A 14-Inch MacBook Pro and a Few Thoughts

The 2021 14-inch MacBook Pro into which I am typing these words is arguably the best computer Apple has ever made. It is not as powerful as the Mac Studio or Mac Pro, not as elegant as the MacBook Air, and not the best value in Apple’s line — which, again, is probably the MacBook Air. But it manages to get nearly everything great about those other Macs in a package that is smaller in profile than the computer it replaces in my world.

That is no small feat, by the way. The 2012 MacBook Air I have been using daily for the past ten years is certainly nowhere near as capable as this MacBook Pro by any stretch. But it was my main Mac for seven of those years, accompanying me from my last years in college on journeys across a few continents. It deserves its high ranking on Six Colors’ 20 Macs for 2020 list.

And it is a good thing, too, I bought such a capable laptop in 2012, because I mostly got to avoid the Mac’s flop years. The Touch Bar? I see why people like it, but Apple’s enthusiasm for it quickly waned and it was not for me. The butterfly keyboard? I would love to learn the inside story of what happened there, which will slowly trickle out as the lawsuit unfolds and knowledgeable people are able to speak out.1

But the Mac is back — or, it has been for quite some time, but I had not experienced it until now. And there have been some notable positive changes in the time since I last bought one of Apple’s laptops. The construction of this Mac is flawless. I thought my MacBook Air had a confidence-inspiring quality to its construction, but this MacBook Pro is in a league of its own. It strikes a balance between feeling durable and delicate. Everything that is supposed to feel solid does not move, not even a little; every part that is interactive, like the keyboard and display hinge, feels like it accomplishes its task without any ill effects.

This display is magnificent. I thought I knew Retina displays — I have a 5K iMac on my desk — but this feels like a fuller expression of that idea. One little thing Apple keeps getting better about is matching the display’s brightness and colour temperature to the environment. My iMac is pretty good about the former — it cannot do True Tone trickery — but this display feels increasingly closer to something that reads more like coated paper than it does a computer screen.

Alas, there is a notch. This is my first Mac with one and I can see why some deride it. I do not like it, but nor do I hate it. It is an obvious compromise for getting a webcam into a portable Mac with the smallest possible footprint. If I could spec this MacBook Pro without a webcam — or if it had Face ID — I would find it more acceptable. My dislike of it is almost entirely cosmetic, but that is also true for the solution to removing it: equalize the displays around the bezel. That would necessitate either a larger device footprint or a smaller display, both of which I regard as less desirable compromises for a portable Mac. It is not the best look, but it is the best compromise for me.

Like Michael Tsai, I have not been completely bowled over by the performance of this Mac, nor have I been amazed by its battery life — but I mean that in the best possible sense. This Mac is like the Swiss train network, of which I am once again envious after watching Jason Slaughter’s latest video: it is so efficient and delightful that it is best expressed because of what it does not do. There are no delays, no hangups, no surprise battery consumption warnings, no stutters, and no ill behaviours. Everything just goes. Even the performance issues I see with Safari’s UI on my top-of-the-line iMac are gone.2 I have by no means been trying to find its limits, but it feels limitless in every application I have thrown at it. That is amazing in its own way.

And I have not once heard it. There are apparently two fans spinning away below this keyboard, but I cannot hear them when I put my ear to the case. When I was transferring files last week, my MacBook Air was doing its best to make a deafening racket, like it was screaming for me that it still had plenty of life left in it. This MacBook Pro? Just quietly sipping electricity and flipping bits on its drive in perfect silence. Any noises made by this MacBook Pro are drowned out by the sound of background radiation. It is that quiet. It is an exquisite experience.

The hardware is amazing — but you already knew that because the first reviews for this computer were published about eight months ago. The software? Well, that is almost exactly the same. Rosetta works fine, though I have waited long enough to upgrade to an ARM Mac that only a handful of apps I use are unavailable in ARM native guise. There also seems to be a single system process — CarbonComponentScannerXPC — that remains an always-running Intel app. Strange.

There are a handful of features in MacOS specific to either this laptop or ARM Macs generally. The menu bar is taller to accommodate the notch. I prefer this style primarily because the rounded rectangle selection highlight has some space between the top and bottom of the menu bar. On a notchless Mac, the rectangle’s edges touch the top and bottom of the menu bar and, thanks to the rounded corners, it looks uncomfortable and cramped. I like how the corners of the selection highlight round more aggressively for the Apple menu and the clock, matching the radius of the display.

Other things specific to ARM Macs include AirPlay receiver support (Update: Nope, just not on my iMac.), a globe in Maps, and support for iPhone and iPad apps on MacOS. The latter reminds me of running iOS apps in the Simulator. These are not blockbuster features yet — at least, not for the way I use my Mac.

Otherwise, it feels familiar. All the stuff I use is here; all the bugs that interrupt my workflow are basically the same.

But all of this is running on hardware that feels familiar but different. A MagSafe connection is back — why Apple got rid of that in the first place I will never know, but those flop years hit them hard. I do not need the HDMI port, but I am thrilled this Mac has an SD card slot, making it a perfect companion for anyone who travels with a digital camera besides their smartphone. TouchID is excellent, the keyboard and trackpad are pretty much perfect, and the speakers sound better than they have any right to in a package this small and thin.

This is a professional product worthy of the “MacBook Pro” moniker. I look forward to spending the next decade with it by my side.

  1. Not necessarily a hint, but not not a hint either. ↥︎

  2. Safari is slow to visually become active or inactive (FB9735993) and dialogs for save, open, and print all drop frames when they draw. Mind you, I should not need to be using one of the fastest Macs ever made to see a print dialog appear smoothly. ↥︎