MacBook Pro (14-inch, 2021) Review: The Mac That Fans Have Been Waiting For

Apple is no stranger to wiping the slate clean; ditching its own standards and designs even at the height of their popularity because it thinks something better is around the corner. From the original iMac which had no floppy drive and the iPhone 7 ditching the headphone jack, to the 2012 MacBooks with only USB Type-C, Apple’s quest for minimalism has often upset its customers. However, there have been rare occasions when the behemoth has had to accept that it went wrong – the buttonless third-gen iPod shuffle was replaced with its own predecessor, the shallow “butterfly” MacBook keyboard has been consigned to history, and more recently Safari’s drastic beta redesign has been shelved. The company will even soon begin allowing users to repair some of their own hardware problems at home.

Even so, the new 2021 MacBook Pro comes as a surprisingly comprehensive reversal; almost an apology to users of the past few generations. Nearly everything major that changed with the 2016 redesign and annoyed people has been reversed – but there are still a few caveats and one big new compromise that has already caused fresh controversy. Apple has listened to its users but is also still doing many things its own way. Can you live with this new balance, or has Apple just found a different way to alienate actual professionals? Read on to find everything you’ll need to decide that for yourself.

In profile, the new MacBook Pro looks rather like the pre-2016 models

 

MacBook Pro (14-inch, 2021) price in India and specifications

Don’t expect the new MacBook Pro to come cheap. The previous-gen 13-inch model with an M1 processor is still available for those who want more than a MacBook Air but have budget constraints. The new 14-inch 2021 MacBook Pro price in India starts at Rs. 1,94,900, with an M1 Pro CPU that has eight active CPU cores and 14 GPU cores. For this price you get only a 512GB NVMe SSD, and this variant is the only one that ships with a slower 67W charger.

What you’ll probably want is the M1 Pro configuration with 10 CPU cores and 16 GPU cores active, which is priced at Rs. 2,39,900 in India. This option also has a 1TB SSD and you get the faster 96W charger. There’s a custom configurable option with 10 CPU cores but only 14 GPU cores for Rs. 5,000 less, which seems like an unnecessary variation.

Beyond this, there are options with the M1 Max processor – the same 10 CPU cores, but either 24 or 32 GPU cores, priced Rs. 20,000 and Rs. 40,000 over and above the top-specced M1 Pro. Going from 16GB of RAM to 32GB or 64GB (only possible with the M1 Max) will cost another Rs. 20,000 or Rs. 40,000 respectively. Going from 1TB to 2TB, 4TB or 8TB of SSD capacity will cost Rs. 40,000, Rs. 1,00,000, or Rs. 2,20,000 respectively. Your new 14-inch MacBook Pro could cost as much as Rs. 5,79,900 with all the bells and whistles (not including an extended warranty).

Interestingly the 16-inch model ranges in price from Rs. 2,39,900 to Rs. 5,89,90 so if you’re splashing out on upgrades, there’s very little reason not to go for the bigger screen and better thermal performance that the larger model affords.

Other than these variables, both the 14-inch and 16-inch models have brand new 120Hz mini-LED displays, Touch ID fingerprint sensors, Wi-Fi 6, and Bluetooth 5. Battery capacity is 70Wh and 100Wh for the 14-inch and 16-inch models, and Apple promises up to 11 hours and 14 hours of casual use respectively.

There’s now a 1080p webcam with computational enhancement through the M1 series SoCs. Audio also gets a big upgrade with a new six-speaker system and spatial audio. You don’t get S/PDIF output through the 3.5mm jack anymore but the new MacBook Pros are said to support high-impedance headphones. There are three built-in mics with beamforming.

The power button has an integrated Touch ID fingerprint sensor

 

MacBook Pro (14-inch, 2021) design and features

The biggest news is that there’s now a 14-inch MacBook Pro – it isn’t physically much larger than the previous 13-inch model, thanks to a taller screen with narrower borders. It’s available in Silver and Space Grey – no festive colours for Pro models, it seems. The brushed metal texture of previous models remains, and the Apple logo on the lid is mirrored but not illuminated. In profile, the new MacBook Pro actually looks a bit retro, with raised feet, flat sides, and almost no curve to the edges of the lid.

