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Apple Mac Mini (2023) vs Mac Studio: Is M2 really better than M1?

Apple's new $600 Mac Mini likely generated many sideways glances at the $2,000+ M1 Mac Studio. But, this seeming cannibalism of the Mac Studio is not as one-sided as it seems. Let me explain.
Written by Michael Gariffo, Staff Writer on
Reviewed by June Wan
An M2 Mac Mini and M1-series Mac Studio in a vs graphic
Image: Apple

Apple's M1 chip was a game changer when it launched, offering impressive performance for a relatively inexpensive asking price, especially in the case of the Mac Mini. A little over two years later, the company has finally refreshed the Mac Mini line with its updated M2 and M2 Pro chips. Of course, this means the latest Mini is once again capable of new tasks it couldn't handle before, and able to handle its existing ones faster than ever. So, where does this leave the already somewhat niche Mac Studio that debuted between the M1 and M2 generations of Mac Mini?

More: Apple's new Mac Mini with M2 is faster, more capable, and somehow cheaper

The far more expensive unit arrived with a starting price of $2,000 and a choice between M1 Max or M1 Ultra chips. Instinctually, these older model chips might seem like they should be inferior to the second-gen M2 and M2 Pro chips. However, the reality is far more complex and well worth understanding before you decide which of these devices might best suit your specific needs. 

Below I've included three reasons why each one could be the best fit for the right user. By the end, you should have a much clearer picture of why the Mac Studio still has a place in this world, as well as why the M2 Mac Mini is a bigger bargain than ever.

Specifications

Mac Mini

Mac Studio

Base chip options

M2 (8-core CPU, 10-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine) or M2 Pro (10-core CPU , 16-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine )

M1 Max (10-core CPU, 24-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine) or M1 Ultra (20-core CPU, 48-core GPU, 32-core Neural Engine)

RAM options

8-24GB (M2 models) or 16-32GB (M2 Pro model)

32-64GB (M1 Max model) or 64-128GB (M1 Ultra model)

Storage options

256GB-2TB (M2 models) or 512GB-8TB (M2 Pro model)

512GB-8TB (M1 Max model) or 1-8TB (M1 Ultra model)

Ports2x Thunderbolt 4, 2x USB-A, 1x HDMI, 1x Gigabit Ethernet, headphone jackFront: 2x USB-C or 2x Thunderbolt 4 (M1 Ultra model) and 1x SDXC card reader | Rear: 4x Thunderbolt 4, 2x USB-A, 1x HDMI, 1x 10Gb Ethernet port, headphone jack
Supported displays2 (1x Thunderbolt, 1x HDMI) on M2 models, 3 (2x Thunderbolt, 1x HDMI) on M2 Pro models5 (4x Thunderbolt, 1x HDMI)
Wireless connectivity Wi-Fi 6E, Bluetooth 5.3
Wi-Fi 6, Bluetooth 5.0
Dimensions1.41 x 7.75 x 7.75 inches (3.58 x 19.7 x 19.7 cm)3.7 x 7.7 x 7.7 inches (9.5 x 19.7 x 19.7 cm)

Weight

M2: 2.6lbs | M2 Pro: 2.8lbs

M1 Max: 5.9lbs | M1 Ultra: 7.9lbs

Maximum power draw

M2: 150W | M2 Pro: 185W

All models: 370W

PriceStarting at $599
Starting at $1,999

You should buy Apple's Mac Mini (M2) if...

Apple's Mac Mini on a table.

The M2 Mac Mini is pretty much physically identical to its M1 predecessor, at least on the outside.

CNET

1. You want a home computer that just works

Realistically, the older M1 Mac Mini remains more powerful than most home users really need. I personally use an M1 Mac Mini for some heavy-duty photo editing and mid-range video editing without ever feeling constrained. Now, with the 20% faster (according to Apple) M2, or 12-core M2 Pro at its heart, the Mac Mini has even more headroom for you to take on projects that would bog down many other home PCs. There's nothing that the average student, professional, or even most content creators could need that this machine won't be able to handle.

