The 2021 14-Inch MacBook Pro

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.

Miscellaneous Observations

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.