Apple’s M1 silicon debuted to great fanfare a year ago, infusing the entry-level 2020 MacBook Air with extraordinary computing power for a laptop of its size and price. At the time, the 13-inch MacBook Pro rang up as the lesser value, since it cost more but used the same M1 processor that the MacBook Air did. Apple now changes the equation—and opens up the Pro to a wider swath of content pros—with the 14-inch MacBook Pro (starts at $1,999; $2,899 as tested). Debuting a new screen size for Apple laptops, this MacBook Pro is the notebook that Mac-minded creative professionals have been waiting for, with a much-more-powerful Apple chip (the M1 Pro), an extensive selection of ports (including some old essentials returning), and revolutionary screen technology to justify its considerably higher price. It gains an Editors’ Choice award as a seriously powerful tool for Mac creatives that, unlike most workstation-grade laptops, retains reasonable portability.
14-Inch MacBook Pro or 16-Incher: Which Should I Buy?
The new 14-inch MacBook Pro has so many advantages over the 13-inch model that, if you are a professional user bound to macOS, and with the cash to invest in a seriously capable workhorse, your decision really comes down to whether you should buy the 14-inch or the 16-inch model. You can safely leave the 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro model off the list. (At this writing, Apple continues to sell it without having updated it from the plain-M1 configuration announced last year.)
Apple’s online configurator for its new-for-2021 MacBook Pros are flexible and a bit confusing, to be sure, but most of the standard and optional features are identical across the 14-inch and 16-inch screen sizes. Your choice really comes down to size, weight, and price.
If you can stomach spending a lot of extra dough and carrying around a significantly bulkier and heavier chassis for two additional inches of screen real estate, the 16-incher will satisfy. But if you’re like many pros looking for a blend of portability and power, we suspect these compromises might turn you off, especially if you’ve already got a more powerful desktop at home or the office to do most of your heavy rendering and compiling. That’s why we’re giving the 14-inch model reviewed here the Editors’ Choice award.
If the opposite is true, skip the rest of this review and head on over to our analysis of the 16-inch model—you can’t go wrong with that one if you’ve got a roomy budget and stronger shoulders. For everyone else, let’s continue by comparing the physical differences of the two models.
The 14-inch MacBook Pro is 0.61 by 12.3 by 8.7 inches (HWD) and weighs 3.5 pounds. That takes it above the 3-pound limit we typically use to delineate whether or not a laptop is in the “ultraportable” category, to which the 13-inch MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air undoubtedly belong.
On the other hand, the 14-incher is significantly more portable than the 16-incher, which measures 0.66 by 14 by 9.8 inches and weighs 4.8 pounds. The 14-inch MacBook Pro is also more compact than most of its direct Windows competitors, which tend to be bulky 15-inch mobile workstation laptops that also weigh 4 pounds or more. Yes, there are many 14-inch Windows laptops that do qualify as ultraportable, including our favorite business laptop, the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon Gen 9. But these machines offer nowhere near the power that the M1 Pro or M1 Max processors in the 2021 MacBook Pros provide. They are really geared more toward basic productivity than serious content creation.
Put aside the size differences, though, and the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros both share nearly identical physical features: the ports, the keyboards, the display technology, even the choice of Apple M1 Pro or M1 Max processors. Even the camera notch in the top portion of the screen, one of the most controversial features of the new design, is identical between the two. Both also offer you a choice of Space Gray or Silver color schemes, following in the footsteps of countless Apple products that have gone before.
While you might assume that performance differs between the two, since the larger laptop naturally has the design potential for a more capable thermal-management system to keep the M1 Pro or M1 Max chips running at their peak for more sustained periods, that actually turns out not to be the case for the majority of workflows you’re likely to perform. So let’s save talk of performance for the end of this review, and instead take a look at the 14-inch MacBook Pro’s new ancillary features.
