Apple

OS X 10.9 Mavericks: Will Adobe software work?

OS X 10.9 logo, courtesy Apple Inc.

Now that OS X 10.9 Mavericks is available from the Mac App Store for free (no refunds!), you’re probably wondering how well your Adobe software and other Mac apps will run on it. Below is a summary of various reports I’ve read on Adobe.com and around the web. I will continue to update this article as I find out more.

Adobe FAQs: Adobe has published a tech note, OS Compatibility and FAQs for Mac OS Mavericks (v10.9). It contains links to additional information, so be sure to expand each of the FAQ questions on that page to get to the links for important information about Flash Player and sandbox restrictions, an “incompatible software” error you might get with the Creative Cloud desktop application, and a problem viewing Adobe PDF files in Safari.

In that FAQ, Adobe claims:

“All Adobe CC and CS6 products are compatible, but a few products require updates to the latest builds to work properly. Adobe Photoshop® CS5, CS4 and CS3 were also tested with Mac OS X Mavericks and there are currently no major issues known.”

I’ve been able to install and run some Creative Cloud and older Creative Suite apps on Mavericks, including Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign. Photoshop CS3 and CS4 installed and started up successfully, but I didn’t work in them intensively. (Note that CS2 applications, including Photoshop, were written for Macs with PowerPC CPUs. Mavericks only runs Intel CPU-compatible software, so Mavericks will not allow CS2 to run or install.)

While the Adobe FAQ says there are “no major issues known” with CS3 through CS6, there seem to be a few that are at least minor. I cover some in the rest of this article, and there are also discussions happening on Adobe forums and blogs (a good one is Creative Cloud, Creative Suite 6, and Mavericks (10.9)). If you find a repeatable problem, you can send it in using the official Adobe Feature Request/Bug Report Form, but it’s always a good idea to first check the Adobe Community forum for the software in case it’s already being discussed.

An application won’t start: The two most common reasons for pre-CC versions to not launch in Mavericks are Java not being available, and having non-Adobe plug-ins that aren’t compatible with Mavericks. See the topics Java requirement and Plug-ins below.

Photoshop: Menus may appear blank. This is not happening to everyone, but there is a long thread on the official Photoshop forum about it: Drop Down Menus in Photoshop CS 6 Goes Blank In MavericksUpdate: This was caused by a bug in OS X, which Apple fixed in OS X 10.9.3. If you are running an earlier version of OS X you can download an Adobe plug-in to work around the problem.

Mac Performance Guide reports that the App Nap feature in Mavericks may slow down Photoshop scripts, but Adobe claims to have worked around this in Photoshop CC 14.2.

An Apple bug in OS X 10.9.2 driver software for OpenCL running on AMD/ATI GPU hardware caused crashes in some features in Photoshop if OpenCL is enabled, and can reportedly affect performance on the 2013 Mac Pro. Apple fixed their bug in OS X 10.9.3, so make sure you’re up to date.

Lightroom: For Mavericks compatibility, make sure you have upgraded to Lightroom 5.2. This version resolves a Mavericks-related issue involving sliders. Lightroom Queen Victoria Bampton has her own tech note that covers a few other minor Mavericks issues: Is Lightroom compatible with OS X Mavericks?

Premiere Pro: Users are reporting some issues, Adobe is investigating according to their Oct 23, 2013 blog post: Premiere Pro and Mac OS X 10.9 (Mavericks)

After Effects: If you’re crashing, get the After Effects 12.1 update. If you can’t reassign keyboard shortcuts by using TextEdit to edit the shortcuts file, you need to turn off the default TextEdit behavior in Mavericks that turns on Smart Quotes.

Java requirement: When launching some older Adobe software for the first time in OS X, OS X may say that a Java runtime needs to be installed. If a button is provided, click it; if not, download the latest Java from Apple and install that. Some users have reported that the Adobe launch issue is not fixed until you reboot a second time after the Java installation.

