Apple MacBook Pro M1 Review (13-inch, 2020)

Apple’s new MacBook Air proved its M1 chip to be a powerful beast, even in a thin and light machine. It’s so good that I even wondered if the M1-equipped 13-inch MacBook Pro could be much better. The M1 chip is the same on both machines, with the exception of a missing GPU core on the MacBook Air. So why pay more, especially when you can get an M1 Air for hundreds less than the equivalent M1 MacBook Pro?

The simple answer is actually that you get a fan on the MacBook Pro, while the Air is passively cooled. That lone fan lets the Pro handle persistent workloads like lengthy video coding or 3D rendering with ease. You know, the kind of work that the titular professionals that Apple focuses on do. The Air, on the other hand, is fast at first, but slows down if it has to overload itself. The problem is, some of the MacBook Pro’s other limitations can turn off the most demanding users.

But first, let’s get into the basics: Like the M1-equipped Air, this updated MacBook Pro is physically identical to the previous model. It has the same aluminum housing; it still only has two USB-C ports; and it’s quite portable at 3 pounds. It would have been nice to see Apple attempt a serious redesign, especially one that set the Pro even more apart from the Air, which is only 0.2 pounds lighter. A lot of PC manufacturers are pushing their 13-inch ultraportable devices under 2.5 pounds, so I’m sure Apple can handle that.

The MacBook Pro’s 13.3-inch screen is 100 nits brighter than that of the Air, but otherwise, both computers share the same 2,560 x 1,600 Retina display. The Pro also has Apple’s TouchBar, which provides touchscreen shortcuts for basic system functions and apps. I’ve never been a huge fan of the TouchBar, but Apple has at least refined it a bit to make room for a physical escape key and a power / TouchID button. Personally, the fact that the Air doesn’t have a TouchBar makes me prefer it even more. Furthermore, the MacBook Pro resides in the refined keyboard Apple unveiled earlier this year, which is both much more comfortable and reliable than the slim butterfly models.

MacBook Pro 13-inch M1

Now let’s focus on what makes this MacBook Pro so special: Apple’s new M1 SOC. That chip packs a punch, with 8 CPU cores and up to 8 GPU cores. It is built on a 5 nanometer process, which is even more complicated than AMD’s 7 nanometer chips. Intel, meanwhile, does not expect to have 7nm hardware until 2022. By betting on a 5nm ARM-based design, Apple has managed to create something that is both powerful and energy efficient. The only downside is that it’s a completely different architecture from the x86 Intel chips Apple previously relied on, so older apps will need to use the Rosetta 2 emulator to function.

After being blown away by the performance of the MacBook Air M1, I expected the MacBook Pro to deliver a similar experience, with a little more power thanks to the improved cooling. And that’s pretty much what I saw for the past week with our review device, which came with 16 GB RAM and a 1 TB SSD in addition to the M1 chip. The computer turned on almost immediately when I first lifted the lid. And it only took me a few minutes to go through the installation process.

MacBook Pro 13-inch M1
MacBook Pro 13-inch M1

Compared to Apple’s recent Intel-equipped MacBook Pros, the M1 model feels ridiculously fast. Apps start within seconds; Safari loads huge websites in an instant; and I can juggle a variety of software, including Evernote, Slack, Spotify, and multiple web browsers, without making the system sweaty. I have not had any issues with the Intel emulation either. In most cases, apps like Evernote felt even faster than on an x86 PC. Developers are also quickly updating their software to run natively on the M1, even Google wasted no time providing an optimized version of Chrome (after a slight hiccup).

Because the M1 chip is based on the same architecture as Apple’s mobile hardware, it can also run iOS and iPad apps. I didn’t find that very useful on the MacBook Pro, however – it was more of a curiosity. It’s also something developers can opt out of altogether, so don’t expect to find Google or Facebook in the Mac App Store.

