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why this processor is so impressive

Apple’s M1 Ultra chip is a monster. This chip bypasses the physical limitations that normally occur when two chips are paired and this promises incredible performance with low power consumption. Let’s take a closer look at what makes this new processor special.

Apple M1 Ultra

Apple M1 Ultra // Source: Apple

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This week, Apple organized its keynote. Among all the announcements, they added “one last chip” to the M1 processor family. This chip named M1 Ultra is a new design that uses “UltraFusion” technology to link two M1 Max chips together, resulting in a huge processor that offers 16 high-performance CPU cores, four efficiency cores, an integrated 64-core GPU and support for up to 128 GB of RAM. This chip will be present in the Mac Studio, a machine halfway between the Mac Mini and the Mac Pro.

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After having listened wisely to Apple, which showed lots of pretty graphics associated with a good number of superlatives, let’s take a closer look at what makes this new ARM chip special.

M1 Ultra = M1 Max + M1 Max

First, what Apple did is almost nothing new. AMD already does this on a good number of its Ryzen. It is an approach based on multiple silicon dies to fabricate larger chips for better yields.

M1 M1 Pro M1 Max M1 Ultra
engraving 5nm TSMC 5nm TSMC 5nm TSMC 5nm TSMC
Number of transistors 16 billion 33.7 billion 57 billion 2 × 57 billion
CPU 4 × Firestorm (S)
at 3.23 GHz 4 × Icestorm (E) at 2.064 GHz
6 × Firestorm (S)
at 3.23 GHz 2 × Icestorm (E) at 2.064 GHz
8 × Firestorm (S)
at 3.23 GHz 2 × Icestorm (E) at 2.064 GHz
16 × Firestorm (S)
at 3.23 GHz 4 × Icestorm (E) at 2.064 GHz
8 × Firestorm (S)
at 3.23 GHz 2 × Icestorm (E) at 2.064 GHz
GPUs 7 hearts to
1278MHz 896 EU
2.29 TFLOPS
14 cores at
1278 MHz 1792 EU
4.58 TFLOPS
24 cores at
1278 MHz 3072 EU
7.83 TFLOPS
48 cores at
1278 MHz 6144 EU
15.66 TFLOPS
8 hearts to
1278 MHz 1024 EU
2.61 TFLOPS
16 cores at
1278 MHz 2048 EU
5.22 TFLOPS
32 hearts at
1278 MHz 4096 EU
10.44 TFLOPS
64 cores at
1278 MHz 8192 EU
20.88 TFLOPS
RAM 8 GB LPDDR4X-4266
(dual channel, 64 bit)
16GB LPDDR5-6400
(dual channel, 128 bit)
32 GB LPDDR5-6400
(four channels, 128 bit)
64 GB LPDDR5-6400
(four channels, 128 bit)
16 GB LPDDR4X-4266
(dual channel, 64 bit)
32 GB LPDDR5-6400
(dual channel, 128 bit)
64 GB LPDDR5-6400
(four channels, 128 bit)
128 GB LPDDR5-6400
(four channels, 128 bit)
memory bandwidth 68.2 GB/s 204.8 GB/s 409.6 GB/s 819.2 GB/s
neural engine 16 cores
11 TOPS
16 cores
11 TOPS
16 cores
11 TOPS
32 hearts
22 TOPS
Transcoding 1x video decoding engine
1x video encoding engine 1x video encoding engine
ProRes encoding/decoding
1x decoding engine
2x video encoding engine 2x video encoding engine
ProRes encoding/decoding
2x decoding engine
4x video encoding engine 4x video encoding engine
ProRes encoding/decoding
Screen management Integrated screen
+
1 external screen
(1×6K60)
Integrated screen
+
2 external screens
(2×6K60)
Integrated screen
+
4 external screens
(3×6K60, 1×4K60)
5 external screens
(4×6K60, 1×4K60)

We are therefore not talking about 2nd generation Apple Silicon, but about a fourth stage of extension of the 1st generation. The aim is to deliver more power than the already impressive M1 Max. Instead of making an even bigger chip, the M1 Ultra uses the combination of two M1 Max chips.

Comparison between Apple M1 chips

Comparison between Apple M1 chips // Source: Apple

They didn’t just combine two M1 Max dies on a single SoC, they also made both dies look like one monolithic GPU. The result is a chip that, without a doubt, is one of the most interesting designs for a consumer SoC.

