Apple MacBook Pro 13in (Apple M1, 2020) review: Almost unbelievably good

The M1 MacBook Pro is here and nothing is going to be the same again

Apple MacBook Pro 13in (Apple M1, 2020) lid from the rear
Price
£1,083 exc VAT (8GB/256GB)
  • Outstanding battery life
  • Staggering performance
  • Great speakers and microphone
  • Little performance boost over the Air

The MacBook Air was no one-off. Not only is this M1-powered update to the MacBook Pro a great laptop in all the usual ways – the display, keyboard, touchpad, microphone and speakers are all wonderful – but the new processor takes it to another level, boosting battery life and performance to such an extent that both AMD and Intel should be seriously worried.

Our MacBook Air review has already covered the most important aspects of the M1 chip, along with the Rosetta 2 runtime environment and the full suite of native M1-compatible Mac software that Apple has released from the get-go. The only change here (and with the new Mac mini) is that Apple adds fan cooling. 

Aside from this, the differences between the Pro and the Air are few. The MacBook Pro 13in has a larger battery, superior speakers and a similar “Studio” microphone to that found on the larger (non-M1) MacBook Pro 16in, but aside from the squarer chassis and the opinion-splitting Touch Bar, they look incredibly similar. Well, apart from the fact that the MacBook Pro only comes in Space Grey or silver, with not a speck of gold in sight.

It also comes in a similar set of configurations to the Air, with the only nuance being that there’s no option of seven-core graphics for the Pro and – not coincidentally – the prices start higher too. While you can buy the new MacBook Air for £999, the cheapest M1 MacBook Pro costs £1,299. Compared to the prices of the equivalent MacBook Air, you’re paying a premium of roughly £250 once you move beyond the 256GB models – and one of the running themes of this review is whether that’s a premium worth paying.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in (Apple M1, 2020) review: Design, keyboard and trackpad

Other than the M1 chip, this MacBook Pro is barely different from previous models. Visually, there’s no change: it’s recognisably and reassuringly a MacBook Pro, from the Touch Bar above its keyboard and gunmetal grey aluminium chassis to the Apple logo adorning the top.

Lid down, there’s literally nothing that marks this machine as anything special. Even the ports and sockets are in the same places, with a pair of USB-C sockets (Thunderbolt 3/USB 4 enabled) sitting next to each other on the left edge and a 3.5mm headset jack on the right. Note that there’s no support for external GPUs, which is one of the few reasons to still choose an Intel-based MacBook Pro.

Some might be disappointed that Apple hasn’t redesigned it, but the chassis is proven and hard-wearing. It still has the Magic Keyboard, which makes typing more comfortable than it was with the low-travel butterfly switch version, and Apple’s Force Touch haptic touchpad is as huge and brilliant as ever: you can click on it anywhere, unlike mechanical touchpads that get harder to click the higher up you go.

Plus, the speakers and “Studio” microphone are both exceptional. The one letdown is the mediocre 720p webcam, which turns your face into a disappointingly soft mush. It’s about time Apple bestowed something better on its flagship laptop. 

Apple MacBook Pro 13in (Apple M1, 2020) review: performance

Before we start discussing performance, we must talk about compatibility. Not all software will behave itself using Rosetta; we suggest you double-check this if the app you need is remotely esoteric. However, everything we’ve tried out has worked, and we’re certain developers will work hard to port their Intel-based apps to M1 as quickly as possible.

So how well does the Apple M1 perform? To say that, even in this base specification, the MacBook Pro flies along would be understating the case. It’s as fast as a very fast thing with extra go-faster stripes.

To test it, we first ran a selection of cross-platform benchmarks. including Geekbench 5 and Cinebench R23 for the CPU, and Aztec Ruins from the GFXBench graphics suite. Stunningly, results are better than a Core i9 MacBook Pro 16in with 64GB of RAM in all three CPU-based tests, with a 37% lead in the single-core tests.

Next, we ran our own benchmarks. These rely on applications that don’t yet have native M1 distributions, so the Rosetta 2 runtime is converting the code on the fly to Apple M1-compatible ARM instructions. 

This, inevitably, has a big impact on performance and in these tests the MacBook Pro 13in is slower than the MacBook Pro 16in by roughly half, with an overall score of 124. Remarkably, however, the new Pro is still quicker than laptops with a tenth-generation Core-i7 1065G7 and 16GB of RAM. And that’s in emulation.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in (Apple M1, 2020) review: Video editing

Things get even better once you switch to Apple’s apps, which are all coded for M1. We fired up Final Cut Pro X, loaded up some 4K Dolby Vision 30fps HDR clips shot on the iPhone 12 and then proceeded to put together a couple of basic projects.

First, we assembled the clips in a 2mins 51secs linear clip, with no effects or titles, and rendered that out to the Apple ProRes 422 file type. This took the M1 MacBook Pro 1min 10secs to complete; a 16in Intel MacBook Pro with a 2.6GHz six-core Intel Core i7 and 16GB of RAM took 1min 54secs to perform the same render.

