The M1 version of the MacBook Pro for the most part delivers on the performance, compatibility, and battery life that Apple promises. But this is the low-end version of MacBook Pro, the non-Pro MacBook Pro, if you will. And it’s hard for most to justify its additional expense compared to the very similar MacBook Air.
So we should explain that bit first.
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Forgetting for a moment about the M1 chipset, Apple’s MacBook lineup has consisted of four basic models for a few years now: The MacBook Air, the entry-level MacBook Pro 13 (with two Thunderbolt 3 ports), the MacBook Pro 13 (with four Thunderbolt 3 ports), and the MacBook Pro 16 (previously the MacBook Pro 15). The first two of those, the MacBook Air and the entry-level MacBook Pro 13, comprise the low-end of the MacBook family, and the latter two are higher-end, prosumer-class devices.
In late 2020, Apple replaced all three of its entry-level Macs—the two entry-level MacBooks noted above plus the Mac Mini desktop computer—with new models based on its M1 chipset. Its higher-end Macs—including the other MacBook Pros, the iMac, and the Mac Pro—are still offered with higher-end Intel chipsets, often with dedicated graphics, and with support for more RAM. Apple is expected to replace them with Mx chipsets of whatever flavor in the next 1-2 years.
I’ve never understood the logic of having two different types of MacBook Pro 13, one set with two TB3 ports and one set with four. There have always been other differences, of course—the higher-end MacBooks ship with the controversial Touch Bar, for example—and the lower-cost MacBook Air was always the better value for most consumers. But the difference was greater in the latest two generations of the Intel era, when the MacBook Air came with a (relatively) underpowered Y-series Intel CPU.
The arrival of the M1 confuses matters. Now, the low-end MacBook Pros and the MacBook Air share the same M1 chipset (with one very minor difference I’ll get to in a moment). Both Macs have just two TB3 ports. The MacBook Air uses passive cooling—that is, it has no fans and is thus silent—but the MacBook Pro 13, with its active cooling, can run more demanding workloads without throttling the performance over time. And while the M1 chipsets are identical between the two, the base model MacBook Air, the version you can get for just $999, features 7 graphics cores, where the version in the MacBook Pro, and in MacBook Airs with upgraded configurations, has 8 graphics cores.
7 vs. 8 graphics cores is a subtle distinction that probably shouldn’t impact most buying decisions. But if you’re a true prosumer with advanced needs—a videographer, perhaps, a developer, an engineer, a graphic artist, or similar—then the MacBook Pro 13 may sway you with its promise of sustained higher-end workloads. Otherwise—that is, if you’re a “normal” user—the MacBook Air is almost certainly the better choice. (There are rumors that Apple is killing off the Touch Bar in a future MacBook Pro generation, so its appearance on the higher-end M1 MacBook Pros is possibly the end of that differentiator.)
Looked at another way, the M1-based MacBook Pro isn’t really all that “pro,” it’s more like a slightly different MacBook Air with better performance in specific prosumer workloads. It’s also $300 more expensive for the same 8 GB/256 GB base configuration.
Still interested? Let’s take a look at the M1-based MacBook Pro 13.
Depending on your view, the MacBook Pro design is either a classic or it’s getting a bit long in the tooth, a byproduct of Apple’s decision to stick with the same design as its predecessors.
I see both sides of this debate. The MacBook Pro is handsome and professional-looking, with a minimalist business-class design. But it’s also more of the same: Apple has been using this form factor for a long time. It’s due for a refresh. Overdue, really.
Whatever, it’s a classic. And while a smaller, lighter version with smaller display bezels is no doubt in the cards for some future revision, the MacBook Pro is the Porsche 911 of portable computers, an instantly recognizable icon of its industry.
Surrounded by anachronistically large bezels given its price class, the MacBook Pro 13 (M1) nonetheless provides one of the better laptop displays I’ve used in recent years. The Quad HD+ Retina display panel offers a native resolution of 2560 x 1600 and it’s stunningly bright, crisp, and colorful.
Its 16:10 aspect ratio is also a delight, providing a great compromise from the too-wide 16:9 displays found in most laptops and the even-taller 3:2 displays that are more common in PC tablets and 2-in-1s.
