Mac Studio vs. Mac Pro and Mac Mini: How to choose

apple-mac-studio-cj-thumb.jpg

Mac Pro

Image: Cliff Joseph / ZDNet

Apple sells more laptops than desktops, by far. But there’s a core group of Mac users who prefer headless (i.e., no screen) desktop models over any other kind of Mac. It’s for these folks that we look at the Mac Mini, the Mac Studio, and the Mac Pro.

These are very different machines. The Mac Mini has been my personal workhorse (I own seven of them), because it’s small, versatile, and surprisingly powerful. I always want to add my own screens. I even went so far as to donate my old, maxed-out iMac because the size of the thing made it too unwieldy for where I wanted to use it.

The Mac Studio is the newest Mac in the Apple line-up and it’s powerful as all heck. In nearly all configurations, it’s faster than the now old 2019 Mac Pro, for a fraction of the price. The Mac Studio is definitely the new power user’s headless Mac.

And then there’s the Mac Pro. It’s the last only-Intel machine in Apple’s line-up. Here, in late 2022, you can look at it in two ways. There’s either no reason to buy it, or there are 1.5 trillion reasons (it supports up to 1.5TB RAM). No other Mac comes close to that amount of RAM.

But hey, let’s look at the specs, and then I’ll break down why you might want to buy each type of machine.

Specifications

As you can see, the specs for these models are quite different. Keep in mind that while the 2018 Intel Mac Mini is still sold, we’re spotlighting the newer 2021 Apple Silicon model. Also keep in mind that the 2019 Mac Pro is the only Mac model that still (as of mid-October 2022) does not have an Apple Silicon version.

  2022 Mac Studio 2021 Mac Mini 2019 Mac Pro
Processors M1 Max or M1 Ultra M1 Up to 28-core Intel Xeon W
Memory 32GB to 128GB 8GB to 16GB 32GB to 1.5TB
Graphics 24 to 64 core GPU 8 core GPU Up to 4 Intel-class GPUs
Expansion slots None None Up to 8 PC Express expansion slots
Internal storage Up to 8TB SSD 256GB to 2TB Up to 8TB SSD
Hard drive bays None None None
USB 3 ports 2 2 2
Thunderbolt 3 ports 6 2 4
HDMI ports Yes Yes None
Ethernet ports 1 10GB 1 1GB or 1 10GB 2 10GB
SD card slot Yes No No
Headphone jack Yes Yes Yes
Wi-Fi 802.11ax 802.11ax 802.11ac
Bluetooth Bluetooth 5.0 Bluetooth 5.0 Bluetooth 5.0
Base Price $1,999 $699 $5,999 (no wheels)
Max Price $7,999 $1,799 $52,199 (w/wheels)

You should get an M1 Mac Mini if…

Product watch warning: This article is being published near the end of October 2022. Apple is expected to update the Mac Mini to an M2 model sometime in November. We recommend holding off on a purchase until after November to see what shakes out.

Also, Apple is still selling the 2018 Intel-based version of the Mac mini as an option. Don’t buy it. We expect Apple to drop it from its product line any time now, and it likely only has 2-3 years of MacOS update support left.

1. You want the least expensive, yet still powerful, Mac

The M1 Apple Silicon Mac Mini starts off at $699 and even fully maxed out, doesn’t break $1,800. Even fully equipped, it’s one of the least expensive Macs you can get.

I don’t recommend the cheapest option, which has 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. While that will certainly get you by for most basic work, you may find yourself bumping up against capacity limits if you push the machine even slightly.

Instead, the sweet spot is 16GB RAM and 512GB of fast flash storage. That will add $400 to the price, putting you at $999. But, with the exception of the base model MacBook Air, which is also $999, it’s less expensive than every other Mac option.

2. You want to use your own monitor or TV

The Mac Mini makes a really nice media center machine. It’s tiny and, with its included HDMI port, it hooks up easily to a TV or a PC. We have two Mac Minis on two of the inputs of our large screen family room TV, which also doubles as a work conference room. They take up very little space, yet provide considerable capabilities.

The Mac Mini takes up less space than even the MacBook Air, and you’re not paying for a screen. You can attach two screens to a Mac Mini, one using the HDMI port and one using the Thunderbolt/USB C port.

