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

apple-mac-studio-cj-thumb.jpg

Image: Cliff Joseph / ZDNet

Apple sells far more laptops than desktops. But there is a core group of Mac users who prefer headless desktop models (i.e. no screen) to all other Mac types. For those people, let’s look at these Mac Minithe Mac Studioand 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, worn out iMac because the size of the thing made it too unwieldy for where I wanted to use it.

The Mac Studio is the latest Mac in Apple’s lineup, and it’s pretty darn powerful. It’s faster than the now-old 2019 Mac Pro in almost all configurations, and at 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 pure Intel machine in Apple’s line-up. Here, in late 2022, you can look at it two ways. There’s either no reason to buy it, or there are 1.5 trillion reasons (it supports up to 1.5TB of 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 vary widely. Keep in mind that while the 2018 Intel Mac Mini is still on sale, we’re focusing on 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) doesn’t have an Apple Silicon version.

2022 MacStudio

2021 Mac Mini

2019 MacPro

processors

M1 Max or M1 Ultra

M1

Up to Intel Xeon W with 28 cores

memory

32GB to 128GB

8GB to 16GB

32GB to 1.5TB

graphic

GPU with 24 to 64 cores

8-core GPU

Up to 4 Intel class GPUs

expansion slots

none

none

Up to 8 PC Express expansion slots

Internal memory

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 connections

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

Wireless Internet access

802.11ax

802.11ax

802.11ac

Bluetooth

Bluetooth 5.0

Bluetooth 5.0

Bluetooth 5.0

basic price

$1,999

$699

$5,999 (without wheels)

Maximum price

$7,999

$1,799

$52,199 (with wheels)

You should get an M1 Mac Mini if…

Mac mini on desktop with purple glowing background

Apple

Product Watch Warning: This article will be published towards the end of October 2022. Apple is expected to update the Mac Mini to an M2 model sometime in November. We recommend waiting until after November to make a purchase to see what comes out.

Also, Apple still sells the 2018 Intel-based version of the Mac mini as an option. Don’t buy it. We expect Apple to drop it from their lineup at any time, and there’s probably only 2-3 years of macOS update support left.

1. You want the cheapest yet powerful Mac

The M1 Apple Silicon Mac Mini starts at $699 and doesn’t cost $1,800 even at full capacity. Even fully equipped, it’s one of the cheapest Macs you can get.

I don’t recommend the cheapest option, which has 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage. While this will certainly get you through most basic work, you may find that you hit the capacity limits if you push the machine even lightly.

Instead, the sweet spot is 16 GB of RAM and 512 GB of fast flash storage. This adds $400 to the price, leaving you at $999. But with the exception of Base model MacBook AirAlso priced at $999, it’s less expensive than any other Mac option.

2. You want to use your own monitor or TV

The Mac Mini is a really nice media center machine. It’s tiny and easily connects to a TV or PC with its included HDMI port. We have two Mac Minis on two of the inputs to our big screen TV in the family room, which also doubles as a work conference room. They take up very little space and still offer considerable possibilities.

Likewise: How to add a second Thunderbolt monitor to your M1 Mac Mini

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

3. You want a small machine that’s easy to store and stack

The Mac Mini is a small powerhouse. At about 1 1/2 inches tall and a little under 20 inches on a side, it fits almost anywhere. It can hang on the back of a monitor. It can be built into a dashboard of a car. It can be stacked in a server room.

It also has a fairly decent number of ports, allowing it to be connected to a fairly wide range of peripherals.

You should get a Mac Studio if…

apple-mac-studio-cj-ports.jpg

Images: Cliff Joseph / ZDNet

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

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

Yes, that has ports. It has four Thunderbolt 3 ports and two USB-A ports on the back. There is also a 10GB Ethernet port, an HDMI video port and a headphone jack on the back.

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

All of those connections are important because the Mac Studio can connect up to four Pro Display XDRs (6K resolution at 60Hz and over a billion colors) via USB-C and a 4K display (4K resolution at 60Hz and over a billion colors ) can support 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 put you off. That’s because while the base M2 is faster than the base M1, the Mac Studio comes in M1 Max or M1 Ultra flavors.

Likewise: Apple M1 vs. M2: M1 Pro, Max and Ultra are even more powerful – for now

What does that mean? It’s all about cores. Max and Ultra are physically much larger chips, allowing them to handle more circuitry and therefore more cores.

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

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

Likewise: Everything you need to know about the Apple M2 chip

This memory bandwidth is important when…

3. You want lots of RAM

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

Unfortunately, the RAM cannot be upgraded. If you want all the RAM, you’ll have to put up the money at the time of ordering. But still, with that memory bandwidth, it’s a screamer.

You should get a Mac Pro if…

apple-mac-pro.jpg

Pictures: apple

1. You probably shouldn’t

The currently shipped 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 Intel-only machine.

It’s a lonely place, especially since macOS is permanently migrating away from Intel support. While Macs can easily last a decade or more, Apple tends to deprecate operating system support every five years. If you buy a Mac Pro now, chances are you won’t be able to update it to the latest macOS three or four years from now.

Also: I’m presenting my design for an Apple Silicon-based Mac Pro

In June 2020, Apple announced the transition to Apple Silicon processors, saying that “the first system will ship by the end of the year and begin a two-year transition.” Every other Mac has switched to Apple Silicon, but the Mac Pro has not. If Apple’s schedule is to be believed, the Mac Pro should have an Apple Silicon model by the end of December. So if you buy this outrageously expensive machine now, it could be replaced in a few months.

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

If you have special 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 the much cheaper Mac Studio is 20% faster at multi-core performance and 56% faster at single-core performance.

Likewise: This free utility should ship with every Mac

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

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

The Mac Studio can be configured with up to 128GB of RAM and costs nearly $50,000 less than the top-of-the-line Mac Pro. But the Mac Pro can do something no other Mac can. It can be equipped with 1.5 TB of RAM. That’s 1.5 terabytes from RAM. terabytes. R.A.M.

Yes, you’ll pay for it to the point your ears will probably bleed, but you can get the RAM. So if you’re building some sort of in-memory database where you only need RAM speed, this machine will do it.

But maybe a newer, better one will come soon. Will it support that much RAM? Only Tim Cook knows for sure. Stay tuned.


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