By Jason Snell
November 6, 2023 6:00 AM PT
M3 MacBook Pro review: Peak performance
Like the M2 MacBook Pro released earlier this year, the new M3 MacBook Pro doesn’t look particularly new. It’s the third iteration of the excellent MacBook Pro redesign from 2021, featuring flat sides and curved corners and a spectacularly clear and bright display.
But, oh, this generation of MacBook Pro does offer a few new wrinkles. There’s the debut of the M3 processor, of course, with all three different chip variants available in the 14-inch model for the first time. And by dropping the old 13-inch MacBook Pro, Apple is making the modern MacBook Pro design available at a new, lower base price.
I’ve spent nearly a week with a 16-inch MacBook Pro running an M3 Max processor. And while the gorgeous screen and wide array of ports were quite familiar, the speed of the processor suggests that it’s never been more true that the MacBook Pro can be a Mac Pro in your backpack—if you want it to be.
Previously, on MacBook Pro
In case you’ve never used a 14- or 16-inch MacBook Pro with Apple silicon, here’s a quick tour of what this generation brings. Let’s start with the looks: the corners are noticeably curved but the edges are much tighter, eliminating the feeling of gentle, gradual curves.
The screen is the showcase on these laptops: a 120-hertz ProMotion display with a wide color gamut, backlit by mini-LED technology that allows it to run bright and peak even brighter, while also maintaining black levels that contribute to a remarkably extended level of dynamic range. It looks incredible when viewing HDR photos, movies, and TV shows. In the M3 models, the maximum brightness of the display in standard dynamic range mode (which is everything except those photos, movies, and TV shows, essentially) is brighter, with a maximum brightness that matches the Apple Studio Display. It’s a difficult one for Apple to call out as a feature boost—”it’s brighter in the mode that isn’t bright” is a tough sell—but the net result is that this display can get a lot brighter in the mode you’ll use 99% of the time.
There’s also a notch in the display. It’s not very big—a little more than 180 points wide and 30 points tall—but it’s smack in the middle of the menu bar. This allows Apple to pull the borders of the screen in—they’re much smaller than on previous MacBook Pros—while still keeping space for the 1080p webcam.
In practice, I never really notice the notch. It’s as high as the Menu Bar, so it doesn’t block content. Most apps don’t have enough menus to reach across the bar. (If you have too much stuff in your menu bar, I do highly recommend Bartender.)
Apple’s new standard Magic Keyboard is excellent, and returns traditional function keys while consigning the Touch Bar to the dustbin of history. Laptops with the Max or Pro chip will find three USB-C/Thunderbolt ports, including one on the right side. There’s also an SD card slot, back from the dead, and HDMI video out. And of course, MagSafe is available for fear-free magnetic charging that doesn’t take up one of the USB-C ports. (You can still charge via USB-C if you want, and the MagSafe cord goes to standard USB-C, so you can use any USB power brick—within reason—to charge via MagSafe.)
Perhaps the most notable “design” change in these laptops is the introduction of a new color, available only on models with the M3 Pro or M3 Max processor: Space Black. According to Apple, this new color features a chemical change to the anodization seal on the device’s aluminum frame that makes it better at repelling liquids, including the oils that cause us to leave fingerprints all over our devices.
The short version: Yes, the Space Black laptop’s a lot darker, and yes, it’s better than other Mac laptops at repelling fingerprints. But before you go to extremes, I also need to warn you: Space Black isn’t really black. It’s a dark metallic gray. It’s noticeably darker than any previous MacBook Pro, to be sure, but if you’re expecting black, like the old polycarbonate MacBook, or even ultra-dark, like the Midnight M2 MacBook Air, or even the black aluminum frame between the keys on the MacBook Pro keyboard, you won’t get it.
As for fingerprints? I found that it was absolutely possible to put fingerprints all over the thing. But it was harder to do than on other laptops, including my beloved Midnight M2 MacBook Air. And it was easier to wipe them off. It’s a great step forward. Just don’t get outraged when you spot fingerprints on it, okay?