Thunderbolt 4 and More: Ports and Slots Get a Reshuffle
It’s not often that input and output ports are a headline feature on a laptop, but it’s certainly the case with the new MacBook Pro. Five years ago, Apple ditched most of the ports on its laptops, placing all its connectivity eggs in the USB-C/Thunderbolt basket. A chorus of woe rose from the online Apple-sphere, where reviewers and commenters complained that laptops need more than just one type of port.
To be fair, the oval-shaped USB-C port is as versatile as ports come, with some versions handling everything from battery charging to display output to 40GBps-max Thunderbolt transfers with external hard drives. But professional users with complicated peripheral setups simply need more I/O variety, and Apple has thankfully restored that variety with the new MacBook Pro.
Not only is there now a dedicated HDMI output for connecting external monitors without an adapter or special cable, but the SD card reader also makes a welcome reappearance. Apple once claimed that sticking an SD card reader into your laptop is an inelegant solution for transferring photos and video. But professional photographers (including a bunch I know) decry this sacrifice of function at the altar of form. It’s nice to see the SD card reader back, even if it and the HDMI output look like retro steps.
The MagSafe power connector (now dubbed “MagSafe 3”) is the final port making its reappearance on the new MacBook Pro, offering a dedicated power connector that’s a cinch to attach, since magnets guide it into place. The MagSafe 3 port isn’t compatible with previous MacBook power adapters, and it has no relation to MagSafe accessories for the iPhone and iPad. But it does offer the dual advantages of cleanly breaking away if you happen to trip over the cord, and of not eating up a USB-C/Thunderbolt connector to charge the battery.
That saving of a port isn’t as nice an improvement as it otherwise might have been, since the new laptop includes three USB-C/Thunderbolt ports instead of the four that higher-end versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro have. (Base models of the 13-inch Pro have just two, one of which must be used when charging.) But all of them support the latest iteration of the Thunderbolt interface, Thunderbolt 4. Also onboard is a 3.5mm audio jack—it’s nice to see that Apple (so far, anyway) hasn’t ditched this endangered port like some of its competitors have.
No Touching! (For Real, This Time)
What the 2016-to-2020 MacBook Pros lacked in physical connections, they made up for in chance-taking on touch input: the Apple-unique touch-screen interface known as the Touch Bar. A thin strip of touch-enabled screen that replaces the row of function keys on the keyboard, the Touch Bar is a controversial means of adding touch capabilities to macOS, which has so far not been redesigned for comprehensive touch support the way Windows 11 is.
During the Touch Bar’s heyday, Apple touted it as a boon to creative pros, who could use it to scrub through video timelines and quickly access the settings they needed to adjust for any given task. (The screen would adapt according to the application that was live.) And some pros did take to it. But many people (including us) complained that the Touch Bar was something of a gimmick, a halfway, half-hearted alternative to adding touch support to the main display. Apple has apparently had a change of heart—though not about adding touch to its screens, mind you. The Touch Bar is simply gone in the new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros.
Once again, like with the ports, old-school is back. In its place, you’ll find the row of familiar conventional function keys, including brightness and volume controls, as well as buttons to activate Spotlight search and Mission Control. Programmers may especially welcome the return of the full-size, physical Escape key, which can be useful when you’re compiling code. In the upper left corner, you’ll find a power button with a built-in Touch ID sensor for fingerprint logins to your macOS account.
The rest of the keyboard and the Force Touch trackpad are essentially unchanged from the same excellent ones that grace the previous edition of the 16-inch MacBook Pro, and that are currently found on the 13-inch model. The Apple Magic Keyboard offers sturdy keys with plenty of travel distance and tactile switches, and uses an ambient light sensor to automatically adjust the keys’ backlight intensity. It’s the same improved keyboard seen and felt on the latest MacBook Pros, a change from the troublesome one of earlier years. The trackpad on the 14-inch model has generous proportions and offers a uniform clicking sensation thanks to haptic feedback, no matter where your fingertip is located.
