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The Apple M1 Is Not Quite Ready For Colour Work

29th January 2021 General Articles


The Apple M1 chip, and associated products, are a fascinating and very exciting new development in the computing landscape. I don't think anything more exciting has come along since in computers since the introduction of SSDs.

Offering low power and heat, whilst delivering remarkable performance - it's almost too good to be true.  Even the cost from Apple is not crazy (for once!).

Were I an Apple user, I would unquestionably be looking to buy M1 based machines if I was upgrading.  I'd be very hesitant in buying any new Intel based Apple gear, as at this point those machines really seem like Dead Men Walking.

However....

...there is a significant issue. 

Photography, imaging work, graphic design, and all the visual arts are all the sorts of domains where powerful machines can really make a difference.  One of the most popular articles on this site (10000+ readers each month!),  is our PCs for Photoshop and Imaging article - and literally hundreds if not thousands of people have bought these systems over the years.  So it's clear there is demand for powerful yet realistically priced machines for imaging work - and these M1 machines seem to be an excellent new option.

Unfortunately, right now, they only seem to be a great option.  They have a fundamental issue that prevents them from being suitable for professional colour work.  The problem is that these machines can currently only output YUV (AKA YPbPr) colour, rather than the type of colour pretty much every other computer on the planet outputs, i.e. RGB.

YUV is a video oriented  colour format, and pretty much no colour management systems or tools are built around YUV, or work with YUV. 

This means you currently cannot calibrate monitors attached to M1 machines without potentially introducing issues like banding.  And in fact, most of the calibration systems don't even run on the M1 systems yet.  Apparently on some monitors you can put them explicitly into a YUV mode to work-around these issues, but as most calibration software does not yet run on the M1, this is an unconfirmed solution.

So there's really two problems - first, Apple must solve this output issue (if they can....there are rumours it's a fundamental hardware limitation of the M1, although this seems unlikely) - and as usual, Apply are tight lipped about if/when they might do this.  And secondly, the various calibration packages must be made to work with the M1 silicon as well.

Thus, it seems likely that for some months, at least, the M1 is pretty much a no-go for imaging work.  Which is very frustrating for a lot of folks, of course.

There's not a lot of info about this available yet...but here's a few links we've dug up:

In addition...

If you google 'M1 external monitor issues' you will see that there are a number of other issues, more fundamental, to do with using external monitors with M1 machines.  Recent updates to Big Sur were supposed to fix these issues but there are still many reports of ongoing issues - including non-functional USB-C, missing appropriate resolutions and so.'

Is this a

Deal Breaker?

Of course, you can attach an external monitor to M1 Macs (just 1 external monitor, though, another hardware limit apparently). And if you don't calibrate, and just use the factory presets of monitors from Eizo and BenQ, you should still get a pretty good picture (if you don't hit one of the more general bugs mentioned above) - but calibration is pretty much essential for serious work, so this is definitely a painful issue with these new machines.

All that said, we expect that in a few months these issues are likely to be resolved. But if you can last a bit longer with your current Mac, it might pay to be cautious and wait for the second round of M1 machines to appear and/or for the monitor and calibrator makers to confirm compatibility with M1 Silicon and/or Big Sur (Macbooks Pros should be along soon...and you'd expect a more powerful Mini, too).

So...in summary...our advice is to just wait a little longer, if you can, to see how and when this issue resolves.