Monday, Oct. 25th 2021
Macbook Pro (2021) Review Roundup
I was lucky to be able to get a 14" M1 Max configuration on launch day at my local Apple store. I posted a few observations to a Twitter thread. If you have any questions I might be able to answer, please ask me there!
The new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro models usher in a new era in Apple laptops. These are the first high-end Macs to be powered by Apple-designed processors, and that’s a big deal—but they also reject the minimalist design mid-2010s Apple, which achieved design simplicity by forcing complexity and frustration on users.
Clearly, during the last decade there’s been a lot of debate within Apple about this issue. At some point, the idea that somehow aesthetics were more important than utility won the day. Or, if I’m being charitable, people with an overly optimistic view of the future (and of Apple’s power to force that future into being) were given the opportunity to implement their vision.
It’s not cheap. No, it’s not. But that’s okay. In fact, even that fact follows from one of the most important lessons Apple has learned in the last five years: The MacBook Pro is a tool for professional users, and it needs to be built with their needs in mind.
If you only read one of these reviews, Jason Snell's post at SixColors.com should be the one you read. He perfectly captures the about-face and optimism around Apple's responsiveness that I know many are feeling right now.
Apple opened their October event with a young musician creating an Apple-inspired music track in a dingy garage filled with gear worth tens of thousands of dollars. Some viewers commented on the unrealistic portrayal of a creative professional. But I felt like I was looking in a mirror.
That uncharacteristic willingness to admit that a grand experiment did not pay out is perhaps the single most dominating vibe of these computers. Apple is not known for graciously admitting a mistake, yet here we have laptops that have so resoundingly repudiate their design assertions of the last half-decade that it’s hard for us pros to not feel at least seen, if not downright vindicated.
So my advice is this: Go big or go Air. Either max out your M1 Max, or don’t bother with these machines. These MacBook Pros exist to compete at the very highest end of laptop performance, so don’t buy one that’s not racetrack-ready.
Apple is going hard with their in-house processors, and with these pro laptops, I think they are showing their vison for the future: integrated, enclosed, and efficient. Just like the best Macs have always been.
It’s easy to be excited about the new MacBook Pros — it feels like Apple finally listened to everyone and brought back the best parts of the beloved 2015 MacBook Pro, while pushing the display and performance to new heights. I know a lot of people who ordered one sight unseen; the pent-up demand for a great pro Mac laptop has been growing since Apple released the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 chips last year.
The other major design change is a personal victory: Apple finally got rid of the Touch Bar, which never really lived up to its potential, and replaced it with full-height function keys. They’re great, uncomplicated, and do exactly what you’d expect.
And a major reason we’re taking a little extra time to publish our full review is because I want to be really certain about battery life — we loved the battery life we got on the M1 machines last year, but these have much beefier chips, bigger, brighter displays, and get used for more intense tasks, so I want to be as sure about that as we can. The early results are promising — big batteries and efficient chips are a good combination — but we want to push things as hard as we can.
I too am curious about the battery life with the M1 Pro and the M1 Max. I love the "practically forever in usage" battery life of my M1 (without seemingly much performance compromise).
The M1 Pro and M1 Max change the narrative completely – these designs feel like truly SoCs that have been made with power users in mind, with Apple increasing the performance metrics in all vectors. We expected large performance jumps, but we didn’t expect the some of the monstrous increases that the new chips are able to achieve.
The chips here aren’t only able to outclass any competitor laptop design, but also competes against the best desktop systems out there, you’d have to bring out server-class hardware to get ahead of the M1 Max – it’s just generally absurd.
On the GPU side of things, Apple’s gains are also straightforward. The M1 Pro is essentially 2x the M1, and the M1 Max is 4x the M1 in terms of performance. Games are still in a very weird place for macOS and the ecosystem, maybe it’s a chicken-and-egg situation, maybe gaming is still something of a niche that will take a long time to see make use of the performance the new chips are able to provide in terms of GPU. What’s clearer, is that the new GPU does allow immense leaps in performance for content creation and productivity workloads which rely on GPU acceleration.
