Mac

The Professional’s Guide to Buying an M-Series Mac

Apple's M-Series Macs are amazing. But the choosing a configuration that's just right for a professional workflow can also be very confusing. We're here to help.

Jeff Greenberg • Mar 10, 2023

Let's cut to the chase. You're thinking of buying a new system, and you want to get it right.

Here is the Professional's Guide to Buying an M1/M2 Macintosh. It's slanted toward video post-production because that's what I do for a living.

This article is broken down into four sections:

  • A TL;DR - exactly what system to buy/configure.
  • Understanding Apple's chip tiers. Yeah, M1 Pro doesn't mean anything to me, either.
  • System dissection - understanding each choice.
  • Last thoughts about making the right choices.

The TL;DR

Here is the cheat sheet - the Too Long, Didn't Read section.

Pick Mobile or Desktop. Then it's about what meets your budget. Prices are indicated based on Apple's site in the US as of Feb 6, 2023. The details (such as cores or RAM) is so you can match the pricing.

  1. "I want a laptop as my sole system." The MacBook Pro 16 inch @ $3899. This is the M2 Max 12 Cores. 64 GB of RAM. 1 TB SSD. Great screen. Three Thunderbolt Ports.
  2. "I want the cheapest laptop - but I need it functional" - MacBook Pro 13 inch @ $2099. M2 8 cores. 24 GB of RAM. 1 TB SSD. Two Thunderbolt Ports
  3. "I want a solid desktop system.". The MacStudio @ $2799 M1 Max 10 Cores. 64 GB of RAM. 1 TB SSD. Four Thunderbolt Ports.
  4. "I need a sub $2k desktop - but it needs to be functional." The MacMini @ $1899. M2Pro 10 Core. 32 GB of RAM. 1 TB SSD. Four Thunderbolt Ports
  5. "I want a killer desktop but skip Apple's crazy tier." The MacStudio $5199 M1 Ultra, 20 core. 128 GB RAM. 2 TB SSD. SIX Thunderbolt Ports.

Now that we got the TL;DR out of the way

Genesis of this article: I was confused about the different M series family chips. Some support specific RAM configurations. Some have more/fewer performance-based cores. It's exhausting and less clear than Apple should ever be.

If I was confused, other people were too.

I needed a clear, concise guide to What was the best Mac for a Profession media creator/post-production user. Along with a decoder ring to explain the differences in the models.

That's what this article is. This is the guide I needed, not a series of numbers. Yes, the numbers are important, but they quickly lead to decision paralysis.

I'm approaching this as a professional user, not as someone just looking for the best deal.

It means that I will never recommend a system with less than 1TB of SSD. I'm not going to skimp on RAM. It also means I realize that the top chip from Apple is almost always on top for a short time span.

Since Apple has made it so you can never upgrade anything (the RAM, CPU, or storage) - we have to get this right from the start.

This means saving $100 or $200 on RAM or storage is, frankly, a bad choice.

Understanding Apple's M Family of chips

Credit: Apple

Generally, Apple marketing avoids using numbers. They talk about feeling instead of numbers. I don't think they made this clear in their marketing for the M family. It's a confusing list of cores and names like Pro and Max.

To be precise: M1. M2. Pro. Max. Ultra.

Is the Max better than the Pro? Is the Pro better than the Ultra? What about the GPU cores, the Neural engine cores, and the GPU cores? It's enough to make your head spin.

Meh.

I dug through a bucket of tables and stats and did some thinking just to make it simpler and more accessible.

Here's my breakdown:

  • M1. Apple's initial chip. Do not buy this chip. The stock M2 chip is okay if it’s your only option.
  • M1 Pro. This chip has a ProRes encoder. This is your entry chip in nearly every case.
  • M1 Max. More cores, more Ram. Max it out. If you can afford this, get it.
  • M1 Ultra. Glue two Max chips together. Seriously, that's what they did. Don't worry about this chip unless you're buying a Studio.

**In every place possible, pick the M2 chips over the M1. **They are generally 10-20% faster than the M1 systems. Many places in Apple's lineup have yet to be updated to the M2 - for example, on the Studio systems or iMacs.

On a very silly note: Apple's order/naming confused me. I'm an old-school geek - so my cheat sheet is PMU - which is an old term for the Apple Power Management Unit. That's the order of the power of the chips. Pro, Max, Ultra. And yes, that's a dumb way to remember the order. Yup, a super geeky way to remember this.

Information you may find helpful

Efficiency cores. Every specification names the cores.

It's less clear in the descriptions of the chips how many cores are Performance cores and how many cores are Efficiency cores.

Efficiency cores are how the laptops have crazy battery life - they're optimized for 1/10th the power consumption. It sounds better than saying a chip only has four powerful cores, right?

