A Practical Review of the Apple M1 MacBook for Photo and Video Editing

The M1 architecture released by Apple late last year completely blew away the expectations of many tech enthusiasts, myself included. Now that the dust has settled after a few months for apps to grow into the new system, how well does the M1 chip handle photo and video editing?

I was recently in the market for a new laptop to replace my old 2018 MacBook Pro and after going through two Touch Bar MacBooks (one died). I told myself I wouldn't get another Apple laptop after owning one since 2007. Personally, I disliked the direction they took with design by removing the MagSafe power adapter, forcing all USB-C ports, and the nearly $400 impractical Touch Bar, when 9 times out of 10, I simply preferred a row of function keys, all combined with the fact that many other laptop manufacturers had caught up in terms of build quality for their laptops, which was not the case a decade ago. I fully intended to get a Dell XPS, a Razer Blade, or something along those lines. That was until Apple dropped the M1 lineup. At first, I didn't believe any of what Apple was saying during their keynote announcement, considering they were using arbitrary numbers such as "5x faster than previous generations," and to be honest, even if they used actual statistics, I would have been hesitant.

In my mind, there was no way the first iteration of their processor could compete with AMD or Intel, right? I was completely wrong. This review won't be filled with in-depth analysis and synthetic benchmarks comparing the performance to multiple other configurations; there is a plethora of those types of reviews out there, and I encourage you to find them if that type of thing interests you. Instead, I'll be approaching this with a real-world perspective, evaluating how well the system functions in my daily workflow using Lightroom Classic, Photoshop, and Premiere. While it won't be a side-by-side comparison to my old laptop or even my desktop, I will use those to reference my experiences with the M1 MacBook Air

Lightroom Classic

Lightroom is the only application within this review still not running natively on the M1 architecture and is being emulated through Rosetta 2, which causes roughly a 20% drop in performance. This made me a bit hesitant when I finally bought the MacBook Air, but from my research, even the emulation performance was good if not better than my 2.5-year-old MacBook Pro. Lightroom Classic released version 10 roughly six months ago, and within that version, they added GPU acceleration to things such as zoom scrubbing and local adjustments. This breathed a bit of new life into my 2018 MacBook, but performance still felt lacking. With a large panoramic image or something with quite a few local adjustments, not only did the MacBook get scorching hot, it also couldn't keep up. 

Lightroom runs without a hiccup even on emulation

This has not been the case for the new M1 processor so far in my experience. I spent the good part of a day sorting through libraries, editing large panorama images, and adding numerous local adjustments without any hiccups so far. It's definitely running more smoothly than my old Intel-based Mac, and it feels just as snappy as my desktop. If you're on the fence about an M1 Mac because Lightroom Classic doesn't run natively yet, don't hesitate. I've thrown huge images at it with an above-average amount of editing on some of them without issues, and it'll only get better when the native version gets released.

Photoshop

I've always avoided any heavy editing on my laptop in the past, which included pretty much any photo being taken into Photoshop. For years, I've had the luxury of only using my laptop to manage files out in the field and do some light editing if necessary with the intention of doing most of my work on a desktop. I realize there are probably quite a few readers out there who use a laptop as their daily computer who likely know the struggle of loading a large image into Photoshop and trying to luminosity-mask it without any stuttering. That was my experience on basically every laptop I've owned, knowing I'd reach a point in my edit where there are simply too many layers to zoom in and out smoothly. You can visibly see exactly what I'm talking about in my video on focus-stacking, where all I've done is layer four images on top of each other and started to stack them. Keep in mind I was screen recording, but even when I wasn't, my 2018 MacBook Pro struggled, so much so that the second part of that video I ended up recording on my desktop because the stuttering was miserable.

Editing a three-shot panorama

Photoshop is now out of beta and runs natively on M1 architecture. I must say it's worlds better than it was on my previous laptop. I went back and opened up the same file that struggled in the video, and it worked flawlessly with no slowdown. The experience so far is similar to the responsiveness I feel on my desktop with a dedicated GPU. That said, it's entirely possible your laptop already has a dedicated GPU and Photoshop runs much better for you than it did for me in the past. Everyone's experience will vary, but I can confidently say the M1 performance is even better than I expected, and it does it more efficiently than anything else on the market — more on that later.

