By John Gruber
Kolide ensures only secure devices can access your cloud apps. Watch the demo to see how it works.
I’m glad that two weeks ago I griped about the complexity of the current iPad lineup. Three Pencils that are compatible with a complicated matrix of iPad models. iPad Pro models with the front-facing camera on the short side, but a 10th-generation non-pro iPad that’s been updated with a front-facing camera on the long side, where pro users want it. It’s a jumble.
I’m glad because now I have something to point to as a counterexample, a broad product lineup that is, with the introduction of the M3 family of chips, nearly perfect: MacBooks. Here’s how I see Apple’s lineup:1
This lineup is clear, crisp, and good. MacBook Airs in the $1,000–$2,000 range; MacBook Pros with M3 Pro in the $2,000–$3,000 range, and MacBook Pros with the M3 Max in the $3,000–$yowza range. (A maxed-out 16-inch MBP with M3 Max (16-core CPU, 40-core GPU), 128 GB RAM, and 8 TB SSD costs $7,200.)
The wildcard in Apple’s MacBook lineup is what I’m cheekily calling the “Pro Jr.” model. For the last few years, that’s been the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar — a laptop that most expert users thought shouldn’t even exist, but which Apple has stated was the company’s second-best-selling laptop. There are a lot of buyers who want a MacBook Pro, even if they don’t need — or want to pay for — truly professional performance specs.
With the introduction last week of the 14-inch MacBook Pro with the regular M3 chip, Apple has fixed this tier. I often note that Apple means several different things when it describes a product as “pro” — it sometimes means professional, but sometimes means nicer or better. The regular M3 MacBook Pro exemplifies this latter meaning. It has the same industry-best 14-inch display as its M3 Pro and M3 Max siblings, the same excellent 6-speaker sound system, and the same modern form factor. It is, by all appearances, a MacBook worthy of the name “MacBook Pro” heading into 2024.2
One key difference between the new 14-inch M3 MacBook Pro and the 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro it replaces in the lineup is price: the 13-inch M2 MBP started at $1,300; the new 14-inch M3 MBP starts at $1,600. That’s a significant jump, but it makes sense. First, the new-ish 15-inch M2 MacBook Air — introduced this year at WWDC in June — now occupies the “starts at $1,300” tier in the price matrix. Second, it is named “Pro”.
With the M1 and M2 generations of Apple Silicon, consumer-level Macs debuted months ahead of the professional models with the Pro and Max (and for desktop systems, Ultra) variants of the chips:
The M1 chips debuted in November 2020 with the MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro, and Mac Mini. These Macs all had unchanged form factors from their Intel-chip predecessors.
The M1 Pro and Max, along with the new 14- and 16-inch “notched display” form factors, debuted almost a year later in October 2021.
The M2 chip debuted in July 2022, in the new-form-factor 13-inch MacBook Air. That M2 chip also appeared in the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar at the same time.
The M2 Pro and Max debuted in updated 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros (along with the M2 Pro in a Mac Mini) in January of 2023. The general consensus is that these machines were late, and were originally intended for late 2022, but the fact is they shipped in January this year.
So with the M1 generation, the Pro and Max models shipped almost a year after the plain M1. With the M2’s, the Pro and Max models shipped about 6 months after the plain M2.
Now, with the M3 generation, the M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max debuted alongside each other, and the plain M3 is debuting only in the new $1,600 “Pro Jr.” 14-inch MacBook Pro. All things considered, this makes sense: you’d think that the first laptops to get a new generation of chips would be the premium ones, not the consumer-priced ones. I suspect that what we saw with the M1 and M2 generations was a byproduct of Apple silicon being new — that the nature of launching a new PC chip architecture was such that Apple went with the “easier” chips first, the “harder” chips after. But now that they’ve been around this block a few times, having successfully bootstrapped an entirely new PC architecture, they’ve reached the point where they’re able to lead with their most important M-series chips: pro chips for pro MacBooks.
I expect that we’ll see M3 MacBook Airs in the spring, either at a special event in March or April, or at WWDC.3 And that’s probably the same time we’ll see the desktop lineup — Mini, Studio, and Pro — move to the M3 series as well. (Even if the M3 Ultra is “just” two M3 Maxes bridged together, that should be a pretty good chip, with up to 32 CPU cores, 80 GPU cores, and a RAM cap of 256 GB. If the M3 Ultra is more than that... get your popcorn.)
