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First impressions and performance preview: Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 processor

By Kenny Yeo - 21 Nov 2020

First impressions and performance preview: Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 processor

Note: This article was first published on 17 Nov 2020.

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 processor looks just like the last-generation 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Welcome to the future

I’m holding in my hands the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Apple’s latest M1 processor. Apple says it’s one of the most powerful 13-inch notebooks you can buy today. It’s so powerful that it outclasses its predecessor in CPU and GPU performance by 2.8 and 5 times respectively. I don’t recall the last time I saw this kind of performance leaps in a notebook. And yet, it looks exactly like the model it replaces.

This is the beginning of the transition and the start of a new era for Macs. Apple announced back in June during WWDC 2020 that it will begin using its custom silicon for Macs later this year. That time finally came last week when they unveiled the new M1 processor.

Obviously, a transition of this magnitude won’t happen overnight and Apple said it would take up to two years. But kicking things off, there’s a new MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini.

 

Design & features

There’s not much to say here. The new 13-inch MacBook Pro that Apple just announced with the M1 processor is identical in terms of design to the 13-inch MacBook Pro that was released earlier this year. The dimensions, weight, and even the tech specs of the 13-inch Retina display are exactly the same. Speaking of the display, even though the new MacBook Pro will now run iOS and iPadOS apps, the display still isn't a touchscreen, which is probably something Apple needs to think about including in future MacBooks.

On the left, the 13-inch MacBook Pro that was updated earlier this year, and on the right, the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 processor.

Given the importance of this transition, it’s curious that Apple didn’t take the change to give the MacBook Pro a makeover. It looks ok but it’s starting to show its age, especially with those bezels. The upside, however, is that this new MacBook Pro will slot into your existing setup seamlessly and accessories like notebook sleeves, docks, stands, will continue to work.

To be clear, this new M1-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro comes with two USB-C ports and it directly replaces the old Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro with two USB-C ports. Apple will, for now, continue to offer the Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro with four USB-C ports.

This new 13-inch MacBook Pro has two USB-C Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 ports

The two USB-C ports of this new MacBook Pro supports Thunderbolt 3 and also the new USB 4 standard. If you are new to or confused about USB 4, I suggest reading my guide here.

Wireless connectivity has been improved too. I lamented about how the latest generation of MacBooks lack support for Wi-Fi 6 and now we finally have it. This new MacBook Pro supports Wi-Fi 6 just like the iPhones, iPad Pro, and iPad Air.

Magic Keyboard, the large trackpad, Touch Bar, and Touch ID are carried over from the last model.

The keyboard and trackpad, I'm happy to report, continues to be excellent. It's a Magic Keyboard (good riddance butterfly switches) so it has traditional scissors switches. The trackpad is the same so it's made out of glass, really large, and also super accurate and responsive. What's perhaps not so great is the return of Touch Bar. It appears that Apple is adamant that it's superior to physical function keys but I’m not so sure. I thought they were promising at launch, but it’s been nearly four years and, as a touch typist, I still haven’t found an instance that I would prefer them over physical keys. There's also Touch ID for quick logins and authentication.

 

Performance preview

The first processor for Macs is called M1.

The highlight of this notebook, however, has to be the new M1 chip inside. It’s the first custom processor Apple has made for the Mac and it’s largely based on the A14 Bionic that’s in the new iPhones and iPad Air.

The M1 is all about numbers. To start, it’s built on a 5nm process. It also has a whopping 16 billion transistors. Inside are 8 CPU cores and also 8 GPU cores. Of the 8 CPU cores, 4 are high-performance cores that are designed to handle demanding workloads whereas another 4 are high-efficiency cores designed for light workloads.

When compared to Intel chips that were powering the last generation of MacBooks, M1 can deliver up to 3.5x the CPU performance and 5x the graphics performance. Perhaps what’s more impressive is that it can deliver the same performance as the “latest PC laptop chip” with just a quarter of the power.

A big part of that is down to the unified memory architecture. This allows all components in the M1 to access the memory without having to move it around. Apple claims this dramatically improves performance and efficiency.

Now, I’ve only had this notebook for a couple of hours so I haven’t had the time to thoroughly test it. But I ran some quick tests and this is how it performs against some other Macs.

It's too early to tell but it looks like M1 is living up to its hype. Its Geekbench scores are the highest I've seen yet, eclipsing even a 2020 iMac an 8-core Core i7 processor. Graphics performance was quite impressive too as it was about 85% faster than a 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro with Intel Iris Plus graphics.

However, benchmarks are just one part of the evaluation process. A huge part of how good this new MacBook Pro is will be dependent on its performance in the real world, particularly how well it works with existing apps that might not yet be optimised for macOS Big Sur and M1. Another important aspect I’ll have to test is its battery life. Apple claims an incredible 17 hours of wireless web and 20 hours of movie playback, which is roughly double that of the Intel-based models.

I'll be testing the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 processor more thoroughly over the next few days.

Prices for the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 processor start at S$1,849. It's not cheap but if it lives up to its performance claims, it could be something of a bargain. If you absolutely cannot wait, I wrote earlier that it should be safe to update to these new Macs if your usage centres around Apple's own apps and web apps. Those apps have been designed to run on M1 and would work flawlessly out of the box. On the other hand, if you rely on a lot of third-party apps, it's prudent to adopt and a wait-and-see approach – unless your bank account ends in more zeroes than you care to count.

These are exciting times for the Mac and as things stand, it’s been a very promising couple of hours spent with the new M1-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro. Let me know if you have any questions that you’d like addressed in the full review by emailing me at kennyyeo@sph.com.sg and I’ll try my best to test them out in the coming days.