If you’re in the market for a mid-range Mac desktop computer, then your choices are either the M2 Pro Mac mini or the M1 Max Mac Studio. We’ll take a look at all the similarities and differences between these 2 machines so you can decide which one will better suit your needs.
Apple released the M2 Pro Mac mini in January of 2023, while the Mac Studio featuring the M1 Max and M1 Ultra chips launched 10 months before that in March 2022. Although Apple released the M2 Max chip in the 14″ and 16″ MacBook Pros also in January 2023, the Mac Studio has not been upgraded to the M2 generation yet.
And while the Mac Studio does have the M1 Ultra chip option, we’re not going to compare that since the $4000 starting price puts it completely out of the M2 Pro chip’s league, and isn’t what I would consider a mid-range option. Therefore, we’ll focus our comparison on the M2 Pro versus the M1 Max, which are actually priced about the same as we’ll see in a bit.
Starting with the outside design, the Mac Studio is essentially a taller Mac mini. The square width and length are actually the same at 7.75 inches, even though Apple truncates to one less decimal point on the Mac Studio tech specs for some reason. The height of the Mac Studio is 2.6 times taller at 3.7 inches versus 1.41 inches for the Mac mini. So it’s about two and a half Mac mini’s stacked together, although the weight is only 2.1 times more.
Ports: A Clear Advantage?
When it comes to ports, the Mac Studio seems to have a clear advantage at first.
On the backs of both machines, the similar ports include a power button, power connector, Ethernet port, Four Thunderbolt 4 ports, an HDMI port, Two USB-A (5Gb/s) ports, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
The Ethernet port on the Mac Studio comes standard with 10 Gigabit, while the Mac mini has Gigabit Ethernet by default, but you can upgrade to 10 Gigabit for $100 extra. The Mac Studio even has more ports on the front side that the Mac mini does not: Two USB-C (10Gb/s) ports, and an SDXC card slot with UHS-II speeds.
Before we declare the Mac Studio the clear winner in expansion ports, however, we need to acknowledge one key advantage of the newer generation. The M2 Pro Mac mini has an HDMI 2.1 port, while the Mac Studio only has HDMI 2.0. HDMI 2.1 is critical if you want to use higher resolutions and refresh rates in displays with only HDMI input such as 4K 120Hz TVs.
Since we’re on the topic of display support, the M2 Pro Mac mini supports up to 3 displays, with 2 over Thunderbolt and 1 on HDMI. For the 3 displays, the 2 on Thunderbolt supports up to 6K@60Hz, but that limits your HDMI display to only 4K@60Hz, which is the same as the HDMI 2.0 bandwidth on the Mac Studio.
If you only use 2 displays, then Thunderbolt can still give you up to 6K@60Hz, but the HDMI display can go up to 4K@144Hz. And finally, if you only use a single display and hook it up via HDMI, that’s when it can reach 8K@60Hz or 4K@240Hz.
So be aware that connecting displays over Thunderbolt on the M2 Pro mac mini will actually limit how much bandwidth the HDMI 2.1 port can output. So you’ll want to be careful and figure out the resolutions and refresh rates you plan to use before you buy an M2 Pro.
The Mac Studio can support up to 5 displays, which is 2 more than the M2 Pro Mac mini. You can connect up to 4 of them over the Thunderbolt ports on the back of the Mac Studio (not the front USB-C only ports on the M1 Max model that are not Thunderbolt) to get up to 6K@60Hz, and also have a display over HDMI up to 4K@60Hz. Since it’s only an HDMI 2.0 port, it’s not further bandwidth limited if you connect displays over Thunderbolt.
The final topic related to ports is Audio. Both the Mac mini and Mac Studio have similar audio support, with a built-in speaker, 3.5 mm headphone jack that supports high-impedance headphones, and the ability to use multichannel audio over HDMI.
Built-in speakers on the Mac mini have always been terrible and only useful for diagnostics or notifications, and the Mac Studio speakers are in the same class. Technically, with a larger body, there could have been more room for improved speakers on the Mac Studio, but it wouldn’t be worth it for Apple to do that as most people will be using their own sound systems anyway.
With a newer generation machine, we also have improvements in networking technology. The Mac Studio has Wi-Fi 6 and Bluetooth 5.0, while the M2 Pro Mac mini has the newer Wi-Fi 6E and Bluetooth 5.3.
Wi-Fi 6E’s big advantage over Wi-Fi 6 is the ability to use the 6GHz band, which is less saturated than the common 2.4 and 5GHz bands, resulting in less congestion and more stability. However, higher frequencies mean shorter range as well, and you’ll need networking equipment that supports Wi-Fi 6E to take advantage of it.
