Sunday , December 6 2020

Apple MacBook Pro with M1 review: flexing Arm

The easiest, best way to think about the new entry-level MacBook Pro is that it is a MacBook Air with a fan.

Seriously. The fan is the most notable difference between Apple’s two new laptops based on its own custom M1 chip: the new Air, which does not have a fan, has to throttle performance as temperatures rise. The Pro can just turn on the fan, which means it can sustain performance for a much longer period of time.

Sure, there are some other small differences: the Pro has a slightly better display and better mics and louder speakers. It has a bigger battery and thus, slightly longer battery life. And yes, it has the hopelessly confused Touch Bar instead of a function row on the keyboard. But in terms of performance, it is essentially the same as the Air unless you push it for long periods of time. And that all comes down to the fan.

For some people, that tiny edge in performance will be worth the price increase over the Air. The $1,299 entry-level Pro with an 8-core GPU, 8GB of RAM, and 256GB of storage is $300 more than the base-model Air, while the higher-end configuration with 512GB of storage is $1,499, $250 more than the similarly-equipped Air. That said, compared to the last version of this model we reviewed in 2019, the new one has no concerns with its keyboard, excellent battery life, and even better performance. It’s an upgrade all around.

There’s a lot of technical detail to get into around the M1, how it handles running apps built for Intel chips, and what that tells us about the future of the Mac. The short answer is that it’s very impressive, and the MacBook Pro is an excellent laptop with great performance and impressive battery life. But if you’re excited about buying a new M1 Mac, is it worth the extra money over the Air? The long answer is a resounding… maybe.

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We’ve gone into detail about the M1, how it works with Intel apps, and how iOS apps run on Macs in detail in our MacBook Air review, so I won’t rehash that here. The short version is that Apple’s done an absolutely incredible job making Intel apps run and run well on these machines, and iOS apps are… messy. You can read our Air review for a deep dive on all of that.

That’s all the same on this MacBook Pro. Again, the real difference is the fan and what it means for M1 performance. And the M1 works differently than the x86 chips we’re used to in laptops, so there’s a lot to unpack.

A standard Intel chip like the quad-core 2GHz Core i5 Apple still puts in higher-end MacBook Pro models doesn’t always run at 2GHz. That’s the base clock speed. But when it needs extra performance, it can turbo boost up to 3.8GHz. And when it needs to cool down or save power, it can drop below that 2GHz base clock. This is called thermal throttling, and how that throttling affects performance has been the centerpiece of many of our Mac laptop reviews for a while now (at least when we haven’t been writing about the keyboards).

The M1 is a little different: Apple says it doesn’t have turbo boost. It runs at its top clock speed most of the time, and when the system detects that the laptop is no longer effectively cooling the chip, it’ll slow itself down. This is easy to see on the fanless MacBook Air, which delivered slower Cinebench scores over time when we ran that test on a 30-minute loop. The Air’s aluminum heat spreader eventually can’t cool the M1 fast enough, and it slows down. This is fine for a consumer laptop but not what you want in a “pro” machine.

So in the MacBook Pro, there’s a fan. And indeed, when we ran that same 30-minute Cinebench test, the fan came on after a few minutes and stayed on for the duration, while test scores held flat. And the Pro seems to have a better, more effective thermal design than the Air overall: we ran our standard 4K export test in Adobe Premiere Pro several times, and the fan never came on, but export times stayed flat. (We found one strange Rosetta bug in this test: we set Premiere to export at a 40mb/s bitrate, but in Rosetta across three M1 Macs, it would deliver… 20. When we set it to 80mb/s, it delivered 40. Sure. We told Adobe, and the company gently reminded us that running Creative Cloud apps in Rosetta 2 is unsupported. So… be careful out there.)

It’s actually hard to get the fan to turn on in general. Things that instantly light up the fan on an Intel-based 16-inch MacBook Pro, like Google Meet in Chrome, barely register on the M1 MacBook Pro. Unless you are routinely pushing heavy sustained workloads on your laptop, the performance difference between the Air and Pro is really not noticeable.

I do want to stress that much of what we know about how the M1 works comes from Apple and is hard to verify independently. The only real information we have about the expected performance and energy usage of the M1 chip is this chart, which Apple did not label in any particularly useful way.

The company did tell me that the curves are plotted on a linear scale and noted that the M1 offers double the performance of the unnamed competitor chip at 10 watts. It’s also notable that the M1’s curve stops. Apple says its chip team cares as much about battery life as performance, and it designed the M1 to offer a balance of both, not maximum performance at all costs.

Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.

In order to get past the setup and actually use the MacBook Pro, you are required to agree to:

These agreements are nonnegotiable, and you cannot use the laptop at all if you don’t agree to them. There are also several optional agreements, including:

The final tally is three mandatory agreements and six optional ones.

