It’s been a long wait, but this fall Apple’s flagship 16-inch MacBook Pro finally gets the Apple M1 silicon treatment. In addition to ditching Intel processors for Cupertino’s own M1 Pro and M1 Max, the biggest of the MacBook Pros gains more input/output ports and a gorgeous new XDR display. Just as its predecessor did, the new laptop holds its own against Windows mobile workstations. But the latest 16-inch MacBook Pro (starts at $2,499; $4,299 as tested) isn’t so much more powerful or capable than its competitors—or its new 14-inch little sibling—in conventional CPU metrics that every pro user will be able to justify its high cost. This model is all about the specialized usage cases of macOS-bound content pros for whom processing times are money, writ large.
The Big MacBook Pro Goes M1
The base-configuration 16-inch MacBook Pro is $100 more expensive than its predecessor, and prices increase steeply when you add the M1 Max processor option along with the extraordinary amounts of memory (up to 64GB!) and storage (up to 8TB!) that Apple offers. What’s more, nearly all of the standard and optional features of the 16-inch MacBook Pro are also available on the smaller 14-inch model at lower prices.
So 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 is a no-brainer. But if you’re like many pros looking for a blend of portability and power, we suspect that these compromises might turn you off, especially if you’ve already got an external monitor at home or the office to do most of your multitasking and other tasks that require big screens. That’s why we’re giving the 14-inch model an Editors’ Choice award, but not the 16-inch version reviewed here.
Some of you may find the opposite to be true, in which case you’re in the right place. Everyone else should head over to our analysis of the 14-inch MacBook Pro to see why we think it’s a better option. If you’re still interested in the 16-inch model, let’s continue the review by taking a closer look at the few differences that do exist between it and its little sibling, starting with the obvious one: size.
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The 16-inch MacBook Pro measures 0.66 by 14 by 9.8 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.8 pounds. That’s up slightly from the 0.64-inch thickness and 4.3-pound weight of its predecessor, but this isn’t a machine that’s intended to be carried around all day with you wherever you go. If you’re upgrading, you probably won’t notice the difference during occasional trips from your desk to the conference room or between rooms of your home.
The laptop feels hefty and substantial—this is not an ultraportable laptop, by any means. (We usually define that category of laptops as weighing 3 pounds or less and measuring less than 0.6 inch thick.) The 14-inch MacBook Pro isn’t technically ultraportable either, but it’s markedly easier to carry around, at 0.61 by 12.3 by 8.7 inches and 3.5 pounds.
Apart from the size differences, the 16-inch and 14-inch MacBook Pros share most of their other physical features, from ports to keyboards to the XDR screen tech to the choice between M1 Pro and M1 Max processors. Even the new camera notch in the top portion of the screen, which was absent on the previous 16-inch model, is present on both of the new laptops. Both also offer your choice of Space Gray or silver color schemes, following in the footsteps of countless Apple products of yesteryear.
While you might assume that performance differs between the two, since the larger laptop naturally has a more capable thermal management system to keep the M1 Pro or M1 Max chips running at their maximum potential, that actually turns out not to be the case for most of the workflows everyday Mac users are likely to perform. So let’s save talk of performance for the end of this review, and instead take a closer look at what else the 16-inch MacBook Pro has to offer.
The New Port Mix: Old Favorites, New Options
It’s not often that input and output ports become a headlining 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, doubling down on USB-C/Thunderbolt. The internet complained endlessly, with reviewers and commenters complaining that laptops need more than just one type of port. Yet Apple persisted…until this generation of Pro.
Of course, USB-C is versatile, depending on how it is implemented; it can do battery charging, display output, even 40GBps Thunderbolt transfers to external drives. But professional users with complicated setups of peripherals simply need more I/O variety, and Apple has restored that variety with the new MacBook Pro.
A dedicated HDMI output is back, for connecting external monitors without an adapter cable or dongle, and 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 I know decry this sacrifice of function at the altar of form. It’s nice to see the slot back.
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. (Magnets guide it into place.) The new connector isn’t compatible with previous MacBook MagSafe adapters, and it is not compatible with 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, as well as not taking up a Thunderbolt connector to charge the battery.
The latter isn’t as generous an improvement as it otherwise might have been, since the new laptop includes three USB-C/Thunderbolt ports instead of the four on the previous model. But at least all of them support Thunderbolt 4, the latest rev of the Thunderbolt interface. There’s also a 3.5mm audio jack—it’s nice to see that Apple so far hasn’t ditched this endangered port like some of its competitors have.
