M1 MacBook Pro 2021: Which laptop model is right for you?
The M1 MacBook Pro models that creatives have been craving are finally here. We’ll break down these new Apple laptops’ specs, and answer the tough questions, like whether you should upgrade.
The much-anticipated MacBook Pro models with M1 chips are here, released at the Oct. 18, 2021 Apple Unleashed event with a lot of fanfare. These new MacBook Pros are some of the fastest computers that Apple has ever shipped and include a complete redesign, camera system, keyboard, and who can forget the top-notch (literally) mini LED screen? In this article, we’ll dive into the new features of the MacBook Pro models released in October 2021, unpack what the specs mean, and answer the important questions like if you should upgrade your existing M1 MacBook Pro to a new model.
SEE: How to migrate to a new iPad, iPhone, or Mac (TechRepublic Premium)
What’s the big deal about the 2021 MacBook Pros?
When Apple announced it would be producing its own processors for Macs in 2020, notably missing from the announcement was any professional-grade systems. The professional high-end MacBook Pro, iMac and Mac Pro products were all still running Intel processors until this October 2021 event when Apple upgraded the MacBook Pro lineup to be completely Apple Silicon based.
The MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch models now feature a configurable M1 Pro or M1 Max chip that ekes out even more speed and are now comparable to or out-perform the previous high-end Intel model Macs in performance and battery life. We’re finally seeing the performance gains and battery life gains that Apple promised we’d see with its switch to the Apple Silicon processors, and it’s showing the company’s processor roadmap will pay off huge for consumers and professional users alike.
The new MacBook Pro comes in two flavors: The 14-inch and 16-inch version, both of which start with a base M1 Pro chip (configurable), an XDR (mini LED) screen like we’ve seen on the M1 iPad Pro, and a slew of ports, including bringing back the much-desired SDXC card slot and MagSafe.
The new MacBook Pro features a redesigned chassis that is a familiar design, but is highly evolved from what we’ve seen on the MacBook Pro, which has remained relatively the same since 2016. The new design remains aluminum with a choice of Space Gray or Silver, but the form factor has a thinner screen design, and a screen that goes nearly edge to edge and features a notch at the top of the screen to house the camera components and other sensors.
Since 2016, the MacBook Pro has also featured a TouchBar on many models, taking up the rows traditionally used by the media keys. This year, Apple has decided to ditch the TouchBar and bring back the function/media keys rows alongside a redesigned keyboard.
Apple has brought back the MagSafe charger for the 2021 MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch models, a change that many will rejoice over. The new MagSafe adapter is USB-C on one end, and what Apple is dubbing “MagSafe 3 port” on the other end. This allows for rapid charging of the Mac.
In addition to MagSafe, the new MacBook Pro lineup includes the following ports: SDXC card slot, HDMI port, 3.5mm headphone jack, three Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C) ports capable of charging, DisplayPort, Thunderbolt 4 (up to 40GB/s) and USB 4 (up to 40GB/s).
SEE: Why I am buying Apple’s new MacBook Pro (TechRepublic)
What about the processors in the 2021 M1 MacBook Pros?
Apple has been innovating at an extraordinary rate when it comes to its chip design and performance. The latest round of M1 chips that are packed into these MacBook Pros are extremely energy efficient and pack a punch when it comes to performance (something previously not seen in the Apple lineup—you’d sacrifice performance for battery life or vice versa).
Two new chips were released as a part of the MacBook Pro: Both the 14-inch and 16-inch base models come with the M1 Pro chip, but can be upgraded to the M1 Max chip, depending on your needs.
Apple has upgraded the entire M1 system on a chip with these new models. The memory BUS (pathway to and from the onboard memory) has been upgraded to a wider 256-bit LPDDR5, allowing for speeds of up to 200GB/s (400GB/s on M1 Max) when reading and writing to memory.
On the 14-inch and 16-inch models of Late 2021 MacBook Pro, the battery life has seen a dramatic increase. On the 14-inch model, you can expect somewhere in the range of 17 hours of movie playback and 11 hours of web browsing. The 16-inch model can achieve around 21 hours of movie playback and 14 hours of web browsing due to the larger battery in the enclosure. The battery life increase is due to more power-efficient chips and large batteries compared with the predecessor MacBook Pros. In general, you can expect this year’s MacBook Pro to eke out on average 10 hours more battery life than the Intel predecessor.
M1 Pro chip
The base models of the MacBook Pro feature the Apple M1 Pro chip. This is a new version of the M1 chip that has increased performance and GPU capabilities over the original generation M1 Apple released on Macs in 2020 and the M1 iPad Pro in Spring 2021. Apple has increased the memory BUS on these chips compared to the original generation M1 processors, and it’s now capable of reading and writing to memory at 200Gb/s throughput. This M1 Pro chip features up to 10-core CPU (eight high-performance cores and 2 energy-efficient cores) and up to a 16-core GPU. The Pro chip also supports up to 32GB of unified memory architecture.