That means battery life on the Pro is excellent, as it is on the Air. Apple has bold claims for M1 battery life improvements — up to twice the battery life of the Intel models — and while I didn’t see that, I did easily get 10 hours on a charge and had to really push things to drain the battery in eight hours. (For a while, I took to running 4K YouTube videos in Chrome in the background to drain the battery faster.) Apps that are known battery hogs — like Chrome and Electron apps like Slack — seem to still be battery hogs under Rosetta 2, so we’ll have to see what changes as those apps are made native for Apple’s chips.

It is telling that we’re limited to inferences from a bad chart and a handful of benchmark tests to figure out how the M1 stacks up. As with its other mobile chips, Apple isn’t particularly forthcoming with detailed technical information about the M1; the “About This Mac” window doesn’t even report its clock speed. (Geekbench and Cinebench both report a number around 3.2GHz.) It’s also hard to find any temperature, power, or live clock speed readouts using standard macOS tools — Intel’s Power Gadget doesn’t work here, of course — and Apple won’t say if that information will be exposed to future utilities. So while performance is great in our real-world tests, it’s very hard to say exactly what’s going on with the M1 at any given time. The good news is that great performance is more important than detailed technical information for most people.

The M1’s apparent limits are also more obvious on a machine with “pro” in the name. No M1 machine can be configured with more than 16GB of RAM, and none of them support memory expansion. Only one external display is supported. Apple says it developed its own Thunderbolt controller, integrated onto the M1, but we haven’t seen one of these machines with more than two Thunderbolt ports. You can’t use an external GPU with these Thunderbolt ports either, like you might on an Intel computer. These are all acceptable limitations on the consumer-focused MacBook Air, but on the Pro, they only serve to underline its middle-pack status.

The M1 ushers in some other major changes to the Mac platform that don’t change much about the day-to-day of the MacBook Pro right now but could have huge implications for the future. M1 machines now have an iOS-style single shared pool of system and graphics memory called the Unified Memory Architecture (UMA), which allows for faster graphics performance for integrated graphics but may spell the end of discrete GPUs on the Mac. And while UMA did not cause any compatibility issues with apps in our testing, there may well be specialized apps that need significant updates to work on these machines.

That said, one of Apple’s repeated lines about the M1 Macs is that they are Macs, and the OS and application model is just as open as any other Mac. Hopefully that means we’ll get some actually useful information about the limits of the M1 as people write more and better utilities and benchmarks for it. And I would expect Apple to offer more information about its chips as it expands this architecture to its other machines — top-end pro users designing custom applications and workflows will demand it.

The rest of the MacBook Pro is stubbornly the same as the previous 13-inch entry-level MacBook Pro: the same two ports, the 500-nit display, the same vastly improved new-old keyboard, the same baffling Touch Bar, the same miserable 720p webcam.

Apple says it’s using some image-processing tricks lifted from the iPhone on the M1 to improve the webcam, and you can certainly see the image-processing tricks. Faces are a little brighter, and backlit exposures are a little better. But you can also really see the image processing in a way that makes the overall effect worse, not better. We really considered giving these machines 10 out of 10 review scores, but this camera is bad enough to keep that from happening, especially on a pro laptop that costs more than the Air.

I will not harp on the Touch Bar too much except to say that I do not look at my hands while typing, and having to look down from the screen to adjust things like volume and brightness on the Touch Bar is infinitely worse than a hard button and even more aggravating when the on-screen controls in macOS Big Sur have been redesigned to look like their iOS counterparts… which means they look like they should be touched.

Apple’s insistence that reaching up to touch a laptop screen is too burdensome is just getting silly, especially when that is not a problem on the iPad and across the universe of Windows laptops, and most especially when these laptops can run iPhone and iPad apps natively. Hopefully next year the company cheerfully pretends that it has discovered a bold new way of doing the obvious thing: putting a touchscreen on the Mac and ridding us of the Touch Bar.

There are two things to say about the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 chip: one, the M1 and the work Apple has done to make a difficult processor transition seamless is a remarkable success; and two, this particular MacBook Pro doesn’t necessarily seem like a worthwhile upgrade over the MacBook Air with an M1 chip.

Yes, it offers slightly better sustained performance and a little more battery life than the Air. But I would happily trade back the seconds of faster rendering time on the Pro for the hours of frustration caused by the Touch Bar. And if you have much more serious performance needs, it seems likely that you might want more than two ports, 16GB of RAM, and only one external display. So this machine is a tweener — an excellent, fascinating tweener, but a tweener nonetheless.

Really, the biggest accomplishment of the MacBook Pro is that I cannot wait to see what Apple’s chip team can do when it aims for Apple’s truly pro machines.

Correction: An earlier version of this review said the base model MacBook Pro 13 came with a 7-core GPU. All versions of the MacBook Pro have the 8-core GPU. We regret the error.

Photography by Alexander Kramer for The Verge

This Article was first published on theverge.com

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