The New Mac Studio

And in a blink of an eyelash, the Intel iMac 5K Retina is gone and the M1-based Mac Studio and Mac Studio Display appear.

I've covered the Macintosh lineup for years now, giving advice to my photography site readers. That typically was done on the site, but I'm probably going to have to move that here to the main site when I get a chance, as the things Apple is doing impact all of photography these days. 

Let's start with the elephant that's left the room: you can't order an Intel-based iMac any more from Apple (you may still find them at other dealers). The iMac, particularly the 5K Retina models, has been a staple of the photography crowd for quite some time. That was partly because you got a really good display for near free with a decent computer, all in one reliable package that only requires one external cable (power) to operate.

The last generation Intel iMac has been a real workhorse for me and others, especially if you max it out with memory (mine is running 128GB). Other than a lack of ports—easily dealt with using the right external options—there's not much to complain about with an Intel iMac. So here's my first piece of advice: we're starting to see some closeout pricing on the 27" models now. With the right discount you'll get what until yesterday was a state-of-the-art computer for a reasonable price. So don't necessarily dismiss the Intel iMac yet. But it won't be available new anymore as soon as current stocks disappear.

If you want an all-in-one, the iMac 24", which is Apple M1 based, is now the only choice. It's a good choice. I bought my mom one of these, and it's pretty much everything the Intel iMac I use is except that it's a 24" display. One key difference you need to be aware of though: you have to make your internal RAM and SSD choices up front, at Apple's inflated expansion pricing. Based upon experience, I'd say you need to opt for 16GB minimum, and 1TB is safer than 512GB for the SSD for photographers building complex application ecosystems. So you're talking about a US$2099 computer/monitor combo.

      24" is 4480x2520 display, the 27" was 5120x2880 display

But you're wondering about the new Mac Studio. Obviously, I don't have one, as it was just announced. However, I do have a computer (MacBook Pro) that's essentially equivalent to one of the lower M1 Max Studio models (64GB RAM, 10-core CPU, 32-core GPU). Based upon my evaluation of all the M1-based laptops Apple has produced so far, I'd say that many of the options on the Mac Studio are probably overkill for someone who's just doing photography. Yes, overkill. 

The base Mac Studio (M1 Max, 10-core CPU, 24-GPU, 32GB RAM) is likely more than enough to propel current still photography needs. You'll have to figure out how much internal SSD you want, though. Again, I'd tend to recommend 1TB minimum. Though I've been able to keep my macOS and Photoshop-based ecosystem well within a 512GB storage capacity, there's the issue of what happens when macOS Monterey starts doing the RAM Doubler thing by compressing and spooling memory to the drive (disclosure: RAM Doubler was my first product at Connectix many years ago; I'm happy to see Apple making modern use of our technology ;~). Thus, you're looking at US$2199 for the Mac Studio computer as a really solid minimum starting point. 

While Apple made a lot of noise about the M1 Ultra chip, I don't think photographers need that. Perhaps if you're heavy into video it would be the right choice, but just running Lightroom/Photoshop type of products I'm not convinced that you'd get enough bang for the buck by opting for the M1 Ultra. Consider more unified memory (64GB) or the extra 8 GPU cores first, both of which together would add US$600 to the cost. 

Of course, then you need a display, which is what Mac Studio Display is all about. Here the suggestions are easier. While you might be tempted by the nano-texture glass, don't opt for it unless you've seen it in person and you can keep pets, children, and other assailants away from it. That special surface is easy to damage, and it has a real dulling impact on images, too. That "dulling" is actually a bit useful for those who are printing their images—I find the nano-texture makes the screen look more print-like in proofing—but most of you don't need the reflectance reduction it provides (or can more easily deal with that just by monitor placement).

The primary choice you'll have to make is the stand. The default stand (US$1599 total cost) is like an iMac: it can't adjust it's height up and down. On most desks, that means you end up tilting the display up slightly to be aligned with your eyes, and that may increase reflections if you have overhead lighting. The custom stand (US$1999 total cost) can adjust up and down (total of 4.1", or 105mm). The bad news is that you can't change your mind later. You have to get the display stand choice right when you buy. 

So, minimum you're talking about US$3798 for a solid photographer's computer tool, with my suggested max coming in at US$4798. Oh, don't forget you need a mouse and keyboard. Starting to see why an Intel iMac at sale prices is looking good? A top CPU 27" iMac with 1TB of SSD is US$2699 at B&H [advertiser link]. Nothing at all wrong with that model for serious photography post processing work, though you'll probably want to bump the memory up to at least 64GB (US$270 at at the moment).

That said, it's clear that Apple Silicon (e.g. M1 processors) is the Mac's future. I've found my M1 Macs so far to work fast, run cool, and in the case of the MacBook Pro, tenacious in holding onto battery charge. For a number of applications, I now prefer working on my M1 Mac over my Intel Mac. Apple has engineered themselves into a clear market leader position with personal computers with their silicon. But the drawback is that their single-chip and proprietary approach means you have to make decisions up front that can't be changed down the line.

Which brings me to a final thought: if you're considering a Mac Studio, you should also consider a M1-based MacBook Pro, too. The 13" that I was using from day one configured as I suggest (16GB RAM, 1TB SSD) is US$1899, and can run that Mac Studio Display just fine. That combo would be a fine solution for many photographers. And if you need more than that MacBook Pro can provide, there are always the 14" and 16" models, which allow you to configure pretty much everything you can get in a Mac Studio except for the M1 Ultra chip, which again, most photographers probably don't need. 

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