M2 Ultra Mac Studio Review: The Top Choice for Most Professionals in the Era of Apple Silicon
Apple’s latest release, the M2 Ultra Mac Studio, has solidified its position as the preferred professional desktop, even overshadowing the Mac Pro. Despite its name lacking the “Pro” label, the original Mac Studio proved to be Apple’s most captivating offering for professionals in recent years. While resembling a supercharged Mac mini more than a downsized Mac Pro, its M1 Max and M1 Ultra processors delivered exceptional performance with remarkable energy efficiency compared to the recent Intel Mac Pro.
This week, Apple is launching the M2 version of the Mac Studio, coinciding with the introduction of a brand-new Mac Pro. However, it is still likely that the new Studio will reign as Apple’s top professional desktop. Firstly, the M2 Studio surpasses its predecessor in speed—Apple provided us with a fully equipped M2 Ultra model featuring 128GB of RAM. Secondly, the design philosophy behind Apple Silicon Macs renders Mac Pro-style expandability and modularity impossible.
While there may still be a small user base for the redesigned Mac Pro, consisting of macOS users who rely on internal PCI Express expansion cards other than GPUs, it is relatively simple to add substantial amounts of affordable, high-speed internal storage—an upgrade that the Mac Studio frustratingly lacks. Additionally, there is some pricing overlap with the high-end M2 Pro Mac mini, which was not a factor last year.
However, for the majority of individuals who prefer Apple desktops for tasks such as photo and video editing, 3D rendering, app development, and other demanding work, the Mac Studio remains unrivaled.
The recently released Mac Studio
Apple has maintained the same external design for the new Mac Studio, and there have been no changes in pricing or available configuration options compared to the previous generation.
There are two versions of the Mac Studio: one equipped with an M2 Max processor, also found in the recent MacBook Pro refresh, and another featuring the new M2 Ultra chip, exclusive to the Studio and the Apple Silicon Mac Pro. Within Apple’s chip lineup, “Ultra” represents the highest tier, while “Max” denotes the second-highest tier.
The M2 Ultra variant of the Studio offers double the CPU cores, GPU cores, RAM, and price compared to the M2 Max model. This is because the M2 Ultra essentially combines two M2 Max chips with a silicon interposer that enables communication at rates of up to 2.5TB per second. While performance doesn’t precisely double, we’ll delve into that further later.
Beyond the chips, there are a few notable differences between the two systems. The M2 Max Mac Studio features two 10Gbps USB-C ports on the front, while the M2 Ultra boasts two full 40Gbps Thunderbolt ports. The M2 Max offers a RAM range of 32GB to 96GB, while the M2 Ultra provides 64GB to 192GB. As is customary for Apple Silicon systems, post-purchase upgrades for RAM are not available. Both models can be configured with up to 8TB of internal storage, but this option costs over $2,000 for either configuration. If you require a significant amount of storage, exploring external Thunderbolt SSD enclosures may be more cost-effective.
The M2 Ultra Mac Studio weighs two pounds more than the M2 Max version, despite sharing the same size. This weight difference arises from Apple’s use of a heavier and more conductive copper heatsink to cool the faster chip, while the M2 Max employs a lighter aluminum heatsink.
In terms of connectivity, apart from the front Thunderbolt ports, both systems offer identical options. There are four Thunderbolt ports, one 10-gigabit Ethernet port, two 5Gbps USB-A ports, a headphone jack, and an HDMI port at the back (Apple does not specify the version, but it likely supports HDMI 2.1, capable of driving an 8K display at 60Hz). Additionally, the front features an SD card slot alongside the two ports, beneficial for photographers and hobbyists utilizing SD or microSD cards.
I held a positive opinion of the Mac Studio last year, and that sentiment remains. It delivers strong performance, operates silently, has a compact form factor, and notably features ports on the front for easy accessibility. If you are considering an upgrade from an Intel Mac, the M2 Max version offers a significant performance boost, particularly for users accustomed to the performance level of a 27-inch iMac. The M2 Ultra outshines the Intel Mac Pro and is on par with the Apple Silicon Mac Pro since they both utilize the same chip.