A Farewell to Touch Bars
To many Apple users’ chagrin, the 2016-to-2020 MacBook Pros lacked physical connections, and they piled on the controversy with a 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 never been redesigned for comprehensive onscreen touch support in the way Windows has been. The new 16-inch MacBook Pro ships with macOS Monterey.
Apple touted the Touch Bar 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. It certainly had its adherents. But many people found the Touch Bar gimmicky, and not a proper alternative to adding touch support to the main display. Apple has apparently had a change of heart, and removed the Touch Bar from the 2021 MacBook Pro 16-incher. (The previous version came with a Touch Bar by default, while the 13-inch MacBook Pro could be ordered with or without one, depending on the configuration you selected.)
In the Touch Bar’s place on the 2021 MacBook Pro, 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, there’s 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 Magic Keyboard offers sturdy keys with plenty of travel distance and extremely sturdy switches, and it uses an ambient light sensor to automatically adjust backlight intensity. The trackpad on the 16-inch model maintains its enormous size—it’s far larger than the one on the new 14-inch MacBook Pro. It 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 deck is the addition of a new black surrounding panel 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 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.
One Pumped-Up Panel: Retina Display, Meet XDR
With the new I/O mix and the addition of the M1 Pro or M1 Max processor, the XDR screen technology on the 16-inch MacBook Pro is its next-most-buzzworthy feature. XDR in Apple lingo is for “extreme dynamic range,” its marketing term for what many other OEMs refer to as “high dynamic range,” or HDR.
There’s a lot to unpack here around the Liquid Retina XDR screen besides the increased range of colors it can display, so let’s start with the simplest addition: the 120Hz refresh rate and ProMotion support. This technology has been around for a while on iPads and iPhones, but the new 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros are the first laptop generation to get it. The ProMotion refresh rate is double the 60Hz maximum that has been the standard on laptops for many years, which makes scrolling through web sites and documents silky smooth. (Most mainstream laptops are still at 60Hz. The big exception is gaming laptops; most of them have adopted 144Hz or speedier screens in the newest models.)
ProMotion comes enabled by default out of the box. Since 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 the video you’re currently editing.
The other main advancement of the XDR screen over previous Retina Displays is its LED backlighting technology, which offers brighter whites, deeper blacks, and overall more vibrant colors than the previous 16-inch MacBook Pro can display. Thanks to multiple local dimming zones—enabled by a backlight technique sometimes known as “Mini-LED”—the XDR screen is capable of an extraordinary 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio, according to Apple. On the 16-inch model, it features 10,216 LED sources arranged in 2,554 local dimming zones. (For more on Mini-LED, check out our explainer on how Mini-LED works and its relevance to the MacBook Pro.)
Is XDR really better than other advanced display technologies on Windows mobile workstations meant for content creation work that requires exceptional contrast and color accuracy? (For example, versus the OLED screens that we’ve seen on some content creation machines over the last couple of years?) 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 can deliver some 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 Apple’s own $5,000 Pro Display XDR external monitor and far above the 500 to 1,000 nits that’s considered exceptionally bright for a laptop.
The catch, though, is a big one: The content you’re viewing does need to be optimized for high contrast ratios. When we tested the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s screen with our non-optimized Datacolor SpyderX sensor and software, it recorded a maximum of approximately 500 nits of brightness.
Peering Around the Screen Notch
As mentioned earlier, the new 16-inch and 14-inch MacBook Pros alike have a “notch”—a downward projection—in the middle of the top edge of the screen to accommodate the camera. There’s nothing new about notches in a larger sense, as Apple pioneered this approach years ago with the Apple iPhone X so that the screen bezels could be shaved down while still affording room for a high-quality camera sensor. (It wasn’t the first to do it, but its iPhones were the highest-profile such experiment.)
Such notches are now commonplace on iPhones and other phones, but they are rare on laptops. In the MacBook Pro’s case, the notch covers a small center part of the menu bar, though if you use a dark color scheme with a black menu bar, it tends to blend in. Neither is it noticeable while watching a full-screen 16:9 video, since, in that case, the black bars above and below the content camouflage it. But if you prefer to use a conventional bright color scheme with a white menu bar, the notch is startlingly obvious.
