By John Gruber
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The first thing I noticed is that it’s thicker than the MacBook Pros of the preceding few years. It feels thicker. It looks thicker. But look at the specs. Last year’s 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro: 0.61 inches thick. The new 14-inch MacBook Pro: 0.61 inches thick.
A few factors contribute to this sense of thickness. The first is that the new MacBook Pros are more rectilinear. We tend to think of the MacBook Air as the tapered MacBook, but MacBook Pros have been tapered for years. Looking at the new model next to last year’s M1, it’s striking just how far from flat the previous design is. The 13-inch MacBook Pro is 0.61 inches thick only in the middle. The new 14-inch MacBook Pro is 0.61 inches thick from edge to edge, front to back.
The second factor that conveys a sense of thickness is that it’s quite a bit heavier: last year’s M1 MacBook Pro weighs 3.0 pounds; the new 14-inch model weighs 3.5 pounds. (The four-port Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro weighed 3.1 pounds — arguably that’s a better comparison, because that’s the machine the 14-inch MacBook Pro replaces.)
Comparisons to the Titanium PowerBook G4, which Apple sold from 2001 to 2003, are unavoidable. It’s uncanny how this new MacBook Pro feels like the direct descendant of that classic design. It’s also uncanny how strong people’s affection remains for that 20-year-old PowerBook, especially since it was only produced for about two years: a brief window between the plastic era that preceded it, and the unibody aluminum era that we’re still in. By anodizing the new MacBook Pro’s keyboard “well” to a deep, pure black, Apple seems to be begging for this comparison to the Titanium PowerBook.
It’s a very handsome machine.
And yes: MagSafe is back, the HDMI port is back, the SD card slot is back. The Touch Bar is gone. The headphone jack remains.
But isn’t this a strange evolution? Apple’s M1 chips are faster, smaller, and run cooler. Restoring ports we haven’t seen in five years? Making the devices heavier? There really is a Benjamin Button aspect to these decisions.
Rather than debate the merits of these “let’s bring back some ports from five years ago” decisions piecemeal, I think they’re best explained by Apple revisiting what the pro in “MacBook Pro” means. What it stands for. Apple uses the word pro in so many products. Sometimes they really do mean it as professional. Logic Pro and Final Cut Pro, for example, truly are tools for professionals. With something like AirPods Pro, though, the word pro really just means something more like nicer or deluxe. A couth euphemism for premium. The Touch Bar MacBook Pros were undeniably nice laptops.
There are aspects of any MacBook Pro that work for both senses of pro. The new MacBook Pro’s ProMotion display (yet another “pro” name), for example. It’s absolutely gorgeous. It’s fun to scroll web pages and drag entire windows around, just to see how smooth the 120 Hz refresh rate looks. It’s also nice — and professional — that with increased pixels-per-inch density, the displays now default to a native, not scaled, effective resolution.
Apple’s best products have always been both tools for work and objects of art. Almost every single change with these new MacBook Pros is in the name of making them better tools for work. Conversely, the controversial decisions that went into the Touch-Bar-era MacBooks were in the name of artistic purity. Minimalism trumping practicality. They were out of balance.
Apple, famously, doesn’t make a lot of products. They’re the world’s most profitable laptop maker, but they really only make three models: the MacBook Air, a mid-size (13/14-inch) MacBook Pro, and a larger (16-inch) MacBook Pro. In the last five years, these MacBooks have largely converged. The smallest MacBook has gotten bigger — no more 11-inch MacBook Air or 12-inch no-adjective MacBook. There’s really not much difference, technically speaking, between last year’s M1 MacBook Air and the 13-inch MacBook Pro. I’ve lost count of the number of people I know who bought the M1 MacBook Air not because it was cheaper or sleeker, but only because it had function keys instead of a Touch Bar. There’s not even much of a weight difference — 2.8 versus 3.0 pounds. The MacBook Air isn’t air enough — it’s no longer a striking size or weight for a laptop. And the MacBook Pro hasn’t been pro enough. If you’re going to make a laptop thin and lightweight, make it really thin and lightweight. And if you’re going to make a laptop powerful and practical, make it really powerful and practical. Focus on the outer limits of what’s possible, not the boring middle.