What’s missing, of course, are multitouch and smartpen capabilities. Apple addresses the former, sort of, with a Touch Bar that is discussed below but that won’t help anyone hoping to use iPhone and iPad apps and games on the Mac. And to be fair, using a smartpen like Apple’s excellent Pencil on a traditional laptop display, which can’t lay flat anyway, is not in any way useful. Still, these features are major advantages for some on the PC side of things.
Apple currently only offers one basic version of the entry-level MacBook Pro, with a single version of its M1 chipset providing 8-core compute, 8-core graphics, 16-core AI capabilities, and more all on the same silicon. What you can do is upgrade the RAM and storage. The base model, which I’m reviewing here, features 8 GB of integrated and non-upgradable (after design time) RAM and 256 GB of storage. At design time, you can upgrade to 16 GB of RAM and/or 512 GB, 1 TB, or 2 TB of storage.
Performance is excellent, and that’s true regardless of which types of apps you use. This is no gaming PC, of course, but the MacBook Pro will satisfy the needs of any productivity worker and, as more and more apps are made to be M1-native, prosumers with higher-end needs as well.
Aside from the alacrity at which the MacBook Pro 13 (M1) launches native apps, the most impressive thing about this machine’s performance is how little heat and noise it generates. The MacBook Pro uses active cooling, so there’s a fan, but I almost never heard it during my testing. Most premium Windows PCs kick the fan on sometimes, often seemingly randomly, but that was never an issue with the Mac.
Well, almost never. I used Handbrake—which is available for the M1 natively in beta—to transcode the 4K video Tears of Steel to m4v format and the fan was on for the duration and was quite loud. When I transcoded the same video with an Intel Evo-based HP Spectre x360 14 that I’m also reviewing, the fan came on and off over time, but it was much quieter than the MacBook Pro, and the machine stayed cooler too.
More important, however, the Mac transcoded the video more quickly. It took just under 34 minutes for the Mac vs. just under 74 minutes for the HP. I also transcoded the video with the HP Z2 SFF G8 Workstation I’m also testing. That desktop PC is a beast, with an 11th-generation Intel Core i7-11700K processor, 32 GB of RAM, Nvidia Quadro RTX 3000 graphics, and a fast SSD. And it transcoded the video in just under 20 minutes while being completely silent. I know, different classes of devices. But it’s an interesting comparison, given all the hyperbole around the M1.
Anyway, it’s just a single data point, I know. But the M1-based MacBook Pro significantly outperformed the Evo-based HP in this test.
Connectivity is modern, with Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) and Bluetooth 5, and I never had any issues with connectivity, either at home or during a recent road trip to Washington D.C. But there’s no cellular data, even as an option.
The MacBook Pro 13 (M1) ships with only two ports and they’re both inconveniently located on the left side of the Mac; I’d prefer one on each side. On the left, you’ll find two USB-C ports that provide Thunderbolt 4/USB 4 capabilities, meaning up to 40 Gbps of data throughput, plus power, display, and expansion.
And on the right, there’s a standard headphone jack.
Those two ports are infamous for obvious reasons, but one of the weird limitations of all M1-based Macs is that Apple doesn’t officially support multiple external displays via Thunderbolt. There are workarounds for this online—here, Google Search is your friend—but this is just one of a few issues that make the M1 MacBook Pro a bit less than pro.
The MacBook Pro 13 (M1) provides two stereo speakers, and they’re apparently an improvement over the speakers in the MacBook Air (M1) but not as impressive as the multi-speaker system with force-canceling woofers provided by Intel-based MacBook Pros. I don’t have either for comparison purposes, but the Dolby Atmos-capable sound system is adequate for music and videos and offers nice stereo separation.
The MacBook Pro also provides a three-microphone array with directional beamforming, plus a lackluster 720p FaceTime HD webcam, for audio and video calls. Apple apparently does a bit of AI magic to help improve the quality of the webcam, but it’s still unimpressive.
After inflicting its customers with the horrible and unreliable butterfly keyboard, Apple thankfully and recently moved back to a more traditional scissor-switch keyboard design. It’s a winner, too, with short, key throws and an ideal typing experience once you get past the weirdness Apple’s Mac-specific special keys. The only exception is the Touch Bar, which replaces the function row and includes a Touch ID button. I discuss those in the next section.
