I’ve never been one to race articles to print. I don’t tend to rush out and get my hands on the latest technology just to be the first one to review it. Instead, I tend to find great pieces of gear and write about them. And that’s where this review is coming from.
The 13” MacBook Pro with Retina Display has been around for a while. According the MacTracker the first Retina Display MacBooks appeared in June 2012. That was about 3 months after I bought my 11” MacBook Air. While the Air was a faithful traveling computer for two years, I found myself squinting at the screen a little more than I liked. And while the i7 processor was solid—faster than my 2009 15” MPB in fact—the smallish 128 GB SSD and 4 Gigs of RAM was starting to feel limiting.
So I upgraded to what I now consider the ultimate traveling computer. I was able to pick up a top level 13” MBP w/ Retina with the help of a friend who works for Apple. It has a 512 GB PCI SSD, which is considerably faster than the SATA SSD in my Air. With 8 Gigs of RAM, I feel like I’ll be good for a while. The 2.6 GHz Haswell Core i5 processor is quite snappy. And then there is the screen.
The Retina Display is Amazing
I was pretty stunned when I first opened the lid on this computer. The screen is so sharp, so bright and so clear it was almost unreal. Next to the 13, the Air’s 11” non-Retina display looks coarse. In fact, even my 24” 1920x1080 studio display looks pretty ugly.
While I’ve clearly reached “old guy” status (I wear progressive lens glasses, after all), I think even younger eyes would appreciate the clarity this screen brings. I do a lot of typing, and the screen renders type beautifully. When set to the “Best for Retina” setting, there is enough screen real estate for me to do what I need to do, and plenty of resolution. If I switch to “More Space,” things get a little small, but are still crystal clear.
The Big Reason for the Change: Battery Life
While I loved the tiny form factor and light weight of the Air, the short battery life kept my long-form writing sessions to a minimum. I had to be strategic on an airplane to manage battery life, and sometimes I just ran out. While the MBP is a little thicker and heavier, the tradeoff is vastly longer battery life. In the three weeks I’ve owned it, I find I’m charging it every two or three days. I’m not using it all day, every day, but the claim of 8-9 hours of runtime seems accurate.
The Best Mobile Form Factor?
Design is all about compromise. You can save weight, but you’ll likely cut battery life. A less powerful processor will save battery life, but reduce performance. A small screen is easy to carry around, but it’s harder to see. I’ve owned a PowerBook G3 with a 14.1” screen, a MacBook 13”, two MacBook Pros with 15” screens, the 11” Air and now the MBP 13”. While the 15” screens are nice, the computer is big and pretty heavy to drag through an airport. The 11” was small and light, but hard to see.
The 13” is just right. There is enough power, screen size, portability and battery life to accomplish just about any task. At 3.46 pounds, it’s about half the weight of my first Pismo G3 PowerBook, but only a pound heavier than the 11” Air. While some are railing on Apple for soldering the SSD and memory to the motherboard, it does make for a very compact case.
I even think they nailed it on ports. Two Thunderbolt 2, two USB 3.0 and an HDMI port. And for doing photo or video work, the built-in SD card slot is a great addition. FireWire is going away, but for $30 you can get a Thunderbolt to FW adapter; same for Ethernet. Though I have yet to need either for this laptop.
Apple Build Quality
Some complain about Apple’s high prices for their computers. I find that when you look at comparable models, they’re not that much more. And Apple builds them well. This one feels like it was milled out of a solid block of aluminum—wait, it actually was. My Pismo was still running strong 7 years after I bought it (and sold it for 30% of what I paid for it). My work laptop is 4.5 years old and aside from a new SSD is also a workhorse. I’ve found Apple laptops are worth the extra cost, and a true pleasure to use. This one is no exception.
I’m not MacWorld, so I don’t give out mice as ratings, but this is a solid choice in laptops. The SSD is crazy-fast, I love the form-factor, the screen is gorgeous, and the all-day battery life is great. If you’re up for a new computer this year, give it a look.
