(Pocket-lint) - The Apple MacBook has had a tumultuous time since 2016: it lost most of its various ports in favour of a streamlined USB-C experience; it struggled to provide a keyboard that offered a good typing experience; while many found the Touch Bar's presence questionable.
That led to a number of competitors trying to muscle in with viable alternatives for creative professionals keen to get work done while out on the road. Apple's response? Two new MacBook Pro models with new displays, new processors, the removal of the Touch Bar, and a whole host of ports are back once more.
So has Apple righted the wrongs of its MacBook Pro recent past, or has trying to address previous trials and tribulations meant new problems have crept in as a result? We've been using the 2021 MacBook Pro 14-inch, complete with M1 Pro processor, to find out...
A new design
- Dimensions: 15.5mm (H) x 312mm (W) x 221mm (D) / Weight: 1.6kg
- Ports: HDMI 2.0, 3.5mm jack, 3x USB-C/Thunderbolt 4, SDXC slot
- Available in Silver or Space Grey
- Touch ID fingerprint scanner
- Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)
- No Touch Bar
The MacBook Pro is still a grey aluminium slab, but its 2021 design is much squarer in form and approach, losing those receding curves and thin edges of old. The move to a 14-inch display also means it's become a bigger and heavier device - or there's a bigger-still 16-inch model also available if you want to go supersize.
Thanks to the reduction of the bezel around the screen - and the introduction of a notch, yes you read that right - the overall increase in size is barely noticeable though. We were still able to use a number of soft laptop pouches and bags in the office that we use for an older 13-inch MacBook Pro model with no issues.
The MacBook Pro now sits on four fairly substantial feet - which could easily be mistaken for lenses on the back of an iPhone - and that raises the laptop up off any surface you're working from.
This will be for better heat dissipation - not that we've felt this MacBook Pro get overly hot in its new M1 Pro processor form - and the need for enhanced cooling is further found in three large vents on the base of the casing. There's one vent at the back beneath the screen hinge that expels air, while two side vents suck air in.
Although we've yet to experience any problems, those two side vents do concern us. The slits measure 3mm x 100mm and do not, from what we can see, feature any protective meshing to stop dust, dirt, sand, or other detritus, from getting in.
If you're planning on this workhorse being used on location where the environment isn't always as pristine as your office might be, that might be a problem without further protection. Put simply, the laptop isn't as sealed as previous models.
What's also very different from any MacBook Pro released since 2016 is the addition of various ports to make connecting to your devices easier - much easier. It's like stepping into the past while stepping into the future, as the ports are well and truly back.
On one side of the chassis you'll find a MagSafe charging socket (yes, the dedicated charging port returns), two Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C) ports, and a 3.5mm headphone jack. On the other side there's the HDMI 2.0 port (not 2.1 though), another Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C) port, and something photographers will cheer at - an SD card slot.
The ports are closely packed in, but there are USB-C options on both sides to help if you're needing to charge and use a dongle at the same time. That's the benefit of having a dedicated charging port, but the USB-C ports can be used for charging if that's all you have to hand - they're just not as speedy at topping up as MagSafe is all.
Open up the lid and it's all change here too. The Touch Bar has been ditched - it was supposedly loved by many, but clearly not enough to warrant it staying - and in its place is a row of physical full-sized function keys, giving you quick access to all the relevant controls you need, such as volume and screen brightness adjustment.
For coders the ESC key is now one-and-a-half size, making it even easier to press, and even the Touch ID button (which remains) is bigger and easier to use for rapid fingerprint login. The keyboard itself is set in a double-anodised black well. It's smart, but does still suffer from light leakage from the black-lit keys. The trackpad remains the same large size.
A new display
- 14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR Mini LED display
- 3024 x 1964 resolution
- 1600 nit max brightness
- ProMotion tech to 120Hz
- 1080p FaceTime HD camera, f/2 aperture
- Embedded in notch
The display is completely new for the MacBook Pro, but not new to Apple. The 2021 MacBook Pro comes with a 14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR mini LED display.
It offers great contrast and the usual array of Apple's display technologies - including P3 wide colour gamut, up to 1600 nits of peak brightness, and True Tone adaptive colour correction - while ProMotion 120Hz fast-refresh tech comes to the MacBook Pro for the first time.
If all that sounds familiar it's because it is the same screen technology that powers the iPad Pro range, and the results are breathtaking - whether you are working on a video edit, correcting photos, watching your favourite TV show on the go, or merely surfing the web.
Apple's ProMotion display makes everything on the screen considerably smoother, especially if you're fast scrolling or dealing with lots of movement. Its ability to change the refresh rate when needed means you'll potentially save battery life too.
The 14.2-inch display is able to fit into the new model because of a reduction in the bezel that surrounds the display. It's now considerably thinner all around, but there's a catch: the new 1080p FaceTime HD camera is bigger than the bezel it sits within, resulting in a notch that iPhone X or later users will be familiar with. Yes: a notched screen on a laptop.
If that sounds complicated or awkward it's actually not. The notch sits within the menu bar at the top of the screen and although you can lose the mouse pointer behind it, you can't place any window behind it even if you go into full-screen mode. It doesn't interfere with full-screen videos either, and if you opt for a darker desktop wallpaper or work with full-screen apps, the chances are you won't even notice it.
Why has Apple done it then? It's really all about getting more screen space and using what was previously bezel for the menu bar instead, sitting left and right of the notch.
A new processor, memory, and more
- M1 Pro and M1 Max processor options
- Up to 64GB of unified memory
- Up to 8TB of SSD storage
- Six speakers
Apple's move to its own silicon moves up a gear with the introduction of the M1 Pro and M1 Max processors. The M1 Pro claims to be twice as fast as the M1 that launched in 2020, while the M1 Max is twice as fast again.
