Review: Apple Mac Studio
My first professional level Apple computer was a Power Mac G4 that I purchased new in 1999 for $6000. It had a 300-megahertz processor, 64-megabytes of RAM, 10-Gigabytes of storage and it weighed 13-kilograms.
Eight years later Apple released its first iPhone; it had a 620 MHz processor, 128MBs of RAM, 16GBs of storage and it weighed just 135 grams! It was a salient reminder of how fast, expensive computers can become slow, expensive computers.
For this reason, a lot of photographers over the past decade or so have chosen to use iMac computers; they have better performance than the diminutive Mac Mini (introduced in 2005), while costing a third of the price of Apple’s “Pro” desktops.
I’m no different, and until three months ago I used a late 2013, 27-inch iMac with an Intel i7 processor and 32GB of RAM connected to an Eizo monitor; my Photoshop editing was done using the Eizo monitor but the iMac gave me a useful second screen.
Of late though, it was apparent I needed to replace my iMac; it no longer supported the latest Mac OSX and Adobe software and it was becoming burdened by my ever increasing file sizes.
Like many others, I was waiting for Apple to launch a new prosumer iMac when in early March they announced an entirely new line of desktop computer, the Mac Studio. I was disappointed; it wasn’t an iMac, but then I realised this was Apple’s Goldilocks desktop.
With a starting price of $3099, the Mac Studio is three times the price of the Mac Mini (starting price, $1099) but a third the price of a Mac Pro (starting price, $9,999) (or a whopping $79,299 fully specced).
At 2.7kg the Mac Studio is noticeably heavier than the Mac Mini, but it is also a fraction of the Mac Pro’s 18kg mass. And when it comes to performance, Apple claims the new Mac Studio can outperform both the Mac Mini and 2020 Mac Pro.
At the heart of the Mac Studio is Apple’s M1 Max “System on a Chip” (SoC) processor. Unlike most computers that have a CPU (central processing unit), GPU (graphics processing unit) and RAM (random access memory) mounted as separate components on a motherboard, Apple’s M1 Max processor integrates all these components into just one large slice of silicon for dramatically improved performance and thermal efficiency.
The M1 Max chip has a 10-core CPU, 24-core GPU and 16-core Neural Engine with your choice of 32GB or 64GB unified memory (RAM) all etched into the one microchip. And if you want more performance, you can buy the Mac Studio with an M1 Ultra chip (starting price $6099); the Ultra is literally two M1 Max chips fused together for double the processing and memory capacity.
Not wanting to overcapitalise, I purchased a Mac Studio with the M1 Max chip, 32 GB of RAM and 1TB of SSD storage. It arrived late on a Friday afternoon and by the Saturday morning I had migrated all my apps and data from my old iMac onto my new computer.
One thing that had discouraged me from buying a Mac Mini or even the 2021 iMac (both the original M1 chip) was a distinct lack of ports, but connecting up the Mac Studio to my desk was easy; on the back are four Thunderbolt ports, two conventional USB-A ports, a HDMI 2.0 output, a 10-gigabit Ethernet port and a 3.5mm jack. For those tired of searching for ports behind their iMac, Apple have also put two USB-C ports and an SD slot on the front of the Mac Studio.
When turned on a white LED glows from the front of the computer which I did find distracting, but a tiny piece of gaffer tape resolved this problem. Those with acute hearing will also notice a subtle whirr from the Mac Studio’s fans; they are a constant whisper in the background but unlike many other computers, these fans won’t throttle up when the pressure comes on.
Being keen to find out just how fast this new Mac was I then ran some comparison tests. First, I exported 100 RAW files with a sharpening action across to JPEG. My old iMac did this task in 45 minutes; the new Mac Studio with Photoshop 2022 did it in - 52 minutes!
Could my new Apple really be a lemon? After dwelling on the problem, I uninstalled Adobe, reinstalled it and ran the test again. This time the export took just over five minutes, a significant improvement over my old iMac.
Other tasks are also a lot snappier, from opening files, working with adjustment brushes, merging composites or working files in Liquify.
Given that both Apple and Adobe along with many other developers are continuing to optimise software for Apple Silicon, I would also be confident the user experience is only keep getting better.
A nicer view
Along with the Mac Studio, Apple also announced the new Mac Studio Display, a 27-inch 5K monitor with built in A13 chip (to support Hey Siri), a 12MP ultra-wide webcam and 6 built-in speakers.
The base price for this monitor is $2499, but if you want antireflective Nano-texture glass (of course you do!) the price increases to $2,999. And if you want the height adjustable stand (that’s a yes) the price goes up to $3,599!
Admittedly, this is a lot better than the $8,499 you pay for Apple’s 32-inch 6K Pro Display XDR (it’s $9,999 with Nano-texture glass), but it is still a lot of money for a monitor. My new Mac Studio is working happily with my 24-inch Eizo monitor and for a second screen I have purchased a BenQ 27” 4K Designer monitor for just under $1,000, and it came standard with an antireflective screen and an adjustable height stand. Bonus!
There is no doubt that computers will continue to improve and my Mac Studio will soon enough look like old technology, but for now I am confident I should get as much use out of it as I did my trusty 2013 iMac. ❂