Apple’s M1 Ultra has been making headlines lately and, needless to say, is quite a big deal. Or is that just something that Apple wants us all to believe?
As is so often the case, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Let’s start off with the hype first: the M1 Ultra is not only one of the most advanced SoCs on the market but also an indication of what’s coming our way and what the future of personal computing will look like in just a few years’ time.
So when Apple executives go on stage and toot their own horn, they sort of have an excuse.
The things this venerable company has achieved with its M1 line-up are nothing short of extraordinary.
A tremendous generational leap of this kind has never been pulled off before; well, at least not with Apple’s precision and execution, both of which have been downright awe-inspiring.
The M1 Ultra is their crowning achievement, a technological tour de force.
So when they reach for the most ostentatious superlatives and talk about their SoCs as if they were the next best thing since sliced bread and the discovery of Penicillin, know that they’re not lying.
In other words: they bring numerous architectural improvements (to say the least) and are more than worthy of our undivided time and attention.
M1 Ultra — Let’s Talk Specs
At its core, the M1 Ultra is basically two M1 Max SoCs fused together with a high enough bandwidth between them to function as one single chip.
This does sound like something AMD or Intel have done in the past, but not at this scale. It is a technological marvel, in short.
Apple’s implementation is different from Intel’s and AMD’s interconnect because it handles GPU as well. Both AMD and Nvidia have tried this but did not have much success so far. They ran into extreme heat, power, and bandwidth limitations.
The most spec’d out variant of the M1 Ultra comes with a 20-core CPU, 64-core GPU, and a whopping 128GB of unified (RAM) memory.
That’s quite a lot of… everything, really.
The fact that all of these components (and so much more) are housed on just a single chip (manufactured on a 5nm node from TSMC, no less) makes it all the more impressive.
Still, such an intricate, highly advanced production process has to come at a cost, and sure enough, it does — both literally and figuratively.
Not only is the M1 Ultra an expensive SoC, but it also offers virtually no user reparability or upgradeability whatsoever. None at all.
Now, for most “average Joes” that’s not necessarily an issue.
They want a machine that works well no matter the workload, and the less they have to tinker with it the better.
The “consummate professionals,” on the other hand, want to have a bit more control over their hardware and the way in which they harness its potential.
Upgrading your memory or processor or motherboard or whatever really should by no means be a luxury.
If you purchase any M1-based Mac today, you’ll be “stuck” with that machine until it stops working or you happen to sell it.
That is a very concrete limitation and you should be aware of it.
In other words: while the M1 Ultra is mind-blowingly powerful (ditto for its less capable “siblings”), it does come with a series of trade-offs, some of which are more justified than others.
We don’t like Apple’s approach here. Being shackled to our products without any say in the matter is not something we’d consider good business practice.
Is the M1 Ultra more advanced and efficient than any other desktop processor on the market?
Pretty much, yes, but one could argue that those strengths and virtues come at too big of a cost — depending on what you’re after and what you deem acceptable, of course.
M1 Ultra — Limitations Galore
This particular SoC can currently only be found in Apple’s Mac Studio.
That (admittedly quite beautiful) machine comes with a fairly solid selection of I/O — standard fare for what any creative working in a studio would need.
Still, its gamut of ports might become limiting further down the line depending on your workflow and use-case scenario.
The Mac Studio, in particular, has most (if not all) of the ports one would need, but in case you end up needing more, you’ll have to buy additional accessories like Thunderbolt docks, external SSDs, and so on.
Now, we’re all Thunderbolt fans here, but TB-certified peripherals and docks and enclosures often come at a very steep price, and that’s something you should definitely keep in mind if you’re gearing to invest in this whole ecosystem.
There’s also no support for eGPUs and gaming on a Mac isn’t exactly a stellar idea either.
It’s not impossible, mind you, but by no means is it a solid enough alternative to Windows.
There’s also the topic of app compatibility.
Most high-profile software — the kind creative professionals use on a daily basis — has been ported to M1.
It’s still a work in progress, though, and you’d be wise to check if your software suite of choice has been updated or not.
The Rosetta 2 emulation layer is mighty powerful but it’s still no substitute for the real thing.
So, a word of caution: roll up your sleeves and triple-check whether your most important applications have been updated to support Apple’s M1.
Only then will you truly be able to harness the immense potential of Apple’s incredible ARM-based SoCs.
This is the part Apple doesn’t want to highlight or talk about all too often.
If a singular component malfunctions, you’ll pretty much have to throw the whole thing into the trash.
Need more RAM? Well, you’ll have to buy an entirely new device as there’s no other way to pull off the necessary upgrade.
