Apple’s newly-announced Mac Studio with its new M1 Ultra chip looks to be a juggernaut, but pretty much no photographer will need that kind of power. The base model Mac Studio is a better choice and might be the best deal for a new computer on the market.
You Do Not Need the M1 Ultra
Apple’s M1 chip is already a marvel, but beefed up to the M1 Pro or M1 Max that were announced last year provides a remarkable amount of power packed into a tiny chassis. In our review of the Macbook Pro with M1 Max, we found that it seriously outperformed every other high-end laptop on the market at the time. We also noted that what we tested was far and away overkill for what most photographers would need and the difference between the M1 Pro and the M1 Max for photography applications would be negligible.
Back then, we did not think that any photographer who already had an M1 machine really needed to upgrade to Apple’s biggest and best. A smarter decision would have been to pick up a MacBook Pro with the M1 Pro chip and save a few hundred dollars if an upgrade was even desired.
Now with Apple’s new Mac Studio, we’re going to recommend a similar strategy. Even though we haven’t yet tested the new M1 Ultra chip, the performance gains we expect it to provide are going to be far more than any photographer could reasonably need for the next several years — the M1 Max is already overkill, as mentioned.
Photoshop and Lightroom rely heavily on CPU performance, and while there is some GPU acceleration in there that does provide some benefit, spending wads of cash to upgrade the GPU for photo editing isn’t going to feel like the best use of money, even if the CPU gets a boost along with it in the M1 Ultra.
Unless you’re running complex tasks in Blender or doing serious 3D animation work, the M1 Max is going to make editing in Lightroom, Photoshop, and Premiere a smooth and enjoyable experience for years to come. Will it be faster to use the highest-specification computer Apple makes? Sure, but it’s a matter of diminishing returns. You’re just not going to see that boost in performance earn the added cost.
There are headlines out there that show you how much you could spend on a Mac Studio, but I’m here to argue that you should be more concerned about how little you should shell out to be more than happy with the result. Even though the M1 Ultra is the shiny new thing that you want, it’s not something you need.
The Best Deal in Computing Today
No, the base model Mac Studio with its M1 Max and 10-core CPU, 24-core GPU, and 16-core neural engine along with the 32GB of unified memory is going to be enough machine to power through most photography workflows. If you already have a desktop computer that’s not an iMac, you probably already have a monitor as well. That means you can get an excellent desktop editing machine for just shy of $2,000. That price doesn’t include a particularly large 512GB of internal storage, but most photographers should be operating off external hard drives anyway (you are using a RAID array and multiple backups, right?), so that space on the computer itself can be reserved for programs.
Even if you wanted to match the performance of the top-of-the-line MacBook Pro we tested last year, it’s not that much more expensive to do so and will end up being cheaper than buying the MacBook Pro. You’ll need to pony up $200 more for the 32-core GPU upgrade and $400 more to double the unified memory to 64GB, but that’s about it. If you feel like 512GB isn’t enough storage capacity, upgrading to 1TB isn’t too bad at $200.
I argue that you only need the base model, but even if we splurge a bit and cover all the bases, we are still looking at spending just $2,800 for a hugely powerful, tiny, compact, and quiet desktop computer that promises minimal power consumption. That’s still a raging deal in today’s computing market. Pair that with a nice color-accurate monitor, and you’re golden.
Compared to any other option in the computing space, that’s going to be really, really hard to beat.
PetaPixel writer Matt Williams recently helped a friend build a custom PC through iBuyPower. It features an 11th generation Intel Core i9 11900K, an Nvidia RTX 3060 Ti, 16GB of RAM, and a dual 512GB SSD with a 1TB HDD. That setup cost him $2,200 and the base model Mac Studio should absolutely beat that computer’s performance. Building other computer configurations through iBuyPower with specs as close to the Mac Studio as possible will run you more than even the upgraded $2,800 Mac Studio we discussed above and there is no guarantee it will keep pace.
Unless you really don’t like Apple computers or you put a big premium on gaming (gaming on a Mac is still not great), it’s hard to rationalize paying more for less in the PC space.
Photographers, the Mac Studio is very likely the best deal in computing today if photo editing (and even video editing) is your primary reason for upgrading to a new machine. Apple isn’t just making great computers these days, the company is doing it without asking a huge premium.
Image credits: All photos courtesy of Apple.