The first significant Apple MacBook redesign in years, unveiled on Monday, is mostly about adding more powerful Apple M1 chips to the flagship Mac laptop. The new M1 Pro and M1 Max processors are the MacBook Pro successors to the Intel Core i7 and Core i9 CPUs that have been a mainstay of the mobile Mac lineup for a long time.
But in taking the next step in its transition away from Intel, Apple has also availed itself of the opportunity to redesign the MacBook Pro chassis, adding a sleek new look and plenty of features that creative professionals have been asking for.
Let’s take a look at every major feature available on the new 16-inch and 14-inch MacBook Pro laptops. A few are truly revolutionary, while some—like HDMI and MagSafe ports—harken back to how MacBooks used to be a decade ago. We haven’t had the chance to test these laptops (yet!), but we have some initial thoughts on which of the new additions and old returns will matter most.
The New CPUs: The Apple M1 Pro and M1 Max
The new Apple processors, in both screen sizes of the 2021 MacBook Pro, may well turn out to be the biggest motivation for most video editors, programmers, and other pro users to swallow the high prices of the new MacBook Pro lineup in order to upgrade an older machine. (We’ll find out if that’s the case once we’ve had the chance to test them.)
Apple is certainly making some gaudy claims around the new silicon. The lesser of the two chips. the M1 Pro, is available in the entry-level models of both the new 16-inch and the 14-inch MacBook Pro. Apple says the increased core count and faster memory bandwidth compared with the base M1 chip that debuted in 2020 mean up to 70% faster CPU performance than the M1, and up to two times faster GPU performance.
As it did with the M1, Apple is offering several sub-versions of the M1 Pro processor, which is a system-on-a-chip design that incorporates the CPU and GPU and has them share a pool of memory. The base 14-inch MacBook Pro comes with an M1 Pro with eight CPU cores and 14 graphics cores, while an up-ticked version of the 14-incher with the M1 Pro adds two more computing cores and slightly pricier one adds those extra computing cores plus two more GPU cores. The 10-core/16-core CPU/GPU M1 Pro flavor is the chip that powers the base model of the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
For even more power, the 16-inch laptop (as well as the very highest-end versions of the 14-incher) can be configured instead with the M1 Max, a sort of XXL version of the M1 Pro. It has the same number of CPU cores (10) as the upgraded M1 Pro, but ups the graphics core count to an impressive total of 24 or 32. The M1 Max also features memory bandwidth that Apple says tops out at 400GBps, twice the maximum that the M1 Pro offers and nearly six times as much as the M1 in the existing 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. (The M1 Pro’s rated memory bandwidth peaks at 200MBps.)
LIKELY IMPACT LEVEL: High to Very High.
We suspect the performance of these chips will be the make-or-break for the 2021 MacBook Pros, and the reason macOS-bound pro content creators will splurge for these machines…or not. Apple’s 2020 M1 CPU was a powerful surprise, and with a year of application optimizations for the platform now in the wild, we see these as the powerful primary incentive to move to the new platform. The addition of ProRes acceleration in hardware will be a huge boon, assuming the performance pans out, to those wedded to relevant production workflows. Apple’s claims of high efficiency relative to Windows laptops and better sustained off-plug performance, if they bear out, will be additional high points.
14-Inch and 16-Inch Panels: Larger Screens, Smaller Bezels
Across the laptop market, manufacturers are super-sizing screens while keeping the dimensions of the devices roughly the same size. The trend has been to go from 15.6-inch to 16-inch panels, and from 13.3-inch to 14-inch. Apple was already in the 16-inch game, but with Dell, HP, Lenovo, and many others coming out with new 14-inch laptops over the past year, it only stands to reason that Apple would, too.The resulting design is ever-so-slightly larger and heavier than the 13-inch model, but our bet (not having handled the new device yet) is that most people would be hard-pressed to tell. Both models are the same 0.61-inch thick, while the 14-incher is wider and deeper by less than half an inch. It’s also half a pound heavier, tipping the scales at a still-portable 3.5 pounds.
To increase screen real estate without creating a significantly bulkier and heavier laptop, Apple narrowed the borders around the display, a common approach that also makes the device appear sleeker and more modern. The new 14-inch laptop has 24% thinner borders on the sides of the screen, while the top border has been reduced by a more impressive 60%.
Somewhat less common is the screen notch, which mimics the notch on the iPhone and affords room for the camera without requiring a large amount of wasted space to either side of it.