Next, we rearranged the clips in split-screen and set the preview to high quality to find out how usable the laptop would be while editing. With two 4K HDR 30fps clips playing, the application remained responsive and preview playback was perfectly smooth. With three, there was the occasional hitch. Only with four clips playing at the same time did the preview start to become choppy. 

This is where the 16in MacBook stretches out a lead, previewing the same four clips much more smoothly than the M1 MacBook Pro. Try doing that on a Windows 10 laptop using Adobe Premiere Pro and you’ll have to wait for low-resolution proxies to be created before being able to work with 4K files at all. Even our desktop PC, with a six-core Ryzen 5 3600 and AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT graphics, struggles to keep up.

The one caveat to the MacBook Pro’s exceptional speed is that it’s little faster (in some benchmarks, it’s actually a fraction slower) than the MacBook Air we also tested. That has 16GB of RAM to this system’s 8GB, but even so it’s a strong indication that actively cooling the M1 with a fan makes little difference to the speeds it can reach. It might if you’re pushing the system to the maximum for half an hour at a time, but how often does that happen? This all feeds into your ultimate buying decision of whether to choose the Pro or the Air.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in (Apple M1, 2020) review: Battery life and display

There is one factor where the MacBook Pro does hold a distinct advantage over its sibling, though, and that’s battery life. The Pro has a 58.2Wh battery to the Air’s 49.9Wh unit, and Apple quotes up to 20 hours of movie playback and 17 hours of wireless web browsing. That’s only two more hours than it claims for the Air, but our tests suggest a more decisive advantage: with the display set to a brightness of 170cd/m2 and Flight mode on, the MacBook Pro lasted 17hrs 31mins before shutting down. The Air kept going for 12hrs 15mins in the same test. Note that this extra life comes at the expense of 110g more weight.

But perhaps this doesn’t matter, because such strong battery life means there’s definitely no need to sling a charger into your bag if you’re heading out for the day. To put the Pro’s longevity into perspective, this is the closest we’ve seen a laptop come to matching the Asus ExpertBook B9450F’s whopping 22-hour battery life, and it’s the longest-lived MacBook we’ve ever seen by some distance.

We can’t point to the display as a reason for the Pro lasting longer, because it’s exactly the same specification of panel as in the Air. And, just like the Air, it’s excellent. Apple sticks with IPS technology here, with a Retina-class resolution of 2,560 x 1,600. Stretched across a 13.3in diagonal, that results in a pixel density of 227ppi. It hasn’t gone for a high-refresh rate display, though: this is steadfastly a 60Hz panel.

In terms of colour representation, it’s outstanding. The display delivered 97.9% of the Display P3 colour gamut in our tests and an average 0.93 Delta E colour accuracy. Brightness peaks at 509cd/m2, meaning you can read the screen in even the brightest environments, and contrast reaches 1,419:1. All numbers that are highly respectable. You certainly won’t find anything to complain about here.

Apple MacBook Pro 13in (Apple M1, 2020) review: Verdict

If the MacBook Pro was the only new M1 device, the conclusion to this review would be easy: buy it. It’s much faster than its Windows 10, Intel-based rivals, it has astonishing battery life and it’s just as well made and slick as MacBooks have always been. There’s nothing new or exciting about the design – and the webcam needs work – but that’s a small consideration when the rest of the package is so strong.

The problem for the MacBook Pro is that it doesn’t live in a vacuum. Apple is selling the MacBook Air for £300 less. In terms of performance, there’s no discernible difference, despite the Pro’s fan. And while we haven’t yet tested an Air with seven-core graphics (as included in the cheapest base model) rather than eight-core, tests elsewhere suggest this makes little difference – think a 5% to 10% drop in frame rates. 

So, in terms of performance, there is no compelling reason to choose the Pro. Where the more expensive laptop wins is for battery life, speaker and mic quality, and the Touch Bar. Can those really justify a £300 premium? It’s a hard argument to make unless you have a practical use for the Touch Bar, which is why the Air is still our pick of Apple’s latest crop. Nevertheless, this is a truly stunning laptop in its own right, and more than worthy of five stars and an Editor’s Choice award. 

Apple MacBook Pro 13in (Apple M1, 2020) specifications

Processor

8-core 3.2GHz/2.1GHz Apple M1 chip with 8-core GPU 

RAM

8GB RAM

Storage

256GB M.2 PCIe SSD  

Screen size (in)

13.3in

Screen resolution

2,560 x 1,600

Screen type

IPS

Touchscreen

N/A

Pointing devices

Force Touch trackpad, Touch Bar

Memory card slot

N/A

3.5mm audio jack

3.5mm headphone jack

Graphics outputs

2 x USB-C 4 with Thunderbolt 3 support

Other ports

N/A

Web Cam

720p FaceTime HD webcam

Wi-Fi

2x2 Wi-Fi 6  

Bluetooth

Bluetooth 5

NFC

N/A

Dimensions, mm (WDH)

304 x 212 x 15.6mm

Weight (kg) - with keyboard where applicable

1.4kg  

Battery size (Wh)

58.2Wh battery  

Operating system

macOS Big Sur

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