Want more GPU cores? No problem! “Just” sell your MacBook/Mac Mini/iMac/Mac Studio and buy a more powerful variant.
This is quite a problematic “approach” and we’re not partial to it whatsoever.
It is as if you bought a brick, one that is incredibly powerful and advanced, but a brick nonetheless.
There’s no modularity whatsoever, and the few options that you do have (in regards to external storage and whatnot) will cost you an arm and a leg.
Still, if you’re a video editor or a photographer, or a designer, Apple’s top-of-the-line M1 SoCs are more than worth the asking price.
In fact, one could argue that they’re even cheaper than they’re worth.
And that, in short, is a sentence seldom heard given Apple’s historic proclivity for overcharging its customers.
The M1 MacBook Air is among the best “bang-for-the-buck” laptops on the market. It combines both performance and efficiency.
You get a desktop-class SoC (performance-wise) along with industry-leading build quality and a host of other bells and whistles.
The same goes for the base Mac Mini, a small NUC-like computer that packs one heck of a punch — all for less than $600 refurbished.
To build a similarly sized PC with comparable performance (to say nothing of efficiency and fan noise), you’d need more than that.
The M1 Ultra doesn’t exactly build on this “more for less” philosophy, and that’s okay — it is a high-end chip geared towards industry professionals.
And, well, those who are willing to splurge a couple of thousand dollars on the latest and greatest piece of tech from Cupertino.
M1 Ultra — A Benchmarking Beast
One quick glance at M1 Ultra’s numbers is all you need for your jaw to drop to the floor.
A feat of engineering is what it is.
Benchmarks, however, can be deceiving.
Nowadays, it’s less about sheer horsepower and more about the way in which any particular component works and how it enables and affects your workflow. Optimization plays a big part, too.
Editing 12-bit DCI 4K 4:2:2 footage on a baseline M1 MacBook Air is a breeze; doing so on a spec’d out PC certainly isn’t.
You’d have to pay thousands of dollars to get comparable performance — cores and threads and TDPs and clock speeds are still important, but they don’t tell the whole tale.
The M1 Ultra benchmarks great, but it’s not always better numbers-wise than Intel’s latest top-of-the-line Alder Lake processors.
Still, for the things you’d use the M1 Ultra for, it is a very viable option to consider.
It chews through any CPU-related workload with ease.
If you’re all about GPU workloads, however, it would still be wiser to go with NVIDIA and AMD’s latest and greatest graphics cards (the Ampere and RDNA 2 ones, respectively).
Apple’s Media Engine does a lot of the heavy lifting when it comes to rendering, so whenever it can be harnessed, the M1 Ultra tends to blow its competition out of the water.
Developers, photographers, graphic designers, video editors, and music producers can benefit greatly from Apple’s novel architecture.
And specifically in workloads that are accelerated by Apple’s Media Engine, the PC world simply cannot compete.
The lower you go down the product stack the bigger the lead grows for Apple, not in terms of performance but rather what these chips can offer relative to their competition.
A $4000 Mac Studio isn’t necessarily a good (or logical) purchase, but if a good chunk of your day is spent rendering — and your software of choice happens to be supported — then it does make sense (for as long as your wallet can cover it, of course).
Heat, power, and noise are all factors one should keep in mind, and in that regard, the M1 Ultra stands in a league of its own.
Although, in all fairness, the gap between it and Alder Lake/top-of-the-line Ryzen CPUs isn’t nearly as insurmountable — or consistent — as Apple initially led us to believe.
Benchmarks Don’t Tell the Whole Tale
Perhaps the biggest compliment one can give to Apple and its M1 line-up is that working on them feels like magic.
Now, we know: that sounds like a bunch of marketing hogwash but it really is true.
The whole OS is exceedingly responsive, things open in a blink of an eye, and certain workflows — like video editing (Resolve, Final Cut, Premiere Pro), for example — have been optimized to such a degree that you cannot help but wonder what kind of wizardry lay behind it all.
Proxies are now mostly a thing of the past! Scrubbing through multiple streams of non-compressed 4K/8K footage becomes a breeze, and much of the same can be said for most kinds of color correction and rendering.
Rendering, in fact, is better across all of today’s most popular non-linear editors.
It all works so seamlessly; there’s really no friction at all.
And the best part? The machine you’re using — be it a MacBook or, say, a Mac Mini — slowly (but surely) starts to fade into the background, and you’re left all alone with your creation and the process that brought it into existence.
There aren’t any complications or technological challenges that can get in the way between you and your work; you’re constantly in a state of flow, focused only on the work itself.
