The new M1 MacBook Pros are finally here. And while the fully specced M1 Max model may be dominating the headlines; I think it’s arguably a lot more important to see how the base level MacBook Pro performs. If you spend the least amount of money you can on a new MacBook Pro, what’s the experience going to be like?
When looking at this device in clamshell mode; you almost forget this is a 2021 device. Apple has increased the weight and thickness of these MacBooks. And the overall shape and ergonomics are reminiscent of MacBook Pro models from the mid-2000s. I’m personally a big fan of the changes. And an increase in the weight and thickness doesn’t bother me as long as it has a purpose.
They’ve also eliminated the touch bar from previous models and given the keyboard a blacked-out design. The keyboard typing feel is generally the same. But they have changed the design of the TouchID button. It’s now been changed to look exactly like the new TouchID keyboards Apple released with the M1 iMac.
Overall, I think Apple nailed the exterior of these laptops. I think it’s a perfect blend of old and new. And with all of these somewhat small changes combined, Apple has created a very classy looking device.
The ports on the MacBook Pro are once again multifaceted! These laptops feature the return of MagSafe, the magnetic connector from Pre-2016 MacBooks. HDMI and the SD-Card slot have made a return as well. MagSafe was always one of the most iconic and functional aspects of the MacBook Pro. And even though I’ve spent fours years learning to live without it, I am beyond ecstatic that it has returned. The best part about MagSafe returning is that it’s optional now. All three Thunderbolt ports on these Macs are capable of fully charging the MacBook as well. So you’ll have a backup if you happen to damage your MagSafe port or cable (which I did).
HDMI 2.0 port
The HDMI port, while convenient, isn’t really bringing any functionality to the table that the Thunderbolt ports aren’t. I fully understand that Apple brought this port back to please the general professional crowd and eliminate the need for dongles when presenting spreadsheets on the projector in the office. But Apple could’ve truly catered to visual design pros and videographers who are working with 6K, 8K, and high-refresh rate 4K displays by throwing in an HDMI 2.1 Port.
HDMI 2.0, which this laptop has, only supports up to 4K at 60Hz. HDMI 2.1 has support for 4K 120Hz and 8K displays as well. Especially considering the price point, I think Apple could have included an HDMI 2.1 port. But this isn’t necessarily a deal breaker. And Apple has the opportunity and ability to put HDMI 2.1 in a refreshed model next year or later on.
SD Card slot
The SD-Card slot is UHS-II enabled, which allows for those triple-digit read and write speeds for transferring or viewing files on an SD card. The speed aspect is something that’s only going to be truly appreciated by professionals who need the best speed they can get. But to everyone else, this is just the return of a convenient port that was taken away unnecessarily. And so hopefully Apple doesn’t omit it again until the SD card slot in and of itself becomes obsolete.
Thunderbolt 4 ports
I think what Apple’s done with the Thunderbolt ports is the coolest aspect of the I/O on these new MacBook Pros. Firstly, these are Thunderbolt 4 four ports, as opposed to USB4 or Thunderbolt 3. Thunderbolt 4 isn’t necessarily a performance leap over Thunderbolt 3 or USB4. But because of stricter certification requirements by the creators of Thunderbolt, there are now better universal standards for what Thunderbolt can and can’t do.
Thunderbolt 3 is only supposed to support one 4K display at minimum. But there are Thunderbolt 3 devices that support two 4K displays or even an 8K display. Thunderbolt 4 certification requires support for at least two Thunderbolt displays. In summary, Thunderbolt 4 gets rid of power tiers within Thunderbolt. There’s no longer going to be different iterations of a particular Thunderbolt version that performs differently than others.
The best part about the Thunderbolt implementation here, is that each Thunderbolt port has its own controller. That means you don’t have to worry about the bandwidth being split up between two Thunderbolt ports at once. Each port will give you the maximum amount of performance possible through Thunderbolt, which is 40Gb/s. And this is a game changer for anyone who connects a lot of high-end peripherals to their laptop at once.
Apple moved the headphone jack back to the left side of the MacBook Pro, which is the way it was before 2016. The jack has also been upgraded to support high-impedance headphones. So headphones that normally require an amplifier to run correctly can now just be plugged straight in. And while the quality you get through the headphone jack isn’t amazing, I must applaud Apple for looking out for all of the musicians and audio engineers by doing this with the headphone jack.