That, to me, explains the entirety of this new MacBook Pro. The differences between a MacBook Pro and MacBook Air should not be subtle. Let the truck be a truck, true to its purpose. Let the MacBook Pro be unabashedly pro.
I think Apple got stuck with misplaced MacBook Pro priorities at an inopportune time: near the cusp of the transition to Apple silicon. Apple does not relish explaining their mistakes. But they do acknowledge them, and make changes to address them. They are confident and proud, but seldom obstinate. The Macintosh platform is 37 years old. Four decades! But this new MacBook Pro is the nicest and best Mac I’ve ever used. If Apple could have built and shipped this sooner, I’m quite certain they would have. But they couldn’t. Only now can they design custom silicon to power the professional-class machines they envisioned, as opposed to designing the hardware around the best silicon available from Intel.
My review unit from Apple is nearly maxed out (no pun intended): it’s equipped with the M1 Max and 64 GB of RAM. (It “only” has a 2 TB SSD.) Apple sent it with several demo projects pre-installed. An Xcode project for an iPhone game, a Final Cut Pro project with 8K video footage, a massive orchestral score in Logic Pro, a huge scene in Cinema 4D. I know these demos are performance-intensive, but they don’t feel like it on this machine. The machine does not break a sweat. It feels impossibly fast. I simply lack the expertise in any of these areas to adequately evaluate its performance.
Perhaps my favorite thing about these new MacBook Pros is that the 14-inch model is spec-for-spec the peer of the 16-inch model. Heretofore, only the larger 15- and 16-inch MacBook Pros got the very fastest chips — particularly hot-running battery-hungry GPUs — among other advantages. So while one way to think about this generation is that they got heavier than the last generation of Intel models (comparing 14-inch to 13-inch, and 16-inch to 16-inch), another way to think about it is that the fastest laptop in the world is now available in a 14-inch footprint and weighs just 3.5 pounds. There’s no compromise on performance — you just pick which size you prefer.
At a glance it appears that the 16-inch MacBook Pro costs $500 more than the 14-inch model. But there are some compromises due to chip binning with the entry level 14-inch models. The $2,000 configuration only has an 8-core CPU and 14-core GPU. If you configure a 14-inch MacBook Pro with the same specs as the base $2,500 16-inch model — 10 CPU cores, 16 GPU cores — it costs $2,300. That pegs the price differential at just $200 for the larger 16-inch display.
The keyboard feels as good as it looks. It’s kind of funny that Apple is promoting a full-height row of function keys as a feature, but why not? If they’re going to bite the bullet and throw in the towel on the Touch Bar, go all-in. Don’t be embarrassed about returning to function keys — make them big. The Escape key and Touch ID/sleep button both benefit from this change. Vim users will be delighted.
I can’t remember the last time I used an HDMI port on a Mac, and I seldom need an SD card reader, so my favorite of the back-to-the-future returning ports and slots is MagSafe. The new MagSafe 3 connector feels a lot like the old MagSafe 2 connector. It’s like meeting an old friend you haven’t seen in five years and picking up right where you left off. It’s also a very nice touch that you can charge these new MacBook Pros via USB-C, too. MagSafe is better, but USB-C cables are everywhere. Supporting both is a win for convenience. Also nice: the MagSafe cable is braided, with just the right amount of suppleness. Not so nice: my review unit MacBook Pro is Space Gray, but the aluminum MagSafe connector is silver. It would have been a nice touch to color coordinate them, like the braided Lightning and power cables that ship with the 24-inch M1 iMacs.
There is some small irony in the return of MagSafe with these computers that run so long on battery. Also, as promised, there’s no performance throttling when running on battery. A few simple benchmarks (Geekbench 5 and Speedometer 2) resulted in no practical differences whether plugged into or unplugged from the wall.