Some are wary of Java security issues, but OS X won’t let some Adobe applications launch without it. In the case of Photoshop, Adobe says Photoshop doesn’t need Java at all, but OS X puts up the message anyway.

Plug-ins: If you rely on any non-Adobe plug-ins, make sure those plug-ins are compatible with Mavericks. A plug-in that is not compatible with Mavericks may prevent its host Adobe app from starting up.

Multiple displays: If you put panels (including the Tools panel) on a secondary display and then switch applications, those panels may snap back to the primary display when you switch back. To avoid this, open System Preferences, click Mission Control, and turn off Displays Have Separate Spaces. Mavericks ships with that option on, so if you want to position Adobe application panels and windows on multiple displays you should turn off that option. The Lightroom secondary display panel seems to work fine either way though.

Displays Have Separate Spaces system preference in Mavericks

Another reason (this applies to all Mac apps) why you might want to turn off Displays Have Separate Spaces is that if it’s on, you can’t span a window across two displays. What’s a reason to turn it on? There are at least three: If you want Spaces to switch on only the display you’re using (the one with the pointer), if you want to see the menu bar on all displays, and if you want to be able to see more than one application when using OS X full screen mode with multiple displays.

Photoshop CC seems to work properly with panels and windows spread across two monitors, including a single window extended across two monitors, as long as the Displays Have Separate Spaces option is turned off.

Open/Save dialog box CoverFlow crash: If an application crashes when you’re using the CoverFlow view in the Open/Save dialog box, this looks like a bug observed in Mavericks. Adobe has a tech note about it: Freeze or Crash when using Open or Save dialog box.

OS X Gatekeeper may prevent older Adobe software from starting: Gatekeeper is an Apple security feature (added in Mountain Lion) that helps protect you from running malicious applications. If you run Adobe software released before Gatekeeper, you should know what to do if Gatekeeper prevents Adobe software from starting. Adobe covers that in this tech note: Error “has not been signed by a recognized distributor” | Launch Adobe applications | Mac OS. The short answer is to bypass the error by right-clicking the application icon, then choose Open from the context menu.

Adobe software released after Gatekeeper was introduced properly conforms to Gatekeeper requirements, so no adjustments are needed for them.

Old Adobe software part II: Intel compatibility required: If your Adobe software is earlier than CS5, to run under Mavericks at all it must support Intel processors. After Apple switched to Intel-based Macs, Apple started phasing out support for running software based on the older PowerPC processors. Starting with Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, Mac OS X no longer runs PowerPC-based software. You’ll have to check compatibility for each of the Adobe applications you want to run; for example, Photoshop CS3 was the first version of Photoshop that ran on Intel-based Macs. But even if your software older than CS5 runs on Mavericks, it may still have other issues because OS X has changed a lot since then.

Upgrading from Mac OS X 10.6 or earlier: You may also want to read my blog post “Mac OS X 10.7 Lion: Will Adobe apps and other software work?”, so that you can also be up to date on the more dramatic changes that were introduced in Lion, such as the end of OS X support for PowerPC-based software.

To learn about OS X software compatibility of Mac software in general, a great resource is the Roaring Apps database. It lists OS X software and its reported compatibility with the last few versions of OS X. For mission-critical software, you should also check each company’s support website to verify that it works.

Wondering what Mavericks is all about? For the most in-depth Mavericks review you’ll probably find anywhere, read John Siracusa’s review at Ars Technica. As with every major release of OS X, Siracusa not only reviews the visible features that Apple promotes, but goes under the surface to explain changes to some of the underlying technologies in OS X and how they affect your Mac experience.

Full screen mode on multiple monitors: In Lion and Mountain Lion, if an application used the OS X native full screen mode, all other monitors would display only the gray linen background pattern, preventing you from seeing any other applications. Mavericks finally fixes this; I can now put an application into OS X full screen mode and continue to see other applications on other monitors. However, to achieve this the Displays Have Separate Spaces option must be turned on. But as discussed earlier in this article, you want to turn off that option if you want to be able to keep Adobe windows and panels on another monitor and not lose those positions when switching applications.

