MacBook Pro 16 (2021) Review: Apple finally does justice to Pros with the M1 Max

MacBook Pro 16 (2021) Review: Apple finally does justice to Pros with the M1 Max

I think even diehard Apple loyalists would agree the company has a stubborn streak and doesn’t usually concede — remember “you’re holding it wrong”? Nothing wrong with that, not when Apple has proven time and time again to be the maker of revolutionary products that change the course of consumer tech. If I’ve made a trillion dollars doing things my way, I’d be stubborn too. But Apple’s newest high-end product, the MacBook Pro 2021 powered by new Apple silicon, is an unusual about-face for the trillion-dollar tech giant.

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Essentially, almost all the high-profile changes Apple introduced with its last major MacBook design refresh in 2015 — replacing MagSafe with USB-C charging, swapping F keys for the Touch Bar, eliminating common ports like HDMI, plus that notorious “butterfly keyboard” — have been reverted back to the pre-2015 state. These new MacBook Pros, as a result, feel brand new and a throwback at the same time.

This contrast of new and old is almost all good news for consumers and tech geeks though. The returning bits like MagSafe and SD card slots are much welcome, and new additions, like the brand new silicon? A game-changer for the industry that will continue to have Intel sweating.

I’ve been testing the top-end MacBook Pro 16 (2021), almost spec’ed out, model running on Apple’s new M1 Max for the week, and this machine is a content creator’s dream.

Apple's 2021 MacBook Pro 16-inch with M1 Max.

    Apple MacBook Pro 16 (M1 Max, 2021)
      If you are a creative professional, especially one immersed in Apple's eco-system, this is the most powerful portable machine you can get. If you're not a creative professional and have some money to spend, this may be worth considering due to its gorgeous screen, best-in-class speakers, and future-proofed efficient SoC.

        Pros:

        Cons:

    Click to expand: Apple MacBook Pro 14 and 16 (2021): Specifications

    MacBook Pro 14 and MacBook Pro 16: Specifications

    SpecificationMacBook Pro 14MacBook Pro 16
    Dimensions & Weight
    • 12.3 x 8.7 x 0.6 inches
    • 3.5 pounds/1.58Kg
    • 14 x 9.8 x 0.7 inches
    • 4.7 pounds/2.13Kg (M1 Pro variant)
    • 4.8 pounds/2.18Kg (M1 Max variant)
    Display
    • 14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR
    • 3024 x 1964 pixels
    • 254 PPI
    • Mini-LED
    • 120Hz ProMotion
    • True-Tone
    • 16:10 Aspect Ratio
    • 16.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR
    • 3456 x 2244 pixels
    • 254 PPI
    • Mini-LED
    • 120Hz ProMotion
    • True-Tone
    • 16:10 Aspect Ratio
    SoC
    • Apple M1 Pro (8-Core CPU, 14-Core GPU)
    • Apple M1 Pro (10-Core CPU, 14-Core GPU)
    • Apple M1 Pro (10-Core CPU, 16-Core GPU)
    • Apple M1 Max (10-Core CPU, 24-Core GPU)
    • Apple M1 Max (10-Core CPU, 32-Core GPU)
    • Apple M1 Pro (10-Core CPU, 16-Core GPU)
    • Apple M1 Max (10-Core CPU, 24-Core GPU)
    • Apple M1 Max (10-Core CPU, 32-Core GPU)
    RAM & Storage
    • 16/32/64GB RAM
    • 512GB/1TB/2TB/4TB/8TB SSD storage
    • 16/32/64GB RAM
    • 512GB/1TB/2TB/4TB/8TB SSD storage
    Ports
    • MagSafe 3
    • HDMI
    • 3.5mm jack
    • SD Card slot
    • USB-C Thunderbolt 4 (x3)
    • MagSafe 3
    • HDMI
    • 3.5mm jack
    • SD Card slot
    • USB-C Thunderbolt 4 (x3)
    Battery & Charging
    • 70Wh
    • 67W charger with the base variant
    • 96W charger with the 10-Core CPU variants
    • 100Wh
    • 140W charger
    Connectivity
    • Wi-Fi 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6
    • Bluetooth 5.0
    • 1080p Webcam
    • Wi-Fi 802.11ax Wi-Fi 6
    • Bluetooth 5.0
    • 1080p Webcam
    Colors
    • Space Gray
    • Silver
    • Space Gray
    • Silver
    PriceStarts at $1,999Starts at $2,499

    About this review: Apple loaned me the MacBook Pro 16 (2021) with M1 Max to test. Apple did not have any input in this review.