Further, I think this will be the pattern henceforth, for the M4, M5, and future generations: MacBook Pros first, then MacBook Airs and desktops after. It simply makes more sense marketing-wise. The MacBook Pros are the performance-optimized laptops, and pro laptops far outsell pro desktops.
With the M1 and M2 generations, the Pro chip was basically half of a Max chip. That’s not true with the M3 chips. In broad strokes, the M3 Pro is more like a beefed up regular M3, and the M3 Max is a different beast entirely. Looking at CPUs, split by performance and efficiency cores, here are the best configurations for each chip:
The M3 Pro models are geared toward what I think is the sweet spot for MacBook Pro buyers, with a balance between performance and efficiency cores. The M3 Max models are clearly geared toward professionals who demand the highest performance available. 16 total CPU cores doesn’t sound like that many more than 12, but the M3 Max cores aren’t split evenly between performance and efficiency — they’re skewed heavily toward performance cores.
There are also lesser (presumably, binned) variants of the M3 Pro (11 total CPU cores: 5 performance cores/6 efficiency; 14-core GPU) and M3 Max (14 total CPU cores: 10 performance, 4 efficiency; 30-core GPU). And the RAM options for all of these chips vary, both in bandwidth and capacity:
Those RAM options also make clear that the M3 Pro is more like a beefed-up regular M3, and the M3 Max a different beast. The M3 Pro offers options with a little more RAM that’s 1.5× faster than the baseline M3. The M3 Max offers options with a lot more RAM that’s 3× or 4× faster.
At first it might seem overwhelming to see that the “M3 family of MacBook Pros” supports RAM tiers of 8, 16, 18, 24, 36, 48, 64, 96, and a whopping 128 GB of RAM. But once you zero in on a specific CPU, you’ve really only got two or three choices for RAM. My only complaints about RAM:
It would be nice if the base M3 model started at 16 GB, not 8 GB. 8 GB doesn’t feel “pro” in any sense of the word. But we can’t ignore Apple’s profit margins and the siren song, marketing-wise, of hitting lower price points. Keeping the profit margins the same but bumping the base RAM to 16 GB would mean the entry model would start at $1,800; keeping the price at $1,600 but bumping the RAM to 16 GB would eat significantly into the margins for that model — which model, again, is Apple’s second-best-selling Mac. We all love to spend Tim Cook’s money, but he’s the one who’s been running the most profitable company in the world for over a decade. If you’re offended by a mere 8 GB of RAM, pony up the extra $200.
I personally fall into the category where my number one performance need is RAM, because I tend to keep open dozens of apps and hundreds of Safari tabs. In terms of my CPU and GPU needs, I don’t think I’d notice the difference between an M3 Pro and M3 Max. But to get a shitload of RAM (that’s a computer science term), you need to buy an M3 Max model. I wish the M3 Pro had at least one more RAM configuration, say, 3 × 16 GB = 48 GB. That would still leave the 64-GB-and-up configurations to the M3 Max, but would be a nice option for people whose biggest power-user need is RAM.
None of these extreme options come cheap. The 14-inch MacBook Pro with the 16-core M3 Max and 40-core GPU starts at $3,700; the 16-inch model with the same chip starts at a cool $4,000. The base RAM for that chip is 48 GB — which is double the maximum RAM of the regular M3. Upgrading from 48 to 64 GB RAM costs $200 (a veritable pittance for a roughly $4,000 computer); upgrading from 48 to 128 GB, though, costs $1,000.
I’ve spent the last five days testing a 14-inch MacBook Pro with the M3 Max, with the 16-core CPU, 40-core GPU, 64 GB RAM, and a 2 TB SSD. That’s a $4,300 configuration. Not cheap, but you really do get what you pay for: this machine absolutely screams.
|Safari 17.1||Brave 1.60.110|
|M1 Max MacBook Pro||465||425|
|M3 Max MacBook Pro||563||498|
The M1 Max MacBook Pro I’m using for comparison — my own — has 10 cores (8 performance, 2 efficiency) and 64 GB RAM. Both machines are running MacOS 14.1 Sonoma. (Point of comparison: my iPhone 15 Pro scores about 325 on the same Speedometer 2.1 benchmark. The days when iPhones outperformed MacBook Pros at single-core performance ended with the Intel era.)
