Our last review for 2023, the 2023 Mac Studio is a premium machine made for content creators with money to spare.
Not everyone has the same need for their computers. While some use their computers for office-style work and a bit of play, others need more grunt and performance to spare.
Imagine yourself as a coder, an engineer, a data scientist, a video editor, a composer and sound engineer, or an animator: your needs are going to be very different from that of everyone else. And if you’re gradually transitioning into those because you have a project or hobby, chances are that your regular computer may not cover it.
This is where a workstation comes into play, a class of computer built for more hefty performance needs that can more often than not come with a price tag equally hefty. It’s certainly that way when you venture a look at workstation laptops, which include the screen, keyboard, mouse, and a battery to go.
But what if you don’t need the screen, keyboard, or an ounce of portability? If you don’t mind forgoing the portable design, a desktop workstation could be where you want to look, and it might even save some money, as the 2023 Mac Studio seems to suggest. Kinda sorta.
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Updated in name and chip alone, the 2023 Mac Studio arrives with an identical design with zero changes to the aesthetic.
Much like the first model we checked out in 2022, it means you’ll find an softened rectangular prism of a thing made from aluminium, encasing all the hardware that makes up Apple’s Mac Studio, with ports cut out on the front and back, plus a grid of holes for an exhaust vent covering speakers and air.
Or to put it simply, it’s another beautifully minimalist workstation design that looks like a thicker Mac Mini.
The design may well be the same, but the hardware is not, with changes to the Apple Silicon level in the box.
At the time the 2023 Mac Studio was released and supplied for review, Apple’s high-end chip generation was in the M2 generation, covering the M2 Max and M2 Ultra, both of which were available for the Mac Studio.
The M2 Max model is what we’re looking at, covering a 12-core CPU, 30-core GPU, 32GB RAM, and 1TB SSD, though the maximum available on the M2 Max Mac Studio is a 12-core CPU, 38-core GPU, and up to 96GB RAM. If you need more memory, there’s an M2 Ultra generation which can increase the performance and memory significantly, the latter of which extends to 192GB.
Our review Mac Studio was equipped with 1TB SSD, but can support up to 8TB, and sees a few updates to its wireless technologies by comparison to the original Mac Studio. You’ll find WiFi 6E giving slightly more future-proofing to the WiFi 6 in the first model, while Bluetooth 5.3 is an update to Bluetooth 5.0 found in the original.
Just about everything is the same, though, including the two Type C ports up front next to an SD card slot, while the back sees four Thunderbolt 4 ports, one 10 Gigabit Ethernet, two Type A rectangular USB ports, an HDMI port, and the one three-prong power plug to make things easier to use.
Apple has made one change worth talking about in the headset jack, however, with the 3.5mm port up the front supporting high-impedance headphones, meaning you may not have to bring with a headphone amp if you use some pro-grade headphones. You still might depending on the type, but it means the pair of Sennheiser HD 25 cans we’re reaching for will sound that little bit louder.
With no display in this Mac, you’ll have to get stuck in using whatever display you want. That could be a Mac Studio Display or something else, such as an ultra-wide, which is what we jumped in with.
You’ll also need to bring your own keyboard and mouse for the 2023 Studio Mac because neither is included. That’s normal with desktop Macs, and the same thing that happens when you consider the Mac Mini. It is very much a case of BYO.
Once you do “bring your own”, however, you can set up the machine and get stuck in. We brought the standard wireless Apple keyboard and the spacious wireless trackpad, but you can bring what you need, and thanks to the two USB-C ports on the front, it should be quite easy to do so.
With macOS installed and more or less good to go immediately, outside of the initial setup screens, it’s time to get to using the 2023 Mac Studio, and that brings us to benchmarks.
More of a workstation-class Mac, think of the Mac Studio as a supersized Mac Mini, because that’s kind of what it is. While the 2023 M2 Mac Mini can be used for work, productivity, a few games, plus some sound and video engineering, the 2023 M2 Mac Studio has more horsepower for more of that.
If your work takes you to Unreal Engine and animation needs, the extra cores and instructions on the M2 Silicon is here for that. Meanwhile, if you like to build up scores and songs using Logic Pro, the extra capabilities of the M2 Max are here for you, and it’s much the same for video work, coding exports, and so on.
