Apple 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 review: Rewriting the notebook rulebook
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Note: This review was first published on 27 Nov 2020.
A new era for Macs
I’m not sure I believe Apple. In interviews following the announcement of its new M1 chips and M1-powered Macs, the company said that the transition to its own silicon was motivated by their aim of creating the best possible products. And that meant custom chips that could tightly integrated hardware and software.
Surely part of the impetus to switch must come from its dissatisfaction with Intel. Just last year, Apple blamed Intel for causing a dip in its Mac revenue. Luca Maestri, Apple's chief financial officer, said, “Next I’d like to talk about the Mac. Revenue was 5.5 billion compared to 5.8 billion a year ago, with the decline driven primarily by processor constraints on certain popular models.”
And, of course, Intel’s manufacturing woes are well documented by now. The company recently admitted that its 7nm chips won’t be ready until 2022 or 2023. And while Intel continues to struggle with even with 10nm chips today, the competition has long moved on. AMD's latest chips are already on 7nm and Apple's are on 5nm.
This obviously won’t do for a company with exacting standards like Apple. So few eyebrows were raised when Apple finally announced earlier this year that it would be transitioning its Macs to its own processors. The writing was long on the wall.
So here we are now with the new M1 chip and three new Macs. Not trying to sound too dramatic but this truly is the dawn of the new era. These are exciting times for a Mac user so let's begin by taking a closer look at the new 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1.
Design & features
The new 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 is almost indistinguishable from the model it replaces. Its size, dimensions, and even weight are unchanged. The only way to tell which is which, without powering up, is to look underneath for the model identifier number – A2338 denotes that it has the new M1 chip.
To me, the transition to Apple Silicon seems like the perfect time to give the MacBook Pro a redesign. After all, the MacBook Pro is starting to show its age, especially with its thick bezels. Also, the design is literally old, the 13-inch MacBook Pro has looked this way since 2016.
However, there are some obvious upsides with sticking to an old design. It means this new MacBook Pro will slot into your existing setup seamlessly and your accessories like notebook sleeves, docks, and stands will continue to work. Users who have invested heavily in those fancy hubs that were designed to attach neatly to the sides of the MacBook Pro can heave a sigh of relief.
Furthermore, thick bezels aside, it’s hard to fault the design and build of the MacBook Pro. Its unibody construction means it feels supremely solid – as if it's hewn from the rock of the gods – while the 13.3-inch Retina display continues to impress with outstanding clarity, sharpness, and colours. The trackpad is still the best in the business. And happily, the keyboard, after having ditched the ill-fated butterfly-switch mechanism and gone back to more traditional scissors switches, is exemplary.
There are, however, a couple of things that can be improved. To start, the 720p webcam has no place on a modern notebook especially when you consider how often many of us rely on teleconferencing apps tpoday. Plus, Apple recently fitted new 1080p webcams in their iMac. The images it produces is fuzzy even with Apple's clever imaging processing. Curiously, while Apple has fitted a substandard webcam to the MacBook Pro, it did give it "studio quality" mics. Happily, these mics work a lot better, which only serves to highlight the incongruity of the 720p webcam. Oh, the speakers are great too for a 13-inch notebook – they get really loud and sound wholesome with little distortion even at high volumes.
I get that this new MacBook Pro is supposed to replace the old 13-inch MacBook Pro with two ports, but two USB-C ports on a “Pro” Mac is a little stingy, no? Furthermore, even though the ports support Thunderbolt 3/USB 4, they have the odd limitation of support for just a single external display (up to 6K @ 60Hz fortunately so you can plug in your expensive Pro Display XDR). Fortunately, there are workarounds or you could use the Sidecar feature with compatible iPads. Another limitation with these ports is that they don't support external GPUs.
Wireless connectivity, on the other hand, has been improved with support for Wi-Fi 6. Support for this new wireless standard was curiously missing from all Macs up until this point. This means all of Apple’s newest Macs, iPhones, and iPads now support Wi-Fi 6.
Understanding the new M1 Macs
Apple announced three new Macs while they unveiled the M1 chip. Apart from the 13-inch MacBook Pro here, there’s also a MacBook Air and a Mac Mini. They all have the same chip (the cheapest MacBook Air has 7 GPU cores instead of 8), so how does one differentiate them?
The MacBook Air doesn’t have a fan so it runs silently. If the sound of whirring fans annoys you, the choice is clear. In terms of performance, it should have the same peak performance or thereabout as the MacBook Pro and Mac Mini but it won’t be able to sustain it for long periods since there’s no fan to help keep it cool.
Compared to the MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro has a better display (it gets brighter) and it has an active cooling system (aka fan) and a larger battery. Where peak performance is concerned, it should be the same as the MacBook Air but its fan should help it sustain maximum performance for longer. The larger battery also means a longer battery life – 20 hours for the Pro vs. 18 hours in the Air.
The Mac Mini is a desktop solution so unsurprisingly it has the beefiest thermal solution. This should mean that it’s the best at sustaining peak performance. And because it has an HDMI port, it’s the only M1 Mac that officially supports more than one external display.
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