The “Unleashed” Apple Event held on 18 October 2021 formally launched the 5th-generation 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro devices alongside the introduction of the new Apple M1 Pro and Apple M1 Max system-on-chips.
Note that both Apple-designed chips are based on the Apple M1 SoC launched in November 2020. They are marketed as professional-grade hardware for high-performance macOS devices and targeted toward creative professionals and power users.
The introduction of the M1 Max and the M1 Pro also signaled a further push toward a complete transition from CISC-based and x86-based processors from Intel to Apple-designed ARM-based and RISC-based processors that began in 2020.
Understanding the Difference: Architecture and Specification of Apple M1 Max
Similar to the Apple M1 Pro, the Apple M1 Max is not a new generation of the Apple M series of systems-on-chips. The overall architecture and hardware design are still based on the Apple M1. Hence, it is characterized by the same 5nm fabrication process node.
It is also based on the ARM and the overall reduced instruction set computing or RISC instruction set architectures. Apple started ditching Intel Core processors to introduce its own Apple Silicon and assert its authority in designing its own chips.
However, the M1 Max variant has considerable upgrades when compared to the M1 and the M1 Pro variants. While both the Pro and Max variants are targeted toward high-performance use cases, the latter packs more computational capabilities.
It is the most technically superior among the M1 line of Apple Silicon. To understand further its similarities and differences with the Apple M1 Pro and the Apple M1 better, it is important to take note of its key hardware and technical specifications.
Hardware and Technical Specifications
Central Processing Unit: The default M1 Max is similar to the mid-level configuration of the M1 Pro with a 10-core CPU configuration based on the big.LITTLE heterogeneous computing feature of ARM. There are 8 high-performance “Firestorm” cores and 2 power-efficient “Icestorm” cores.
Graphics Processing Unit: It has the most number of integrated GPU cores among the M1 series with a 32-core configuration. Note that the base variant of the M1 Pro has a 10-core GPU while its high-tier variant has a 16-core GPU. Furthermore, the base model of the M1 has a 7-core to 8-core GPU configuration.
Neural Engine: The M1 Max also has the same 16-core Neural Engine similar to the configuration found across all variants of the M1 and M1 Pro. This particular chip component enables native machine learning acceleration that can execute 11 trillion operations per second.
Random Access Memory: It features a 32GB LPDDR5-6400 SDRAM that can be configured to 64GB. It is shared across the chip through the unified memory architecture of Apple. The memory bandwidth is up to 400GB/s.
Media Engines and ProRes Accelerators: Similar to the M1 Pro and unlike the earlier M1, the Apple M1 Max has dedicated advanced media engines and a ProRes accelerator engine that enable faster professional video processing while maximizing battery life. The dedicated ProRes accelerator specifically enables up to 20 streams of high-quality 4K and 8K ProRes video playback.
Other Components: There is also a new display engine to allow multiple external displays, the addition of integrated Thunderbolt 4 controllers to provide better I/O bandwidth, the same custom image signal processor that uses computational video alongside the Neural Engine to enhance the performance of the built-in camera, and the latest Secure Enclave coprocessor for hardware-based key management.
Deeper Dive: A Comparison Between the Apple M1 Max and the Apple M1 Pro
There are several similarities between the Apple M1 Max and the Apple M1 Pro. Remember that both are based on the earlier Apple M1 chip fabricated using the 5nm process node. Their base design is also fundamentally similar to the A14 Bionic chip found in the iPhone 12 series of smartphones and the 4th generation iPad Air.
Both are also marketed as professional-grade chips for professional-level use cases. They are available for the 5th-generation 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro models. However, customers must request a configured 14-inch MacBook Pro with an M1 Max SoC beforehand.
The difference between the Apple M1 Pro and Apple M1 Max fundamentally centers on hardware and technical specifications. When compared to the former and as enumerated above, the latter has a higher number of CPU and GPU cores in its base configuration. The default unified memory is also considerably higher than the M1 Pro.
