By Jason Snell
January 23, 2023 6:00 AM PT
2023 MacBook Pro Review: More of the same, in a good way
Here’s what the new M2 MacBook Pro is not: new. Yes, it’s powered by a new generation of Apple silicon, but it’s very much the same laptop that was updated for the Apple silicon era in 2021. If you’ve seen an M1 MacBook Pro, you know what the M2 MacBook Pro looks like.
But when it comes to professional workhorse computers, novelty can be overrated. The M2 MacBook Pro is the product of Apple’s repentance from its confused mid-2010 laptop designs and offers all the benefits of running on Apple’s own processors. The new M2 Pro and Max processors are an incremental improvement over their predecessors but an enormous one over all Intel-based models.
Of course, what makes the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro laptops appealing goes beyond the processor running inside them. From their bright HDR displays to an array of ports and slots, they’ve got functionality that separates them from the lower end of Apple’s laptop line.
I’ve been able to spend nearly a week with a 16-inch MacBook Pro with an M2 Max processor, and it’s been a great experience. But how you view these laptops will depend on who you are, where you’re coming from, and what you’re looking for.
The chip story
Looking beyond these particular trees to see the whole forest, the new MacBook Pro models are also the first Macs to be powered by high-end versions of the M2, Apple’s second-generation Mac-specific system-on-a-chip. The laptops are available in both M2 Pro and M2 Max configurations, and those chips differ from the base M2 model in a few ways.
The M2 is an eight-core chip with four high-speed “performance” CPU cores and four lower-speed “efficiency” CPU cores. The base-model 14-inch MacBook Pro has six performance cores, while on all other models, the M2 Pro or M2 Max chips have eight performance cores.
When it comes to GPU cores, the M2 has eight or 10. The M2 Pro starts at 16 cores but is also available in a configuration with 19 cores. The M2 Max comes standard with 30 cores and is also available in a 38-core configuration.
It’s important to note that each individual M2 core, both CPU and GPU varieties, are essentially identical. (Witness their nearly identical single-core Geekbench scores.) The speed gains from higher-end chips are largely because there are more cores doing the work. And that speed scales somewhat linearly (albeit with diminishing returns) based on the number of performance cores. (Efficiency cores are not going to get you fast scores on computer benchmark tests, but they’re great in saving power when your computer’s not working hard.)
The 16-inch MacBook Pro M2 I tested1, which has the 12-core (eight performance cores) M2 Max chip, was roughly 1.6 times the speed of the eight-core (four performance cores) M2 chip in the M2 MacBook Air or 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro. Similarly, this MacBook Pro’s 38-core GPU posted a Geekbench Metal score 2.8 times higher than the 8-core GPU in my M2 MacBook Air.
Back in 2021, I referred to the M1 Pro and Max versions of the MacBook Pro as providing the power of a Mac Pro in your backpack, and as you might expect, the M2 generation provides even more of that. These are incredibly fast laptops, and they don’t slow down when they’re running on battery power. They will warm up, however, at which point the MacBook Pro’s cooling system will kick in to keep them running at peak performance. (And I mean that—I ran Cinebench on a loop for ten minutes and didn’t see any degradation in performance.)
For those who are sensitive to fan noise, I am happy to report that I couldn’t make the MacBook Pro’s fans audible unless I deliberately stressed out the GPU cores. Even maxing out the CPU cores failed to make a peep.
Since you’ve got the choice of an M2 Pro or M2 Max processor on these laptops, it’s worth detailing the differences between them: memory and graphics. The M2 Max can have as many as 38 graphics cores and maxes out at 96 GB of RAM with 400 GB per second memory bandwidth. The M2 Pro is limited to 32 GB RAM, and its memory bandwidth is half of the Max, at 200 GB per second. The M2 Max also has an extra video encode engine, and an extra ProRes video decode/encode engine.
All told, what this means is that the M2 Max is the choice for you if you are performing work that requires a large amount of graphics power or enormous amounts of memory (and memory bandwidth).
