This machine is a complete reversal from the previous MacBook Pro design, which debuted in 2016 and had too many compromises stemming from Apple’s prioritization of thinness and lightness over practicality and performance. Everything about this laptop, from the way it looks and feels, to how it performs, is an admission that the future of computing Apple envisioned didn’t pan out.
It’s easy to harp on what’s happened in the past, but Apple’s new MacBook Pro, available now in both 14 and 16-inch sizes, is so good that it’s easier to focus on what’s next. That starts with the laptop’s industrial design, which is a clear example of Apple bringing its A-game.
The 2021 MacBook Pro still has an all-aluminum case, but it’s been re-engineered to make the laptop feel more durable.The 16-inch model is .2-inches thicker and half a pound heavier than its predecessor, which allows it to accommodate more ports, an improved audio system, better cooling, and an excellent keyboard. Apple’s professional users have asked for these changes for several years, and the company has delivered on every single one.
These surface-level changes have made a big difference in how easy it was to use the laptop day-to-day during my testing. I never had to worry about the MacBook Pro’s keyboard flaking out, missing keys, or accidentally double-typing letters. The keys had enough travel to feel comfortable, without springing back too much. The keyboard is nestled in an all-black well, which gives the illusion of symmetry despite the longer escape key and smaller Touch-ID fingerprint reader on the upper left and upper right hand side respectively.
Apple replaced the Touch Bar, a long touchscreen set above the number row designed to replace traditional function keys with … traditional function keys. The function row allows you to change settings like your screen’s brightness, volume, and media controls with just a tap. The Touch Bar was an interesting idea, but it never evolved after being introduced in 2016, so it’s nice to see it gone.
If I had to choose my favorite update to the MacBook Pro it’d be the return of MagSafe, an HDMI port, and an SD Card slot on the left side of the machine. Apple ditched these single-use ports in 2016, opting instead to design that generation of MacBook Pro with four Thunderbolt 3 ports, which required adapters (generally called dongles) to replace the functionality. The thinking went that not everyone needs a specific port, so it’s better to let the user buy adapters to add back the functionality specific to their workflow.
In reality, the only ones who benefitted from this decision were accessory makers who’ve created a cottage industry creating dongles. In my opinion, it’s better to have ports you don’t use regularly (if at all) than running the risk of forgetting an adapter you left at home.
To prove this point, I put the MacBook Pro through an unplanned stress test. I worked on this review (and other stories) from an AirBnb in the middle of upstate New York. The trip was planned before Apple’s announcement, and I took the MacBook Pro with me to test. I was able to use the AirBnb’s small TV as a monitor, and edit the photos for reviews published this week.
To quote Apple’s classic marketing, it just worked.
Professionals find themselves in far more challenging work environments than this one every day, and most of them can’t afford to lose half a day’s work because a dongle was mistakenly left in a hotel room. Finally, Apple brought back MagSafe, its magnetic charging port. The new cable quickly clicked into place, and popped off without too much force. You won’t accidentally pull the cable out of its port, but the cord will pop out to prevent your laptop from accidentally falling to your floor.
If you look at the new 16-inch MacBook Pro from the side, it might look like Apple simply copied the design of its 2015 laptop, but every one of the ports I mentioned has been improved in key ways. The HDMI port can now output 4K video at 60 frames per second; the SD Card Slot supports read and write speeds up to 332Mbps; MagSafe can fast-charge the laptop’s battery up to 50% in 30 minutes. Apple didn’t just bring back ports, it made them all better.
Not only that, both sizes of the 2021 MacBook Pro also has three Thunderbolt 4 ports, which can be used to connect the laptops to additional displays, high-end audio recorders, or additional USB accessories. Any of these ports can also be used to charge the laptop, provided you have a USB-C cable and power adapter capable of transferring up to 100W of power.
