Apple Silicon Buyer's Guide: Which Chip Should You Choose?

Choosing a new Mac often involves consideration of the many Apple silicon chips now on offer, so our comprehensive guide covers their generations, variations, and performance benchmarks to help you decide which is best for you.

Mac Chip Comparison Buyers Guide Feature
After iterating for over a decade in the iPhone and iPad, Apple in 2020 brought its custom silicon chip technology to the Mac, enabling major performance and power efficiency improvements. Since then, Apple silicon has expanded to every Mac model, spurring new designs and capabilities that were previously impossible.

Apple M3 chip series

Understanding the distinctions between Apple silicon chips will help you make an informed decision when selecting the right Mac for your needs. There have been three generations of Apple silicon for the Mac, each with up to four different chip variants. The main differences between the four different chip variants are as follows:

  • M1, M2, and M3: Standard Apple silicon chip with a balance of performance and power-efficiency.
  • M1 Pro, M2 Pro, and M3 Pro: Apple silicon chip with additional high-performance CPU cores. The M1 Pro and M2 Pro feature twice the memory bandwidth of the ‌M2‌ and M3 chips (200GB/s), while the M3 Pro features 50% more memory bandwidth than the ‌M2‌ and M3 chips (150GB/s).
  • M1 Max, M2 Max, and M3 Max: Doubles the GPU cores of the ‌M1 Pro‌, ‌M2‌ Pro, or M3 Pro and features up to twice the memory bandwidth (400GB/s) of the ‌M1 Pro‌ or ‌M2‌ Pro chips for better graphics performance. M3 Max also adds extra CPU cores.
  • M1 Ultra and M2 Ultra: Encompasses two M1 Max or ‌M2‌ Max chips for double overall CPU and GPU performance, as well as twice the memory bandwidth (800GB/s).

Apple Silicon Generations

With the introduction of the ‌M2‌ series of chips in 2022 and M3 series of chips in 2023, Apple made some key improvements over the initial M1 series from 2020.

Apple M3 chip series architecture
The below table provides a comparison between the ‌M1‌, ‌M2‌, and M3 series, highlighting differences in the chips they are based on, node, CPU clock speed, Neural Engines, and more:

‌M1‌ Series ‌M2‌ Series M3 Series
Based on A14 Bionic chip from ‌iPhone‌ 12 (2020) Based on A15 Bionic chip from iPhone 13 (2021) Based on A17 Pro chip from iPhone 15 Pro (2023)
5nm node (N5) Enhanced 5nm node (N5P) 3nm node (N3B)
3.20 GHz CPU clock speed 3.49 GHz CPU clock speed 4.05 GHz CPU clock speed
Neural Engine 40% faster Neural Engine 15% faster Neural Engine
Video decode engine Higher-bandwidth video decode engine
Support for AV1 decode
New GPU architecture
Dynamic Caching
Hardware-accelerated ray tracing
Hardware-accelerated mesh shading
Image signal processor (ISP) New image signal processor (ISP) Same ISP as ‌M2‌
Launched November 2020 to March 2022 Launched June 2022 to early 2024 Launched starting November 2023

The performance improvements seen with each iteration of Apple's Neural Engine is indicative of the generation-over-generation improvements that the company has been able to achieve with its custom silicon.

M3 chip series Neural Engine performance

The standard ‌M2‌ chip also features several additional changes over the ‌M1‌ chip, its direct predecessor, that are worth noting:

‌M1‌ ‌M2‌
68.25GB/s memory bandwidth 100GB/s memory bandwidth
Media engine for hardware-accelerated H.264 and HEVC Media engine for hardware-accelerated H.264, HEVC, ProRes, and ProRes RAW
ProRes encode and decode engine

All Apple silicon chips other than the ‌M1‌ chip contain media engines for hardware-accelerated H.264, HEVC, ProRes, and ProRes RAW video. The M3 chip also adds support for AV1 decode.

Thanks to use of more advanced fabrication processes and larger surface areas, Apple has added more transistors to its M-series chips with each generation:

(Standard) Pro Max Ultra
‌M1‌ 16 billion 33.7 billion 57 billion 114 billion
‌M2‌ 20 billion 40 billion 67 billion 134 billion
M3 25 billion 37 billion 92 billion

Devices

Each Apple silicon chip is only available in a select number of Apple devices. The standard ‌M1‌ and ‌M2‌ chips are present in a large number of laptop and desktop devices, several ‌iPad‌ models, and even the upcoming Vision Pro headset, owing to their requirement for a balance of performance and efficiency. On the other hand, the ‌M2‌ Ultra, Apple's most powerful custom silicon chip to date, is only available in the high-end Mac Studio and Mac Pro.

