Apple M2 MacBook Pro & Mac mini: Part 1

Personal Computers
By Mark Wherry

Among the first machines to use the new M2 Pro and Max chips were Apple’s latest MacBook Pro laptops.

We begin an in‑depth, two‑part examination of Apple’s M2 Pro and M2 Max chips, and the new MacBook Pro and Mac mini computers that house them.

It’s been nearly three years since Apple announced the transition of the Mac product line to an architecture based on the company’s own custom silicon. And, of the three such brain transplants in the Mac’s history — the first being the shift from 68k to PowerPC in 1994, followed by the move to Intel’s x86 architecture beginning in 2005 — the transition to Apple Silicon has arguably been the most prosperous.

Having created the A‑series chips used in iPhones and iPads, where an entire system is engineered into a so‑called 'system‑on‑a‑chip' (SoC), Apple extended the approach to the Mac with the M1, unveiled in December 2020 alongside three new Macs retrofitted with this new hardware: the Mac mini, the MacBook Air, and the 13‑inch MacBook Pro. It’s not an understatement to say that the M1 didn’t just meet expectations, it shattered them.

Compatibility with existing applications and plug‑ins was largely seamless, and even endlessly needy audio applications coded for Intel chips were able to meet professional requirements when running under Rosetta 2’s binary translation. But with newly native upgrades to products such as Apple’s own Logic Pro leading the charge, for creative professionals it was clear that Macs based on Apple Silicon really were going to be a step forward, representing more than merely the sum of the many technologies being deployed.

Moreover, performance was only one side of the equation. The M1 was able to do its work with remarkable efficiency, extending battery life and largely eliminating fan noise from the list of complaints troubling the audio user.

Memory Holes

The M1 did, however, have one unavoidable down side for musicians and audio engineers working with large projects and sample libraries: memory. Unlike previous Macs, the M1 employed what Apple refer to as Unified Memory, which was shared between the CPU and GPU cores (and other domain‑specific engines) without redundancy or overheads. However, to fully take advantage of this approach with the minimum amount of latency, the memory was included in the same package as the SoC itself, and the M1 was only available in two configurations, with either 8GB or 16GB of LPDDR4X unified memory, which couldn’t be upgraded after purchase (not that this is anything new for Mac users!).

And so, in October 2021 — less than a year after introducing the M1 — Apple launched two new chips extending the capabilities of that first offering: the M1 Pro and the M1 Max. Four different ‘core’ configurations were disclosed, with the M1 Pro supporting a maximum of 32GB LPDDR5 unified memory with over twice the bandwidth at 200GB/s, and the M1 Max doubling these limits again with 64GB memory and a bandwidth of 400GB/s. However, rather than deploying these new chips in desktop computers, Apple launched them with brand‑new 14‑ and 16‑inch MacBook Pro models, which delivered an unprecedented blend of performance and efficiency.

Apple unveiled the final member of the M1 family, the M1 Ultra, in March 2022, with the introduction of the desktop Mac Studio. Available in two base configurations, featuring either an M1 Max or the new M1 Ultra, the Mac Studio has in many ways proved to be this generation’s iMac Pro: a product to keep demanding creative professionals happy while Apple figure out how to proceed with a new Mac Pro.

The M1 Ultra is particularly interesting, as it comprises two M1 Max chip dies in a single package, which communicate with each other via a new interconnect technology Apple call Ultra Fusion. This previously unannounced feature uses a silicon interposer to act as a kind of glue that makes the M1 Ultra appear to the system as single chip. This means the M1 Ultra has, quite literally, twice the specifications of the M1 Max, supporting a system with a maximum of 128GB unified memory and 800GB/s memory bandwidth — although, in terms of capacity, this still falls short of the 768GB or 1.5TB limits of the still current, Intel‑based Mac Pro models.

Moving On Up

One didn’t need to be a soothsayer to predict that, following the M1, Apple’s next‑generation Mac chip would be named M2 and adopt the same Pro and Max variations. Where the M1 represented a revolution, the M2 is more of an evolution, refining and polishing every jot and tittle of the system. The ‘Firestorm’ performance and ‘Icestorm’ efficiency CPU cores (first seen in the iPhone 12’s A14 Bionic chip) were upgraded to the newer ‘Avalanche’ and ‘Blizzard’ performance and efficiency cores (which debuted in the iPhone 13’s A15 Bionic chip). These newer CPU cores are clocked slightly higher than their predecessors, with a base frequency of 3.42GHz vs 3.2GHz in the M1, and offer several improvements, such as a larger Level 2 cache for the performance cluster. As with the original M1, the M2 is an eight‑core chip featuring four performance and four efficiency cores.

The M2 Pro and M2 Max chips both have four efficiency cores, but the Max (lower) has eight performance cores to the Pro’s six.

Turning as always to Primate Labs’ trusty Geekbench (see box), the M2 chip in the current 13‑inch MacBook Pro scores 2606 and 9860 in the single and multi‑core tests respectively, which showed improvements of 10 and 17 percent over the M1 chip in the previous 13‑inch MacBook Pro, which scored 2356 and 8426 in the same tests.

The M2 addressed many of the M1’s shortcomings, particularly by adopting LPDDR5 memory, raising the memory ceiling to 24GB, and increasing the memory bandwidth by 50 percent from 66.67GB/to 100MHz. Even so, demanding users — like, say, musicians and audio engineers — were eagerly awaiting the expected, more powerful iterations. Apple duly began this year by announcing the M2 Pro and M2 Max, accompanied by revisions to the Mac mini and the 14‑ and 16‑inch MacBook Pro models.

If you followed the development of the M1 to the M1 Pro and M1 Max, Apple have used a similar playbook in creating the M2 Pro and M2 Max. For example, as with the M1 Pro, the M2 Pro is available in two configurations with either six or eight performance cores, while the M2 Max, like the M1 Max before it, has eight performance cores. However, unlike the M1 Pro and Max, which both offered two efficiency cores, the M2 Pro and Max feature four such cores, meaning that, where the M1 Pro and Max were either eight‑ or 10‑core chips, the M2 Pro and Max are 10‑ or 12‑core chips.

If we look at the single‑core results first, the M2, eight‑core M2 Pro, 10‑core M2 Pro, and M2 Max chips score much the same: 2606, 2556, 2667 and 2756 respectively, which is to be expected since the same ‘Avalanche’ and ‘Blizzard’ CPU cores are at the heart of each chip. However, if we instead consider the multi‑core results, the performance differences between the chips become more apparent. The M2 (with four performance cores), the M2 Pro (with six and eight performance cores) and the M2 Max (also with eight performance cores) score 9860, 11830, 14349 and 14390 respectively.

The single‑ and multi‑core results for Apple Silicon‑based Macs. Note that the last Intel‑based 27‑inch iMac only narrowly beats the multi‑core score for the M1‑based Mac mini, falling comfortably into last place in terms of single‑core performance.

As you would expect, the CPU performance between the 12‑core M2 Pro and the M2 Max (which both offer the same configuration of four efficiency and eight performance cores) is equipollent. It’s worth mentioning, though, that the M2 Max in the 16‑inch MacBook Pro allows a high‑performance mode to be engaged in the Energy Saver System Settings, which gives a boost to the base frequency of the chip. This setting isn’t available when the M2 Max is configured with the 14‑inch MacBook Pro. Interestingly, although the M2 Max boasts double the memory bandwidth of the M2 Pro, this doesn’t make much difference to the outcome of Geekbench’s tests.

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Published June 2023

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