Geekbench 6 results:
|M1 Max MacBook Pro||2,430||12,740||118,000|
|M3 Max MacBook Pro||3,200||21,220||155,000|
Cinebench 2014.1.0 results:
|M1 Max MacBook Pro||112||823||4688|
|M3 Max MacBook Pro||139||1,514||12,698|
These results are, broadly speaking, in line with each other, with the exception of the GPU discrepancy between Geekbench and Cinebench. I suspect Cinebench’s 2.7× difference will prove more representative of real-world results, but that’s just a hunch. But it seems fair to say that the M3 Max — and the M3 generation overall — is “faster enough”. These are very solid improvements from comparable MacBook Pros in just two years.
Apple’s own marketing materials make several points of comparison to Intel-based Macs, which is where the new MacBook Pros truly shine. That’s not entirely fair to Intel, the company, because Intel’s laptop chips have, of course, gotten faster since Apple last shipped new Macs equipped with them in 2019. But it’s completely relevant to all Mac users still using Intel-based Macs, who, according to people I’ve spoken with at Apple, remain a majority of the Mac user base. The upgrade cycle for Macs is long — more like that for cars, than for phones. Those Mac users who’ve held off on upgrading to Apple silicon hardware are in for a treat when they do.
I will note that the only time I’ve heard fan noise from the M3 Max MacBook Pro was while running Cinebench’s benchmarks. The machine was warm, not hot, but the fan was definitely audible. Cinebench’s are long-running benchmarks, each taking 10 minutes. In actual usage, I haven’t heard the fans even once, as usual for an Apple silicon Mac.
My review unit is, unsurprisingly and thankfully, space black — a new color option that is only available with the M3 Pro and M3 Max models. All of the new M3-series MacBook Pros are available in silver, but the dark option for the regular M3 models is the same old space gray.
Apple’s product photography is very fair in terms of accurately conveying just how dark this “space black” is — which, despite its name, is a very dark gray, not black. Why not black black, though? Apple has made plenty of aluminum devices that are truly black. The iPhone 7 — available in both glossy jet black and matte black — comes to mind. I can only presume that this is the darkness that Apple thinks looks best for a MacBook Pro — that any darker would look worse, overall. There’s a part of me that would like to see it even darker, but this is dark enough that I can believe that even darker would not look better.
I adore it. My personal Mac is a space gray 14-inch M1 Max MacBook Pro with 64 GB RAM (the maximum RAM allotment for that machine). I have no legitimate performance-related reasons to upgrade to an M3 Max MacBook Pro, but I want to, very much, simply because I crave this space black finish. Side by side, this space black M3 MacBook Pro makes my space gray M1 MacBook Pro look like silver. Space gray MacBooks are merely darker. Space black, though not black, is actually dark. It’s a superficial aspect, but it matters. If it didn’t, Apple would just make them all silver and call it a day.
One reason, it seems, that the space gray Apple offered for years, on both MacBooks and iPads, wasn’t darker is that darker shades of anodized aluminum are more prone to showing fingerprints. Visible fingerprints are a common complaint regarding the “midnight” M2 MacBook Airs, for example, which are in fact quite dark. When introducing the new space black option last week, Apple specifically mentioned a new process they’ve developed to reduce the visibility of fingerprints. It is not a coating. It is instead a “breakthrough chemistry” that is part of the anodization process. It doesn’t feel any different at all to the touch, and it really does seem to alleviate the visibility of fingerprints. I’m calling it a legit breakthrough. I’ve not once cleaned this MacBook Pro’s surface since I’ve been using it, and other than some squint-and-you-can-see-them smudges on the palm rest area, there’s not much sign it’s been used.
Also: the MagSafe power cable is black, and it looks cool as hell. If Darth Vader charged that chest plate dingus with MagSafe, this would be his cable.
