Over the past year, Apple has completely revamped the MacBook line as part of a transition to its own custom silicon, aka processors. Promoting them has been easy because they are more powerful, more efficient, and generally better. The M1 chip was the start in the 13" MacBook Pro and, now, with the launch of 14" and 16" MacBook Pros, we have the M1 Pro and M1 Max—but which version is best for you?
If it is time for you to upgrade or you are curious about what Apple silicon can do, read on to find what M1 chip—and therefore which MacBook Pro—you should buy.
What is the M1 Chip?
One year into the Apple silicon transition, we have gotten the M1, M1 Pro, and M1 Max. However, unless you are as tech focused as some of us here, these names don’t mean anything.
Practically speaking, the M1 is a new generation of processor that Apple engineers designed. It works in a similar manner to the brand’s mobile chips, commonly known as the A13, A14, etc., found in the iPhones and iPads. A major benefit is that Apple is in control of the full stack—meaning the company is directly involved with how the silicon chips, computer components, hardware design, and software all work together, resulting in the best optimization possible. This optimization has always been a hallmark of Apple devices, and this is now the best possible situation for the company. The results of this first generation of M-series chips absolutely support that.
The revolutionary part is that traditional power-centric PCs haven’t used SoC (System-on-a-Chip) architecture. These chips host all the different parts of a computer's processing (CPU, GPU, media encoders, etc.) all on the chip itself. Now that these designs have gotten powerful enough for “Pro” computers, we are finally seeing them being implemented.
Having control over the complete package has allowed Apple to give it some extra bits to help some core users specifically, such as video editing and other creative work. The M1 Pro and M1 Max, in particular, show this off with dedicated encoder/decoders for professional video formats like ProRes. This new on-chip component gives the new MacBook Pros performance that meets and exceeds a Mac Pro with dedicated video hardware.
Along with this, Apple was able to design multiple versions built with different combinations of the core components. There are performance cores, efficiency cores, and extra pieces that can be configured for ideal performance for select tasks as we have pointed out. Today, Apple has three chips on offer:
Looking at this breakdown, you can see more clearly where upgrading will get you improved performance. Keep in mind, this isn’t the whole story.
Which One Should I Get?
There are some factors that will make this an easy decision and some that will make this extremely difficult. Let’s start with the easy ones first.
Choosing a MacBook Pro Size
Part of the chip conversation is tied to physical computer sizes. The original M1 is only available in the 13" MacBook Pro, while the M1 Pro and M1 Max are locked to the 14" and 16" MacBook Pros. If you want the newer or larger sizes (which come with plenty of other benefits), then you are going to be upgrading from the base M1 by default. And if you don’t need the extras of the newer models and just need an everyday machine, then stick with the much more affordable 13" MacBook.
I would start from the bottom and upgrade until you hit your limit. That limit could be price, size, or power.
Most people should look at the 13" MacBook Pro with M1 Chip. It will deliver an ideal blend of power to performance at a very good price point. For everyday use with emails, web browsing, and occasional media editing, you will be content. It might not be as fast as the flashier models, but it’ll get the job done with optimized software. If you mostly do creative work, perhaps for your day job, then I would advise looking up toward the 14" and 16" models.
When you get to the 14" and 16" MacBooks, you will see all the same options are available in both sizes. This is amazing. Most people should just choose the size they prefer. Travel often and want to shave off some weight? Pick the 14". Need the largest canvas possible for precise graphics work? Go with the 16".
There is exactly one note about this, however, which is that the 16" is slightly better with thermal design and allows users to enable a high-power mode to push the chip to work at its absolute limit more often. So, if you are going for the Max, then the 16" has the potential to perform better, especially with sustained tasks.
I hope by now you have settled on a size, but here is a helpful breakdown of our recommendations.
M1 vs M1 Pro/Max
Since size is most closely tied to your M1 options, at this point you should know whether you are going to get the base M1 or need to select between the Pro and Max. If you are looking for better performance for media applications, then the M1 Pro and Max are worth the extra cash. Especially since the 14" and 16" MacBook Pros have plenty of other upgrades that make them worth it.
Building a Pro or Max Chip Configuration
The M1 chip is basically decided if you are going for the 13" MacBook Pro, so now you have to figure out exactly what type of M1 Pro or M1 Max you need.
Photographers will find the newer Pro and Max chips are all going to provide incredible performance in apps like Photoshop, Lightroom, Affinity Photo, and Capture One. Honestly, if you are doing run-of-the-mill editing, you could be just fine with the base M1 Pro in the 14" (limited to an 8-core CPU and 14-core GPU).
By run-of-the-mill, I mean where you go out shooting, pop in your card to upload images to Lightroom or another application, and then do your editing and retouching on a per-image basis. You’ll find all the chips will be fast and responsive.
If you start adding some more graphics work, say, a lot of magic brushes and content-aware fill, then you could see a boost to performance, especially if you are working with high-resolution raw images from a Nikon Z 9, Canon R5, or Sony a7R IV. And once you start working with focus stacks or large batch processing, then you should consider an upgrade.
Personally, I would say that most photographers would be content with the base M1 Max even if they do have more demanding processing requirements. You’ll find 24 cores will be enough. But if you want to future proof for a camera you might have in a few years, or want to try even crazier projects, then the 32-core Max is where you will land.
Our recommendation is to save some money and go with the base M1 Pro for everyday editing. More intense workflows, such as focus stacking, could benefit from the base M1 Max. As for RAM, 16GB is good, but large images and libraries might deserve a bump to 32GB.
Probably the most difficult (unless you have an unlimited budget) challenge is deciding on a chip configuration for video editing. In this case, we will break it down into two types of users, every day or casual video editors (including photographers who do some video work) and power users.
Everyday editors will likely be a little more pressed on their budget. To be honest, both the Pro and Max are likely such dramatic improvements from your existing machine that it is all good. I would advise you to try and go for the base M1 Max if you can afford it. The extra GPU cores and super Media Engine will give you more performance. However, the M1 Pro with 16-core GPU is excellent if that’s where your budget lands you. For memory, 16GB will get you by without issue, although 32GB is nice to have.
Power users have it simpler, since they should absolutely opt for the M1 Max. If you can go for it, then get the top-of-the-line M1 Max with 32-core GPU along with 64GB memory, although many people will likely be totally fine with only 32GB memory, since macOS is able to handle it efficiently and make use of the fast SSD when you are hitting your memory limit.
Your everyday editor should spend as much as they can afford and, if you can go with the M1 Max, you should. However, the 10-core M1 Pro will get the job done with well-optimized apps, such as Final Cut and Resolve. Power users should absolutely go for the M1 Max with 32-core GPU. For memory, 32GB is a good choice and, if you can afford it, go for 64GB.
This one is surprisingly easy. Audio doesn’t rely much on graphical power, and so the biggest choices related to the number of GPU cores won’t provide much of a benefit for audio editing. So now we are talking purely about CPU performance. There are only two options there, the 8-core M1 Pro in the base model 14" MacBook Pro and the 10-core available in all other configurations of the M1 Pro and Max.
Since audio programs push that CPU and not the GPU, you may as well stick with the M1 Pro. The M1 Max adds many components that are dedicated to video and imaging, not worth paying extra for pieces you won’t make the most of.
Easy choice here: pick up the 10-core M1 Pro and, while you are at it, you should strongly consider getting an upgrade for 32GB memory.
Anything we missed? Anything you want to ask about to make your own decision? Sound off in the Comments section, below! To read more about the new MacBook Pro laptops, click here.