MacBook Pro 13-inch M1
MacBook Pro 13-inch M1

Thanks to the powerful GPU cores of the M1, you can also play a lot of games on the MacBook Pro. Like on the MacBook Air, I was able to run Fortnite smoothly in 720p. That’s impressive because it works through Rosetta 2 emulation. But Fortnite is also pretty buggy, as Epic hasn’t updated it in months due to the ongoing legal battle with Apple. Apple Arcade titles such as The pathless and The last campfire ran flawlessly at 60 frames per second, but that’s not surprising since they also run well on the iPhone and iPad. When it comes to gaming on computers, Apple has always lagged behind Windows PCs. But I wouldn’t be surprised if more developers start paying attention to Macs now that they see what the M1 can do.

Although it is equipped with a fan, I rarely hear it turn on. You really have to stress the M1 MacBook Pro with something like a lengthy video rendering job to get that spin going. And when it kicks in, it’s much quieter than usual on Intel machines. That’s probably because it just doesn’t have to work that hard to keep things cool. Even under heavy working pressure, the system felt warm, but not as hot as some previous models. The MacBook Pro’s battery life is yet another example of how efficient the M1 chip can be. The system lasted 16 and a half hours during our battery benchmark, repeating a video. At the end of a normal workday, it usually has about 7 hours of juice left.

Geekbench 5 CPU

Cinebench R21

ATTO (top reads / writes)

Apple MacBook Pro (Apple M1, 2020)

1,696 / 7,174

1492/7467

3 GB / s / 3 GB / s

Apple MacBook Air (Apple M1, 2020)

1,619 / 6,292

1494/6617

2.8 GB / s / 3 GB / s

Apple MacBook Air (Intel i7-1060NG7)

1,130 / 3,053

N / A

N / A

Dell XPS 13 (2020, Core i7-1065G7, Iris Plus)

982 / 4,659

N / A

2.7 GB / s / 1 GB / s

ASUS Zephyrus G14 (AMD Ryzen 9 4900HS, NVIDIA RTX 2060 Max-Q)

1,189 / 7,705

N / A

2.7 GB / s / 1 GB / s

As impressive as this MacBook Pro is, I admit it doesn’t really feel much different from the M1 MacBook Air in normal use. Geekbench and Cinebench R21 scores on the two systems are practically identical when it comes to single core performance, although I did see a noticeable bump when it came to multi-core speeds. Still, the fact that the Air is competitive at all is testament to what Apple was able to cram into the M1 in the first place. But once you look at the M1 through the eyes of professional users, the flaws become more apparent.

MacBook Pro 13-inch M1
MacBook Pro 13-inch M1

The biggest problem? It’s limited to 16GB of RAM, which means it’s not ideal for dealing with large files or serious media work. The M1 chip also only supports one external display, so anyone with two monitors on their desk is out of luck. (There is a fix for more external displays with DisplayPort adapters and the DisplayLink software, but that is not officially supported by Apple.) There is also no support for external GPUs, something that is admittedly a bit niche, but a huge drawback for anyone who uses those devices to improve their graphics performance. All of these concerns are why Apple is still offering Intel-powered MacBook Pros, which support up to 32 GB of RAM, multiple displays and eGPUs.

If you are a professional who depends on specific software and plugins, you may also run into issues with the M1’s emulation. If you’re looking for an easy way to keep track of which apps are optimized for M1 chips, or don’t work at all in Rosetta, check out the “Is Apple Silicon Ready” site. At the time of this review, Avid Protools, Autodesk Revit, and a slew of music apps are still not working properly on M1 systems.

MacBook Pro 13-inch M1
MacBook Pro 13-inch M1

Given all these caveats, I recommend professional users do some serious research before buying an M1 Mac, especially the MacBook Pro. If you’re intrigued by the power of Apple’s SOC, the MacBook Air may be the better option if you can buy it for $ 1,449 with 16 GB of RAM and a 512 GB SSD. The MacBook Pro, meanwhile, starts at $ 1,299 with just 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD. You have to pay $ 1,699 to double both specs. And if you need a new MacBook Pro for work anytime soon, don’t count the existing Intel offerings. They may have much weaker graphics than the M1, but at least there are no compatibility issues involved.

While Apple’s M1 SOC made the MacBook Air feel revolutionary, it’s a little more complicated on the 13-inch MacBook Pro. It’s still a fast and efficient machine, but there are more potential compatibility issues for professionals. But if you’re one of the few power users in need of something snappy, and don’t mind the limitations of the M1, the updated MacBook Pro is a solid workhorse.

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