With Apple’s in-house M1 chip now on the scene, the fine line between its MacBook Air and MacBook Pro has become a little blurry.
The MacBook Pro, traditionally equipped with the lineup’s beefiest processor and capable of handling intense professional tasks, has up to now been Apple’s top-tier laptop offering. But its status is somewhat in limbo thanks to a recent 13-inch Pro refresh featuring the company’s M1 chip — a processor that just so happens to also be running under the hood of the company’s latest Air.
My time with the new M1 MacBook Pro has felt so similar to the M1 Air that, at one point, I had to look down at the keyboard to double-check which one I was using. It was only when I saw the dreaded Touch Bar that I realized I was on the new Pro.
Now, it’s important to note that I am not the ideal demographic for the Pro. I don’t edit batches of photos or upload and export 4K video footage from fancy cameras. So, my day-to-day tasks don’t truly push it beyond its limits. The Pro is really meant to be a workhorse for creatives.
But with a processor that’s identical to the one in the M1 Air, the M1 Pro doesn’t really have all that much else distinct or unique to offer — especially for creatives looking for the ultimate powerhouse of a MacBook. And unlike the previous Intel-based Pro models, which allow you to choose between processors, Apple currently offers only one iteration of the M1.
Perhaps if Apple had waited to release a 13-inch MacBook Pro when different variants of its in-house chip were available, I’d be singing a different tune.
The same Pro design featuring … the Touch Bar
Much like it did with the design of the M1-based MacBook Air, Apple has kept the same MacBook Pro exterior that’s found on the Intel version. It packs a 13-inch Retina display with True Tone, a 720p webcam, the new Magic Keyboard, Touch ID (to download apps, make purchases with Apple Pay, and unlock the laptop), and a headphone jack.
Both the Intel Pro and M1 Pro also feature stereo speakers — but the mics are a bit different. The Intel version has a standard three-mic array, while the M1 model has a “studio-quality” three-mic array with high signal-to-noise ratio. So the M1 Pro will do a better job at enhancing how you sound, whether you’re on a video call or simply recording audio.
There’s a distinct lack of ports on the M1 MacBook Pro. With the Intel model, you can opt for either four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports (two on each side) or two on one side. The M1 MacBook Pro only comes with the latter limited port arrangement. That’s important to take into account if you constantly need SD card readers, chargers, and other gadgets plugged in at the same time.
The Pro’s trackpad is also just way too big and this, unfortunately, causes some usability issues. Unlike the M1 MacBook Air, which has a tapered, slightly angled base, the base of the M1 Pro is completely flat. So when your palms rest on the opened MacBook, it’s a lot easier to accidentally trigger the trackpad.
This may sound like a minor design flaw but it’s actually majorly annoying and can be disruptive to your workflow. Case in point: When I’m using the M1 Pro, the sides of my palms frequently hit the trackpad, causing the cursor to split up sentences, create unnecessary page breaks, or even delete words.
I understand the Pro’s body houses more internal parts than the Air (i.e., bigger battery, fans, etc.), which doesn’t lend itself to the same thin and tapered design. But to compensate for that, perhaps Apple couldconsider incorporating a slightly smaller trackpad.
Then, there’s the major design flaw of this device: the Touch Bar. Ostensibly, this provides you with shortcuts, typing suggestions, control keys, function keys, and more, depending on the app you’re using at the time. But, personally, unless I’m adjusting the volume, I never use it. And now that MacOS Big Sur comes with a control center, the Touch Bar just feels super redundant.
I’m not quite sure why I thought Apple would finally nix this feature with the release of the M1 Pro. Maybe it’s because I had high hopes the company had read the endless complaints from tech reviewers and average consumers alike calling for the removal of the Touch Bar. It may still happen, though: Recent rumors point to Apple nixing the feature from its upcoming 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros.
About that M1 chip
Before I get into performance, let’s breakdown the different models and pricing of the M1 MacBook Pro.
It’s available in two configurations: an 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU with either 256GB or 512GB of storage for $1,299 and $1,499, respectively. Both versions come with 8GB of memory by default that you can increase up to 16GB for an additional $200. Storage can also be increased up to 2TB (for an extra $800 if you’re increasing from 256GB and an extra $600 if you’re coming from 512GB).
If you want a more in-depth breakdown of what the M1 chip means for Apple, check out my MacBook Air review. But for the purposes of the M1 Pro, all you need to know are the following two things: It provides faster performance and graphics, and it allows the Pro to operate more like an iPhone or iPad.
As far as performance goes, it runs a lot smoother than the Intel version… for me, at least. Not only have I yet to see the rainbow wheel appear but I also have yet to hear the fans kick in. Again, I really only use this laptop to run Chrome along with apps like Slack, Telegram, iMessage, and Spotify, so it could just be that I’m not pushing it hard enough. But I have no doubt that those of you who plan on throwing some intense video-centric tasks at it will find that it’s more than capable.
Finally, a MacBook with impressive battery life
For the last decade, I’ve relied solely on MacBooks to power me through my days and, as a result, I’ve developed low-battery anxiety. This has spurred habits like obsessively checking the battery life or simply making sure my charger is nearby.
