The Ultra-Powerful New MacBook Pro Is Top Notch (Sorry, Sorry, Trying to Delete)

The Ultra-Powerful New MacBook Pro Is Top Notch (Sorry, Sorry, Trying to Delete)
The MagSafe 3 charging port, two Thunderbolt 4 ports, and a headphone jack are on the left side. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

I’ve been using MacBooks since Apple first introduced the line back in 2006. The white polycarbonate MacBook got me through college, a MacBook Air replaced it in my mid-20s, and then I graduated to a MacBook Pro when I needed to do more processor-intensive tasks for work. As part of my job, I’ve used a variety of MacBooks: ones with the bad butterfly keyboard, ones with the Touch Bar, ones with Intel processors and ones with Apple silicon. Every MacBook has had its drawbacks. The new MacBook Pro is no different in that respect, but this is the first MacBook that feels like Apple is actually listening to what people want instead of forcing us to accept trade-offs for the sake of innovation.

The 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro are a serious upgrade over last year’s 13-inch MacBook Pros — the Intel version, obviously, but also the M1 overhaul. Apple has further pushed its custom M1 system-on-chip with the M1 Pro and M1 Max, and the 14-inch and 16-inch Pros can be configured with either processor (and also a ton of storage and RAM).

The 14-inch MacBook with M1 Max I’ve been using for the last week is more powerful than pretty much every other laptop we’ve tested, which is key for creative work. But there are so many other little things that make the new Pro worth buying, many of the features that Apple phased out with past Pros only to bring them back. The company doesn’t get any points for restoring pro features on a pro laptop, and if you’ve been burned by a bad keyboard or the frustrating lack of ports in the past, you’d be forgiven for looking at the new MacBook Pro with a side-eye. But it is a very good laptop — and for many folks, it will be the very best laptop.

MacBook Pro (2021)

WHAT IS IT?

Apple's big pro-level laptop with M1 Pro or M1 Max system-on-chip

PRICE

Starts at A$2,999) for 14-inch; A$3,749 for 16-inch ($US4,099 (A$5,492) as reviewed)

LIKE

Breathtaking performance; beautiful, bright miniLED display; a FaceTime camera that works magic; actually useful ports for pros; MagSafe has returned better than ever; fast-charging is fast

DON'T LIKE

Battery life nowhere near as good as M1 MacBooks; one USB-A port would have been nice

Bigger Is Better

I never thought I would be a person who’d get excited about ports, but here I sit, about to slot in an SD card to offload photos directly to my Mac for the first time in years instead of plugging in an adaptor, and I’m honestly thrilled.

The return of useful ports to the MacBook Pro is a game-changer if you use a lot of peripherals as part of your workflow. Both MacBook Pros have three Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C) ports, a headphone jack, an HDMI port, an SD card slot, and a MagSafe charging port, which is so, so satisfying to use. (You can also charge over USB-C.) I’d love to see a USB-A port crammed in here, too, but the included ports minimise the need for dongles and for that, I am grateful (if a little upset that I settled for only USB-C for so long).

Both new MacBooks support external displays for video pros. Versions with the M1 Pro can be used with two 6K external displays at 60Hz, and M1 Max models can be used with three 6K external displays and one 4K at 60Hz. The HDMI 2.0 port supports 4K TVs at 60fps. The SD card reader supports UHS-II cards at up to 250 MB/s transfer speeds, which is slower than some had hoped, but I managed to import the contents of an outdated, completely full 16GB SDHC card — more than 2,500 photos and videos — to the MacBook Pro in 5 minutes and 25 seconds. (This reminded me I need a faster SD card.)

The new MacBook Pros, which come in silver and space grey, are unsurprisingly sizable, like the old giant MacBook Pros. The 14-inch Pro weighs in at 2 kg, and is 0.61 inches thick, 12.31 inches wide, and 8.71 inches deep. The 16-inch is 2 kg, 0.66 inches thick, 14.01 inches wide, and 9.77 inches deep. The new Pros are certainly not as easy to grab and go as a MacBook Air is, but what you sacrifice in portability you make up for in ports and power.

