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Brighton, England

The new MacBook Pro

After 7 years, I have a new laptop.

My previous laptop was really showing its age, particularly in this age of remote working. Its fans would spin up every time I joined a call on Microsoft Teams or Google Meet, and my face would disappear into a sea of darkness as the daylight faded with the 720p camera unable to compensate. Viewing Miro boards would be like wading through treacle. With the rubber around the screen starting to perish, and no longer eligible for macOS updates, it’s officially decrepit.

I’ve timed my upgrade perfectly, having forgone the MacBook Pro’s wilderness years of poor connectivity, defective keyboards, the unloved Touch Bar and a remorseless pursuit of thinness. That’s not to say I wouldn’t have upgraded sooner, but when Apple announced they would be transitioning the Mac to a new line of ARM-based processors, it made sense to wait. And wait. And then after the announcement of the new MacBook Pro models last month, wait a little while longer.

There’s something to be said for patience. I think back to when I got my very first Mac in 1999. While waiting for my student loan to arrive, I would revisit the product page on Apple’s website, read countless articles in magazines and pore over every detail. The eventual arrival of a large and extremely heavy square box – and the beautifully sculptured translucent plastic computer it contained – was all the sweeter for the wait I’d endured.

The 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro.
The 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro. Photograph: Apple

I’d forgotten about the new Mac smell. Lifting this slab of cold aluminium from its box meant I could appreciate this new model’s heft and thickness first hand. It’s great to see Apple embrace function over form for once. I like the squared-off design too, but the vents along each side seem like a regression; while not uncomfortable, they are noticeable when holding the laptop in your hands.

I opted for the Space Grey colour, but I’m a little uncertain if I made the right choice. I don’t mind the darker shade so much as it doesn’t appear to be truly neutral; in certain lights, it has a slight pinkish hue (though not as much as I keep thinking it has). It also doesn’t match the colour of my external hard drive or Apple TV remote. The paradox of choice; had this been the only option, I doubt I’d be worried.

The MagSafe connector returns – or rather, is still here – but is not colour matched for the Space Grey models, weirdly. It has a much stronger magnet than its predecessor; it’s almost impossible to remove when pulled in a lateral direction. The port’s placement a little further towards the front of the chassis, plus its thinner dimensions makes it harder to locate. I wonder if this area will develop a patina over time from all the rubbing of the connector around the port as I try to locate it.

That the cable can be detached from the power brick is a welcome feature. Barely attached to its extremely worn cable, the power brick for my previous laptop violates several health and safety standards by this point. I have already replaced it once, and crossed my fingers I wouldn’t need to again. It’ll be interesting to see how durable the new braided power cable is – I have my doubts!

The trusty headphone jack remains, yet owning a recent iPhone model and Apple’s latest laptop somehow means needing to carry two sets of headphones, or an adaptor (I have no interest in AirPods). That you can use AirPlay to stream from one device to the other is a useful workaround.

While the keyboard is better than its butterfly predecessors, it still sounds a bit clickity-clackity. The keys have a good amount of travel though, so I’m sure I will get used to this over time. Having the keyboard sit within a black recess gives these MacBooks their distinctive look, but also highlights errant bits of biscuit and toast. Maybe this is a feature, not a bug.

The display is… great? My ageing eyes aren’t able to appreciate the higher resolution or adaptive refresh rate. I certainly like having an extra inch of screen real estate to play with. One area I hope to see a difference is having photos taken on my iPhone not look completely different when viewed on a larger display. I suspect the display’s peak brightness will come in handy whenever I need to work in direct sunlight, too. Right now I have the brightness set to 50% and this is more than enough; any brighter and I’d get a headache.

The notch is interesting, but more from a software perspective. The option in macOS to hide the menu bar when an application is in full screen mode makes less sense now, at least as a system-wide preference. For productivity applications, having the menu bar be visible but tucked up and away in the top recesses of the display is preferable. For applications that offer a more immersive experience, hiding the menu bar makes more sense. This feels like it should be a contextual option, possibly in an application’s Window menu, rather than an obscure checkbox in System Preferences.

The FaceTime HD camera is a massive improvement. In normal use, it’s sharp and clear, while in low light settings you can now actually see me. The image is heavily processed in such conditions, being notably patchy and of a lower resolution. This is no iPhone camera but more than satisfies its main purpose.

The one area where this device really excels is audio. The speakers are stunning. I’m no audiophile, but the difference is remarkable. Playing the first song on this new machine (Coldplay’s Higher Power – don’t judge) almost brought me to tears. The soundscape is incredible. I almost feel the need to play every song in my library again to hear how it is meant to sound. Video calls can be a bit odd though, with colleagues sounding like they’re dialling in from a cave. In a Microsoft Team’s meetings with two colleagues displayed on a split-screen, I experienced spatial audio for the first time, their voices emanating from each side of the screen. Or at least I think I did… I may well have imagined it!

In terms of performance, coming from a laptop powered by an Intel Core i7, this computer is undoubtedly many, many times faster. I decided to get a MacBook Pro with the M1 Pro chip rather than the more battery intensive M1 Max, but for the type of work I do (writing text, drawing rectangles) this is massively overpowered.

The sort of performance that does matter is reading and writing to disk, and the only benchmark I care about is how quickly can I generate my Eleventy-based website. Previously this took roughly 25 seconds, now build times hover below 10 seconds. Watching and regenerating files on other projects is noticeably faster too. None of this has much to do with the processor, it’s simply a factor of using a machine with modern solid-state storage. Still, even with 32GB of memory, 10 CPU cores and 16 GPU cores, Slack takes 30 seconds to load. What I’d give for a world without slow and bloated Electron-based apps.

So, those are my initial thoughts on the new MacBook Pro. Stupidly expensive, massively overpowered, but if using a formula where the value of a purchase is its cost divided by the amount of time spent using it, hopefully a worthwhile investment.

Ordinarily, I’d feel guilty for indulging myself, but seeing as this year has been so unendingly shit, think I’ll give myself a pass on this occasion.