(Standard) Pro Max Ultra
‌M1‌ MacBook Air (2020)
Mac mini (2020)
MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2020)
iMac (2021)
iPad Pro (2021)
iPad Air (2022)
MacBook Pro (14-inch and 16-inch, 2021) MacBook Pro (14-inch and 16-inch, 2021)
‌Mac Studio‌ (2022)
‌Mac Studio‌ (2022)
‌M2‌ ‌MacBook Air‌ (2022, 2023)
MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2022)
‌iPad Pro‌ (2022)
Mac Mini (2023)
Vision Pro (2024)
MacBook Pro (14-inch and 16-inch, early 2023)
‌Mac mini‌ (2023)
MacBook Pro (14-inch and 16-inch, early 2023)
‌Mac Studio‌ (2023)
‌Mac Studio‌ (2023)
‌Mac Pro‌ (2023)
M3 MacBook Pro (14-inch, late 2023)
‌iMac‌ (2023)
MacBook Pro (14-inch and 16-inch, late 2023) MacBook Pro (14-inch and 16-inch, late 2023)

CPU and GPU Cores

CPU cores are individual processing units within a Central Processing Unit (CPU) responsible for executing instructions and performing general-purpose tasks, while GPU cores are specialized units within a Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) designed for parallel processing and graphics-intensive tasks.

m1 max chip
The number of CPU and GPU cores in an Apple silicon chip impacts the performance and multitasking capabilities of a Mac, with more cores leading to faster and more efficient execution of tasks, especially in intensive workloads. The table below presents a comparison of the core configurations and GPU specifications for the different variants of the ‌M1‌ and ‌M2‌ chips:

(Standard) Pro Max Ultra
‌M1‌ 4 high-performance cores
4 energy-efficient cores
7- or 8-core GPU
6 or 8 high-performance cores
2 energy-efficient cores
14- or 16-core GPU
8 high-performance cores
2 energy-efficient cores
24- or 32-core GPU
16 high-performance cores
4 energy-efficient cores
48- or 64-core GPU
‌M2‌ 4 high-performance cores
4 energy-efficient cores
8- or 10-core GPU
6 or 8 high-performance cores
4 energy-efficient cores
16- or 19-core GPU
8 high-performance cores
4 energy-efficient cores
30- or 38-core GPU
16 high-performance cores
8 energy-efficient cores
60- or 76-core GPU
M3 4 high-performance cores
4 energy-efficient cores
8- or 10-core GPU
5 or 6 high-performance cores
6 energy-efficient cores
14- or 18-core GPU
10 or 12 high-performance cores
4 energy-efficient cores
30- or 40-core GPU

Deciding how many CPU cores you need depends on the specific tasks and workflows you intend to perform on your Mac. For example, if you primarily engage in basic tasks like web browsing, document editing, and media consumption, an eight-core CPU should suffice. On the other hand, if you work with demanding workloads like software development, opting for a higher core count can provide significant performance benefits. Similarly, graphics-intense workflows like video editing, 3D modeling, or gaming will benefit from additional GPU cores.

Benchmarks

Computer benchmark scores are standardized measurements that evaluate the performance of chips, providing a numerical representation for comparing capabilities and assessing performance against industry standards.

M3 chip series performance cores comparison

The data on the below table is calculated from Geekbench 6 results users uploaded to Geekbench. Geekbench 6 scores are calibrated against a baseline score of 2,500 (which is the score of an Intel Core i7-12700 performing the same task).

M3 chip series efficiency cores comparison

The below Geekbench 6 scores show the range from the lowest specification chip in the least powerful Mac to the highest specification chip in the most powerful Mac it is offered in. All scores are rounded to the nearest 10 for simplicity.

Single-Core Benchmarks

(Standard) Pro Max Ultra
‌M1‌ 2,330–2,350 2,360–2,370 2,380–2,400 2,384
‌M2‌ 2,570–2,630 2,640–2,650 2,740–2,800 2,760–2,770
M3 3,010 3,120 3,120

Multi-Core Benchmarks

(Standard) Pro Max Ultra
‌M1‌ 8,250–8,390 10,300–12,200 12,180–12,430 17,810
‌M2‌ 9,630–9,650 12,100–14,250 14,500–14,810 21,180–21,320
M3 11,763 14,010–14,410 19,160–21,215

Metal Benchmarks

(Standard) Pro Max Ultra
‌M1‌ 29,450–32,030 61,870–65,910 103,120–112,940 154,190
‌M2‌ 41,300–45,550 72,360–81,430 137,530–144,380 202,640–220,080
M3 47,430 68,330–77,070 124,060–157,120

The ‌M1‌, ‌M2‌, and M3 chips demonstrate performance improvements in single-core and multi-core tasks as you move from the base to the Ultra variants, with the M3 chip showcasing even higher performance across the board. Nevertheless, it is worth noting that benchmarks do not tell the whole story. Benchmarks focus on specific tasks and synthetic workloads, and do not always accurately capture real-world usage scenarios and variations.