The lid can be raised easily and the hinge feels very firm, but one ergonomic issue is the sharp corners of the little lip provided for your thumb. Build quality overall is very good, and there’s no flex at all to the lid.

What many people will appreciate is the return of various ports, most notably MagSafe for charging. This is a new, thinner connector that Apple calls MagSafe 3, and neither chargers nor MacBooks themselves are physically compatible with older models. You can still use Type-C ports to charge the new MacBook Pro, but MagSafe will be quicker (depending on the wattage of your power adapter).

The “thunk” sound as the connector snaps into place is familiar and satisfying – as convenient as universal Type-C charging is, having MagSafe in addition is the best of both worlds. It also fulfils its original purpose of disengaging quickly when the cord is yanked, preventing your expensive laptop from crashing to the floor. Interestingly, Apple’s new MagSafe chargers don’t have tethered cables; instead there’s a USB Type-C connector on the charger, making it more versatile than before. The cable is also now braided, but not colour-coordinated like with the 2021 iMacs. I got a 96W charger with my review unit (not 67W, as listed on the spec sheet for this variant) and it was quite bulky and heavy.

MagSafe, a fan-favourite Apple feature, returns to the new MacBook Pro lineup

 

You’ll now also find three Thunderbolt 4 ports (one fewer than before) that support charging, DisplayPort video, and USB4; an HDMI 2.0 video output; an SDXC card slot; and a 3.5mm audio jack. It’s almost surprising that Apple retained the 3.5mm jack, having ditched it even on iPads now. Although it’s great to have more ports for flexibility, HDMI 2.1 and SD Express would have been better choices for future-proofing. You’ll also still need dongles or a hub for Ethernet and USB Type-A.

Apple has transplanted its new external Magic Keyboard onto the MacBook Pro, so you get exactly the same layout. This makes sense for consistency. The entire keybed is now black, which makes for a striking look. The touch bar across the top is entirely gone now – sorry, Jonny Ive. Apple never did manage to make this catch on, especially since it was limited only to MacBook Pros and could never have been implemented on Apple’s battery-powered desktop keyboards. It wasn’t a bad idea, but having it in place of physical Fn keys rather than above them was a mistake, and now power users can have their familiar tactile controls back.

The butterfly keyboard disaster is behind us now, and the new 2021 MacBook Pro is quite pleasant to type on. The key action is a bit crisp, but comfortable. The Fn row shortcuts have been rearranged – there’s no backlight level adjustment shortcut anymore which is annoying, and it’s too easy to unintentionally pull up the new emoji picker by tapping the Fn key. The arrow keys are a bit cramped as well. Overall though, typing is comfortable and even pleasant.

Apple has also shipped solid-state trackpads for several years now – there’s no physical clicking mechanism but pushing down generates a force-feedback haptic vibration that feels remarkably lifelike. You can even vary pressure to “force click”, which shows contextual information or triggers actions, such as being able to rename a file in the Finder. It works well, but feels fatiguing after a while since it’s the pad of your finger that absorbs the pressure, not any mechanism. Tap-to-click is disabled by default and so is hold-to-drag (which is now in the accessibility settings) for some reason. MacOS recognises lots of multi-finger gestures which work fluidly and soon become second nature.

Apple’s default wallpaper masks the notch cleverly

 

MacBook Pro (14-inch, 2021) display and notch

The most controversial feature of the new 2021 MacBook Pro is its display notch. Many laptop manufacturers have tried relocating or dispensing with webcams altogether to make screen borders as narrow as possible, and none of these solutions has really worked. Apple is the first to try a notch that cuts into the top of the panel itself, and maybe this is the best compromise. The question is, though, do we really need the borders around our laptop screens to be this slim?

