It’s hard to believe it’s been nearly a year since I reviewed the M1 MacBook Air as a gaming laptop, and yet, here I am again, reviewing a MacBook Pro. Inside this MacBook Pro is the M1 Pro chip, one of two new Apple silicon processors the company released in October.
Both processors, according to Apple, promise big CPU and GPU performance gains. So I thought what better way to test those claims than by revisiting how Apple’s MacBook lineup performs from the perspective of a gaming laptop.
Apple MacBook Pro M1 Pro Photos
The results are mixed. A lot has changed, and performance has improved, but ultimately there aren’t a whole lot of current, mainstream games available for MacOS, and that dampens the appeal of a MacBook Pro as a gaming laptop.
Here are the specifications of the Apple MacBook Pro (2021) I’ve been testing:
- Model: Apple MacBook Pro (M1 Pro, 2021) (A2442)
- Display: 14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR (3024 x 1964)
- Processor: Apple Silicon M1 Pro 10-core CPU
- Graphics: Apple Silicon M1 Pro 16-core GPU
- Memory: 32GB unified memory
- OS: MacOS 12 Monterey
- Storage: 1TB SSD
- Webcam: 1080p FaceTime HD camera
- Ports: 3 x Thunderbolt 4 USB-C, 1 x SDXC SD card reader, 1 x HDMI port, 1 x 3.5mm headphone jack, 1 x MagSafe 3 connection
- Connectivity: WiFi 6 802.11ax, Bluetooth 5.0
- Dimensions: 12.31 x 8.71 x 0.61-inches (WxDxH)
- Weight: 3.5-pounds
- Price: $2,899
Apple MacBook Pro – Design
Let’s get this out of the way: There’s a notch on the top of the display. Just like the notch that’s now commonplace on iPhones, the 2021 MacBook Pro has a notch cutout where the hardware for the new 1080p FaceTime camera is located. The notch isn’t the best-looking at first, but I didn’t find myself annoyed by it long-term. And yes, that camera does look a lot better than last year’s 720p camera.
Sadly, the MacBook Pro’s notch doesn’t mean that it also has FaceID, the iPhone’s facial recognition feature for unlocking the device, apps and approving payments. Instead, you’ll have to continue using your fingerprint and Touch ID for those features.
There’s a dedicated Touch ID button in the top-right corner of the keyboard, next to a row of multimedia and function keys. That row of physical keys replaces the Touch Bar, the slim and practically useless touchscreen that Apple had used in MacBook Pro models since 2016. The screen would change and adapt based on what you were actively doing on the Mac, but over the last five years, I don’t think I talked to a single person who actually liked or used the Touch Bar.
Just below the keyboard is Apple’s tried-and-true touchpad that offers an abundance of space for gestures and scrolling. The keyboard, by the way, is a joy to type on.
Back to the display for a second. Apple increased the size of the base model MacBook Pro’s screen from 13.3-inches to 14.2-inches with a resolution of 3024 x 1964. Apple calls it a Liquid Retina XDR display – but it’s really a mini-LED display – with a peak brightness of 1600 nits for extreme dynamic range (XDR). The MacBook Pro’s new display tech also supports Apple’s ProMotion 120Hz display, which you’ll see the impact of when you’re scrolling through a long document or while gaming, thanks to the fast display refresh rate.
I work on a 13-inch MacBook Pro as my daily computer, but I honestly didn’t expect to notice much of a difference when using the larger display of the 14-inch MacBook Pro. I was wrong – the increase in size is subtle, but noticeable, especially when using two apps side by side in full-screen mode.
The rest of the MacBook Pro looks similar to older MacBook Pro designs, namely because Apple has brought back all the ports. More specifically, on the right side is an SD card reader, a lone USB-C Thunderbolt 4 port, and an HDMI port. On the left side you’ll find a 3.5mm headphone jack, two more USB-C Thunderbolt 4 ports, and a MagSafe 3 connector.
