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I bought a Mac Studio: Here are the specs I chose and why

It's time once again for me to upgrade my main computer. Here's my thinking process on why I chose the machine I did.
Apple Mac Studio neural engine
Image: Cliff Joseph/ZDNET

Here's an interesting observation. Back before I did most of my daily work on Macs, I upgraded my main workhorse PC just about every 18 months. For most of the time I used Intel Macs, my typical length of use was between 7.6 and 9.9 years in service. 

But I just upgraded from the M1 MacBook Air I started using back in June of 2021. 

That's 17 months, and the fastest turn on my daily driver Mac in close to a decade.

Let's talk for a minute about that. My wife and I work from home. We have since way before the pandemic

As such, everything we need to do our jobs, including facilities most often found in a company's office, have to be available in our house. 

Also: Don't waste your money on these Apple products

That includes, especially, computing resources ranging from our desktop machines to a wide range of servers.

Understanding my workload

I put in a tremendous number of working hours each week. My daily driver desktop machine is the device that helps me get it all done. I do switch off to other machines depending on my workflow, but I always come back to the main desktop. My choice of desktop machine can either take hours off of my week's workload -- or add them. Over the years, whenever I've found my daily driver starting to slow me down and increase frustration, I've upgraded.

Strictly speaking, this upgrade isn't the fault of the M1 MacBook Air. It's a sweet little machine. But with a maximum of 16GB RAM and equipped with only 1TB of Apple's notoriously fast on-board flash storage, it was starting to slow me down. That's even with the relatively fast base M1 chip at the heart of it all.

Review: M1 MacBook Air long-term: A year later, here's what I wish I'd known

There's one more thing you need to know about before I talk about the machine I just bought: My workloads. Here's what my main machine is expected to do:

  • Produce video: I edit with Apple's Final Cut Pro. In fact, Final Cut is the primary reason I use Macs. I used to use Adobe's Premiere Pro on Windows, but it gave me such headaches that I switched to Final Cut. While Premiere Pro has improved tremendously in the past few years, I now have Final Cut muscle memory, so I'm sticking with it. Video editing requires a lot of storage, a lot of RAM, and a lot of GPU and CPU oomph.
  • Code: I do a lot of coding and run my entire development stack on this machine. That includes the virtual machines used to simulate the destination servers. That takes a relatively hefty RAM contribution and while 16GB was tolerable, it was tight.
  • Support servers: I manage ten actively running websites, and each of these requires some level of attention. Server management typically doesn't put too much of a load on my main desktop (it's mostly about moving files and choosing configurations), but I sometimes simulate a live server in a local container on my desktop.
  • 3D design: 3D modeling (I use Fusion 360, SketchUp, and Tinkercad, primarily) takes CPU, GPU and RAM resources. The more, the merrier.
  • Write for ZDNET: This mostly consists of lots and lots of email, writing in Notion (which is what I'm doing right now), and a lot of image editing. I also produce videos for ZDNET, and some of the products I review require separate machines or VMs for testing. But mostly, my writing work requires a fast browser and Photoshop.
  • General business management: Can you say Excel? Sure. I knew you could.

Of the six classes of work described above, three (server support, article writing, and general business management) could be handled just fine and probably forever with the MacBook Air. But video production, coding, and 3D design would benefit from an upgrade. It's the workload for video production, though, that triggered my decision to upgrade. Videos are just taking too long to edit and render.

Also: Apple's worst product has now become one of its best

For the record, that little M1 MacBook Air isn't going to go to waste. I still need a laptop for when I'm out and about, for use in the Fab Lab and for other projects, and if I want to work when away from my desk. I do have an old 2015 MacBook Pro, but it's not getting OS upgrades anymore. This way, I have a current M1 MacBook Air to do what MacBook Airs do best: Move around and just work.

Remember: My workload is likely to be different from yours. Choosing a computer is a very personal decision and how you're going to use it is the number one factor in determining what you buy. This article is just showing you my process, so you can see how I think about making these decisions.

Choosing a machine

I originally thought I would upgrade the M1 MacBook Air with a 14-inch or 16-inch MacBook Pro. Yes, I know there are M2 MacBook Airs now, but the bigger M1 chips are still faster than the base M2.

Also: Apple Silicon, Rosetta, M1, M2, SoC: Why these terms matter to every computer buyer

If I wanted more CPU and GPU performance, as well as more system memory, moving from the M1 to the M1 Pro, M1 Max, or double-chip M1 Ultra would be the way to go.

Here, it came down mostly to price. An equivalently equipped 14- or 16-inch MacBook Pro is about a thousand dollars more than a Mac Studio. That added cost is for the beautiful screen on the MacBook Pro.

But I didn't need the MacBook Pro's screen. In fact, I probably wasn't going to ever use it. I work mostly on a 32-inch monitor with a side monitor or two. If I bought the MacBook Pro, I'd be living off the external video, not the internal screen.

So it made sense to save the thousand bucks and look more seriously at the Mac Studio. As a bonus, the Mac Studio has almost three times as many ports as the MacBook Pro.

But with the Mac Studio, I also had two main choices. Did I go with the M1 Max or the M1 Ultra?

Let me bottom-line that decision for you: The M1 Ultra is almost exactly twice the performance of the M1 Max for most workloads. It's also $2,000 more. Here's the interesting thing, though. For video editing, testing has shown that the M1 Ultra didn't do much to outperform the M1 Max.

Review: Apple Mac Studio with M1 Ultra

Given that my primary reason for upgrading from the base M1 MacBook Air was video editing performance, it didn't seem to make much sense to add a whopping $2,000 to my cost for something where I wouldn't see much return.

I did think about buying the M1 Ultra model simply to future proof the machine for a few more years. But I would have spent so much more that, from a pure cost perspective, it will probably make more sense to upgrade again in a few years and save the $2,000 now.

My configuration

I started with the base M1 Max configuration, which is $1,999. The machine I bought consists of the following:

  • Chip: I paid $200 to go from the base Apple M1 Max with 10-core CPU, 24-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine to one with a 32-core GPU. Adding 25% more GPU will prove helpful for some of the work I do.
  • RAM: The M1 Max Mac Studio is offered in 32GB or 64GB RAM (the Ultra allows you to go to 128GB). I paid an extra $400 to get the 64GB version. Keep in mind that this is all part of the system on a chip, so there's no aftermarket upgrading for memory.
  • Storage: This is where I agonized. Apple charges an egregious amount compared to the rest of the industry for storage. But internal system Apple storage is insanely fast. I couldn't bring myself to add $2,400 to my cost to go to 8TB, but I did want a fair amount of internal storage. So I added on $1,200 to bring my machine to 4TB. I can always add an external SSD to one of the Thunderbolt ports.

That's it. It brought my spend to $3,799. Adding three years of AppleCare+ (worth it given how costly this machine is) added another $169, bringing my total to a whopping $3,968.

Also: Mac Studio vs Mac Pro vs Mac Mini: How to choose

It's far from cheap, but I used my Apple card to get 0% financing, and hopefully the added performance will give me enough extra time that it pays for itself.

Stay tuned. I'll let you know about that in two years or so. Right now, I'm looking forward to the new machine arriving. It's due to be here on Friday.

What's your daily driver? Do you have a Mac Studio? Let us know in the comments below.

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