Thursday, March 10, 2022

New Mac Studio and Studio Display Change Mac Buying Calculus

Adam Engst:

The 27-inch iMac has been such a bastion of the Mac lineup—and the computer I’ve used nonstop for almost 8 years—that I couldn’t even conceive of Apple dropping it. But drop it Apple did, replacing it with the Studio Display and your choice of M1-based Mac. Which Mac? The Mac Studio may be the most obvious option, but even the MacBook Air, Mac mini, or one of the MacBook Pros would easily best the performance of the most recent 27-inch iMac.

So if a 27-inch iMac no longer holds the sweet spot where performance and screen size/quality intersect, I may have to rethink my usual strategy of combining an inexpensive laptop Mac with a high-performance desktop Mac with dual displays.

I’m really happy that Mac Studio exists, but on reflection I don’t think it’s the Mac for me. For my purposes (mostly Xcode), I don’t think the M1 Ultra would offer much benefit over the M1 Pro or M1 Max. I have no use for that much GPU power (except maybe for big Lightroom imports). It’s not clear that Xcode can really take advantage of the M1 Ultra’s extra CPU cores. I’m on the fence about whether I want 32 GB or 64 GB of RAM, but either of those can be had with the M1 Max.

I’ve been happy with my 27-inch iMac, after many years of laptops-as-desktops before that, so I had kind of been assuming I would either get a new iMac or a desktop Mac with an external display (to go along with the non-Retina Dell that’s attached to my iMac). There’s no more big-screen iMac, so the Mac Studio seemed like the obvious choice.

But the more I thought about the potential switch, the less sense it seemed to make. Although I don’t travel a lot, there are still significant benefits to having my main Mac be potentially portable at any moment. I can grab it and go without having to do a lengthy sync first. If the power or Internet goes down, I can easily relocate (and not have to worry about powering the desktop with a UPS while syncing).

One of the nice things about the Mac Studio is all the ports it has, but it doesn’t have enough that I could avoid using a hub. M1 Ultra aside, it may have some performance benefits over a MacBook Pro due to better thermals, but I don’t expect a large difference.

Another consideration is what will happen the next time I upgrade. I don’t really have the space in my office, nor a spare display, for a second desktop setup. But a laptop could rotate from primary use and becoming my ready backup and test Mac. This is what I used to do when I was a laptop person. Pro laptops are more expensive than the Mac Studio, but I won’t have to buy a new laptop for travel when I retire the current one.

Thinking back, the two reasons I got the iMac were that it was much faster than the MacBook Pros at the time, and that it had a 27-inch Retina display. But both of those are now moot: MacBook Pros are now available with M1 Pro and M1 Max, and there is finally a display to connect to them.

The next big question is which size of display to get. I like to have as much screen space as possible—I still miss the 17-inch MacBook Pro. But the oversized trackpad on the 16-inch (Intel) MacBook Pro drives me crazy with its accidental input and misclassified clicks. There’s no way I’m buying another one of those, so 14-inch it is.

Dan Moren:

But what if you’re someone who falls in the middle, what once was called the “prosumer” market? There’s actually a surprising dearth of options on the desktop side. The Mac mini and iMac offer only the 8-core CPU/8-core GPU M1 processor—even in the top of the line iMac, starting at $1699. To get anything more than that, you’d have to jump to a $1999 Mac Studio, and then add a display like Apple’s new $1599 Studio Display. That’s $2000 more than that top of the line iMac.

Moreover, because of the limitations of the M1 chip, the iMac and the Mac mini offer only a maximum of 16GB of RAM and two Thunderbolt ports—the same as an M1 MacBook Air.


It sure feels like there’s another shoe to drop here. The most obvious option would be to offer better chips in the iMac and Mac mini, and fortunately, Apple’s already got a template for that over on the laptop side: namely, the M1 Pro.

Nick Heer:

There still seems to be space to offer something to a midrange user who has outgrown the M1 iMac, but does not need the raw performance of the Mac Studio. It seems possible to me this could take the form of a different-sized iMac as much as it could a higher-specced version of the 24-inch model.


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Along with travel, with a laptop it's easy to work in a cafe or even on the couch occasionally.