After all of these years, Apple has finally given its dedicated user base what it’s been begging for – proper ports. I’m most excited by the return of MagSafe, the small magnetic charger. It looks like the traditional MagSafe adapter, if not a little bigger than I remember. There’s still an indicator light on top of the connector that gives you a glanceable way to check on the laptop’s charge status, and if you were to accidentally catch the cord as you walked by, it easily disconnects from the MacBook Pro instead of pulling it off your desk.
The MagSafe cord has a USB-C connection on the opposite end that plugs into the included with the 67W or 96W power adapter. The smaller power adapter comes with MacBook Pro builds that use the 8-core M1 Pro, while the 96W adapter comes with the 10-core M1 Pro or the M1 Max. The three Thunderbolt 4 ports can also be used to charge the MacBook Pro’s battery if you prefer.
As a gaming laptop, the number and type of ports on the MacBook Pro are problematic. Connecting a proper gaming mouse, for example, will require some sort of USB-C to USB adapter or hub. It’s not a huge problem, but one worth noting nonetheless.
On the bottom of the MacBook Pro’s housing are four feet that slightly hold it up off your desk, presumably to improve airflow. There are fans in the MacBook Pro, but during average day-to-day use, you’re unlikely to hear them (more on this in a minute).
Apple MacBook Pro – Performance and Gaming
The review unit I’ve been testing has the 10-core CPU, 16-core GPU, 16-core Neural Engine M1 Pro Apple Silicon processor inside. It’s also equipped with 32GB of unified memory, and 1TB of SSD storage. It’s important to note that when placing your order you’ll want to get the build you think you’ll want or need in a few years, not just today. Upgrading the memory, for example, just isn’t possible. But that’s typically the case for most Apple products, especially MacBooks.
Apple made a lot of claims about the increase in performance on its second-generation chips, the M1 Pro and M1 Max. I haven’t spent any time testing the M1 Max, but if my experience with the M1 Pro is any indication of what to expect, it has to be a healthy performance boost over the M1 Pro.
Apple Silicon uses the ARM architecture – the same kind of processor that powers nearly all smartphones, including Apple’s own iPhone, and has started to make its way to more computers, like Microsoft’s Surface Pro X.
Testing a MacBook Pro as a gaming laptop is a bit different than testing a gaming PC simply because there are a lot of apps that just don’t work on a Mac. For example, many of the benchmarks we use to provide quantitative results for performance and battery life, like PCMark 10 or 3DMark Fire Strike, simply don’t run on Mac.
That said, 3DMark does have a benchmark test that runs on Apple Silicon Macs, iPhones and the iPad. I ran the Wild Live Extreme benchmark on my M1-powered MacBook Pro from late 2020 and again on the 2021 M1 Pro model, and the results are pretty impressive. The M1 MacBook Pro scored 4,901 with a frames per second average of 29.3. The MacBook Pro with an M1 Pro processor nearly doubled that with a score of 9,524 and an average of 57 fps.
I was able to run a few other benchmarks I’d normally use on a gaming PC, including Total War: Three Kingdoms and Rise of the Tomb Raider. I ran both benchmarks at 1920×1200 resolution at high or ultra settings.
Last year when I ran Total War, there were a bunch of missing graphics and artifacts that looked horrible. However, this year, all of those were gone and the game looked like it should, and performed alright – with an average fps of 30. That’s up from 23 fps last year.
As for Tomb Raider, I saw a big boost in performance with an average frame rate of 79 fps. The 2020 MacBook Air stuck around 60 fps on the same settings.