One thing that hasn't quite transitioned is action panels. I use TK7 for luminosity masking, and there's a beta version I'm trying to get my hands on that runs natively on the new release of Photoshop. You can still run Photoshop through emulation if you need older plugins, and judging by my Lightroom Classic experience, it shouldn't be too bad.

Premiere

Lastly, let's take a quick look at video editing in Premiere. As of writing this, Premiere runs natively in a beta application on the M1 architecture, and considering Premiere's reputation to crash at least once per project, I surprisingly didn't run into any problems. That said, I also didn't do a full edit in the program. Instead, I focused specifically on H.265 playback and export speed. In the past, I didn't even attempt video editing on my laptop; the lack of screen real estate was one thing, but trying to do any work on modern-day file types was rough. My only solution was to proxy everything and work that way. Even on my desktop, which is a few years old and equipped with a first-gen Ryzen Threadripper and a dedicated GTX  1080TI, H.265 playback isn't always smooth. This means the footage I ingest from things such as the Mavic 2 Pro or Fuji XT-4 has to be proxied even on my desktop.

Export battle!

I knew coming into this test that the M1 architecture was supposed to have good H.265 playback performance, and holy moly, was I impressed. I get smoother playback and skimming on the MacBook Air than I do on my full-fledged desktop. That is with multiple effects applied, like Lumetri, multiple videos layered on top of one another, etc. This is made possible because the M1 simply has better native decoding for H.265 than my four-year-old Threadripper. I still prefer to edit on my desktop for all the extra screen real estate, but knowing I can knock out a video or two on the road without much hassle is reassuring. 

One thing I did test was export speed, and while this isn't an equal comparison, it should give you some idea of what to expect. I took the exact same timeline and exported it on my desktop and the M1 MacBook Air. I exported a timeline that had all sorts of video elements and codecs, including 10-bit H.265 footage from the Fuji XT-4, AVCHD footage from the Canon C100, high-bit rate composite video for my logo, and more. The desktop exported a bit faster at 6:19, while the MacBook Air came in at 7:57. I never expected the laptop to beat a desktop with a dedicated GPU, but the fact that it was only a 25% difference is extremely impressive. I even made sure the M1 was warmed up to represent a real-world experience, as it will eventually throttle considering it's fanless. My old laptop was nowhere near this fast, and I can't stress enough how impressive this is, but none of these tests really show why the M1 MacBook Air is so good.

Efficiency and Conclusion

The most impressive thing about this architecture isn't necessarily its speed but its efficiency. This iteration of M1 chips is intended to be somewhat low-powered as it's the first-generation release and not meant for heavy computing. That said, it absolutely holds its own in terms of performance and more impressively, does it using low wattages. To me, this is what really sells the M1 experience. There are laptops out there with similar performance, but not only will they be more expensive, they don't even come close to the efficiency levels of the M1 chips. I filmed all the b-roll for my video on battery power, which included editing photos in both Lightroom and Photoshop, skimming video on a timeline, and exporting a 4K video. The battery was at 92% when I was done, and the laptop was still cool to the touch. 

The performance per wattage of this laptop is astonishing, and I don't use that word lightly. If you're like me and need portability along with battery life, there isn't another choice. Even if those aren't your top priority, I would still consider an M1 Mac. I hope my practical take on this subject was helpful. I've had plenty of real-world experience editing photos and videos, and I can honestly say I'm not disappointed at all with what I've seen from the M1 MacBook Air. As always thanks for reading, and I'd love to hear your thoughts down below. Do you recommend something else? Are you excited for the new 14-inch MacBook Pro that brings back ports and possibly even the MagSafe adapter? Let me know!

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42 Comments

Alex Cooke's picture

"old 2018 Macbook Pro"

Wanna buy me a computer?