You can still do the whole work and games thing here, and the M2 Max will give you that little bit more juice than the standard model, but workstation-class is really what this Mac is made for.
Benching the performance of this Mac Studio against last year’s model shows the obvious improvements, none of which will be a surprise given there’s a new generation of chip here, and that can deliver more.
As it is, the Mac Studio is hard to push, but clearly if you’re finding the gear isn’t hitting your projects the way it once did, an upgrade to the 2023 M3 model could make a lot of sense.
This would be the end of the benchmarks had we written this review in the beginning of the year. However, it’s the end of the year and Apple has made a surprise release of new chips with the M3 Silicon.
We’ve already seen some of that generation in the M3 Max MacBook Pro 16, what is arguably the fastest portable computer around and a winner of our Best Tech 2023 picks, but how does the M2 Mac Studio compare to that model?
The answer is somewhat unsurprising: the M3 Max MacBook Pro wipes the floor with the M2 Max Mac Studio. And this shouldn’t come as a shock at all, especially given the previous benchmark showed the M2 Max trouncing the M1 Max.
All three are capable chips, clearly, but the newer generation has more going for it in terms of raw performance.
As to whether you’ll be able to wrench that much out of either, that remains to be seen. Our experience reviewing the M2 Max Mac Studio showed capable performance in both Xcode and the Unreal Engine that wasn’t unlike what we experienced via the M3. We ran Windows virtual machines with ease to simulate Windows gaming and dabbled in a bit of Mac gaming, too. Using the M2 Mac Studio for editing sound in Logic Pro was much the same, and we doubt most would be able to spot major differences.
Benchmarks paint a picture of raw performance and speed, but they’re not exactly real world usage tests. In short, the new chip is faster than the old one, but that doesn’t mean it’ll actually impact how you use it.
However, it does make a difference to the cost, because now that there’s a new breed of chip out, it means you’re also buying a slightly older generation. Apple hasn’t updated the Mac Studio to the M3 yet, which comes as a bit of a surprise, so the boost in performance is clearly in the laptops at the moment and not quite its desktop models.
The value issue goes a little deeper than that, however.
When it comes to talking about a workstation, pricing is always going to be a little higher than other computers. It’s just part and parcel of what you pay with performance.
Macs can push that a little, but the biggest point is that you can technically save money with a Mac Studio when comparing it with a MacBook Pro of similar specs. There isn’t an MBP of identical specs anymore, so it’s a little more difficult to make a direct comparison, however there’s a good $2K between the M2 Max Studio Mac and the M3 Max MacBook Pro.
Value isn’t something that is easily argued for workstations, and the chip difference makes this one more complicated and still a concern, but if you don’t need the screen or the portability of a laptop, a two thousand dollar saving isn’t small, especially when the performance is still this good.
What needs work?
The questionable value is still a concern, particularly given how the chips in the Mac Studio are no longer the best even for Apple. You can find more performance in the M3 Max laptops, though this is still quite powerful.
But Apple still hasn’t fixed what we mentioned last time, such as improvements to speakers or the lack of a 3.5mm headset jack up front (which would make it easier to plug in headphones). It’s very much been left the same, which isn’t bad, but could have been better.
You still can’t upgrade it, and short of the upgraded generation in the chips, Apple has largely left everything the same.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
At the end of 2023, the Mac Studio is in an interesting place.
On the one hand, it’s still one of Apple’s best desktop computers, providing a solid amount of grunt in a beautifully designed minimalist exterior. And yet on the other, Apple has more power available in its laptops.
It’s a confusing state to consider a computer in, that’s for sure.
We think we can see the value argument, especially given the saving of roughly two thousand dollars on offer. If you’re a creator in need of a serious dose of power and you don’t need to take that system to go, the 2023 Mac Studio makes sense, but there’s a catch. And the catch is this: we don’t expect it will take Apple long into 2024 to upgrade the Studio’s hardware.
If you’re okay with the risk, the current Mac Studio is a lovely little workstation. Frankly, when the M3 models arrive and the M2 can be found for less shortly before it’s retired, the system will make even more sense, particularly in the dollars and cents.