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The Apple M1 Is Not Quite Ready For Colour Work

15th January 2021 General Articles

UPDATE Late April 2021:

X-Rite have just announced compatibility with the M1 (& Big Sur version 3.4.0 on)
Datacolor also say they are M1 Compatible
BenQ tell me they have now released their M1 updates
Eizo have now released their M1 Updates

Thus for most people, colour management and the M1 is now achievable. 

There may still be some issues related to some monitors, software calibraion, and YUV inputs, of course....but we're expecting to see most of the M1 issues start to be resolved fairly shortly now.  Hopefully Apple will release an update that allows you to specify RGB output explicitly.

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.


...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 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.  (Technically, the problem is that these machines appear to default to outputting YUV colour, rather than that they can't output RGB colour - but there's apparently no option/mechanism to force them to always output RGB). 

With some monitors, you can explicitly turn off YUV as a possible input at the monitor end, and this then forces the Mac to use RGB (e.g. the Eizo CG range - see note 2 here -  (It's also possible EDID capture and editing could be used to force the correct behaviour - but that's really not something most people want to get into).

YUV is a video oriented colour format, and pretty much no colour management systems or tools are built around YUV, or perhaps better stated, the often don't tend to work properly with YUV.   That is - there's no problem with YUV itself per se (it's just another way of specifying colours), however many monitors will default to limited range with YUV input (as they are assuming it's a video device being attached, like e.g. a Bluray player) - and hence colour management will not work properly, or at the least it is likely to induce visible banding.  Then there's potential issues with chroma sub-sampling to consider.  In some cases you may be able to manually force full range (using monitor controls), but its clear from the many forum reports and phone calls that this is not consistently successful.

This means you effectively currently cannot calibrate monitors attached to M1 machines without potentially introducing issues like banding, in many cases.  And in fact, most of the calibration systems don't even run on the M1 systems yet.   

So there's really two problems - first, Apple must solve this output format issue in a user friendly way (if they can....there are rumours it's a fundamental hardware limitation of the M1, although this seems unlikely - but there has to be a better solution that manually editing EDID scripts...) - and (as usual) Apply are tight lipped about if/when they might do this.  And secondly, the various calibration packages must be updated with drivers 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 forth.

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