Why not give the Mac Pro some thought?
Regarding that matter, the introduction of an actual Apple Silicon Mac Pro hasn’t convinced me that the Mac Pro should continue to exist.
It’s not that there isn’t a demand or necessity for high-end, modular, and upgradable desktop computers in 2023. The issue lies in the fact that the Apple Silicon Mac Pro only marginally meets those criteria, while an equivalently configured Mac Studio costs $3,000 less and has a significantly smaller form factor.
To provide a quick recap for those not closely following pre-release Mac rumors: Initially, it was speculated that the Apple Silicon Mac Pro would utilize a more powerful version of the M2 chip, one that combines a pair of M2 Ultra chips similar to how the Ultra combines two M2 Max chips. This added power would have been a notable selling point, particularly in comparison to the Mac Studio.
However, those plans were eventually discarded. (At one point, there was even a suggestion that Apple might skip an M2 update for the Studio to allow the Pro to have the faster chips; if this segmentation strategy was genuinely considered internally, I’m relieved it was rejected.) Consequently, the new Apple Silicon Mac Pro is the fastest Mac ever produced, as expected from a new Mac Pro tower. Yet, it now shares that distinction with a significantly smaller and $3,000 cheaper Mac.
Adding to the predicament, the new Mac Pro can no longer benefit from dedicated external GPUs or upgradeable memory due to the design of Apple Silicon chips. Memory and GPU are integrated into the M2 package, and the unified pool of memory that can be shared by the CPU and GPU is one of the appealing aspects of Apple Silicon for some users. These chips simply aren’t designed for modularity or expandability. Hector Martin from the Asahi Linux team, one of the individuals outside of Apple with extensive knowledge of Apple’s chips at a low level, even highlights that Apple had to make adjustments to the Mac Pro’s PCI Express slots because the M2 Ultra lacks sufficient PCIe lanes to provide full bandwidth to each slot simultaneously.
These factors collectively put the Mac Pro in an awkward position. The 2019 Mac Pro tower allowed end users to upgrade the RAM to a maximum of 1.5TB, while the new Mac Pro tops out at the same 192GB as the Studio. Although it’s difficult for even advanced home users to envision needing more, longevity and future-proofing were once selling points of the Mac Pro. Additionally, the 2019 tower supported GPUs manufactured after 2019, thanks to new AMD graphics drivers in newer macOS versions. In contrast, the new Mac Pro will rely on the same Apple GPU for its entire lifespan. Despite its resemblance to a traditional Mac Pro tower on the outside, it shares many limitations with the decade-old “trash can” Mac Pro.
Consequently, the Mac Pro’s potential audience has become narrower than ever: individuals who require macOS for high-end work, don’t prioritize RAM or GPU upgradability, but need multiple internal PCI Express expansion slots for non-GPU, non-Afterburner cards. I’m not suggesting that there is no demand for such a machine. However, the Mac Pro seems like an unsatisfactory compromise between the desire for an expandable computer and the realities of Apple Silicon.
Performance and power consumption
Apple’s M2 Ultra processor boasts an impressive configuration, featuring 16 high-performance CPU cores and eight efficiency cores, totaling 24 cores. The GPU is equipped with either 60 or 72 cores, depending on the specific configuration, along with a 32-core Neural Engine to enhance AI and machine learning tasks.
While a direct comparison between the M2 Ultra and the M2 Max version in the Studio is unavailable, benchmark results from the 16-inch MacBook Pro indicate that the Ultra delivers a significant boost in multi-core CPU performance, ranging from 70 to 90 percent faster, depending on the test. The graphics performance, as demonstrated by 3DMark scores, is more than double that of the previous generation. It should be noted that these figures might not directly translate to performance gains in a Studio desktop due to potential thermal constraints in a laptop environment.
