Apple 16-inch MacBook Pro (M3 Max) review: A portable tower of power
Note: This review was first published on 16 November 2023.
This is a curious year because Apple updated its 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pros not once, but twice. It was updated in January this year with the M2 Pro and M2 Max chips, and now, barely 10 months later, Apple has gone and updated them again with its newest M3 family of chips. Should readers who bought a MacBook Pro earlier this year feel bad? Probably not. Let me tell you why.
The TL;DR version:
The M3 Max possesses remarkable performance, but unless you are running apps that can full advantage of it, there’s little sense in upgrading, especially if you already have an Apple Silicon Mac. Those holding on to Intel-based Macs, however, should upgrade with zero hesitation.
If you want others to know that you got the latest MacBook Pro, then you’ll have to opt for the Space Black finish. This “new” finish replaces Space Grey and is only exclusive to the models that come with the M3 Pro and M3 Max chips (more on the chips later). The name is misleading because, as you’ll see in the photo above, it’s more dark grey than black. Apart from the finish, these new notebooks are mostly identical to the ones that Apple released earlier this year. In other words, this is really a spec-bump update, which is no bad thing, seeing that the design is still fresh.
The other physical change that you might notice is that the display is now 20% brighter when displaying SDR (standard dynamic range) content – it now goes up to 600 nits. I didn’t really notice this in my use. The notch still remains, but to me, it’s really a non-issue by now. And at any rate, this is a really nice display that’s sharp, crisp, and has fantastic colours. My only gripe is that blooming can still be an issue and can be hard to ignore once you notice it.
Since the rest of the notebook is unchanged, it means build quality remains class-leading. The keyboard could do with a touch more feedback, but it’s otherwise great. The trackpad is faultless – huge, responsive, and very accurate. The six-speaker system impresses too. Even at high volumes, there’s little distortion and there’s actual palpable bass.
The port selection is excellent. There’s MagSafe for charging and three high-speed USB-C Thunderbolt 4 ports to connect peripherals. You also get an HDMI 2.1 port and creatives will surely be happy with the inclusion of an SDXC card slot.
Hello M3 Pro and M3 Max
This is the first time Apple is announcing its more powerful “Pro” and “Max” variants alongside the base chip. Apple, as usual, is coy about the specifics of the chip. What we do know is that these chips are built on a 3nm process and that there significant updates to the memory and GPU.
Folks who felt that the M2 Max's maximum memory of 96GB was insufficient will be happy to know that they can now spec their M3 Max machines with up to 128GB of memory. You can now have as much as memory as an M1 Ultra – I believe that's called progress.
Apart from the additional memory, the GPU now supports hardware-accelerated mesh-shading and ray-tracking. And it features a technology called Dynamic Caching, which intelligently allocates system memory to the GPU in real time based on its demands. According to Apple, this increases the average utilisation of the GPU, which in turn increases performance, particularly in “pro” apps and games. Apple calls Dynamic Caching the “cornerstone” of their new GPU architecture.
The chip configurations of the new Pro and Max chips are a little confusing but it’s worth paying attention to, especially if you are eyeing a unit with the M3 Pro. Because even though the CPU core count seems comparable, their configurations are quite different.
Look closely at the table below, the M3 Pro chips have six efficiency cores whereas the M2 Pro chips have four. Hence, no matter which flavour of the M3 Pro chip you pick, the M2 Pro chips actually have more performance cores. It’s the same story for the M3 Pro’s GPU too. The base M3 Pro actually gets two less GPU cores, while the high-end variant has one less.
|M3||8 (4P + 4E)||10||8GB, 16GB, 24GB|
|M3 Pro||11 (5P + 6E)||14||18GB, 36GB|
|12 (6P + 6E)||18|
|M3 Max||14 (10P + 4E)||30||36GB, 96GB|
|16 (12P + 4E)||40||48GB, 64GB, 128GB|
|M2||8 (4P + 4E)||8||8GB, 16GB, 24GB|
|M2 Pro||10 (6P + 4E)||16||16GB, 32GB|
|12 (8P + 4E)||19|
|M2 Max||12 (8P + 4E)||30||32GB, 64GB,|
|38||32GB, 64GB, 96GB|
|M2 Ultra||24 (16P + 8E)||60||64GB, 128GB, 192GB|
I don’t have a MacBook Pro with the M3 Pro chip to test, but a number of reviews have pointed out that it isn’t much quicker than the M2 Pro.
Thankfully, things are a lot simpler with the M3 Max. It’s also available in two variants and both have more CPU cores than the M2 Max – and crucially, these extra cores are performance cores. The base M3 Max has 30 GPU cores but the higher-end version now has 40 GPU cores – that’s two more GPU cores than the highest-end M2 Max. The 40 GPU core version of the M3 Max can also support up to 128GB of memory – 32GB more than the most powerful M2 Max. In other words, expect the M3 Max to be faster than the M2 Max.