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March 14, 2022

Apple’s New Mac Studio is an 8K Beast

Apple has made some real advances in processors over the last couple of years with its M series of silicon. As we’ve reported, Apple is making 8K workflows more accessible. Still, up to now, it has not had a genuinely high-end option for those that would see themselves as users of workstations for content creation and other intensive applications.

That changed on March 9 when Apple introduced its new Mac Studio desktop computers based on the M1 Max chip launched last year, or even more enticing, based on a new processor called the M1 Ultra.

This announcement overshadowed the minor iPhone SE and iPad Air upgrades. Note that a new 27″, 60Hz, 218ppi, 600 nits, 5K monitor called Studio Display was announced alongside the new computer. We’ll see if this Studio Display is a poor person’s version of the Pro Display XDR or something else as soon as we get some reviews in – ironically, at a quarter of the price, the new display does have a stand.

But back to the real news on the chipset side. Apple made very dramatic performance and power-saving claims for the new processor. It said that a system based on the Ultra could stream up to 18 streams of 8K ProRes 4:2:2 streams of video!

Apple had designed the M1 Max chip with a previously undisclosed special connector arrangement along the whole of one edge. The connector is designed to allow two M1 Max chips to work seamlessly together, basically doubling the performance. This design that Apple calls “UltraFusion” also enables the addressing of more unified memory (up to 128GB) at a blistering 800Gbps and, critically, can be used to increase performance without any change in the software designed for the M1 series. Apple said that the interprocessor bandwidth of the two processors on the Ultra chip, exploiting 10,000 connections using a silicon interposer, is 2.5 TB/sec.

At its press event, Apple wheeled out a number of software developers of high-end media software to endorse the big boost in performance. They included Ableton (music), Adobe, Vectorworks, Maxon, Boris FX, and CLO (3D fashion design), and they endorsed that the new processor accelerates all aspects of the software performance. (although the claim that ‘Now things will be done to deadline’ from one of the ISVs is perhaps a bit optimistic!).

The new aluminum Mac Studio systems start at $1999 (M1 Max) and $3999 (M1 Ultra) and go up to $7999, but in a box that is just 7.7″ (19.7cm) square and 3.7″ high.

The low power consumption means that the firm says that you can’t hear the fans at all in ‘normal’ loads. It can support up to four 6K displays and a single 4K display. We have reached out to Apple to see if the Thunderbolt 4 ports (40Gbps) support DSC to allow external 8K monitors at 60fps. The 40Gbps, even without DSC, should be able to support up to 30fps in 8K from a single port if that feature is enabled in the drivers of the macOS operating system.

Of course, if the 8K display presents itself to the computer system as four separate Ultra HD displays, there should be no problem in running it on the Apple Studio.

On the face of it, the systems don’t support 8K displays, which is disappointing, but the highest resolution display that Apple supplies are its own 32″ Pro Display XDR and new 27″ Studio Display, which are both just 6K, matching the published output of the Studio.

One way around this limitation might have been to exploit the 40Gbps Thunderbolt connections and use an external GPU (eGPU) that could support 8K. However, Apple does not support eGPUs with its own silicon, only in systems that use Intel chips. Of course, using an external GPU would have reduced some of the performance advantages from the GPUs in the M1 Ultra itself.

Figure 1 Apple graphic comparing Intel-based 27″ iMac video app performance against different M1 chips

Suppose the performance of the Apple Studio is as powerful as Apple claims. In that case, content creators have no real reason not to work in 8K for content capture and creation. They will just not view the content in 8K on the Studio as announced last week. Of course, storage would need to be more extensive. The multiple Thunderbolt ports and internal storage up to 8TB should be adequate for most.

The apparent lack of support for an 8K display is something of a disappointment that Apple will hopefully address soon.

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