Alex Armitage's picture

I should probably have mentioned it had to be returned to my older employer lol :)

Mark Bucher's picture

For the reasons you listed, I ordered a Mac Mini for my main desktop. It replaced a 10 year old iMac. Setting it up was easy and straightforward, the system roars.

Bill Christian's picture

I was looking up comparisons and the AMD Ryzen 9 5950X was beating the M1 on almost everything, and usually by a large margin.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Oh, you mean that cpu alone that costs almost as much as the M1 MacBook Air? $799 vs $999.

Alex Armitage's picture

Considering the 5950x TDP wattage is 105w on its own compared to the 40w of the entire Macbook, I would also expect such a processor to win out :)

Bill Christian's picture

I'm looking to get a 5950x system for image and video editing. Above it seemed to imply the 3950x was slower than the M1. I was a Mac person but have been PC for a while.

Dave Harris's picture

Whilst the above review doesn’t dwell on synthetic benchmarks, it does make render time comparisons which, whilst relevant to the application, won’t represent creation/editing responsiveness and the amount of time creating vs rendering/exporting. The M1s stellar single-thread performance makes it shine in this regard.

Alex Armitage's picture

I have talk and show some editing responsiveness in the video! Really hard to show in text

AJ L's picture

"AMD Ryzen 9 5950X was beating the M1"
That's a 16 core desktop CPU that sells for more than my whole M1 Air cost. It's rated at 105W; my Air is powered by a 30W adapter and runs all day on battery. If the AMD weren't more powerful I'd be shocked.

Frederic Hore's picture

Interesting review Alex. However you didn't mention what was the installedmemory of the MacBook Pro M1 you're using, the processor speed and graphics card compared to your "old" MacBook Pro. If your retired unit didn't have the same speed or memory size, of course its not going to be a match for the new kid on the block!

And you didn't provide any info on the the third image labeled Export battle. Is this a two screen setup, or the screen for your desktop? What's going on? BTW - what is, that larger screen behind the laptop. Looks pretty big!

Cheers!
Frederic in Montréal.

Alex Armitage's picture

Frederic,

Great questions! I actually had the exact specs in my original article but took them out as I wasn't intending to have a direct comparison. That said the 2018 Macbook was 2.3ghz Intel i5, 16gb Ram, and I think the intel iris 655 integrated GPU. The new mac is also 16gb of ram and the 8 core GPU variant. Outside of the Air's choice of 7core and 8 core GPU, Ram is the only performance variable between all 3 M1 variants.

For me it's all about the performance per watt, but the fact that I'm having a better experience overall is a huge plus for me!

Sorry that image isn't clear, it's just the MacBook in front of one of my desktop monitors :)

Dave Harris's picture

Don’t get too wrapped up with memory figures. The M1 has hardware accelerated ARC (which frees up unreferenced data in memory) this allows 8/16GB M1 Macs to outperform 32/64GB Intel Macs (it’s also how iPhones outperform Android phones with twice the memory). On memory, UMA allows the M1 GPU to outperform 150W+ dGPUs for light/medium compute tasks as there’s no round tripping the job.

Rico Mico's picture

"I still prefer to edit on my desktop for all the extra screen real estate"

Then do what most do: sell the Air and the desktop, buy the MBP (fan) and add a Thunderbolt 4 dock for $149 and attach the monitor and peripherals and enjoy the extra speed on a big screen.

I need a windows PC also, so i kept my old laptop (mostly games or apps that need windows) and i bought an inexpensive Mac Mini M1 and have it attached to a professional 4K monitor. Excellent and .... quiet.

Alex Armitage's picture

Sounds like a lot of work when I've already got a 3 screen desktop setup! Laptop is for remote work most of the time.

Jacques Cornell's picture

I thought about replacing my Mac Pro and MacBook Pro with an M1 MacBook Pro. But, for just $400 more, I got an M1 MBA and an M1 mini. No brainer. Each, alone, is about 2x faster than the MP, and splitting my batch processing between them halves my export time again.

Lee Christiansen's picture

"Old" at maybe 3 years...?