3. You want a small machine that tucks and stacks easily

The Mac Mini is a tiny powerhouse. At about 1 1/2 inches high and a little under eight inches on a side, it can fit almost anywhere. It can hang off of the back of a monitor. It can go into a car dashboard. It can stack in a server room.

Plus, it has a fairly decent number of ports, so it can connect with a relatively wide range of peripherals.

Mac Mini

$699.99 at Best Buy

 

You should get a Mac Studio if…

The Mac Studio is the new Apple Silicon-based desktop Mac form factor Apple introduced in the Spring of 2022. It’s the first completely new Mac model since Apple introduced the MacBook Air in 2009. It’s the first completely new desktop Mac model since Apple introduced the Mac Pro in 2006.

1. You want ports and more ports and lots of external displays

Yeah, this has ports. It’s got four Thunderbolt 3 ports and two USB-A ports on the back. Also on the back is a 10GB Ethernet port, an HDMI video port, and a headphone jack.

And on the front…yes, on the front(!)… it has two more Thunderbolt 3 ports and an SD card slot. ‘Tis a beautiful thing.

All those ports are important, because the Mac Studio can support 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. That’s five displays at once.

2. You want power

The Mac Studio is an M1 series machine, not an M2 machine. But don’t let that dissuade you. That’s because while the base M2 is faster than the base M1, the Mac Studio comes in either M1 Max or M1 Ultra varieties.

What does that mean? It’s all about cores. The Max and Ultra are much larger chips physically, so they can handle more circuitry and therefore more cores.

The M1 Max variant includes a 10-core CPU, a 24-core GPU, a 16-core Neural Engine (think machine learning and AI) and 400GB/s memory bandwidth. You can configure a version with up to 32 GPU cores.

The M1 Ultra is probably the fastest piece of silicon you’re going to see for a while. It has 20 CPU cores, either 48 or 64 GPU cores, a 32-core Neural engine, and 800GB/s memory bandwidth (twice the speed of the M1 Max).

That memory bandwidth is important if…

3. You want a lot of RAM

Right now, the Mac Studio can support more RAM than any other Apple Silicon-based Mac. It starts with 32GB, but can be configured with up to 128GB.

Unfortunately, you can’t upgrade the RAM. If you want all that RAM, you have to pony up the bucks at the time you order it. But still, with that memory bandwidth, it’s a screamer.

Mac Studio

$1,999 at Apple

 

You should get a Mac Pro if…

1. You probably shouldn’t

The current shipping Mac Pro is a 2019 model based on an Intel chipset. While the 2018 Mac mini is also based on the Intel chipset, the Mac Pro is the only machine that is only available on Intel.

That’s a lonely place to be, especially as MacOS migrates permanently away from Intel support. While Macs can easily last a decade or more, Apple tends to obsolete OS support every five years. If you buy a Mac Pro now, you probably won’t be able to upgrade it to the latest MacOS once three or four years pass.

In June of 2020, Apple announced its transition to Apple Silicon processors, saying the “first system ships by year’s end, beginning a two-year transition.” Every other Mac has transitioned to Apple Silicon, but the Mac Pro hasn’t. If Apple’s timeline is to be believed, the Mac Pro would need to have an Apple Silicon model by the end of December. So, if you buy this wildly expensive machine now, it could be replaced in a few months.

2. You really, really need Intel power or AMD Radeon graphics

If you’ve got some specialized software that specifically requires an Intel processor or AMD graphics, there might still be a reason to buy the Mac Pro. The 28-core Xeon processors are undoubtedly powerful, but early benchmarks show that the vastly less expensive Mac Studio is 20% faster on multi-core performance and 56% faster on single-core performance.

So, really, the only good reason to buy this is if your code just won’t run on something else. Oh, and this…

3. You really, really, really need an epic ton of RAM

The Mac Studio can be equipped with up to 128GB of RAM and tops out nearly $50,000 less than the top end Mac Pro. But the Mac Pro can do something no other Mac can do. It can be equipped with 1.5TB of RAM. That’s 1.5 terabytes of RAM. Terabytes. RAM.

Yeah, you’re gonna pay for it to the point that your ears will probably bleed, but you can get the RAM. So if you’re doing some sort of in-memory database where all you need is RAM speed, this machine will do it.

But there may be a newer, better one coming soon. Will it support as much RAM? Only Tim Cook knows for sure. Stay tuned.

Mac Pro

$5,999 at Apple

 


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