M1 MacBook Pro Review Round Up

The new M1 Pro/M1 Max MacBook Pros are starting to reach customers, and the review embargo has been lifted. I ordered a 14″ model on launch day, and should have it sometime next week. Until then, here’s a bunch of reviews from others.

M1 Pro and M1 Max MacBook Pro models announced

It was no surprise that we were going to see new 14″ and 16″ MacBook Pro models sporting M1 variants of the “pro” variety, but Apple still managed to throw a surprises in to the event.

First, there wasn’t much mention of 120hz refresh rates on the new OLED displays, but that’s exactly what we got. And just like the new iPhone 13 Pro, these displays use a variable refresh rate, so your display won’t be burning thru your battery while running at 120hz when it doesn’t have to. Nice.

Second, there was the unfortunate surprise of the display featuring a notch. A bloody notch. And the worst part about the notch is that it doesn’t come with the benefit of FaceID. It is what it is, but it was the one feature that made me wince during the reveal.

Most of the other stuff that was rumored – return of HDMI & SDXC I/O, MagSafe, and the abandonment of the TouchBar was spot on. Lost in those rumors was that in addition to getting the function keys back, Apple included full size function keys – a first for an Apple notebook.

Design

This design iteration is a first for Apple in their mobile space. For the first time (at least that I can remember), Apple listened to the feedback given on the prior model (the 2016 MacBook Pro refresh), and backtracked on just about every design decision made for that iteration. Specifically, Apple has finally realized that chasing the tail of the ‘thin and light’ beast is not something customers want in a laptop with a “Pro” designation. The 16″ model is a small bit larger than the prior version, and a good bit – .4 lbs – heavier. I’m sure most Pros would rather the performance not suffer at the hands of thinness and lightness. The 14″ has no direct analog on the prior iteration, so obviously it’s a bit larger and heavier than the 13″ model it is replacing.

CPUs

The real star of the show was Apple Silicon. The “pro” M1 variant got two flavors – the M1 Pro, and the M1 Max. Both the 14″ and 16″ models are configurable with either the Pro or Max. The big difference between the Pro and the Max comes down to GPU cores and Memory. The Pro features 16 GPU cores and can have up to 32GB of unified RAM. The Max features up to 32 GPU cores (there’s a 24 GPU core variant available as well), and 64GB of RAM. Of note – if you choose an M1 Max CPU, you can not get less than 32GB of RAM.

Apple did their usual proclamation of “fastest chip ever”, but as is customary at this point, didn’t provide any real meaningful specs to their testing.

While benchmarks like Geekbench and Cinebench will undoubtedly show these SoCs to be the best that Apple has produced, the real benchmarks that will really get people’s eyes to open are when encoding/decoding or rendering video with H.264/265 and ProRes/ProRes RAW formats. Apple has included an on chip Media Engine that will massively improve these tasks. And in the M1 Max, you get double the chipset for these features. If Apple hadn’t already cemented it’s position for the best laptops for video editors, these machines will certainly seal the deal.

The machines can be configured in a myriad of ways – two screen sizes, two colors (silver and space gray, as per usual), three memory configs, 5 SoC options, and SSD options from 512GB all the way up to 8TB. Also, with the base config 14″ model, you can opt for the larger 96W charger for $20. That’s a nice move.

I’m guessing the new models are popular and have a good bit of pent up demand, as Apple’s website was seriously overwhelmed for a few hours after the models went live, and nearly immediately showed most custom configs at least a month delay in delivery.

As for myself – I opted for a 14″ model, with the M1 Max using the 24-Core GPU, 64GB of RAM and 4TB of SSD storage. I’ll have a full review when it arrives sometime in early November.

WWDC 2021: No new hardware

World Wide Developers Conference 2021

All the rumors pointed to new M1X MacBook Pros being released today at WWDC, but it did not come to pass. Perhaps the global chop shortage is to blame. Or maybe it’s the constrained availability of the mini LED displays expected to be used in the 14″ version. Whatever the reason, we will have to keep waiting for new professional M1 powered Mac laptops.

