M1 Pro vs. M1 Max: Why the fastest MacBook ever might be overkill
One of the most interesting wrinkles about Apple’s new MacBook Pros is that the company offers them with two different chips. At first glance, you might assume that the more expensive M1 Max chip is simply a bigger, faster, more powerful chip than the less expensive M1 Pro—but looks can be deceiving. The two new chips are closely related, and depending on the kind of work you do with your MacBook Pro, the extra power of the M1 Pro might not be worth the extra price.
But first, the M1
Before we compare the M1 Pro and M1 Max, we should cover the M1, the chip that started it all and is the heart of the new chips. Last year’s debut of the M1 chip was hailed as an amazing, revolutionary move. And it was. This was the Mac adopting Apple’s own chip architecture for the first time, trading mediocre Intel performance for the advantages that the iPhone and iPad have had for years.
But in many ways, the M1 was an evolution of the game Apple has been playing for some time. Though it added Mac-specific functionality such as support for Thunderbolt, it was mostly an evolution of the A12X and A12Z chips that powered the iPad Pro. The M1 proved that an iPad-class chip could offer more than enough performance and battery life to power Apple’s more consumer-oriented Macs—the MacBook Air, Mac mini, and iMac.
Serving the needs of Apple’s professional user base would be a tougher trick to pull off. And yet when you compare the M1 to the M1 Pro and M1 Max, you can see the family resemblance. When it comes to single-core performance, all these chips offer up more or less identical scores. Where things diverge is when it comes to multiple CPU core workloads or GPU-based processing.
The M1 only has four high-performance cores, while the M1 Pro has six (in the $1,999 14-inch model) or eight, and the M1 Max has eight. As you might expect, the M1 can’t hang with the new chips when it comes to intense, threaded workflows. Similarly, the M1 only has seven GPU cores (in low-end configurations of the MacBook Air and iMac) or eight, while the GPU cores on the M1 Pro and Max range from 14 (again, in the low-end configuration of the 14-inch model) to 32. As you might expect, GPU-intensive tasks will be two or three times faster on a new MacBook Pro.
Throw in limited ports and a hard cap on RAM at 16GB, and obviously, the new chips begin to pull away. This isn’t the fault of the M1. It’s doing its job—and for people not performing pro workflows, it’s going to do it well.
M1 Pro vs M1 Max: The main event
If all you heard were the names, you’d assume that the M1 Max would outperform the M1 Pro across the board. But the truth is, the difference between these two chips is much more nuanced.
It all comes down to CPU cores. Both chips top out at eight high-performance processor cores, and those cores are more or less identical. (They’re basically the same ones as in the M1 and even in the A14 processor that powers the iPhone 12.) If you buy the lower-end 14-inch MacBook Pro it will lag behind the rest of the line in terms of CPU speed but still be faster than the M1.
But beyond that? The numbers don’t lie. If your work is primarily CPU bound, there’s not a lot of difference between the M1 Pro and the M1 Max.
If you’re a developer (and everyone’s situation will vary), I ran XcodeBenchmark on my MacBook Pro with an M1 Max processor and compared it to one running an M1 Pro. The results were within a couple of seconds of one another.
Maxing out the the M1 Max
What separates the M1 Max from the M1 Pro isn’t CPU cores, it’s the rest: GPU cores and memory bandwidth, media encoding and decoding, and total overall memory. Let’s take them in turn.
GPU and memory bandwidth
If your job gets done faster as the graphics power inside your computer scales, an M1 Max MacBook Pro is for you. With 24 or 32 GPU cores, it is far more powerful than the M1 Pro.
While the M1 Max also offers twice the memory bandwidth of the M1 Pro, the only way that bandwidth will really be taxed is by all those extra GPU cores. They go hand in hand.
Media encoding and decoding
Both chips offer some special tools for media pros, including dedicated media encoding and decoding space on their chips. But if you’re a video pro working with files stored in Apple’s ProRes codec, you will see advantages to using an M1 Max.
That’s because while the M1 Pro has a custom-designed element for ProRes encoding and decoding–making it an incredibly impressive ProRes processor in its own right–the M1 Max has two of those elements. This won’t show up in all workflows, but at the extremes, you’ll see a difference. Even a more basic Final Cut Pro export showed off the advantages of the M1 Max, some owing to the increased GPU cores and some more to the two ProRes elements.
M1 Pro vs M1 Max: Choose wisely
You know your workflows better than I do. For most people, an M1 Pro will be impressively fast. If you know your work involves diabolical multi-threaded CPU-taxing software, be sure you get the 10-core model. If you know you need GPU or ProRes power, or enormous amounts of memory bandwidth–and if you don’t know, you probably don’t!–then the M1 Max is a better choice.
Finally, if you’re in a workflow that can use as much memory as you can possibly throw at it, then you’ve got an even easier choice. The M1 Pro is limited to 32 GB of shared memory, while the M1 Max goes to 64GB. All other considerations aside, if you want to max out your memory, you need the M1 Max.
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Jason was lead editor at Macworld for more than a decade and now writes about Apple at Six Colors and podcasts at Relay FM and The Incomparable.