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The introduction of Apple M3 led to the launch not one new chip, but three. Here are the differences between the M3, M3 Pro and M3 Max.
Apple's Scary Fast event featured new MacBook Pros and 24-inch iMacs, as well as a new generation of chips. After the M1 and M2, Apple moved on to the Apple Silicon M3 generation.
However, instead of the usual launch of a separate entry-level M3, Apple decided to release three chips in this line. The M3 is joined by the M3 Pro and M3 Max, chip variants that typically arrive later in the generation.
As is typical of Apple, it said the M3 collection will be faster than its predecessors, and the redesign will introduce additional features. All are manufactured using a 3-nanometer process, which allows for denser chip packaging and also offers advantages in power consumption and other efficiency metrics.
This is how the trio of M3 chips differ from each other in terms of range.
|Characteristics||M3||M3 Pro||M3 Max|
|CPU cores (total)||8||11 or 12||14 or 16|
|CPU Performance Cores||4||5 or 6||10 or 12|
|CPU efficiency cores||4||6||4|
|GPU cores||10||14 or 18||30 or 40|
|Neural motor cores||16||16||16|
|Founding process||3 nm||3 nm||3 nm|
|Unified memory volume||8 GB,
|36 GB (14 cores),
48 GB (16 cores),
64 GB (16 cores),
96 GB (14 cores),
128 GB (16 cores)
|Memory Bandwidth||100 GB/s||150 GB/s||300 GB/s (14-core),
400 GB/s (16-core)
|Media Engine||Video decoding engine,
Video encoding engine,
ProRes encoding and decoding engine,
|Video Decoding Engine,
Video Encoding Engine,
ProRes Encoding and Decoding Engine,
|Video Decoding Engine,
2 video encoding engines,
2 ProRes encoding and decoding engines,
M3 vs M3 Pro vs M3 Max – CPU
Core The chip, the central processing unit, handles the main workload. This is an important component, and although they are basically made the same, there are differences in how they function.
This mostly depends on the number of cores each one uses and how those cores are configured, but there are other differences to consider. For example, items such as memory bandwidth can help improve performance.
The entry-level M3 has a total of eight CPU cores, with an equal split between performance cores and efficiency cores. Performance cores can quickly solve complex problems, while efficiency cores provide a lighter compute load at typically lower clock speeds, but are much more power efficient than performance cores.
The M3 Pro goes further and comes in two forms. The 11-core version has five performance cores and six efficiency cores, while the 12-core version has six performance cores and six efficiency cores.
This is a change from the M2 Pro, which had four efficiency cores and six or eight performance cores. This means the M3 Pro has proportionately fewer performance cores compared to efficiency cores.
This is a philosophical difference from what we had with the M1 Pro and M2 Pro. We assume this is due to the M3 Pro's improved battery life rather than providing maximum performance — That's what the M3 Max is for.
M3 Max has the highest number of cores: 14- and 16-core options are available. However, instead of an even split as the other two suggest, Apple is targeting the processor for performance.
So the M3 Max has four efficiency cores and 10 or 12 performance cores to choose from, depending on the variant.
These core counts also affect the physical size of the chips, with the M3 being the physically smallest. and M3 Max is the largest.
In terms of transistors used throughout the chip, the M3 has 25 billion, the M3 Pro has 37 billion, and the M3 Max has a whopping 92 billion transistors. For reference, the M2 generation uses 25 billion, 40 billion and 67 billion respectively.
When it comes to the performance that users will get, Apple summarizes that the performance cores are about 15% faster than the M2 generation and 30% faster than the M1. The efficiency cores in M3 are 30% faster than M2 and 50% faster than M1.
Another important area is memory, but while we'll discuss capacity later, increasing memory bandwidth is appropriate here. Since fast access to unified memory is critical to performance, the higher the speed, the better for processing.
In the M2 generation, Apple included 100 GB/s memory bandwidth, the M2 Pro doubled it to 200 GB/s, and the M2 Max doubled it again to 400 GB/s.
This is not entirely true for the M3. While the M3 again uses 100GB/s, the M3 Pro instead opts for a smaller boost to 150GB/s. For the M3 Max, the 14-core version of the CPU has a memory bandwidth of 300 GB/s, and the 16-core version has 400 GB/s
It is unknown why Apple decided to make this change, but it means that for some The M3 series of chips does have lower memory bandwidth than its previous generation counterparts.
As far as benchmarks go, Geekbench's single-core test rates the M3 family at around 3,100, which makes sense since Apple is running all performance cores at 4.05 GHz. In contrast, the M2 Ultra chip manages the 2800 in the same test thanks to its 3.5GHz base clock.
Compared to multi-core processors, it is not surprising that the M3 Max is ahead of the M3 Pro, which is better than the M3.
One takeaway is that the M3 Pro could perform better if Apple included more performance cores instead of relying more on efficiency cores.
Secondly, the M3 Max is an amazing chip for multi-core processing. According to Geekbench, its 16-core variant can almost compete with the M2 Ultra, which is essentially two M2 Max chips connected to each other.
