Brimming with power, while returning a wealth of long-lost features, the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021) is the one for which the Mac faithful have been waiting.
MacBook Pro owners looking to upgrade could be forgiven for holding out over the last few years, with each new model suffering from one shortcoming or another. Depending on how far back you want to go, Apple’s list of unpopular decisions includes introducing the butterfly keyboard and Touch Bar, as well as ditching MagSafe, an SD card slot and a good mix of ports in favour of minimal USB-C connectors.
I fall into that category, stubbornly clinging to my non-Retina 2012 MacBook Pro after giving it an SSD transplant. Blessed with a great keyboard, it’s a model that’s remained popular for many years.
This year the stars are finally in alignment, with Apple atoning for the sins of some recent models while also bringing the M1 architecture to the MacBook Pro line – courtesy of the powerful new M1 Pro and M1 Max Apple Silicon chips. They’re frustratingly expensive, but that’s the price you pay for going down the Apple path.
As a result, I’ve finally taken the plunge, upgrading to a 16-inch M1 Pro with 16 GB RAM and a 1 TB drive. The insanely powerful M1 Max is well beyond my needs, not to mention my tax bracket, but Apple sent one across to review – with 64 GB RAM, 32-core GPU and 2 TB drive – so I could test them side by side.
Living the Apple life to the max doesn’t come cheap. While the 16-inch M1 Pro models start at $3749 and mine cost $4049, the M1 Max starts at $5249 – bumping the review unit up to 64 GB RAM and a 2 TB drives this up to $6449 thanks to Apple’s price gouging on memory and storage.
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The longer it is since you upgraded, the more there is to be excited about with the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021). While I’ve hung onto a relic from 2012, I’ve tested most of its successors, so I’m up to speed with Apple’s efforts to hone the MacBook Pro design – for better and for worse.
Fire up the 2021 model and you’re immediately struck by its elegant design, even though it’s a tad more boxy because it loses the tapered edges. Sure, the aluminium body is a fraction thicker and heavier than its predecessor, but in return it feels more sturdy, like it’s ready for business. Plus the generous number of ports, including USB-C on both sides, is a welcome sight.
Next comes the crisp, vivid display, which is bumped up to 16.2 inches thanks to slimmer bezels. The trade-off is an iPhone-style notch at the top of the screen, cutting into the menu bar. The notch houses the new 1080p FaceTime HD camera, TrueTone light sensor and ambient light sensor.
While it’s true that you can lose the mouse in this tiny black dead zone, realistically you’d never notice the notch unless you were looking for it. Especially when macOS Monterey changes to a darker colour scheme to help hide it.
The menu options in most apps don’t extend across the menu bar far enough to strike the notch. Those which do tend to simply skip that area and resume the menu items on the other side, although there are a few exceptions. The notch doesn’t make its presence felt when watching video either, as the top of the picture doesn’t extend above the bottom of the menu bar.
Next there’s Apple’s “Magic Keyboard”, which replaced the butterfly keyboard a few years ago. Plus the demise of the Touch Bar in favour of physical function keys. Then there’s the enormous trackpad, which creative types will value even if wordsmiths might gladly sacrifice an inch or two in favour of a slightly larger keyboard.
They’re welcome changes, even though the keyboard still isn’t quite as nice at your fingertips as the keyboard on my old 2012 MacBook Pro. The keys on the 2021 model are a little clackity in comparison, with a fraction less travel and cushioning due to the thinner body. It’s forgivable when you also gain access to mod-cons like a fingerprint reader on the power button for TouchID, so you don’t need to enter your passwords as often, but surprisingly not FaceID via the camera.
Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021) Specs
16.2-inch, 3456×2234 pixel, 254 pixels per inch
Mini-LED Liquid Retina XDR display, ProMotion technology for adaptive refresh rates up to 120Hz
The spec sheet on the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021) reads like a wish list for those who’ve been frustrated by some of Apple’s poor design choices over the last few years.
Considering a MacBook Pro’s hefty price tag, the return of MagSafe charge port is long overdue. The power cable attaches to the body using magnets, allowing it to pull free should someone snag it – rather than bringing your expensive Mac crashing to the ground.
The upgrade to MagSafe 3 brings support for fast charging, up to 50 per cent in just 30 minutes. On the other end, the cable plugs into the power brick via USB-C. There’s the option to charge via a USB-C port on the MacBook Pro but, with the 16-inch models, you lose access to fast-charging this way. Plus you’re vulnerable to cable snags.
A tour of the chassis reveals MagSafe 3, two Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports and a 3.5 mm headphone jack on the left. The latter is a welcome sight considering Apple’s determination to kill off supposedly legacy ports.
On the right is a third Thunderbolt 4 USB-C port, along with HDMI which outputs 4K at 60 frames per second and an SDXC card slot offering read and write speeds up to 332 Mbps.
While the entire industry is embracing USB-C, losing the old USB-A ports is still frustrating if you own expensive peripherals sporting older connections. So it’s still worth investing in a USB-C hub from the likes of Belkin, allowing me to connect my Yeti Blue USB mic and Logitech webcam in order to record my weekly tech news podcast Vertical Hold.
Under the bonnet, the SSD and RAM are soldered in place, making it next to impossible to upgrade them yourself. That’s frustrating when Apple charges such a high premium for storage and memory. For example, stepping up from a 512 GB to 1 GB SSD costs another $300, even though you can pick up a 1 GB SSD from $100 retail. It would be nice if the push for Right to Repair extended to include Right to Upgrade.
While Apple has gone all-in on the MacBook Pro’s display, unfortunately it’s not easy to make the most of it – although hopefully this will improve over time.