Questions of identity
What makes a MacBook Pro a MacBook Pro? In the last couple of years, that had been a difficult question to answer because Apple sold a 13-inch MacBook Pro model that had few of the attributes of the 14- and 16-inch models—not the processor, not the design, not the arrays of microphones and speakers, not the full array of physical function keys, and most definitely not the spectacular XDR display.
With the M3 generation, Apple has rejiggered the lineup in a way that makes a lot more sense. The old 13-inch model has finally been retired, but its reason for existence—the ability to start the MacBook Pro line at a price lower than $2000—remains. After a couple of years in production, Apple is finally able to sell a version of the modern MacBook Pro, complete with that product-line-defining display, starting at $1599. But to reach even that price, the low-end model is equipped with the base M3 processor, the same one that powers the M3 iMac and will presumably appear in the MacBook Air and Mac mini as well.
This means that the M3 14-inch MacBook Pro will have all the limitations of the M3 processor, which (like its predecessors, the M1 and M2) has a pretty hard cap on USB ports and external displays. The M3 processor can only drive one external display, so—like the old 13″ MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air—this laptop won’t work in a setup with two external displays, not even with the lid closed. It’s also missing that convenient extra USB-C port on the opposite side of the laptop from the other two ports.
If my superlatives haven’t already made it clear, I think that today’s MacBook Pro is defined primarily by the display. The M1 and M2 processors were always part of the MacBook Pro line—and now, so is the M3. But buyers of the 13-inch MacBook Pro didn’t just have to settle for a lower-power chip—they had to use it in an outmoded package. I’m excited that every M3-era MacBook Pro has so many more features in common, even if a few have been omitted from the lowest-end model.
The chip story
The MacBook Pro Apple supplied me for review was a 16-inch model with an M3 Max chip with 16 CPU cores and 40 GPU cores. Because I also reviewed the M3 iMac, it means that the only chip I didn’t get to test out is the M3 Pro, which has been more clearly positioned as a mid-range model. I look forward to seeing how that chip performs, since I didn’t get a chance to use it myself.
The M3 Max, meanwhile, seems to have improved over the prior chip generation in ways that the M3 and M3 Pro haven’t. This is the chip where Apple seems to be putting its foot to the floor, trying to generate maximum performance for its most demanding customers. (As a result, the chip ain’t cheap—you can’t get one in a MacBook Pro for less than $3199.)
These days, it’s awfully difficult to pin down the overall performance of any given chip. An Apple silicon processor has multiple CPU cores of two different types (performance and efficiency), GPU cores, Neural Engine cores, and of course other onboard processing blocks that are more efficient at specific tasks (like video encoding and decoding) than software would be. Depending on the kind of work you do and even the specific software (or even version of software!) you use, you may see very different results than someone else with different software and workflows.
Fortunately, when testing the M3 Max, a lot of my concerns were alleviated by the fact that it just seems faster in every conceivable dimension than its predecessors, usually by quite a lot. Individual M3 CPU core performance is better, of course, and in Geekbench’s multicore performance tests it couldn’t even be beaten by M1 Ultra and M2 Ultra chips. It’s not just that the M3 Max has 16 CPU cores; it’s that 12 of them are of the “performance” variety, half again as many as in the M2 Max, and CPU performance on Apple silicon tends to scale with the number of performance cores available. Apple has loaded the M3 Max with performance, and the results follow from that.
Apple’s new GPU architecture, which features a new cache-optimization feature that squeezes even more performance out of its graphics cores, also shines on M3 Max. In Geekbench’s Metal test, only the M2 Ultra with 76 GPU cores could beat the M3 Max with 40 cores. In Cinebench 2024 GPU rendering tests, the M3 Max almost tripled the score of an M2 Max MacBook Pro. In my (sort of boring) Final Cut Pro test—a 1080p export of a two-hour long video with eight separate HD streams—the MacBook Pro completed the job 14 percent faster than January’s M2 model.