Nearly every smartphone manufacturer copied Apple’s iPhone X notch when it first came out, and now there isn’t a single one left shipping phones like this – they’ve all moved on to camera holes or much smaller incursions, while even the latest iPhones with their relatively chunky Face ID camera and IR projector array now look a bit dated. It’s surprising that Apple has chosen to bring this look to its laptops even though they don’t support Face ID (iPad Pros with Face ID have so far escaped, but thick borders are necessary on a handheld device).

Even Apple seems to understand that notches are distracting and unattractive – the default macOS wallpaper is strategically dark at the top to help mask the notch. The company has also thought about how to mitigate this. Here’s how it works: First of all, the screen is taller than before. The resolution is now 3024×1964 (or 3456×2234 on the 16-inch model) which is exactly 74 pixels taller than a true 16:10 aspect ratio. That means the screen has actually been extended upwards to fill the space around the webcam; the notch doesn’t encroach on any space there was before.

Apple has moved the macOS menu bar into this space, now splitting it into left and right sections. The screen effectively continues “behind” the notch, and your trackpad cursor will pass through it rather than acting as though there’s an edge, even if you’re dragging something. The screen is large enough that most programs will show their menus on the left, leaving the system status icons on the right. Some heavy programs with very dense menus might spill over, and if you’re a power user with a lot of apps that have their own icons or readouts, you might find that there just isn’t enough lateral room for everything. This is where Apple has not quite gotten everything right – I noticed some odd cursor behaviour in Premiere Pro, jumping from one side of the notch to the other. Videos online show how users have encountered odd bugs with items rendered invisibly behind the notch or failing to wrap around it sensibly. Hopefully these issues will be addressed in future macOS updates.

If the menu bar could be set to opaque black, you might not even notice the notch is there in normal operation – third-party apps can do this but a native option would be useful (reducing transparency in the Accessibility settings doesn’t quite achieve the desired effect, even in Dark mode). On the plus side, app windows can now fill the remaining 16:10 screen area (if you also hide the macOS dock). In full-screen mode, this is exactly how they fit – the areas to the sides of the notch remain black, leaving a rectangle. If you move the cursor up into that space, menu items appear there, and don’t overlap your app window as before.

The notch is fully visible when you use a light wallpaper (top) as opposed to Apple’s default selection (bottom)

 

Most video these days is widescreen and will play letterboxed anyway when fullscreen, so you don’t have the notch covering anything. Vertical and even 4:3 video plays within the 16:10 space, so you’re effectively letterboxed on three sides, with no visible notch.

For most use cases, this implementation is actually very workable. While it often feels as though space has been wasted, you just have to think of the two “wings” above the bounds of the 16:10 space as bonus areas. Apple could have done a better job of pointing this out, to avoid the perception that this is wasted space. Once I got used to this and understood what was going on, I felt less annoyed. However, the notch is still a constant visual distraction. You can always see the edges when working. Wallpaper with a dark top can help, but an opacity control would have been much better.

It’s also annoying that Apple couldn’t fit its Face ID hardware in, which would have been far better justification for a notch. As of now it’s just a brand differentiator – the rumoured upcoming MacBook refresh might have a light-coloured notch which could be far less easy to live with, going by this experience.

Aside from this, the panel that Apple has used is excellent. The 14-inch MacBook Pro has about the same pixel count as the previous 16-inch model, for an even denser and crisper effect. The panel uses mini-LED backlighting brightness can go up to 1000 nits in everyday use or a massive 1600 nits with HDR content. The full DCI-P3 colour gamut can be reproduced, and there’s a 120Hz maximum refresh rate – though not all software can take advantage of this yet.

Colours are vibrant without being oversaturated, motion is exceptionally smooth, and even tiny text is rendered crisply. Apple’s True Tone feature adjusts white balance automatically to compensate for the ambient light temperature. Videos look great, especially 4K HDR content. Overall, the larger screen is welcome in this segment, and is a pleasure to work on.