Outside of my HDMI 2.0 complaint. I think Apple nailed the I/O here with these new Pros. I don’t think many professionals will have much to complain about with the port layout here, and I think that means Apple’s succeeded.
Apple has truly gotten under people’s skin by putting a notch on the MacBook Pro’s display. It was something people had a lot to say about when Apple did it on the iPhone. And I think generally, it’s a lot more shocking to see on a MacBook, since no other manufacturer has put a notch on a laptop before.
The notch ends vertically at the edge of the menu bar on the top-edge of the UI. So it’s not actually taking up space that normally would be in use anyway. Unfortunately, though, Apple so far hasn’t really thought about items on the menu bar that may be masked by the notch. Quinn from Snazzy Labs was one of the first reviewers to highlight this issue. Apple treats the notch from a UI perspective as if it isn’t there. When you move the cursor over the notch, your cursor will disappear.
Unless you’ve got dozens of menu bar items constantly in play, this shouldn’t be a huge issue. Outside of potentially blocking menu bar items, it’s not taking up any extra space or giving you any less screen real estate than what you’ve gotten on prior models. These laptops do not have a 16:9 aspect ratio display and never have. So when you’re watching full-screened videos, those black bars at the top and bottom will always be there, notch or no notch.
The actual display technology used in these MacBook Pros are nearly perfect for most users. I really don’t like throwing around words like that very often. But from an engineering standpoint, these displays are marvelous. We got a taste of this technology in the 12.9-inch iPad Pro that was released earlier this year.
This is now a mini-LED backlit panel that’s going to provide better contrast, dynamic range, and brightness than we’ve ever gotten on a MacBook Display. And mini-LED technology is what allows for watching true HDR content. This display can get as bright as 1000 nits sustained and supports up to 1600 nits of peak brightness for HDR content. That’s insanely bright compared to the 500 nits of maximum brightness on the previous models.
The fact that Apple was able to fit a display capable of all this inside this thin of a chassis is incredible. And that’s in addition to the fact that it’s not only a 3.5K resolution display, but also capable of a 120Hz refresh rate. This display has Apple’s ProMotion technology that was first introduced on the iPad Pro. Some users have reported that it’s not very noticeable. But I notice it every time I navigate the general UI. Just moving the cursor around or scrolling through folders in the menu is notably smoother. And it only makes the already fantastic display experience so much better.
When you combine the high-resolution, insanely high brightness figures, the smoothness and efficiency of ProMotion and the Wide Color Gamut support. The best way to describe this display in one word is excellent. The displays on these new Pros are going to make every other laptop display seem pretty lackluster in comparison, with a few exceptions.
The new 1080p webcam on the MacBook Pro isn’t amazing by any means. But it’s a huge step up from the embarrassment of a webcam that shipped with the MacBook Pros for years. It’s more or less on par with the new 24-Inch M1 iMac now as far as quality. And that’s nothing to complain about.
The speakers on the MacBook Pro have always been good if not the best out there on a laptop. But Apple decided to widen the gap even further and implement a new 6-speaker sound system with force canceling woofers that you can actually feel when cranking up a bass-heavy track. These speakers also have support for Dolby Atmos and spatial audio, which is aiming to give a surround sound feel.
Generally speaking these speakers sound fantastic. They’re hands-down the best I’ve heard on a laptop. Really solid low-end presence and clarity is something that a lot of high end laptop speakers struggle with. But that isn’t the case with the new MacBook Pro. For being in a chassis this thin and prohibitive, I’m struggling to find any reasonable complaints with the way they sound.
Another component in these MacBooks that surprised me is the microphone. It’s very impressive, and I was honestly shocked by what I heard after doing a recording test. This is the first laptop microphone I’ve heard that I feel as though I could truly rely on if I needed to do voiceover work and couldn’t get access to proper recording equipment. If you’re in a quiet environment, you should have no complaints with the way this MacBooks microphone performs.
Performance is substantially improved over M1, as expected. But the first thing I noticed through all of my testing is a lack of low-memory notifications. This is something I would frequently get on my M1 Mac mini and especially My 8GB M1 MacBook Air when pushing them to the limits. Even though this spec has just as much memory as my M1 mini, M1 Pro seems to be managing it better than M1, which is nice to see. These computers are also dead silent to use for the vast majority of use-case scenarios. When doing a bunch of high-resolution video exports back to back, I rarely heard the fans kick on. And compared to the Intel MacBook Pros, this is a game changer.