The notch in the menu bar for the camera is very weird at first. The mouse pointer passes under it, so it justs disappears when in the center of the menu bar. That’s really weird! If I had written this review a week ago, after my first day with the machine, I’d have written a lot more about the notch. One week in, I’m just not noticing it. One notch-related change I’m still getting used to is the taller menu bar. It makes the menu titles look even more disconnected from the actual menus. It’s interesting that last year’s redesigned menu bar in MacOS 11 Big Sur was seen by some as laying UI groundwork for future touch screen support in MacOS, but it now seems clear it was redesigned to more elegantly fit with the notch. You’ll notice that most of Apple’s product photography for these new MacBooks shows them with dark desktop pictures. With default translucency settings, a dark desktop gives you a dark menu bar, and a dark menu bar disguises the notch.
Speaking of the notch, I’m genuinely curious about the lack of Face ID. Is the display lid too thin for the sensor array? We don’t think of iPhones and iPads as thick, but they’re a lot thicker than a MacBook lid. Does Apple just think Face ID is not a good fit for the Mac? Do they think it would be confusing or inelegant to offer both Face ID and Touch ID, and they simply think Touch ID is the better fit for devices that always have hardware keyboards?
Lastly, two branding notes. The Apple logo on the lid is noticeably bigger than it has been in years. “Apple logo dimensions” is not among Apple’s official tech specs, but I’m pretty sure it got smaller when they stopped making it glow. It’s now back to the same size as on my 2014 13-inch MacBook Pro. I like it. Also different: there’s no “MacBook Pro” label on the black bezel underneath the display. I always found that label ever-so-slightly distracting, and a bit curious coming from the same company that has never printed the names “iPhone” or “iPad” on the front of those devices. Instead, “MacBook Pro” is elegantly engraved on the bottom, in big bold letters. I love this — it looks great and even feels nice to the touch. It just seems, well, pro. ★
All of these are purely guesses, based on rumors and my sense of which way the wind is blowing in Cupertino. I could well be wrong about most of these. I started a thread on Twitter with most of the following guesses — feel free to chime in with your guesses and wishes there. We need to do something for the next 90 minutes, might as well speculate.
New MacBook Pros:
CPU performance we can kind of extrapolate from the state-of-the-art A15 chips and from the existing M1’s. We know they’re going to be fast, and we know that adding more high-performance cores will be game-changing for many pro workflows. But I think a big part of the story will be sustained performance, not just peak performance. Let these chips actually get warm — hence my guess that these MacBook Pros might be slightly thicker than the Intel-based models they’re replacing. We know from the late great iMac Pro that Apple can engineer incredible cooling systems that run nearly silently. Do it for pro MacBooks now.
What I think might prove shocking is the GPU performance of these chips. Particularly performance per watt. The hitch: apps will need to embrace Metal APIs to take advantage of them. Very interested to see which, if any, third-party developers got advanced access and get demo time during the show.
New large-display iMacs with pro-level performance? I’d love to see it. Feels due. But the rumor mill is very dry on this front. Would be fun if they’re ready to go and Apple has kept them under wraps.
New standalone sanely-priced Apple display? Again, nothing from the rumor mill, but I’d love to see it. People want standalone displays for their MacBooks and Mac Minis. People don’t want to spend $5,000 on a Pro Display XDR. Third-party display makers clearly are not capable of or willing to serve the Mac market. So why not get back in the prosumer display game with a $1,500 iMac-quality standalone display? ★
Caring — really caring — about watches is a mixed blessing. It’s a fun hobby. It’s also a curse. You notice little things. Really little things. And if those minute details please you, they bring you joy. But when they annoy you, even just one little thing can ruin an entire watch for you. Most people buying a new watch don’t really care about the minute details. But that doesn’t mean those minute details don’t matter. The affection a particular watch engenders is the result of all those details, regardless of whether the beholder notices any of them in particular.
At a glance, all Apple Watches — from the original “Series 0” in 2015 to the new Series 7 models shipping this week — have more or less looked the same. Unlike any other product Apple has ever made, they really nailed the basic shape and look, the gestalt, on the first try. It was birthed as an iconic design.
