Apple Mac Studio with M1 Ultra Review: Size doesn’t matter
That’s the thing that makes the Mac Studio truly special. Not only is it powerful, but it comes in a package that simply wasn’t possible in the past. I recently reviewed the Intel NUC 12 Extreme, and that’s as small of a package that you can get while packing a full-powered Intel CPU and proper dedicated graphics. The Mac Studio is still way smaller, small enough to sit on your desk under your monitor.
The biggest drawback continues to be the lack of proper Windows support. You can run Windows on ARM through virtualization in Parallels, but it’s not the same as running it natively in Boot Camp on an Intel Mac. I would have loved to see how games like Forza Horizon 5 perform on the M1 Ultra, but that’s still not possible.
But if you’re doing creative work like editing 8K video, or frankly anything that can take advantage of multithreaded processing, you can’t beat this. And with all of that power, it just sits on your desk quietly (that’s right; I said quietly) in the background.
I also want to be clear that for probably about 99% of users, the Mac Mini is totally capable of fulfilling all of your needs. This is for creators that need a lot of resources for things like editing high-resolution video, professionals that need multithreaded processing for 3D rendering, or something along those lines.
Starting at $1,999, however, it is the least expensive option for getting your hands on a PC with an M1 Max processor. And if you need more, there’s always the M1 Ultra.
Navigate this review:
- Mac Studio pricing and availability
- Mac Studio specs
- Design: The Mac Studio is small enough to fit under a monitor
- Performance: The M1 Ultra is beastly, but only in certain ways, and you’ll know if you need it
- Should you buy a Mac Studio?
Mac Studio pricing and availability
- When purchasing a Mac Studio, the M1 Max model starts at $1,999 and the M1 Ultra model starts at $3,999.
- Most people do not need an M1 Ultra chipset.
Apple’s Mac Studio was launched at an event on March 8, and it was made available on March 18. While there is a wide array of configurations to choose from, there are two key options, the M1 Max chipset and the M1 Ultra.
Prior to the launch of the Mac Studio, we had only seen the M1 Max in MacBook Pro laptops. It’s super high-end, and it’s a beast. But if you’re in the very rare camp of the M1 Max not being enough of a beast for you, there’s the M1 Ultra. The M1 Ultra is basically two M1 Max chipsets glued together, using a process that Apple calls UltraFusion.
Obviously, the M1 Ultra is way more powerful than the M1 Max, but it’s also unnecessary for the vast majority of users. It also costs twice as much. The M1 Max model starts at $1,999, making it the cheapest option for any M1 Max PC, while the M1 Ultra model of the Mac Studio starts at $3,999.
Performance and price are not where the differences end either. The M1 Ultra model weighs two pounds more, thanks to a copper heat module, while the M1 Max model uses a regular aluminum heatsink.
The key here is understanding your own needs. Basically, if you don’t already know that you need an M1 Ultra, you can comfortably pick up an M1 Max and save yourself a couple of thousand dollars.
Mac Studio specs
|Processor||Apple M1 Ultra chip
20-core CPU with 16 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores
|Memory||64GB unified memory|
|Ports||Four Thunderbolt 4 ports with support for:
Thunderbolt 4 (up to 40Gb/s)
On front (M1 Ultra):
Two Thunderbolt 4 ports (up to 40Gb/s)
|Video Support||Simultaneously supports up to five displays:
Support for up to four Pro Display XDRs (6K resolution at 60Hz and over a billion colors) over USB-C and one 4K display (4K resolution at 60Hz and over a billion colors) over HDMI
Native DisplayPort output over USB‑C
Support for one display with up to 4K resolution at 60Hz
3.5 mm headphone jack with advanced support for high-impedance headphones
HDMI port supports multichannel audio output
802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 wireless networking
Bluetooth 5.0 wireless technology
10Gb Ethernet (Nbase-T Ethernet with support for 1Gb, 2.5Gb, 5Gb, and 10Gb Ethernet using RJ-45 connector)
|Size||Height: 3.7 inches (9.5 cm)
Width: 7.7 inches (19.7 cm)
Depth: 7.7 inches (19.7 cm)
Weight (M1 Ultra): 7.9 pounds (3.6 kg)
|Electrical and operating requirements||Line voltage: 100–240V AC
Frequency: 50Hz to 60Hz, single phase
Maximum continuous power: 370W
Operating temperature: 50° to 95° F (10° to 35° C)
Storage temperature: –40° to 116° F (–40° to 47° C)
Relative humidity: 5% to 90% noncondensing
Operating altitude: tested up to 16,400 feet (5000 meters)
|In the box||Mac Studio
These are the specs of the model that I reviewed. It’s the base model for the Mac Studio if you choose an M1 Ultra. It’s half of that price if you choose the M1 Max, although you get less memory, less storage, the front ports aren’t Thunderbolt, and it weighs two pounds less. The reason that the M1 Max model is lighter is because the M1 Ultra needs extra hardware to dissipate heat.