Adobe continues to use the traditional Adobe full screen modes in their apps such as Photoshop, Lightroom, and Illustrator instead of the OS X-native full screen mode. It’s still unclear whether Adobe will adopt OS X full screen mode, but I don’t necessarily mind, because Adobe continues to offer more and sometimes more practical full screen modes than Apple does. Adobe applications were free of the full screen limitations of Lion and Mountain Lion because they don’t use OS X full screen mode.

10-bit video displays: Photoshop users and other graphics professionals have wanted proper support for 10-bits-per-channel video displays on Macs. (This isn’t about the file format, but the data path to the video monitor.) While 10-bit-capable displays, graphics cards, cables, and software (such as Photoshop) have been ready for some time, Apple has not provided the necessary APIs to complete the chain. I had not heard that this is changing in Mavericks, but a reader sent me a link to an article on Native Digital that indicates possible support for 10-bit video. (Update: The linked article now says it was a false alarm; still no 10-bit support in Mavericks.) If you know any more about this, please post in the comments.

Apple fixes MacBook Air problem that caused Photoshop screen flickering

MacBook Air image courtesy Apple Inc.

If you’ve experienced screen flickering when using Photoshop on a mid-2013 MacBook Air, you’ll want to download and install MacBook Air (Mid 2013) Software Update 1.0 as this was apparently a bug on the Apple side. The update fixes a few other problems as well, such as improving wireless connectivity.

Should PC sales figures include tablets?

iPad image courtesy Apple Inc.

Reports from analysts such as Canalys raised a few eyebrows by saying that Apple reached over 20% share of the PC market for the first time in Q4 of 2012…if you count tablets. Canalys claims that one in six PCs shipped that quarter was an iPad, and that tablets as a group made up one-third of PC shipments in that quarter. In the same quarter, non-tablet PC shipments declined, continuing a long trend.

Many online commenters question the idea that tablets should be included in PC sales numbers. Unsurprisingly, some of the most vocal opposition is from the “specs, desktop, and keyboard” geek crowd who insist that tablets can’t do the job that a “real PC” can, and therefore you can’t count a tablet as a PC. That perspective may be technically sound, but may not be what matters to the market. And thinking of this as merely a specs comparison makes the questionable assumption that tablet sales and PC sales are functionally separate categories. For example, is Microsoft Surface Pro with full Windows 8 a tablet or a PC?

To get a better answer, think about this question from the point of view of a PC manufacturer (or as they say, “follow the money”). If you have a customer who buys a PC from you on a regular basis, but this year they bought somebody else’s tablet, your customer realized that many or all of their most frequent computer needs can be fulfilled with a tablet. That’s quite plausible given that so many of today’s applications are web-based and rarely require the full horsepower of a multi-core PC.

Tablets cut into PC sales to some extent as PC replacements, and to an even larger extent they can delay a customer’s PC upgrade cycle. That means tablets do not have to be technically equal to a PC in order to have a financial effect on PC manufacturers. Tablets affect PC sales as they are.

The bottom line, if you’re a PC manufacturer, is this: If your customer didn’t buy your PC because they bought somebody else’s tablet instead, then a tablet sale has to count as a PC sale…because a tablet cost you a sale.

OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion: Will Adobe software work?

[Did you come here looking for Mavericks info? Go here instead: OS X 10.9 Mavericks: Will Adobe software work?]

Now that OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion is available from the Mac App Store for a mere USD$19.99, you’re probably wondering how well your Adobe software and other Mac apps will run on it. Below is a summary of various reports I’ve read on Adobe.com and around the web.