The same holds true for graphic design, music production, and everything in between.
Rendering, timeline scrubbing, complex brushwork, layers upon layers of intricate designs — the M1 line-up can handle it with aplomb.
The M1 Ultra, naturally, does it best. We know, this is some very high praise, but it’s more than warranted.
The whole M1 line-up took the world by storm and we’re still talking about it as enthusiastically as we did back when this groundbreaking tech was first announced.
And that, in an industry that moves at a breakneck speed, is quite a rarity.
Building a PC still makes sense (especially if you’re a gamer or if your software of choice isn’t supported on macOS), but Apple’s M1 line-up does have an upper hand when it comes to power efficiency, thermals, and fan noise.
You can get comparable performance from Intel’s Alder Lake, for instance, but those chips will draw a lot more power and, by proxy, generate a lot more heat and noise.
For desktop workstations that is not necessarily an issue, but for portable thin-and-light ultrabooks it certainly is.
It all boils down to your own personal needs.
Still, it’s worth noting that — in certain scenarios and workloads — Apple has not only caught up with the Windows realm but has even surpassed it, seemingly overnight.
The base variant is passively cooled and can be found in the MacBook Air, iPad Pro, and even the iPad Air (as of March 2021).
The more powerful M1 Pro and M1 Max do require active cooling, but they’re so power-efficient you’ll hardly ever hear the fan — and even when you do it’ll be more of a whimper than a jet engine.
After Effects, Premiere Pro Benchmarks
From the Charts above we can already tell, the Ultra performs well against its competing SKUs from Intel and AMD. Especially if you factor in the much lower power draw.
How does it score in Pugetsystem’s Pugetbench for After Effects and Premiere Pro? Let’s take a look –
We’ve compared the Intel 12900K, an AMD 5950X and the M1 Ultra inside a Mac Studio. From the highest Scores we could find of the three SKUs, the M1 Ultra scores well, but again doesn’t reach the performance of its competition:
After Effects Pugetbench Score
- Intel i9 12900K – Overall Score: 1280
- AMD R9 5950X – Overall Score: 1128
- M1 Ultra (Mac Studio) – Overall Score: 1120
Premiere Pro Pugetbench Score
- Intel i9 12900K – Standard Overall Score: 1627
- M1 Ultra (Mac Studio) – Standard Overall Score: 1429
- AMD R9 5950X – Standard Overall Score: 1135
The M1 Ultra comes in about on par with the 5950X in After Effects but beats it in Premiere Pro. Looking at the much lower power consumption of the M1, the comparison isn’t really fair, but in the end, knowing your Mac consumes less power doesn’t really make you work more efficiently, right?
Do You Need Apple’s M1 Ultra?
Well, not really.
It’s always nice to have as much performance headroom as possible, but unless you’re a seasoned Hollywood colorist or an editor at the highest of levels, then there’s really no need to spend the extra money on an M1 Ultra when an M1 Max will grant you all the many splendors and benefits of this novel architecture.
The Ultra is better, there’s no doubt about it, but its performance uplift simply doesn’t justify the price delta.
Heck, even the M1 Pro is a beastly SoC — one that’ll get the job done for the vast majority of users (both casuals and professionals alike).
A good (if a bit simplified) way of thinking about it would be as follows: how demanding is your workflow right now, and how demanding could it get a few years down the road?
Try to be rational as there’s really no need to succumb to Apple’s (admittedly quite potent) upselling tactics.
The Big Question: Should You Get an M1 Ultra or Build a New PC?
Well, it depends.
Apple’s M1 line-up is absolutely incredible, but it’s not necessarily the right choice for everyone.
The most impressive thing about it is its power efficiency and the fact that it provides the exact same amount of power in a myriad of different form factors — tablet, laptop, and desktop.
Moreover, you won’t lose any of that power if you happen to be away from a power outlet.
That’s a hugely important feature, one that simply doesn’t exist in the Windows/PC/Laptop realm.
Building a PC always makes sense. It’s a “tried and true” method that’ll provide you with the absolute most flexibility and control over your hardware — both in terms of what you’re building and how it’ll run.
You can adjust your build accordingly, both now and in the future; it can grow and evolve alongside you.
These M1 Macs, on the other hand, are “readymade.”
They’re incredible, sure, and way more powerful than most folks need, but they do come with a longish list of caveats and drawbacks, some of which are more acceptable than others.
As always, it all depends on what you need and what kind of job you’re doing.