For Bluetooth, the most significant improvement between versions 5.0 and 5.3 is probably the Low Energy Audio introduced with Bluetooth 5.2, which focused on sound-related enhancements. While it’s nice to have the latest Bluetooth version, it’s not a dealbreaker unless you have a special need for something Bluetooth 5.0 can’t do.
M2 Pro vs M1 Max
Alright, now let’s get to the primary difference between the M2 Pro Mac mini and M1 Max Mac Studio, the chip. M2 is a different generation of Apple Silicon than the M1 series, which means just comparing core count numbers won’t tell us the whole story. However, it also isn’t such a big leap that such comparisons are meaningless, so let’s go over the specs and some basic benchmarks.
For single-core performance, the M2 Pro is about 10% faster than the M1 Max. Both M2 Pro and M1 Max have 10-core CPUs, but the M2 Pro has only 6 performance cores, while the M1 Max has 8. Despite M2 cores being slightly faster than M1 cores, the M1 Max Mac Studio multi-core performance is slightly faster than the M2 Pro’s, but only by 1.8%, so it’s really close.
However, the main difference between Max and Pro level chip designations has always been graphics performance. The M2 Pro Mac mini has 16 GPU cores, while the M1 Max Mac Studio has 24 GPU cores in the base model. A Geekbench 5 Metal score comparison shows the Mac Studio with a 27% graphics performance advantage over the Mac mini. Although this is just one data point, it does gives us a ballpark estimate.
Beyond the base models, however, both the Mac mini and Mac Studio let you upgrade the chip with more cores. The M2 Pro Mac mini can be upgraded to a 12 CPU and 19 GPU configuration for $300. Multi-core CPU performance goes up by 17% while there are 18.75% more GPU cores leading to 10% higher Geekbench 5 Metal Scores. From the base model price of $1300, a $300 increase is 23%, so it’s not quite worth it from a cost-value perspective.
The M1 Max Mac Studio can also be upgraded, but not with more CPU cores. You can get 8 additional GPU cores to bring the total core count to 32 by paying $200 more, which also leads to 10% higher Geekbench 5 Metal scores. As the base Mac Studio costs $2000, you’re paying 10% more for 10-33% more GPU performance, depending on whether your use case scales with all the extra cores, but 0 additional CPU performance.
For both chip upgrade options, they generally aren’t a good value from a cost-to-performance perspective, except if your workload is GPU intensive, making the M1 Max GPU upgrade potentially worthwhile.
Media Engine Differences
Apple started calling its support for hardware-accelerated video encoding and decoding the media engine. Both the M2 Pro and M1 Max have media engines, but the Max-level chips have two video encode engines compared to just 1 on the M2 Pro. That makes a difference only if you plan to be encoding multiple streams of video at the same time.
Let’s talk about memory. The first thing to note and then ignore about unified memory is the difference in memory bandwidth. The M1 Max has double the memory bandwidth of the M2 Pro, at 400 GB/s versus 200GB/s. However, this is just an inherent characteristic of the Max and Pro chips, so we don’t need to think about it too much.
The amount of memory, however, is important to think about. The M2 Pro comes with 16GB of memory, which can be upgraded to 32GB for $400. That means paying $25 per gigabyte of memory.
The M1 Max Mac Studio comes with 32GB of memory already in the base model, and can be upgraded to 64GB, also for $400. That’s a per gigabyte cost of $12.50. That means the cost per gigabyte for memory upgrades in the Mac mini is actually TWICE that of the Mac Studio.
For storage, both the M2 Pro Mac mini and M1 Max Mac Studio come with 512 GB of storage capacity. Both machines can also be upgraded to 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, or 8TB of storage at the same cost tiers from $200 to $2400. Since you’re upgrading from half a terabyte and not 0, the storage upgrade costs per terabyte at each level are actually $400, $400, $343, and $320.
These prices are pretty expensive, and unlike memory which has no alternatives, you should seriously consider whether external storage can meet your needs. For example, 4TB SSD drives can be had for less than $250 nowadays. Sure, external storage may not be as fast, but it’s rare to actually need 4 or 8TB of data at the superfast internal speeds. And who couldn’t use an extra $1000 or $2000 in their pocket?
Speaking of drive speeds, it’s common for larger capacity drives to be faster. However, Apple’s usage of higher-capacity but a fewer number of storage chips in their SSDs for the M2 generation Macs compared to M1 exaggerated the difference. In particular, the lower capacity storage drives are much slower than the higher capacity ones, at least up to 1TB being the sweet spot to get closer to peak performance.