At the very least, the M3 Max chip should give those considering the M2 Ultra something to think about. We'll talk more about this in our M3 Max MacBook Pro review.
M3 vs M3 Pro vs M3 Max – GPU
As usual with Apple Silicon updates, Apple is including a new graphics architecture in its chips, as well as with more cores.
As for the M3, users have no choice but to go with the 10-core GPU. In the M3 Pro, the 11-core processor includes a 14-core GPU, while the 12-core processor comes bundled with a 12-core GPU.
In the M3 Max, Apple includes 30 or 40 GPU cores, depending on whether the user chooses a 14-core or 16-core GPU.
Naturally, the more cores, the higher the potential graphics performance of the chip. But again, there's more to it than just counting cores.
This time, Apple says its GPU architecture includes hardware-accelerated ray tracing and mesh shading, which will help improve the appearance of graphics-intensive applications such as games.
More important is the introduction of dynamic caching, a system that Apple says “allocates local hardware memory usage in real time.” Given that unified memory is applied to the CPU, GPU, and other components, this will give the GPU more dedicated space to work with than if it had to share everything.
Apple claims up to 2.5x faster rendering speeds on M3 than on M1 GPU Max. It is also suggested that the M3 GPU can deliver the same performance as the M1 GPU while consuming almost half the power.
The only thing that hasn't changed much is external display support. In the case of the MacBook Pro, the M3 can only handle one external 6K 60Hz display along with the built-in one, which is the same as the M2.
The M3 Pro can handle two external 6K 60Hz displays, or one 6K 60Hz screen and another 4K 144Hz screen via HDMI. For a single external screen, this could be an 8K display at 60Hz or a 4K monitor at 240Hz.
The m3 Max can accommodate up to four external displays, including three 6K screens at 60Hz and one 4K screen at 144Hz. On three displays, this could be two 6K 60Hz panels and one 8K 60Hz or 4K 240Hz screen.
M3 vs M3 Pro vs M3 Max – Memory
While single memory bandwidth is important, capacity is arguably more important. With the M3 generation, Apple took a step forward, but was a little confused with the implementation.
M3 can support unified memory capacities of 8GB, 16GB and 24GB. This is no different from what M2 offers.
While the M2 Pro can handle storage capacities ranging from 16GB to 32GB, the M3 Pro goes a little further with storage capacities of 18GB and 36GB.
The most important and confusing memory change concerns the M3 Max. The M2 Max could handle 96GB of storage, but the M3 Max can handle much more, up to 128GB.
The headache is understanding how Apple offers its features for the M3 Max.
For the version with a 14-core processor, the capacity is 36 GB and 96 GB. However, the 16-core version, the top-spec model, starts at 48GB and increases to 64GB and then 128GB.
Increasing the M3 Max's storage capacity to 128GB is a great option for power users who really need it. That is, unless you're confused by the state of the M3 Max's memory options.
M3 vs M3 Pro vs M3 Max – Neural Engine
The Neural Engine, common among Apple Macs and mobile chips, is designed to handle machine learning tasks better than the processor alone. The Neural Engine is the same across the entire generation, with the exception of the Ultra models.
For the M3 generation, it's still a 16-core component, but this time it's capable of 18 trillion operations per second. This is an increase from the 15.8 trillion operations per second of its M2 peers.
Apple doesn't specify how much faster the M3 Neural Engine is than the M2, but it does say it's 60% faster than the M1 version. As for the Neural Engine M2, Apple stated that it is 40% faster than the Neural Engine M1.
M3 vs M3 Pro vs M3 Max – Media Engine
Since the introduction of the M1 Pro and M1 Max, Apple has included an element called the Media Engine. Instead of leaving the processor to handle video encoding, Media Engine handles video encoding and decoding in hardware, making it a valuable component for creative professionals.
As with the M2 Media Engine, there is a slight difference in what is offered when using the M3 Max chip.
The Media Engine in the M3 and M3 Pro includes one video decoding and encoding engine each, as well as ProRes encoding and decoding engines. The M3 Max adds another video encoding engine and doubles the ProRes encoding and decoding engines.
New for M3 is the addition of AV1 decoding. This is in addition to existing functions for working with H.264, HEVC, ProRes and ProRes RAW video materials.
Usually newer and more expensive ones are better
As with the M1 and M2 generations, there are plenty of performance differences across the M3 Apple Silicon lineup. Being the latest generation of Apple, it is certainly more efficient than the M2 and M1 before it.
As you'd expect, moving to higher tiers provides better performance, especially on multi-core systems. After all, if you spend more money, you expect to get more bang for your buck.
The strange exception this year is the M3 Pro, especially with the split core count. By evening, the partitioning minimizes the benefit of having more cores available for performance-related tasks.
Pedestrian tasks may not require as many cores, which will use cost-effective cores. But it's still available to users who want better performance than the base-level chip without having to pay extra for the most powerful piece of Apple Silicon.
The most surprising thing is the strong performance of the M3 Max compared to the M2 Ultra, which is essentially two M2 Max chips glued together to double the resources.
If the M3 Max itself is so powerful, then the M3 Ultra following the existing model could be a truly exciting prospect.