The combination of raw performance, unique acceleration, as well as sheer power efficiency, is something that you just cannot find in any other platform right now, likely making the new MacBook Pro’s not just the best laptops, but outright the very best devices for the task.
I think they like them.
My resounding answer is that the upgrade in the M1 MacBook Pros will substantially affect absolutely everyone. The battery life is not just slightly better, it’s on a radically different planet. This machine stays cool and handles whatever you can throw at it, whether that’s making a family photo album in Photos or rendering an animation in After Effects.
Turns out, it wasn’t great, and some of the assumptions the 2016 MBP was built on just never panned out. I’m really glad the team at Apple has listened intently to the creative community and been willing to backtrack a bit on the physical interfaces of the machine—while also rocketing into the future with Apple’s new silicon.
First, I ran an image stack in Starry Landscape Stacker on 100 TIFF files (150MB each). It took 4m 24s to render and battery life was still at 100% (the fan remained inaudible).
Second, I ran a Cinebench test, which finished in just a few minutes and still the battery was 100%.
Third, I went back the 100 TIFF image files and opened them into StarStax and processed a "Gap Filling" blend of all 100 TIFF files. This intensive process took another 2m 36s and still the battery was at 100%.
So I opened eight images into Adobe Camera Raw and used Photomerge to create a giant panorama. This happened quickly, and you guessed it, the battery life still showed 100%.
At this point I kind of ran out of options, so I went back to Cinebench to run the test again on loop. About 2.5 minutes into that test, the battery life finally dropped down to 99%.
For reference, I ran this process on my previous gen 16" MacBook Pro (which has decent battery health of 85%). After completing step three (“Gap Filling” StarStax process), the battery was at 71%. Also, fans spun up to max RPM during step one and never went back down.
Apple products at their best are fun to use—elegant, powerful, and functional. With the return of a practical port set and Apple silicon inside, the new MacBook Pro M1 Max strikes a great balance, and I’m sure you will absolutely love this new era of Mac.
I know that battery percentage isn't always reported linearly, but it's still quite impressive.
Perhaps my favorite thing about these new MacBook Pros is that the 14-inch model is spec-for-spec the peer of the 16-inch model. Heretofore, only the larger 15- and 16-inch MacBook Pros got the very fastest chips — particularly hot-running battery-hungry GPUs — among other advantages. So while one way to think about this generation is that they got heavier than the last generation of Intel models (comparing 14-inch to 13-inch, and 16-inch to 16-inch), another way to think about it is that the fastest laptop in the world is now available in a 14-inch footprint and weighs just 3.5 pounds. There’s no compromise on performance — you just pick which size you prefer.
This is weirdly my favorite part about the 14" and 16". I reminds me of the 12" and 15" PowerBook G4 laptops. I used to have a high spec 12" PowerBook G4 and I loved that it was almost the same specs of the larger 15". Except that this is even better!
Speaking of the notch, I’m genuinely curious about the lack of Face ID. Is the display lid too thin for the sensor array? We don’t think of iPhones and iPads as thick, but they’re a lot thicker than a MacBook lid. Does Apple just think Face ID is not a good fit for the Mac? Do they think it would be confusing or inelegant to offer both Face ID and Touch ID, and they simply think Touch ID is the better fit for devices that always have hardware keyboards?
I was really hoping for FaceID.
I think Apple got stuck with misplaced MacBook Pro priorities at an inopportune time: near the cusp of the transition to Apple silicon. Apple does not relish explaining their mistakes. But they do acknowledge them, and make changes to address them. They are confident and proud, but seldom obstinate. The Macintosh platform is 37 years old. Four decades! But this new MacBook Pro is the nicest and best Mac I’ve ever used. If Apple could have built and shipped this sooner, I’m quite certain they would have. But they couldn’t. Only now can they design custom silicon to power the professional-class machines they envisioned, as opposed to designing the hardware around the best silicon available from Intel.
Updated on Monday, Nov. 1st 2021