And while the house-sized touchpad on modern portable Macs is widely regarded as the best in the business, I don’t see it that way at all. In most operations, the touchpad is reliable and works well, and, no, the size doesn’t seem to trigger a lot in the way of false clicks. No, the problem is some interaction between the touchpad hardware, which “fakes” clicks using haptics, and the macOS software that makes it really hard to hold and drag on-screen objects. Instead, it routinely triggers some other long-press action, like a quick info preview. I find it infuriating and never really figured out the magical level of pressure required to make this thing work reliably.
Apple’s controversial Touch Bar sounds like a good idea, sort of, in that it offers a per-app customizable touch strip in place of a traditional function key row at the top of the keyboard.
But in practice, the Touch Bar’s customizability is what dooms it: Every app that supports it natively offers its own completely different user interface. I find myself repeatedly scanning its display to figure out what’s what.
I’m sure there are some who love this feature, but I can’t stand it, and if I were stuck with a Touch Bar-capable Mac like this one, I’d disable it. (Doing so puts a software version of a function key row in its place.)
The Touch Bar may be functionally dubious, but the Touch ID button at the far right of this interface is fantastic. It works like Touch ID on some iPads, or on the MacBook Air (which otherwise provides a traditional function key row), and it is fast, efficient, and reliable. It also doubles as the power button, as we’re starting to see on some premium Windows laptops.
The MacBook Pro 13 M1 weighs exactly 3 pounds, which is right on the edge of being too heavy for a portable PC with a 13.3-inch display. I’d rather see a 14-inch display at this weight class or a smaller and lighter body with the same display.
The batteries are almost certainly a big part of the machine’s heft. And on this point, I will simply apologize because I must punt on the battery life issue, though I will at least provide you with a few data points. The problem is that I’ve never found a way to accurately measure real-world battery life on a Mac (or a Chromebook) that I can fairly compare with the Windows PCs I typically review. And between that and the ongoing issues that I’ve had with measuring battery life during the pandemic, I don’t want to mischaracterize the results I’ve seen and mislead anyone.
That said, battery life is usually excellent, as is its sleep performance, and the MacBook Pro is clearly positioned somewhere in the upper ranks of the PCs I’ve tested in recent years. It can be a bit unpredictable, in that I sometimes see days of use with terrific sleep times, but I’ve also seen the battery drain completely after watching a few movies and doing some productivity work. Overall, however, I’m impressed.
This is doubly true when you consider what we’ve experienced on the Windows side of the fence. Some Intel-based Windows PCs get 10, 12, or more hours of battery life, but users deal with fan noise and heat. With Windows 10 on ARM, we can only achieve crazy battery life—20 to 25 hours, real-world—at the expense of compatibility and performance, but as those latter two issues are being resolved, battery life is declining. Apple, inexplicably, has figured out the secret recipe for moving to ARM while improving performance and battery life. If that’s not magic, I don’t know what it is.
Generally speaking, I’m not a fan of macOS, but I really like the consistent visual refresh that Apple delivered in macOS Big Sur. It’s a modern, clean look.
Unfortunately, Apple ships a metric ton of crapware with its modern Macs and the MacBook Pro 13 (M1) is no exception. One could spend weeks just figuring out what all the apps do before deleting many of them, as I do. That said, there are always those customers who find value in preloads like this, and, of course, Apple’s lock-in strategy requires it.
From a software compatibility perspective, Apple really nailed it. This system can run M1 and Universal macOS apps natively, of course. It processes Intel executables through a translation technology called Rosetta 2 that adds a bit of a wait on the first run with normal operation thereafter. And it can run a growing library of iPhone and iPad apps and games too, though of course your mileage may vary because the MacBook Pro doesn’t have a multitouch display, and not all mobile apps have been adequately retrofitted for keyboard and touchpad.
But virtually all the traditional Mac apps that I threw at it ran great, and native apps launch with an alacrity that makes the entire system seem even faster than it is. Put simply, there is little risk in an existing Mac user making the switch to a new M1-based Mac. And where there is some risk, as with some of Adobe’s Creative Cloud solutions, it’s temporary: App makers are racing to natively support the M1, and those that do routinely report better performance than before.
That said, there are some nuances. OneDrive has never worked properly on the MacBook Pro 13 (M1). It’s like it can’t ever complete syncing my files, and when I try to open cloud-based files, doing so fails after a long wait. This app is key to my workflow, of course, so I recommend that anyone using a third-party cloud storage service—not just OneDrive, but Box, Dropbox, Google, and others—with the Mac be sure that that solution works. As with Creative Cloud, it’s inevitable that OneDrive will be ported to the M1.