The only significant change to the keyboard area is the addition of a new black surrounding plate that matches the color of the keycaps. It’s a striking contrast to the rest of the chassis if you opt for the silver color, although there’s less of a difference with the darker Space Gray option. (In both cases, the keys and the keyboard backplate are the same black color.) On previous MacBook Pros, the keyboard backplate matched the silver or Space Gray color of the rest of the chassis.
The New Panel: Retina Display, Meet XDR
After the return to I/O diversity and the addition of the Apple M1 Pro processor, the XDR screen technology on the 14-inch MacBook Pro is its next-most-buzzworthy feature. In Apple parlance, XDR stands for “extreme dynamic range,” its marketing term for what many other personal tech devices refer to as “high dynamic range,” or HDR.
There’s a lot to unpack here with the Liquid Retina XDR screen besides the increased range of colors it can display, so let’s start with the simplest addition: a 120Hz refresh rate with ProMotion. This technology has been around for a while on Apple’s iPads and iPhones, but the new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros are the first laptop generation to get it. The maximum refresh rate is double the 60Hz maximum that has been the laptop-display standard for many years. It makes scrolling through web sites and documents silky smooth. (Higher-than-60Hz screen refresh rates are now standard fare in gaming laptops, but they are not yet common in mainstream, non-gaming models.)
ProMotion comes enabled by default out of the box, but you don’t have to run at the 120Hz maximum refresh at all times. Because the MacBook Pro is a content creation workstation, the System Preferences app offers presets for a few other refresh rates of 60Hz and below, so you can match the screen’s rate to that of the video you’re currently editing.
The other main advancement of the XDR screen over previous Retina Displays is its LED technology, which offers brighter whites, deeper blacks, and overall more vibrant colors than the 13-inch MacBook Pro can display. Thanks to multiple local dimming zones, a display-backlighting technique known as Mini-LED, the XDR screen is capable of an extraordinary rated contrast ratio of 1,000,000:1. (For more on how it works, check out our explainer around Mini-LED technology and how it relates to the MacBook Pro.)
Is XDR really better than other advanced display technologies—such as OLED screens—on Windows workstations meant for content creation work that requires exceptional contrast and color accuracy? Well, it depends. After viewing a set of sample images and videos that Apple sent along for testing, it’s obvious even to my untrained eye that the local dimming zones result in astoundingly bright whites. How bright is “astoundingly”? When viewing optimized content, the screen is rated for a maximum of 1,600 nits of local brightness, the same as the $5,000 Apple Pro Display XDR and far above the 500 to 1,000 nits that is considered exceptionally bright for a laptop.
The catch is that the content you’re viewing really does need to be optimized for high contrast ratios. When we tested the 14-inch MacBook Pro’s screen with our DataColor SpyderX sensor and software, which deploys non-optimized test screens, it recorded a maximum of 500 nits of brightness.
Peering Around the Screen Notch
As mentioned earlier, the new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros have a “notch” (a downward-extending protrusion) in the middle of the top edge of the screen to accommodate the laptop’s camera and lens. There’s nothing particularly new about that here, except that it’s on a MacBook—Apple pioneered this approach in its phones years ago with the Apple iPhone X so that the screen bezels could be reduced while still affording room for a quality camera sensor.
It’s now commonplace on iPhones and other phones, but it’s rare on laptops. In the MacBook Pro’s case, the notch covers the central part of the upper menu bar. If you use a dark color scheme with a black menu bar, you won’t notice it at all. Neither is it noticeable while watching a full-screen 16:9 video, since, in that case, the black bars above and below the content mask it. But if you prefer a conventional bright color scheme with a white menu bar, the notch is very much in your face.
On the plus side, the notch does accommodate one of the best cameras I’ve ever used on a laptop. It’s a 1080p FaceTime HD camera, and while Apple isn’t alone in providing a 1080p unit in a late-model laptop, 720p laptop cams remain dismayingly common. But this one is backed by tweaked algorithms that handle low-light performance. The result is essentially comparable with the similar camera setup on the 24-inch Apple iMac, and far superior to what you can expect from conventional 720p laptop webcams. It doesn’t support face recognition for FaceID logins, however. It’s likely that adding depth sensors for FaceID would result in an even bigger notch, so I’m fine with that omission.