    Apple MacBook Pro 16 (2021): Design and Hardware

    M1 Max MacBook Pro from the back side

    Even though I’ve been using the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro for the past two years as my main machine — and before COVID, I was lugging it around the world on work trips too — I was still caught off guard by the sheer heft of the new MacBook Pro 16 (2021).

    M1 Max MacBook Pro and 2019 MacBook Pro

    2021 MacBook Pro 16 (top) and 2019 MacBook Pro 16 (bottom).

    Weighing 4.8-pounds (2.2 kg) and measuring 0.66-inch (16.7mm) in height (thickness), this thing is built like a tank and took a bit more strength than usual to lift a tech product of its box.

    The good news (at least for me) is that Apple didn’t give this MacBook the same “flat sides, hard angles” design language seen in almost all of Apple’s recent products: this MacBook Pro is still comfortable to sandwich between my arm and torso when I’m walking in and out of coffee shops thanks to the rounded, smooth corners and edges.

    Carrying the M1 Max MacBook Pro

    While the top lid of the new MacBook Pro 16 (2021) will look familiar to anyone who’s seen a MacBook, the bottom of this new machine sees a new design: four rubbery circular pegs and the words MacBook Pro etched into the aluminum casing.

    The left and right sides of the MacBook Pro 16 (2021) also stand out because of the returning ports: MagSafe, HDMI, and SD Card. I admit, the sides of this new machine don’t look as clean and “minimal” as recent MacBooks with only USB-C ports (the HDMI port, in particular, is sort of clunky looking), but as someone who takes photos and videos for work almost daily, damn, it’s good to have an SD Card slot built-in. Don’t call your product a machine for professionals if you ship it with just one or two ports.

    The bottom of the 2021 MacBook Pro 16.

    The MagSafe port works similar as before, but it’s a bit wider and thinner. You can still charge the MacBook with USB-C by the way. But MagSafe is faster, at up to 140W, and also comes with the peace of mind of not flinging your machine out if someone trips over the charging cable. My almost spec’ed out 16-inch model comes with that 140W charging brick; lower variants of the 16-inch and the 14-inch machines come with either 67W or 96W bricks depending on the configuration.

    Open up the lid and the first thing I noticed was not the notch (probably because the screen wasn’t on), but instead, the all-black keyboard, which differentiates the keyboard on the MacBook Pro 16 (2021) from previous MacBook keyboards. However, this new color scheme is merely a new paint job, as Apple says the keyboard itself is exactly the same as the 2019 16-incher in terms of mechanism and key travel. The Touch Bar is gone, and in its place are F-keys that anyone whose seen a laptop will be familiar with.

    Display and Speakers

    Once I boot up the machine, that’s when the notorious notch reared its face. I’m not going to sugarcoat things — it looks very goofy, and taller vertically than I expected. In fact, the status bar of this MacBook Pro has increased in height to match the notch.

    While you do get more screen space than the 2019 16-inch MacBook, some of that is wasted on a larger than usual status bar area. The font in the new status bar remains the same, so the extra space looks odd.

    Adding further weirdness to this laptop screen is the fact its top two corners are rounded — like a modern smartphone display — but the bottom corners come to a hard 90-degree angle.

    Notch weirdness aside, the 16.2-inch, 3,456 x 2,234 display, crafted out of Mini LED technology and refreshing up to 120Hz (Apple calls it ProMotion) looks gorgeous. And with a continuous maximum brightness of 1,000 nits (or 1,600 nits for short bursts), this screen gets brighter than my 2019 MacBook Pro or any other recent Huawei/Dell laptop I’ve used. In fact, I’m typing this sentence in a Los Angeles coffee shop with the scorching sun shining straight at the screen and I can still see the display without issues.