Design: The Mac Studio is small enough to fit under a monitor
- The Mac Studio is 7.7×7.7×3.7 inches, giving it the footprint of a Mac Mini, but about 2.5 times as tall.
- It heralds the return of USB Type-A in Macs, but keeps a bunch of Thunderbolt ports.
When Apple first announced hardware with its custom Arm processors, it focused on performance as a value proposition, and indeed, it was doing something that Qualcomm and Microsoft couldn’t do: match Intel’s performance. But those initial products – the Mac Mini, MacBook Air, and 13-inch MacBook Pro – all came in the same chassis as their predecessors.
With products like the 24-inch iMac and now the Mac Studio, we’re actually seeing new designs that take advantage of the new processors. Remember, this really isn’t about performance so much. It’s more about performance-per-watt, changing the power envelope. Due to the change in thermal requirements and Apple being able to put the whole thing on a single chipset, as opposed to a CPU plus a giant graphics card, the body of the PC can be much smaller.
That’s what we get from the Mac Studio. The product is 7.7 inches by 7.7 inches, so it takes up exactly the same amount of space on your desk as a Mac Mini would. It’s 3.7 inches tall, whereas the Mac Mini is 1.4 inches, so it’s about two and a half Mac Mini units on top of each other. This is a mini PC by any standard, but it doesn’t have mini performance by any standard. Intel’s NUC 12 Extreme comes in at 14.1×7.4×4.7 inches.
It also weighs in at 7.9 pounds. If you look for an Intel-powered PC with a desktop processor like a Core i9-12900 and RTX graphics, you’re not going to find much that’s less than 20 pounds.
Ports are back
It’s been a long time since I’d say that there’s no shortage of ports on an Apple device, but here we are. On the back, there are four Thunderbolt 4 ports, along with two USB 3.2 Gen 1 Type-A ports. There’s also a 10Gbps Ethernet port, HDMI, and a 3.5mm audio jack. The Thunderbolt 4 ports support USB4 for 40Gbps data transfer speeds, or you can connect dual 4K monitors on a single one. Or, you can connect a 6K display to each of the four Thunderbolt ports, and then add a fifth via the HDMI port.
It’s worth noting that five is the total amount of displays supported, no matter which processor you choose. With the original M1 the total was two if you had a device with an HDMI port (like the Mac Mini), and one without it.
It’s interesting to me that the 3.5mm audio jack is on the back. This tells me that Apple plans on you using that for external speakers, rather than headphones. Headphones should go the iPhone route, which is to use Bluetooth earbuds like AirPods. The Mac Studio does have a built-in speaker, which is nice. It’s not going to win any awards, but it gets the job done.
On the front, there are two more Thunderbolt 4 ports and an SD card reader. These front ports are for quick access to things you might unplug frequently, like an SD card. That’s where you’d expect a headphone jack to be if it was actually meant for headphones. Note that if you go for the M1 Max, those front ports are not Thunderbolt. They’re just regular old USB Type-C ports.
The silver design is silver, minimal, and oh, so Apple. It feels like the perfect design, because the subtle look that it conveys makes the performance feel even more bold.
Performance: The M1 Ultra is beastly, but you’ll know if you need it
- The M1 Ultra is powerful, especially when it comes to multithreaded workloads.
- It’s quiet, and you’ll never hear a fan spin up.
Right out of the gate, I want to be clear that there’s no solid artificial benchmark that’s going to demonstrate how powerful any Apple Silicon chip is. You’ll see a lot of Geekbench scores tossed around (and you’ll see that right here too), but it’s so important to remember, Geekbench is just a CPU test. In some ways, Intel totally beats all Apple Silicon on Geekbench tests.
However, Apple’s series of M1 processors also include custom graphics, Unified Memory, and more. Apple has a complete package that’s designed with parts that are meant to work together, with each component working to elevate the others. The Cupertino firm is absolutely taking advantage of its unique situation of owning the entire stack, from hardware to software.
Before we move onto those benchmarks, let’s talk about the old 8K video rendering test. I took the same set of 8K 30fps video clips that we used in our 16-inch MacBook Pro (M1 Max) review, and exported them on the M1 Ultra. It took 11 minutes and 43 seconds using Adobe Premiere Pro, and one minute 22 seconds using DaVinci Resolve. For comparison, the M1 Max in the MacBook Pro took 21 minutes 11 seconds in Premiere Pro. Of course, Adobe isn’t very good on Apple Silicon yet, and you’ll get much better results from DaVinci Resolve or Final Cut Pro.