While the 16-inch MacBook Pro retains the same screen size as the version it replaces, the screen technology appears to be a vast improvement. (More on that in a moment.)
LIKELY IMPACT LEVEL: Moderate.
The actual 16-inch screen size has a precedent in the previous-generation MacBook Pro 16-inch, so that’s a break-even. The addition of the screen-top camera notch may concern some, but for users who always have the menu bar parked up top, it’s a smart trade-off to enable that sweet, thin top bezel. As for the new 14-inch size, that adds a bit of differentiation against the slightly smaller panels on the 2020 M1 MacBook Air and MacBook Pro (both of which will remain in the line).
Liquid Retina XDR Display: Mini-LED Comes Under the Spotlight
The new screens are touted to be so vast an improvement, in fact, that Apple is calling the 2021 MacBook Pro panels the world’s best notebook displays. That’s quite a tall claim to live up to, but it isn’t outside the realm of possibility if your priority is silky smooth onscreen effects such as window resizing, maintaining color accuracy, and using your laptop outdoors.
The new screens in both the 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros are being marketed as Liquid Retina XDR. They feature the same P3 color gamut that digital artists demanding color accuracy have come to expect from Apple’s laptop lineup, as well as Tru Tone support for automatic white-balance adjustments.
But the Liquid Retina XDR technology uses a markedly more advanced backlight system known as Mini-LED, which lets it boast twice the rated maximum brightness (1,000 nits) as the 13-inch MacBook Pro’s regular LED technology. It also features a higher peak refresh rate (120Hz), which helps onscreen animations appear smoother. Gaming laptops and some higher-end smartphones have had high-refresh-rate screens for a while, and we’re only now starting to see them show up here and there on mainstream notebooks, mostly on models attuned to the needs of content creators.
LIKELY IMPACT LEVEL: High to Moderate.
Mini-LED backlighting, in display’s like Apple’s luxe Pro Display XDR, is a stunning difference, and for content creators who can appreciate the technology, it will be a powerful incentive to upgrade. The “problem,” such as it is, is that you really have to see both the backlighting technology and high-refresh-rate panels in action to appreciate the impact on viewability, outdoor legibility, and menu/activity smoothness. Owners of older MacBooks who don’t live in striking distance of an Apple-selling retail outlet will have to take it on faith, or bide their time and base their buy on trusted reviews and peers.
Spatial Audio: Expanding the Sound Stage
Both new Macs include what augur to be envy-inducing sound systems, complete with six speakers each and dedicated force-canceling woofers. It’s a significant upgrade for the smaller 14-inch model, although it’s worth noting that the old 16-inch model already had a similar speaker setup.
Another new audio feature might be even more impressive, as it marks a departure from the stereo sound that music lovers have grown accustomed to over many decades. That’s Apple’s Spatial Audio feature, which comes standard on both new MacBook Pro sizes. Spatial audio goes beyond just the left and right channels for a more immersive listening experience.
We should note, however, that the requirements to leverage the full effect of the feature aren’t insignificant. You’ll need to be playing music or video that supports Spatial Audio via Dolby Atmos. And while the technology works using the built-in speakers, you’ll only get dynamic head tracking—which shifts the soundscape based on where your ears are—if you connect third-generation AirPods, AirPods Pro, or AirPods Max.
LIKELY IMPACT LEVEL: Low.
More, well, “impact”-ful open-air sound is never a bad thing, and this will be a bigger deal for buyers of the smaller model. However, audio and video pros who master material on their Macs will likely be using pro headphones to situate and appreciate the sound. Apple’s addition of support for Spatial Audio on the headphone jack, not just the speakers, may be just as consequential to those buyers.
Connectivity Revamp: Thunderbolt 4 Ports, SD Card Reader, HDMI
Thunderbolt transfer technology—especially the ways in which it overlaps with USB-C—can be confusing. Add to that the fact that the latest Thunderbolt 4 standard offers the same speeds as Thunderbolt 3, but adds just a few ancillary capabilities. Many users won’t care that the MacBook Pro features the latest flavor of the Thunderbolt interface, but other people who transfer immense amounts of video footage to and from their laptops will welcome Thunderbolt 4. For the content creators who will be at the core of the new MacBook Pros’ market, Thunderbolt is a signal of looking forward to the future of digital creation.