Blender is one of the few applications that really stressed the M1 Pro processor

 

MacBook Pro (14-inch, 2021) usage and performance

This is our first experience with Apple’s M1 Pro SoC, which promises even more power than the M1 from last year’s 13-inch MacBook Pro refresh. Apple is drawing new lines between its Pro laptops and the MacBook Air (or just MacBook, as it might be called). The M1 Pro leverages the same architecture as the M1 and is built on the same 5nm process. Instead of four high-performance and four efficiency cores, there are now six (or eight) of the former and only two of the latter. The GPU core count is also up from seven or eight to 14 or 16. Memory continues to be integrated but you have up to 32GB with the M1 Pro, and it has a faster interconnect. Of course the M1 Max CPU option pushes these figures up even further.

All three incarnations of the M1 family share a 16-core “neural engine” for AI and machine learning acceleration. The M1 Pro and M1 Max also introduce a new “media engine” which is a hardware encode/decode block designed to handle HEVC, H.264, and Apple’s own ProRAW and ProRES formats which could come in handy for video production and content creation professionals. In addition, devices powered by the M1 Pro and M1 Max can drive up to two and three external 6K displays, respectively.

In short, Apple’s new hardware tiers are not like what we’re used to seeing from traditional CPU manufacturers and PC brands – there are several capabilities to take into consideration to choose the right variant for your needs. Again, nothing is upgradeable, so you need to make a big decision at the time of purchase.

In everyday use, the new 2021 MacBook Pro is certainly impressive. Everything from launching apps to multitasking is extremely snappy. The laptop wakes quickly from sleep when its lid is raised, but I had trouble with the fingerprint sensor – it wasn’t as quick as what I’m used to with smartphones, and sometimes I needed to reposition my finger to get it right. Face recognition is now common on premium Windows laptops, and this might have been a good time for Apple to bring Face ID to Macs.

The SD card slot and HDMI video output are welcome, but Apple could have gone with more capable versions of each standard

 

This laptop is overpowered if all you need it for is entertainment, basic productivity, or Web surfing. In everyday use it runs completely silent. Premiere Pro ran flawlessly with a fairly heavy video project loaded up, and I was able to apply effects and render video quickly. The only test that really seemed to challenge the M1 Pro processor was Blender. I noticed the middle of the keyboard getting quite toasty and parts of the metal frame becoming hot after about 15 minutes of continuous rendering with the automated Blender Benchmark Launcher. Still, the fan remained whisper-quiet.

Blender completed the BMW render test scene in 4 minutes, 27 seconds and the Classroom scene in 13 minutes, 47 seconds. Interestingly, the same tests took 4 minutes, 26 seconds and 12 minutes, 38 seconds on battery power – that shows there isn’t much throttling, if any, to conserve power. However, the battery level did drop by 16 percentage points which is quite a lot.

Geekbench 5 managed to score 1,765 in its single-core run and 10,026 in the multi-core run. The OpenCL Compute test result was 34,653 points. Cinebench R23 posted scores of 1,531 and 9,550 in its single-core and multi-core test runs. Compared to the M1 SoC in the 2020 Mac mini and 2021 iMac, we see that single-core scores aren’t all that different but multi-threaded test results are significantly higher. This scales evenly with the increase in CPU cores so you can tell what the higher-end configurations of the M1 Pro and M1 Max will be able to achieve.

The browser-based WebXprt, Basemark Web 3.0 and Jetstream 2 benchmarks put up scores of 337, 1545.46 and 202.162 respectively. Encoding a 1.3GB AVI file to H.265 took 46 seconds.

The MagSafe connector, two Thunderbolt 4 ports, and a 3.5mm audio socket are on the left

 

The M1 Pro SoC also has significantly more powerful integrated graphics capabilities than the M1, so I tried running Shadow of the Tomb Raider, a relatively demanding game. At 1920×1200, using the High quality preset, the built-in benchmark averaged a surprisingly playable average of 48fps. Once again, this figure stayed constant even on battery power.