In terms of performance improvements over the M1 Ultra, the M2 Ultra shows a 14 to 20 percent increase in single-core performance and a 19 to 23 percent improvement in multi-core performance, thanks to the inclusion of four additional efficiency cores.
Comparing the M2 Ultra’s GPU performance to that of desktop GPUs is challenging due to the lack of contemporary gaming benchmarks on Macs. However, based on 3DMark Wild Life Extreme results, it appears to be on par with a desktop GeForce 4070 Ti, especially considering the ample 192GB of available memory.
Apple’s approach to single-core performance seems to have evolved with the M2 generation, allowing the M2 Ultra to exhibit around a 10 percent boost in single-core benchmark scores compared to the regular M2. While not as pronounced as the tier differentials seen in Intel’s Core i5 vs. Core i9 or AMD’s Ryzen 5 vs. Ryzen 9, this shift aligns Apple’s approach more closely with its competitors.
In terms of competition within the PC space, Intel and AMD currently offer comparable or slightly better high-end performance than Apple, as demonstrated by benchmarks like Cinebench and Handbrake. However, Apple excels in Geekbench 5 scores. The notable advantage Apple holds over its competitors lies in power efficiency. In the Handbrake CPU video encoding test, both the Ryzen 7950X and the i9-13900K consume significantly more power while achieving similar performance levels compared to the M2 Ultra. Even when power settings are adjusted to enhance efficiency, Intel and AMD still consume over twice as much power.
The exceptional power efficiency of the M2 Ultra contributes to the Studio’s remarkably quiet operation. Throughout extensive testing and daily usage, the fan remained inaudible, a notable contrast to the noise generated by a typical heat-venting PC setup.
Although the M2 Ultra’s average power consumption is slightly higher than that of the M1 Ultra, this has been a consistent trend across the entire M2 generation. However, the overall power consumption required to accomplish a set amount of work remains relatively stable across Apple Silicon devices, from the M1 to the M2 Ultra (excluding the MacBook Air, which prioritizes heat control over performance through a fanless design).
“Pro-Level Performance Under a Different Name”
There will always be individuals who express dissatisfaction with Apple’s desktop computers, particularly in the Apple Silicon era, due to their non-upgradeable nature resembling household appliances. Upgrading components used to be a viable way to extend the lifespan of an aging Mac Pro tower, and in an ideal world, Apple would continue to support and encourage such upgrades.
However, even the Mac Pro no longer allows for traditional upgrades, making the M2 Ultra version of the Mac Studio the more suitable choice for most professionals. While it carries a high price tag, reaching $4,000 for a consumer desktop PC is a considerable investment, especially for one equipped with top-tier CPU and GPU components. Nevertheless, the Mac Studio delivers a powerful and compact macOS experience, surpassing PCs in terms of noise levels and power efficiency.
This review predominantly focuses on the M2 Ultra version since that was the model tested. However, if budget is a concern, the M2 Max version remains a great alternative. It may not replace the Mac Pro entirely but is comparable to the previous 27-inch iMac, providing ample power for most creative tasks. If you require 32GB of memory, choosing the Studio over the M2 Pro Mac mini is highly recommended, as it offers more GPU cores and ports for the same price, specifically when considering the fully enabled M2 Pro version priced at $1,999.
- Compact and efficient desktop that showcases the power of Apple Silicon
- Well-rounded selection of ports
- Convenient front-facing ports
- Virtually silent operation
- Mac Pro-level performance at a $3,000 lower cost than an equivalently configured Mac Pro
- The $2,000 M2 Max version outperforms the $2,000 Mac mini version
- Expensive RAM and storage upgrade options
- Doubling of hardware resources in M2 Ultra vs. M2 Max does not always result in double the performance
- M2 Ultra configuration, in particular, remains costly compared to alternatives aside from the Mac Pro
- Absence of internal expandability