Apple’s latest Macs feature its newest “Apple Silicon” processors, the M2 Pro and M2 Max processors, which naturally feature increased power, enhanced graphics processing, and better energy efficiency than the first go-around.
Of course, the M1 processor line launched first in 2020, and some of Apple’s best systems are still using M1 chips. But the second-generation Mac processors started arriving in the summer of 2022, as the first M2 processor launched in the MacBook Pro 14-inch and MacBook Air.
In early 2023, Apple announced two new models in the M2 line, the M2 Pro and M2 Max, updating the upper-tier processors from M1 with second-generation models. But that raises a few questions, like, “What’s the difference?” and, “Is it time to upgrade?”
We’ve reviewed models with all of these processors, putting them through every benchmark and anecdotal test we could. Now, it’s time to deeply investigate the improvements that Apple’s new processing hardware brings, and whether it’s time for you to consider buying a new Mac. But first, some background.
Apple Silicon: A Brief History
The story of Apple silicon (in a wider, big-picture sense, with a small “s”) starts back in 2010 with the introduction of the Apple A4, the first system on a chip (SoC) designed in-house by Apple, which appeared in the first generation iPad and the iPhone 4. It was Apple’s first modern chip design, and it used a single-core ARM processor.
It was the first of many chips that would show up in the iPad, the iPhone, the iPod Touch, and the Apple TV streaming boxes. Since then, subsequent models gained increasingly more cores, integrated graphics hardware, and speeds that soon rivaled their laptop and desktop counterparts.
Eventually, it became clear that Apple had enough chip-design know-how to step away from Intel, which had been providing processors for Apple’s Mac products since way back in 2006. In 2020, Apple announced that it was transitioning away from Intel processing hardware to shift the entire Mac lineup to Apple-designed chips, starting with the M1 processor.
Apple Silicon, Generation One: The M1, M1 Pro, M1 Max, and M1 Ultra
After the M1 processor was launched in 2020, it was quickly built upon by Apple. The M1 impressed us when we first saw it in the Apple MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, and Mac mini, and again when it came to the new colorful iMac.
Next came the M1 Pro and the M1 Max, which expanded upon the M1 template with more processing cores and an increased number of GPU cores. Finally, with the launch of the Mac Studio(Opens in a new window) desktop in 2022, Apple introduced the top model in the M1 line, the M1 Ultra, a beefy chip that literally doubled the power of the M1 Max by combining two M1-Max-level chips onto a single die.
In the end, we saw the four M1 chips released across the entire ecosystem of Mac products, with the notable exception of the Mac Pro. As the last Mac to use Intel processors, it’s still up in the air as to whether Apple’s professional desktop will get updated with Apple’s own processors, or whether the Pro line will quietly be retired and replaced with compact desktops, like the Mac Studio, which can provide some (but not all) of the workstation capabilities that the Mac Pro was best known for.
Here’s a list of the products we’ve reviewed that use first-generation Apple Silicon…
Apple Silicon, Generation Two: The M2, M2 Pro, and M2 Max (So Far)
In June of 2022, the first second-generation Apple Silicon model was announced with the launch of the M2 chip. Using a refined version of the 5-nanometer manufacturing process used on the M1 chips, the M2 SoC houses a faster CPU, a more powerful GPU, and higher memory bandwidth.
Apple’s M2 first appeared in the MacBook Pro 13-inch, shortly followed by the redesigned Apple MacBook Air. But, in an unexpected twist, Apple has continued selling the M1-powered MacBook Air as the entry-level model.
Now, Apple has introduced the M2 Pro and M2 Max processors, which update the M1 Pro and M1 Max with additional processing cores, more GPU cores, and billions more transistors packed onto the silicon. The basic M2 model also gets Apple’s Media Engine, which was previously limited to the M1 Pro and Max chips, elevating the capability for video and media work even on Apple’s more basic models.
The one chip that hasn’t received an M2 version yet is the M1 Ultra, but with the introduction of the M2 Max, it seems like a short jump to doubling up on it to make an M2 Ultra. However, Apple hasn’t announced anything along those lines yet—that’s just reasonable speculation.