Benchmarks show that the real benefit is in multithreaded performance
Now, let’s talk about Geekbench 5 and Cinebench R23 scores. Both are CPU tests, but while they don’t tell nearly the whole story, they can give us a bit of context, and maybe help you decide what Apple Silicon you need.
|Product||Geekbench single-core||Product||Geekbench multi-core|
|HP OMEN 45L (Core i9-12900K)||1,921||Mac Studio (M1 Ultra)||23,778|
|CLX Ra (Core i9-11900K)||1,803||HP OMEN 45L (Core i9-12900K)||15,723|
|Mac Studio (M1 Ultra)||1,776||Intel NUC (Core i9-12900)||13,355|
|MSI Raider GE76 (Core i9-12900HK)||1,774||MSI Raider GE76 (Core i9-12900HK)||12,630|
|Intel NUC (Core i9-12900)||1,767||HP OMEN Desktop 30L (Core i9-10900K)||10,933|
|MacBook Pro (M1 Pro)||1,755||MacBook Pro (M1 Pro)||9,954|
|iMac (M1)||1,740||iMac (M1)||7,676|
|Product||Cinebench single-core||Product||Cinebench multi-core|
|HP OMEN 45L (Core i9-12900K)||1,894||Mac Studio (M1 Ultra)||24,095|
|MSI Raider GE76 (Core i9-12900HK)||1,833||HP OMEN 45L (Core i9-12900K)||23,659|
|Intel NUC (Core i9-12900)||1,806||Intel NUC (Core i9-12900)||16,316|
|Samsung Galaxy Book Pro 2 360 (Core i7-1260P)||1,649||HP OMEN Desktop 30L (Core i9-10900K)||15,266|
|Mac Studio (M1 Ultra)||1,534||MSI Raider GE76 (Core i9-12900HK)||14,675|
Looking at those two CPU tests, it’s clear that the big benefit you’re getting from the M1 Ultra is in multithreaded performance. That especially goes for when you’re comparing it to other Apple Silicon chips, which have the same Unified Memory benefits. If you compare the single-core scores from an M1 Ultra to a plain old M1, there isn’t much of a difference. Remember, these are all based on the same chip, so it makes sense.
The biggest drawback is that you can’t natively run Windows. Honestly, with the power of the M1 Ultra, I’d have loved to install Windows on Arm using Boot Camp and run some AAA games, even using the x64 emulation that Windows 11 provides. I tried doing this in Parallels but I couldn’t get the games to install.
But instead, this is a machine that focuses on anything from high-end 8K video rendering to 3D modeling. Anything that has a lot of tasks going on at once, such as anything with the word “rendering” in the name, is going to benefit from the extra cores and threads in this 20-core CPU and 48-core GPU. And since we’re not looking at gaming (just don’t buy a Mac for gaming), we can easily say that this is best-in-class for the types of use cases that can take advantage of it.
The bottom line is, if your work will benefit from an M1 Ultra, or even an M1 Max, you probably already know it. If you do, then all you need to know is that this is best-in-class.
It stays cooler than you’d expect
Here’s the thing. If you told me five years ago that you had a machine this powerful and that it fit inside of a chassis this size, I’d have told you that it would melt. Thanks to Arm processors, we can get a lot more performance-per-watt, allowing for these types of designs.
The really wild thing is that you can’t even hear a fan turn on. There are some powerful Intel-based PCs out there that feel like you’re working next to a jet engine. This thing is completely quiet. It’s just one of those things that feels like it shouldn’t be possible, and that’s because not too long ago, it wasn’t.
Should you buy a Mac Studio?
I always wrap up reviews by saying a product isn’t for everyone, as no product is, but that’s especially true of the Mac Studio. Most people shouldn’t buy this. Most people looking at this would be better served by a Mac Mini.
Who should buy the Apple Mac Studio:
- People with intense, multithreaded work flows
- Creators that edit high-resolution, high- frame rate video
- Designers that render 3D models or work with CAD
- Customers that want a lot of power in an impossibly small package
Who should not buy the Apple Mac Studio:
- Users that want a machine for productivity
- Casual users
The Mac Studio is absolutely wild. Not only is it packing best-in-class performance, but it’s doing it in a chassis that’s impossibly small. If you want to do what the Mac Studio can do, it’s crazy to think of using what’s basically a mini PC to do it, yet here we are. And it’s quiet. The only bad news is that it can’t natively run Windows, which is a con for gamers.