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Will Photographers Love It? 2021 MacBook Pro Review, M1 Pro


The 2021 MacBook Pro brings some major new technology — but it also revives some old ones. Much to the relief of photographers, Apple has decided that, yes, Pro photographers do use SD cards. The latest pro-level laptops for Apple also bring back the magnetic charging port — which has longtime Mac fans almost as excited as the shiny new native silicon chips.

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A Mac user since I first opened a file in Photoshop, I knew my 2015 MacBook Pro was nearing the end of its lifespan. The mic no longer worked, the battery only lasted an hour, and my 500 GB hard drive couldn’t even hold my image libraries. The final straw was when the membrane under the A key gave out and I could no longer type on the built-in keyboard. After a good six years, it was time for retirement.

The decision to retire my old MacBook was made a bit easier by the arrival of the 2021 MacBook Pro. The model I owned previously — 2015 — was the last to offer a built-in SD port. This was before Apple switched to just four Thunderbolt or USB-C ports. The 2015 model was also the last to offer the MagSafe charger. That is, until the 2021 MacBook Pro.

But, while the laptop supports a more classic look with more of the old ports, the inside debuts the M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. Apple previously used Intel chips inside MacBooks but started transitioning to its own native chips in some of the models launched at the end of 2020. The list of 2021 MacBooks completes the transition, utilizing Apple’s new chip design from the Air to the Pro.

Defeated and unable to even type the word Apple on my ailing machine, I caved and purchased the 16-inch 2021 MacBook Pro with the M1 Pro chip, 32 GB of RAM, and a 2 TB hard drive. I’ve now spent more than a month with the new machine — so I thought it high time to help others agonizing over which laptop to buy with a 2021 MacBook Pro Review.

Too Long, Didn’t Read

The 2021 MacBook Pro is both speedy and quiet. The laptop is quick with photo editing work. It’s a workhorse with a beautiful screen, a large touchpad, and a comfortable keyboard. I would buy the 2021 MacBook Pro all over again — though the screen notch and hit-and-miss SD card slot is a little annoying.

Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Quiet fans
  • Fast performance
  • Beautiful design
  • Comfortable keyboard
  • Large touchpad
  • Fingerprint sensor
  • Great screen colors
  • Braided power cord

Cons

  • Expensive
  • No USB-A ports
  • Screen notch will annoy some
  • SD port is a bit finicky
  • No anti-glare screen

Gear Used

I purchased the 2021 MacBook Pro with the M1 Pro chip, 32 GB of memory, and 2 TB of storage. In my first month with the laptop, I’ve run Photoshop, Lightroom, Capture One, Safari, Chrome, and Pages. I’m a multitasker, and 95 percent of the time, I have more than one application going. I tested the color accuracy of the screen using prints from an Epson ET-8550 printer with Canon Pro Luster paper.

Tech Specs

LensRentals lists the following specifications for the MacBook Pro M1 Pro:

  • Brand: Apple
  • Display: 16-inch (diagonal) Mini-LED LCD XDR
  • Native Resolution: 3456 × 2234
  • Brightness: 1000 cd/m2
  • Refresh Rate: 120 Hz variable
  • Inputs/Outputs: USB Type-C, 3x Thunderbolt 4 (DisplayPort and Power support)
  • Audio: 6x Built-in speakers, 3x Built-in microphones, 1/8” / 3.5 mm Headphone Out
  • Video: HDMI 2.0: SDXC UHS-II card slot
  • MagSafe 3 Charging Port
  • Performance: CPU: Apple M1 Pro 10-core
  • Memory Type: Integrated 16GB of unified DRAM
  • GPU: Integrated 16GB
  • Storage: 512GB Proprietary NVMe SSD
  • Physical Dimensions: 14.01 × 9.77 × 0.66″
  • Weight: 4.7 lb
  • Battery Type: Lithium-Ion Polymer (LiPo)
  • Battery Capacity: 100 Wh (non-removable)
  • Max Runtime: 21 hours
  • Power Supply: 140 W
  • Wireless: Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax)
  • Bluetooth: 5.0
  • GPS: None

The model that I purchased had the following upgrades from the base option:

Ergonomics

The 2021 MacBook Pro has several new features, yet it still feels every bit like a MacBook Pro. It didn’t feel like a scratchy sweater that I had to get used to before feeling comfortable. The keyboard has a very familiar feel to it, for starters. Yet, the touchpad is a bit larger than my circa 2015 MacBook and there’s a fingerprint scanner built-in.

