Apple fans looking for a compromise-free mobile workstation need look no further, as the tech giant’s latest round of MacBook Pros are some of the best laptops (opens in new tab) we’ve ever tested.
Acting as both a big step forward for the company’s own system on a chip (SoC) and a smart overhaul of some of the more recent entries’ more questionable choices, the Apple MacBook Pro M1 Pro 2021 16-inch (and its 14-inch brother) pack a huge amount of power into a chassis that’s undeniably a little less portable than its predecessor.
Dimensions: 0.66" x 14.01" x 9.77"
Weight: 4.7 lbs
Display: 16.2" Liquid Retina XDR display, 3456x2234, 1,600 nits peak brightness
Graphics: 16-core integrated GPU
CPU: Apple M1 Pro (10-core CPU, 16-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine) (M1 Max has 32-core GPU)
Ports: 3 x USC-C ports (USB 4 support), MagSafe charging port, HDMI 2.0 and SD card slot, one headphone port
Memory: 16GB, 32GB, 64GB
Storage: 512GB, 1TB, 2TB, 4TB, or 8TB
Battery life: Up to 14 hours of wireless web browsing
Operating system: MacOS Big Sur (macOS Monterey compatible with free download)
Still, if you’re happy with a little extra heft, you’ll get incredible performance and efficiency, and a return to a port setup that many have been longing for since the 2014 lineup. HDMI is back, as is the SD card slot, as well as a headphone jack that’s been upgraded to work with high impedance headphones – a first for the product line.
Finally, the MagSafe charger makes a comeback, helping to prevent the device from going flying if someone snags the cable, while you still have the option to charge via one of the USB-C ports.
Apple still found time to correct course on some other bugbears, too. The FaceTime camera is finally a 1080p sensor (although many will find the notch a little distracting), and the TouchBar is gone, meaning function keys are once again back on the menu.
Inside, it’s all change too. Depending on your configuration, you’ll find the M1 chip’s more powerful cousins – the M1 Pro or M1 Max. We tested the former for this review and throughout audio and image editing never felt as though we ran out of headroom. It really is like having a desktop powerhouse you can take anywhere.
MacBook Pro M1 Pro 2021: Design
- New design is squarer than the last iteration
- Excellent keyboard
- The notch won’t be for everyone
In the most basic terms, Apple’s MacBook Pro lineup has long been an aluminum case with a display and a keyboard, and in essence, that’s still the same here. The most noticeable changes when it’s closed are, quite simply, that it’s a little thicker than the prior, TouchBar model, and the corners are a little more square. That gives it a more functional design, but we’re not complaining, especially since that added room means HDMI is back (albeit restricted to 2.0 as opposed to 2.1). You’ll also find an SD card slot, as well as two USB-C ports on the left, and one on the right, all of which support USB 4.0 speeds.
As a pleasant surprise, the headphone jack has been upgraded, too, and moved to the left side. It now supports high impedance headphones, which negates the need for a preamp.
Open the MacBook Pro M1 Pro 2021 up, and everything is similar to before but a little different. For one, the display is incredibly bright (more on that later), and now has an iPhone-style “notch” that contains a new 1080p webcam sensor. Again, we’ll touch on the notch later, but if you’re using any app with a black menu bar you’re unlikely to see it most of the time.
The keyboard is now set in a black tray and the good news is that Apple’s continued its fine work with the keyboard from the last iteration, removing the “butterfly” mechanism that plagued prior models. Every key has a great degree of travel, while also offering plenty of space.
The top of the keyboard is now shorn of the controversial TouchBar, too, replaced with clear, legible function keys, while the TouchID power button is now a larger key in the top right.
Finally, Apple’s trackpad remains best-in-class. Not only does it offer an excellent experience with clicking and tapping, but its gestures remain genuinely enjoyable to use.
MacBook Pro M1 Pro 2021: Performance
- M1 Pro is a powerful chip with impressive efficiency
- Great for gaming (within reason)
- Runs many iPhone and iPad apps
If last year’s M1 chip marked Apple unveiling its consumer-level laptop chip, the M1 Pro and M1 Max are definitely geared towards professionals. Make no mistake: if you’re not editing audio, video, images, or coding, there’s a high chance you’ll be more than satisfied with last year’s M1 MacBook Pro, or even the M1 MacBook Air.
The M1 Pro and M1 Max, then, take everything about that chip and crank it up to eleven. Our review unit has the M1 Pro chip and was able to flick between demanding apps, edit audio, video, and run multiple instances of Adobe apps with absolutely no slowdown. In fact, throughout the entire review process we couldn’t get the device’s fans to spin up, nor could we see it slowing down – we can only imagine how powerful the (much more expensive) M1 Max must be.