I think the biggest drawback to the M1 is the limited connectivity and low-RAM ceiling. My hope is that M2-based Macs will address both of these constraints. The M1 handles memory pressure admirably but it’d be even better if it didn’t need to lean so heavily on swap.

My gut feeling is that we won't see more options added to the Mac mini until the M2 generation, and I think that will happen along with a redesign.

I understand where you’re coming from but I personally do not like to have cables floating around. If you have a lot of peripherals, it is definitely convenient to keep things in its place and rather annoying to plug/unplug several cables each time. Laziness wins.

Second, while I love what they have done with the MB Pros, they aren’t for me. I would very much prefer a smaller lighter package but still a 14 inch display and M1 Pro even if it sacrifices some battery life and performance.

Not enough ports on the Studio? How is that possible?

I thought it was interesting that when the Studio was announced, a lot of people felt that it was finally the xMac people had been waiting for. I guess different people have different opinions about what the xMac should be, but to me, the Studio is still essentially a laptop with a few more ports, but no screen. What I want the xMac to be is a device that actually benefits from not being portable, e.g. includes proper internal expansion, includes much, much better cooling, and thus includes much, much higher performance.

At this point, it is pretty clear that Apple's hardware development is going in the exact opposite direction of an xMac. So it makes sense to just buy portable devices, because that's what all of Apple's chips and motherboards are optimized for.

@Jan The cable mess is what it is. I have some of it in a box. The Studio wouldn’t be on the floor, anyway, just the back of my desk. So the main difference is plugging in a bunch of cables vs. syncing files to another Mac. I don’t expect the plugging to bother me that much, but if it does I could get a Thunderbolt dock.

@Plume Doesn’t the M1 Ultra have much better performance and cooling? Or are you referring to some other aspect of performance? I’d like a Mac with internal hard drive bays, but I can’t imagine that Apple would make that.

@ Plume: I agree that the “xMac”, for many, includes internal expansion. So did Siracusa, when he wrote about it many years ago.

In that sense, the Mac Studio does not qualify. But I think “the development is going in the exact opposite direction” isn’t quite right. The Mac Studio is, IMHO, a shift away from the “we’ll make a high-end AIO called the iMac Pro” extreme.

Also, as Michael said, the Studio is a Mac with much better cooling and much higher performance.

Sorry, typed more than I expected.

From Dan:

To get anything more than that, you’d have to jump to a $1999 Mac Studio, and then add a display like Apple’s new $1599 Studio Display.2 That’s $2000 more than that top of the line iMac.

Note also his footnote:

2 - And while, sure, you could connect a lower-cost monitor, there’s a reason Apple fans have been clamoring for a display that’s comparable to the one found in the iMac line.

Ugh, I usually like what Dan writes a lot, but the "there’s a reason" (Oh yeah? What is it?) feels like those app reviews that say, "One star. Would buy if it only had feature X!" but they won't really buy even if X is released.

That is, someone tell me why we're forced to immediately get a $1600 monitor to go with the Mac Studio. I got a decent refurbed 4k AOC monitor in 2017 for $200 (from That's a great deal, granted, but it's also... a great monitor. It better not be Studio Display good, but I don't notice, and I've been working on the monitor for years every workday. If you need a Mac Studio, get it! If you don't, don't let it be b/c you can't also justify the Display.

(Argh, why are these both named Studio so we can't shorten the names? Can we bring back "Cube"? I am.)

Monitors last longer than any other peripheral excepting maybe keyboards. You should have a serviceable monitor already, and, if you don't, you get to amortize that cost for a 7-15 years if you want. And uncoupling from the box means you can buy the expensive monitor next year, if you want, and still have new Cube speed today.

Or, if you have a M1 laptop (Dan does iirc), wanted the big iMac, and don't need Cube power, just get the monitor and hook up your laptop. POOF! 27" iMac experience.

From Michael:

One of the nice things about the Mac Studio is all the ports it has, but it doesn’t have enough that I could avoid using a hub.

I don’t really have the space in my office, nor a spare display, for a second desktop setup.

So if I had to guess, you're trying to talk yourself into waiting for a MacBook. If so, buy it! You'll love it. ;^D

But if you're still considering the Cube, these aren't dealbreakers imo.