Performance Cores. Generally speaking, the more of these cores the better.

But if you just compare the M1 and the M1 Pro based on their description - they both have 8 cores. But the M1 has 4 Performance cores and 4 Efficiency cores. The M1 Pro has six Performance cores and 2 Efficiency cores. That means there's 50% more performance power.

This list makes it clearer:

  • M1 = 4 performance cores
  • M1 Pro = at least 6 performance cores
  • M1 Max = at least 8 performance cores
  • M1 Ultra = at least 16 performance core

The M2 generally hits the same numbers. Generally, again, it's generally 10-20%+ faster than its M1 counterpart.

Credit: Apple

GPU cores. For most of our software, there isn't a major difference between 8 GPU cores and 14 GPU cores. Merely that there are enough of them. There’s a limit on how much the GPU assists in professional video production in most cases. The GPU cores are rarely the bottleneck. CPU cores and RAM are more likely spots.

RAM. You can never, ever add RAM on these systems. And the RAM is shared with the GPU. So we try to max this out, until we hit 64 GB. Above that, it's nice but less critical.

SSD. I can't believe you'd consider anything less than 1 TB. I'm almost at the point where I want 2 TB all the time. Your fastest caches will be on Apple's internally custom SSD.

ProRes engine. The stock M1 chip does not have a ProRes encoding engine. It 100% should be skipped. But the stock M2 chip does have this feature.

Other engines. Apple makes a technical listing of the Neural Engine cores and HEVC/h264 decoding. It's important, yes…but not as important as the other features. These things are there - and yes, we want them, but these details do not help/change the decision process.

System dissection: My choices explained

Having dug through all the technical materials, you shouldn't trust me.

I'm spending your money and wanted there to be transparency.

Why did I choose one chip over another? Why do I think RAM is important?

In each case, I explain exactly how I got there. If you have a compelling reason to make different choices that I made, you understand the reasoning behind how I arrived at these solutions. And if you have a rationale for making different choices, then I'd agree.

Mobile Workstations/Laptops

I've been a mobile user since Apple created PowerBooks.

I get the appeal of being able to work from anywhere. The Coffee shop. The beach. If I find you on the beach with a MacBook Pro, I will kick sand in your face and take the hardware.

The reason to have a portable system isn't to work on the couch.

It's to be in a client's office and work. Or on set. I get the appeal of being in a coffee shop, it wears thing when you have to break down your system every time you need a bio break.

Portability comes at a cost. Apple has done an amazing job extending battery life, but you know that we're going to use external drives and extra monitors for the extra real estate.

Credit: Apple

One laptop lifestyle. The MacBook Pro 16 inch. $3899

First question: 14 inches or 16?

If you want the smaller one, it's 14 inch. Seriously. There's little else here different between the sizes. That'll save you $200 to go to the 14-inch model.

Which processor? M2 Pro or M2 Max.? This is your sole computer? Max, please. This will perform in the same league as the Mac Studio choice. There are no options on how many CPUs for this choice.

How much RAM? 64 GB. If you live in Adobe After Effects? Get 96.

Storage. Up to you. I spec'd all of these out at 1 TB.

Notes: It's got a great screen. You'll still want to use the laptop screen if you use this with a monitor.

It's got three Thunderbolt 4 ports. I'm going to want a dock. I want a portable dock and a desktop dock. The portable dock is for the beach.

I want the cheapest usable laptop. The MacBook Pro 13 inch $2099

You're buying this because the above choice is too expensive.

It's not about the size. The 14" and 13" are similar in form factor.

So, trying to get the price down was a struggle for me.

The cheapest I could get the XDR systems (14/16) in a usable state? $2899. So that took them out of the picture.

We're left with two systems - the MacBook Air and the MacBook 13". These are nearly identical machines as long as you get the M2 chip.

There is no Pro or Max chip here. It's just the stock M2. So, the choice between these two is form factor. The Air is slimmer with worse battery life.

Hence, how I went with the 13-inch system.

24 Gigs of Ram. I wanted 32, but it's not an option.

1 TB SSD. Yup, you can get this under $2k by picking the 512. Don't.

It only has two Thunderbolt ports, so yeah, you're buying a dock.

Desktop Systems

If I didn't have to travel? I'd skip the allure of laptops. The desktop systems are more stable and frankly cheaper across the board. They avoid the focus on miniaturization and battery life isn't a factor.

I want a solid desktop system. $2799 Mac Studio

Credit: Apple

This is a great everyday machine. It's not the beefiest out there - but it's no slouch either. It's a solid price/performance system for day-to-day use.

At the time of this writing, there were no M2 chips available for the Mac Studio. When that option happens, this article will be revised.