But with the arrival of the M2, M2 Pro, and M2 Max, we’ve also been presented with a new batch of Macs, from the Mac mini to the MacBook Pro. Here’s a list of the products we’ve reviewed that use second-gen Apple Silicon…
All of this means that the decision to upgrade your Mac is a bit more complicated than it was a year or two ago. Do you buy the MacBook Air with M1 or M2? Is the new Mac mini with M2 Pro a viable replacement for the M1 Max-based Mac Studio? And, if you already have one of the M1 MacBook Pros, is it worth paying more to get one of the M2 models?
That’s exactly what we’re here to find out. We’ve reviewed the products, tested the chips and have the results to guide your decision-making to find the best Mac for you.
Testing the Apple M1 vs. M2 Families: Benchmark Scores Compared
We’ve already listed the systems we’ve reviewed with both M1 and M2 processor models, and we’ve seen a lot. But, with such a collection of models—some desktops, some laptops, with varying amounts of memory and storage—there will be some general variance between them. In a perfect world, we’d have similarly configured-out models that have only the processor difference among them, so that we could make pristine comparisons between the different CPU models.
Instead, we have a list of a dozen Apple products, each with its own configuration quirks. But, if not ideal, it’s still serviceable in showing the broad strokes of what one CPU model can offer in performance compared to others. The same chips are indeed used between Apple laptops and desktops, but the thermal situation is different within each system.
In the interest of reducing this variability where we can, we’ve actually narrowed down the number of products we’re comparing to 10.
We start with the M1-powered Apple MacBook Air and the M1-based MacBook Pro 13, comparing them against the M2 equivalents from 2022: the Apple MacBook Air (2022, M2) and the Apple MacBook Pro 13 (2022, M2). These four models give us a fairly clear picture of what the M1 and M2 chips can do, as well as how they compare to each other.
Secondly, we’re looking at the Apple MacBook Pro 14 (M1 Pro) and Apple Mac mini (2023, M2 Pro) to compare Apple’s mid-tier processors. Obviously, the comparison of a laptop to a desktop isn’t ideal, but with the new Apple Silicon-based systems we’ve tested in the lab, this is what we’ve been able to do with the M1 and M2 Pro models.
Third are the three systems with the M1 Max and M2 Max inside, with the Apple MacBook Pro 16 (2021, M1 Max) and Apple Mac Studio (M1 Max) representing the first-gen chip, and the new Apple MacBook Pro 16 (2023, M2 Max) giving us the data for the M2 Max. The differences between the two laptop configurations are pretty substantial—the amount of RAM alone may skew the performance numbers a bit—but again, this comparison is for the broad strokes rather than a perfect head-to-head.
Finally, though it has no M2 equivalent, we’re including the Mac Studio with M1 Ultra. Even in the midst of Apple Silicon’s second generation of processors, the M1 Ultra is still the top dog in terms of raw processing power. This is especially helpful in seeing how far the M2 processors have come, with the M2 Max offering the closest comparison among Apple’s new chips.
Benchmark Tests: M1 vs. M2 Browser Performance
Though we don’t always quote the numbers in our reviews, we run every Mac through a series of browser-based benchmark tests (JetStream, Basemark, and WebXPRT) to get baseline data about how well each system handles the most essential task of any modern system, web browsing. This also lets us compare new MacBooks against other Apple systems, like iPads.
In this case, these tests allow us to easily see the general distribution of scores across the different processor tiers. Apple’s base-level M1 and M2 models naturally produce lower scores, while the Pro and Max versions deliver higher scores—but not by much. The beefier processors (regardless of generation) are all built on the same basic technology, and something as fundamental as web browser functions will be aptly handled by any of these processors.
However, it is interesting to see that the M1 Ultra doesn’t dominate this chart. While it may offer more raw horsepower for tasks like graphics rendering or heavy number crunching, the web browsing aspects of the top processor don’t differ that much from any other model, and sometimes even fall behind.
Benchmark Tests: M1 vs. M2 Productivity and Content Creation Performance
For general productivity, we use four well-known tests, as seen in our regular reviews: HandBrake (video transcoding), Cinebench (multi-threaded rendering), Geekbench (an overall productivity-task simulation), and Adobe Photoshop (the classic, for image editing).
We start with HandBrake 1.4, a video transcoding test timing how long it takes to convert a 4K video clip into a smaller 1080p copy. The test leverages all of the cores and threads available, making it easy to see which systems have better CPU performance; shorter times are better.