Audio quality, meanwhile, on the 14-inch MacBook Pro is exceptional, with a total of six speakers (including four force-cancelling woofers). It’s far more immersive than the sound output from either the 13-inch MacBook Pro or the 2020 MacBook Air. This is due in part to the number of speakers, and to the addition of Spatial Audio, which the two smaller-screen laptops lack. And, with the same speaker setup as the 16-inch MacBook Pro, which has a larger chassis, there’s an additional reason to choose the 14-incher over its big brother: It punches above its weight in audio impact.
The 14-inch MacBook Pro’s wireless connections include 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6 wireless networking and Bluetooth 5.0. If you’re hoping for a 5G-capable MacBook Pro, you’ll probably have to wait a few years.
The M1 CPU Conundrum: Should You Opt for M1 Pro or M1 Max?
Underneath the hood, the 14-inch MacBook Pro offers a significantly improved version of the M1 processor in the 13-inch model. The base configuration comes with an Apple M1 Pro processor with eight CPU cores—six of which are suited to resource-intensive tasks such as rendering or compiling code, while two handle light-duty tasks such as video playback or web browsing. You also get 14 graphics cores for image output and GPU-accelerated tasks. The chip is paired with 16GB of memory and a 512GB SSD.
The version of the M1 Pro chip in the base model isn’t the only version of the processor, however; Apple also offers M1 Pro variants. The upgraded configuration I tested has an M1 Pro, but this version adds two more high-performance CPU cores and two additional graphics cores (for 16). The overall configuration also doubles the memory to 32GB and the SSD storage to 1TB. Those silicon, RAM, and storage hop-ups tack $900 onto the already-high $1,999 starting price, nudging the MacBook Pro into the neighborhood of Intel Xeon- and Core i9-powered Windows workstations with Nvidia Quadro GPUs, such as the Dell Precision 7560, the HP ZBook Power G8, and the Lenovo ThinkPad P15 Gen 2. In fact, many of these Windows-based laptops cost far more than $3,000 in the configurations we tested.
For our benchmarks, we compared the 14-inch Pro not only against its 16-inch sibling and the older M1 Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch, but a host of workstation-grade laptops mentioned above, as well as a couple of Core i7 and Core i9 gaming machines from Alienware and Lenovo.
Our tests below show that the 14-inch MacBook Pro has no problem keeping up with these systems on a wide variety of demanding workflows. More surprisingly, they also show it has no trouble keeping up with the M1 Max processor in the 16-inch MacBook Pro we tested on our initial benchmarking sessions. The only noteworthy differences between the M1 Max and the version of the M1 Pro in our test unit are a bunch of extra graphics cores (a maximum of 32) and a doubling of the memory bandwidth to 400GBps.
Although we didn’t have the opportunity to test them, there are some specific situations in which the Apple M1 Max should make a significant performance difference. This mainly involves workloads performed using Apple’s own software, or apps that harness Apple technologies like ProRes. For example, the top-end M1 Max configuration has two ProRes hardware encoder/decoders, which means it’s capable of simultaneously processing seven streams of 8K video—seven! Not even the Apple Mac Pro desktop, which has just a single ProRes decoder and no encoder, can do that out of the box.
Unless any of that means anything to how you work day to day, there’s little reason to spring for the M1 Max configuration over the 10-core version of the M1 Pro. (See more about how we test laptops.)
Benchmarking the 14-Inch MacBook Pro: Workstation Performance in a Slimline
To see why, check out the chart below, which shows performance on non-Apple-specific workflows like transcoding video in the open-source Handbrake app, rendering 3D images using Blender and Maxon’s Cinebench R23, or simulating various everyday tasks using the Geekbench CPU benchmark. All of these scenarios can be done on a Windows laptop or the MacBook Pro, and it’s clear that the 14-inch MacBook Pro holds its own against both the workstation laptops mentioned earlier and beastly gaming laptops like the Alienware x17 and the Lenovo Legion 7i.
