Apple never makes things easy, eh? As quickly as the excitement builds during its new product launches, so too does the confusion over which version to buy.

This is the case for all of Apple’s products. Whether it’s micro-analysing the differences between the iPad Air and the 11” iPad Pro or spending hours trying to work out which iMac colour to buy (yes, that’s totally fine), it can be a pretty perilous ride.

Then, we’re presented with the Mac Studio. Which is even more confusing.

This new Mac platform comes in two flavours, based on the chip you go for. The first is the M1 Max (of MacBook Pro fame), the second is the M1 Ultra (of ‘come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough’ fame).

There’s a big price and spec gap between the two. But which one is right for you?

Comparing apples and oranges?

You might think this is an odd comparison, given the aforementioned seismic gap in price and performance between these two Mac Studio options.

But if you’re buying a Mac Studio, it’s probably going to be a tool for your business or creative endeavour. It therefore needs to offer as much bang-for-buck as possible, and deliver a measurable return on your investment.

Equally, you might have a sizeable budget for your home-based Mac. You want as much power as Apple can throw at you, but you’re just as conscientious about your investment as a business buyer.

So, let’s work out how to best spend your money.

The pricing

Pricing in this article is stated in GBP, but can usually be translated directly into USD.

The M1 Max Mac Studio starts at £1,999. That gets you a 10-core CPU, 24-core GPU, 32GB of unified memory, and a 512GB SSD.

There are plenty of options once you start configuring it to your liking, too. An extra £200 will take the GPU cores up to 32. If you fancy some more memory, you can spend another £400 to take it up to 64GB.

If you undertake both of those upgrades, you’re looking at £2,599 for your shiny new Mac Studio.

The storage options are next. Taking it up to 1TB will add another £200, whereas maxing it out to 8TB will add an eye-watering £2,400.

Max everything out on the M1 Max Mac Studio, and the resulting bill tops out at £4,999.

The M1 Ultra Mac Studio starts at £3,999. For the £2,000 premium over the M1 Max version, you get a 20-core CPU, 48-core GPU, 64GB of unified memory, and 1TB of storage.

Add another £1,000, and you can take the GPU cores up to 64, and another £800 will increase the unified memory to 128GB.

Max everything out on the M1 Ultra version of the Mac Studio, and you’ll have to stump up £7,999 before hitting the ‘check out’ button.

Playing ’spec my Mac’ is fun – until you realise that you have to make a decision. So, let’s figure this out.

Computing capabilities

I maintain that there is an incredibly small audience for the computing power afforded by the M1 Ultra chip. I’m also convinced that most people will probably know whether or not they need it, so specialised are the tasks for which the M1 Ultra is intended.

I’m not one for benchmarks, but comparing the M1 Max and the M1 Ultra is actually pretty straightforward when it comes to raw power. The M1 Ultra is simply doubly capable of everything the M1 Max can do.

The reason for this is simple: the M1 Ultra is two M1 Max chips ‘fused’ together. You therefore get double the cores, double the memory bandwidth, and double the video encode engines.

In reality, and according to Apple’s own tests, this makes the M1 Ultra 5.3 times faster than the top-spec 27-inch Intel iMac during intense computational tasks and 2.5 times faster at processing ‘well-threaded filters’ in Photoshop. Whatever that means.

By comparison, the M1 Max is 2.7 times and 2.2 times faster for the same tests, respectively. We are, therefore, rapidly entering the law of diminishing returns here – unless you’re undertaking deeply computational work where time really is money.

If you’re not… the M1 Max Mac Studio makes far more financial sense.

Video capabilities

This is my wheelhouse, therefore it’ll come as no surprise that I find the comparison between the M1 Max and M1 Ultra from a video perspective fascinating.

These are the key differences between the two chips when it comes to graphical prowess:

  • Max GPU cores: 32 (M1 Max), 64 (M1 Ultra)
  • Concurrent 8K ProRes playback: 9 streams (M1 Max), 18 streams (M1 Ultra)

It’s worth noting that both chips support up to 5 displays for those who want to feel like they’re sitting at NASA mission control.

Once again, Apple’s render tests reveal the performance gains between the M1 Ultra and M1 Max. In Final Cut Pro, an M1 Ultra Mac Studio will render 8K footage five times faster than a 27-inch iMac with the Radeon Pro 5700 XT. By comparison, the M1 Max version is 3.5 times faster.

There’s not much in it when you put it like that, is there? And again, that hints at who the M1 Ultra is for when it comes to graphical performance.

If every second of render and export time costs you serious money, then it’ll be worth opting for the M1 Ultra version of the Mac Studio. Equally, if you need to play more than nine streams of 8K PreRes footage at once, the Ultra is your only choice. I’m not sure who needs to do that, but I think you’ll know if you do.

If you’re scratching your head wondering how on earth those marginal gains will benefit your day, just go for the M1 Max version.

Unified memory and storage

As I’ve noted previously, we live in a very different world now when it comes to Mac memory.

Apple silicon relies on low-latency, high-bandwidth memory which enables the chip to access data without copying it between multiple ‘pools’ of memory. This is known as ‘unified memory’, and significantly improves the efficiency and performance of computing tasks on M-based Macs.

It also means that you probably don’t need as much memory as you might have done in Intel land.

Despite this, both the M1 Max and M1 Ultra can be specced up with comparatively large amounts of unified memory – 64GB and 128GB, respectively.

If you need 128GB of memory for your work, you’ll know you need it. And, because that configuration is only available with the M1 Ultra, that’s definitely the computer for you.

M1 Max vs M1 Ultra: Conclusion

Did you spot the recurring theme in this guide?

I’m pretty sure most people who need the M1 Ultra version of the Mac Studio know they need that computer.

If you’re unsure, the M1 Max Mac Studio is definitely the computer for you. If you have a decent budget for it, I’d advise spending more on the unified memory and internal storage, rather than paying the big bucks for the M1 Ultra.

It’s also worth remembering that for general, everyday computing tasks, both chips will feel the same because they have identical single-core performance. You’ll only experience the benefits of the extra grunt if you start putting those extra cores to use, and the extent to which you benefit from the speed gains will be governed by the value of your time.

In fact, I’m confident that 95% of people reading this guide will slot perfectly into the M1 Max Mac Studio bracket.