Hopefully Apple drops these before July. I have a kid heading off to college in August, and I was hoping to send her with my current work machine, the M1 MacBook Air, while I moved up to the 14″ MacBook Pro. But I’m kind of torn about it, as the M1 MacBook Air I have been using as my main work computer is working quite well now that Docker and Homebrew are M1 native. There have been a few quirks to work through (mostly related to NodeJS and the lack of an M1 native version for any Node version earlier than 15), but overall, it’s been a lightweight very capable dev machine. If they offered a version with 32GB of RAM and a few more USB-C ports, I’d probably not even need the 14″ MacBook Pro.

Here’s hoping to an Apple event in July.

More benchmarks: Blender – MacBook Air M1 vs. MacBook Pro 16″ i9

A few other comparative benchmarks on the new MacBook Air M1 (16GB/512GB configuration), pitted against a MacBook Pro 16” (i9/64GB/4TB/Radeon 5500M-8GB).

Blender (running in Rosetta 2 on the M1). Demo files can be found here.

Fishy Cat (1 frame):

  • MacBook Air M1: 1 min 35 sec
  • MacBook Pro i9: 37 sec

Mr. Elephant (1 frame):

  • MacBook Air M1: 2 min 18 sec
  • MacBook Pro i9: 1 min 13 sec

Racing Car (1 frame):

  • MacBook Air M1: 13 min 22 sec
  • MacBook Pro i9: 8 min 52 sec

Now, of course this is hardly a fair fight. The i9 MacBook Pro has a discrete GPU (in this case, a Radeon Pro 5500M with 8GB). And Blender is being run via Rosetta. But in the wake of the ridiculous walloping all the Intel Macs are receiving by these entry level M1 machines, I thought it’d be nice to share an area where the Intel Macs are still (at least for the moment) worth their money.

Apple Silicon Macs are here, and wow.

Ok, I’ll admit my previous post about the release of Apple Silicon powered Macs gave the impression that there wasn’t much exciting about the CPU switch, but boy, was I wrong.

I’ve had my hands on the M1 powered MacBook Air (with 16GB RAM/512GB SSD) for just a few hours now, and after putting it thru it’s paces, I’m floored.

I’ve run two benchmarks – XcodeBenchmark and Bruce X. These are more akin to real world benchmarks. I’m not knocking Geekbench of Cinebench, but these benchmarks involve actual applications that people will use, and actual projects that simulate what real world performance will look like. And after running each of these, and comparing it against my $4400 MacBook Pro 16″ i9/64GB RAM/4TB SSD machine, I’m floored.

Bruce X Benchmark

  • MacBook Pro i9 2.4ghz/64GB/4TB SSD: 16.03 seconds
  • MacBook Air (M1) – 16GB/512GB SSD: 11.69 seconds

XcodeBenchmark

  • MacBook Pro i9 2.4ghz/64GB/4TB SSD: 223.016 seconds
  • MacBook Air (M1) – 16GB/512GB SSD: 127.713 seconds

Again, these are real world benchmarks using real projects for Xcode and Final Cut Pro. And the MacBook Air doesn’t even have a fan. During the Xcode benchmark, the MacBook Pro’s fans spun up and were quite loud. The MacBook Air was dead silent. Of course, during sustained CPU usage the fan will be a benefit, as it will keep the CPU cooler, whereas with the MacBook Air M1, the CPU will throttle down to prevent the computer from overheating.

Here’s another comparison: I have a Logic Pro X project I’m working on that contains about a twenty tracks – 16 of which are audio tracks, the other 4 are software instruments, and of course, there are various effects applied to all the tracks. This project couldn’t play smoothly without stuttering on my MacBook Air 2020 i5 16/512GB machine. On the M1 MacBook Air, it plays as smooth as butter.

App performance isn’t the whole story though. The entire OS feels much faster. Apps (those that are Apple Silicon enabled) open incredibly fast. I’ve only tried a few apps that weren’t optimized for Apple Silicon, and the results have been great. For example, the original Pixelmator, which I still use for day to day graphics tasks, isn’t optimized for Apple Silicon. It opens quickly, and using it feels just as fast and performant as it does on my i9 MacBook Pro. Every app is different, of course, but Rosetta 2 looks like another incredible feat of engineering from Apple.