An SD card reader, another Thunderbolt 4 port, and an HDMI port are on the right. A USB-A port would be nice! (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) An SD card reader, another Thunderbolt 4 port, and an HDMI port are on the right. A USB-A port would be nice! (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

Apple trashed the bad butterfly keyboard and finished updating its entire MacBook lineup with scissor switches last year, and the new Pro’s keyboard is just as delightfully clicky. Apple has also phased out the mostly useless Touch Bar and brought back a row of physical function keys, which is a dream come true. Little things like adjusting volume and display brightness are just so much easier with actual keys, and while the Touch Bar did make it a breeze to scrub through video, I’m happy to give that up to regain more widespread functionality.

Beautiful Display, and the Notch Is Fine

Both new MacBook Pros have miniLED Liquid Retina XDR displays with adaptive refresh rates up to 120Hz, like the newest 12.9-inch iPad Pro. The smaller Pro’s 14.2-inch 3024 x 1964 display has 5.9 million pixels with 254 pixels per inch. The larger Pro’s 16.2-inch 3456 x 2234 display also has 254 ppi, with 7.7 million pixels. But it’s the miniLED part that’s important.

The 14-inch MacBook Pro has 8,040 miniLEDs spread across 2,010 local dimming zones, while the 16-inch offers 10,216 miniLEDs across 2,554 local dimming zones. MiniLEDs bridge the gap between cheaper LCD panels and pricier OLED ones, offering incredible brightness (up to 1,600 nits at peak brightness and up to 1,000 nits sustained brightness) without sacrificing the contrast and detail you get from OLED. Watching HDR content is way more immersive than it is on the old MacBooks’ LCD screens, which top out at 5oo nits. With a 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio and P3 wide colour gamut, this screen is just all-around excellent.

The one downside of miniLED screens is that they can sometimes cause blooming around bright elements on a black background, but in my testing, the effect was rarely if ever noticeable.

You can try to disguise the notch with a dark wallpaper. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) You can try to disguise the notch with a dark wallpaper. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

With the new MacBook Pros, Apple shrunk the bezels down to 3.5mm on the sides and top, which is 24% thinner than previous models on the sides and 60% thinner on the top. But jutting down at the top is a black notch where the new 1080p FaceTime camera sits, just like the selfie lens does on iPhones. At first, I was extremely torn about this design decision. The new lens, while an upgrade, doesn’t offer Face ID, and the notch does look weird unless you cover it up with a dark wallpaper. But the extra screen real estate makes a huge difference in everything from browsing the web to editing photos, because menu bars now sit alongside the camera instead of living below it, freeing up the rest of the screen for everything else. I have to admit: Switching between the new 14-inch Pro and a Pro without a notch is an unpleasant adjustment.

After close to a week of using the Pro for everything from writing, editing, and benchmarking to watching movies, FaceTiming with friends, and browsing the internet, I’ve become accustomed to it, just as I have with my iPhone. The cursor slides under the notch and disappears instead of bouncing off, which is a nice touch, and software or apps with a lot of menu items simply arrange those items around the protrusion, as you can see below. There are some instances in which the notch is really not cute, like when you have a light, bright wallpaper. But can I live with it? Sigh. Yes.

Apps rearrange their menu bars to accommodate the notch. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) Apps rearrange their menu bars to accommodate the notch. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

The new Pro displays have also been upgraded with the iPad Pro’s ProMotion feature, which is so good that it’s now upsetting to use a laptop without it. ProMotion, which is turned on by default, makes it so the Pro can adjust its refresh rate between 10Hz and 120Hz, depending on what you’re doing. You can turn off ProMotion and use the Pro at a fixed refresh rate (47.95Hz, 48Hz, 50Hz, 59.94Hz, or 60Hz) if you want to, but I tried using it at 60Hz and found the difference too glaring after almost a week at 120Hz. It really is so much smoother with ProMotion turned on.

Simply Ridiculous Performance

While it has many good features, the new MacBook Pros’ biggest selling point is Apple’s newest custom processors, the M1 Pro and M1 Max, which are huge upgrades from last year’s M1 chip. Like the M1, the M1 Pro and M1 Max are built on 5-nanometre processor tech with 16-core Neural Engines, but Apple has leveled up the core counts, RAM, and storage. The configs you can choose are much more customisable than with the M1, which offered an 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU (with the cheapest MacBook Air offering a variation with a 7-core GPU instead).

