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MacBook Pro M1 review: Apple amazes with its first Silicon MacBook Pro

Written by Jason Cipriani, Contributor

Apple MacBook Pro - 13.3" - M1 - 8 GB RAM - 256 GB SSD - US

9.0 / 5

pros and cons

  • Fast and powerful
  • Long battery life
  • All around app support
  • Improve camera, despite still 720p
  • Some iPad apps need an update
  • Same design will be tired for some
  • Can get pricey with upgrade options
  • Caps out at 16GB
  • Editors' review
  • Specs

With every iPhone or iPad release, Apple routinely points out how it controls the entire product, and in turn, how the overall experience benefits from that granular authority. From iOS or iPadOS, to the entire hardware experience, right down to the processor -- Apple owns it all. 

For the Mac, however, Apple hasn't yet had that level of control. Sure, Apple controls the software and -- for the most part -- the hardware; but until now, the company hasn't controlled what's arguably the most important aspect of any computer: The processor. Instead, Apple has had to rely on Intel's product schedule and roadmap when trying to steer the future of its computer lineup, including updates and refreshes.

For the last few years, rumors and reports bubbled to the surface that Apple was working on porting MacOS over to the same ARM-based processors that power its iPhone and iPad devices. From performance gains to release schedule -- it would all be Apple's doing. The iPhone maker would, for the first time, own the entirety of the Mac experience. 

In June, Apple announced it would begin to transition away from Intel with its own processors dubbed Apple Silicon. The first computers would launch by the end of the year, and the transition would take a couple of years to reach the entire Mac lineup. 

Last week, Apple announced its M1 System on a Chip, the first Apple Silicon product that would power a new MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro and the Mac Mini. Preorders for the trio of new computers started later that same day, with orders starting to arrive today. 

For the past five days I've been testing the base 13-inch MacBook Pro model, replacing my myriad of daily computers and tablets. At times, I've used the MacBook Pro connected to an external monitor; other times, it's been in my lap while I'm sitting on my couch.

There's a lot more to the new Macs than what meets the eye. This isn't simply about switching out the brain of Mac computers; the move to Apple Silicon is about the future of the Mac. And while there are (expectedly) some bumps to work through, from performance and battery life to app compatibility and instant expansion of available apps for the Mac lineup, the entire experience that Apple has put together on the M1-powered MacBook Pro is nothing short of amazing. 

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 Apple did not change the overall design and approach to the MacBook Air or the MacBook Pro. The M1-powered version replaces the old 8th-generation Intel model, with two USB-C ports on the left side of the deck. On the right side is a headphone jack. 

Otherwise, it's the same old MacBook Pro that Apple has made for the last few years. On the inside is Apple's Magic Keyboard with scissor keys, a Touch Bar with a dedicated Escape key and a Touch ID power button that will read your fingerprint in order to unlock the computer, approve purchases in Safari, or open apps like 1Password. Below the keyboard is Apple's large Force Touch trackpad. 

The outside of the housing is the traditional silver color, with an Apple logo. It looks identical to my 2016 MacBook Pro, the first MacBook Pro to ship with a TouchBar. Inside is a 13.3-inch display with 500 nits of brightness, True Tone technology and wide color P3 support. 

Centered above the display is Apple's 720p FaceTime camera. Many, including myself, had hoped Apple would update the camera. Alas, it didn't happen, but according to Apple the M1 includes the same image signal processor (ISP) that's used in the iPhone 12, and the webcam benefits from that. 

In the couple of video calls I've held during my time testing, I can confirm that I do indeed look better on this camera when compared to my 2016 MacBook Pro. 

Jason Cipriani/CNET

Included in the box with the MacBook Pro is a 61W USB-C power adapter, and a 2-meter USB-C to USB-C charging cable. You can plug it into either port on the MacBook Pro to charge it. I do wish, however, there were a couple more ports on this particular model. Two USB ports, no matter the standard, go pretty fast when you're connecting things like external monitors, ethernet, and memory cards from a camera. 

More than once in the last few days, I picked up the wrong MacBook Pro and didn't realize it until after I opened the lid to see an older profile photo of me waiting for my device password. 

Apple really didn't change the design of the MacBook Pro; what minor adjustments it did make and so small that they're undetectable.

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet


If you're disappointed with the lack of a new design, I understand. I personally had hoped we would at least see a slightly different take on the MacBook Air, adding cellular connectivity LTE or 5G -- doesn't matter to me -- and decreasing the overall size of the laptop. 