Next up is Cinebench R23, which tests multi-core and multi-threaded processing with a complex scene rendered in Maxon’s Cinema 4D engine. For more basic productivity measurements, we look at Primate Labs’ Geekbench Pro, which simulates popular apps ranging from PDF rendering and speech recognition to machine learning. In both tests, higher scores mean better performance.
Finally, we run Adobe Photoshop running in Rosetta 2. While Photoshop does run natively on both M1- and M2-based Macs, here we use the same PugetBench for Photoshop test (by workstation maker Puget Systems) that we use to test everything from workstation beasts to kid-friendly laptops. But here we’re running it in the Rosetta 2 emulation layer, less as a pure indication of media-processing capability, and more as a test for how well the system can handle older software originally designed for Intel-powered Macs.
Again the general pattern holds true: Base model M1 and M2 chips deliver the lowest performance, M1 & M2 Pro bring slightly faster speeds, and the M1 and M2 Max feature the best performance of the bunch. The good, better, best distribution is exactly what we’d expect.
When comparing M1 to M2, M1 Pro to M2 Pro, or M1 Max to M2 Max, we also see an expected pattern emerge: M2 shows better performance than M1, M2 Pro tops M1 Pro, and so on. Again, this is what we’d expect, since Apple has put massive amounts of time and money into delivering better performance over the previous model generation.
However, this is where we start to see some interesting discrepancies. In HandBrake, for example, we see that the M2 Pro (inside the 2023 Apple Mac mini) actually comes in faster than the M1 Max (inside both the 2021 Apple MacBook Pro 16 and Apple Mac Studio). We see a similar result in Cinebench, where the M2 Pro (in the latest Mac mini) scores higher than the M1 Max (inside the Mac Studio).
Translation? If you’re looking at Mac desktops, the Mac Studio is still presented as a step-up model, and the M1 Max version starts at $1,999. The Mac mini with M2 Pro, on the other hand, starts at $1,299. Even if you adjust the configurations to match memory and storage, the M2 Pro version of the Mac mini still comes in cheaper than the Mac Studio, giving you more bang for your buck…at least until the Mac Studio gets an M2 upgrade.
The other interesting result we see is that, while the uber-powerful M1 Ultra dominates in tests like HandBrake, Cinebench, and Geekbench, it notably doesn’t lead the pack in Photoshop. Instead, it takes second place to the MacBook Pro with M2 Max. While this is a far narrower opportunity than the Mac mini we mentioned above, it suggests that you might get better photo editing performance from the M2 Max-powered laptop than the top-end Mac Studio. However, this comparison also slices the difference pretty thin—the MacBook is actually a bit more expensive when you even up the memory options, though it does offer more mobility than the desk-bound Studio.
Benchmark Tests: M1 vs. M2 Graphics Performance
For graphics testing, we start with 3DMark’s Wild Life Extreme, running in Unlimited mode. Unlike our usual 3DMark tests, Wild Life runs natively on Apple Silicon, letting us measure graphics performance between different Mac systems. The higher the score, the better the overall graphics performance. It’s also one of the only tests we haven’t run on every model in our comparison, having only introduced it to our test lineup in early 2022. We’ve been able to pull out a few past models to test them with the new app, but not all.
Recommended by Our Editors
Next, we look at GFXBench. While we mostly value this test for its cross-platform availability, letting us reasonably compare Apple and Windows graphics performance, the version used on Apple systems uses the Metal graphics API, and it stress-tests both low-level routines such as texturing, and high-level, game-like image rendering. On this test’s results, the more frames per second (fps), the better.
Finally, for actual gaming, we use Rise of the Tomb Raider. There aren’t many Mac-compatible games that have built-in benchmarking tools, so we currently use just one test to get a sense of the system’s actual gaming capabilities. For this test, higher frame rates are better.
Now, it is worth noting that these are just our standard graphics tests, which we run on most of the Macs we’ve reviewed (a couple of older models didn’t have comparable tests run at the time). For a deeper dive into the gaming aspects of M2 Pro and M2 Max stay tuned for an upcoming story that will include additional testing.
In 3DMark Wild Life and GFXBench, we mostly see exactly what we expected, with a consistent trend across all processor models—M1 gets toppled by M2, which itself is bested by M1 Pro, which is then ousted by M2 Pro, and so on. And (particularly in the case of 3DMark), the M1 Ultra blows away the competition by a large margin, cementing its king-of-the-hill position among all of the processors Apple currently offers.