    The display looks stunning in less harsh lighting conditions. The Mini LED panel pumps out deep blacks and high contrast, and it supports the full P3 color gamut. That 120Hz “ProMotion” refresh rate, however, is very subtle. I can only see it when I’m scrolling — likely because MacOS animations don’t really zip around the way iPadOS or Android software animations do.

    The 120Hz refresh rate is fine -- I can notice it when I'm scrolling, but MacOS doesn't have animations that zip around the way iPadOS or an Android phone, so the 120Hz is very subtle.

    Colors are accurate on this display — it supports P3 color gamut — and viewing angles are excellent. This is a screen that you’re going to want to watch movies on, because not only is the screen top-notch (heh), but the six-speaker system here is the best I’ve heard on any portable machine. Check the video below for a sample, but really, this is a speaker system you have to hear for yourself in person.

    Webcam

    While the notch is unsightly, at least the MacBook Pro makes use of the space with a 1080p webcam and a TrueTone sensor that helps keep skin tone consistent despite varying lighting conditions.

    Photos and video footage shot with this MacBook Pro 2021 look better than the 2019 MacBook Pro, particularly in low light conditions.

    Keyboard and Trackpad

    The new MacBook Pro 2021 ditches the Touch Bar used in the last few years’ MacBook Pros, in its place is the return of F keys. I know some of my peers in the media industry are applauding this move, but I don’t really care. The Touch Bar was fine, and these F keys are fine. It’s a complete non-issue for me for my use cases.

    Otherwise, the keyboard and trackpad use the same hardware as the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro, including the fingerprint scanner in the upper right corner. This is great news because I find that trackpad to be the best trackpad I’ve ever used, and the keyboard among one of the best.

    the MacBook Pro keyboard

    When I used to daily drive a 2017 Dell XPS 13 or a 2018-era Huawei MateBook X Pro, I’d connect a wireless mouse whenever I had the chance. I even carried it in my backpack when I went on trips. Ever since I switched to using a MacBook as my main work machine, I haven’t touched that mouse as much.

    MacBook Pro 16, 2021 M1 Max version

    Silicon

    If you visit XDA-Developers and you’re this far down in this article, surely you’ve heard of the silicon powering Apple’s new MacBook Pros, the M1 Max and M1 Pro. These are essentially “Pro” upgrades to the M1 silicon that blew the socks off almost every reviewer last year.

    Schematic image of the M1, M1 Pro and the M1 Max

    In layman’s terms, these are ARM-based mobile SoCs (systems-on-a-chip) that are structurally close to smartphone SoCs rather than traditional computer processors built on Intel’s x86 architecture. For well over a decade, the general consensus in the computing industry was that ARM-based mobile SoCs are more efficient (they are smaller, use less power and generate less heat), but are capped at how much power they can output, while the more complicated x86 architecture has higher ceilings in terms of how much power it can push out.

    Apple took that notion and threw it out the window last year with the introduction of M1, which was just as powerful as the latest Intel processors at most tasks while being significantly more efficient. And the M1 Pro and M1 Max improve on the M1 in every way possible.

    The machine I’m testing is powered by the more powerful M1 Max chip that’s been fully spec’ed out: 10-core CPU, 32-core GPU, 64GB of unified memory (RAM that’s shared by both CPU and GPU).

    For my video creating needs, the new MacBook Pro is an absolute beast

    Both M1 Max and M1 Pro are 5nm SoCs, but the Max is larger in physical size so it holds 57 billion transistors compared to the M1 Pro’s 33.7 billion. The Max chip also has dual ProRes encode and decode engine compared to the Pro chip’s “just” one.

    I have not had a chance to test the M1 Pro silicon yet, so all my experiences are with the M1 Max, and at least for my video creating-centric usage, the machine is an absolute beast. More on this in the performance section!


    Apple MacBook Pro 16 (2021): Software

    The new MacBook ship with macOS Monterey 12.0.1. This new version brings new features such as a “quick note” floating app that can be activated by moving the mouse cursor to the lower right corner, and the ability to run Apple’s “SharePlay,” which allows the user to share whatever video or music they’re consuming to others during a FaceTime call.

