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On March 8, 2022, the Mac extreme pro experience changed, possibly forever. And, if Apple's performance numbers for the new M1 Ultra processor are to be believed, that's not hyperbole. The Mac Studio will be truly transformational.
I'm talking about extreme pro users here. I'm not just talking about folks who use Macs for work. (I've been writing about the extreme pro experience since at least 2018.)
Who are these extreme pro users? I'm looking at music producers, video editors, photo editors, programmers, AR and ML designers, scientists, 3D modelers, and anyone else who needs a ton of computing power and flexibility.
Until now, if you needed absolutely extreme Mac performance, you bought a Mac Pro. The still-Intel-based platform was redesigned in 2019; the still-Intel based platform provided the raw power extreme pros needed. That power came at a (big) price: the cheapest Mac Pro is $6,000. Fully equipped, it tops out at a whopping $52,000.
Now, as I've said before, even though that price is enough to make some of us just want to faint, certain high-end applications (like making top-tier movies) do justify the price.
But the Mac Studio starts at a very-affordable-for-extreme-pros price of $2,000 and tops out (with a 20-core CPU, 64-core GPU, 32-core Neural Engine, 128GB RAM, and 8TB flash storage) at $8,000.
$8,000 vs $52,000 is a heck of a difference. Now, to be fair, the older Intel-based Mac Pro can support 768GB of RAM, which the Mac Studio can't. But the fact that the Mac Studio eclipses the Mac Pro's performance at less than a sixth of the price is game-changing.
The Mac Studio is also much smaller. The 2019 Mac Pro takes up 1.832 cubic feet in terms of physical volume. The new Mac Studio takes up 0.115 cubic feet. That's one-fifteenth the physical volume. In terms of footprint, the 2019 Mac Pro is 17.7 inches deep by 8.5 inches wide. The new Mac Studio is 7.7 inches square.
All of this is made possible by Apple's move to its own silicon in its M1 series of chips. Apple proved its ability to scale chip size with last year's introduction of the M1 Pro and M1 Max. With the announcement of the M1 Ultra, Apple is showing off its interposer skills -- the ability to fuse chips together inside the package to create even more powerful systems on a chip.
But this is only the first generation of Apple's in-house Mac chip development. It's hard to imagine just how powerful machines will become once they're able to reduce the die size even more. In fact, in Apple's announcement yesterday, they promised a new Mac Pro -- as a teaser for a different event.
So while the Mac Studio is a complete game-changer for the extreme pro, we can expect a lot more top-end performance coming down the road.
First look: Apple 'Peek Performance' event in pictures
But what about the Mac mini?
The Mac Studio resembles a Mac mini with a taller case. The 7.7-inch square footprint is identical to the Mac mini footprint, but it's 2.5 times taller. All that extra height accommodates the Mac Studio's fans and cooling system.
There are some heat management details worthy of discussion. To do that, let's take a moment to revisit the very last Intel-based Mac mini (which Apple is still selling). I wrote about that Mac mini last year. We own four M1 Mac minis, and an Intel Mac mini and both variants are beasts.
The Intel version has more ports than the M1 version. As we discussed in the past, the base M1 was rather limited in the number of ports it supported. The new Mac Studio overcomes that, providing all the ports the Intel Mac mini offered and then some.
Because Apple Silicon is all based on SoC architecture, it's the chip that determines the machine's capabilities. Without a doubt, there's a huge jump from the base M1 chip of the currently shipping M1 Mac mini all the way to the M1 Ultra of the Mac Studio.
I have to admit I was surprised not to see a Mac mini upgrade with the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. Given that they were able to squeeze those chips into the super-svelte MacBook Pro, there didn't seem to be any reason to think Apple wouldn't be able to put either an M1 Pro or M1 Max into a Mac mini case. In fact, earlier this month, YouTuber Snazzy Labs proved that the M1 Mac mini logic board was small enough for them to be able to actually hack it into a half-size case.
I can't imagine it was a heat/fan issue that kept the mid-range M1 processors from finding a home inside a Mac mini. Again, Apple managed to cool those same processors inside the MacBook Pro, and there's far less room for airflow inside that laptop than there is in the much bigger Mac mini internal cavity.
It is, however, more than possible that the M1 Ultra needs a lot of cooling. A tremendous amount is going on inside that chip, and given that it's really two chips connected with an interposer layer, it's possible that the interposer gets real hot. That would cause the massive cooling needs to require the much taller case of the Mac Studio.
I can definitely imagine how this might have gone down in a product management meeting:
Manufacturing manager: Just how many SKUs do we really need? Each one adds a lot of complexity.
Marketing manager: Well, a lot of users are perfectly satisfied with the Mac mini as it is. Some folks want more power and RAM, but it's a much smaller subset of users. And there aren't that many Mac mini users anyway.
Manufacturing manager:Do we really need to put out an M1 Pro-based machine? The power Mac mini users will be just as happy (or happier) with the M1 Max. They're not as much price-sensitive as needing more power.
Marketing Manager:We need to scale up the case to handle M1 Ultraheat dissipation. We've already decided we're going to give that a new brand, the Mac Studio. What if we don't reengineer the Mac mini until we get a new processor generation and put the M1 Max into the Studio's case? It never hurts to have a little extra heat management, and most extreme users won't care if it's a thicker box. And it'll look like a much beefier computer.
The Mac mini has long been an Apple cash cow. Leaving that production to run unmodified is good product management. Then, Apple can focus on the new sizzle, the Mac Studio, and get that ramped up and into production. Most Mac mini users (like me) won't complain because the Mac Studio checks off all the same boxes (and more) than the Mac mini, so it's not like we're being left with no solution to our functional needs.
The only folks who might be disturbed are the very small subset of users who gang rackmount Mac minis. And, frankly, for the performance gains, I'm sure those folks wouldn't argue too strenuously over slightly reengineering their racks to allow for a double-high Mac mini.
Assuming Apple can deliver a reliable machine in volume, the Mac Studio is a home run. It's priced right. It's more than powerful enough, with enough high-end capacity that most extreme pros won't bang their head on a performance or capacity ceiling.
The Mac Studio offers Mac Pro performance at less than we paid earlier this year for a well-equipped iPad Pro. It opens doors to so many more people who couldn't otherwise afford a Mac Pro but could benefit from the creativity and productivity boost Mac Pro performance provides. We're going to see some amazing projects coming out of this technology.
All told, this is a solid solution that could well have been announced as the new Mac Pro. But the fact that Apple is still planning to come out with a real Mac Pro based on Apple Silicon bodes quite well for extreme pro users.
What about you? Are you going to rush out and buy a Mac Studio? Had I not just done a full upgrade sweep, I would have. But I'll tell you this: it's definitely the next Mac I'll be buying when I need to upgrade. Let us know your plans for the Mac Studio and the rest of the Mac line in the comments below.