CPU: When you go to configure this, you'll have to choose between the M1 Max and Ultra. Apple's site makes it look like the M1 Max is underpowered, making it the bottom choice. It's not underpowered! It's the most powerful M1 chip unless we glue two of them together.

So the single choice is between the extra GPUs. 24 vs. 32.

Guess what? We're not going to see any real benefit between the two. But at only a $200 jump? Yeah, I got to say yes to those extra cores. Sure, you can take the $200 off - if you do so, get more storage.

We're going to max out the RAM at this level. 64GB.

Storage: 1TB SSD, but I'd agree in a heartbeat to a 2TB SSD.

I want a sub $2k desktop, but it needs to be functional. The Mac Mini @ $1899.

Credit: Apple

This is a killer system. It's not a Max or an Ultra, but it has loads to love, including a revamped ability to drive more than one screen. It's almost a mini Studio. If they'd only let me have the Max chip (vs. the Pro.) But they don't.

You 100% need the M2 version of this. Not the M1. The M1 doesn't have the ProRes encoder.

CPU: Get the M2 Pro. That gives the ability to get extra RAM. The plain M2 has the availability of a ProRes encoder (unlike the M1) - but the difference in price between the different CPUs is $300 - and spending that gets the ability to add extra RAM. And that’s the only way to get four Thunderbolt 4 ports.

Which M2 Pro? The 10 core or the 12 core? The 12 core is a powerhouse, but the 10 core is still plenty for many people's needs. 10 core it is.

RAM: Max it out. 32 GB.

Storage: A 1 TB SSD, which you're bored by me saying by now.

Notes: This system can be configured with 10 Gig Ethernet. If you're running any sort of shared storage, you 100% want to buy hardware with 10Gig E.



I want a great system. Mac Studio $5199

I wanted to create a great system without it being, "Oh, I ticked every box except the SSD box."

What would be the best Mac Studio I could pick without it maxing everything?

Credit: Apple

CPU. At this point, hopefully, you understand that I'm looking at the M1 Ultra chip, not the M1 Max. Two Ultra chips are available. The difference of $1,000 for the top-of-the-line chip? Not worth it for the 12 extra GPUs. From 48 GPU cores to 64 cores? Not worth it. Unless you're a colorist! Then yes, by all means, spend all the money.

RAM? 128GB of Ram. I can't seriously consider this system and save $800 by buying only 64GB of RAM.

Storage. In this case, yes, purchase the 2TB SSD.

Notes: You're getting six Thunderbolt 4 ports here. Two on the front. I'd still want a dock for USB 3 devices.

Last thoughts

I hope I've made this an easier set of decisions for you.

It can be overwhelming to try and figure out what's the best system. I've broken down why I made the choices I did. So, if you want to change anything, you're at least understanding how I got here.

A little more custom?

Using Adobe After Effects? If you're using a MacBook Pro or a Mac Studio, get as much RAM as you can afford.

Using BlackMagic Designs DaVinci Resolve? Yes, get the extra GPU cores on a Studio. Yes, get the extra RAM everywhere you can.

Where is the iMac?

It's not on this list.

None of the iMacs offer anything other than the stock M1 chip. They're not for us, at least not today.

What about the refurbished systems? I hear there are great deals out there.

There may be some great deals - but 100% avoid the stock M1 chip. The M1 Pro is your minimum here.

Extra expenses:

AppleCare. If you're on a mobile system? 100% get this.

If you're buying a desktop, make sure your credit card gives you the equivalent insurance and your business insurance has a rider for electronics. Generally, I don't buy AppleCare for a desktop.

Dock: Yes, you need one, especially as a laptop user.

Desktop or Laptop. It's a necessity. I have no less than six different peripherals attached on my system. I have two picks.

Desktop Dock: The OWC Thunderbolt Pro Dock.

This has everything I need. A CFExpress/SD card reader, 10Gb Ethernet, can charge a laptop and drive an 8k display,

Travel Dock: It's a toss-up between the OWC Thunderbolt 3 Mini Dock and the OWC USB-C travel dock.

Storage

I'm a storage junkie. I want at least one fast-as-I-can-get SSD for these systems to act as a cache or for media when needed.

As a Single Drive: the Envoy Pro SX - because it's speeds go up to 2847MB/s

As a RAID 0 array: the OWC Thunderblade. It can act as a RAID 0 and go as far as the connection allows. I'd probably get 4-8TB for a "blazing fast" near storawge that's not internal on my system.

Did I miss anything?

Probably.

Let me know in the comments about questions you may have. If you have a case use of something I missed? I'll revise this article because we mean to keep it a living document.

Thanks for reading. Hope I've helped spend your money.

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