Give them more than a glance though, and you can spot a significant evolutionary schism between Series 0–3 and Series 4–6. With Series 4, the displays went round-cornered (à la the iPhone X, and subsequent iPad Pros), which, side-by-side, makes the square-cornered displays on the Series 3 and prior look crude in comparison. (This is one reason it’s such a shame that the Series 3 remains the entry-level $200 model.) Apple did its best to hide this crudeness in the early years of WatchOS, by using black backgrounds exclusively on nearly all of the then-available watch faces.1 Because Apple Watch has always used OLED displays, and OLED blacks are utterly black, a watch face with a black background effectively disguises the border between the display and its surrounding black bezel.
The Series 4–6 display wasn’t just more graceful, with its round corners, but also just plain bigger. That’s the first thing any observer would notice about the Series 4 through 6 models compared to the Series 0 through 3. But look carefully and you can see a clear difference in the case shapes, too. The Series 0–3 cases were like rectangular boxes with round sides and corners; the Series 4 introduced a new case shape that defies easy description. It was more capsule-like, more elliptical. More organic, like a water-worn pebble. The three-dimensional equivalent of the way that iOS (and, sadly, now Mac) app icons are not simple roundrects, but in fact super elliptical squircles. Another example: the fascinating shape of the iPhone X notch.
You don’t have to care deeply about the details of these shapes. Most people don’t. But designers at Apple do, because that’s the job of a designer: not just to sweat the little details but to really sweat them. But I think even a casual observer would notice the change in case shape between Series 3 and 4, if you pointed it out to them. Apple Watch was born rounded, but got more rounded (and more complexly rounded) with Series 4.
Which brings us to Series 7.
The knock on Series 7 is that there’s nothing new but a bigger display. But it’s a much bigger display. It’s the one new thing that everyone will notice, and it’s very noticeable. Nothing new but a bigger display is enough to establish Series 7 as a landmark new design. This graphic from Apple’s “Compare” page for Apple Watch is, to my eyes, very fair. (The Apple Watch SE is, effectively, a Series 6 without the always-on display and ECG and blood oxygen sensors. It’s the lack of an always-on display that, in my opinion, retards the SE.)
The thing most people will not notice, at least not by merely looking at the Series 7 next to a Series 4–6 (or SE), is that the case shape is all new too. It’s ever so slightly bigger; hence the change in description from 44 / 40 mm to 45 / 41 mm, respectively, for the larger / smaller models. These sizes represent the heights of the watch cases, not the display sizes. The Series 7 watch cases are slightly wider, too, by about 1 mm.
1 mm is a minor difference by the scale of most devices. A new MacBook or iPad that grew by one single millimeter in height and width would be hard to notice. It might be barely noticeable for a phone. But 1 mm is a meaningful difference at watch scale. The Series 7 watch sits slightly bigger on the wrist. It’s a subtle difference, to be sure, but it is noticeable. This is neither a complaint nor a compliment. You might like the bigger presence on your wrist, or you might not. It is different though. And because every other Apple product’s “size” is determined by the display, not the case, many people might assume — wrongly — that the changes from 44 to 45 mm and 40 to 41 mm are only about fitting larger displays into the same size cases. With Series 7, the displays are a lot bigger; but the cases are a little bigger too.
So too with the watch faces on Series 7. They’re all slightly bigger, not merely scaled to fill the bigger displays but redrawn to properly accommodate the bigger displays. To be in accordance; to be proportionally precise. This changes the character of the existing watch faces in subtle ways. My go-to watch face has been unchanged since 2015: Utility, with no numeric indexes. My first few days wearing the Series 7, my gut reaction was less that the watch itself had grown too large, but rather that the Utility watch dial had grown too large. Now, one week in, I’ve grown used to it. I needed time to adjust. Everything is bigger on the Series 7 watch faces, including the complications.
A couple of subtle details regarding the new display. The way that the outer edges of the display extend under the curves of the crystal is attractive. It’s a neat refractive effect. There’s no utility to it; it just looks cool. But it also means WatchOS app developers need to consider a new set of “safe area” layout guidelines. As per Apple’s developer documentation, buttons and images should extend to the very edges of the display, but text should not. The Series 7 always-on display mode is noticeably brighter than on my personal Series 5 watch — the first Apple Watch that offered an always-on mode.