Adobe FAQ: Adobe had published a Mountain Lion FAQ when this post was originally written, but it seems to have been replaced with a new document after the Creative Cloud launch in May 2013. The former Mountain Lion FAQ said:

At this time, none of the CS5, 5.5 or CS6 applications require updates to be compatible with Mountain Lion. However, we do recommend that all users download the latest version of the Adobe Flash® Player runtime…In our testing we have found no significant issues with running CS5, 5.5, CS6 or Acrobat products with Mac OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion.

A post at the Photoshop.com blog does talk about Creative Suite versions and Lion, and says:

We have worked closely with Apple to review Adobe Creative Suite 5, 5.5 and CS6 editions and individual products for impact on reliability, performance and user experience. Earlier versions of Adobe Photoshop® (CS3 and CS4), Lightroom 4.1, 4.0 and earlier software were also tested and there are currently no known issues.

If your Adobe software is earlier than CS5, to run under Mountain Lion at all it must support Intel processors. After Apple switched to Intel-based Macs, Apple started phasing out support for running software based on the older PowerPC processors. Starting with Mac OS X 10.6 Snow Leopard, Mac OS X no longer runs PowerPC-based software. You’ll have to check compatibility for each of the Adobe applications you want to run; for example, Photoshop CS3 was the first version of Photoshop that ran on Intel-based Macs, so Mountain Lion will not allow Photoshop CS2 to run or even install. But even if your software older than CS5 runs on Mountain Lion, it may still have other issues because OS X has changed a lot since then.

Flash: Apple has changed how Adobe Flash Player is allowed to work in OS X. If you aren’t on the latest version of Flash, OS X may display a “Blocked Plug-in” message because Apple wants you to have the latest Flash security fixes. All you have to do is go into the Flash Player system preference and update it from there, or download the latest version of Flash from the link above and run the installer. Once that’s done, you’ll be able to view Flash content again.

Flash Player system preference

Premiere Pro: John Nack of Adobe, whose blog clued me in to the Adobe FAQ for Mountain Lion, reports that according to Adobe Premiere Pro team member Todd Kopriva:

Mountain Lion (Mac OS v10.8) upgrade improves performance and stability with Premiere Pro.

I’m guessing that this may be because of new code in Mountain Lion that Premiere Pro can take advantage of, because this isn’t the first time that happened: Premiere Pro also ran better after Apple added OpenCL improvements to the OS X 10.7.4 update.

Update: Adobe has posted a Premiere Pro tech note about AVCHD video issues related to a change Apple made in Mountain Lion.

OS X Gatekeeper and older Adobe software: Gatekeeper is a new security feature Apple added in Mountain Lion that helps make sure that you aren’t running malicious applications. In the Mountain Lion FAQ linked above, Adobe says:

Adobe has added the Gatekeeper signing requirements to our currently shipping applications. However, our legacy products created before Mountain Lion’s Gatekeeper feature was available are not signed. If you download one of those legacy (unsigned) applications, the Gatekeeper security feature may pop-up a security dialog…

Because Adobe only updated currently shipping software for Gatekeeper, if you run older versions of Adobe software you should review that section of the FAQ.

Full-screen mode on multiple monitors: Since Lion, when a Mac application goes into the OS-native full-screen mode, all other connected monitors go blank, displaying only the gray “linen” desktop so that you can’t see your other apps. No one is able to explain why this is a good thing. The only change in Mountain Lion is that you can display the active application on any connected display…but you still can’t see any other apps.

Adobe continues to use the traditional Adobe full screen modes in their apps such as Photoshop, Lightroom, and Illustrator. While some Mac users might complain that the Adobe way makes those apps “non-standard,” as a long-time Mac user trying to get things done with multiple apps on multiple monitors I find the Adobe full screen mode to be much more productive than the OS X implementation.

(If you want to turn on the Adobe full screen mode, in OS X or Windows press the F key…just the letter F, not a function key. That shortcut will cycle through the View > Screen Mode commands in Photoshop, the Window > Screen Mode commands in Lightroom, and the Change Screen Mode button in Illustrator. Adobe full screen mode is available in some, but not all, Adobe software.)