On the plus side, the notch does house one of the best cameras I’ve ever used on a laptop. It’s a 1080p FaceTime HD camera with tweaked algorithms that handle low-light performance with aplomb. (Modern laptop webcams remain stubbornly stuck on 720p, though some Windows-laptop vendors are seeing the light in their premium models.) I found the camera reception comparable with what I saw on the similar camera setup of the 24-inch Apple iMac, and it’s far superior to what you can expect from conventional 720p laptop webcams. The new MacBook Pro’s camera doesn’t support face recognition for FaceID logins, however. It’s likely that adding depth sensors for FaceID would result in an even chunkier notch, so I’m fine with that omission.
If you’re wondering why the new 16-inch MacBook Pro has a notch while its predecessor (which has a slightly smaller chassis) does not, Apple has an additional consolation prize for you. The new model’s screen actually measures 16.2 inches on the diagonal, rather than the 16 inches of the old one. The additional fraction of an inch results in pixel dimensions of 3,456 by 2,234, for a density of 254 pixels per inch (ppi), compared with the 3,072-by-1,920-pixel resolution of the previous-generation 16-inch MacBook Pro.
Audio quality on the new model 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, though not markedly better to my ears than the equally impressive speaker setup of the old 16-inch model. The addition of Spatial Audio does help somewhat if you’re listening to an audio track that supports it. But the same speaker setup is now available in the 14-inch MacBook Pro, which has a smaller chassis. So there’s an additional incentive to choose the 14-incher over its big brother.
The 16-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 MacBook Pro, you’ll probably have to wait a few years.
Chip Chat: Should You Opt for M1 Pro or M1 Max?
Underneath the hood, the 16-inch MacBook Pro offers a significantly improved version of the Apple M1 processor launched last year in the 13-inch model, in one of two flavors: M1 Pro, or M1 Max.
The base configuration comes with an M1 Pro with 10 CPU cores—eight of which are dedicated to resource-intensive tasks like rendering or compiling code, while two handle light-duty tasks like video playback or web browsing. There are also 16 graphics cores for image output and GPU-accelerated tasks. (This is the “upticked” spec for the M1 Pro, versus the eight-core (CPU)/14-core (GPU) version of it in the base model of the 14-incher.)
In the base model of the 16-inch 2021 model, the amped-up M1 Pro chip is paired with 16GB of memory and a 512GB SSD. Meanwhile, our review unit comes with the M1 Max processor option, which maintains the CPU core count at 10 CPU cores but pushes the CPU to a whopping 32 graphics cores. It also adds the maximum memory allotment (64GB), doubles the memory bandwidth to 400GBps, and quadruples the storage to 2TB. All told, the as-tested configuration pushes the price above $4,000, and squarely into the realm of Intel Xeon- and Core i9-powered Windows mobile workstations with Nvidia RTX A-series (formerly Quadro) GPUs, such as the Dell Precision 7560, the HP ZBook Power G8, and the Lenovo ThinkPad P15 Gen 2. All of these also cost around $4,000 in the configurations we reviewed. Here’s a rundown of our testing comparison systems, which also include a couple of high-end gaming laptops with fierce RTX GeForce GPUs.
Our benchmark tests below show that the 16-inch MacBook Pro has no problem keeping up with these systems on a wide variety of demanding workflows. More surprisingly, they also illustrate few benchmark-score advantages over the M1 Pro processor in the 14-inch MacBook Pro we tested.
Although we didn’t have the opportunity to test them, there are some very specific situations in which the M1 Max can make a significant performance difference versus the M1 Pro, according to Apple. These mainly involve workloads performed using Apple’s own software or apps that harness Apple professional video technologies and codecs like ProRes. For example, the top-end M1 Max configuration has two ProRes hardware encoder/decoders, which means it’s capable of simultaneously processing a mind-boggling seven streams of 8K video. Not even the Apple Mac Pro desktop, which only has a single ProRes decoder and no encoder, can do that out of the box.
That said, this is a specialized set of needs for pro-grade content-creator (especially, video) workflows. Unless any of that means anything to you, there’s little reason to spring for the M1 Max configuration over the 10-core M1 Pro if what you do is centered on pure CPU muscle that scales with added cores and threads. (See more about how we test laptops).
Benchmarking the MacBook Pro 16-Inch: True Workstation Performance
To see why, check out the chart below, which shows performance on non-Apple-specific workflows such as transcoding video in the open-source Handbrake app, rendering 3D images using Blender and Maxon’s Cinebench, or simulating various everyday tasks using the Geekbench Pro CPU benchmark. All of these scenarios can be done on a Windows laptop or a Mac, and it’s clear that the 16-inch MacBook Pro holds its own against both the workstation laptops mentioned earlier and beastly gaming laptops like the Alienware x17 and Lenovo Legion 7i.