For fun, I installed Epic Games to see if any of my owned titles would run on the M1 Pro MacBook Pro. Once again I was surprised to see that Fortnite is still available to download and install on a Mac. So, naturally, installed it and dropped in for a few throwback matches of Chapter 2 Season 4 (Epic can’t update Fortnite for the Mac, so you’re stuck playing a nearly 2-year-old version of the game.) For those who care, Fortnite on the M1 Pro MacBook Pro runs right at 60 fps on Epic settings with the resolution set to 1920 x 1200. Drop the graphics settings down to High, which automatically bumps the resolution to 3024 x 1964, and you’ll see around 80 fps.
I also played Hitman, a game that wouldn’t even launch on an M1 Mac this time last year, and saw a consistent frame rate between 90 and 100 at very high settings.
The fans inside the MacBook Pro won’t turn on very often, and when they do, they’re really quiet. I installed TG Pro to monitor temps of the CPU and GPU, and even though I noticed temps getting up to 105 degrees with the fans purring at about 4,000 RPM, I could barely hear the fans running.
The speakers sound phenomenal for gaming, listening to music, or video calls. There are six total speakers in the new MacBook Pro models and you can hear the difference almost immediately.
With the M1 MacBook Air I was more shocked than anything that games ran smoothly on a Mac, and this year, I’m just pleased to see and experience the performance gains Apple has made with its own in-house processors in only a year.
I have had zero hiccups or performance issues using the MacBook Pro as my daily computer for all sorts of tasks ranging from light photo editing to recording podcasts or spending far too long on video calls.
I still won’t tell someone to run out and buy a Mac over a gaming PC, but I also won’t shy away from letting those with an Apple Silicon Mac know that it can double as a gaming laptop of sorts.
Apple MacBook Pro – Battery life
In addition to the performance boost that Apple Silicon provides is extended battery life compared to its Intel counterparts, and Apple makes some lofty claims when it comes to the 2021 MacBook Pro models. For example, Apple lists a potential of 17 hours of battery life when watching a video in the Apple TV app. Or 11 hours of wireless web browsing.
I tested the 2021 MacBook Pro the same way I tested the 2020 MacBook Air – by playing the same exact video on repeat in VLC with the display brightness set to 50%. I used a Wyze camera to create a timelapse by taking a picture every 60 seconds, and then did some math to figure out how long the video played.
This year’s MacBook Pro lasted 7 hours and 28 minutes before powering off. That’s less than the M1 MacBook Air’s battery life of 8 hours and 10 minutes last year, but Apple’s own estimates for the new MacBook Pro models are lower than last year’s Air. In other words, the results are in line with what I expected.
As for real-world use, I was able to get through a full day of my normal workload, which involves a lot of Slack, Discord, Chrome, iA Writer, Mail, Messages, and Tweetbot use. I’d suspect that most users, unless they’re doing a lot of video streaming, will have little issue getting through an entire day of use with the battery.
Apple MacBook Pro – Software
Apple recently released MacOS 12 Monterey and that’s what came installed on my review unit. The most recent update adds new features to the Mac lineup such as improvements to FaceTime, Messages and Safari. More recently, Apple released MacOS 12.1 that added SharePlay to the Mac lineup. Using SharePlay with FaceTime, you can do things like watch a movie with a friend or loved one, or even share your Mac’s screen so you can help troubleshoot an issue.
As is the case with all Macs, you won’t find any bloatware or antivirus software. Apple’s apps and programs are all that come preinstalled.
One thing worth pointing out for those who haven’t used an Apple Silicon Mac yet is that even though the underlying architecture that apps run on has changed, Apple has built tools into MacOS that enable Intel-based apps to run on Apple Silicon. Apps that don’t have full support for Apple Silicon can have decreased performance or simply not run at all, but I can’t think of any apps I’ve encountered over the last year on an M1 MacBook Pro that didn’t work. The same can be said about my time testing the 2021 MacBook Pro.
In addition to running standard Mac apps, you also have access to a lot of iPhone and iPad apps in the App Store that can run on any Apple Silicon-powered Mac. For example, I can install the iPad version of the Wyze app on my Mac and use it to monitor my cameras or create a timelapse.