M3 vs. M2: How Does Apple's New Silicon Compare to Its Predecessor?

Key Takeaways

  • Apple’s M3 chips offer incremental improvements over the M2 chips, except for the M3 Max which is a significant upgrade.
  • The M3 range features 3nm fabrication technology, resulting in better performance and higher efficiency than the M2.
  • The M3 chips offer faster performance, improved machine learning, and AI capabilities, as well as better gaming performance with features like dynamic caching and hardware-accelerated ray tracing.

Apple’s M3 chips are the third iteration of the company’s in-house chipset lineup. They bring a big technical step forward, but do they offer enough improvements for M2 users to upgrade? Here’s how Apple’s M3 Silicon compares to the M2 range.

What Is M3 Silicon?

Mascots of the M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max chips

The M3 is the latest generation of Apple’s computer chips that house a Mac’s critical components such as the CPU, GPU, RAM, and the Neural Engine. The series consists of three models: the base M3, the mid-range M3 Pro, and the high-end M3 Max. While the former is only available in the new 14-inch MacBook Pro and Apple’s 2023 iMac, the latter two come in several configurations on the 2023 MacBook Pro lineup.

The M3 range is the first to be based on 3-nanometer (nm) fabrication technology. This allows Apple to pack five billion extra transistors onto the chip, resulting in better performance and higher efficiency than the M2, which was based on 5nm technology. It also bumps the promised battery life to 22 hours with the M3 and 18 hours with the M3 Pro and M3 Max chips.

Apple claims that the M3 family’s performance cores are about 15% faster than the M2, while the efficiency cores are 30% faster. As before, each M3 chip features unified memory, a single memory pool located on the chip to provide higher bandwidth and lower latency. The top-tier trims in the M3 lineup support up to 128GB of unified memory.

The next-generation M3 chips also feature Dynamic Caching, improving overall GPU performance. Apple says the feature allocates only the “exact amount of memory needed” for each task. The new GPU also comes with mesh shading and hardware-accelerated ray tracking for better gaming performance.

Further, all chips have a 15% faster Neural Engine than the processors in the M2 lineup, which helps with improved machine learning and AI performance. All-in-all, the M3 family promises faster performance, and can handle more complex scenes in games and other graphic-intensive apps.

M3 vs. M2: Modest Upgrade

m3 family performance cores

The M3 chip comes with an eight-core CPU with four performance cores and four efficiency cores. While the core cluster is similar to the M2, the M3 provides about 20% better performance than its predecessors.

While the baseline M2 chip came with an eight-core GPU, the entry-level M3 chip has a 10-core GPU. Although both chips have a 16-core Neural Engine, Apple says the one on the M3 can “accelerate powerful machine learning models,” offering 15% better performance than the M2.

Both chips support 100GB/s memory bandwidth, so there’s no improvement there. It’s the same with secondary screens—the M3 and M2 can support one external display with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz.

Apple’s M3 is currently available on the $1,599 14-inch MacBook Pro. While the base model ships with 8GB of unified memory and 512GB of SSD storage, you also have the option to get 24GB of unified memory for an extra $400 and 2TB of SSD for an additional $600. A similar configuration is also available on the 15-inch M2 MacBook Air.

M3 Pro vs. M2 Pro: Barely Any Improvements

Earlier in 2023, Apple unveiled the M2 Pro and M2 Max chips, completing the M2 family. Out of these, the M2 Pro was based on 5nm fabrication technology and shipped with 40 billion transistors. The M3 Pro offers a smaller transistor size of 3nm. However, the number of transistors has gone down to 37 billion.

The M3 Pro comes in two configurations, offering either an 11-core CPU, with one less performance core and two extra efficiency cores as compared to the baseline M2 Pro, and a 14-core GPU.

Then there’s another model with a 12-core CPU, two fewer performance cores, two more efficiency cores than its M2 counterpart, and an 18-core GPU. Interestingly, the GPUs on both M3 Pro models have fewer cores than the M2 Pro.

As a result, even though the new chipset is built on TSMC’s 3nm technology that packs in more efficient transistors, the reduction in the number of high-power cores diminishes the overall performance. A Geekbench listing also reflects this, where the M3 Pro scores 3,035/15,173 in the single/multicore performance test, barely higher than the M2 Pro’s score.

The memory bandwidth decreased from 200GB/s on the M2 Pro to 150GB/s on the M3 Pro. Nonetheless, both chipsets support up to two external displays with 6K resolution at 60Hz over Thunderbolt, one display (up to 6K at 60Hz) over Thunderbolt, and one (up to 4K at 144Hz) over HDMI. Users can also plug in an 8K (60Hz) or 4K (240Hz) display over HDMI.

The M3 Pro is available on Apple’s 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros. You can configure the chipset with up to 36GB of unified memory (a slight bump from 32GB on the M2 Pro) and up to 4TB of SSD (while the M2 Pro had an 8TB SSD option, too).

M3 Max vs. M2 Max: Huge Performance Leap

Creative visualization of the M3, M3 Pro, and the M3 Max chipsets by Apple

Apple’s top-of-the-line M3 Max ships with a whopping 92 billion transistors as opposed to 67 billion transistors on the M2 Max, and it also comes in two configurations.

The lower trim has a 14-core CPU (two additional cores than the base M3 Max) with 10 performance cores and a 30-core GPU. The maxed-out version offers a 16-core CPU and a 40-core GPU, which is a notable improvement over the top-tier M2 Max with 12 CPU cores and 38 GPU cores.

While the M2 Max is configurable up to 96GB of unified memory, the M3 Max raises the bar to 128GB. With such specifications, Apple says professionals and developers can work with “even larger transformer models with billions of parameters.”

Geekbench scores also suggest that the M3 Max is about 45% quicker than the M2 Max, which puts it in competition with the M2 Ultra.

When it comes to external displays, the M3 Max can support up to four screens at a time. This could be three screens with 6K at 60Hz over Thunderbolt and one with 4K at 144Hz over HDMI. In another case, the M3 Max can output to one 8K monitor at a 60Hz refresh rate (or one 4K monitor at 240Hz) with two 6K 60Hz monitors.

Although both M2 Max models provided 400GB/s of memory bandwidth, the lower-spec M3 Max offers 300GB/s, reserving the absolute best 400GB/s for the top-tier variant. The two ProRes encode and decode engines for fast post-production remain identical to the M2 Max.

Apple’s M3 Max is currently available on the $3,199 14-inch MacBook Pro, which offers 36GB of unified memory and 1TB of SSD. Although this is a lower-spec version of the chipset, you can upgrade it by paying an additional $300. The 16-inch MacBook Pro with M3 Max starts at $3,499.

Should You Buy an M3 Mac?

Apple's M3 Max MacBook Pro in Space Black

Apple’s M3 series, barring the M3 Max chipset, is an incremental update at best. Comparing the base M3 with the M2, we see few major improvements worth investing in. Apple’s M3 Pro shares the same story: it barely offers any upgrades. Hence, if you already have an M2 MacBook Pro, stay put, as you aren’t going to get your investment’s worth from the new model. However, compared with the M1 and M1 Pro, the M3 and M3 Pro are a big leap forward.

The M3 Max, as we mentioned earlier, is in a league of its own. It comes very close to Apple’s most powerful and expensive chip, the M2 Ultra. If your bread depends on how fast your computer will render a video, generate a 3D design, or train AI models, Apple’s M3 Max is the chip for you. If your budget allows, upgrade to the latest MacBook Pro model with the top-tier M3 Max chip from the M2 Max.


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