An almost unbelievably good laptop, the Apple Silicon M1 MacBook is here and nothing is ever going to be the same again
- Fast and responsive (even under emulation)
- Reasonably priced
- Astonishing battery life
- Runs iOS apps
- Compatibility issues with some software
When Apple announced it was going to move all its Macs to its own silicon earlier in 2020, it was a bold move – some might say a huge gamble – and one I wasn’t entirely sure would pay off. However, the new Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13 proves I was wrong to be worried.
Not only is this a great laptop in all the usual ways – the display, keyboard, touchpad, microphone and speakers are all wonderful – but the new Apple M1 processor takes it to another level, boosting battery life and performance to levels that Intel should be seriously worried about.
It’s no understatement to say that the Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13 (and the MacBook Air it launches alongside) is revolutionary; a product that represents a huge step forward for the laptop industry in general.
Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13 review: What you need to know
The move isn’t without precedent. The MacBook Pro 13’s M1 processor is based on an ARM design, much like the chips found in Apple’s tablets and smartphones. In fact, these ARM-based chips power most Android smartphones, and both Microsoft and Qualcomm have attempted to bring this type of CPU to laptops before – the Microsoft Surface Pro X being the prime example.
Apple’s version of the laptop ARM chip, however, is an entirely different beast. Not only is it more powerful than the A14 Bionic chips inside the latest iPhones and iPad Air but Apple has also provided its Apple Silicon MacBooks with a full suite of native M1-compatible Mac software from the get go. This new architecture also allows iOS apps to run on the machine and, in Rosetta 2, it has a runtime environment that’s able to run non-native 64-bit Intel code incredibly fast as well.
Elsewhere, however, it’s business as usual. The Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13in looks pretty much the same as previous models and it comes, just like those laptops, in a number of different configurations. The cheapest model is backed up by 8GB of RAM (configurable to 16GB) while options for storage run from 256GB right up to 2TB.
As for the differences between this and the cheaper Apple Silicon MacBook Air, they’re fewer than you might think. The MacBook Pro 13in has active cooling where the Air does not, and a larger battery, plus superior speakers and a similar “Studio” microphone to that found on the larger (non-Apple Silicon) MacBook Pro 16in.
M1 Apple MacBook Pro 13in (2020) review: Price and competition
For those tired of having to pay top dollar for the best-performing MacBook Pro, the new range of Apple laptops will come as a breath of fresh air. Your only choice here is over how much RAM and how much storage to specify.
I was sent the base model with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD for this review, which costs £1,299, and prices rise steadily as you upgrade. Moving up to 16GB of RAM adds £200 to the price and it’s another £200 to move to the 512GB SSD, with the most expensive 16GB 2TB SSD MacBook Pro costing £2,299.
For the level of performance on offer, and assuming the applications you want to run on the machine will work (there are some caveats to this), these prices are eminently reasonable.
The MacBook Air, however, is cheaper, and nearly as good. Indeed, for the base model, you’re paying £300 less and for most people, it will be more than good enough. The Pro does, however, up the ante considerably when it comes to battery life.
In the Windows laptop space, the Dell XPS 13 is probably the MacBook Pro’s biggest rival. Prices for this machine start at £1,499 for the latest 11th Gen model with a Core i7, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of SSD storage. For the older 10th Gen Intel Core i7 model with 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD prices start at £1,349.
The Samsung Galaxy Book Ion 13.5in is cheaper still but it comes with a low-powered Intel Core i5 chip, 8GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD for £1,249, while the Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 costs £1,549 (before any discounts) for a Core i7 model with 16GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD. In short, the Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13in is more than competitive on price.
Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13 (2020) review: Design
Other than the Apple M1 chip, which I’ll get to in the next section, this Apple MacBook Pro 13in is barely any different from previous models. Visually, there has been no change: it’s recognisably and reassuringly an Apple MacBook Pro 13, 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 particularly 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.
Not that there’s anything wrong with this. The MacBook Pro’s chassis is proven and hard-wearing. It now has the more reliable and ergonomic Magic Keyboard, which makes typing more comfortable than it was with the infamous low-travel butterfly switch affair that caused so much controversy a year or so back. And Apple’s Force Touch haptic touchpad is still as brilliant as ever. It’s huge and you can click on it anywhere you like, unlike mechanical touchpads that get steadily harder to click the higher up you go.