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As video resolutions go up, the files get larger. Larger files demand not only larger storage devices, but also faster ones. Having switched to 1080i video resolution last year, we’ve been struggling with the speed that FCPX handles it. Originally, I bought a 4-bay RAID 5 external drive that connects via eSATA. That certainly helped, but it still seemed that the thumbnails, waveforms and scrubbing was slower than it could be. I could switch to RAID 0, but the lack of safety scares me a bit.
I was experimenting at home with some video we shot at a trade show. I moved it between a USB 2.0 drive, a USB 3.0 drive and an SSD connected via USB 3.0. With every step up, the FCPX responded much better. Thumbnails generated quicker, and it was a lot easier to scrub and zoom in and out. So it occurred to me that this was all related to how fast FCP could read the data off the drive.
While I sat there watching the render progress bar slowly creep up one Sunday, I flipped through my email and saw one from OWC advertising their Accelsior PCI SSD. I had already read how much faster SSDs were when connected via PCI instead of a SATA bus (and it’s proven true with my new 13” MacBook Pro Retina), and figured the same would happen with the Accelsior.
According to the OWC website, the Accelsior—which is available in capacities of 120, 240, 480 and 960 GBs—can read at speeds up to 820 MB/s in PCs and 688 MB/s in Mac Pros. I launched Blackmagic Disk Speed test to see what my current set up was doing. The RAID 5 we have running was reading at around 238 MB/s. Some quick math showed that 688 is almost 3x 238, so I decided to take the plunge and order one.
The Accelsior is a simple PCIe card with two SandForce driven memory blades on it. The blades are replaceable, so if you want more capacity or if faster blades come out in the future, it’s a simple swap. The new version of the Accelsior also includes 2 eSATA ports on it, which is great as that let me ditch the eSATA card I had in the Mac. Genius.
Once it was installed and the Mac was closed back up (this took about 2 minutes), I fired up Disk Speed Test. I was initially disappointed to see write speeds come in at 222 MB/s, but then I recalled that write speed is not the primary goal or strength of this upgrade. Then the read speed came up. The needle swung all the way over to the red, pegged out. I saw read speeds of 611 MB/s! I couldn’t wait to try editing.
I copied a weekend capture file (we capture in ProRes 422LT, 1080i) over to the Accelsior and imported the clip into FCPX. I am used to it taking a while to generate thumbnails for the 85 minute file, but this was nearly instant. I dropped it on the timeline and again, huge speed gains for thumbnails and waveforms. Editing became very snappy, and I no longer felt I was waiting long times for the file to be updated.
We edit two versions of the service and this upgrade has easily shaved 10 minutes off my edit time. That might not seem like much but it’s really about 30%. Moreover, renders are much faster as well. Using Compressor, we render out both versions of the service to the Accelsior, and both are done hours earlier than they used to be. I used to dread editing the service because it felt like I was working in a vat of molasses. Now, it’s actually fun. I make decisions based on what is best for the project, not what will take less time. The only downside is that editing on my old 2009 MacBook Pro is now painful.
While not inexpensive, at $400 for the 240 GB version, it’s not outrageous. I had considered spending $500 for a Matrox Compress HD, but that would only speed up rendering. The Accelsior speeds up editing and render, so it’s a better deal.
For reference, I decided to test read and write speeds of the internal 6G SSD (from OWC) we have in the Mac Pro, as well as the RAID 5, and the WD 1 TB spinning disk. Write speeds for the SSD, RAID and Accelsior are all in the low- to mid-200’s, but the read speed is where the Accelsior clearly wins. At 611 MB/s, it’s considerably faster than the SSD (264) or the RAID (238). The poor single disk reads and writes at 107 and 98 respectively.
It’s hard to find a reason not to love this upgrade. The only downside is the size. At 240 GB, it’s enough for us to capture both Sunday services (roughly 75 GB each), and render back both versions of the service (message only and full service). So each week, I use a program called Hazel to automatically move the render files off to a spinning disk (that gets backed up afterwards) and the capture files to the RAID 5. That way, we can keep 6-8 months of captured weekends online, and always be working on the fastest device.
