It’s been a while since I’ve had time to geek out and just talk crap about computers for a while. So if you feel like it, brace yourself and settle in. Might as well get yourself a shandy too. I know this is primarily a camera club, but there are a few geeks in our midst, and I’m putting of doing my Self Assessment and some bookkeeping.
Over the past couple of years I have run an M1 MacBook Air as my main computer. It has replaced big, power hungry Windows laptops and desktops. I have gotten used to how quiet and fast it is, but occasionally I am reminded that it is the entry-level and there are limits to its performance. The occasional graphics stutter when editing big images, the odd beach ball and very rarely a warning about not having enough RAM. It’s also never left my desk, other than one or two trips to the living room. Another side effect of the pandemic.
A change in circumstances has left me with a choice of buying this laptop from my company, or buying my own computer. I decided to buy my own. Apple products to retain a lot of value and I didn’t want to pay the market value for this laptop, I thought it would be better to put the money towards a one of the desktop Macs and get better graphics performance for photo editing.
So what are my choices? There are three. The Mini, Studio and Pro. The Mac Pro is a non-starter and always has been. The entry-level is £6k and is slower than the M1 Air. All the extra cost goes on an over-engineered product that is designed to support the requirements of the 1%. It’s a halo product though and Apple needs this to appeal to big studios and idiots with too much cash and all the technical knowhow of a Labrador. The Mac Pro only makes sense for high-end studios, but they would spec them out and would cost £50k each. And they would order 200 of them in one hit. Plus a few of those £6k monitors and several metric tons of storage. That’s the only time that product makes sense. For the rest of us, it’s either the Mini or the Studio.
Traditionally there was always quite a big gap between the Mini and the next model up, which was the Pro, but the Studio has filled that gap somewhat, but even so there was still a big gap between the Mini and the lowest spec Studio, not just in terms of price but also performance. At time of writing Apple have just launched the Mini with an M2 Pro chip, which narrows that gap a lot in terms of performance, but creates a bit of a dilemma in terms of price as the lower-end machine can easily become more expensive than the next model up. In short a Mac mini, if you are not careful with the spec can become more expensive than a Mac Studio, which is a much more capable machine.
However the Studio is based on the M1 Max (for the base model) while the Mini is based the M2 Pro. Until YouTubers got there hands on them, there was no way of knowing which one of these to buy as they are so close in terms of price and the new chip could be faster than the old one. As it turns out for general ‘stuff’ the M2 is faster, but not by much, but once you start pushing lots of graphics the M1 Max is faster as it has more graphics cores. It is a close run thing though, further adding to the confusion.
If you only need 16GB RAM, then Mini all the way, but if you need a Mac desktop with 32GB of RAM then you have a more difficult choice to make – M2 Pro Mini, or M1 Max Studio. This is where Apple is a bitch though. They price the two with so much overlap, knowing most customers will just pay a bit more for the higher-spec Studio. It’s always the same, you go too far up the spec of one product line and you are then at the same price or almost at the same price as a model in the next product line up, which has more of everything. So you spend more. It’s the same with laptops too. There is a way around this however – the refurb store. An this is what I did. Either get more for the same money, or pay less for the one you were looking at. If they are available. I got an M1 Max Studio, with 10 CPU Cores, 24 GPU Cores, 32GB RAM and 2TB SSD. It saved around £300 on a new one and the equivalent Mac Mini with the M2 Pro (which had less GPU performance, and no ports on the front) worked out £400 more expensive. Further more I didn’t have to wait several weeks for it to arrive like I would have to do with anything but the base spec of either the Mini or the Studio. It arrived next day.
Other than ‘Official Apple Refurb’ written on the box, I could not see any difference between this and a new one – it still had all the fancy packaging. Okay, so an M2 Studio will come out later this year, but so what. Yes it will be faster, but we don’t know when that will arrive and we will only get incremental improvements now, not the big jump we got from Intel to Apple Silicon. With a refurb you still get the same guarantee and can add Apple Care too if you need to.
So what’s it like in use? Very good. Excellent in fact. It is very small and has plenty of ports (4 x thunderbolt 4, 2 x USB-C, 2 x old USB, 10 Gig Ethernet, HDMI and an SD card reader). PS and LR now run much smoother and I have extra RAM for the geeky stuff I have to do too, which is one area I found the Air a bit lacking. It’s not silent as the Air was as it does have a fan, while the Air hasn’t. However it’s just a low whoosh in the background and doesn’t alter its volume or tone even when running flat out so it’s easier to tune the noise out. It’s never loud or obnoxious like many PC’s are, and the room I work in is very quiet. By comparison, I bought a mini PC to do some development work and while for £600 I got an 8-core machine with 32GB RAM, a 512GB SSD and space for 2 more SSD’s internally in a package around the same size of a Mac Studio, it is loud. Great value, but LOUD. Just the slightest bit of workload and the fans spin up. They constantly alter their pitch as they spin faster and then slower. This is Windows power management for you. If I install Linux, the fans are silent. But I need Windows for this work, so It sits in a separate room only to be accessed remotely. Microsoft do some great work, just power management isn’t one of them. Don’t believe me look at YouTube videos on project Voltera and comparisons to Apple Silicon developers kit.
Having a card reader and ports on the front of the machine is great. And the keyboard and track pack that I had from my 2013 Mac Pro (the trash can thing) still work fine so I didn’t need to fork out for new ones. Can’t believe these things are almost 10 years old now and they still work with new Macs. I thought I would have issues getting the old trackpad to work as it is bluetooth, and old bluetooth at that.
Overall I’m very happy with the Mac Studio and it’s the computer most of us need most of the time. Most of us never needed the expansion that a Mac Pro had on offer as we buy a computer at one spec and then maybe add some storage. We almost never upgrade the CPU or RAM or at least most of us don’t, we buy a computer and live with it until it’s time to replace it It’s easy to add storage externally to the Studio – I have a 4TB NVME SSD attached to mine, which is very fast, certainly fast enough for photo editing. So the appliance route Apple are taking with computing is fine by me when it is this powerful, yet remains efficient and quiet. And not that expensive either. Also most of us with laptops never travel with them, but yet we spend extra money on portability that won’t be used rather than performance that we will use.
Apple are taking their time with the Mac Pro, and it might be a great machine, but I don’t know anyone who would actually need one. The problem is Apple aren’t selling that many Mac Studios as everyone wants either a MacBook Pro or an iMac. Apple releasing a high end iMac would probably kill off the studio, which is a shame because this is exactly the mid-tier desktop computer many have been wanting for a long time – a the power of an iMac, but without the screen. You aren’t tied in to buying Apple’s monitors, keyboards, mice, etc with this, you just buy the spec of Mac Studio you want (all the way up to 20 CPU cores, 64GPU cores, 128GB RAM and 8TB SSD) and then add the extras to match your taste and budget. 2023 will be an interesting year for the Mac and for computing as a whole as more and more ARM based computers come to the mainstream.Published in