The MacBook Pro with M1 delivers a killer combo of blazing performance and epic battery life, even if the design is too familiar.
The MacBook Pro with M1 is a laptop with a unbeatable combo of power and endurance, making it one of the best laptops you can buy right now. And I know this because I’ve been using this system for months to plow through my workload, and I can barely get this machine to stutter no matter what I throw at it.
Thanks to the M1 chip, the Apple Silicon inside this 3-pound beast runs circles around most Windows laptops when it comes to sheer performance. Just as important, the new MacBook Pro M1 outlasts the competition on battery life — by a lot. We’re talking more than 16 hours of endurance. In fact, it’s so good it won the award for longest-lasting laptop in our Tom’s Guide Awards 2021. My only complaint is that Apple hasn’t touched the design.
Starting at $1,299, the MacBook Pro’s biggest competitor is really the $999 MacBook Air M1, which has a dimmer display and shorter (but still great) battery life along with a slightly weaker 7-core GPU for its starting configuration. So is the MacBook Pro $300 better? My MacBook Pro M1 review will help answer this question for you.
Update: You many want to wait for the rumored MacBook 2021 14-inch, which is expected to launch at the Apple Event October 18 with a micro-LED display, more powerful M1X chip and more ports. For now, the MacBook Pro M1 remains a strong choice.
MacBook Pro M1 review: Release date and price
The MacBook Pro M1 had a release date of November 17 and starts at $1,299. That configuration gives you Apple’s powerful M1 chip with an 8-core CPU and 8-core GPU, plus 8GB of unified memory (RAM). You get 256GB of storage to start, but the $1,499 model of the MacBook Pro M1 includes 512GB of storage.
If you want to configure the MacBook Pro M1 yourself, there are a number of upgrades available. It costs $200 to go from 8GB to 16GB of memory. If you want more than 512GB of storage, 1TB costs an extra $400 while 2TB will run you $800.
The MacBook Pro 2021, though looks to seriously improve on the current model. Rumors suggest Apple will bring back MagSafe charging and the SD memory reader, and drop the Touch Bar. All while adding in faster processors and adopting the flat-edge design language of the iPhone 12 and iPad Pro.
MacBook Pro M1 review: Performance
The easiest way to sum up the MacBook Pro M1’s performance is that the barriers between you and getting stuff done melt away. It’s almost like the laptop isn’t there.
One of my biggest complaints about my older Core i5 MacBook from 2019 is that it can get bogged down easily when I have lots of tabs open in Google Chrome. I pushed the MacBook Pro M1 to 61 tabs while writing this review and the performance remained rock solid, even while I was juggling multiple conversations in Slack and streaming Spotify. Only once I started adding iOS apps to the mix did I start to see stuttering.
I also often use Photoshop Elements for work to edit images, and there’s one particular template I use with lots of layers. My old MacBook Pro took 22 seconds to load the template, while the new MacBook Pro M1 cut that down to 13.29 seconds. That may not seem like a huge delta, but the M1 chip will save you a ton of time when in situations like this when you add it all up.
On Geekbench 5.1, which measures overall performance, the MacBook Pro M1 scored 5,945 on the multi-core portion of the test. This number surpasses the 5,319 score from the Dell XPS 13 and the Asus ZenBook 13’s 5,084, and both of those machines pack 11th gen Intel Core i7 CPUs. The scored a similar 5,962.
The MacBook Pro M1 smoked all of its competitors on our Handbrake video editing test, which involves transcoding a 4K clip to 1080p. For this test the application is optimized for Apple Silicon. The MacBook Pro M1 took only 7 minutes and 46 seconds to complete this task, compared to 18:22 for the XPS 13 and 17:51 for the ZenBook 13. The MacBook Air finished a bit behind the Pro at 9:15.
So how about Photoshop? On the PugetBench test, which performs 21 tasks (three times per run), the MacBook Pro notched a score of 576.6 and a time of 7 minutes and 3 seconds. The Dell XPS 13 scored a higher 588 but took a much longer 10:48, while the ZenBook 13 registered 743 with a time of 9:11. Note that this benchmark used Apple’s Rosetta 2 technology to run and it’s not a native app, so we expect even better results once Photoshop is optimized for Apple Silicon.
MacBook Pro M1 review: Battery life
This is the two in the one-two punch that makes the MacBook Pro M1 one of the best laptops money can buy. On the Tom’s Guide battery test, which involves continuous web surfing over Wi-Fi at 150 nits of screen brightness, the MacBook Pro M1 lasted an amazing 16 hours and 25 minutes. The Intel-based MacBook Pro 2020 lasted 10:21, so that’s a huge 6-hour difference.
The MacBook Pro M1 also outlasted the excellent MacBook Air M1, which endured for 14 hours and 40 minutes. The Windows competition is not close. The Dell XPS 13 lasted 11:07 and the Asus ZenBook 13 hit 13:47. Bottom line: the new MacBook Pro is in a class of its own when it comes to battery life.
MacBook Pro M1 review: Graphics and gameplay
The MacBook Pro is powerful enough to play mainstream games at fairly high frame rates. For example, on Civilization VI: Gathering Storm, the MacBook Pro hit 38 fps, which more than double the ZenBook 13.
We also tried Rise of the Tomb Raider on the MacBook Pro, and it turned in a fairly good 26 fps. Getting closer to 30 fps would make the title more playable, but it’s worth noting that this was on very high settings. So you could get even smoother performance if you dialed them down.