When running your typical GeekBench CPU & Metal graphics tests; there’s a major jump in CPU, but especially GPU performance. And that’s definitely where standard M1 is lacking the most in terms of performance. And so I’ve been very anxious to see what Apple’s dedicated Mac GPU would perform like. Especially for things such as editing and exporting 8K video, which we’ve been aiming to upload consistently on the 9to5Mac YouTube channel.
Video editing performance
M1 can handle 8K video editing, but not on a large scale. And unfortunately that’s still the case here with the 8-core M1 Pro spec, to an extent. I’d say that export speeds compared to M1 have vastly improved for 6K & 8K video. But the general playback quality within editing software is still fairly rough, depending on the codec you’re working with. Most mirrorless cameras with 8K capability record in H265, which is a high quality, but very compressed codec. And so far there doesn’t seem to be any vast difference in support for H265 encoding and decoding on M1 Pro or Max.
I ran several export tests with different footage from different cameras. But the bulk of my 8K export testing was done with my camera, the Canon R5. The R5 shoots 8K video in either RAW or H265. And while the playback in full-quality mode isn’t very useable, the actual export times have been drastically improved compared to M1. But it depends on how heavy your edits are.
If you’re working with ProRes Video, you’re going to see a massive improvement in overall playback and export speed. M1 Pro and M1 Max have dedicated encoders and decoders for ProRes video. And Apple says you can playback multiple streams of 4K and 8K video simultaneously while using very little power. And that’s definitely true for 4K ProRes, which M1 Pro handles gracefully.
8K ProRes performance on M1 Pro isn’t as spectacular as I’d hoped, but it’s surely the most performance-friendly codec for M1 Pro and Max. Full-quality 8K ProRes playback is fairly choppy on M1 Pro. But exporting performance is more than usable for everyday work compared to M1.
For this being the $2,000 base model, I’m not exactly blown away by the overall performance for the highest level of video editing. At least coming from M1. But the key thing to remember here is that during all of these exports and tests, the machine’s maintained very good battery life when running on battery power. And it’s been dead silent through 95% of my testing. You’d be hard-pressed to find a similar performance Windows device at the $2,000 price point. That’s what makes this computer, from a performance standpoint, an incredible value despite the high price tag.
I focused heavily on Final Cut Pro performance for this review. Not only because it’s the primary editing program Apple optimizes these machines for; but because it’s a pro application I use every day. But compared to M1, these MacBooks Pros are going to give an improvement for productivity apps like Xcode, Cinema4D, Logic, Photoshop, and DaVinci resolve across the board. For anything that doesn’t require much GPU-power, the gap in performance isn’t light years beyond M1. But that’s not to say performance is bad, because it’s the opposite.
The 512GB M1 Pro is pushing 5400 MB/s read and 4500MB/s write speeds. This is close to double the speeds we’ve had on previous Mac models SSDs of the same size. For transferring large media like video and music files, this SSD is going to be one of the fastest options out there. And especially for the $2,000 price point.
The battery life on these MacBook Pros are one of its weaker aspects. It isn’t as phenomenal as I hoped it would be. But it still blows any of the Intel MacBooks out of the water. And it blows most Windows laptops at this price point out of the water. I did a lot of intensive work on this machine running purely on battery power. And it’s very clear that you simply can’t push this laptop all day without getting a charge in. But if you’re mostly using the Pro for web-based work; this is easily an all-day laptop, just like the standard M1 Macs.
The M1 Pro MacBook Pro for $2,000 is an interesting purchase. Because while you’re getting all of the benefits of this new MacBook hardware, the 8-Core M1 Pro SOC is the weakest example of these new models, and in my testing, not necessarily leagues above M1 for most things. But don’t get me wrong, these machines are incredibly fast for most Pro things. I just don’t believe the performance alone widens a large-enough gap between it and the 13-Inch M1 MacBook Pro.
When you combine the best-in-class performance with the fantastic display and speakers, all-day battery, premium design and top-notch connectivity; you’ve got a device that ticks nearly every box for the price it commands. When using this laptop, you can tell Apple truly cared about selling a product that can deliver in every aspect. Outside of the cost itself, there isn’t any glaring issue that I’d tell you to be wary of. The 14-inch model is going to be my daily driver until there’s a new pro-level desktop from Apple running its silicon. The experience I’ve had using this machine has been fantastic. And I can’t recommend it enough for someone looking for one of the most well-rounded pro laptops out there.
What are your thoughts on the 14-Inch MacBook Pro? Sound off in the comments below!
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