For potential Windows switchers, the M1-based Macs are a bit hit or miss. Apple doesn’t provide Boot Camp with M1-based Macs, and won’t, so you can’t dual-boot between macOS and Windows. And while Parallels does now offer an M1-compatible version of its excellent Parallels Desktop virtualization software, you can’t use mainstream, shipping (x86/x64) versions of Windows with it. Instead, it only supports ARM-based platforms, and the only option we have on the Windows side is a preview release of Windows 10 for ARM which is not supported by Microsoft and needs to be constantly updated with new builds. It’s not ideal, and for many reasons.
Speaking of hit or miss, Apple doesn’t do a lot to help users find compatible iPhone and iPad apps, but if you look in the Mac App Store, you can at least view the iPhone and iPad apps that you previously purchased or download and are somewhat compatible with the Mac. (Many are there but “not verified.”) So I was able to test a range of apps. And the experience, overall, is not great. Apps run in the aspect ratio of their target platform, so iPhone apps appear as small vertical windows and iPad apps appear as larger square windows.
And if you maximize these apps, they don’t take up the full display (unless, presumably, they are customized to do so on the Mac). Instead, they’re the same form factor, just full screen. This is true even in content-based apps like HBO Max, where playing a movie full-screen displays black boxes on the left and right of the video. Ugh.
Another issue, of course, is that the Mac doesn’t support multitouch, so apps that were designed for that interaction style need to be tailored for keyboard and mouse—which some apps are thanks to recent iPads—or just make do with emulated touches. That means most games are tedious or impossible to play.
I expect iPhone and iPad compatibility and usability—and, hopefully, discoverability—to improve over time. But Apple has moved surprisingly slowly on this functionality so far.
Finally, I would also like to briefly discuss what I consider to be the Achilles Heel of the Mac platform, and this is true regardless of the underlying hardware platforms. Downloads and updates are very slow. Installing an app from the Mac App Store takes minutes, for some reason. Updating apps though the Mac App Store can take over an hour, which makes no sense.
And God help you if you need to install even a minor macOS software update: Those updates take a very long time to download and then require the Mac to be offline for installation for an even longer period of time. This is one of those rare areas in which Windows 10 is lightyears ahead of the Mac; we may need to install a lot of updates, but they all happen quickly and efficiently.
Apple lists two MacBook Pro 13 (M1) configurations on its website, but as noted above, there’s really only one version of this product, and all you can do is upgrade the RAM and/or storage at design time; neither can be upgraded later.
The base model provides the M1 chipset with 8 GB of integrated RAM and 256 GB of integrated storage for $1299. A second configuration, with 8 GB of RAM and 512 GB of storage, costs $1499. But you can upgrade to 16 GB of integrated RAM, at design time only, for an additional $200. And you can upgrade to 512 GB, 1 TB, or 2 TB of integrated storage (again, only at design time) in $200 increments. So the most you could spend on a MacBook Pro 13 (M1) is $2299.
Those who need more power—up to 32 GB of RAM, dedicated graphics, or more ports—will need to purchase an Intel-based MacBook Pro 13 instead. At least until Apple shows up with truly pro-class MacBook Pro models based on more powerful Apple Silicon versions and, if the rumors are correct, a better port selection.
There’s a lot to like about this Apple MacBook Pro 13 (M1), from its classic design to its epic performance and battery life gains. But this is a better upgrade for those already in the Mac camp than it is for potential switchers: The M1-based MacBook Pro offers dramatic improvements over its predecessors and excellent compatibility with legacy Intel-based Mac apps. But there’s no Boot Camp or Intel-based virtualization to ease the migration for Windows PC users, and the Mac’s performance and battery life are only amazing in context; we already have premium PCs that offer these benefits on the Windows side of the fence.
Until we have true MacBook Pros based on Apple Silicon, with more powerful chipsets, better graphics, and a more reasonable complement of ports, I will continue to point the Mac-curious at the cheaper but very capable MacBook Air (M1). Those prosumers who can justify the extra cost of the MacBook Pro understand their needs better than I do and can decide accordingly.
The MacBook Pro (M1) is highly recommended, assuming you know what you’re getting into.