Plus, the speakers and “Studio” microphone are both exceptional. The one fly in the ointment here 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 ultraportable.
M1 Apple MacBook Pro 13 (2020) review: Apple M1 chip
But you’re not here to listen to me complain about the image quality of the webcam. You want to know what the Apple M1 processor means for the way you’ll use your MacBook Pro.
As with any new platform, there are bound to be a few software compatibility issues. However, for the vast majority of MacBook Pro users, the short answer to the above question is that it won’t make any difference at all. Just carry on as usual. As long as you stick to the core Apple applications and install your software from the Apple App Store, this MacBook Pro will work as well, if not better, than any of its predecessors.
It runs MacOS Big Sur from launch, and every Apple application currently available has been converted to run natively on the Apple M1 chip. That includes the entire iWork suite, iMovie, GarageBand as well as Apple’s professional apps, Final Cut Pro and Logic Pro. If you’re covered by that set of software, you’re golden.
There’s more good news when it comes to third-party developers, as there’s already a broad selection of software released or set to come out soon. Adobe is well advanced in converting its CC suite of creative applications and already has a (feature-limited) beta of Photoshop ready to try. Microsoft has also begun the process for Excel, Word et al, and Google has already released a native M1 version of Chrome. Other big names in the creative world have pledged to do the same: BlackMagic Design, for instance, has an Apple M1 release of DaVinci Resolve out as well.
If you want to run software that isn’t yet available as a native M1 app, Apple has you covered there as well. Simply install the application as usual and Apple will ask you if you want to run it using Rosetta 2, a runtime environment that converts 64-bit Intel code to ARM code on the fly.
Not all software will behave itself using Rosetta – I’d suggest doing some research if the app you need to run is remotely esoteric – and for one reason or another software that relies on virtual machines to run Windows in a MacOS environment (Parallels, for instance) won’t work at all.
However, everything I’ve tried out so far has worked without any issue. Indeed, as you’ll see below, even our in-house benchmarks, which rely on applications that don’t yet have native M1 distributions, run well.
Finally, if you haven’t heard, you can also run iOS apps on the new Mac. Again, there are caveats here and not all iOS apps will be available. Some apps rely on GPS and/or the gyroscope and these won’t be suitable, since the Apple M1 doesn’t have those features. Meanwhile, certain developers won’t want to cannibalise sales of their (more expensive) desktop applications.
However, there’s already a great range of working software available to install and this selection will only grow over time as software developers look to take advantage of another potentially lucrative revenue stream.
Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13 (2020) review: Performance
Next, performance. How well does the Apple M1 perform? Given that it’s essentially a beefier version of the 5nm A14 Bionic SoC used in Apple’s latest iPhones and iPad Air, you’d expect it to deliver faster speeds. It has more CPU and GPU cores (eight on both counts instead of six and four) and, crucially these are clocked higher than their mobile counterparts as well. The faster performance CPU cores on the M1 run at up to 3.2GHz apiece while the lower power cores run at 2.1GHz.
These are accompanied by a 16-core “neural” processor capable of carrying out 1 trillion operations per second and either 8GB or 16GB of unified system RAM – memory that’s shared between both the CPU and the GPU. In the case of these benchmarks, you’re looking at a machine with a ‘mere’ 8GB of RAM.
To say that, even with the 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 out, the first thing I did was run our usual selection of cross-platform benchmarks: Geekbench 5 for the CPU and a selection of graphics-heavy tests from the GFXBench Metal suite of benchmarks. You can see the results of those tests in the graphs below but it’s no understatement to say that the results will have Intel worried. Seriously worried.
In both tests, you’re looking at results that are on par with the 2019 Apple MacBook Pro 16in, which had an Intel Core i9-9980HK inside and 64GB of RAM. That, by the way, is a laptop that currently costs £3,899. The fact that the £1,299 Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13in can even come close is eyebrow-raising.
Next up, just for a laugh, I ran our in-house benchmark. This runs a number of high-resolution image and video transcodes, then – to push the multitasking capabilities of the laptop – it runs them all at the same time and plays a 4K video on loop simultaneously until the last of the video transcodes finishes.