Unified Memory

Apple silicon chips have a unified memory architecture, meaning that the RAM is tied directly to the processor for maximum speed and efficiency. This means that the chip you choose determines what memory option are available, and it is not upgradable at a later date.

(Standard) Pro Max Ultra
‌M1‌ 8GB
16GB
16GB
32GB
32GB
64GB
64GB
128GB
‌M2‌ 8GB
16GB
24GB
16GB
32GB
32GB
64GB
96GB
64GB
128GB
192GB
M3 8GB
16GB
24GB
18GB
36GB
36GB
48GB
64GB
96GB
128GB

Deciding how much RAM you need depends on your specific tasks and usage patterns. 8GB should be enough for most users, but upgrading to 16GB or 24GB could be sensible for users with more intense multitasking requirements. Amounts of memory beyond 32GB are generally reserved for seriously demanding workflows.

Final Thoughts

Overall, if you are new to Apple silicon and are still not sure which chip to buy, use the following rationale:

  • Buy M1, M2, or M3 if... you need a good balance of price, performance, and battery life and have normal day-to-day computing requirements.
  • Buy M1 Pro, M2 Pro, or M3 Pro if... you need a performance-focused chip for slightly more intense workflows.
  • Buy M1 Max, M2 Max, or M3 Max if... you need additional graphics performance for working with images, videos, graphic design, or games.
  • Buy M1 Ultra or M2 Ultra if... you need the best possible overall performance for extremely intense professional workflows.

It is generally not worth upgrading from any of the individual ‌M1‌ chips to their direct successors and it may be better to wait for Apple to launch the M4 series of chips at some point in the next couple of years before upgrading if you are already an ‌M2‌ user.

Top Rated Comments

klasma Avatar
8 months ago

[TABLE]
[TR]
[TD]High-performance "Firestorm" and energy-efficient "Icestorm" cores[/TD]
[TD]High-performance "Avalanche" and energy-efficient "Blizzard" cores[/TD]
[/TR]
[/TABLE]
Hopefully the M3 will come with less hazardous cores.
Score: 32 Votes (Like | Disagree)
TheYayAreaLiving ?️ Avatar
8 months ago
Here is an overview of the Apple Silicon chip. Indeed, we have come a very long way. ?

I want an M2 iMac tho. ?️



Attachment Image
Score: 25 Votes (Like | Disagree)
fernelius Avatar
8 months ago
Thanks for the helpful article! Appreciate the use of tables here; would love to see this more when comparing chips and iPhone/iPad/Mac models.
Score: 21 Votes (Like | Disagree)
CarAnalogy Avatar
8 months ago
Aside from Max sounding like the plural of Mac, the naming actually makes sense.

At this point I'd say if you can get a still brand new M1 get it. What Apple has always needed, many think, is an affordable entry computer that is still powerful enough to justify the premium. They finally have that.

Until a big jump like external graphics support, unless you need more memory than the M1 can support it should be fine for anyone who doesn’t know they need more.
Score: 19 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Bearxor Avatar
8 months ago
I would have liked to also see a comparison on external monitor support between standard/pro/max/ultra chips.
Score: 16 Votes (Like | Disagree)
guitarman777 Avatar
8 months ago
I love the breakdown. It's helpful to see how the technology's being used & leveraged.

However...



* Buy M1 or M2 if... you need a good balance of price, performance, and battery life and have normal day-to-day computing requirements.
* Buy M1 Pro or M2 Pro if... you need a performance-focused chip for slightly more intense workflows.
* Buy M1 Max or M2 Max if... you need additional graphics performance for working with images, videos, graphic design, or games.
* Buy M1 Ultra or M2 Ultra if... you need the best possible overall performance for extremely intense professional workflows.

Why, oh WHY do computing companies & journalist sites only ever seem to offer specifics related to video production performance? I do music production, so VSTs & plugins & low-latency monitoring & the ability to handle lots & lots of tracks... that's the kind of info that always seems to be missing. I understand that video & image design workflows are super intensive workflows, but audio workflows are also intensive. Just because a machine will do great with video doesn't guarantee it's going to provide the proper performance specs for audio because I've been going down that rabbit hole for years. It would be refreshing to see performance specs include audio production platform performance for once.
Score: 12 Votes (Like | Disagree)

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