So what about the differences between the M1 and M2 series of processors? The M2s are faster, yes. As we learned last June, an M2 CPU core is about 12 percent faster than an M1. The GPUs are also faster. When I compare the M2 Max MacBook Pro I used for this review with the M1 Max model I tested in late 2021, the new laptop was about 25 percent faster at multicore operations.)
If you’re someone with an M1 MacBook Pro, you shouldn’t feel particularly envious of these new models. Unless you’ve been feeling buyer’s remorse about not spending enough on that laptop to make it more powerful, I can’t see why you’d upgrade from an M1 MacBook Pro to an M2 model. On the outside, these computers are essentially identical. The screen’s bright and gorgeous, but no more so than last year’s model. The SDXC card slot is no faster. Unless you need an HDMI 2.1 port for ultra-high-resolution or ultra-high-refresh video output, there’s just not a lot that’s new. So many of the MacBook Pro’s appealing features aren’t directly tied to the nitty gritty details of the processor running inside.
The upgrade story
Very few people buy a new laptop every year and a half. (If you’re one of the people who do, congratulations, and enjoy your new MacBook Pro!) As a result, most of the people in the market for a 2023 MacBook Pro will not be owners of an M1 MacBook Pro. Instead, a lot of them will be upgrading from an Intel-based laptop.
When the Apple silicon era began, I definitely heard from a lot of people who expressed a lot of concern about living through a chip transition and who insisted that they’d sit the first generation out and watch how it went from the sidelines. Now, the transition was so smooth, and the gains in switching the Mac from Intel processors to Apple’s own processors were so huge that I suspect a lot of those people couldn’t manage to hold out from upgrading during the M1 generation. But if you had a late-model Intel MacBook Pro and it was doing the job, and you’re the kind of person who uses a computer for a long time before getting a new one, the 2023 MacBook Pros won’t be a small upgrade.
Apple has undone its mistakes of the past few years and created a laptop that’s essentially a Mac Pro you can slide into a backpack. With this revision, Apple has admitted that it’s okay to stick a few extra ports on a laptop to please professional users.
The Intel Mac I used for reference in that review was an 8-core Xeon iMac Pro, which was roughly as fast as a last-generation Intel MacBook Pro. You can click through to see the results if you want, but suffice it to say that the M1 Max MacBook Pro was 1.5 times as fast in Geekbench multicore tests, built an Xcode project in half the time, encoded a Final Cut Pro video just as fast as a 12-core Intel Mac Pro, and destroyed the iMac Pro in disk performance due to its ultra-fast SSDs.
To repeat myself, the story of the Apple Silicon MacBook Pro isn’t just that raw processor speed. The processors are also energy efficient: those four “efficiency” CPU cores keep the computer happily burbling along efficiently when there isn’t hard work being done. The result is staggering battery life compared to an Intel-based MacBook Pro.
Of course, battery life is in the eye of the beholder. Everyone’s usage profile—how much you are slamming those CPU and GPU cores versus sitting back and reading a web page in Safari—will make their actual battery life vary widely. Apple’s claim of 22 hours of movie playback in the TV app is two hours more than on the M1 MacBook Pro, but it’s a very specific use case. The company’s “wireless web” task suite, which is a scripted test of browsing through various websites in Safari, is not particularly taxing, either, and the battery life claim there is up to 12 hours. Even a little change can make a huge difference.
I can tell you what happens if you make all of the MacBook Pro’s CPU cores run at 100 percent, though: the battery drains in a little more than two and a half hours. That’s actually pretty impressive since most people only use their computer’s CPUs and GPUs in brief bursts.
The story of the Apple Silicon MacBook Pro is also the screen—a bright, ProMotion mini-LED display that’s basically the best Mac display ever made. Adding a notch to the display allowed the bezels to shrink perilously close to the edge, but you get used to the notch in a hurry because Apple has tucked it inside the height of the menu bar.