The M1 Pro in the base model A$2,999 14-inch MacBook comes with an 8-core CPU and 14-core GPU, though you can configure that up to a 10-core CPU and 16-core GPU for more money, of course. The M1 Max starts with a 10-core CPU and 24-core GPU, and can be configured up to a 32-core GPU. (I have not yet been able to test a MacBook with M1 Pro, but I will be comparing the two soon.) Then there’s the unified memory, which can be used by both the CPU and GPU. The 16GB base can be configured up to 32GB with the M1 Pro and up to 64GB with the M1 Max on either the 14-inch or 16-inch model. The M1 Pro supports up to 200 GB/s memory bandwidth, while the M1 Max supports up to 400 GB/s.

The storage options are also plentiful: The base model 14- and 16-inch MacBooks start at 512GB, configurable to 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, or 8TB. A fully specc’d out 14-inch MacBook Pro with M1 Max and 8TB of storage is A$8,849. I tested a 14-inch Pro with 10-core CPU, 32-core GPU, 64GB of RAM, and 2TB of storage, which costs A$6,149. That’s not insignificant, especially when a top-of-the-line 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro with an 8-core CPU, 8-core CPU, 16GB of RAM, and 2TB of storage is A$3,399. You’ll have to decide whether you really need all that power (and the upgraded display and plethora of ports).

But the M1 Max is a truly impressive chip, and if you do need the power, a MacBook Pro with M1 Max is the Mac to buy. It’s faster than basically every other laptop we’ve ever tested when it comes to processor-intensive tasks like exporting video and rendering 3D images. The Pro converted a 4K video file to 1080p in just 4 minutes and 50 seconds in Handbrake; the M1 MacBook Pro took nearly 8 minutes to complete that conversion, by comparison, and no Windows laptop we’ve tested has come close. Microsoft’s creative pro-oriented Surface Laptop Studio (which packs an Intel Core i7-11370H and Nvidia RTX 3050 Ti GPU) took 11 minutes and 21 seconds, and the Razer Blade 14 (which sports an AMD Ryzen 9 5900HX CPU and RTX 3070 GPU) completed the task in 7 minutes and 26 seconds.

Rendering a 3D image in Blender, the M1 Max took just three minutes and 21 seconds using the CPU and 4:56 using the GPU. Here the Razer Blade 14 nipped at the MacBook Pro’s heels, finishing the render in 3:48 using CPU and 5:58 using GPU.

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo, In-House Art

Click through for more detail shots of the MacBook Pro.

There are now fewer issues with software optimisation than there were at the M1’s launch. Many of the creative applications used by pros have since been optimised to run on Apple silicon, so the problems we ran into with last year’s Arm Macs are moot. For instance, the 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro struggled to transcode a 4K video to HEVC in Adobe Premiere Pro, which was still running via Apple’s Rosetta 2 emulation layer at the time. Premiere Pro now runs natively on M1 (and therefore on M1 Pro and M1 Max), and the 14-inch Pro converted the 4K file to HEVC in just 11 seconds, compared to 280 seconds on the 13-inch Pro.

In Geekbench 5, a test of overall system performance, the Pro was as good as expected, notching a single-core score of 1,777 and a multi-core score of 12,663. It’s that multi-core number that’s truly impressive, given the M1 MacBook Pro scored 7,470. Windows laptops like the Surface Laptop Studio (5,874), Razer Blade 14 (7,403), and Dell’s XPS 15 OLED with Intel Core i7-11800H (7,477) didn’t come close.

On Cinebench R23, a more time-intensive test of system performance than Geekbench, the 14-inch M1 Max MacBook Pro’s multi-core score (12,206) was also noteworthy compared to that of the 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro (7,771). Of the MacBook’s PC rivals, the Asus ROG Flow X13 with its AMD Ryzen 9 5980HS comes closest (11,659), but it’s still not quite as powerful.

As always with Macs, things get a little trickier when it comes to gaming performance. Few big titles are available on macOS, and gaming benchmarks aren’t optimised for Apple silicon, so despite all the power-packed into the Pro, the new MacBook didn’t blow any PCs out of the water in my testing. On Shadow of the Tomb Raider’s built-in benchmark, I saw the M1 Max MacBook Pro hit 67 frames per second at a resolution of 1080p on High settings. That’s way more impressive than the M1 MacBook Air, which stuttered at 32 fps in the same test, but nowhere near gaming laptops like the Razer Blade 15 Advanced with an RTX 3070 GPU (112 fps) or MSI’s GP66 Leopard (118 fps). Again, finding games optimised for M1 is a challenge, and AAA titles don’t abound on macOS, but perhaps the MacBook Pro with M1 Max is the machine that will convince game developers that the Mac is a platform worth considering (though with the rise of cloud gaming services, perhaps this is no longer as important as it once was).