But after using the MacBook Pro, it's clear that Apple wanted the performance of its new M1 chip to be the star of the show. Instead of reviews and critiques splitting time between design changes and performance tests, sticking with the same design gives Mac owners a feeling of familiarity and lets the tech-savvy focus on how fast the M1 SoC is compared to Intel. 

Inside the $1,299 MacBook Pro I was sent is 8GB of memory and 256GB of storage. You can bump up the memory to 16GB, with storage topping out at 2TB. Some professionals will understandably be frustrated with the memory cap of 16GB, and it's unclear why that's where Apple has chosen to draw the line with its M1 processor's memory support. However, Apple is keeping Intel MacBook Pro models around, for the time being at least, with the option to add more memory. A fully loaded MacBook Pro with an M1, 16GB of memory and 2TB of storage prices out at $2,299. 

I haven't run Geekbench 5 on my review device --  we're technically not supposed to until after the embargo lifts. But that hasn't stopped others from running it. According to the results discussed in that post, the M1 in the MacBook Air outperforms the 16-inch MacBook Pro with an Intel processor. 

The main difference between the new MacBook and new MacBook Pro? The Air lacks a cooling fan, while the Pro has one that should lead to less throttling and higher-sustained performance for longer periods of time. 

However, if you look at the overall Mac results on Geekbench, all three M1 Mac's are sitting atop the leaderboard for single-core performance. The Mac Mini, MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, in that order, offer the fastest single-core performance out of any Mac. And there's not that big of a delta between the three. Multi-core performance is a little different, with the M1 Mac's about 14 spots down the line, and performance of the Mac Mini handily outshining the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. 

Either way, it's impressive. But benchmarks are benchmarks, and they don't tell the entire story. Sure, they help paint some of the picture, but living with and using a computer on a daily basis is where the rest of the picture comes into focus. 

I have to say it: This is the fastest Mac I've ever used. From the moment I opened the lid before setting it up, only to already see the Apple logo and setup screen waiting for me, to opening a handful of apps as I sit down at my desk each morning, it's incredibly quick. 

My favorite feature -- which, at the end of the day, doesn't really mean a whole lot --  is the fact that I can open the lid of the MacBook Pro and before I can even see the screen, it's already connected to my Apple Watch, unlocked, and the home screen is waiting for me. Seriously, it's that quick. 

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

But anecdotal experience aside, I put the MacBook Pro's video, photo and document editing chops to the test. Using an 8K file in Final Cut Pro, I was able to scrub through the various clips without skipping a frame or even triggering the fan. Dragging and dropping clips around the timeline was as quick and easy as moving text documents in my iCloud Drive, although they were much larger files. 

When it came time to export, I selected max settings and timed it. The 46-second clip, exported at an 8K, 7680 x 4320 resolution with an Apple ProRes 422 HQ codec for a file size total of 16.41 GB, took two minutes and eight seconds. The same clip on my 2016 MacBook Pro took over four minutes to export, and when it was done, I couldn't play it because it was skipping frames. On the M1 MacBook Pro, I was able to  press play  immediately  and watch the same clip without any stuttering, dropped frames, or other issues. 

In Pixelmator Pro, a popular photo editing app for Mac, I loaded several different images and used a tool called ML Super Resolution to take the now pixelated view and turn into into a smooth photo. The process would take around a second to process the entire image. When Pixelmator first announced this feature in 2019, you needed a Mac Pro, iMac Pro or a Mac with an eGPU to get close to that processing time. This is due in part to the new 16 core Neural Engine that's included in the M1 SoC. 

In Affinity Publisher, I was able to test out the ability to zoom in one-million percent on a document and watch as the image was re-rendered in real-time with each zoom in. 

At one point, I had all of these apps open at the same time, bouncing around completing these same tasks, along with my own personal suite of daily use apps like Slack, Mail, Tweetbot, Messages, Chrome, Feedly and Photos open. Not once did I even hear a fan kick on, nor did I see the Mac's infamous beachball spin up, all while connected to a 4K display. 

I believe Apple when it says there's a fan in the MacBook Pro, I just haven't heard it yet. Either it's that quiet, or I haven't truly pushed the MacBook Pro to its limits. I'm inclined to think it's the former. 