For the first, I'm curious why you'd need a hub. You've got 2 USB-A, ethernet, hdmi, headphones, and four thunderbolts just on the back. Add a Studio Display and you're up to seven USB-C ports (4 of which are still thunderbolt, I think). I'd probably rather use a hub just to keep wires hitting the Mac down, but at least I wouldn't need to. (Fwiw, my current dock has 5 usb-a (including an external webcam), ethernet, hdmi, and headphones hooked up to it.)

(You've replied. It's the rats nest. Agreed. Still don't see it as a dealbreaker -- use a hub and it's one wire for Cube or MacBook no matter what the external monitor. Reduces to the same thing for either purchase.)

(Admittedly I'm a little disappointed there's no Thunderbolt out on the Display. It's like a forced SCSI termination. :D)

For the second, you're a kvm switch away from having space for a second desktop. Or to share a Display with a Mac & laptop.

In the meanwhile, you'll still have the current laptop to "retire" to travel duty. If you update your box regularly, how old will your travel setup get before you get another laptop?

As an xplat web & mobile dev, I'm more sold on the Display than the Mac, especially as more comes out on the Display's Windows compat -- the webcam will work; I just need to check resolution for my Windows laptop in a Store and hope the speakers do something.

If you thought you wanted a 27" iMac, you have tons of options. This is that display-only iMac everyone's wanted since target display mode disappeared.

Seems folks are still stuck a display-Mac combo purchase mindset. It's not $1600 every time you buy a new Mac. It's pure power if you need it, an affordable mini or MacBook if you don't. Amazing 10 year display (EVERY Mac you own is now an iMac) if you need it, a monitor from Goodwill (not joking) if you just need power, or anything in between.


@Ruffin I ordered the MacBook Pro; I’m just “waiting” for it to arrive. It’s just not enough built-in ports; my current iMac has 2+4 built-in ports, all in use, plus a hub with 8 devices plugged into it, and I sometimes unplug things to make room. Yes, my point is that it reduces to the same thing so it’s not a deciding factor. A second headless Mac + KVM on my main desk would be tight.

I don’t really understand your question about travel. Option A is Intel travel/backup/test laptop stays the same, Mac Studio becomes main. Option B is new MacBook Pro becomes main/travel, Intel laptop becomes backup/test. In both cases I sell the iMac. Option B is better now because it upgrades my travel setup, too. And it’s also better in the future because the main/travel will get upgraded at the same time with a single purchase (if laptops continue to keep pace). This is all possible because, as you say, the Studio Display offers the 27-inch iMac experience, and it will likely last for 10 years.

As to what Dan writes, you’re not forced to buy the Studio Display right away to go with the Mac Studio. But if you are already using a Retina iMac, your display would regress with something else. Uncoupling may be good in the long term but in the short term you get penalized for prior Apple forcing you to couple (and removing the option to stay coupled).

“there’s a reason” (Oh yeah? What is it?)

macOS only supports integer scaling, so if you want text to be high-quality and the correct size (what we used to call WYSIWYG), you need a display with roughly 220 ppi.

However, external displays above ~120 ppi are rare; above ~200, there’s basically only the LG Ultrafine and Apple’s Studio Display and Pro Display XDR.

The LG has some issues; early revisions were susceptible to Wi-Fi interference, and later revisions supposedly still aren’t great about their build quality. Which, at its $1,300 price tag, is a bit hard to forgive.

So I think the reason being alluded to is a very underserved market segment of external high-DPI displays (which is quite different for internal displays, mind you: many laptops and tablets running Windows are now in the 200-300 ppi range).

That is, someone tell me why we’re forced to immediately get a $1600 monitor to go with the Mac Studio.

I mean, you aren’t, though. You can get a $120 1080p display. Or a $300 4K display. It’ll work fine. It’s just… macOS’s text rendering won’t be great. Worse, in fact, than it was in the 2000s, pre-Retina.

If you need a Mac Studio, get it! If you don’t, don’t let it be b/c you can’t also justify the Display.


> If the power or Internet goes down, I can easily relocate (and not have to worry about powering the desktop with a UPS while syncing).