So when I first heard Apple claim the new MacBook Pro has the longest battery life of any Mac ever — with up to 20 hours of video playback and 17 hours of web browsing — I was skeptical.
Turns out, my fears were unfounded. This bad boy lasted a full 10 hours on a busy day, which is over double the amount of battery life I got on last year’s Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro.
The reason I’m particularly impressed is because I was using Google Chrome as my browser the entire time. Since it’s not one of Apple’s native apps (aka Safari), it’s known to drain the battery a lot quicker. But even when I had 20-plus tabs open, took back-to-back video calls on Google Hangouts, and had a few other apps running simultaneously, the Pro’s battery life still depleted slowly.
Those of you who are loyal to Apple’s own apps can rest assured you’ll get far more than 10 hours out of the MacBook Pro.
Will the real M1 MacBook Pro users please stand up?
If you’re eyeing the 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro (over the M1 MacBook Air), then it’s highly likely you’re the type who, unlike me, actually pushes their computer fairly hard on a daily basis — whether that’s by importing and exporting huge files, rendering graphics, or editing videos and photos. So prior to making the purchase, you’ll want to make sure that all of your necessary creative apps are optimized for the M1 chip.
If you strictly use Apple’s in-house apps like Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro, then you have nothing to worry about. But if you rely on Adobe’s suite of apps, then you might want to hold off. Other than Lightroom, none of Adobe’s other apps currently run natively on the M1 Pro just yet.
Apple does offer its Rosetta 2 technology — an emulation software that allows for Intel apps to run on ARM-based MacBooks — as an interim workaround. But it’s going to be a while before app optimization reaches parity with the Intel versions. It’s certainly something to take into account before you buy.
Since I don’t use (or need) any of these creative apps nor do I edit any type of footage, I decided to consult with some videographers in an effort to determine why this 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro even exists.
I started with one of Mashable’s very own video producers, Mark Stetson, who said to treat this M1 MacBook Pro like a first draft.
“What Apple products offer versus what they’re actually able to deliver on is usually two different timelines. And by [version] 2.0 is usually when it’s settled into itself,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s also kind of the same with any sort of Mac update as it relates to the Adobe Suite and Premiere.”
“I think they used these old chassis as a way to beta test the new chip and just see how people would react to it [and] … to see how well the chip ran on it in real-world environments,” he said.
Imel believes the 13-inch MacBook Pro is definitely an awkward buy for professional content creators at the moment, but some of its features could be worthwhile (especially over the MacBook Air), depending on the use case.
“There are some differences, like the studio quality mics and insanely good speakers. If you want a laptop that you can confidently podcast with, then the Pro is good for that.” Imel said. “It [also] has a bigger battery that lasts a couple hours longer [than the MacBook Air], and if you’re working outside a lot, it’ll help to have the brighter display.”
Imel also brought up another good point: This will probably be the cheapest MacBook Pro for a while.
“When they come out with the 14-inch and the 16-inch Pros, I think both of those will be considered the high end. And then, the 13-inch Air and the 13-inch Pro will be considered the affordable option.” he said.
Photographer and podcaster Tyler Stalman agrees with Imel on the M1 Pro’s affordability, labeling the hardware as a great entry point for video creators who are just starting out in production.
“You can get something that will perform for just over $1,000, that can really do all the basics. You can edit 4K comfortably. You can have multitrack. You can work with all the basics of video very easily,” Stalman said. “It’s raised the baseline.”
Despite this, Stalman, whose entire career is centered on shooting and editing videos, has decided to wait on the next-generation versions for one reason (aside from the possible addition of an SD card slot): increased memory or RAM.
“RAM restrictions can end up being real. But if you are doing the kind of work that has traditionally used a lot of RAM, you still can run into those bottlenecks,” he said. “Most tasks aren’t super intensive, like just editing 4K video is not. But you know, 3D work, VFX, work compositing, lots of layers in Photoshop or After Effects … there are those cases where you start needing more RAM. It’s not an option.”
After speaking with these three content creators, it’s clear that the 13-inch M1 Pro is a better option for those looking to invest in their first, relatively affordable editing workstation. But veteran creatives, on the other hand, are better off waiting for the upcoming 14-inch and 16-inch M1 Pro models.
Most reviewers have praised Apple’s M1 MacBook Pro over the Intel models for things like faster export times and longer battery life without answering the crucial question of why someone should buy it now and who that someone is.
But I’m here to tell you the 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro is ideal for the inbetweeners — those who need a bit more than a competent web browser but far less than a full-fledged video and graphics editing workstation. These folks aren’t full-time content creators but they might aspire to be. They just need a dependable starting point, and it also doesn’t hurt if they love Apple the brand and are willing to pay for it.
Whereas the M1 MacBook Air is ideal for light usage and casual browsing, the M1 MacBook Pro ups teh ante slightly, packing better mics for record high-quality audio, a brighter display for a better viewing/editing experience, built-in fans to keep it cool under load, and impressive battery life to get you through long editing sessions. So, if you’re looking to embark on your own low-stakes journey of content creation, then this is the machine for you.
For more experienced creatives, it’s best to just sit this one out.
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