M1 Max chip
An optional upgrade on all models of MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch is the M1 Max. This chip adds to the number of cores, and to the number of GPU cores as well. The Max chip also offers increased memory BUS that’s capable of running at a whopping 400Gb/s. The M1 Max chip builds on the foundation of the M1 Pro but goes many steps forward in processing power and number of cores. The M1 Max chip supports up to a 10-core CPU (eight high-performance cores and two energy-efficient cores), but can also support up to 32-core GPU for very intense graphics applications. The M1 Max chip also doubles the unified memory capacity to up to 64GB of configurable unified memory.
The new Late 2021 MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch both feature the same mini LED display (Apple is dubbing “Liquid Retina XDR”) that has up to 120hz refresh rates for applications that need that performance. This display is very similar to the technology that Apple released earlier this year in the XDR display found on the M1 iPad Pro 12.9.”
The FaceTime camera in the Late 2021 MacBook Pro has been significantly improved and now boasts 1080p resolution and advanced image signal processor with computational video. This camera is housed in a notch that appears at the top of the screen and integrates through a macOS software redesign right into the menu bar in macOS and is nearly hidden when using Dark Mode on macOS.
What are the specs for the 2021 MacBook Pros?
Should you upgrade if you just bought a 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro last year?
In late 2020 and early 2021, the M1 Macs that Apple released were the consumer line-up of devices, composed of the iMac, MacBook Pro 13-inch and Mac mini. These devices are all perfectly capable for many users, but the MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch models released in October 2021 are Apple’s answers to the professional community that rely on Macs for graphics work, development, and movie and photography creation and editing. If your workflow relies on having the top-of-the-line GPU and CPU, then the MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch are the mobile solution for you (we have still yet to see the desktop solution for professionals and assume that a forthcoming release of a M1 Mac Pro or iMac Pro will answer that).
If you bought an M1 iMac, MacBook Pro 13-inch or Mac mini in 2020 or 2021, we’d be hard pressed to recommend an upgrade to the new MacBook Pro 14-inch or 16-inch unless your workflow demanded the processing power or one of the new features answers a solution for which you’re currently searching.
SEE: Apple’s Oct. 18 Unleashed event unveils powerful new MacBook Pro systems (TechRepublic)
If you are using a previous generation Intel MacBook Pro 14-inch or 16-inch, or another Intel-based Mac, then these are the products designed just for you, and you should consider an upgrade if your workflow could benefit from the extra power, improved screen, better battery life or improved keyboard.
Apple is about halfway through its transition to the M1 processors from Intel, and we will likely see its answer to the professional desktop solutions next year in the professional iMac and Mac Pro, however, with the power and functionality of the MacBook Pro 14-inch and 16-inch, these devices can work double duty as both a mobile computer and desktop computer when docked. If you’re replacing an aging desktop Mac, then we’d also recommend going with one of these MacBook Pros instead of purchasing another Intel desktop Mac that will likely be phased out over the next year.
Which 2021 MacBook Pro should I get?
If you are in the market for one of the new MacBook Pros, then let’s check out how to determine which you might need based on what you plan to do with it.
If you would use a MacBook Pro to check email, read websites and do basic word processing and general computing tasks, the base model of the MacBook Pro 14-inch or 16-inch would be a perfect fit depending on screen size needs. This base model of either machine will perfectly fit the needs of general computing tasks.
Advanced user or future-proofing
If you’re an advanced user who dabbles with photo editing, video creation or just wants to future proof the MacBook Pro so that you can get the most use out of it for years to come, then you might consider upgrading M1 Pro chip to the 10-core model, and upgrading the unified memory to 32GB. This will provide wiggle room as macOS continues to receive updates and as the software ecosystem continues to grow, or as the tasks you take on might expand in the future. This machine will be able to handle most any task you can throw at it.
Professional graphics designer or music producer
If you’re in a professional field like graphic design or music production, the M1 Pro chip upgraded to the 10-core option will provide an extremely capable and performant Mac to do your work on; however, we would recommend maxing out the RAM to the 32GB option if you plan to run heavy apps like Final Cut Pro, Lightroom, Photoshop, Illustrator, Figma or other design tools. Music production apps like Logic can also benefit from the additional memory storage.
Advanced professional users and video creation
If you will primarily be running design tools, music production tools and video creation, and running more than one at a time (like running Illustrator, InDesign, Figma, Photoshop and more all at once), or are using advanced video editor, or 3D modeling tools, then you will benefit from the M1 Max chip. Upgrading to this chip will greatly improve performance over the M1 Pro chip for these tasks, including the 32-core GPU option to drive graphics-rich applications and apps that can take advantage of GPU compute tasks. If you fall into this camp, we also highly recommend upgrading to the 64GB unified memory option as well as video editing and 3D rendering applications, which tend to run better with more memory and need to swap to disk less regularly when exporting or rendering out video.