Also note that in most cases, the M1 Pro-equipped 14-inch machine scores close enough to the 16-incher that we might as well call it a tie. This isn’t a great look for the M1 Max in these particular usage cases.
All of the benchmark tests cited here run natively on Apple silicon and Intel silicon, with the exception of the PugetBench test for simulating image editing in Adobe Photoshop. (That test is an extension supplied by workstation maker Puget Systems, and this type of extension only runs in emulation mode at the moment.) I’ve included this benchmark test, 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 only need to use older software 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. 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.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro mastered both the easier GFXBench Car Chase scene and the more demanding Aztec Ruins scene. Graphics performance is therefore one additional area in which the M1 Max’s additional GPU cores can make a difference over the M1 Pro, which fell far behind on the Aztec Ruins test. This specific M1 Max result bears 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. We’ll look more at gaming and graphics performance in a follow-up article; there wasn’t time before these laptops’ on-sale date to run detailed gaming benchmarks or devise other tests to gauge the effectiveness of GPU acceleration between the M1 Pro and M1 Max.
Up There With the Best: Battery Rundown Testing
One of the best features of previous MacBook Pros is that they’ve been able to wring out marathon battery life despite using power-hungry CPUs and GPUs. The opposite is true of the most powerful Windows workstations and gaming laptops, which typically last for only a few hours before needing a recharge. This state of affairs stands with the 16-inch MacBook Pro, whose 20-hour battery life trounces that of its Windows competition, as you can see in the chart below.
To be sure, given that this is a playback test that likely falls back on the efficiency cores of the CPU, the M1-based architecture shows an advantage here that will not be as pronounced in more demanding tasks that hit the performance-oriented cores. But it’s a back-pocket skill that Apple will have the advantage in, at least until Intel presumably rolls out its own dual performance/efficiency-minded core architecture in its 12th Generation “Alder Lake” Core mobile CPUs.
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, although I struggled to hear any fan noise at all, even while running the processor-intensive benchmarks.
An additional note to that: Unlike the 14-inch MacBook Pro, the 16-inch model has a “High Power” mode, which increases cooling capability and processing power. We’ll perform additional testing with this mode enabled (time was insufficient before the laptops’ onsale date) to see if it makes much of a difference, although any advantage is likely to be small.
Verdict: The Ultimate MacBook, But Not a ‘Max’ Leap Forward
Are portability and affordability secondary considerations for you, versus raw power and getting the most possible screen space? If so, the 16-inch MacBook Pro could be a better option than its new 14-inch sibling because of its bigger screen, higher floor for CPU options, and potentially better thermals given its bigger chassis. But it doesn’t offer a ton of extra computing performance in CPU-intensive workloads (not a huge surprise, given the parity in the number of performance and low-power cores between the M1 Pro and M1 Max samples we tested), and the GPU capabilities will be of main interest to intensive users of Apple-specific programs and workflows for high-end content creation. (We’ll test the gaming performance in the coming week, as those GFXBench results are certainly tantalizing, but no one buys a $4,000-plus MacBook Pro primarily for gaming.)
If you know you can take advantage of the M1 Max’s specialized capabilities, you can configure a 14-inch MacBook Pro with the M1 Max upgrade too. That said, we did not get the opportunity to test the M1 Max in the 14-incher. (We have to imagine that for the kind of very demanding tasks that would bring out the beast in the Max chip, it would be better suited to the 16-incher’s roomier, more spread-out chassis.) But let’s not forget that there are a handful of Windows-powered options that will eagerly swallow your $4,000 and give you back performance commensurate with the M1 Pro and M1 Max. These include the Editors’ Choice-award winning HP ZBook Power G8.
So while the improved 16-inch MacBook Pro may be a stunning laptop in isolation, reanimating some of the essentials that Mac-minded pro creatives have been clamoring after for years, it isn’t quite the major leap forward for the MacBook Pro line that the new 14-inch model is. The latter is the clear choice for content creation professionals who need a mobile workstation that ably balances the competing demands of portability, affordability, and power. If you’ve got the dough, though, and your cutting-edge, high-res 4K or 8K workflow revolves around deskbound work in applications like Final Cut Pro and content employing the ProRes codecs, the M1 Max will bear further investigation.
Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch (2021, M1 Max)
The Bottom Line
The new ultimate Mac laptop, the 2021 Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch is a finely engineered, high-octane workstation that will thrill content creators. The pumped-up M1 Max silicon in our tester, though, is beyond mere bragging rights—it’s reserved for creative pros with specialized needs.
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