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So how well does a top of the range MacBook Air run Final Cut Pro X?

MBA FCPX test

We had the opportunity to test out a top of the range MacBook Air and naturally we thought it would be a good idea to see how it performed with Final Cut Pro X. We reveal some very dramatic performance figures.

As we said in our previous article, the MacBook air isn't normally a machine that we would have in the office, so a loaner for a month gave us the opportunity to try it out.

The machine supplied was a top of the range 13 inch model, 1.3Ghz processor, 4GB of RAM and 256GB of internal storage.

macbook air fcpx 2

 

The machine is small, but not as small as you would expect if you are a Retina MacBook Pro user.

MBA Retina size

 

Previously in a comparison to a MacBook Pro, the Air would look very svelte against its bigger brother packing a spinning hard disk. Now that the MacBook Pro has built in flash memory, the back thickness of the two machines is very similar.

MBA ports2

On the left hand side of the Air you'll find a MagSafe 2 power port, a USB 3 and a headphone connector. The two little holes on the right of those are microphones. Power consumption on the MBA is very low and working on the machine doing web browsing or email is possible all day long without a top-up. The moment you stress the MBA with a render, the fan kicks in and battery life will drop a lot more quickly. Travelling without a mains connector with a laptop feels strange & slightly exposed.

MBA ports

 

The front of the MBA chamfers down to almost nothing, the Retina is the same thickness front to back. Connectors on the right hand side are an SDXC card slot, another USB 3 and the machine's only Thunderbolt connector.

Our first impression was not one of the size, but the display. The Air doesn't have a retina screen which means if you've been used to working with one, you'll find the MBA screen soft. The maximum resolution on the Air is 1440 x 900, so you won't be watching any HD 1080 material pixel on pixel. As a comparison, the cheapest 13 inch Retina MacBook Pro has a native resolution of 2560 x 1600.

The lack of a second Thunderbolt port could prove to be a problem. All peripherals apart from one would have to be passthrough and not end of chain devices. If this doesn't seem a problem, remember that connecting to the internet or a network via Ethernet will always be at the end of the chain. USB to Ethernet adaptors could be utilised to get around this problem.

So having powered the machine up and done any software upgrades that were needed, we ran the Blackmagic Speed test.

MBA Speed Test

A pretty impressive performance that beats a Retina by about 200 MB/s on read and write. Apple say that the flash memory in the new Air is 45% faster than the previous generation.

But will you be using the internal memory for video files? Probably not as 256GB could become limiting once you've downloaded all the applications you need with content. It's enough space however to put a single report together if you were in a war zone and your pocket Thunderbolt drive had saved your life by taking the bullet hit. 

about MBA memory

 

So how did the MacBook Air handle FCPX? There is some good news and some very bad news. 

We tested both the MBA and a Retina MBP by opening up and then closing a complex FCPX project from a Thunderbolt drive. This would give the machines the opportunity to write or cache any files it needed. We then averaged the times

24 Seconds to open the project on a 2.7GHz Quad Core Retina MBP.

26 Seconds to open the project on the 1.3Ghz MacBook Air.

Which is pretty impressive performance for a machine that is much lower powered and under half the price! Navigating through the project was fluid and we didn't experience any real differences between the two machines. The lower resolution of the Air did crunch the FCPX GUI smaller.

Final Cut Pro X relies heavily on the graphics card or chip of a machine to do all the heavy lifting effects work. Time to see how the MBA faired with the machine's combined CPU & GPU.

We had an online debate about devising the best method for testing a machine's 'FCPX grunt' and in the end we came up with the fact that the simplest idea was probably the best.

The 'FCP.co Far Far Way FCPX Stress test' involves timing how long the built-in title generator Far Far Way takes to render. Just start a new project, then drop the title on to the timeline. FCPX will ask you about resolutions, just click ok. A default duration will be set automatically and it won't be long before the background rendering kicks in, which needs to be enabled.

Templte specs FCPX

 

The Retina MBP rendered the title in 34 seconds, which is about what we expected in comparison with the other office machines.

The MacBookAir didn't do so well, In fact it nearly didn't do anything as it took over 2 hours to render the title generator!

2 hour render FCPX

 

Let's just repeat that. It took over two hours to render a title on a MacBook Air that took 34 seconds on a Retina MacBook Pro. A huge difference that we we not expecting. Double or triple the time maybe, but not by this massive factor.