Note: In OS X 10.9 Mavericks, Apple is changing how full screen apps work on multiple monitors. This may solve the current issues.

10-bit video displays: Photoshop users and other graphics professionals have been interested in properly supporting 10-bits-per-channel video displays on Macs. (This isn’t about the file format, but the data path to the video monitor. Most displays support 8 bits per channel of color, but some high-end monitors support 10 bits per pixel for smoother gradations and better color accuracy.) To support 10-bit video requires an unbroken chain of components: The monitor, the graphics card, the cable, the application, and the operating system and its graphics driver software. If any part of the chain doesn’t support 10-bit video, it won’t work. And it might not work on the Mac any time soon, due to Apple’s continuing lack of 10-bit video APIs in OS X. The displays are ready, the graphics cards are ready, compatible DisplayPort cables are ready, Photoshop is ready…OS X remains the one broken link in the chain.

MacBook Pro with Retina Display [updated August 29, 2012]: Adobe has published a list of the first wave of their software that will support the high resolution of the MacBook Pro with Retina Display “over the next few months;” you can read about it in an Adobe blog post. Photoshop and Lightroom are both on that list. Presumably, the rest will follow a little later.

Update: Photoshop CS6 and Illustrator CS6 received Retina Display support in the update released December 11, 2012. Run Adobe Updater to get them (choose Help > Updates in the software).

To learn about OS X software compatibility of Mac software in general, a great resource is the Roaring Apps database. It lists OS X software and its reported compatibility with OS X 10.7 Lion and 10.8 Mountain Lion. For mission-critical software, you should also check each company’s support website to verify that it works.

If you’re updating from Mac OS X 10.6 or earlier, you may also want to read my blog post “Mac OS X 10.7 Lion: Will Adobe apps and other software work?”, so that you can also be up to date on the more dramatic changes that were introduced in Lion, such as the end of support for PowerPC-based software.

Wondering what Mountain Lion is all about? For the most in-depth Mountain Lion review you’ll probably find anywhere, read John Siracusa’s review at Ars Technica. As with every major release of OS X, Siracusa not only reviews the visible features that Apple promotes, but goes under the surface to explain changes to some of the underlying technologies in OS X and how they affect your Mac experience.

Does your Mac graphics card have enough video memory?

Graphics info from System Information utility

While many people pay attention to the speed of their computer’s CPU (central processing unit) and how much RAM (random-access memory) their applications need, the video card (also called the graphics card) is getting more attention as image-editing, video-editing, and game applications increasingly rely on it. In addition, today’s desktop monitors are larger than ever, and a new wave of high resolution monitors such as the Apple Retina display have a dramatically increased pixel density (pixels per inch resolution) that has also increased the number of screen pixels that need to be managed for a given screen size. All of these changes add to the work that a video card has to do.

But how do you know if your current video card has enough memory? This article covers:

  • Why is video RAM important?
  • How can you measure video RAM usage on a Mac?
  • Can you add more VRAM to a Mac?
  • How do you know how much VRAM is available for Macs with integrated graphics?
  • Is your Mac video hardware good enough for Adobe software? (with links to Adobe GPU FAQs)
  • Can I upgrade my Mac graphics capability with an external GPU?

I have updated this article since it was first written.

Why is video RAM important?

In the same way that a computer has a CPU (central processing unit) that interacts with RAM, a video card has a GPU (graphics processing unit) that works with VRAM (video random-access memory). The primary mission of the video card is to drive your displays and make graphics show up faster on those displays.

On low-end computers, the GPU is often on the same chipset as the CPU; this is called integrated graphics or integrated video. Any memory needed for graphics is taken from the main system RAM (see details about VRAM amounts on Macs with integrated video). On high-end computers the CPU and GPU are separate chipsets, each with their own memory; this is called discrete graphics or dedicated graphics. This design allows more powerful GPUs to be used, and with more VRAM. In a desktop computer, the GPU and VRAM are often on a completely separate card that can be easily replaced.