On the software development front outside of Xcode, things are a different story. There isn’t much of my everyday work toolchain that is ready for Apple Silicon yet. Stuff like HomeBrew, NodeJS, Docker and other web technologies are not quite ready for Apple’s new chip, and anyone who works with these technologies would be advised to wait before upgrading to the new machines.

But for everyone else – come on in, the water is fine.

The short of this is: If you are using your Mac for Xcode, Final Cut Pro or Logic Pro X, you are going to be blown away at what these Macs with the M1 chip are capable of.

Amazon is currently dropping $50 off the price of the M1 powered MacBook Air and Pro.

Apple Silicon Macs are here, and meh.

Some quick takeaways from the Apple event today that heralded the release of the first Apple Silicon Macs.

  • Apple is still including 720p cameras in the Air and the 13″ Pro. In the age of COVID where everyone is doing virtual meetings, this is disappointing. I’m not entirely faulting Apple here, as a 1080p camera that can fit in a thin laptop LCD doesn’t exist yet (as far as I can tell, I haven’t seen one in a laptop display). Apple is claiming that the M1 chip can improve the quality of the picture in sharpness and shadows.
  • Apple is using the M1 chip in the Air, 13″ Pro, and the mini. The low end Air is using a 7-core GPU vs. an 8-core GPU in the higher end air. But apart from that, there’s no differentiation given between the models. This falls in line with Apple trying to keep the specs of it’s hardware as vague as possible. But it makes you wonder if the performance of the higher end Air and the 13″ Pro are going to be comparable. The Air doesn’t have a fan, so it will be constrained thermally compared with the Pro, but for workloads that are not sustained, it should be just as powerful as the Pro. We will see once the real world benchmarks start appearing.
  • All three of these machines max out at 16GB of RAM. The RAM is built in to the CPU itself, which should mean RAM throughput should be quite fast. But it also means no user upgradeable RAM (which allowed people buying a Mac mini to save a good bit of money handling the RAM upgrade themselves). For the Air, topping out at 16GB is fine. For the 13″ Pro, it’s acceptable – this is the low end 13″ Pro, after all, the one with only 2 Thunderbolt ports… the real 13″ Pro (with 4 ports and better RAM upgrade options should come later). For the Mac mini, it’s a letdown. You can configure the last Intel Mac mini with up to 64GB RAM. 16GB just isn’t enough to handle things like opening 100GB Photoshop files, or opening Final Cut Pro projects that are several gigabytes in size. Now, maybe Apple has optimized the architecture of these news to more efficiently page out to the SSD, but for real pros, there is no substitute for having ample RAM. I’m anxiously awaiting to see how well these RAM constrained Macs can perform with large files. We will see.
  • None of these Macs can utilize an external GPU. That’s a bummer.
  • The Mac mini is once again available in Silver, and not Space Gray like the last version. I suspect this might be because Apple is going to have a ‘Mac mini Pro’ available at some point in the future, which would (theoretically) have higher RAM options.
  • With Apple utilizing RAM on the chip, they have buyers over a barrel. Apple can charge whatever they want for a RAM upgrade (and at present they are charing a $200 differential between 8 and 16GB). This isn’t going to sit well with many users (myself included). This makes me very nervous for an Apple Silicon Mac Pro or iMac. These machines are geared towards people who usually demand gobs of RAM, and don’t want to pay Apple exorbitant fees. If these machines don’t have user upgradeable RAM, there’s going to a lot of disgruntled Pro users.
  • All three M1 Macs can drive Apple’s 6K display.
  • The M1 Mac mini features two Thunderbolt 3/USB-4 ports, and 2 USB-A ports. This is a downgrade from the last Intel Mac mini’s 4 Thunderbolt and 2 USB-3 ports. No Thunderbolt 4.
  • All the new Macs feature Wifi 6.
  • I’m surprised the Touch Bar survives on the 13″ Pro. I was convinced Apple would drop it. But it seems it does serve a purpose in differentiating the Air from the 13″ Pro. Even with powering the Touch Bar, the 13″ Pro gets significantly better battery life than the Air. A slightly chunkier chassis goes a long way towards more battery capacity.

Apple Silicon looks like it’s going to be extremely competitive with Intel chips on the low end. Hopefully they can outshine Intel on the high end end as well.