The story of this laptop is also the connectivity. The SD card reader is back from exile. There are three USB/Thunderbolt ports, none of which need to be used for charging since MagSafe has returned to the MacBook Pro for charging in a snap. There’s an HDMI port—supporting a shocking 8K output at 60Hz or 4K at 240Hz, but also just helpful in case you need to present somewhere and don’t have an adapter. And memory is configurable up to 96GB, up from the 64GB limit on the M1 MacBook Pro.
Oh, and the Touch Bar is gone, replaced with a fully functional function-key row, including Touch ID and a big ol’ Escape key.
If you’re upgrading from an Intel laptop, you’re going to love the new MacBook Pro. However, you may notice that upgrading from the base configurations is more expensive than you might have expected. Due to the integrated nature of Apple’s processors, memory is not upgradeable after the fact—so you’ll need to choose your memory up front, and choosing a larger configuration will cost. Likewise, storage is tightly integrated, and Apple’s storage options rapidly rise in price.
If you’re worried about the transition to Apple silicon, don’t be. Every app I use has made the transition, but even apps that run in the Rosetta code-translation layer run about as fast as they did on Intel, if not faster. If you survived the migration away from 32-bit apps in macOS Catalina, you’ll be fine. (If you’re using an older laptop that’s still running macOS Mojave, you should check the compatibility of your apps.)
Why MacBook Pro?
Why do people buy the MacBook Pro?
There was a time when pro Macs of all shapes and sizes were appropriate for everyone who considered themselves power users. The iMacs and iBooks and MacBook Airs of the world were for the masses. But those of us who really cared about our computers, we opted for the finer things. The more powerful things.
Today, the amount of raw computing power in a MacBook Air—even the $999 M1 model, never mind the more stylish and powerful M2 Air2—has more power than a vanishing fraction of users will need. Given that the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro models start at $1999 and $2499 respectively, it’s worth asking yourself the question: Do I really need a MacBook Pro, or is the Air nice at half the price?
As big of an advocate of the MacBook Air as I am, there’s no doubt that if you’re someone who really does need the huge CPU and GPU power and memory bandwidth of the M2 Pro or M2 Max processor—creative professionals working with huge files, doing work that previously required a high-end workstation, for example—is a better fit.
I admit that this is an area where I’m rapidly running out of personal experience: for most of my high-end media tasks, the M2 Air runs slower but still does the job eventually. Saving time is great (and is reason enough for many people to buy a high-end device!), but the extra RAM and memory bandwidth of the higher-end chips also enable using enormous files or data sets that a lesser laptop can’t even open.
So yes, if seeking ultimate performance is your thing, this is the laptop for you. But there are other reasons to upgrade to a MacBook Pro that go beyond the need for speed:
- Display. Nothing beats the MacBook Pro’s mini-LED backlit display. It’s bright and supports HDR, and offers the ProMotion high-refresh-rate technology for ultra-smooth scrolling. Not to mention that both the 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro displays are fundamentally larger than the MacBook Air’s.
RAM. The M2 chip is limited to 24GB of memory. If the way you work needs more than that, MacBook Pro is for you.
Ports and slots. The MacBook Air only has two Thunderbolt 4 ports versus three on the MacBook Pro. It doesn’t have an SD card slot, so if you transfer files from SD cards, you’ll need to carry an external reader. It also doesn’t have an HDMI port, for easy extra video-out without adapters.
External display support. The MacBook Air can only connect to a single external display. If you want to dock your laptop to a dual-display setup, you’ll want the MacBook Pro, which can support two external displays—or four, if you get the M2 Max version.
Should you need to spend $2000 on a high-powered laptop just to get one that supports two external displays or has the best, brightest screen? Or $2499 for a laptop with a substantially larger display? Apple has decided that you should. But great as the MacBook Air is, there certainly feels like there’s a yawning chasm between it and the MacBook Pro.
The fact remains, though: If you want the very best laptop Apple has to offer, the MacBook Pro will not disappoint you. The M1 models were great in late 2021, and these new M2 models are even better—albeit incrementally so.
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