All of these design “regressions” were welcome, but Apple also introduced a whole host of new features that put the MacBook Pro into a league of its own. That starts with Apple’s M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. The laptop I was sent to review had an M1 Pro, and it’s undoubtedly the most powerful portable computer I’ve ever used. Both chips are around 70% faster than Apple’s standard M1 chip, which was no slouch. Apple says these new machines are up several times faster than the Intel-equipped MacBook Pros they replace, and that’s been true in my experience.
I was able to watch the MacBook Pro render high resolution 3D images and add effects in real time with no stuttering. A 1,500-track audio track in Logic couldn’t coax the fans to turn on, nor did a high-resolution video editing project in Final Cut Pro. If you’re a creative professional who pushes your computer to the limits, the level of performance you’ll get from these machines in unreal. The truth is, a big chunk of people who upgrade to a new MacBook Pro won’t tap into the computer’s potential.
I’m one of those people. My regular workload mostly consists of writing, communicating over e-mail and Slack, editing images, browsing the web, and keeping far too many tabs open than necessary. I never experienced a second of lag during my time with the MacBook Pro, even when running multiple apps at the same time and shuffling between them while gathering information for stories. I never want to wait for my computer to accomplish a task, or move slower than my fingers can type and my brain can think. That wasn’t an issue while using the 2021 MacBook Pro; if anything, I was the bottleneck.
One of the features that made working on the MacBook Pro so enjoyable is its new display. The 16-inch model has thinner bezels (borders) around the display, which allowed Apple to increase its size without making the screen physically larger. Yes, there’s a notch, and no, this doesn’t mean that Apple introduced Face ID to the Mac.
The notch is also where Apple hides the MacBook Pro’s new 1080p iSight camera, which is better than the webcam in the previous generation of this machine, but only OK overall. Apple does what it can to hide the notch when you’re using apps in full screen mode, and it basically faded away while I was working.
The bigger deal is that Apple used a Mini LED panel for its screen instead of an LCD. The colors in the photos and videos I viewed looked incredibly vibrant, and the black levels were superb. Watching HDR (high dynamic range) video was especially impressive, as the laptop’s screen nearly matched the color accuracy of my OLED TV. Apple first bright a Mini LED screen to the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, and I hope it finds its way into more of Apple’s computers and tablets.
Another feature that made its way over from the iPad (and iPhone 13) is “Pro Motion,” which is Apple’s name for high-refresh rate displays. The display on the new MacBook Pros can change between 24Hz and 120Hz depending on what you’re doing. When you’re watching a video, the screen will “slow down” to match its speed perfectly. Everything from moving windows around to scrolling through websites felt smooth. This is a feature you’ll have to experience for yourself to understand, but you’ll pick up on it immediately.
This updated MacBook Pro screen is complemented by a new six-speaker sound system that sounds excellent. Music, podcasts, TV shows, and movies all sounded far more realistic — and far less tinny — than they have on previous MacBooks, and other laptops for that matter. Music sounds so full and rich that you may not need to buy a pair of external speakers for casual listening. If you prefer headphones, you’ll appreciate that Apple updated the MacBook Pro’s headphone jack to better support high impedance cans that traditionally require a headphone amp.
One of the reasons I’ve typically stuck with a desktop computer is that I don’t have to worry about the machine running out of battery. Apple’s M1-equipped 13-inch MacBook Pro was the first laptop that got me through a full day of work on a single charge, and the 16-inch model performed even better. In my informal battery tests, the 16-inch MacBook Pro could get me through a day and a half of work without having to be plugged in. My workload isn’t heavy, but I do like keeping the screen at close to peak brightness at all times. Your battery life will vary based on the apps that you use, but most people shouldn’t have to worry about running out of juice very often.
MacBook Pro users have been patiently waiting for Apple to release a laptop designed to handle their real-world needs, even if that means making the machine a little bigger. The 14 and 16-inch MacBook Pros deliver on those users’ most vocal complaints, and are the surest sign yet that Apple has been listening. It may have taken a long time to get here, but the new MacBook Pros give Apple a solid foundation to build on for the next five years, if not more.