The use of a Mini-LED “Liquid Retina XDR” display, similar to the iPad Pro, offers stunning picture quality with one-million to one contrast ratio. Mini-LED isn’t quite as good as OLED, but it offers a lot more granular control over the backlight than other LED screens. You need a fussy eye to pick it from OLED.
As a result, you can take advantage of HDR when streaming video in Safari and Chrome, which looks stunning, although your mileage may vary. I needed to dive into the Safari developer options to enable it – there’s a good guide here, but on an M1 Mac you’ll also need to change the User Agent to Chrome/Windows.
With Mini-LED comes the addition of ProMotion technology for adaptive refresh rates up to 120Hz, which the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021) also inherits from the iPad Pro. Seeing this in action is also tricky, considering that smooth 120Hz scrolling not currently supported by many Mac apps, including Safari.
For now, the best way to see it in action is via Mac Catalyst apps imported from iOS. Some full-screen games and Metal apps can also render at the full 120Hz.
Thankfully, there’s no trouble making the most of the fantastic new six-speaker sound system, supporting spatial audio. It delivers amazingly full-bodied sound for a notebook thanks to four woofers, while not overblown, which really helps bring your music and videos to life.
Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021) Benchmarks
This is where the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021) really shines, thanks to the beefy new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips.
To be honest they’re overkill for many users but, if you want a 14 or 16-inch display, there’s no option to save money and stick with the standard M1 chip. The standard M1 is only available with the 13-inch MacBook Pro, not the larger MacBook Pros. Once again, if you want to deal with Apple you need to be prepared for some serious hip pocket pain.
The M1 Pro and Max both sport a 10-core CPU, with eight performance cores and two efficiency cores, along with a 16-core Neural Engine. Where they differ is that the M1 Pro supports up to 32 GB of integrated memory with 200 Gbps bandwidth, along with a 16-core GPU. The hefty M1 Max doubles this on all counts.
This all translates into a metric shedload of grunt. Turning to Geekbench’s CPU benchmarks, the M1 Pro with 16 GB of RAM delivers a 1770 single-core and 12571 multi-core Geekbench score. Switching to the M1 Max with 64 GB of RAM is practically the same at 1783 single-core and 12720 multi-core. That’s to be expected, reflecting the spec sheet which makes it clear that the M1 Pro and M1 Max are on par when it comes to the CPU.
It’s a significant multi-core smackdown of the Apple MacBook Air (M1 2020), which delivers 1737 single-core and 7738 multi-core – already putting almost every other non-M1 Mac to shame.
Don’t be concerned about Rosetta 2’s impact when running old Intel, non-M1 native applications. When relying on Rosetta 2, the new MacBook Pros still hold their own against their Intel predecessors.
The GPU is where the M1 Max takes it to the next level, assuming you have tasks that will make the most of it.
The M1 Pro delivered 26801 using OpenCL benchmarks, jumping to 42879 using Metal. Switching to the M1 Max delivers an astounding 59771 using OpenCL, leaping to 67341 using Metal.
It’s worth noting that there’s no performance drop when switching from AC to battery power. The notebooks feature twin cooling fans, but improved thermal design means many users will never see them called into action – so they’re practically fanless.
As a result, the new MacBook Pros will never break a sweat even when dealing with a full suite of day-to-day tasks. But you’re still forced to pay for all this grunt if you want the luxury of the larger display.
Typical multimedia work won’t even push them very hard. For example, the M1 Pro and Max made light work of editing and exporting my podcast in Adobe Audition, but so did the standard M1 in the MacBook Air.
Along with pure grunt, the new chips also incorporate an Apple-designed media engine, which accelerates video processing while maximising battery life. You’ll squeeze around 16 hours out of the 16-inch M1 Pro if you push it hard, while the M1 Max scales this back to around 10. Add a few more hours to each if you ease off a bit. There’s also a Low Power mode which throttles back the power to increase battery life.
That’s a major battery life trade-off with the M1 Max. Even if money is no object, if you value all-day battery life then it’s best to stay away from the M1 Max unless you really need that phenomenal graphics grunt.
M1 Pro supports dedicated acceleration for the ProRes professional video codec, allowing playback of multiple streams of 4K and 8K ProRes video while using very little power. The M1 Max goes further, featuring two ProRes accelerators to deliver up to 2x faster video encoding.
As such, working with high-end multimedia is where you’re more likely to wake the M1 Max from its slumber. One big caveat is that you need software optimised to take advantage of all this grunt, but software makers are still in the middle of the Apple Silicon transition so it will take time. You also require apps which can take advantage of multi-core, as the M1, M1 Pro and M1 Max’s single-core benchmarks are all on par.
If you’ve been waiting for Apple to atone for some of its recent design sins, the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021) is the chosen one. It returns a wealth of long-lost features while also laying the groundwork for the M1 age.
The only real drawback is the price tag, with Apple’s refusal to offer the standard M1 in the 16-inch models and hefty tax when specing up the memory and storage.
The M1 Pro models are the obvious choice for all but multimedia professionals. Mere mortals will struggle to justify the M1 Max, considering you’re paying a considerable premium for GPU performance you won’t use, while making major sacrifices on battery life. Considering they offer the same CPU performance, the M1 Max is a waste of money if you won’t push that GPU to the limit.
Would I buy it?
Yes, I did buy the 16-inch M1 Pro, but I wouldn’t pay the extra for the M1 Max.
Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021)
Insanely powerful and returning a wealth of much-loved features, the Apple MacBook Pro 16-inch (2021) is the one the Mac faithful have been awaiting.