Tech 101: MacBook Pro Review (2021)
Updated: Aug 16, 2022
As a writer for a student newspaper, I believe that covering valuable tools for students is crucial to helping our readers find what’s right for them and their major, career path, or hobbies. In this series, I’ll be breaking down the latest in student-focused technology and helping you achieve your best. Welcome to Tech 101.
Undeniably, one of the most common tools found in a college student’s daily carry is their laptop. It’s the do-it-all for homework, projects, and more recently, tasks like Zoom calls or virtual classrooms. For the purposes of these articles, we’ll refer to these as “light tasks” because they don’t require powerful computers or complicated software. For these jobs, most students would be better suited with a device like an iPad or a Chromebook.
However, while most students could get by with a device like that, some students may find themselves in majors that involve more intensive tasks, such as video editing, rendering 3D models, or designing complex digital graphics. We’ll call these “heavy tasks”. Put simply, these all require something with a bit more oomf: machines with fast processors, dedicated graphics processors, and fast memory and storage. That brings us to the topic of today’s session: the new MacBook Pro.
The new MacBook Pro
For years, Apple’s MacBook lineup has been a mainstay in college campuses. From their durable aluminum exterior, to their good battery life, to their integration with devices like the iPhone, the Macbook has been an extremely versatile companion for students of all majors. Typically, there are two flavors of MacBook to choose from: the MacBook Air, the thin-and-light notebook that packs decent performance for an entry level price, and the MacBook Pro, the “pro” notebook that boasts better performance at the expense of qualities like battery life and weight.
However, compared to their Windows machine counterparts, the performance wasn’t always topping the charts. Despite Macs using the same Intel processors for over a decade, Macs lagged behind equivalent PC’s in terms of raw computer power and thermal prowess. Last year, Apple announced plans to change that by transitioning to their new homegrown chips, and the 2021 MacBook Pros are the latest to receive their share of Apple Silicon.
The MacBook Pro comes in two sizes, with either a 14.2” or 16.2” screen, and now features two chip variants: the M1 Pro and the M1 Max. The M1 Pro can be configured with eight or ten processor (CPU) cores, and fourteen or sixteen graphics (GPU) cores, with up to 32GB of memory (RAM). The M1 Max features the same ten core CPU, but can be configured with either twenty-four or thirty-two GPU cores, with up to 64GB of RAM. These are certainly impressive numbers, but what do they mean for the average student?
The new MacBook Pro features rounded display corners with narrow borders.
As a Media Communications major, I find myself working with a lot of video material. Whether it be for class projects, my job, or freelance work, I’m constantly shooting and editing videos. In the past, finding a portable machine that could handle prolonged and intensive tasks such as video editing was a real challenge. Not only because of performance, but because of things like battery life and poor screens. For example, the previous generation 16” MacBook Pro (2019) that I used had the performance and the screen, but lacked the battery life and cooling to keep up. I would find myself reaching for a charger after just a couple of hours, and practically cooking my lap because of how hot it could get. None of these are solely the fault of Apple, as having a power-hungry Intel processor and AMD GPU didn’t help.
These new MacBook Pros have completely flipped the script, however. With the 16” model, Apple is claiming up to 21 hours of battery for lighter tasks such as web browsing, and up to 17 hours for the 14” model. Obviously, battery life is heavily dependent on your workload, but in my two weeks of testing, even editing a timeline of multi-stream 4K video in Final Cut Pro and creating high-resolution graphics in Affinity Designer simultaneously left me with over 10 hours on a single charge. These numbers are simply unprecedented, and for the student who does it all, the battery life on these machines will do everything but disappoint.
A typical project timeline for a video I produce (Final Cut Pro)
Speaking of heavy workloads, the M1 Max chip in my 16” model has made everything near-instant. Rendering and exporting a 15-minute 4K video in ProRes 422 HQ took less than 4 minutes, something that took over 13 minutes on my 2019 Intel 16” Pro. Sometimes, the computer feels like its doing things before I can even think of them, which is a great quality in a machine you want to use for any extended period of time.
