Apple MacBook Pro 14 review: One for the pros, again
Apple’s taken a few steps back to take a huge leap forward
Apple’s MacBook Pro lineup has been the choice for creative and technology professionals alike, but the past half a decade has been anything but smooth. A series of divisive choices, from the prone to failure butterfly-switch keyboard and the less-than-Apple-intuitive Touch Bar to the switch to only USB-C ports in the pursuit of slimness, have seen the MacBook Pros lose favor with their core ‘Pro’ audience…or had them clutching their pre-2016-Pros, ports and all, for dear life.
Well, five years later, Apple has finally listened to its Pro users and delivered a MacBook Pro that looks and feels like ... a MacBook Pro. In doing so, Apple’s also made clear that these are no longer machines for the average consumer – the audience is developers and creative pros, and they’re priced accordingly. Both the all-new 14-inch MacBook Pro that I have on hand, and the second-generation 16-inch MacBook Pro lead the way with the best of Apple Silicon packed in a really familiar form factor. Almost as if to catapult these new machines to their rightful place on top of the Pro laptop pile, Apple’s taken a few steps back to take a huge leap forward. Let’s find out just how much, in our review of the 2021 MacBook Pro 14.
If the past few generations of MacBook Pros headed towards an obsession with being sleek, this one heads the other way. The 14-inch size class may be new to Apple, but beyond the minor physical footprint differences, Apple has allowed the laptop to unapologetically gain some weight and some girth to add more ports and better battery life. Make no mistake – this is a chunky laptop, one that gives off series retro PowerBook vibes, but the diet has been forsaken for a machine that looks and means business.
This model is all about the ports – 3 Thunderbolt 4 ports, an HDMI, an SD card slot, and a headphone jack. Any of the Thunderbolt USB-C type ports can be used for charging, but the old faithful will note the return of the MagSafe 3 easy detach magnetic connector, which detaches if you trip over the cable. Plus, the dedicated charging port tops the battery up faster. You could quibble over the fact that the HDMI port is 2.0-spec, not 2.1, which restricts it to output a maximum of 4K 60Hz video to external displays, or the SD card slot doesn’t support the faster but rarer to find UHS-III speed rating, but both these ports are manna from heaven for creative pros on the field and vastly reduce the need to carry a set of dedicated dongles, which is good.
Open the lid and the changes are far from subtle. Black is the new black, evident from the black Apple logo and the all-black keyboard. The look immediately distinguishes the MacBook Pro from the rest of the lineup, giving it an air of exclusivity. The controversial Touch Bar has been put out of its misery, replaced by full-sized function keys and the now-familiar Touch ID button…and a large Escape key that will please the most hardened of developers. The keyboard is accurate and pleasant to type on, and the massive trackpad is still the one to beat across all laptops.
Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: that iPhone-like notch carved out from the top of the screen to fit in the 1080p webcam and light sensors. Now, based on how forgiving you are to these uniquely Apple design elements, it’s either something you’ll question unendingly or ignore completely. It’s really not that big a deal – Apple’s pushed the macOS menu bar up and around the camera, so it’s taking that top sliver of mostly unused space, leaving a full 16:10 display area beneath. If this is the way we get Apple to include a decent webcam, which is such a necessity these days, count me in. Pity though, that despite this notch, that we don’t see Face ID facial authentication on the MacBook Pro, which would have brought it on par with Windows Hello-equipped laptops.
The other issue I have with the notch is that it takes the conversation away from what is frankly a stellar display on the MacBook Pro. This is a 14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR mini-LED display, and if that sounds like a whole load of marketing buzzwords, know this much – this laptop display is exceptional. The mini-LED backlight gives it up to 1600nits of peak brightness for absolutely stunning HDR content, with deep inky blacks and super bright whites that make for great contrast levels. There’s ProMotion 120Hz fast refresh tech on a Mac for the first time as well, which essentially means that the screen refreshes up to twice as fast as most 60Hz non-gaming machines, giving you significantly smoother animations and scrolling, while sipping battery by using a lower refresh rate while you’re looking at static content. If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because it’s the same screen tech that powers the iPad Pro range, and the results are immediately visible and all manners of breathtaking. Whether you’re editing or color grading your own videos or watching someone else’s creation, or even watching TV shows on the go or surfing the web, this is a great screen to do it all of it on. It’s also the Goldilocks ‘just right’ size for productivity – not too cramped as smaller laptops and not as massive as the 16-inch models. Side note: the six-speaker sound system does an impressive job (for a laptop setup) complementing the display.
All of these upgrades wouldn’t be worth much if the MacBook Pro scrimped on the Pro-level performance. These new laptops are the first to pack in the new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips, which take the seemingly almost-fairy-tale transition from Intel to Apple Silicon onto its next chapter. With performance comparable to pro-grade Mac desktops at a fraction of power consumption, the MacBook Pro is, to borrow a cliché, a beast…on battery. On basic tasks like web browsing across an insane number of tabs, streaming and documents, the M1 Pro (16GB memory, 1TB storage) version of the MacBook Pro 14 that I tested expectedly flew through these everyday tasks. But for tasks that can benefit from the extra graphics grunt, stuff like complex batch image edits, editing/exporting 4K 60 frames per second video footage or complex mathematical models, the M1 Pro-powered MacBook Pro surges ahead. Despite my cocktail of testing workloads, I haven’t heard the fans fire up, even as video exports finished twice as fast as a previous generation Intel Core i9-based MacBook Pro 16. Even tasks that made the M1-powered iMac skip a beat, no issues. Word of caution though, one use case that doesn’t benefit immensely is gaming, and that’s down to the Mac gaming ecosystem itself being somewhat middling.
Mind you, all of this performance is on tap even when you’re running on battery. This level of performance without being plugged in lets you do whatever you want, wherever you are. Battery life figures are impressive too, with the laptop lasting well over 10 hours of mixed everyday use, which includes some video and photo edits, and if your workload is lighter on a given day, you could hit the 12-13 hour mark as well. Of course, demanding tasks on the creative or development side could chew through the battery faster, but if you plug it into the 96W charger, you can go from 0 to 50% in under 30 minutes.
The past few years of MacBook Pros were all about delivering a Pro experience in a consumer format, but with the 14-inch MacBook Pro, Apple goes back to the basics, back to the thought process that worked extremely well on the Macs of 2015 and prior, almost as if the last half-decade didn’t happen. The new MacBook Pro 14 demands to be pushed to the limit, leaving the more everyday tasks to the very capable and half the price MacBook Air. This is the laptop that legitimately puts the Pro back in MacBook Pro, but it’s priced accordingly. So, it really comes down to those of you who earn money developing software or games or edit videos professionally, for whom the savings in time will be worth the money… and be justifiable as a valid business expense. If you’re on the Apple ecosystem and in need of an upgrade, this is the machine for you.
Apple MacBook Pro 14
Pros: Class-leading M1 Pro performance, superb ProMotion display, ports are back, fast MagSafe charging, 1080p webcam, excellent keyboard and trackpad, solid build, battery life, good speakers
Cons: Screen notch doesn’t deliver Face ID, heavy, no USB-A port, expectedly pricey
Price: Rs. 1,94,900 onwards (Rs. 2,39,900 as tested)
Tushar Kanwar is a tech columnist and commentator, and tweets @2shar