But, I’m getting ahead of myself. The 16-inch Macbook Pro weighs about 4.7 pounds. It’s just over 14 inches wide and about 2/3 of an inch deep. It feels a bit sleeker and more modern but still feels like a classic MacBook.

Most of the thickness is the bottom portion of the laptop — the screen is thin. The screen has a pretty thin edge around it — there’s less of a border than my older MacBook. But, that means there is a black notch that houses the camera. I don’t notice the notch much with a darker colored desktop background because then the top menu bar is also black. Switch to a lighter-colored image, and then that notch sticks out like my dark brown dog on a snowy day. I switched back to a darker photo and I mind the notch much less. But, it is more annoying in programs with lots of menu options, where there’s a gap in the choices. Capture One, for example, has the Scripts and Help menu options after the notch. I do like that additional screen real estate, but there’s a notch price to pay.

Light-colored desktop background
Dark-colored desktop background

That screen measures 16.2 inches diagonally (thanks, notch!). It’s a Liquid Retina XDR display with a 3456×2234 resolution and one billion colors. I’ve always thought my MacBooks did pretty decently for built-in screens for color accuracy. I printed off a few shots using the Epson ET-8850 and the colors are quite close to what’s on-screen.

With the Liquid Retina XDR displays, Apple includes several display presets — one of them is designed for photography. This screen mode is a little less bright, a little less full of contrast than the default XDR mode. This helps the edit to look closer to the print, since backlit screens tend to look brighter than the resulting print. The photography mode has the brightness locked in and doesn’t use the True Tone — which adapts the display colors for the ambient light.

The only thing I wish the screen had was anti-glare. I loved the anti-glare feature on the HP ZBook Firefly G8. It’s difficult to work with a window over your shoulder.

The keyboard feels comfortable and — as a longtime Mac user — familiar.  The key difference (no pun intended) is that the on button is also a fingerprint sensor. This works well for unlocking the laptop. The sensor also serves as a passcode locking, storing all the saved passwords and typing them in for you with a press of your finger. Touch ID can also be used for Apple Pay, as well as the iTunes Store, App Store, and Apple Books. Those features can be turned on and off in the settings, as well as adding additional fingerprints.

The touchpad is a bit larger than the one that I’m used to on my 2015 Mac. The larger size makes for easier scrolling. I did occasionally find myself accidentally bumping the touchpad, but not to any major extent.

One of the main reasons I went with a 2021 model instead of saving a bit of cash with the previous year’s model is for the SD card port. Apple has finally put it back in. There’s an SD card port, HDMI, three Thunderbolt 4 (USB-C compatible), a headphone jack, and the MagSafe power port. 

I would have liked to also have one USB-A port. Yes, they are getting older and not nearly as fast. But, delivering hundreds of wedding photos over the internet speeds in my rural area isn’t feasible. I had to buy an adapter so that I could continue delivering digital files to clients on thumb drives. It’s ironic, of course, that I didn’t have to buy an SD card dongle but I did have to buy a USB-A adapter.

“One of my favorite features, besides the speed, is the fan. I don’t hear it. I never realized how loud my last MacBook was until I started working with this one. I’m a mother of three, so silence is precious. (And yes, you should read that word in the voice of Gollum.)”