If you’re looking for a way to speed up your FCPX workflow, and you have a MacPro (or a Thunderbolt-equipped Mac with a PCIe expansion chassis), give the Accelsior a shot.
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Perhaps this has happened to you: You get a request from the pastor to show his iPad screen on the big screen during a service. Perhaps he wants to draw something, show some pictures or maybe even run his own slides. No matter, your challenge is to get the iPad on the screen. And probably the video for the web as well. But how? We have a few options.
Perhaps the easiest option is an Apple AV adapter. They are made in both 30-pin and Lightning versions. If I were doing this, I would probably go with a Lightning to HDMI, then covert HDMI to SDI and run it back to the booth. Once it’s in SDI, we can get it into ProPresenter or the video switcher without too much trouble. Of course, you’ll need an HDMI to SDI converter, and the iPad will be cabled. That may not be convenient or cool enough. So we may have to go wireless.
Apple TV To The Rescue
Well, maybe. AirPlay Display is a very cool idea. You can mirror the iPad screen or use the Apple TV as a second display for Keynote. That’s all well and good, but how do you get the Apple TV into your system? It might seem easy as it’s an HDMI connector. However, thanks to the good people at the MPAA, we have to deal with HDCP. This wonderful anti-piracy copy protection scheme not only prevents you from stealing a copy of Fast and Furious 17, but from plugging the Apple TV into a switcher. Maybe. It kind of depends on all the equipment. That’s what’s so infuriating about HDCP. You never really know if it will work until you try it. And it may stop you from getting a signal even if you’re not doing anything remotely illegal. But, we can fix it.
Convert to DVI First
I’m not sure why, but if HDMI is converted to DVI (or VGA) HDCP doesn’t seem to throw a fit. This is what we ended up doing this past weekend. We have a Motu HDX-SDI interface on our Mac Pro which runs ProPresenter. We actually don’t use the HDX-SDI for video normally, it was just the cheapest 8-channel AES output device I could find. It also has the benefit of being able to ingest video.
After a little web research, I saw someone had success converting the HDMI output of the Apple TV to DVI, then running it through a Blackmagic DVI Extender, which turns it into SDI. I have a DVI Extender on my ProPresenter machine, so I pulled it off, and tried it. Sure enough, it worked great!
The only problem is I use the DVI Extender for my main screen, so it’s not available for anything else. It was too late in the week to order another one, so I started rummaging around in our bin of old gear. I found a DVI to component video scan converter from Extron. As the HDX-SDI has analog component video in, I hooked it up. Bingo! There was a little bit of scan conversion noise, but it got filtered out by the time it hit the screen. So I left that hooked up for the weekend. If this becomes a regular thing, then I’ll probably buy a new DVI to SDI interface for ProPresenter (most likely a Matrox Convert DVI Plus) and use the DVI Extender for the Apple TV.
So once the video is coming in to the Mac, what do we do with it? You may not have noticed that ProPresenter has a live video option. Create a blank slide and go into the Editor. At the top, click on the Live Video icon and it drops a box on the slide. Size it to full screen and select your input. When that side goes to air, so does the video. It’s quite elegant. And since we have ProPresenter going to the video mixer, anything on the iPad will show up on the web video as well. It’s quite elegant.
Another Lower Budget Option
What if you don’t have a video interface on your ProPresenter computer, plus the DVI to video converter? Well, you could do what I was first going to do: connect the Apple TV directly to the projector and switch inputs. This has the advantage of being fairly simple and cheap. However, it doesn’t give you the ability to preview the shot before taking it live (something that scared me into coming up with the above solution), and it doesn’t get recorded. But it would work. In a pinch.
We put our Apple TV on our non-public Sound network and gave it an AirPlay Display password. You don’t want some kid in the congregation jacking your Apple TV during the service. This also helps ensure the bandwidth will be there for the interface. You may also have to play around with display resolution settings for a bit to get it all working.
So there you go. A relatively simply way of getting the pastor’s iPad on the big screen. Now hopefully, no one tells Apple about this—I’d hate for them to figure out a way to lock this down. What we’re doing is not illegal, so there’s no reason to. But that might not stop the MPAA…