    Essentially, a lot of the changes (the quick notes shortcut gesture) make MacOS look and behave more like an iPad (or iPhone). The notification panel supports widgets with rounded corners, and you can mute notifications for a set period of time.


    Apple MacBook Pro 16 (2021): Performance

    Before I dive into performance, I think it’s worth explaining my workflow, skill level, and tools to readers so they have a better understanding of my standards and needs.

    I am first and foremost a writer, tasked with writing thousands of words a week for XDA. But the nature of new media means my job duties include a half dozen other things like snapping product shots with a real camera, moving files over to the computer, then touching up, resizing, watermarking, renaming and uploading to XDA’s CMS. I also make videos for XDA’s YouTube channel (as well as my own), which requires me to film 4K footage, then move over to the computer, edit in Final Cut Pro, render, and upload. While I wouldn’t call myself a proper “professional video content creator” like someone making professional movies or ads, I do consider myself a semi-professional creative. I do more than just type words into WordPress.

    For the past year and a half, I have been doing all of the above off my 2019 Intel i9 MacBook Pro with mostly no issues. If I had to nitpick and name gripes, it’d be that the machine runs hot and loud (the fan kicks in) when I’m rendering 4K videos longer than a couple of minutes, and I need to use a dongle every time I need to transfer camera files over.

    I've been doing all my work off a 2019 Intel MacBook Pro for two years with no issues, but after using the M1 Max MacBook for a week, it's going to be very hard to go back

    But after using this new M1 Max-powered MacBook Pro for a week, it’s going to be very hard for me to go back to the older machine. This thing is an absolute powerhouse built for creative professionals. In fact, my semi-pro workflow doesn’t even utilize all of its power and potential. This is a machine a professional filmmaker could probably use for his work.

    First, the two complaints I had with my Intel Mac (needing a dongle and machine heating up when rendering videos) are fixed here. Having an SD Card slot built-in is a godsend — I have lost count of how many times I have wanted to move camera files over my Intel Mac just to realize I don’t have a dongle with me. And as for heat and fan noise? This machine only got moderately warm even when I was rendering 8K videos for testing. In a week of use, I have not heard the fan whip up once. This is great!

    The SD card slot

    Here are some testing numbers: I rendered a four-minute 8K video file on Final Cut Pro on this M1 Max MacBook Pro, and the machine rendered the file in 1 minute, 35 seconds. It took 8 minutes 26 seconds on the 2019, fully spec’ed out Intel MacBook Pro. That’s seven extra minutes of waiting for a four-minute video. If it’s a longer file, the gap widens proportionately.

    Okay, so rendering 8K videos is something most people won’t ever need to do (I shoot in 4K only, the 8K videos were just for testing). So let’s try 4K. You know that 22-second long video showing the MacBook speakers embedded earlier in the article? That’s 4K footage, and this MacBook Pro rendered the clip in under two seconds. It was ready almost in an instant. That means I can move forward to the next steps near-instantly, or take corrective actions if I need to. There’s very little waiting involved, and that is a gamechanger for staying within your workflow.

    Now to be fair, Final Cut Pro is Apple’s own software, so it’s of course optimized to work with Apple silicon seamlessly. When I tried the same four-minute 8K video render test on Adobe Premiere Pro, the rendering process took 21 minutes, 11 seconds. My colleague Rich Woods tried the same rendering process on his new Lenovo ThinkPad P15 powered by Intel’s 11th-gen Core i9-11950H with RTX A5000 graphics and 32GB of RAM and it took 13 minutes, 48 seconds.

    Adobe Premier Pro on the new MacBook Pro

    In other words, if we’re using Adobe Premiere Pro, a new, spec’ed out Windows machine can beat the M1 Max in rendering video files. I checked with Apple on the jarring discrepancy between Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro rendering times (1:35 vs 21:11!) and a representative from Apple said it’s because Adobe Premiere Pro has not been optimized to use the M1 Pro/Max’ ProRes hardware for video encoding.