The catch is, of course, that all the apps used here – Nconvert, Handbrake and VLC – are Intel-based and 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.
Somewhat remarkably, however, the Apple Silicon machine is still quicker than everything else I’ve compared it with: the Dell XPS 13 I tested earlier this year with a 10th-generation Core i7 1065G7, the Core i7 Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 and the Core i5 Samsung Galaxy Book Ion.
That’s astonishingly impressive, but what about real-world performance? Turns out it’s just as good. To give you an idea of exactly how good it is, I opened Final Cut Pro X, loaded up some 4K Dolby Vision 30fps HDR clips shot on the iPhone 12 and proceeded to put together a couple of basic projects.
First up, I assembled the footage into a 2mins 51sec-long linear clip, with no effects or titles, then rendered that out to the default Apple ProRes 422 file type. This took the Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13in 1min 10secs to complete; our videographer’s 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, I 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 running, there was the odd hitch here and there but otherwise preview playback remained smooth.
Only with four clips playing at the same time did the preview begin 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 any of the MacBook Pro’s Windows 10 rivals using Adobe Premiere and you’ll have to wait for low-resolution proxies to be created before being able to do anything with 4K files at all. Even my desktop PC, with an AMD Ryzen 5 3600 six-core CPU and an AMD Radeon RX 5600 XT under the hood, struggles to keep up.
So much for the CPU, how about the SSD? Well that’s pretty speedy as well, notching up sustained sequential read and write speeds of 2,693MB/sec and 2,066MB/sec respectively, again not that far behind the speed of the Apple MacBook Pro 16in.
M1 Apple MacBook Pro 13in (2020) review: Battery life
Perhaps more impressive even than the raw power exhibited by the Apple M1 is that it’s also very efficient. Indeed, Apple quotes up to 20 hours of movie playback and 17 hours of wireless web use, both figures which sound preposterously optimistic when most Intel-based machines struggle to get past 10 hours of video playback.
However, in our standardised tests, the Apple Silicon MacBook Pro performed exceptionally well. In fact, with the display set to a brightness of 170cd/m2 and all wireless connections disabled, it lasted 17hrs 31mins before shutting down. Enough for a couple of full working days away from the mains – more, maybe, if you keep the brightness down.
Perhaps more notably, this is the longest-lasting laptop I’ve tested using these particular test parameters, outlasting the nearest Intel-based competitor – the Samsung Galaxy Book Ion 13.5in – by more than four hours.
Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13in (2020) review: Display
Lastly, for what it’s worth, the MacBook Pro’s display reaches the same high standards as you’d expect a MacBook Pro. Apple is sticking with IPS tech here and the same Retina-class resolution of 2,560 x 1,600. Stretched across a 13.3in diagonal that gives a pixel density of 227ppi. It hasn’t gone for a high-refresh-rate, though; this is steadfastly a 60Hz panel.
However, it isn’t a gaming machine and, in terms of its colour representation, it’s simply outstanding. In my technical testing, I measured it delivering 97.9% of the Display P3 colour gamut and an average 0.93 Delta E colour accuracy. Brightness peaks at 509cd/m2 so you should be able to read the screen in most environments – including outdoors – and contrast reaches 1419:1.
All numbers that are highly respectable. You certainly won’t find anything to complain about here.
M1 Apple MacBook Pro 13in (2020) review: Verdict
Finally, to the verdict, and it’s a pretty easy one to give. If you’re in the market for a new laptop and you have around £1,300 to spend – and assuming you’ve checked that it will run all the software you require – there is no other laptop that comes close to the Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13.
It’s much, much faster than its Windows 10, Intel-based rivals, it has astonishingly long battery life and it’s as well made and slick as any MacBook ever has been. No, there’s nothing new or particularly exciting about the design – and the webcam needs work – but that’s a small consideration when the rest is so good.
The only thing that might give you pause is the MacBook Air, which is pretty much just as fast as the MacBook Pro 13in, despite lacking active cooling, and a whole lot cheaper. If you want the best battery life, though, plus superior speakers and microphones, the Apple Silicon MacBook Pro 13in is the one to choose. It is, quite simply, the best ultraportable laptop you can buy and will probably remain so until the next MacBook Pro 13in is released. Intel has a lot of work to do.