Apple’s M1 Pro and M1 Max chips were a GPU-shaped warning to Nvidia and AMD last year, and now Apple has turned up the heat with its new M1 Ultra. Apple says it will rival Nvidia’s behemoth RTX 3090 graphics card, the fastest GPU on the market today. But how does Apple think it can beat an RTX 3090? Turns out last year’s M1 Max has a secret sauce inside.
Apple’s new M1 Ultra is a surprising combination of two M1 Max chips, fused together to create a single powerful chip. The M1 Max has a secret high-speed interface that allows Apple to combine two chips into one. The result is an M1 Ultra chip that has double the CPU cores, double the memory, double the memory bandwidth, and most importantly, double the GPU cores.
Apple calls this combination UltraFusion, and it’s actually Apple’s own implementation of the 2.5D chip package. The chip industry has been turning to chips to design processors for years, with AMD’s Zen 2 and Zen 3-based Ryzen chips leading the pack for modern chip designs and performance until recently. . Apple rivals like Intel, Samsung and Qualcomm are in the early stages of collaborating on a new standard that could allow companies to build processors from Lego-like chips. Apple leads the pack with a chip that merges two separate GPUs.
Nvidia and AMD have built similar solutions for combining two GPUs in the past, but as AnandTech points out, it looks like Apple has solved the holy grail of multi-GPU design here. Apple’s UltraFusion technology supports an impressive 2.5TB/s bandwidth between the two M1 Max chips. That’s a huge jump in bandwidth over what Nvidia offers with NVLink for SLI or AMD with Infinity Fabric, which are used as high-speed links between GPUs.
Apple’s high-speed link means that the two separate M1 Max GPUs will be displayed as a single GPU in macOS, allowing applications to easily harness the combined power. This should mean apps and games don’t have to do anything special to utilize the power of the M1 Ultra, whereas games have had to natively support Nvidia’s SLI implementation on Windows in the past to see performance improvements.
Nvidia pretty much killed multi-GPU support with its RTX 30 series, with only the RTX 3090 offering NVLink support. However, combining two RTX 3090s for productivity or gaming rigs has extremely mixed results. Games that natively support SLI will offer performance benefits, while most will offer no improvement and some will even see performance drop.
The RTX 3090 is currently the fastest GPU on the market – until Nvidia finally delivers its delayed RTX 3090 Ti – and Apple claims the M1 Ultra can beat a single RTX 3090 while using 200 watts less power.
Apple made similar claims about its M1 Max beating the RTX 3080 last year, but the actual results were mixed. For productivity-focused workloads, the M1 Max performed extremely well against the RTX 3080. Some reviewers found the M1 Max to be slightly slower than a comparable RTX 3080 system for Adobe Premiere Pro tasks, but its performance relative really depended on the task at hand.
Apple squeezed its M1 Ultra into its new Mac Studio, a desktop computer that’s not much bigger in bulk than Nvidia’s RTX 3090. The Mac Studio is incredibly powerful thanks to the M1 Ultra, and Apple designed it to replace the 27-inch iMac and even Mac Pro models for many.
Apple is squarely focused on productivity apps — not games — with its M1 Ultra and Mac Studio. The M1 Max and M1 Pro both suffered from gaming reviews, performing similarly to an RTX 3060 in many titles. The M1 Ultra isn’t going to magically solve the lack of macOS games, or that most cross-platform games are still x86.
We’ll have to wait for reviewers to see what double the GPU cores do to productivity app performance, but Apple’s already impressive debut with the M1 Pro and M1 Max seems to take a leap forward with the M1 Ultra. It took Qualcomm and Microsoft years to deliver laptop-like performance on ARM chips for Windows, and Apple is already delivering workstation-level performance here.
Where things will get really interesting with Apple’s chip design is the Mac Pro. Apple’s existing Mac Pro is powered by Intel Xeon processors and Radeon PRO W6000X GPUs from AMD. Apple ended its event yesterday by teasing an Apple Silicon version of its Mac Pro machine “for another day”. Bloomberg journalist Mark Gurman revealed last year that the Mac Pro will come with up to 40 CPU cores and 128 GPU cores. If you’re counting, that’s double the M1 Ultra.
The M1 Ultra inside the Mac Studio will give us our first look at the exact core count and performance capabilities of Apple’s GPU to scale to high-end systems. It’s a preview of what’s to come when Apple ships the Mac Pro with the best its Apple Silicon has to offer.