    I suppose creatives who use Adobe Premiere Pro may be disappointed at the result here, but for me (and many Apple users) who use Final Cut Pro, it’s a non-issue. The fact that the new MacBook can render a four-minute 8K video in under two minutes is jaw-dropping. It’s not just all about rendering speeds, however, it’s also the fact that the M1 Max MacBook stayed completely silent during the 8K rendering test, while the 2019 Intel MacBook Pro and my college Rich’s Lenovo ThinkPad P15 needed the fan.

    And like I said, my usage (semi-professional video editing) only scratches the surface of the M1 Max’s capability. There are other creative apps for 3D model rendering, music creation, graphic design, that run well on the new MacBook.

    Benchmarks and other testing

    If you care about benchmarks, here are some numbers from Geekbench and GFX Bench too. Yes, those are impressive numbers.


    Apple MacBook Pro 16 (2021): Battery life

    Another benefit for Apple’s silicon is that they are much more energy-efficient than Intel processors. I conducted a battery drain test, with both the M1 Max MacBook Pro 2021 and 2019 Intel i9 MacBook Pro playing the same 4K YouTube video with screen brightness on maximum and volume at 50%, and the new MacBook lasted eight hours, 39 minutes to the Intel MacBook Pro’s five hours, 31 minutes.

    MacBook Pro with its 140W charging brick.

    This is a machine for real, actual creative professionals

    If you’re thinking “video drain tests are sort of pointless” — I agree with you! A better gauge of battery performance for me is a real-world test, and I can say that I have used the 2021 MacBook Pro as my main work machine for the past week, and on days in which I don’t have to edit videos — just word processing on WordPress in Safari, along with Slack and Spotify opened, and maybe a short video call here and there, a full eight-hour work session away from charger only drained 38% battery. When I edited and rendered a 12 minute long 4K video (the whole process took about two hours), the battery drained 22%. These are much better numbers than any previous laptops I’ve used.

    The M1 Max MacBook

    And the 140W MagSafe can top up the MacBook Pro fast too. One morning I took the laptop to the coffee shop and realized I only had 12% battery (from doing the video drain test the night before), so I plugged in the MagSafe, and despite me having continuously used the laptop during the next hour, the machine got up to 95% before I unplugged.


    Apple MacBook Pro 16 (2021): Conclusion

    To be blunt, the M1 Max MacBook Pro is overkill for the majority of consumers, including me, despite my semi-professional status as a video content maker. This is a machine for real, actual creative professionals who need a lot of horsepower on the regular to churn out their daily work. If your work involves twiddling your thumbs while waiting on your computer to finish its processing task, then there’s a good chance that this MacBook Pro is aimed at making your thumb-twiddling breaks a whole lot shorter. The cherry on top is that you can carry this machine around with fair ease, so you could be making use of all of this horsepower while at a hotel, on-site at some event, in a cafe, waiting at the airport lounge, or docked in your office or home. The Apple MacBook Pro (2021) puts the Pro back into Apple’s laptop lineup, and it goes beyond the lip service.

      Apple MacBook Pro 16 (M1 Max, 2021)
      If you are a creative professional, especially one immersed in Apple's eco-system, this is the most powerful portable machine you can get. If you're not a creative professional and have some money to spend, this may be worth considering due to its gorgeous screen, best-in-class speakers, and future-proofed efficient SoC.

    If you are not a creative professional, if your main laptop use case is just to type words, surf the web, and watch YouTube videos, then buying this machine with M1 Max, which starts at $3,499 (my configuration costs $4,400), would be a waste of money. You’re better off getting the M1 MacBook Air or base model 14-inch MacBook Pro with M1 Pro instead. Or any of the several other great laptops around. There are a ton of options for people who don’t need this much power on their portable laptop every day, and you’ll get machines better suited for your needs for cheaper.

    However, if you are an actual professional who makes music or videos or graphics for a living, or if you just have money to spend and $3,400 to $6,000 is not that much cash to you, then this 16-inch MacBook Pro with M1 Max is arguably the best portable computer you can find right now. Other laptop makers should definitely be taking some notes here.

    About author

    Ben Sin
    Ben Sin

    I'm a senior editor at XDA Developers. I have been a journalist for a decade, the last five years covering the mobile tech scene closely, reviewing just about every phone and attending trade shows and launches. I also run a gadget review channel on YouTube.