Unigine’s Valley benchmark is not Apple Silicon native and ran through the Rosetta compatibility layer. It was unable to run at at 1920×1080, and instead defaulted to 1512×982 (a quarter of the native 3024×1964 due to Retina upscaling). It still produced an impressive average of 72.1 fps, with 4xAA enabled.

The speakers on the new MacBook Pro are impressive. Music sounded rich and full with reasonably good bass, and voices in video were crisp. The maximum volume could have been a bit better, but this is still great for a laptop. The 1080p webcam is quite good as well, but needs adequate light to work.

Coming to battery life, the new 14-inch MacBook Pro was able to get through a full workday without being plugged in, and still had over 20 percent left at the end. Usage was mainly browser-based, with a lot of work on documents and a bit of music and video streaming as well. Heavy tests did drain the battery quickly but there’s no sign of throttling, which will be great for some people. Idle power usage was minimal – closing the lid at night and checking in the next morning, there was virtually no drop in the battery level at all.

The 96W MagSafe charger was able to take my review unit from an empty battery to 52 percent in 30 mins, and to 86 percent in an hour. It took slightly over an hour and a half to charge fully. USB Type-C fast charging is supported as well (only on the 14-inch model). Keep in mind that the base variant of the 14-inch model does not come with the fast MagSafe charger, but the additional Rs. 1,600 to get it is quite reasonable.

Apple has eliminated the Touch Bar, which never became indispensable

 

Verdict

Apple has embraced change with the new MacBook Pro lineup, even at the cost of admitting it was wrong. It’s just sad that it took so long – many buyers including long-time Mac users were vocal and united in criticising the lack of ports and slots on the previous few generations, plus the fact that the Touch Bar made the keyboard worse. What the company has now remembered is that a premium laptop is not the same as a laptop for pro users.

I was expecting the notch to be a big problem but I found it easy enough to live with, after a while. It’s still distracting and you’ll have to choose wallpapers strategically to mask it, but it isn’t a dealbreaker. If you work with apps full-screen most of the time, it’s a non-issue. Hopefully Apple will bring back an opaque menu bar in macOS

The M1 Pro and M1 Max processors deserve a lot of attention but they aren’t the biggest reasons that people will want to buy or upgrade to either the 14-inch or 16-inch models. The screen is fantastic overall, the speakers are great, the keyboard and trackpad are easy to work with, and the return of useful ports will make people happy. Personally, I don’t miss the Touch Bar one bit.

Despite its high starting price, the new MacBook Pro will likely appeal to plenty of users looking for an upgrade

 

Things aren’t quite perfect though – you’ll still need some dongles and not all software plays well with the notch yet. The biggest problem remains cost – not only is the entry-level variant priced quite high, but the costs of adding RAM and storage (which you can’t upgrade later) are just completely ludicrous. There is no basis in reality for charging Rs. 60,000 to go from 512GB to 2TB when today’s top-performing 2TB SSDs cost around Rs. 35,000 in retail. It’s also silly that the fast MagSafe charger isn’t just included with the base variant.

Apple’s upcoming replacement for the current MacBook Air should make much more sense for most people who don’t have heavy workloads. It could even replace the holdover 13-inch MacBook Pro for entry-level content creators, considering how good Apple’s next-gen silicone is likely to be. If you’ve been holding on to a pre-2016 model for a while, it’s a good time to upgrade.

If you don’t have any budget constraints and just want the best Mac laptop there is right now, look no further. However, creative pros do have sleek and powerful options on the Windows side of the fence these days, with plenty of compelling features such as touchscreens and stylus support. Microsoft’s Surface lineup is the obvious equivalent, but the Asus ProArt and Acer ConceptD series are contenders, as are many top-end models from Dell, Lenovo, and HP for less artistic power users. 



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