For some tests, I switched the MacBook Pro into High Power Mode, which is now available on both 14- and 16-inch models in the M3 Max configuration. (Previously, it was only available on 16-inch models.) I didn’t actually find it made much of a difference in the tests I was running, but it sure did make the fans kick in at a very loud volume. With the exception of using some heavy CPU tasks in High Power Mode, the fans on the MacBook Pro were either silent or, in some heavier loads, audible but not obnoxious. But if you stress things out enough in High Power Mode, your laptop will sound more like a hair dryer. It’s all in the name of high performance, since all High Power Mode really does is let your fans blow as loud as they need to in order to keep the processor cranking as hard as it possibly can.
What to buy?
Should you upgrade from an M2 MacBook Pro to an M3? Unless you are someone who regularly spends lots of money to get the most performance possible, no. (If you are that person, then absolutely yes!) If you bought an M1 MacBook Pro a couple of years ago… the decision is more difficult than I expected it to be. The M1 Pro and M1 Max chips’ performance is nothing to sneeze at, but the M3 Max chip is substantially faster. It’s a big jump.
As a longtime computer user, I have internalized many painful lessons about spending a lot of money on a computer only to see it rapidly eclipsed by newer, faster models. But as someone with an M1 Max Mac Studio from only a year and a half ago, uh… the M3 Max is so much faster that it’s making even me question my upgrade cycle.
A more interesting question comes at the low end of the MacBook Pro line. Apple’s done an admirable job at getting the starting price of this MacBook Pro $400 lower than it was in earlier generations. But there are a whole lot of tradeoffs baked into that $400 difference, not just the less capable processor but also less than half of the base RAM. If you want more than 8GB of RAM1, that low-end model is now just $200 short of the mid-range model with a better chip and even more RAM.
It makes me wonder how many of these base-model configurations Apple will really sell. For discerning buyers, they’re poorly configured in comparison to slightly more expensive models. They’re also still $300 more expensive than the previous base model, which will likely turn off some budget-minded users and corporate buyers.
I suspect Apple figures some of those users will instead consider the MacBook Air, which now comes in an appealing 15-inch model starting at $1299 and the classic 13-inch model at $1099. Even with storage and memory upgrades, those Airs are priced quite competitively. Yes, buying a MacBook Pro gets you that beautiful screen, active cooling, and a card reader slot, but it all comes at a price. It will be fascinating to see where all those buyers of the 13-inch MacBook Pro choose to go next.
But let me zoom back out to the big picture: Apple’s Mac laptop line, which makes up the vast bulk of new Mac sales, offers what might be the best array of options in the history of the Mac. The MacBook Air models offer value and screen-size options. The MacBook Pro offers a spectrum of laptops from a base model through a powerful (and, I suspect, popular) mid-range, leading to an all-out performance beast at the high end.
If you’re using a mid-range MacBook Pro from the M1 or M2 generations, I don’t think upgrading to an M3 Pro-based MacBook Pro is necessary. If you’re coming from Intel and haven’t taken the plunge yet, this is the perfect time. The 2021 MacBook Pro redesign still feels fresh and new, the display is amazing, and Apple silicon offers amazing performance and battery life without any major compatibility glitches.
But for power-conscious owners of an M1 Max MacBook Pro, it may be time to roll that laptop down or sell it off. The M3 Max chip is a whole lot faster. I know a lot of my app developer friends already have their orders in, and I think it’s the right call. The biggest performance boosts of the M3 generation come on the M3 Max, and during my time with the 16-inch M3 Max MacBook Pro, I was frequently reminded that it was the fastest computer I’d ever used. Returning to my M1 Max Mac Studio, I started a CPU-intensive podcast transcription task and wondered why it was taking so long. I had already gotten used to the speed of the M3 Max for intense tasks like that.
You’ll pay for the privilege, sure. But while the M3 and M3 Pro offer nice improvements to performance, the M3 Max goes all-out. If power and portability matter to you, it’s time to upgrade.
- Is 8GB of RAM usable in a modern Mac? I would argue it is, even though it’s not ideal. For a lot use cases, 8GB of RAM is acceptable. ↩
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