I'm currently reading this thread on my trusty 2008 MBP, which I finally updated to El Capitan a few days back - to, you know... keep up with modern trends... :)

My 2008 MacPro runs better than new with a couple of small updates and I use it for legacy FCP-7 projects and digitising off DigiBeta tapes, (yes it's still a thing and earns good money for the service).

Even my pimped out 2012 MacPro runs like a rocket, and compares better than most of the newer Macs. Or maybe I'm just not running them hard enough - ha. (But happily edited and heavily graded a 3K video production smoothly and Capture One runs as smooth as butter, all driving a twin 4K and 2K screen system).

I think sometimes we're tempted to upgrade too often. (Even though I'll lust after a 16" M1 MBP when it arrives). But nowadays my mind is set on getting refurbished models of Mac that I can have pimped out a bit, because Apple have gone a little crazy with prices on their top end ranges.

Alex Armitage's picture

Old was intended to mean my past laptop, I also wouldn't qualify it as old. The 2013 Macbook Pro I still have I'd say is old and I certainly don't have the luck you do with your machines :)

Lee Christiansen's picture

Ha, when I was having a bit of trouble "upgrading" to El Capitan, I had a lovely chap from Apple help me out by creating a unique download link for me to make everything all work. (I'm sure I'm a bit past the warranty or Applecare period on this one).

It seems even Apple is amazed how I still have two smoothly functioning 2008 Macs. They seemed quite proud that their machines had stood up so well, (and both worked hard in a pro environment for many years).

Of course both are getting a much easier time with the load taken by a couple of "new" 2014 Retna Laptops and a 2012 (actually 2010 but pimped) main system.

Oh how I wish Apple had maintained a similar strategy with modern Macs that they did wit the older MacPros. Affordable, upgradeable, and built like tanks.

Luca Santirocco's picture

I have an M1 since February and it's crap BUT I always use Windows ws or desktops.
Every positive review comes from people who are already in the apple ecosystem.
I think this is the problem, they don't know how Windows grew up in the last 10 years.
So sad for them

Alex Armitage's picture

Why didn't you... just get a windows machine then?

Luca Santirocco's picture

I have both, that's why I can compare them.

Jacques Cornell's picture

You're just peeved because you can't run Windows on it, and you didn't bother to check that before buying.
I had to use Windows 10 for a job for a month. It's junk. Still looks like something from 2002. I mean, MS still doesn't know what anti-aliasing is.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

Windows 10 isn't the issue, you probably had a cheap machine. You are aware PCs range from $300 to $3000+? A lot of them, especially the cheaper ones, are still only at 1080p.

Luca Santirocco's picture

L O L

Alexander Petrenko's picture

Don't be that racist :)

Apple makes great integrated product. You are right, if you are not part of the system, you won't feel it. It is great not to reach out for you phone to read SMS with authentication code in case of 2FA - it's on your screen, for example. Terribly slow Lightroom works faster on Mac - just because Adobe team working on Mac version is not that "talented".

And specially for you: It doesn't give you as much freedom as Windows. The Finder really sucks. It's like I'm using File Explorer from 90's. Many keyboard shortcuts are different, which adds discomfort. No options even for basic upgrades.

PS: I'm using Windows on my "Big-multi-thousands-self-made" desktop and have 2015 MBP.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

--- "Every positive review comes from people who are already in the apple ecosystem."

Wrong. I bought an M1 because of the raving reviews from people that had PC gaming rigs.

Frederic Hore's picture

Luca, you obviously have no problem with Windows constant security patches, or blue screen of death, or just hanging up. I had IBM Think Pads and various other PC's and towers that ran various Microsoft programs, and all of them were crap. When horrible Windows Vista came out in 2006, that was it... I turfed all my Windows machines and switched to Macs in 2007, and haven't looked back.
Go in deep and learn the system, or just continue floundering. It really isn't that hard to use a Mac.
Peace!
Frederic in Montréal.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

BSOD is kind of thing of the past already... W10 is snappy and stable.