The SD card slot, though, feels like a retro move, even if it is a practical one for the pro-creator set likely to shell out big bucks for one of these models. It may feel like just yesterday that Apple removed the SD card reader from its Pro laptops, but it’s actually been several years and many intervening updates, during which photographers and videographers have needed to use a dongle or adapter to transfer their photos to their MacBook Pro from a memory card.
Apple defended its decision to ditch the card slot in 2016, noting that some professionals use external readers anyway and that more and more camera manufacturers were starting to build wireless transfer capabilities into their devices. But now Cupertino has had a change of heart, with both the 14-inch and the new 16-inch MacBook Pros featuring SDXC card slots as standard equipment. Apparently, the market spoke.
Then there’s old friend HDMI. Need to plug your MacBook Pro into a TV or an external monitor and don’t want to fiddle around with AirPlay or another wireless display interface? You need a classic HDMI port, which, like the SD card reader, was also missing on MacBook Pros for several generations. It’s good to see that the port is back, and full-size, no less.
LIKELY IMPACT LEVEL: Moderate.
The USB Type-A ship long ago sailed on the MacBook Pro, and the averaging of two or four Thunderbolt/USB-C ports on the previous MacBook Pro models to three now on all seems like the right number for most folks. Considering the addition of the HDMI port and the SD card slot, three Thunderbolts should be enough, meaning you can ditch those old video and card-reader dongles you needed with other, older MacBooks. But the ports and slots don’t add much new functionality, instead simply presenting necessary functions in more convenient forms.
The Most Basic Power-Up: MagSafe, Now With Quick Charging
The last of the three ports to return to the MacBook Pro with Monday’s update is the MagSafe power connector. Unlike the HDMI port and SD card reader, which are more or less the same as they’ve always been, the MagSafe connector, now dubbed MagSafe 3, is significantly improved. It still serves its quick-release function, but now it adds fast-charging capability, the first on an Apple laptop.
Both of the new MacBook Pros can replenish their batteries up to 50% capacity from empty in just 30 minutes. Many Windows laptops have had this capability for years, so it’s nice to see Macs joining the fast-charging party.
LIKELY IMPACT LEVEL: Moderate to High.
We’ll have to see if Apple’s claims of extraordinary battery life and efficiency pan out, but part of the reason you’re paying a premium for any new MacBook Pro is likely to take resource-intensive (and thus, battery-draining) content creation tasks on the road. Though it’s not an industry first, Apple adding such fast charging to the party means additional flexibility for MacBook Pros in “true” fieldwork: say, where your workspace is a car out in the country and your recharge options are an automotive battery or a generator. Also: No more occupying one Thunderbolt/USB-C port to charge or run off the power plug.
Clearing the (Keyboard) Decks: No Touch Bar
On the whole, the new MacBook Pro models’ feature sets and redesign look like they make a great laptop even better, although we’ll have to wait until we test them ourselves to be sure. But there are a few interesting omissions worth noting. Most conspicuously, the love-it-or-hate-it (or at least, ignore-it) Touch Bar is gone. This thin, touch-enabled strip of screen forward of the keyboard was a mainstay for a few MacBook Pro generations, serving as the only built-in form of touch-screen input on a Mac. But it was controversial, with some users seeing it as a welcome tool for scrubbing through video timelines, while others viewed it as less effective than a full touch-enabled main screen.
In the 14-inch and new 16-inch MacBook Pros, Apple has ditched the Touch Bar, replacing it with physical function keys, including a giant Escape key. Apple cites pro users’ love of the “familiar tactile feel of mechanical keys” as the reason for ditching the Touch Bar.
Also, there’s no form of cellular connectivity on offer with the latest MacBook Pros. We suspect that won’t be much of an issue, since many prospective users are likely to also own another LTE- or 5G-equipped Apple device and can share the connection via their iCloud account.
LIKELY IMPACT LEVEL: Low.
Speaking here just to the sunset of the Touch Bar, we have to imagine that it won’t move most macOS users (even the most faithful) to “yea” or “nay” the new MacBook Pros on that score alone. Apple’s recent commitment to the Touch Bar was not total, with the touch strip in the last few MacBook generations in some models but not others. With its apparent abandonment going forward, all Mac users will have to inure themselves to a Touch Bar-less world regardless of MacBook model. With the phase-out, that also means new versions of applications won’t prioritize deep Touch Bar support, likely hastening its shuffle into the void.
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