I'm curious, what are you using to sync files? Is it more than just syncing your various documents folders? If not, I'm not clear on why a UPS would be that important. But, if you have something that lets you easily transfer the full state of your desktop to your laptop, I'd love to hear more.

Is there anything better these days for remote access? I feel like for many the best solution would be a Mac Studio with something as good as Window's RDP (supporting 3D, High DPI, sound forwarding) to an iPad or MacBook Air. But, last I looked, VNC-based screensharing was poor at best.

@Andrew I sync a lot of stuff (not just code) via Git. Other than that, rsync (for documents, settings, and apps). It can take a while both due to some large files and big apps. Even just determining that nothing in Xcode or Xcode-beta has changed takes a while. The last time there was an outage I realized that I couldn’t actually sync because I didn’t have a UPS for my Wi-Fi.

I just wish the Mac Mini were a bit beefier, and especially that it had more memory. The form factor doesn't bother me as much, but the Studio--much as I'm sure I lust after it--is just overkill. Hopefully the next-gen Mini will give us both a more attractive desktop package and a bit more oomph, especially more RAM for the virtualisation I do. The Studio just doesn't give a great balance toward RAM and CPU over GPU power, even if you lop off the unused GPU cores in the lower-end brackets.

@Sebby Yeah, I’d like to see a Mac mini with a 10-core M1 Pro.

"Doesn’t the M1 Ultra have much better performance and cooling?"

Looking at the case, it looks like it has about as much airflow as your average gaming notebook. As for performance, I guess that remains to be seen.

Add me to the list of disappointeds. I was waiting for an update to the 27" iMac so that I can upgrade. It was the perfect price point, except for obvious reasons a dumb idea to continue to buy a Mac with an Intel processor. The 24" iMac is noticeably smaller, and I've been used to using a 27" screen with my PC so it'd feel weird to downgrade. The cancellation of the 27" iMac sucks. Apple is basically selling an iMac screen and I/O for the same price as a full iMac. That's ridiculous. I'm supposed to pay $1500 for the screen and another $1000 for the Mac to attach to it? Give me a break. Apple is leaving a huge gap in their ecosystem between the 24" iMac and everything else, for those of us who don't want a laptop.

Another disappointed "prosumer" who was hoping for a new 27 inch iMac. The Studio display paired with a Mac mini could be a replacement. But it's too expensive and overspecced for my needs. The 24 inch iMac would be a step back regarding screen real estate for me.

Using a portable Mac as my main machine paired with an external display does not appeal to me either. I prefer to have most of my data on a stationary Mac safely at home.

For now I'll just keep using my Intel iMac and hope Apple will fill the gap sometime by discontinuing the 27 inch iMac :(

“The Mac Studio may be the most obvious option, but even the MacBook Air, Mac mini, or one of the MacBook Pros would easily best the performance of the most recent 27-inch iMac.“

As an owner of both the latest 27” iMac and an M1 MacBook Air, I have not found this to be the case. The iMac handles everything I throw at it (which isn’t hardcore a/v or anything), while I find it quite easy to bog down the MBA. I feel like I’m alone in this, but I find the performance of the M1 (both in speed and battery life, where I get maybe 6 hours of light usage on a charge) to be greatly exaggerated.

[…] but at least I can convince myself that I need it and it’s not so crazy? :) On that note this post from Michael Tsai is a good read where he too wonders about what to purchase (he settles on the 14″ version […]

We are very much the same Michael. For years, when I felt like I needed more portability, I did MBP + External Displays. But then I didn't need that as much, and the iMac was just so much more powerful + an amazing screen, I upgraded to that. And I did in 2020 get that iMac 27" and maxed it out because I wanted to ride through the ARM transition. Now that it's discontinued, I'm very glad I did.

But in 2-3 years when I upgrade, I'm not sure what I'll do either. I still don't necessarily need the portability, and OMG the notch is so ugly and terrible, that a MBP is likely out. But the Mac Studio is overkill, and together with the new display its more expensive than the iMac I bought.

So really, in a bit of a uncertainty here. But then I have 2-3 years to figure it out, and maybe Apple as well.

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