This wasn’t the case in every test, however. In high-resolution benchmarks, like GFXBench’s Aztec Ruins test, the trend holds. But in the lower-resolution Car Chase subtest, the Mac Studio with M1 Ultra again drops behind the MacBook Pro with M2 Max. The same thing happens in Rise of the Tomb Raider, with the MacBook Pro’s M2 Max again edging ahead of the Mac Studio with M1 Ultra.
The lesson seems to be quite clear: If you want the best Mac Apple makes, it’s a very tight race right now between the 2023 MacBook Pro and the Mac Studio desktop. Weigh carefully which system better meets your needs if you put a priority on performance.
Benchmark Tests: Workstation (Blender) Performance
Finally, though it falls outside of the scope of our normal graphics testing, we also tested several of these Macs with Blender, an open-source 3D suite for modeling, animation, simulation, and compositing. Here we record the time it takes for its built-in Cycles path tracer to render two photorealistic scenes of BMW cars, one using the system’s CPU, and the other relying on the GPU.
As a workstation test, this is a test usually reserved for the most powerful machines—for instance, the M1 and M2-powered MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models weren’t all capable of running it. However, the benchmark gives us some fascinating insights into which processors give the best performance on the most demanding tasks.
Interestingly enough, though the fanless M2-powered MacBook Air couldn’t run the test, the active cooling in the MacBook Pro 13-inch handles this benchmark just fine, so keep thermals in mind if you’re buying a Mac for more intensive workloads.
Here we also see the M1 Max-based Mac Studio edge ahead of the similarly equipped M1 Max MacBook Pro, likely because the thermal constraints of the smaller laptop chassis mean that the Mac Studio has better thermal management.
But the overall trend is just as we saw in productivity and graphics, with a fairly clear trendline across all of the M1 and M2 processors. The best performer here is, naturally, the Mac Studio with M1 Ultra, and everything else comes down to processor tier and generation.
M1 Chips vs. M2 Chips: When Should I Upgrade?
Whenever the latest and greatest new products are announced, there’s a pull to swap out what you have for the newer, shinier system. After all, the new processors do deliver impressive speeds and even better battery life.
But it’s always worth asking yourself when the upgrade is worthwhile, especially at these prices. For many Apple users with first-generation Apple Silicon, the answer is mostly to hold off on buying the new systems. The M2 is better than the M1, but it’s still a marginal upgrade. The M1 Pro is similarly topped by the M2 Pro, and the M2 Max beats out the M1 Max in pretty much every test. But these aren’t huge differences in performance, and the difference between an M1 and M2 model won’t be noticeable enough to be worth the extra money for M2.
However, if you are feeling hemmed in by the M1 and are considering upgrading to a system with an M1 Max, there’s now the M2 Pro, which will offer a similar jump in performance, but at a slightly more palatable price.
Then, if you are on the fence about buying Apple’s most powerful (and expensive) Mac Studio, you may actually be better served with an M2 Max-based MacBook Pro 16-inch. (That is, unless you can wait for a would-be successor.)
The clearest case for an upgrade is currently the Mac mini. The M1 Mac mini is more than two years old, and the new M2 mini is actually cheaper than the M1 model was. But for an even bigger jump in capability, the pricier 2023 Mac mini with M2 Pro is a little powerhouse of a machine—enough so that we’d recommend it over the M1 Max-based Mac Studio.
Finally, there’s one more case where upgrading is a no-brainer. If you’ve been hanging on to your Intel-based MacBook or Mac desktop because you were unsure about Apple Silicon, then it’s definitely time to jump in the pool. The latest models prove that Apple’s in-house processing hardware is no fluke, and you’ll see a giant leap in speed and overall performance almost regardless of which model you buy.
There’s only one holdout for the Mac faithful, and that’s the Mac Pro (which is an increasingly confusing name, what with the M1 and M2 Pro processors). If you have a high-end Mac Pro from 2019 or 2020, you may want to hold out a bit longer. The Mac Studio M1 Ultra may or may not offer the sort of power you need, but there’s reason to expect more powerful top-end Macs on the horizon. Maybe that’s in the form of an M2 Ultra-powered Mac Studio, or maybe we’ll finally get the Apple Silicon version of the Mac Pro. In either case, we would expect to see another M2 series announcement sometime this year.
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