So what is the problem? We can only speculate that there is a mismatch between the combined CPU/GPU of the MBA and FCPX/Motion. Does FCPX have to get optimised for every GPU that Apple builds into machines? We don't know, but we wouldn't be surprised if this was fixed in an update.

And sadly that is where we had to leave the testing, rather pointless carrying on after such a poor performance for rendering.

So our conclusions?

The MacBook Air is a small and light machine that is perfect for somebody who travels, surfs the web, answers emails and maybe is away from a power socket for the whole day. Another great alternative (and cheaper) would be a Retina iPad with a bluetooth keyboard case. This combo seems to be very popular with train travellers and has the advantage over a MBA of a touch screen.

If you want to edit on the MacBook Air, you will find it limiting. The lack of a retina screen and the pixel real estate will take its toll on your eyes and compromise usability. Plugging up an external monitor is possible, but that will stress the GPU even more.

We hoped that the MBA would be the perfect computer for shooter journalists to edit their reports on, but after out tests we think that the cheapest Retina MacBook Pro would provide a much better option. If space really is that critical, (should you be on the International Space Station or at camp three on Mount Everest) then yes, you can run FCPX. You will find it very slow should you want to put together anything more than a very simple timeline.

Have to say we are disappointed. 

  


Written by
Top Blogger Thought Leader

I am the Editor-in-Chief of FCP.co and have run the website since its inception ten years ago.

I have also worked as a broadcast and corporate editor for over 30 years, starting on one inch tape, working through many formats, right up to today's NLEs.

Under the name Idustrial Revolution, I have written and sold plugins for Final Cut Pro for 13 years.

I was made a Freeman of Lichfield through The Worshipful Company of Smiths (established 1601). Though I haven't yet tried to herd a flock of sheep through the city centre!

Current Editing

great house giveaway 2020

2020 has been busy, the beginning of the year was finishing off a new property series (cut on FCP) for Channel 4 called The Great House Giveaway. I also designed and built the majority of the graphics as Motion templates. It has been a great success and the shows grabbed more viewers in the 4pm weekday slot than any previous strand. It has been recommissioned by C4 for 60 episodes, including prime-time versions and five themed programmes. 

Tour de france 2020
Although both were postponed to later in the year, I worked again on ITV's coverage of the Tour de France and La Vuelta. 2020 was my 25th year of editing the TdF and my 20th year as lead editor. The Tour was the first broadcast show to adopt FCPX working for multiple editors on shared storage.

 

BBC snooker the crucible

BBC's Snooker has played a big part in my life, I've been editing tournament coverage since 1997. I'm proud to be part of a very creative team that has pioneered many new ideas and workflows that are now industry standard in sports' production. This is currently an Adobe Premiere edit.

amazon kindle BF

Covid cancelled some of the regular corporate events that I edit such as trade shows & events. I was lucky however to edit, from home, on projects for Amazon Kindle, Amazon Black Friday, Mastercard and very proud to have helped local charitable trust Kendall & Wall secure lottery funding.

As for software, my weapon of choice is Final Cut Pro and Motion, but I also have a good knowledge and broadcast credits with Adobe Premiere Pro, MOGRT design and Photoshop.

Plugin Design & Development

I'm the creative force behind Idustrial Revolution, one of the oldest Final Cut Pro plugin developers. It hosts a range of commercial and free plugins on the site. One free plugin was downloaded over a thousand times within 24 hours of release.

I also take on custom work, whether it is adapting an existing plugin for a special use or designing new plugins for clients from scratch. Having a good knowledge of editing allows me to build-in flexibility and more importantly, usability.

FCP.co

Now in its 10th year and 4th redesign, running FCP.co has given me knowledge on how to run a large CMS- you are currently reading my bio from the database! Although it sounds corny, I am pretty well up on social media trends & techniques, especially in the video sector. The recent Covid restrictions has enabled live FCP.co shows online. This involves managing a Zoom Webinar through Restream.io to YouTube and Facebook. 

The Future

I'm always open to new ideas and opportunities, so please get in touch at editor (at) fcp.co. I've judged film competitions, presented workflow techniques to international audiences and come up with ideas for TV shows and software programs!

 

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