Mac Studio Max and Studio Display: impressions and future

For the last month, my second-row Mac has been a new Macintosh Studio Max with its matching Studio Display. While my iMac Pro remains in production, I’m steadily migrating to the Studio, with the intention of passing on the Intel system in the next month or two. This article gives my first impressions of Apple’s Studio package. If you don’t want to read any further, here’s the two-word summary: buy them.

I’m now fairly familiar with Apple Silicon Macs. I was fortunate enough to start early, with Apple’s Developer Transition Kit (DTK), then to buy an early M1 Mac mini and M1 MacBook Pro 13-inch. I elected not to buy an M1 iMac, and went ahead with a MacBook Pro 16-inch with an M1 Pro chip. So this Studio Max is my fifth Apple Silicon model since July 2020.

I’ve recently had a succession of iMac 27-inch models for my main production system, culminating in this iMac Pro. I’ve come to love their 5K displays, which I use almost exclusively in Dark Mode. Although I got an LG 4K display for my M1 Mac mini, I was rather hoping that Apple would release an M1 equivalent to the iMac Pro, and disappointed that it still hasn’t. For me, the Studio and its Display have to exceed what I’ve come to expect of my iMac Pro.

I ordered both the Studio and its display within an hour or so of them being announced, but both were slightly delayed as a result of China’s lockdowns. I was tempted to go crazy and get a Studio Ultra, but after searching my heart for a little while, I realised that nothing I ever did would even rouse its second chiplet from idle. I therefore opted for the Max version with 32 GB of memory and a 2 TB SSD.

One of my favourite iMac designs was the 2002 Flat Panel model, variously known as the Desk Lamp or Anglepoise from its ingeniously adjustable display. I was therefore tempted to try the Studio Display with its tilt- and height-adjustable option, but thankfully had little to gain in paying extra for its nano-texture glass.

Many have complained at the cost of these extras, as if this was a basic monitor. They seem to have forgotten that Apple primarily sells premium products: Apple’s first Mac came in at $2,495, and its alternative to the Studio Display, the XDR, starts at a cost of well over $4,000 plus the cost of its stand. Paying an additional $400 or so for an option which wasn’t even available for my iMac Pro thus isn’t unexpected.

Rather than make do with the matching trackpad and keyboard from my iMac Pro, I added both to the order, ensuring that the Studio’s keyboard supports TouchID. The keyboard and trackpad arrived within a couple of days, making me yearn even more for the rest of the order.

Their unboxing experience was as exciting as ever. The Studio’s box is as ingenious as you might wish, but that for the display seemed as large and heavy as that containing my iMac Pro. Don’t worry, the Studio Display isn’t that heavy or large after all, it was all down to its protective packaging.

Setting up was straightforward, and since then the Studio and its display have done everything I wanted, which is boring but accurate. I’ve only encountered one peculiar problem, a USB 3.x SSD which connected at very low speed through one of the front USB-C ports. My only strange software events have been when testing some buggy Metal benchmarking code which somehow crashed WindowServer and after a delay asked me to log back in again. Otherwise everything I’ve run on the Studio Max has done exactly what I expected, and very briskly indeed. In this respect, the Studio Max has been so free of glitches that it has become totally predictable, exactly what I want for production.

The Studio Max comes with an excellent array of ports. Currently connected are Ethernet, the Studio Display, and an external SSD for backup storage. That leaves two Thunderbolt 4, two USB-A, HDMI, and two USB-C ports free on the Studio itself, and another three USB-C ports on the back of the display. These ports are a big improvement on those on Intel models like the iMac Pro: a snug and positive fit ensures that plugs are secure, rather than waggling around worryingly. Some have moaned about the noise of the Studio’s fan, but my iMac Pro and ThunderBay 4 drown that completely.

I don’t know what others were expecting of the Studio Display, but sat next to my iMac Pro it looks every bit as gorgeous and supportive for my eyes through 18 hour working days when needed. This is also much more than a mere screen, with its speakers and camera. Ah yes, the camera that everyone seems to find fault with, except me. Mine works fine as far as I can see, and I really like its Centre Stage feature.

My Studio Display is also superb paired with my MacBook Pro. As its Thunderbolt cable delivers power too, hooking that notebook up for 5K output and external power takes just the single cable, conveniently supplied with the Studio Display. While using other external displays with the MacBook Pro is usually straightforward, if you want a 5K display for your Mac notebook you should put the Studio Display at the top of your list.

Was the £400 that I paid for its premium height adjustment worth it? Yes, every last penny, and it demonstrates how you do get what you pay for. The screen glides up and down with the touch of my fingers. It’s not as versatile as that old Flat Panel iMac, but for such a large screen it’s ideal. If you want height adjustment, which to me is fundamental to ergonomics, you won’t get anything better. In this respect at least, my new Studio system is a big step forward from the iMac Pro.

What intrigues me is what’s going to come of that A13 chip in the back of my Studio Display. Supporting the camera and Spatial Audio seem lightweight compared to everything the iPhone 11 can do with what’s fundamentally the same chip. I’m going to watch for surprises to come in the future as Apple makes more use of the chip’s capability.

Over this month’s experience of using my Studio system part-time, I really can’t think of anything I’d want to change, even down to its fibre-clad black cables. My iMac Pro has a worthy and highly capable successor.