MacBook Pro M1 review: Keyboard, touchpad and Touch Bar
As someone who is still toiling away on a Butterfly keyboard, I’m jealous of the new MacBook Pro M1’s Magic Keyboard. It’s not that I’m much faster on this layout — I got 72 wpm on the 10fastfingers.com typing test, which is within my usual range. But made fewer errors than usual. More important, typing on the Magic Keyboard feels pillowy soft compared to the older Butterfly layout I’m used to.
The touchpad on the MacBook Pro M1 is just as spacious and responsive as ever. I found scrolling, pinching to zoom and performing various gestures intuitive and smooth. Swiping up with three fingers to see all my open apps is seamless.
I’m still not a fan of the Touch Bar on the MacBook Pro. Yes, it presents shortcuts that can be useful depending on the app you’re using, but mostly I find it just gets in the way.
MacBook Pro M1 review: Display
The Retina Display on the MacBook Pro M1 delivers a sharp and vibrant picture. I just wish Apple trimmed the bezels to make the viewing experience more immersive. Regardless, I was glad to be briefly transported to Spain to take in a seaside view in Warrior Nun on Netflix. As Ava sat down with her friends for lunch, I was mesmerized by their picnic by the water, including her boyfriend’s bright orange shirt and the colorful surfboards in the background.
In our lab tests, the MacBook Pro M1’s screen averaged 439 nits of brightness, which is significantly higher than the 365 nits turned in by the MacBook Air. By comparison, the Dell XPS 13 hit a higher 469 nits while the ZenBook 13 mustered 370 nits.
The MacBook Pro M1’s panel delivered very good results on the DCI-P3 color gamut, registering 79.2%. That’s comparable to the MacBook Air (80.9%) but ahead of the Dell XPS 13 (69.4%) and the ZenBook 13 (76.1%).
MacBook Pro M1 review: Speakers
The stereo speakers on the MacBook Pro M1 have the same great kick and wide sound field that they had before. When playing Portugal. The Man’s Feel It Still, the guitar and claps at the beginning of the track both came through without overwhelming the high-pitched vocals.
I then switched over to the acoustic version of A-ha’s “Take on Me.” The trill in Morten Harket’s voice was appropriately haunting as it soared. If you haven’t heard these speakers before, you will be impressed.
MacBook Pro M1 review: Webcam
I’m not about to give Apple a pass for continuing to saddle the MacBook Pro with a 720p webcam in 2020. I think we can handle full HD at this point. But I do give Apple credit for improving the image quality and reducing the noise, thanks to the image signal processing delivered by the M1 chip.
I put the new MacBook Pro M1 side by side with my old MacBook Pro and took a selfie with their webcams in my home office, and the difference was literally night and day. Even with very little ambient light the MacBook Pro M1’s camera captured a much brighter and clearer shot of my face. The older model’s webcam image was a splotchy mess by comparison.
MacBook Pro M1 review: Design and ports
I’ve saved the worst for last in this MacBook Pro M1 review. The design is exactly the same as before, which means you get the same 3-pound slab of aluminum. The lack of a touchscreen is expected but still disappointing when you consider that macOS Big Sur lets you download your iPhone and iPad apps.
And again I’d like to see Apple trim the bezels around the display. The color choices are uninspiring as well with just silver and space gray as options. Where’s the iPad Air-like hues?
The port selection continues to be very slim with just two Thunderbolt/USB 4 ports on the left side and a headphone jack on the right side. The pricier Intel-based MacBook Pro M1 comes with four Thunderbolt ports but starts at $1,799.
MacBook Pro M1 review: macOS Big Sur
MacOS Big Sur is more than just a fresh coat of paint for the MacBook Pro M1. Yes, the design looks cleaner, but I appreciate the big new features more. This includes Control Center for Mac for quickly accessing Wi-Fi and Bluetooth settings, and controlling the display, sound and music controls all from one place.
I’m more of a Chrome fan, but Safari users will like all the upgrades in Big Sur, including Safari extensions in the App Store, better tab design and password monitoring for better privacy. Messages on Mac gets better, too, with the ability to pin conversations and inline replies. Apple has also made big improvements to the Maps app and beefed up the editing capabilities in Photos.
With Big Sur you can also run iPhone and iPad apps you’ve previously downloaded from the App Store. But they’re not easy to find. You need to click on your profile picture in the Mac App Store and then select the tab that says iPhone and iPad apps. Annoyingly, you can’t search in this menu; you have to scroll down to download the app you want to your Mac.
MacBook Pro M1 review: Verdict
The MacBook Pro M1 is easily one of the best 13-inch laptops money can buy. You get blazing performance and epic battery life for your $1,299. And yet the speed gap between the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air with M1 is not that great.
There are some reasons to splurge for the MacBook Pro with M1, though. You get better sustained performance for larger tasks, because the MacBook Pro has a fan and the Air does not. And I do appreciate that the MacBook Pro has a brighter display and a better GPU for its opening price. If Apple threw in two more Thunderbolt ports I think the Pro would be an easier sell.
Some may want to wait for the rumored MacBook Pro 14-inch 2021, which will reportedly feature a larger 14-inch mini-LED display along with an even more powerful Apple Silicon M2 chip. It may also bring back an SD Card slot and HDMI port. But it doesn’t appear as though the release date is anytime soon.
Overall, I really like the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 and it’s an excellent choice for power users. But I think for the vast majority of people the MacBook Air M1 is “Pro” enough.
Mark Spoonauer is the global editor in chief of Tom’s Guide and has covered technology for nearly 20 years. In addition to overseeing the direction of Tom’s Guide, Mark specializes in covering all things mobile, having reviewed dozens of smartphones and other gadgets. He has spoken at key industry events and appears regularly on TV to discuss the latest trends. Mark was previously editor in chief of Laptop Mag, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc. Follow him on Twitter at @mspoonauer.