Let’s do a quick overview:
Get a PC if
- The Applications (or Games) you use on a daily basis only run on Windows
- You want ultimate flexibility to pick out just the right parts for your build
- You want to be able to upgrade Parts down the line without buying an entirely new machine
- You’re running heavily GPU (Rendering) workloads that the M1 just isn’t powerful enough for
- Power draw or heat isn’t as big of a concern to you
Get an M1 Mac if
- The Applications you use run on MAC OS
- The Applications you use run better on MAC than Windows, thanks to some Mac Metal or Media Engine performance optimizations
- You want a power-efficient, quiet and cool machine while still packing some serious performance that you’d otherwise only get on power-hungry PC hardware
- You’re used to the MAC OS and Ecosystem or would like to use an OS that is often said to be easier and smoother to use
- You’re not someone who’d upgrade or pick out PC Parts anyway and just want something to unpack and plug in that works
M1 Ultra | Is It Really As Good As People Say?
In short: yes.
But it’s also too good, in a way.
Most folks really don’t need that much power, and the ones that do can already get their job done with the far less expensive M1 Max.
If you slash your render times by a couple of minutes that is great, but so is saving two thousand dollars — that’s a very sizable sum that can be used elsewhere.
For anyone working as a creative professional (or is just a staunch hobbyist), Apple’s M1 architecture is an absolute breakthrough.
The M1 Max, however, is on the verge of diminishing returns.
After that particular SoC, you won’t be getting your money’s worth as performance doesn’t always scale linearly, despite the M1 Ultra being comprised of two M1 Maxes.
The “problem” here is that the M1 Max is simply far too good at what it does.
Its “bigger brother” is better, but shaving a few minutes off a render really isn’t impactful enough to warrant twenty more Benjamin Franklins.
What Are the Biggest Differences Compared to M1 Max and M1 Pro?
To help you better understand the differences between these two chips, we’ve compiled a fairly straightforward spec sheet, one that’ll give you all the nitty-gritty details you’re probably wondering about!
|M1 Max||M1 Ultra|
[8 Performance, 2 Efficiency Cores]
[16 Performance, 4 Efficiency Cores]
|Graphics||24-core GPU, up to 32||48-core [base], up to 64|
|RAM||32GB [base], up to 64GB||64GB [base], up to 128GB|
|Storage Options||512GB [base], up to 8TB||1TB [base], up to 8TB|
|Neural Engine||16 cores||32 cores|
|Media Engine||— Hardware-accelerated H.264, HEVC, ProRes, and ProRes RAW|
— Video decode engine
— Two video encode engines
— Two ProRes encode and decode engines
|— Hardware-accelerated H.264, HEVC, ProRes, and ProRes RAW|
— Two video decode engines
— Four video encode engines
— Four ProRes encode and decode engines
|Cooling Solution||Active, aluminum heat sink||Active, copper heatsink|
In everyday use, you will not feel or notice any kind of difference between them. None whatsoever.
Both SoCs are outrageously powerful, and both will serve you for the years to come without ever feeling slow or outdated, or incapable.
Whenever something so novel and seemingly advanced pops up, it’s like our wallets start to itch.
Suddenly our own machines feel… meek as if they were a thing of the past — a remnant that no longer serves its purpose; like a long-forgotten tool of a bygone era, one that became old-fashioned and antique in the blink of an eye.
You watch Tim Cook strut down the stage, confident as ever in what he’s about to unveil to the world and in the many millions of dollars and euros and yuans his company is about to rake in. And, well, they’ve earned every penny.
Don’t, however, allow yourself to be swept by all the hype.
Think about your own workflow: is your software suite of choice supported on macOS?
Have your favorite programs been updated for M1? Do you game… ever?
Do you mind entering Apple’s ecosystem, a choice that’ll leave an indelible mark on your wallet?
These are all important questions and, fortunately, they’re all easy to answer.
There are other options on the market, too, and they’re also worthy of your time and attention (and the attention of your bank account).
If you’re okay with the many limitations Apple imposes on its users — and happen to be a creative looking to upgrade to the latest and greatest piece of tech — then there’s really no better option on the market than Apple’s M1 line-up — specifically the M1 Max, although the M1 Pro could (and most probably would) do the trick as well.
Anything less than that could become a bottleneck depending on the heaviness and complexity of your workflow, and anything better (that currently being the M1 Ultra) would be needlessly expensive and totally overpowered.
The M1 Max is the sweet spot.
Going up the product stack simply isn’t warranted as it would push you way beyond the point of diminishing returns.
Over to You
The M1 Ultra has put Apple on the map as a serious competitor to AMD, Intel, and the PC Market in general.