Also note that in most cases, the M1 Pro-equipped 14-inch machine scores close enough to the M1 Max-equipped 16-incher that we might as well call it a tie. Meanwhile, both machines trounce the performance of the M1-equipped 13-incher, illustrating why you’re better off avoiding that model, if you can afford to.
All of our benchmarks run natively on Apple silicon and Intel silicon with the exception of the PugetBench test for simulating image editing in Adobe Photoshop, produced by workstation maker Puget Systems. I’ve included this benchmark, which runs in the Rosetta 2 emulation layer, to see what kind of performance you can expect when performing demanding tasks using older software originally designed for Intel-powered Macs. In this case, there is a slight performance hit, with all of the Windows machines performing better. (Their Intel processors do run the test natively.) Still, the difference isn’t great if you need to use older software only occasionally.
The MacBook Pro is a content creation workstation, not a gaming laptop, but the line between the two is increasingly blurred these days, so it’s worth a quick look at gaming performance as measured by the cross-platform GFXBench suite. (We’ll look more at gaming and graphics performance in a follow-up article; there wasn’t time before these laptops’ onsale date to run detailed gaming benchmarks.) Important note: Look at these tests more as a comparative measure between laptops than as an absolute one for the frame rates you should get in any given game. Also note that the GFXBench tests are run in an offscreen buffer, so the benchmark measures the relative muscle of the graphics systems in the test laptops regardless of their native screen resolutions.
On the less demanding of the two tests we ran (the 1080p Car Chase scene), the M1 Pro’s graphics cores easily held their own against those in the Nvidia-powered Windows laptops and the M1 Max. However, the 14-inch MacBook Pro stumbled a bit on the more demanding Aztec Ruins scene, on which the 16-Inch MacBook Pro sailed ahead. This specific M1 Max result will bear much further examination on real-world games in the coming days, as the M1 Max outpaced the RTX 3080-based gaming laptops in the Aztec Ruins scene; we’ll have to see if that holds up in actual game titles.
Battery Life Tests: It’s a Running-Time Champ
One of the best features of previous MacBook Pros is that they’ve been able to eke out marathon battery life despite using power-hungry CPUs and GPUs. The opposite is true of powerful Windows workstations and gaming laptops, which typically last for only a few hours before needing a recharge. That situation endures with the 14-inch MacBook Pro, whose 19-hour battery life trounces that of its Windows competition, as you can see in the chart below.
For all of the tests above, including the video battery rundown trial, we left the MacBook Pro’s performance settings at their default values. You might be able to get better battery life results if you enable Low Power mode in System Preferences, which throttles back the power to increase battery life. This setting also diminishes noise from the cooling system, which did cause a fair amount of fan noise during some of the more intense benchmarking tests. Conversely, unlike the 16-inch MacBook Pro, the 14-inch model does not have a High Power mode, which increases cooling capability and processing power.
Verdict: A No-Brainer Upgrade, if You’re a Pro in the Know
The 14-inch MacBook Pro is a major leap forward for Apple laptops in a way that the 13-inch Pro model is not. It’s the obvious choice for creative professionals who need a mobile workstation for content creation that juggles the three competing demands of portability, affordability, and power. If two of those legs—portability and affordability—matter less to you, the 16-inch MacBook Pro could be a better option because of its larger screen. But it doesn’t offer a ton of extra computing performance for non-specialized tasks, and if you know you can take advantage of the M1 Max’s specialized capabilities, you can configure a 14-inch MacBook Pro with that upgrade too.
On the other hand, if you just need an Apple laptop for basic tasks, you should stay away from any version of the MacBook Pro; it’s simply too strong a dose. The 2020 MacBook Air is the clear choice for you, since it offers nearly the same capabilities as the 13-inch MacBook Pro for a far more palatable starting price of $999.