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If you looked at Apple’s new 13-inch MacBook Pro, available today for $1,299, it might not seem like that big of a deal.
It looks identical to the model it replaces, and has the same ports: a headphone jack on the right side, and two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left. The Thunderbolt ports now double as USB 4 ports, but that change is extremely subtle.
In reality, this MacBook Pro is the biggest leap Apple’s computers have taken in 14 years. The differences become apparent from the moment you turn the machine on, and represent a new era for the MacBook Pro that will benefit everybody who picks one up.
It’s All Inside
Apple’s late 2020 MacBook Pro is the first in a trio of computers that feature the company’s new M1 SoC (system on a chip). Apple’s custom chips have powered the iPhone and iPad since 2010, but its computers have run on Intel’s chips since 2006.
This has become a problem because Intel’s processors haven’t delivered significant year-over-year speed gains in quite some time, and have been released on a slightly erratic schedule. Apple was forced to wait on Intel before updating its Macs while its iPhone and iPad chips became a lot faster and came out on a set schedule.
This issue was compounded by the fact that Intel’s processors are designed to work in any computer, whether it’s a PC or a Mac. Apple’s custom chips are optimized to work with its hardware alone; the company doesn’t have to compete for a limited supply of off-the-shelf components, and can build a processor to power the computer it wants to build.
Creating an entirely new chip for one of your most important computers is a major gamble, but after spending time with the machine I can safely say it paid off. The new MacBook Pro is one of the best — and historically significant — computers Apple has ever made.
Performance, Performance, Performance
Apple’s mobile A-series SoCs have been outpacing Intel’s desktop chips for several years, but the M1 in the new MacBook Pro widens that gap significantly.
It contains an eight-core processor made up of four “performance” cores, which are ultra-fast and designed for heavy workloads, and four “efficiency” cores, which are slightly slower, but consume less power. The M1 can change which cores it’s using based on what you’re doing in real time, so the computer always feels fast, but doesn’t use up excess power.
On paper, Apple’s M1 embarrasses Intel’s processors. Using Geekbench 5, an application designed to test processor performance, the new 13-Inch MacBook Pro is faster than Apple’s high-end 16-inch MacBook Pro. That machine costs $2,600, twice the price of the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, though it comes with more memory and storage.
But that’s only part of the story. The M1 is a complicated chip that contains more than just a processor. It also features an eight-core graphics chip, which Tom’s Hardware compared against high-end cards from Nvidia and AMD. Again, Apple’s M1 pulled ahead by a significant margin. One of the reasons for this bump in performance is that the computer’s processor, graphics card, and memory are on a single chip instead of separate components.
These objective tests are important, but using the MacBook Pro has proven that Apple’s move to its own system on a chip was the right move. I was able to edit raw, 8K video footage without a stutter. I edited high-resolution photos, including the ones used in this review, and applying complicated effects took seconds.
The entire experience of actually using the computer felt faster, which was especially surprising because Intel Macs never felt slow. Something as simple as the MacBook Pro’s display lighting up before I could fully open the lid demonstrated the computer was ready for work the moment I was.
My workflows include having multiple apps open simultaneously, and I was afraid that the MacBook Pro would get bogged because my review unit only had 8GB of RAM (memory). My main machine has three times the amount of memory, and it can still hit a hitch occasionally.
It turns out the M1 accounts for this: The chip contains the computer’s system memory, so the processor and graphics chip can access it more quickly. I was able to work at 100% efficiency, and never noticed any slowdown. That’s especially impressive considering I was trying to push the machine more than I normally would for the sake of testing its limits.
In terms of raw horsepower the M1 equipped MacBook Pro can do the type of work that used to require a much more expensive machine. This move makes the Mac a much more viable platform for creatives who do professional work, but have a strict budget. While a MacBook Pro will never be objectively inexpensive, this new 13-inch machine is an incredible value.
New Apps Come Back To The Mac
The M1 represents a new era of Mac hardware, but it also ushers in what could become the golden age of Mac software. This new chip enables iPhone and iPad apps to run on the Mac, opening up the platform to tens of thousands of new pieces of software.
iOS apps running natively on the Mac means small developers will only have to write one piece of software to run on all of Apple’s hardware. If there’s an app on your phone that you wish was on your computer, that future is here.
I was able to test a handful of iOS-only apps out on the Mac, and they work really well. Games like Among Us and Good Sudoku translate well to a big screen, as do services like Zillow. These apps run in their own window like a traditional Mac app, but some lack basic features like window resizing, which may come with future updates. Developers will have the opportunity to opt out of this feature (Facebook and Netflix already have), but most iOS apps will be available in the Mac App Store by default very soon.
The future is exciting, but what about apps written for computers running Intel processors? If the M1 Mac could only run iOS apps, or Mac apps rewritten for the M1, early adopters would have to suffer through the growing pains of Apple’s processor transition. Luckily, that’s not the case.
Macs that have an M1 chip come with an Apple framework called Rosetta 2, which translates the code written for Intel processors to run on these new machines. The result has been shockingly good. Apps take a little longer to run the first time, but after that I couldn’t tell the difference.
Optimized apps like Apple’s Safari and an early version of Pixelmator Pro felt as snappy as Slack, Firefox, Tweetbot, or Chrome. I didn’t experience any random crashes with any of these apps, and had no software compatibility issues. Rewritten apps will definitely be more resource efficient, but getting an M1 Mac now shouldn’t slow your work down as developers catch up.
It’s exciting to think of all the iOS only apps that will make the Mac a more modern-feeling platform.
All-Day Battery Life. Maybe.
Apple’s claims about its laptop battery life have always been rosy, but it went all out this year. The company said this computer could get up to 17 hours of wireless web browsing and a whopping 20 hours of video playback on a single charge.
That may be true if you exclusively use apps optimized for the M1 — especially Apple’s Safari web browser — keep your screen at medium brightness, and don’t connect any Bluetooth accessories. But most of us don’t work like that, and my results varied significantly based on how I used the machine.
Under heavy load — think multiple browsers open, testing video and photo editing, running a mix of optimized and non-optimized apps — the MacBook Pro lasted five and a half hours before it needed to be plugged in. That’s still enough time to get through almost an entire cross-country flight, but it’s a far cry from 20 hours.
My battery experience was much more in line with Apples when I was focused on writing and using Safari. I wouldn’t be surprised if I could make it through an entire work day if this was my primary setup, but it’s not.
If you do heavy professional work in apps that weren’t written for the M1, your battery life will suffer. It’s worth pointing out that this battery life is better than what I’ve gotten out of previous-generation Apple laptops, and may improve as the apps I use get updated.
The Sound Of Silence
What struck me most about using the new MacBook Pro wasn’t its speed, or the possibility of a software renaissance on the Mac, but how quiet it was. I’m used to fans kicking on the moment I start pushing my computer, but I couldn’t make it happen.
I purposefully exported an 8K video while playing a YouTube video and switching between browsers, and the computer remained whisper quiet. Your mileage may vary, but if you’re upgrading to a new machine, this is a very welcome feature.
Apple redesigned the cooling system in the 16-Inch MacBook Pro to reduce its noise and cool the computer more effectively, but there’s no indication it did anything like that here. All it says is that the 13-Inch MacBook Pro has an “active cooling system.”
The Bottom Line
Apple’s new 13-Inch MacBook Pro is the fastest laptop in the company’s history, and signals the beginning of a new era in the Mac’s history. If you’ve traditionally gotten Apple’s high-end laptops, this new machine may satisfy your needs for a much lower cost. If you’re a student or office worker looking for a machine that’ll last you several years, look no further.