Today’s video cards are so powerful that many applications now use the GPU to get through photo and video processing and effects faster, which also frees up the CPU to process other things at the same time. The power of the GPU has helped make it possible for affordable computers to smoothly edit HD video, high-resolution stills, and 3D graphics and animation. For these reasons, you see video card specs creeping into the system requirements of more software such as Adobe Photoshop CS6, Adobe Bridge, and Adobe Premiere Pro. Photoshop CS6 requires 256MB of video RAM and prefers at least 512MB. Earlier versions of Photoshop limited GPU acceleration to document navigation (such as smoothly panning and zooming very large documents) and 3D, but Photoshop CS6 now uses the GPU to speed up additional features such as Liquify.

How can you measure video RAM usage on a Mac?

Many Mac users know that you can monitor a lot of system information using the Activity Monitor utility, and that the System Information utility can tell you which graphics card is inside your Mac. However, one statistic you can’t get out of either utility is the current memory usage of the video card. For that, you need to turn to non-Apple utilities.

iStat Menus

Starting with iStat Menus 3.1.6, you can see the memory usage of the video card in the menu for the CPU stats. You’ll find this in the GPU section, which is most of the way down the menu. It has a bar graph of the amount of VRAM being used and it names the graphics in use. For example, my MacBook Pro has both Intel HD Graphics 3000 (integrated with the CPU) and an AMD Radeon HD 6750M (discrete GPU), and in the figure below you can see that the discrete Radeon is currently active because at least one running application, such as Photoshop, caused discrete graphics to activate.

GPU readout from iStat Menus

iStat Menus is USD$16, so if you don’t want to pay that much take a look at the next option…

atMonitor

A free alternative to iStat Menus is atMonitor. It doesn’t display GPU information in the menu bar; only in a floating palette. You can optionally make the palette stay on top of all other applications, but that means it will permanently occupy part of your screen instead of staying out of the way on the menu bar. Still…it’s free. And it displays not only the VRAM in use, but GPU activity too. (Users on OS X 10.8 Mountain Lion or later: According to the atMonitor FAQ, “To make atMonitor compatible with MacOS 10.8 we have removed all GPU related features.” The atMonitor home page says “The last version of atMonitor to support GPU related features is atMonitor 2.7.1.”) [Update, July 2014: The atMonitor site appears to be offline, I don’t know why.]

GPU readout from atMonitor

But what does it all mean?

You can watch a graphics card utility such as iStat Menus or atMonitor as you use different applications or change your monitor settings. If the amount of VRAM in use is always well below 100% then your current video card is fine. But if the VRAM usage is consistently near 100%, your Mac might run Photoshop CS6 and professional imaging applications faster if you switch to a video card with more VRAM.

Some of the general factors that can increase VRAM usage are:

  • Larger displays and multiple displays. It takes more graphics card memory to display more pixels. Connecting an external monitor will use more VRAM because you increase the number of pixels to update. I believe that adding Spaces (OS X virtual desktops) has a similar effect on VRAM as adding displays.
  • Higher pixel density. Retina/HiDPI displays, including 4K/5K desktop displays, pack many more pixels into each square inch than a traditional display. That increased pixel density requires more VRAM.
  • Larger documents and multiple documents. The more graphics documents you have open, the more video RAM it takes to manipulate them.
  • 3D. Applications with 3D features commonly have them handled by the GPU and its VRAM. For example, if you use the 3D features in Photoshop or Adobe After Effects, the VRAM and 3D capabilities of your card matter more than if you only edit 2D images.
  • GPU-accelerated features. Certain features use the GPU to perform dramatically faster, such as Liquify in Photoshop CS6 or the Mercury Graphics Engine in Adobe Premiere Pro CS6. Features like these often need a specific GPU and a minimum amount of VRAM to achieve the speed boost, so double-check their graphics card requirements to make sure that the card in your computer qualifies.