As early benchmarks show, this dual-die strategy benefits multi-threaded CPU and GPU workloads far more than it does single-threaded tasks — an area where Apple is already starting to fall behind. By allowing the M1 Ultra’s two chips to seamlessly present themselves as a single GPU, Apple has started a new technology race to place multi-chip GPUs in high-end consumer hardware.

By placing two M1 Max dies on a single chip, Apple has doubled the amount of components. This means twice the CPU cores, twice the GPU cores, twice the neural engine cores, twice the LPDDR5 memory channels, and twice the port handling (I/O) for the peripheral devices.

Mac Studio's spec sheet is impressive

The Mac Studio data sheet is impressive // ​​Source: Apple

While M1 Max had 16 LPDDR5-6400 channels for a total of 408 Gb/s of memory bandwidth, M1 Ultra doubles that to 32 LPDDR5 channels and 800 Gb/s of memory bandwidth. A quantity that would not even be fully exploited by Apple on this configuration. As with the M1 Max, Apple soldered the LPDDR5 chips directly onto the SoC, for a total of 8 chips on the M1 Ultra (as you can see in the photo of one). So there is no way to add RAM a posterioriremember to choose the right amount of RAM for your needs during machine setup.

UltraFusion Technology

UltraFusion technology // Source: Apple

What Apple presented as the technology UltraFusion can be described as a very short highway with 10,000 lanes. This secret ingredient is therefore a very high-speed interface which, using a silicon interposer, makes it possible to connect two M1 Max dies. In total, the two matrices have an available data rate of 2.5 Tb/s. According to AnandTech, this technology would resemble Intel’s EMIB technology or Elevated Fanout Bridge (EFB) technology. Apple would therefore not be the first to market such technology, nevertheless they will undoubtedly be the first to democratize it.

More powerful than a GeForce RTX 3090 for a 1/3 of its consumption

The GPU is overkill. According to Apple, the graphics performance of the M1 Ultra would be superior to that of Nvidia’s GeForce RTX 3090 graphics card, which is currently the fastest graphics card on the market. And in addition, the M1 Ultra chip only consumes a little more than 100 Watts, which is 200 Watts less than the RTX 3090.

Apple M1 Ultra: why this processor is so impressive

The GA102 GPU used by NVIDIA has 28.3 billion transistors, while the M1 Ultra has 114 billion. Obviously, Nvidia designed their graphics card differently: they didn’t take power consumption into account. Apple designed a larger GPU, with more silicon, to maintain lower clock frequencies (and therefore optimize power consumption). Of course, Apple also has a huge manufacturing process advantage, using TSMC’s N5 etch process over Samsung’s 8nm process found on the Nvidia RTX 30s.

The GPU specs of the Apple M1 Max

The GPU characteristics of the Apple M1 Max // Source: Apple

Interestingly, the version of the Mac Studio with M1 Ultra does not use the same cooling system as the M1 Max version. This results in a weight difference of nearly 1 kilogram. The machines have the same 370W power supply, the extra weight is because the M1 Ultra has a larger copper thermal module, whereas the M1 Max has an aluminum heatsink. For information, copper, being denser, with more thermal mass and conductivity than aluminum, it can therefore retain more heat and move this heat more quickly.

Mac Studio Dual Fans

Mac Studio dual fans // Source: Apple

Given the performance of an M1 Max, Apple therefore promises CPU and GPU performance levels for the M1 Ultra that overshadow all current configurations based on Intel CPUs and AMD graphics cards. However, further testing will be required to understand the scenarios that Apple has illustrated in its presentation.

Nvidia, AMD and Intel are already in this GPU battle multi die. The theory is that if you take a powerful chip and glue it seamlessly to another, you’ll get something twice as good. In theory, it’s simple. In reality, it’s not that simple, and although AMD has already managed to make a similar concept work for its MI200 supercomputer computing accelerator, no one else has done it before Apple for the general public.

We’ve entered a very exciting new era in GPU development, and Apple’s M1 Ultra is a preview of what’s to come from others who have the same goals as Apple. You certainly understand much better what justifies the crazy price of the Mac Studio. With the Apple M1 Ultra SoC, the machine is sold from 4599 euros (Apple M1 Ultra, 64 GB and 1 TB).


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