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MacBook Pro (M1 Pro 2021) review
The new MacBook Pro is an incredible machine that lives up to its name.
My parents and many of my friends live in Brisbane, and thanks to *everything*, I've not been able to see them since June. Despite this, the new MacBook Pro makes me grateful the NSW / Queensland border hasn't opened yet. If it were, I fear that one of my filmmaker friends would make the trip down just to murder me and pry this laptop from my cold dead hands.
At the same time, I don't blame her. I'm sitting here watching Final Cut Pro play back five layers of effect-laden 8K clips in real time, while her 2016 MacBook Pro grinds to a halt editing clips.
And I get it. Before moving into the world of tech journalism, I was in video production myself. Younger me would definitely go full Looper and kill his future self for the 2021 MacBook Pro. It's, quite frankly, a ludicrous machine.
For the purposes of this review, I tested out a middle of the road configuration: the 16-inch model with 32GB of RAM, a M1 Pro with 10-core CPU and 16-coe GPU, and 1TB. If you were to buy this model, it would set you back $4,649. With that kind of price tag, it's not surprising murder is on the menu.
MacBook Pro (2021) price
I'm sure you already get it; the new MacBook Pro family are expensive. You're looking at a minimum of $2,999 for the 14-inch model, and you could spend as much as $9,149 for a maxed out 16-inch model. As the name suggests, these aren't consumer laptops: they're designed for professionals and are clearly priced that way.
While the new MacBook Pros were never going to be cheap, it kinda feels like Apple has gone overboard with upgrade pricing. RAM and storage upgrades are especially painful. Going from 16GB to 32GB will add an extra $600 to your machine price, and upgrading from a 1TB SSD to 2TB is also a $600 premium. That’s well above market price for these kinds of components. You also can't upgrade your storage or RAM down the line, so you'll need to try and work out your needs.
Here's what you'll pay the core models in the new MacBook Pro family:
|14-inch M1 Pro||8-core||14-core||16GB||512GB|| |
|14-inch M1 Pro||10-core||16-core||16GB||1TB|| |
|16-inch M1 Pro||10-core||16-core||16GB||512GB|| |
|16-inch M1 Pro||10-core||16-core||16GB||1TB|| |
|16-inch M1 Max||10-core||32-core||32GB||1TB|| |
MacBook Pro (2021) performance
The new MacBook Pro may be expensive, but your money buys you a lot of power. I've had to actively go out of my way to make the laptop try and choke. Editing 4K ProRes 422 in Final Cut Pro was effortless; clips played back in real time, even when layered and added effects. Moving up to 8K and five effect-laden layered clips finally got the machine to drop a few frames, but playback was still smooth. It's clear the new MacBook Pro can handle ridiculously demanding workloads, even without opting for the faster M1 Max chipset.
I edit a lot of photos for reviews, and I was genuinely surprised by how responsive Photoshop was. Content-Aware Fill - a feature that resamples a portion of an image based on what's around it, to get rid of a person in the background, for example - was instant. When I did a batch resize of camera samples, it was done by the time I could pick up my phone. On the Surface Book 2 I typically use for work, I normally find myself waiting a minute or so.
Notably, the new MacBook Pro still runs at full speed when you're on battery. Many Windows laptops throttle performance when you unplug them to conserve energy, but this isn't the case here.
While Apple's M1 Pro chipset is impressive, it doesn't miraculously turn it into a gaming machine. Titles from Apple Arcade will naturally run well, but that's also true of any Apple M1 computer. The games that actually natively run on Mac (such as Shadow of the Tomb Raider) run well, but the performance isn't quite what you'd get from a Windows laptop with a gaming-grade GPU.
MacBook Pro (2021) battery life
While one might kill for the new MacBook Pro, it simply won't die. On the 16-inch M1 Pro model, Apple says you can get as much as 20 hours per charge. Obviously, this will depend on what exactly it is you're doing - more demanding apps like Final Cut will drain the battery faster than banging away a review in OneNote - but Apple's estimates seem reasonably accurate.
From a real-world perspective, I fully charged the MacBook Pro on Thursday night and unplugged it before going to bed. I used it for a few hours of work on Friday and didn't touch it over the weekend. I then managed to make it through a full day of work on Monday (including Zoom calls, which tend to just destroy battery) and then played around with 4K footage in Final Cut in the evening. I still had about 15% of charge left to spare. You simply don't need to worry about the new MacBook Pro running out of juice.
It's worth noting that the 14-inch MacBook Pro has a shorter battery (that we haven't been able to test) as do M1 Max models due to additional graphics cores (which we also haven't been able to test). If you're after the best battery out of the new MacBook Pro family, the 16-inch M1 Pro model is your best bet.
MacBook Pro (2021) design
The new MacBook Pro marks the end of Apple's thinness-at-all-costs design philosophy. Both the 14-inch and 16-inch model are thicker and heavier than their predecessors, measuring a little over 2kg if you're after the larger lad. I can't speak for the 14-inch model, but you'll definitely feel the 16-inch in your backpack.
The thicker form factor has however heralded the return of ports. Praise Tim. While for five or so years, MacBooks were bereft of anything but USB-C ports, the 2021 models have a few extras. Firstly, MagSafe is back. You can still charge over USB-C if you'd like, but the out of the box charger has Apple's OG clicky connector that will pop out if someone trips over it, rather than sending your laptop tumbling down to the ground.
There's also a HDMI port, which is a treat when it comes to external monitors. On a related note, the M1 Pro MacBook Pro can support up to two external displays in addition to its own, while M1 Max models support up to four. Past M1 MacBooks have only been able to drive one external display. For me, that was one of their biggest downsides, so I'm glad this has been addressed.
Lastly, the SD card reader is back, which is a boon for photographers everywhere.
Despite being thick enough for a full-size USB port, the new MacBook Pro still only offers USB-C for all other connectivity. While dongle life may have gotten a bit easier, it would have been nice to have even just one full-size USB port for the odd time you need to plug something in.
Apple has also killed off the Touch Bar, returning to a standard row of function keys. While the Touch Bar was kinda cool in theory, the function keys are just so much more practical. The keyboard itself is lovey, and the trackpad is best in class.
One of Apple's more controversial decisions this time round is adding a notch to the MacBook Pro display. It's a bit weird, but it's easy enough to forget about during day-to-day usage - especially given it sits in the menu bar. If you're using full screen content, the top of the screen is entirely blacked out, so you won't see the notch at all.
There have been reports of some apps not playing nicely with the notch, but I haven't come across this in my testing. There is a compatibility mode for problem apps, but this effectively reduces your screen-size on all four sides of the screen.
Notch aside, the MacBook Pro display is simply stunning. It's one of the nicest displays I've seen on a computer. It also supports refresh rates of up to 120Hz (a standard display runs at 60Hz), making all motion silky smooth.
Lastly, its speakers are insane. They genuinely offer a fantastic listening experience. Laptop speakers should not be this good.
Is the MacBook Pro (2021) worth it?
The performance is ridiculous, the battery lasts forever, the display is stunning, and it has actual ports again. The only issue is price, and how much RAM and storage upgrades can blow out your total cost.
At the same time, if you are a creative professional or enthusiast looking for a beefy machine for video work, music production, photography, or development, the new MacBook Pro ticks all the right boxes. Please just don't murder anyone for one. Especially me.