What is the Apple M1 Ultra chip and why should I care?

We didn't get an M2 chip at today's Apple event but what we got instead was a lot more impressive. Welcome to the age of Ultra

Apple M1 Ultra
(Image credit: Apple)

There's always a lot of rumors ahead of an Apple event and in advance of the March 8 live (though clearly prerecorded) feed, it was no different. The new iPhone SE was a given, as was the iPad Air, though we really didn't think that M1 chip rumor would turn out to be correct. 

The third part of the event trilogy was a little less clear, though in recent days the Mac Studio seemed the likely candidate for the Mac announcement. This would likely be powered by a new chip, or possibly the M1 Max. Maybe the M2 was coming. 

While the Mac Studio and the accompanying Studio Display did arrive, the chip wasn't what we expected. Instead of an M2 we got a fourth M1 chip in the form of the M1 Ultra. This would be the chip to not just blow Apple's competition out of the water but even make the Mac Pro look slow. 

Apple M1 Ultra

(Image credit: Apple)

As Apple explained, the M1 Ultra chip is actually two M1 Max chips connected together. It's a dual processor set up without the operational complications a dual processor arrangement can bring. That's because the M1 Max already contained the interconnections to provide data transfer between the two chips without latency or reduced bandwidth. It uses what it calls Ultra Fusion to deliver 2.5TB/s inter-processor bandwidth. 

Physically, the chip is twice the size of M1 Max too, and that means twice the potential for unified memory. Rather than a maximum of 64GB, the M1 Ultra can accommodate 128GB RAM at speeds of up to 800GB/s. There's 20 cores of CPU (16 of those high performance cores) and 64-core graphics. The media engine, responsible for encoding and decoding video is also doubled up, so works even faster. 

Apple M1 Ultra

(Image credit: Apple)

While it's easy to get lost in all of Apple's graph comparisons, one that did stand out to me was how the M1 Ultra compared to the 28-core Intel Xeon processor, the top option in the Mac Pro, costing upwards of $13k. The M1 Ultra CPU is recorded as being 60% faster. 

With the larger memory and graphics options, the Mac Pro is still likely to hold an advantage for serious users but this does put it in perspective how good this new chip really is. Especially when you consider that the Mac Studio in which it will reside, is such a small computer. 

Apple teased that Mac Pro updates would come another day, but just imagine how powerful the Mac Pro would be if it had the M1 Ultra on board. Imagine the power of an iMac 27-inch with the M1 Ultra, or even a new MacBook Pro 16. All of this is possible in the future. In our tests of the latest MacBook Pro 14 and 16 models, the M1 Pro was more power than we needed, let alone the M1 Max. Can anything even test the capabilities of the Ultra? We may need to wait a few years to find out. 

Apple M1 Ultra

(Image credit: Apple)

As T3's Managing Editor in the US, Mat has his finger on the pulse for the latest advances in technology. Originally from the UK, he has written about technology since 2003 and after stints in Beijing and Hong Kong, is now based in Chicago. He’s a true lover of gadgets, but especially anything that involves cameras, electric cars, musical instruments or travel.