Luca Santirocco's picture

People who talk about bsod live in the early 90

Luca Santirocco's picture

No BSOD, no patches problem and so on in last 5-6 years.
But I'm not a photographer , I'm an IT guy.

Dave Harris's picture

That’s a joke right? A Windows patch last year took out my team for nearly a week! Keep using the Mac and your perspective should change - unless you’ve already decided you don’t want it to.

Frederic Hore's picture

Wish that was true. I had to use a clients newish HP laptop to test an AV system, recently using a table top cubby linked via HDMI to a Crestron monitor transmitter, and the Windows software just kept crashing. BSOD may be rare these days, but other software bugs still happens...

Dave Harris's picture

So you’re saying the positive reviews only come from people who’re ignorant of how good Windows10 has become? Yet it’s you who seems to be new to macOS.
I’ve used Windows since 1986 and macOS since 1992 and whilst 10 is the cleanest version of Windows to date, it’s still comparatively clunky, less stable, less secure and offers so little it’s driven developers from natives to web Apps over the decades. It does still require a lot of manual configuration/labour so I get why IT Pros favour it but it still gets in the way of doing actual work.

Sridhar Chilimuri's picture

I just got it and used Finalcut Pro and it worked flawlessly. The previous model struggled occasionally.

Mutley Dastardly's picture

I've one major remark i always make with Apple. When i buy a machine the machine has to be mine. I payed, i'm in full control. This means - i must be able to replace/extend memory and storage. I must be able to recover my data whenever i like this. The pc and notebook-figures boomed during the corona-crisis - why?
Of course Apple is easier - they only support a small margin of available hardware - i don't like others to decide for me - so that's not ok (for me).
Next - the code that is compiled for the M1 gets 1,5x bigger than the code compiled for an x86-64 cpu. They still sell m1-apple machines with ONLY 8GBytes of memory - i consider that being criminal - because you cannot extend that memory when it's needed. When things go wrong - and you want to recover your data - ah too bad it's all soldered onto the mainboard. Aha ! Apple got ya! No official repair possible!
That brings us to the latest point - the Apple lobby against the right to repair (together with HP) - that decision made me put the on a blacklist - together with HP. They'll never sell a single part to me again for the rest of my life. I'm pretty harsh on these matters. The hardware is mine - and you provide decent support - or i kick you out!
The Apple benchmarks where fenomenal - the real world benchmarks gave a better idea. For the low power consumption this CPU is a top performer. But - you have different specifications - so you need to take care of which m1 you're getting. Compared to the desktop cpu's - the M1 is on par - not better not worse.
So even when my pc costs the 10-fold of an Apple - i consider the freedom to do with my machine what i want (and that's linux - no windows, i have a major dislike for Microsoft too) too important to give up.
In the end it's up to you - but be aware that Apple is trying to lock you up - with your data into their expensive golden cloud-cage. Google, Microsoft and Amazon are in the same boat - and the same aspirations are available thru Alibaba.

Black Z Eddie .'s picture

The M1 8 gigs of memory performs equivalent to about 16 gigs legacy.

Dave Harris's picture

Ironically it’s the technically minded people who find significant technical changes hardest to cope with as it contradicts their heavily invested perspective.
Real users just want the option of ‘better performance’ for which they’ll pay more.

Dave Harris's picture

If you value choice over productivity then your post is understandable.

Mahendra Singh's picture

Just for comparison, I have a modest gaming laptop with 8 core AMD Ryzen 7 4800H (transistor count 4.8 billion) with Nvidia GTX 1650 dedicated GPU (transistor count 4.7 billion) combined transistor count is approx 9.5 billion while Apple M1 has 16 billion transistors (including its Neural Processor cores). In a nutshell, apple has a lot many transistors at their disposal to tweak and optimize. I know it is not a fair and right comparison, still, put it out to give a perspective.

C Scarlett's picture

Not sure which configuration the reviewer is using, but LRC is barely usable on the base model M1 Mac Mini.

Alex Armitage's picture

Only difference in our configs would be I have 16gb of ram and it runs great. Not sure why yours doesn't :(