Build Quality

The power cord usually isn’t terribly interesting to talk about, but I’m going to make an exception here. The cord is a braided material rather than that rubber-like white coating. I’ve had to replace the power cords on my Macs (and iPhones) every few years because the cord starts peeling. And Apple accessories don’t run particularly cheap; a replacement is about $80. I have high hopes for the durability of this cord — it feels great.

Of course, I didn’t buy a laptop because the cord was cool. In Space Gray, the 2021 MacBook Pro has a nice modern look to it. The base is made with 100 percent recycled aluminum. The keyboard has black behind it rather than more aluminum — this feels the same plastic material as the keyboards. The keyboard still feels nice and familiar under my hands.

One of the reasons I love the MacBook Pro is the build. Other laptops that I’ve tested — even other pricey laptops — don’t quite have that same feel. The aluminum case isn’t flimsy or plasticky. It feels great under my hands — which is important when you spend a few hours a day at a keyboard. The keyboard is aligned in the center (I loath keyboards with the extra Num pad, they’re just less comfortable to shift off-center to type.)

If I have one complaint, it’s the same one that I have for my stainless steel appliances — it gets dirty pretty quick. The MacBook Pro doesn’t get as full of fingerprints as stainless steel, but that mirrored Apple logo does smudge quickly and the cover seems to attract dust. The touchpad gets a little discolored in the middle, though most of it wipes away with a microfiber cloth. None of these things are particularly terrible or deal-breakers — but I see why Apple also launched a cleaning cloth at the same time.

Ease of Use

I’ve been a Mac user since I first used Photoshop on the Macs in my high school yearbook class. The operating system just feels more seamless and looks a bit better. Navigating apps in the dock is simpler than Window’s start menu and I even like the Finder windows better than finding files on Windows. 

This is, of course, all subjective opinion — I know Windows users who are so ingrained into that system that they can’t figure out how to do much of anything on a Mac. I’ve tested a few Windows laptops lately, and they just feel a bit like gloves that don’t quite fit — awkward. Long-time Windows users will probably feel the opposite.

One of my favorite parts about the MacBook is how seamlessly Apple devices work together. I’m regularly Air Dropping files to my iPhone and vice versa. I like that I can use Pages on my MacBook then head out the door and write on the same document from my iPad on the go. (yes, if you’re keeping track, that’s three Apple devices. I also own an Apple Watch. I’m pretty sure if I bought AirPods I would automatically sprout an Apple logo tattoo overnight.)

Setting up the new 2021 MacBook Pro was fairly straightforward because I used Migration Assistant to transfer everything from the old Mac to the new Mac. My files and favorite settings all transferred over fairly easily.

But, the transfer wasn’t entirely seamless. For example, Adobe Creative Cloud didn’t automatically download and I had to go re-download that. The app that I use to listen to music while I’m writing — iHeart Radio — didn’t download either and isn’t available in the App Store anymore. Adobe also recommends not using Migration Assistant and manually downloading their programs. This has to do with optimizing for the M1 chips. I didn’t realize this. I didn’t run into issues, but updated the software after realizing this, just in case. Also, for some reason, the Spotlight Search no longer finds Capture One, even though the program itself is right in the Applications folder and works just fine.

Required Maintenance During Testing

I always cross my fingers and hope the $3.5K piece of technology that I just bought works absolutely perfectly. But, of course, perfect technology is an oxymoron. I had relatively few issues, but, there are a few to note.

First, the SD card slot is a bit finicky. I once had to put the card in several times before the computer recognized that there was a card in there. I had this same issue with my previous MacBook Pro. I don’t know why. It sometimes recognizes a card on the first try, sometimes I have to pull it out and put it back in.

I had to restart once when Safari froze — it wouldn’t even let me select the Quit option from the menu. This is likely more due to my Middle of Nowhere internet, which is slightly faster than a sloth. I was uploading photos and my internet doesn’t like me when I do that. I have to drive somewhere to faster internet if I want to do things like updating my online portfolio. 

I also came across a few other random but minor issues, including:

  • Spotlight Search won’t actually find Capture One. (It does find other applications). I have no idea why, but I should have Capture One in my dock anyways.
  • Some apps didn’t transfer over using Migration Assistant, including Creative Cloud.

