Many people were sceptical when Apple first talked about transitioning all their devices to their native Apple silicon. Not of Apple’s ability to create and execute their own silicon, which they had already showcased through their smartphone chipset, but rather about Apple’s claims that it will transition even desktop-level devices to the same platform. After all, Apple has been notorious for ignoring its desktop products in favour of its laptop lineup and mobile devices, which make up most of its sales. So much so that it has generally taken them 6-7 years on average before they even get around to refreshing their existing models, let alone introduce a whole new category.
So, it shouldn’t be surprising that people were happily surprised when Apple suddenly decided to introduce the Mac Studio for the prosumer segment earlier this year. Mac Studio is the realisation of a long-held dream of many Apple enthusiasts who believed that the Mac Mini had a lot of potential as a portable workhorse platform, as long as it got enough power to handle all sorts of taxing workloads. By expanding on the design while keeping the same footprint, Apple has created an entirely new product that still greatly resembles their initial experiment with portable desktops. So, let us take a closer look at it to see if they successfully accomplished this goal.
Design & Build Quality
Staying true to typical Apple fashion, the Mac Studio features a sleek minimalist design that is made from a single aluminium extrusion. The square body looks like two Mac Mini’s stacked on top of each other, and with a compact footprint of just 7.7 inches and a height of 3.7 inches, that assumption isn’t too far off.
Over the years, Apple has really refined their manufacturing process, so the finish of the surface is exceptional, all the components fit precisely, and even the rubber seals and hidden fasteners are made from really good quality materials. This means that even with the most careless of users, the device should last for years to come, as long as you don’t need to get it opened for serious repairs.
Even if you open it up, you will still see the same attention to detail paid to all individual components, which are stacked on top of a round motherboard that rests at the bottom of the device. This houses the CPU, GPU, and even the unified memory, which has been soldered to the board just like everything else. This makes it a one-of-a-kind SOC, which was purpose-built to serve the overall design and aesthetic, even if it means giving up upgradability.
While Apple does call it a ‘modular’ device, considering that you can pair it with any set of third-party peripherals. Chances are that if you are someone who can afford this setup, you will also go with the recommended Pro Display XDR and other branded devices. In addition to these secondary devices, Apple gives you two different options in terms of the Mac Studio itself; with one model featuring the familiar M1 Max chip, and an even more upgraded version, with the certainly superior M1 Ultra.
We specifically mentioned the Ultra variant in this section because the inclusion of the more powerful chipset also requires better thermal management. This is why the Ultra model is also noticeably heavier, weighing 3.6kg compared to the M1 Max’s 2.7kg. This added weight comes from a larger copper thermal module which is significantly more efficient in regards to cooling than the M1 Max, which uses a cheaper and lighter aluminium heatsink. Both models feature double-sided blowers that sit on top of these heat-syncs and help disperse the heat to the atmosphere, albeit in a pretty quiet and seamless manner.
Performance & Connectivity
Even though the design hasn’t changed much compared to the Mac Mini, you can undoubtedly notice an exponential improvement in the performance department. Even the base M1 Max is a formidable chipset, with a 10-Core CPU, 24-Core GPU, and a dedicated 16-Core Neural Engine for handling all sorts of AI-enhanced workloads. You can pair that up with up to 32GB of unified memory and 512GB SSD storage, both of which aren’t user replaceable or upgradeable. Therefore, we would suggest maxing out all these components at the time of purchase for some sort of future-proofing.
While this setup is enough to power most average workflows, some users need much more energy and performance to handle complex 3D renderings and resource-intensive code compilations. Keeping those people in mind, Apple had initially added a special ‘UltraFusion’ connector to their M1 architecture, which would easily allow them to stack multiple chips together to create a more robust computing solution.
The result of this experiment is the M1 Ultra, which is essentially two M1 Max chips stitched together on a physical level to deliver seamless connectivity. This means that the computer itself sees the M1 Ultra as a single chipset, with a 20-Core CPU, 48-Core GPU, and a 32-Core Neural Engine. Even the unified memory and SSD storage have been doubled, with options for 64GB of memory and 1TB of storage. This easily makes it the most powerful offering from the Apple silicon lineup, even though we are sure that M2 versions of the same are just around the corner, waiting to displace them from the throne.
Still, in this particular version, the company has tried their best to give users exactly what they want, as long as it is within the restrictions of the Apple ecosystem. One manifestation of this aesthetic means that you get a limited IO, with 4 Thunderbolt-4 ports, 2 USB-A ports, 1 HDMI port, a 10Gb Ethernet port, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. You also get 2 USB-C ports and an SDXC card slot in the front, but we thought to mention them separately, as, in the M1 Ultra version, these get replaced with 2 Thunderbolt-4 ports instead, for even better connectivity. While this may not seem like nearly enough connectivity when compared to prosumer models in the PC segment, it is still the most Apple has ever given before, and most users will be quite satisfied with what is on offer.
On paper, this certainly makes the overall package quite appealing for users looking to upgrade from their old Mac Mini’s or even Mac Pro’s and want something that will offer them similar, if not better, performance in a compact form factor. In fact, Apple claims that the setup is almost 50% faster than the MacBook Pro 13-inch with an M1 chip and offers 3.4 faster graphics than the most powerful iMac. It’s also apparently 80% faster than a Mac Pro with a 28-core Intel Xeon processor and can support up to 18 8K ProRes video streams.
While this sounds quite impressive, it also showcases the limitations of Apple’s focus, which remains strictly on editing and artistic work instead of heavy-duty gaming and other more taxing applications. Only time will tell if the software optimizations placed on top of this hardware will be enough to cover the gap between Apple’s latest venture into the pro segment and what is already on offer from established industry players like Intel, AMD, NVIDIA, and the thousands of manufacturers that support them.