Perhaps the biggest claim Apple made during the M1 announcement was the battery life increase on the MacBook Air and Pro. I can't speak to the Air's battery life, but the battery life of the Pro is phenomenal. Just this morning, while working on this review, I spent six hours disconnected from power, running through some of the tests I just outlined while taking phone calls over Slack and controlling the HomePod in my office, and only used 40% of the battery. Math is far from my strong suit, but that puts battery life somewhere around 15 hours of normal use. 

Apple's estimates are 17 hours for web browsing or 20 hours of video playback. I'll take 15 hours of consistent use any day... and into the next, because I'm not about to spend 15 hours straight on a computer. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

App support on Apple Silicon

The performance and battery life gains of switching to ARM isn't something that's specific to Apple. Microsoft's SQ2 processor is impressive on its own, especially if you live within the company's Edge browser. But that's the problem, at least for the short term, with Microsoft's ARM transition -- app support and compatibility eat into performance and battery life, and in some instances, apps don't work at all. In fact, you can't even install 64-bit app on the Surface Pro X right now. Microsoft has announced plans to support 64-bit emulation soon, at least through its Insider program, but it'll be early next year before consumers will potentially see the benefits. 

Apple, however, had its Rosetta 2 translation environment ready to go on day one. Without getting too nerdy, Rosetta 2 will translate the Intel version of an app to run on Apple Silicon. The process happens automatically and in the background, and can take 20-30 seconds the first time you open a large app (like Microsoft Word). Afterward, the translated version of the app is what will open, speeding up the launch process. 

And, even though Apple touted how good Rosetta 2 is, I didn't fully believe it until I started installing app after app. Apps I use daily, like Logitech's G Hub for managing my mouse and keyboard. Or Microsoft's Office suite, both the public version and the beta version that's optimized for Apple Silicon (but still relies on Rosetta 2). Other apps I've installed and have yet to run into an issue with include Google Chrome, Pixelmator, Audacity, Zoom, 1Password, OneDrive, Cisco Webex and aText. 

All of those apps are the Intel version, converted by Apple, with zero user interaction, and they look, work and behave just as they do on my Intel-based iMac or MacBook Pro. 

I can't overstate how impressive Apple's accomplishment here is. The ability for users to simply install apps and not worry about 32-bit or 64-bit, Apple Silicon or Intel, inside the App Store, outside the App Store -- it doesn't matter. Install the apps you know and use, and they'll very likely work. 

It's not going to be perfect, of course. There are bound to be issues with select apps or services, but I have yet to come across any. 

As developers continue to update their apps with Apple Silicon support, battery life and performance will improve. But Rosetta and Intel apps are only part of the story when it comes to Apple's M1 SoC. 

Any Mac powered by Apple's M1 chip can install and run iPhone or iPad apps, directly from the Mac App Store. When you search in the Mac App Store, in fact, the search results are broken into two categories. The default results are Mac apps, but at the top of the page is an option to view iPhone and iPad apps. 

When downloading one of these apps, the Mac App Store will default to installing the iPad version of the app if one is available. If not, then you'll get the iPhone version of the app. 

Screenshot by Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

Apple has a list of iPhone and iPad apps that it's advertising for use on the Mac. The list includes HBO Max and the hugely popular game, Among Us. Both apps offer an iPad version, and they open in a window with the same layout you'd see on your iPad. 

You can use the trackpad to click and swipe within the window to interact with the app. However, in order for the window to be adjustable, or the keyboard to work as you move your character through their tasks in Among Us, developers will need to update their iPad apps with full multitasking and keyboard support. 

In other words, if the developer takes advantage of all of the tools that Apple offers to make a great iPad app, they won't have to do anything to make a great Mac app. 

Right now, I can't use the keyboard to play Among Us, and clicking around the window to move my character, complete tasks, or sound the alarm isn't a fun experience. As for HBO Max, well, it works. But because the app doesn't support split-screen mode on the iPad, I can't resize the window or put it into full-screen mode. So I'm stuck with watching whatever show or movie in a window that's smaller than the MacBook Pro's 13-inch display. I tried to use the AirPlay or Chromecast feature built into the HBO Max app, with no luck.

iPhone apps open in a single column window, just like you'd be looking at on your iPhone. If there's an app you absolutely rely on daily, the ability to use it natively on your Mac is a huge boost to the Macs overall potential. But that potential won't be realized until developers are able to make the necessary changes in order to provide an impressive experience across all of Apple's devices. 

Jason Cipriani/ZDNet

And if it really does come down to those three things, then Apple nailed it with the first M1 Macs.