Performance

I do have one major complaint about my new MacBook Pro — it’s so fast that I no longer have time to aimlessly scroll Facebook while waiting for photos to load. I just uploaded about 400 photos to Capture One and it took about a minute. That’s not long enough to get lost in my social media feeds. There goes my excuse not to be productive.

I currently have Lightroom, Capture One, Photoshop, and Pages open, along with 13 tabs in Safari. Yes, I’m some sort of multi-tasking genius or absolute monster. I’m not sure which. But that’s a topic for another time. My MacBook is working seamlessly with several programs open, without freezing while uploading photos. I just transferred my entire Capture One catalog — more than 200 MB — over from an external hard drive without any freezes. I’ve opened more than 20 photos in Photoshop on this machine.

That is the one thing that I’ve noticed is slow — transfers on USB 3.0 and USB 2.0, of course, are limited by the hardware. But, USB-C SSD drives pair well with the MacBook and make for some pretty quick transfers.

I agonized over whether or not to go with the M1 Pro chip or the faster M1 Max chip. In my hours of scouring the web for opinions on both sides, the M1 Max seemed gear more towards high-resolution video and more intense photo editing, like merging multiple high-resolution files into panoramas. Much of what I read suggested the performance difference for most photo editing tasks would be minor. I can’t say for sure, since I have not tested both of them side by side.

But, two factors lead to me deciding on the M1 Pro versus the M1 Max. First, I couldn’t afford to do both the M1 Max and upgrade to a larger 2 TB hard drive. Second, I had just switched from the Nikon D850 to the Fujifilm X-T4 largely because I don’t have to edit the colors. I apply the Astia color profile, tweak white balance and exposure, sometimes straighten with a light crop, and in some cases do some light acne retouching and teeth whitening. A few images I’ll bring in Photoshop to remove distractions out of the background or retouch flyaway hair. But I’m editing less and working with smaller resolution files, so spending more for a more powerful processor designed to work with big files didn’t really make much sense.

One of my favorite features, besides the speed, is the fan. I don’t hear it. I never realized how loud my last MacBook was until I started working with this one. I’m a mother of three, so silence is precious. (And yes, you should read that word in the voice of Gollum.)

Conclusions

Likes

  • The performance is excellent.
  • I love how quiet the fan is — no more loud humming with imports and exports!
  • The design is beautiful — both Classic MacBook and a bit of modern updates.
  • The keyboard is comfortable.
  • The touchpad is larger.
  • The built-in fingerprint sensor is a faster way to unlock and access passwords.
  • Prints look very close to the screen colors, with a mode designed specifically for photography.
  • The braided power cord looks more durable than the previous rubber-coated ones.

Dislikes

  • It’s fairly expensive.
  • There are no USB-A ports.
  • The screen notch is annoying, but less so if you choose a darker desktop photo.
  • SD cards sometimes need to be inserted more than once before being recognized.
  • I wish the screen had anti-glare.

The 2021 MacBook Pro goes back in time and finally brings back the ports that pros need — but then mixes that classic design with some incredible speed on the inside. The screen is large with excellent color accuracy. The M1 Pro processor uploads and exports photos quickly, while being a champ at multitasking. And it does all that in near silence, thanks to impressive heat dispersion. 

There are a few small complaints here — the larger screen real estate means there’s a notch to house the webcam. The SD card port was also a bit finicky. I also wished for better anti-glare on the screen, and I still had to buy one dongle in order to use USB-A thumb drives and my older external hard drives.

But, I would buy the 2021 MacBook Pro M1 Pro all over again. It’s pricey, but the excellent performance and sturdy, classic design are worth the upgrade, at least for photographers with aging machines that are starting to lag behind in performance. I’m giving the 2021 MacBook Pro M1 Pro five out of five stars and the Editor’s Choice award. Pick one up at Amazon or Adorama.







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