What About Apple's New MacBook Pros?

I'll eventually update my Apple computer advice, but some of you have asked for some early reaction to the new M1 Pro and M1 Max based laptops. Okay, here goes:

  • If your apps are mostly using one core, the original M1 models are just as good. Indeed, they tend to be a tiny bit faster when only one CPU core is engaged. So one real question you have to ask yourself is how much you're engaging the other cores. Because that's where the 1.5x to 2x performance gains will come from. That said, if you're editing video on a MacBook Pro, you want the new models, for sure, particularly if you're using Final Cut Pro or DaVinci Resolve. GPUs, same thing. The original M1's had 7/8 GPU cores, the new ones with 32 CPU cores are decidedly faster with anything that's using the GPU. 
  • Yes, it's nice that the MagSafe cable is back, but that comes with a bunch of small footnotes you'll want to be aware of. Apple has now gotten into the confusion zone with power options: different charger ratings, different ratings on different cables, and a host of other things you need to be aware of.
  • No, Apple didn't kill the need for dongles. They robbed Peter to pay Paul. To get the HDMI port, you lost a USB-C port (and received a MagSafe to partially get that port back if you're charging). We did gain a UHS II SD slot with good performance. Need CFexpress slots, Ethernet, USB-A, or a host of other connections? You still need a dongle. 
  • The display notch for the camera isn't a big thing, except if you have programs with lots of menus or use too many status/shortcut icons in the upper right. As Apple points out, the menu bar actually now extends above the previous 16:10 display area, so you didn't lose any useful display area, you just get the menu bar items pushed up to the edge of the bezel. Apple is still relying upon no one getting around the security notification light, though. I'd prefer a physical shutter to keep the camera from seeing me when I don't want it to.
  • Yes, the display is brighter. If you use your MacBook Pro outside that's likely to be of clear interest. If you're not viewing or editing HLG or other HDR-like content, I don't see it as an advantage. The 120hz smoothing is nice, though.
  • Battery life seems clearly better under "normal" use. Likewise, the fans mostly aren't on or inaudible. Took me compressing video to hear them kick in.
  • I'm actually not a fan of the full-size function keys. A full size Escape key and Touch ID key, sure, but being a completely touch typist, the ubiquity of the flat, same-sized chiclet-type keys needs help clues to keep me oriented. Perhaps time will help, but initial impressions were not favorable. Keyboards have long been Apple's weakness. Yes, they last a long time; no, they aren't great for fast typers.
  • One thing to consider: these new computers ship with macOS Monterey. macOS Big Sur just got into the realm where I'd consider it stable for production work. It'll be awhile before Monterey joins it. macOS Catalina is currently the most secure and stable version Apple supports. It's also the last version before the completely "flat" UI took over, which some will not like.  

As with the original M1 Macs, you need to be prepared to "buy high." Because RAM is part of the main chip now, you must buy as much RAM as you'll ever need. Likewise, the SSDs are locked down and not user replaceable, so you have to opt large there, too. I'd say the minimum photographer configuration is likely M1 Pro, 32GB RAM, 2TB SSD. A 14" configuration that way is US$3300. Moreover, you'd really need to think long and hard about whether to go to a M1 Max configuration, which will add US$200-400. And if you want 64GB RAM—RAM is speed in photo processing—you'll pay a minimum of US$3900. At those prices, the MacBook Pro should probably be your main computer (and you'll want a larger external display). 

I'm in no rush to replace my current Macs. They suffice just fine, and I bought them up-specified in the first place, so all the memory and SSD room provides plenty of performance for what I need, still. The only reason I can think of to move to one of the M1 Pro or Max models is if I were to start doing a lot of location-based video. 

So those are my early, quick thoughts after a very brief test drive (and looks at some tests that trusted friends have done). No doubt Apple has moved the bar. But most of us didn't need the bar moved yet. 

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