The 14-inch MacBook Pro comes in two off-the-shelf options: there's an entry-level M1 Pro with 8-core CPU and 14-core GPU, or (as reviewed) an M1 Pro with a 10-core CPU and 16-Core GPU. Those who need more power can upgrade to the M1 Max - but upgrading can get pricey pretty quickly.
Both 14-inch models come with 16GB unified memory as standard. That can also be upgraded to 32GB (as reviewed). There's also a 64GB option, but that requires the M1 Max.
Unified memory, first introduced alongside the M1 processor, allows the system memory to be shared where needed rather than siloed for the graphics or the processor. It's a much more efficient way of doing things and means that once an app or game loads it can access all that memory to use for itself.
In the case of a video editing package, for example, it means there's considerably more memory to work with compared to previous MacBook Pro models. The 2020 model had 8GB-to-16GB of unified memory available. The 2019 model (so pre-M1) had up to 32GB RAM and 4GB devoted to the graphics card.
So you can see why creative professionals will be excited by the prospect of a 64GB option. It'll mean the opportunity to open huge files that were previously inaccessible when on the go.
All that power, combined with faster SSDs - which by the way are upgradable up to 8TB, yes eight terabytes - means working with large files shouldn't pose a problem. And from what we've tested nothing seems to faze the 14-inch MacBook Pro.
This machine laughs in the face of big files and demanding apps. In testing, a 31GB cinema 4D file opens almost instantly and allows you to render effects in real-time. We couldn't even open it on our M1-powered 13-inch model. Likewise, a 1594 track Pro Logic file opens in less than 20 seconds.
Those wanting to edit video on the go shouldn't have a problem either. The M1 Pro can handle up to 20 streams of 4K ProRes footage at the same time, while the M1 Max can handle 30 streams.
And the power-crazy specs don't stop there. The M1 Pro models allow you to connect up to two Pro Display XDRs, while the M1 Max can drive up to three Pro Display XDRs and a 4K TV.
Elsewhere there's a three-mic array for recording audio and a six-speaker soundsystem that supports Apple's Spatial Audio. It sounds considerably better than previous MacBook Pro models, and is more than good enough to playback projects you're working on or merely when it comes to the end of the day and you fancy watching a show or movie.
A new MagSafe 3 charger
- Up to 17 hours battery life
- Entry-level will need to upgrade power adapter
All that power requires plenty of battery - and the MacBook Pro 14-inch seems to have it in spades. It's partly why the unit is a further 200g heavier than the 13.3-inch model.
There's potential for up to 17 hours of full-screen video playback - which is seven more than the 13-inch model - or 11 hours of wireless web browsing. Of course those battery-life times vary depending on what you do with the machine, but we've happily got a day's use from the battery doing a combination of heavy and light tasks.
You can recharge the battery via one of the three Thunderbolt 4 sockets, as MacBook Pro users have done since 2016, or via the new included braided MagSafe charging cable in the box - which allows you to access fast-charging tech.
However, fast charging for the 14-inch model is only possible using the much larger 96W charger. The entry-level configuration doesn't include this in the box (it's the standard 67W one), so you'll have to add it as an accessory if you want it. Higher-level configurations do include the 96W charger as standard, though, so that's something to keep an eye on.
That fast charging is worth it though. You'll get from zero to 50 per cent in just under 30 minutes - a number we can vouch for.
macOS Monterey operating system
- New features
- Universal control not coming till later
- No MacBook Pro exclusive features
Apple's macOS gets an update too. Now on version 12, or Monterey, the operating system brings with it a number of new features - and many that come across from the iPhone and iPad. That includes features like better FaceTime controls, Focus, Quick Notes, changes to Safari, Shortcuts, and Universal Control when it eventually launches later this year. Unlike a new iPhone or Apple Watch there aren't any exclusive MacBook Pro software enhancements.
In 2016 the MacBook Pro effectively veered off course and tried to deliver a 'pro' experience that was packaged in a more 'consumery' format - something that is still very apparent with the 13-inch MacBook Pro compared to the current MacBook Air.
But this new 14-inch MacBook Pro with M1 Pro or M1 Max processor sees Apple throw out the playbook it has been using since 2016 and go back to basics, back to the Mac of 2015 and before, almost as if the last few years haven't even existed.
Unlike the MacBook Pro models of recent times, this isn't a device that's merely there to enjoy surfing the web or writing the odd document - that's what the MacBook Air is for - this is a machine that wants to be pushed to the limit. If you opt to customise the configuration even further then you'll be hard pushed to hit that limit too.
However, we do have concerns that those side air vents will cause problems in the long run, are surprised there is no Face ID support in the new notch, and wish there was a SIM card slot for 5G connectivity.
Overall the 2021 MacBook Pro is one super-powered machine that we suspect many pros will be clambering to have in their creative arsenal. Because Apple has put the pro back in the MacBook Pro and found its purpose with this series once again.
Apple MacBook Pro, 16-inch (2021)
The bigger 16-inch model to this 14-inch version. It offers an identical experience apart from the bigger screen size and battery capacity. If you really need that big machine on the go, this is the one to go for.
Apple MacBook Pro M1 13-inch (2020)
The M1-powered 13-inch model delivers a smaller device with fewer ports, at a smaller price tag. It's still a very capable machine though.
Apple MacBook Air (2020)
If the new MacBook Pro 14-inch model sounds too powerful and well, too 'pro', then the MacBook Air might be the better option. More geared towards consumers who are just there to surf the web and do the odd bit of photo editing, it too is still a very capable machine - just nowhere near to the levels of the M1 Pro machines.