Then there’s gaming, something the macOS is still a long way behind Windows PCs on. To clarify, the M1 MacBook Pro isn’t a gaming laptop, but that’s not to say it doesn’t do a very good impression of one. Apple Arcade games run buttery smooth, while games that still aren’t optimized for the M1 architecture like League of Legends run perfectly through the Rosetta 2 translation engine. Still, for the sheer breadth of titles available on Windows, we’d opt against a Mac for gaming.
For work, though, the MacBook Pro is king for creative workflows, and it also runs a huge number of iPad and iPhone apps, too. It’s not a touchscreen, but it’s a pleasant surprise to see how many apps you may use daily on those devices magically added to your Mac’s available software options.
Finally, it’s also nice to know that the MacBook Pro offers a decent camera. After years of 720p blurriness, we’re finally in 1080p and it makes a huge difference during video conferencing.
MacBook Pro M1 Pro 2021: Display and audio
- Incredibly bright display
- Variable refresh rate up to 120Hz
- Strong, punchy speakers with plenty of bass
It’s tough to overstate just how impressive the MacBook Pro’s new display is. Offering 1,600 nits of peak brightness, it’s incredibly bright, making image or video edits an absolute joy.
There’s also the addition of ProMotion. This clever tech, originally found on the 2018 iPad Pro, came to the iPhone last year but now Mac users can enjoy a variable refresh rate that scales itself based on the content you’re viewing. Playing a game? The display can go as high as 120Hz. Scrolling Twitter or your ever-growing inbox? It’ll slow itself to feel buttery smooth, increasing the battery life in the meantime.
It really is staggering how such a bright and capable display can be shoehorned into such a thin “lid”, and really helps set this latest iteration apart from its predecessor.
Then there’s the notch, which isn’t nearly as prominent as you may expect. The display’s 1,000,000:1 contrast ratio means that black menu bars are truly black, and therefore it doesn’t stand out at all. Sure, you can put your cursor behind it, but we didn’t find any apps that hadn’t adjusted for the new screen invader.
With regards to the speakers, we were impressed by the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro’s output, but this iteration is even better. Thanks to the larger chassis, there’s more depth to be found in the sound, as well as crystal clear audio for Zoom calls and podcast audio alike.
MacBook Pro M1 Pro 2021: Battery life
During our testing, we were able to hit around 14 hours of battery (the same as Apple’s estimate), all while working in Google Docs, streaming Spotify to Bluetooth headphones, and editing photos in Lightroom.
If you’re putting the pedal to the metal with creative workflows or games, you can expect that to drop, but with the included MagSafe cable you can expect to get to 50% battery in around 30 minutes (the 14-inch requires an extra $20 for the fast-charger).
The MacBook Pro M1 Pro 2021 essentially offers similar power consumption to the M1 chip despite a huge increase in power and graphical grunt.
MacBook Pro M1 Pro 2021: Price
This is where things get a little tricky, and that’s because the new laptops aren’t cheap. The 16-inch version kicks off at $2499, with 16GB of unified memory and a 512GB SSD.
That’s more than enough for most, admittedly, but doubling the RAM and storage will cost you $400 and $200 extra respectively.
Then there’s the M1 Max version, which starts at an eye-watering $3099. Still, for that, you’ll get a 24-core CPU and 32GB of memory, but you’re still saddled with a fairly miserly 512GB of storage. Thankfully, 90% of people are unlikely to need that much power.
MacBook Pro M1 Pro 2021: User reviews
As we’ve mentioned before, Macs still aren’t for gaming (sadly), but some early adopters found that out the hard way judging by some reviews on Amazon.
Others note the difficulty to repair the laptop yourself, while some are disappointed by the lack of USB-A – although as more and more devices adopt the USB-C standard, it’s perhaps not a surprise.
Still, if you rely on USB-A peripherals, you may want to look for a dock or dongle solution.
Should you buy the MacBook Pro M1 Pro 2021?
Apple’s latest MacBook Pro is the finest laptop the company has made in years, which is no small feat considering the impressive 2019 16-inch model.
It’s not cheap, but the power and efficiency make it an ideal work machine for anyone working in a creative field, with the option to supercharge it for even more demanding tasks with the M1 Max.
The addition (or return) of “classic” ports may remove the need for dongles for many, and the display is bright and beautiful enough to make it almost feel tough to connect to an external monitor.
If this product isn’t for you
The MacBook Pro M1 Pro and M1 Max are incredible machines, but they’re also pricey. If you’re not willing to pay such a high price, Apple’s M1 MacBook Pro 13-inch (opens in new tab) is a solid option, although it does sport the prior design – 720p webcam and all.
Then there’s the even cheaper MacBook Air (opens in new tab), which starts at $999. It’s Apple’s most affordable (and portable) laptop, but it is expected to see a sizeable redesign in 2022.