Furthermore, the M1 Max has 57 billion transistors, which is 70 percent more than the M1 Pro. For comparison, the Apple M1 only has 16 billion transistors. More transistors theoretically translate to faster and better processing capabilities.
Remember that the Max also has a 32GB unified memory that can be upgraded to 64GB. It also has a memory bandwidth of up to 400 GB/s. The Pro starts with a 16GB of unified memory with a memory bandwidth of up to 200 GB/s
The physical dimension of the Apple M1 Max is also larger than the M1 Pro and further dwarfs the physical dimension of the earlier M1 version. Hence, this is the reason that it packs more transistors and more advanced integrated hardware components than the M1 Pro and the M1 despite using the same 5nm process nodes.
Pros and Cons: A Look Into the Advantages and Disadvantages of the Apple M1 Max
General and Inherent Advantages
When compared to top-tier processors from other chipmakers, such as the Intel Core line of processors, the Apple M series processors have notable advantages. The M1 Max naturally inherits them. These include the pros of RISC architecture and ARM architecture.
Compared to the x86 architecture of Intel and other CISC-based chips, RISC-based chips are easier to design and deploy. They also have lower per-chip costs because they require smaller hardware components. Power efficiency is also another advantage. The M1 Pro inherently has a good performance per watt and produces less heat than x86-based chips.
The introduction of both the M1 Pro and M1 Max demonstrate the intention of Apple to push further ARM-based computing within its ecosystem. These chips are now encouraging software developers to code and deploy apps based on the ARM architecture.
Note that the M chips are similar to the A chips used in iPhone and iPad devices. Apps developed for iOS and iPadOS can theoretically run natively on the macOS. Users will benefit from cross-platform compatibility and better availability of apps.
Marketed Capabilities and Use Cases
Of course, the Apple M1 Max has specific advantages when compared to the Apple M1 and Apple M1 SoCs. Remember that this chip is marketed toward high-end users involved in intensive graphics design, animation, and video editing. The M1 Pro is marketed for the same user profile but the Max version is more powerful.
When compared, a core advantage of the Apple M1 Max is that 32-core GPU for up to 4x faster graphics performance than the original M1. It also has 57 billion transistors, which is 70 percent more than M1 Pro and 300 percent more than the M1.
More transistors theoretically equate to better and faster computing performance. But the Max variant also consumes less power when compared to x86-based chips. Reports noted that it consumes 40 percent less power than the GPUs found in professional-grade PC laptops. The power efficiency translates to lesser heat generation and extended battery life.
A snapshot of single-threaded CPU scores using PassMark revealed that it outruns not only the M1 Pro but also other top-tier CPUs from other chipmakers to include the Intel Core i9-11900KF and Intel Xeon W-1370, as well as AMD Ryzen 9 5950X and 5900X.
A Look Into the Disadvantages
The Apple M1 Max is undeniably a very powerful and capable chip. However, it has notable drawbacks and issues. For starters, devices equipped with this chip are expensive. The 14-inch MacBook Pro configured with the M1 Max retails between USD 3000.00 to USD 320000 while the 16-inch MacBook Pro starts at USD 3499.00.
Furthermore, similar to the downside of macOS and devices running this operating system, users will not be able to maximize the capabilities of this SoC for high-end video gaming. They cannot compete head-on with dedicated gaming laptops running Windows.
It is also important to note that the RAM is not upgradeable because it is part of the unified architecture of the chip. However, it can be configured before purchase. But the upgrade can be expensive. Choosing a 64GB unified memory configuration for the 16-inch MacBook Pro means paying an additional USD 400.00.
Considering the limitations mentioned above, individuals might be better suited to purchasing Mac devices equipped with either an M1 or M1 Pro chips. Furthermore, because of the price tag and shortcomings of macOS, they can opt for alternative Windows-based laptops.