A new feature exclusive to Series 7 is a QWERTY on-screen keyboard. I found this keyboard very frustrating to use. If you’re a swipe-typer on iPhone — I’m not — you might find it more useful, but if I need to enter text on my watch, I still find it way faster and way more accurate to dictate by voice. If I could disable this QWERTY keyboard, I would. The text entry user interface is better on the Series 4–6 watches because they don’t waste so much space with this too-small keyboard. And I’m using a 45 mm Series 7; I can only imagine how finicky the keyboard is on the 41 mm models.
With the slightly bigger cases and significantly bigger displays, for those people who find themselves on the fence between the larger and smaller sizes, more people than ever will prefer the smaller 41 mm size. With the original Series 0–3 form factor, it felt like the 42 mm size was “regular” and the 38 mm was “small”. That evened out with the Series 4–6 form factor. With Series 7, I suspect the 41 mm size will seem “regular” and the 45 mm will seem “large”. (I use the verb suspect here because I haven’t seen a 41 mm Series 7 in person yet.)2
Apple sent me the aluminum green Series 7, along with the green Solo Loop and Leather Link bands. I particularly like it on the Leather Link band, which is among my favorite straps Apple has made to date. The green leather has a sort of matte finish that pairs nicely with the non-glossy aluminum finish. The anodized green aluminum is really dark — much darker in person than Apple’s product photography would suggest. It plays as black or near-black in most lighting conditions. I like this green watch much more in person than from how it looks on Apple’s website — because it is so dark. If you’re hoping for a more verdant green, though, you might be disappointed. I highly suggest looking at — and trying on — the new watches in person, even if you’re already an Apple Watch owner.
For existing Apple Watch owners, there are very few reasons to consider buying a Series 7 other than the reasons why anyone ever buys a new watch: because you like the way it looks. Apple Watch is a watch that happens to be a computer, not a computer that you happen to wear on your wrist. Evaluate the upgrade decision like you would a computer or even a phone and you’re missing the point.3
Seven generations in, it seems clear that Apple has pursued a consistent Platonic ideal for Apple Watch from the start, in terms of its shape, size, and display. Series 4 was a major refinement, with significant changes that brought Apple Watch quite close to that ideal. Series 7 is a minor refinement, not major, but that’s because the Series 4 redesign got Apple Watch so close to what it was meant to be from the outset. Perhaps someday Apple will release an altogether re-imagined Apple Watch — a new ideal. But perhaps not. Apple Watch has always known what it wanted to be, and Series 7 is closer to that than ever. ★
The Photos watch face was the notable exception, and my understanding is that there was much debate within Apple as to whether to ship that watch face with the original Apple Watch. On the one side were those who wanted all of the watch faces to have black backgrounds, to maintain the illusion that disguised the display’s actual edges. Also, to maintain complete control of every pixel on every watch face. On the other side were those who argued that many people always use photos of their family and loved ones as their “background” on every device they use, and they’d demand them for their watches, too. Not offering a Photos watch face would be like not allowing custom wallpapers on iOS or desktops on MacOS. (This would not have been unprecedented: the original iPhone shipped without any choices for wallpaper — you got a black home screen background and you liked it.) Apple obviously did ship the Photos watch face with the original watch, and has since improved upon it with the new Portraits face, but the overall mindset that watch faces ought to be designed by Apple, that they should all be in accordance with and representative of the Apple Watch brand, is the main reason why WatchOS still doesn’t and likely never will support third-party watch faces. ↩︎
Watch straps and bands from the original 2015 models continue to fit the new Series 7 perfectly, and look right at home. That’s really something. ↩︎︎
The new faster charging is a nice purely-technical improvement, though. If you charge your watch overnight, it’s no big deal. But if you wear your watch to sleep — whether for sleep tracking purposes or just to be able to check the time if you wake up mid-sleep — faster charging is meaningful. ↩︎︎