Given those general guidelines, keep in mind that it’s possible for two Macs with the same specifications to have very different VRAM usage patterns if different features, document sizes, and display resolutions are used. Also, some recent MacBook Pros have two sets of graphics hardware that they automatically switch between: integrated graphics (the GPU is part of the CPU) for optimal battery life, and a dedicated video card with its own additional VRAM that kicks in when a specific application needs high-performance graphics.

If you know of any other Mac utilities that help monitor the graphics card, or if you want to suggest similar utilities for Windows, say so in the comments!

Can you add more VRAM to a Mac?

The ability to increase the VRAM in your Mac depends on whether it has discrete graphics or integrated graphics.

On Macs with discrete graphics, the only model that makes it possible to upgrade the amount of discrete VRAM is the aluminum Mac Pro tower desktop. In that type of Mac the video card is in a standard expansion slot so it can be easily replaced with a better one. In OS X 10.8.3 or later you can use a wide range of PC graphics cards in an aluminum Mac Pro; it used to be that you could only use graphics cards specifically flashed for Macs. One place to find a wide range of Mac Pro-compatible graphics cards is the online store macvidcards.com (that’s just a suggestion, as I have no experience or connection with that store).

Unfortunately, the graphics hardware in all other Macs—desktops and laptops—can’t be upgraded, either because they have graphics cards permanently soldered to the motherboard or because the graphics are completely integrated with the CPU, which also can’t be replaced. The graphics cards in the 2013 Mac Pro (the black cylinder) appear to be removable, but a better graphics card is not yet available for it.

On Macs with integrated graphics, because graphics hardware uses the same RAM as the system it may be possible to increase VRAM by adding more system RAM. But how it works depends on which Mac you have and which version of OS X it’s running, and to learn about that you want to read the next section.

How do you know how much VRAM is available for Macs with integrated graphics?

(I added this info in June 2013) When a computer has discrete graphics, the amount of VRAM it has is fixed and usually clearly stated. When a computer has integrated graphics it’s harder to tell how much VRAM it can use, partly because the graphics hardware doesn’t have its own memory. In addition, in some systems the amount of VRAM used by integrated graphics varies depending on how much RAM is installed. This has made the amount of VRAM in Macs with integrated video a bit of a mystery when you’re trying to figure out if you can run specific software that requires a minimum amount of VRAM. Now Apple has published a tech note detailing how much system RAM is allocated to VRAM for specific Mac models that have integrated video, and here is the link to that:

About integrated video on Intel-based Macs

That tech note contains several important lessons. First, for some Macs with integrated graphics, the only way to maximize the amount of VRAM is to upgrade the amount of system RAM. Note that in some models, VRAM will increase only up to an amount of RAM that’s lower than the maximum that Mac can take; beyond that point adding more RAM doesn’t increase VRAM any further.

Apple’s tech note also shows that that Macs with both integrated and discrete graphics hardware may have a lower VRAM amount available when using integrated graphics than Macs that have integrated graphics only. My take is that this is not a disadvantage at all, because on Macs with dual graphics hardware, OS X probably figures that if your graphics needs are getting that serious it might as well switch over to the faster discrete graphics processor that also has its own VRAM. Being able to use the VRAM of the discrete graphics hardware lets OS X release the RAM that was being used as VRAM, so more RAM becomes available to you.

The end of the Apple tech note also describes the graphics performance benefits of making sure you install matched pairs of RAM modules.

[Note (October 22, 2013): OS X 10.9 Mavericks improves how Macs work with integrated graphics. It can dynamically adjust the amount of RAM allocated to VRAM to respond to changing application requirements, including the ability to release VRAM back to RAM when it isn’t needed for graphics. Also, you no longer necessarily need discrete graphics hardware to use OpenCL graphics acceleration, because Mavericks can run OpenCL on Intel HD Graphics 4000 or better. (Some applications may have more stringent requirements; for example, Adobe Premiere Pro CC 2014 requires Intel Iris graphics or better for OpenCL acceleration on integrated graphics.) For more details about all of these improvements, read the excellent article OS X 10.9 Mavericks: The Ars Technica Review by John Siracusa.