Benchmarking Shadow of the Tomb Raider was also the only time the MacBook’s fans kicked on and the chassis warmed up a touch in my week of using it all day every day. The rest of the time it was quiet as a mouse and cool as a cucumber.

A Camera That Will Make You Want to Turn Video On

Video calls have become an inescapable part of life and work, but webcams have been slow to catch up. I criticised last year’s MacBooks for not including the 1080p FaceTime lens Apple had added to its iMacs, and with the new MacBook Pros, I no longer have any complaints. The camera is so good.

We’re not talking 4K quality here — no special makeup is required to smooth out the skin. The full HD camera and its image signal processor work together to create what is actually magical lighting, even when it’s dim, like on the 24-inch M1 iMac. If you toggle on Portrait Mode in FaceTime, you’ll look like you’re being filmed on a DSLR. It really is that good.

Both MacBooks offer a six-speaker sound system with four force-cancelling woofers and two tweeters, and believe me when I say they sound amazing. If you like to blast music while you work or prefer to take video calls without earbuds while alone in your home office, good speakers are key. The Pro’s speakers are good. The new MacBooks also support Apple’s surround sound Spatial Audio feature, with dynamic head-tracking on the third-gen AirPods, AirPods Pro, and AirPods Max. I always enjoy watching movies that support Spatial Audio while wearing AirPods Max, and the effect is just as good on the MacBook Pro. This isn’t quite the game-changing feature Apple makes it out to be, but it’s a nice touch.

MagSafe Saves the Day

The one area where the MacBook Pro underwhelms is battery life. The 14-inch model I tested with M1 Max lasted 8 hours and 39 minutes on Gizmodo’s video rundown battery test, which is a little above average for a laptop, but doesn’t come close to touching the incredible battery life on last year’s M1 MacBook Air (14:02) or M1 MacBook Pro (18 hours). I retested with ProMotion turned off and eked out an extra hour, but given that ProMotion is turned on by default (and you definitely want to use it), the battery life is a bit of a letdown.

Anecdotally I also found the battery life to be very average. I have to use Google Chrome for work, because Kinja hates Safari, and unfortunately, Chrome is still an absolutely ridiculous battery hog. Over four hours of work in Chrome, the MacBook Pro’s battery life plummeted from 100% to 60%. I can definitely still get a full day’s work done with battery to spare, but it’s not quite the beast that the M1 MacBook Air was in my testing.

Fast charging worked as promised. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo) Fast charging worked as promised. (Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo)

But the Pro is capable of fast charging, which is its saving grace. After the laptop died, I was able to charge up to 51% in 30 minutes using the included MagSafe charging cable and 96W USB-C power adaptor. (The 16-inch Pro comes with a 140W brick.) The Pro can also charge using a USB-C cable instead of MagSafe, but MagSafe is truly so clutch. I am a clumsy person, and the number of times I’ve tripped over a USB-C charging cable and sent a laptop flying is…not insignificant. While I have not purposefully tried to trip over the new MagSafe cable, I can attest that the magnet is both strong and detaches with ease. Snapping it back in gives me the same visceral satisfaction as it does to snap a classic Motorola Razr shut (if you know, you know).

So Is It Worth Buying?

Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo Photo: Caitlin McGarry/Gizmodo

Most people don’t choose a laptop based solely on performance, though if you do, the MacBook Pro with M1 Max is one of the absolute best you can buy right now. Things are about to get interesting on that front: Intel will soon release its 12th-gen Alder Lake processors, which might just surprise everyone and best both Apple and AMD. It’s an exciting time for computing, though that doesn’t necessarily help anyone decide which laptop to buy right now.

There are other factors to consider, other questions to answer: Are you a gamer? Do you prefer Windows or macOS? Does the software you require for work or play run natively on M1 Macs? Performance is just one variable.

But in addition to its power, the Pro’s incredible display, useful ports, perfect keyboard, and high-definition webcam make the new MacBook a compelling package. Yes, it’s expensive. It might be more laptop than most people need. I’m eager for these features to trickle down to the cheaper MacBooks so you don’t have to pay for more performance than you require just to get an amazing screen and the webcam we all deserve.

But if you do need all this power, the new MacBook is nearly perfect. Apple has brought pro features back to the Pro lineup, and it’s about time.