These new 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros are the best laptops ever made. Not just the best MacBooks, the best laptops, full stop, and I don’t think it’s even close. They look great and feel great. They have excellent keyboards and the best trackpads in the world. For the power they pack, they’re remarkably thin and light. They’re durable. They offer a great assortment of ports, including three Thunderbolt 4 ports (but just two ports on the 14-inch base model — the one with the regular M3 — and those two ports are Thunderbolt/USB 4, not Thunderbolt 4), HDMI out, an SD Card slot, and MagSafe. There is even a very small circular port where you can connect headphones that use a wired connection. The displays are the best in any laptops in the world, with great color accuracy and remarkable brightness. The speaker systems sound too good to be true for laptops.
That’s all been true for two years now, since the M1 Pro and M1 Max MacBook Pros launched in October 2021.
Now they’re even better: the M3 family of chips is more than just a speed bump from the M2. Apple has designed three entirely different chips for three different tiers of users. They’re faster at single-core performance, faster at multi-core, and the GPUs introduce three breakthroughs: hardware accelerated ray tracing and mesh shading (new to Apple silicon), and a new memory allocation technique they’re calling Dynamic Caching (new to the industry, so claims Apple). I suspect this explains the extraordinary gain in Cinebench’s GPU benchmark comparing the M3 Max against my very comparable 2021 M1 Max. Apple’s M-series silicon team is simply on fire, doing some of the most impressive work in the history of computer architecture design and engineering. PC laptops in this class weigh over 6.5 pounds and offer terrible battery life; the 16-inch MacBook Pro weighs 4.7–4.8, the 14-inch MacBook Pro just 3.4–3.6, and all offer remarkably long battery life. It’s not like Apple’s silicon team had one breakthrough moment back in 2020 and have since been regressing to the mean — they continue to increase their lead over the rest of the industry in performance-per-watt. The difference between Mac and PC laptop hardware is as vast and stark as the difference between MacOS and Windows software. Perhaps even more so.
So should you buy one?
Anyone who bought an M2 MacBook Pro earlier this year: I feel for you. First round of drinks is on me.
Anyone, like me, who bought an M1 MacBook Pro two years ago: you are right to feel tempted. If you’re hell-bent on keeping your wallet in your pocket and waiting one more generation before upgrading, do not — I repeat, do not — let your eyes fall upon a space black M3 MacBook Pro.
Anyone still holding onto an Intel-based MacBook Pro: place an order right now, if you haven’t already. I’m jealous of the treat you’re in for when you experience what these premium Apple silicon machines are like to use.
My style is to round “x99” prices up, for clarity. I see “$1,100” and I know what it means; I see “1,099” and I need a moment to put it in context, and that context is understanding that it effectively means $1,100. I left the M1 MacBook Air at $999 in the above table because that’s clearly a magic price point — Apple’s only sub-$1,000 MacBook. ↩︎
Pour one out for the Touch Bar, which many Mac users seemingly despised, but which I always had mixed feelings regarding. It wasn’t good enough, that’s clear. I think it needed haptic feedback, for one thing — something that would’ve enabled you to use it by touch alone. The name “Touch Bar” sort of didn’t fit, if you think about it. Yes, it was a touch screen, but unlike the physical keys of a keyboard, there was no way to use it by feel alone. And it wasn’t part of the display — it was part of the keyboard. You had to stare at it to use it. And the lack of a third dimension — buttons you could feel and that needed to be pressed, not just touched, to activate — made it prone to accidental activations. It was worth a try. I genuinely appreciate the ambition of trying something innovative with the F-key row. But it wasn’t good enough and stuck around too long with that “Pro Jr.” 13-inch MacBook Pro. I’d love to see it return someday, with an implementation that somehow offers depth — a third dimension that you can feel and click. Something meant for your fingers, not your eyes. ↩︎︎
I do not think we will see any M3 chips other than the regular M3 in the next generation of MacBook Air. Generally speaking, if a component has “pro” in its name, it goes into products with “pro” in their name. So I don’t expect the M3 Pro will appear in a MacBook Air. It is true, though, that today’s Mac Mini can be configured with an M2 Pro. The difference between the Mac Mini and MacBook Air, though, is cooling. The Mac Mini is relatively spacious and has fans; the MacBook Air is designed to be as thin as possible and has no fans. No fans means no M3 Pro, I suspect. ↩︎︎