2. You're on any kind of budget

The M2 Mac Mini actually dropped below its M1 predecessor's starting price, with its base model now selling for $600. For this, you get an M2 model with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. If that's a bit too restrictive, the 512GB model is only $200 more. Even the top-end M2 Pro model remains just over half the cost of the Mac Studio's $2,000 base price

Sure, you can kit out an M2 Pro Mac Mini with absurd specs to bring its price all the way up to $4,500. But, chances are you'd have opted for a Mac Studio long before reaching that point.

More: How to preorder Apple's new Mac Mini and skip the store line

3. You only need two (or three) displays

One of the few complaints about the M1 Mac Mini at launch was the fact that it only supported two displays (one via Thunderbolt 4 and one via HDMI), despite older Intel-based models having supported more. It's an issue that I've personally tried to help readers find a workaround for. Unfortunately, Apple retained that same two-display limitation for the M2 Mac Mini. If you opt for the M2 Pro model, that number rises to three (with an extra Thunderbolt 4 display supported). It's rare that home users need more than a triple-monitor setup, but it's worth noting, especially when two of those three displays will need to support Thunderbolt input.

You should buy Apple's Mac Studio if...

Person browsing a triple-monitor setup powered by the Mac Studio.

As its name would suggest, the Mac Studio was very much designed for the creative professional.

Apple

1. You want the fastest Apple silicon desktop available

Despite the M2 being considered a generation ahead of M1 models, the fastest SoC (System on Chip) Apple currently offers in a desktop remains its M1 Ultra. That will be true, at least, until the just-announced M2 Max chip makes its way into a desktop, if not longer. The dominance of the M1 Ultra is due in large part to the fact that the SoC is essentially two M1 Max chips operating in parallel. While it doesn't exactly mean twice the performance of the M1 Max, it does come close enough that it can go toe to toe with any other chip Apple or almost anyone else for that matter offers. We'll have to wait for the full benchmarks of the M2 Max to arrive before we know if it can dethrone the M1 Ultra.

Review: Apple Mac Studio with M1 Ultra: A workstation-class upgrade Mac users

2. You need ports, lots of 'em

The Mac Mini's available ports are probably fine for most users, and even some professionals and creatives. However, any content creator could tell you how rapidly ports can fill up when you're connecting things like mics, cameras, external storage, A/V capture devices, multiple displays, control surfaces, mice, keyboards and the bevy of other peripherals involved in higher-end media production. 

This kind of demand will quickly outstrip the two USB-A and two Thunderbolt 4 ports on the Mini. Sure, you could opt for various docks, hubs, and the like, but for the best performance and stability, you'll want a system that can natively handle all of your hardware. The Mac Studio's vast array of I/O options can do just that. 

3. You need to power more than three displays

This one might be a bit obvious given the #3 entry above, but if you want to power more than three displays, you'll have to opt for the Mac Studio. Both the M1 Max and M1 Ultra model support five displays: four via Thunderbolt and one via HDMI. This should be more than enough for even the most demanding creative, obsessive day trader, or stereotypical movie hacker (though they'd probably be running Linux or something). The M1 Ultra version of the Mac Studio even supports outputting two displays via its front-facing Thunderbolt 4 ports.

Alternatives to consider

Open to other desktop PC prospects? Consider these ZDNET-recommended devices:

While most retailers are still selling the M1 Mac Mini for full price, we're about to enter one of those short-term sweet spots when stores clear out their previous-gen Apple products to make room for a newer model. If you want an even cheaper Mac Mini, and you know the M1 is powerful enough for your needs, there's a good chance you'll be able to score a bargain in the coming weeks. Keep a close eye on retailers like Best Buy, Amazon, Walmart, and others.

The 14-inch M2 Pro version of the MacBook Pro begins at the same price as the Mac Studio, supports two external displays, and has a solid selection of ports. Did I mention it's also a laptop? For the right user, the differences in power might be completely overcome by the flexibility and portability of this model. If you need something beefier, the M2 Max version begins at $3,100 and supports four external displays and performance that could compete with the M1 Ultra when benchmarks come in.

Apple doesn't have a monopoly on small form-factor PCs. So, if you're looking for something of a similar size that's equally capable, if not necessarily quite as fast, Intel's 12th-gen NUC line can do the job. It may not be able to match the M2 Mac Mini's raw power, but its port selection and versatility could go toe to toe with the Mac Studio itself.

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