Another killer feature of these new machines is the display. The screen is a mini-LED panel, meaning there are thousands of individual “zones” of LEDs that can become brighter or dimmer depending on the content on the screen. What this means for the average user is an extremely bright screen with outstanding color accuracy and black levels. For a video editor, the screen is simply a dream for HDR footage, and that translates to watching HDR content as well. The screen can achieve 1000 nits of full-screen sustained brightness, and 1600 nites of peak brightness for highlights on screen such as light sources, the sun, etc. To top this off, the screen features ProMotion, Apple’s fancy marketing name for a variable refresh rate. This allows the screen to refresh anywhere from 24 to 120hz, depending on the activity. This means an extremely responsive and fluid experience, but great power-savings when doing things like writing essays or watching video because the screen can refresh less often and save battery.
The benefits don’t stop there, however. The new MacBook Pros feature a six-speaker sound system with force-cancelling woofers for some of the best audio quality you can find in a laptop. While I prefer to edit with headphones, these speakers are great for listening to music or Zoom calls, and they get really loud! I found them to be perfect for a dorm room setting where having a dedicated speaker setup may not be as practical.
Another quality I appreciate about the new MacBook Pro is the port selection. Instead of just four Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports, Apple has traded one of those ports for HDMI, an SD card slot, and the return of MagSafe, the magnetic power connector found on previous Apple notebooks. Because I work with cameras, having an SD crd slot built-in to the machine has been an amazing convenience that was lost in the 2016-2020 generation of MacBooks. The HDMI port is also very useful, however I do wish it was HDMI 2.1 instead of 2.0b. MagSafe is as useful as ever, providing a failsafe for your laptop in case someone trips over the cord. Instead of flying off of the table, the MacBook stays put as the magnetic power cable releases. And as if my prayers have been answered, you can still charge the Mac with USB-C, a win for anyone who has an iPad Pro or Nintendo Switch in their arsenal.
Now that we’ve covered the best parts of the laptop, let’s talk about the worst: the cost. The pricing on the new machines starts at $1,999 for a base model 14” MacBook Pro, and can go all the way to $6,099 for a fully-maxed out 16” with 8TB of storage. I landed right in the sweet spot at $3,499 for the 16” M1 Max with 32GB of RAM and 1TB of storage. For that price and my workload, I would say that its worth it despite the high entry cost. However, I think that most people would be best suited with the base model 14”, which still packs an M1 Pro with 8 CPU cores and 14 GPU cores, and 16GB of RAM.
The new MacBook Pro (left) next to its sibling, the MacBook Air.
However, these MacBook Pros do not exist in a bubble. While I can sit here and speak all day long about the features and niceties of these machines, it’s important to understand your needs as a user. If you are someone who is doing the light tasks we discussed earlier, I believe a device such as a Chromebook would be best suited for you. But if you want into the Mac ecosystem, or want to run the best apps for creative professionals, the MacBook Air is an excellent choice to consider. The current MacBook Air features a vanilla M1 chip, with 8 CPU cores and 7 or 8 GPU cores, meaning performance is still great for all but the most intensive tasks. In fact, I’ve been using that exact machine until the release of the new MacBook Pro, and it has been no slouch. I’ve edited over fifty 4K videos and created motion graphics with no issues, outside of longer render times and the occasional slowdown. However, it’s key to remember that I am in the minority of college computer users.
Unlike the MacBook Pro, the MacBook Air (top) is wedge-shaped, creating a thinner profile.
The MacBook Air also weighs a full pound less than the 14” Pro, and two pounds less than the 16” Pro. When you’re carrying books upon books upon books, every ounce counts. Not to mention the M1 chip in the Air is remarkably efficient, meaning you get the same 17 hours of battery life as the 14” Pro with half the weight. The best part? The Air starts at $899 for students. So if you’ve read this far and don’t see yourself designing complex 3D models or editing 8K video, just take my advice: buy the MacBook Air. You’ll love it, and so will your wallet.
Overall, the new MacBook Pros are excellent machines that can handle anything you throw at them, but they come at a high cost. For someone like me, they’re everything I could want and more, but for most, they’re simply overkill. I’d suggest taking a look at one for yourself and deciding if other options like the MacBook Air are better for your workload or career path. I think the answer might just save you some cash.