Is your Mac video hardware good enough for Adobe software?

Adobe has been increasing its use of graphics hardware to help accelerate its software. Here are links to graphics requirements for some Adobe applications:

[October 26, 2012 Photoshop CS6 update: If you use 3D features and are a Creative Cloud member, those features will require 512MB of VRAM on the graphics card in future versions of Photoshop. For details, see: Heads Up: Photoshop System Requirement Changes]

If you’re trying to decide on graphics options for your Mac, keep in mind that you don’t necessarily need expensive high-end graphics. For photography and design in Adobe applications, the amount of video RAM is more important than the sheer power of the video card, and much less graphics power is needed than for serious gaming. But the more you edit video or use 3D, the more you may need a video card with additional processing power. Note that Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC/6 uses GPU acceleration for the Develop module only, where in my experience it makes a big difference, but for now the rest of Lightroom is more CPU-based.

In older versions of Adobe software, GPU acceleration largely focused on the CUDA technology in NVIDIA graphics hardware. Recent versions of most GPU-accelerated Adobe applications support OpenCL technology, which has vastly expanded the range of supported graphics hardware that Adobe software can use for GPU acceleration.

One nice side effect of Adobe adding OpenCL support is that in many cases GPU acceleration no longer requires discrete graphics. The Intel Iris and Iris Pro integrated graphics now found in much of the Mac product line now qualifies for GPU acceleration in many applications including Adobe Premiere Pro. If you are a serious video professional NVIDIA CUDA acceleration still provides a bigger boost than OpenCL, especially for 3D work in Adobe After Effects. Adobe has also been improving its support of the AMD FirePro graphics cards available for the 2013 Mac Pro (the black cylinder).

Can I upgrade my Mac with an external GPU?

[Added April 2017] With the high bandwidth available through Thunderbolt 3, it’s become possible to create a graphics upgrade solution involving a desktop-class video card in an external chassis connected to a PC or Mac with a Thunderbolt cable. Many Mac users wonder whether it’s possible to upgrade their Mac’s graphics capabilities this way.

Technically, it is possible. Practically, it’s not that simple.

The Mac system does not officially support external GPU solutions, so current solutions tend to require driver software that works around Mac system limitations and security. This also means the driver software is at risk of breaking when Apple updates macOS.

The cost of currently available solutions is not that cheap after you factor in the cost of the chassis hardware and the video card you want to put into it.

The promise of external GPUs appeals very much to owners of older Macs. However, those are the Macs least able to use an external GPU. Graphics processors move so much data that external GPUs are really built for Thunderbolt 3 bandwidth, especially when driving 4K+ displays. Older Macs only have Thunderbolt 1 or 2, which may not be able to move the required amount of data fast enough. A GPU only helps if the time needed to get the data out to the GPU and back, plus processing time, is less than the time it would have taken to process the data without the GPU. There are some external GPU systems that advertise compatibility with older Macs going back a few years, but their performance won’t be as high as on Macs with Thunderbolt 3.

AppleInsider has a good article about Mac external GPUs: Thunderbolt 3-Equipped MacBook Pro Can Use External GPUs, But At a Cost. While they do document some impressive performance gains, some of the subheadings in the article are “The literal price you pay is steep,” “The procedure is not for the timid,” and “Yet more potential pitfalls await!”

So practically, it’s best for most Mac users to wait until simpler and less expensive solutions are available—especially if Apple provides an approved path to external GPUs in a future version of macOS. For now, you can keep track of how well the current solutions work by monitoring Mac enthusiast web sites. One site is long-time Mac performance test site Bare Feats, which has tested a number of external GPUs lately.