That means the 512GB SSD in the M2 Pro Mac mini has much slower sequential transfer speeds than the 512GB SSD in the M1 Max Mac Studio, a difference between 3000 MB/s and around 5000 MB/s. However, other aspects like random read/writes are better in the M2 generation SSDs even for the smaller drives. If you upgrade to 1TB or higher, then the M2 Pro Mac mini should have slightly faster speeds all-around than the M1 Max Mac Studio.
Whether the sequential transfer speed differences in the base model capacity really matter depends on your workload. For most cases, it probably is not worth worrying about, and the amount of storage you need should determine your choice of storage capacity.
One aspect not found in the specs very important to some folks, including myself, is the noise level, both when idle and under load. The gist is that the M2 Pro Mac mini is quieter at idle, and the M1 Max Mac Studio should be quieter under heavy load.
At idle, Apple’s tech specs say the Mac mini generates 5 decibels of noise, while the Mac Studio generates 15 decibels. That’s because they set the Mac Studio idle fan speeds to 1300 rpm, which is higher than necessary and clearly audible. Fan control tools are able to lower the fan speed to 1100 rpm to make it much quieter if not silent. The other issue upon release is that many reported annoying high-pitched noises from their units. Either way, at idle, the Mac Studio is at least as loud as the Mac mini, which is effectively inaudible from a normal sitting distance of a few feet away.
Under load, many tests say that the Mac Studio doesn’t get any louder or ramp up the fans much, if at all. This is unsurprising, as the larger body of the Mac Studio allows for a more effective cooling system with lower fan speeds. As for the M2 Pro Mac mini, I made a video that shows exactly what happens under various CPU and GPU loads, so check that out later if you’re interested. In summary, the fan speed does ramp up a bit and get audible under load.
Should you get the M2 Pro Mac mini or M1 Max Mac Studio?
So should you get the M2 Pro Mac mini or the M1 Max Mac Studio? Let’s look at 4 key dimensions: display support, ports, price, and performance.
Display support is simple. If you want to use more than 3 displays, meaning 4 or 5, only the Mac Studio will suffice. On the other hand, if you need HDMI 2.1 to run a high resolution, high refresh rate display, then only the M2 Pro mac mini will do the job.
As for ports, the Mac Studio has the addition of USB-C ports in the front, along with an SD card reader. These are convenient to have, for sure, but it isn’t that difficult to use a hub or card reader attachment if necessary, especially since it’s a desktop that you don’t need to keep unplugging. If it’s important to you, then consider it a point toward the Mac Studio, but keep in mind that alternatives are available.
When it comes to price, the base M2 Pro Mac mini starts at $1300. But it lacks 2 things the Mac Studio has: 32GB of unified memory, which is a $400 upgrade, and 10 Gigabit Ethernet, a $100 upgrade. Add those to the price and it becomes $1800, only $200 less than the Mac Studio’s base model price of $2000.
The 10/16 M2 Pro chip outperforms the M1 Max in single-core CPU performance and trades blows in multi-core. If you don’t need 32GB of memory or the best GPU performance, then $1300, or $1400 if you can make use of 10 Gigabit Ethernet, is a much better value than the Mac Studio. Around 30-35% better in fact.
If you want the best CPU performance above all else, the upgraded 12/19 M2 Pro chip for $300 extra is the way to go. Multi-core benchmarks show it performs 15% better than the M1 Max. If 16GB of memory is enough, then a $1600 M2 Pro Mac mini outperforming a $2000 M1 Max Mac Studio is a pretty good value as well. 20% good at that.
If you do need 32GB of memory and you still don’t need super-high GPU performance, then the M2 Pro mac mini with upgraded memory and either chip option is the way to go.
The ONLY performance reason to go for the M1 Max Mac Studio is if you need better GPU performance than the M2 Pro can give you, or the 2 video encode engines. Compared to the 12/19 M2 Pro, the 10/24 M1 Max GPU performance is only 12% faster in benchmarks, while the M2 Pro leads in CPU performance by 15%. With the same amount of memory, the price is also the same around $2000, or $2100 if you care about 10 Gigabit Ethernet. Since CPU performance is also more useful than GPU for most use cases, that makes the M2 Pro Mac mini the better value overall.
The 10 Gigabit Ethernet upgrade is an outlier; if you can make use of it with a 10 Gigabit network, then definitely get it as $100 for 10 times faster data transfer speeds is an amazing value. But if you don’t have or plan to set up a 10 Gigabit or even a 2.5 Gigabit network, it’s useless so don’t waste your money or consider the upgrade as part of the price comparison.