust.)

The Surface Book’s pen and tablet will be a decider for some

If you do any of the following: freehand sketching, digital painting, digital beauty work, rotoscoping, secondary color correction using spline masking or power windows, 2D animation, freehand note-taking–then the Surface Book may be the hands-down winner for you. Thanks to its built-in Wacom technology, Surface Book can operate like a Cintiq. Something that’s just not available on the Mac.

Now before the war starts, yes the iPad Pro has a very cool stylus system. However, now you’re out of pocket an additional $800 or more. More significantly, the application you want to use the stylus for may not exist on the iPad Pro. Photoshop CC? Nope. Rotoscoping in Nuke, Mocha, After Effects? Not on an iPad. Secondary color work in Resolve? No.

That’s the beauty of the Surface Book. It has the CPU and GPU chops to run these professional applications competently, but it also has the pen and tablet functionality. surface_book_home_8_contentplacementpanel_3_v1You can even detach the keyboard and use in the same modality as an iPad Pro, sans the dedicated GPU. And if you do need the Nvidia GPU juice, you can flip the display on its hinge and lay it flat. Then you have, well, a really fat iPad Pro running full desktop apps.

As ultraportable computing evolves I actually think Apple has a difficult decision to make. By intentionally splintering their OS into portable and desktop flavors, they are poorly positioned to deal surface-book-26with the convergence of mobile and traditional computing. As smartphones get smarter and data moves to the cloud, I can see a world where the computer in our pocket or purse becomes our primary computer. At work and at home the desk is occupied by a dumb, wireless display. The CPU travels with you.

We’re already pretty close to that reality. The Surface Book is a good example of a mobile device that isn’t restricted by its modality and can comfortably serve as both mobile and desktop experience.

Despite Microsoft’s horrific misstep with Windows 8, I do think in the long run their insistence on maintaining a unified OS between mobile and desktop was both prudent and prescient. I’ll forgive the dearth of mobile apps in Microsoft’s app store ecosystem in the light of being able to knock out some Nuke rotoscoping on the couch. (No, I’d probably continue to send my roto offshore–sorry fellow local VFX artists.)

The Macbook Pro’s display will be a decider for others

Apple says their new display is really pretty. And even while I’m tragically missing the thrill of being sucked into Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field, I’m inclined to believe them. Based on what I’ve seen of the latest iMac retina displays, Apple seems to know their display hardware.

That’s not to say the Surface Book’s display isn’t a solid choice. But in a color correction showdown I’m siding with the Macbook Pro. As an editor or VFX artist, color consistency is often more important than absolute accuracy and so either laptop would be just fine. On the other hand, colorists and graphic designers (especially those in the print world) live or die by color accuracy.

So if color precision is vital to your livelihood, the Macbook Pro is probably where you’ll invest your money.

And the winner is…the Razer Blade Pro?

This of course is one of those cases where the answer just depends. For the vast majority of digital content creation cases, either laptop is a great choice. If Thunderbolt razeror the highest color precision is vital, then the Macbook Pro is the clear choice. If pressure-sensitive pen work, touch screen UI, CUDA processing, and desktop applications running on a 2-in-1 tablet device are more your speed, you’ll find the Surface Book the better option.

And if you really want desktop power in a portable device and have too much money and nothing to spend it on, maybe you really should take a look at a Razer Blade Pro.

The good news is, heading into 2017 there genuinely are options that just didn’t exist a few years ago. What will I be buying for my next laptop? I have a nasty feeling it might be one of each.


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Damian Allen

Damian Allen is a VFX supervisor and pipeline consultant based in LA. He specializes in stereoscopic and picture-lock emergency effects work through his company Pixerati LLC. In addition to his hands-on production work, Damian lectures and trains artists around the world in compositing theory and technique.

  • cookedart

    One major oversight… The CPU in the Surface Book is 15w dual core i7. The MacBook Pro has a quad core.

    • Damian Allen

      That’s certainly true of the first gen Surface Book. I’m not aware of any published specs for the actual i7 being used in the just-announced Surface Book.

      If there is I would love to know so I can update the article. Do you have a source URL? Thanks.

      • cookedart

        I believe the actual clipboard is unchanged, and its just the performance base that has been updated. Microsoft’s own site doesn’t have the specific specs but many publications reflect this.

        http://www.laptopmag.com/articles/surface-book-performance-vs-value

        “This just-released system has the same Intel 6th Generation Core i7 CPU as the original Surface Book that was released last November ”

        http://www.windowscentral.com/hands-surface-book-performance-base

        “It has the same 6th-gen Intel Core i7 processor, the same 8GB or 16GB of RAM, and the same 13.5-inch 3:2 PixelSense touch display.”

        • Damian Allen

          Yes I saw those, although from what I can tell the authors are simply observing the matching specs. There’s good reason to believe that the tablet portion hasn’t changed, but as yet there’s no official word either way.

          If that turns out to be the case then it certainly does swing the performance needle further in favor of the Macbook.

  • Terry

    This whole battery thing is a mute point when it comes to editing. Who is out there cutting something at a Starbucks or even on location somewhere without being plugged in??? Apple should’ve made the most powerful laptop for PROS that can accommodate RAM upgrades and forget the whole power consumption/thin design BS.

    • Damian Allen

      Agreed…to a point. Two things I see with this though:
      1. Most people don’t only use their laptop as a mobile editing station. They surf the web, write up documents and watch a little Netflix. And often in Starbucks where three other punks–sorry, fellow creatives–are already hogging the tables with outlets.
      2. Follow the powerful laptop philosophy and you end up with something like this: https://www.asus.com/Notebooks/ROG-GX800VH/ . That’s a whole lot of power with almost no battery life and stopping just short of being a tower in your backpack. I can’t see Apple embracing that kind of design awkwardness. I’m sure they could find a medium between bulk and performance, but I’m not sure it would be a happy one.

      Personally, since writing this article and researching the market a little deeper, I think the Razer Blade (not the pro, nor the Stealth) with the Core docking station for an additional $400 is a very smart way to work. The Core (see link below) is still portable, but ultimately means you have a lean, long battery life but powerful laptop (alas, still maxing out at 16GB of RAM) that connects to your favorite GPU whenever you need it it. Hoping to get my hands on the system for review shortly…

      http://www.razerzone.com/gaming-systems/razer-blade-stealth#ultrabook-desktop

  • K Shock

    You can attach your iPad Pro to your MacBook Pro, and use it as a touchscreen via Duet Display. It’ll work that way in both MacOS and Windows. MacBook Pro with touchscreen and Pencil, easy peasy.

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