Apple's MacBook Pro has become a staple among professional users who need power, efficiency, and portability in one computer. The transition to Apple Silicon has led to a revolution for the Mac lineup, with more power available in the high-end laptops than most desktops. These pro laptops are the go-to machines for developers seeking to make apps for Apple's ecosystem.
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The MacBook Pro debuted on the cusp of Apple's transition to Intel-based processors in 2006 and has been the flagship laptop for the company since. It has flourished as the laptop-of-choice for Apple developers and continues to be one of Apple's most important products even as it transitions to custom Apple Silicon.
The introduction of the M1 processor to the 13-inch MacBook Pro revitalized the product after it languished under Intel's slow product updates and poor optimization. Apple chose not to change the external appearance of its MacBook lineup when it debuted the M1. Then later, the 24-inch iMac was exemplary of what Apple can achieve when using its custom processors.
Apple then revealed the M1 Pro and M1 Max processors alongside a redesigned 16-inch MacBook Pro and new 14-inch MacBook Pro. These are Apple's most powerful MacBooks yet with performance better than almost any other laptop on the market despite having a comparatively thin and light case.
MacBook Pro Features
Apple introduced the aluminum unibody design in the second-generation MacBook Pro, and that overall design has stuck around since. The chassis became thinner with each iteration until Apple removed all legacy ports in favor of four USB Type-C Thunderbolt ports. However, Apple's 2021 models brought back the HDMI port and SD card slot in a slightly thicker case design.
All modern versions of the laptop have a large glass trackpad, an updated Magic Keyboard with scissor switches, and an Apple logo on the display case. The Touch Bar still exists on the 13-inch MacBook Pro but has been removed in favor of full-sized function keys on the 2021 M1 Pro and M1 Max MacBooks.
Apple's approach to case design hasn't changed much, even with a slight redesign to accommodate the extra ports and increased cooling needs in the 2021 models. Notably, Apple increased the foot size under the laptops so more air could flow underneath during regular use.
Processors and Configurations
There are three sizes of MacBook Pro and three different processors available. The low-end 13-inch model only has an option for the M1 processor, but the two larger models can have either the M1 Pro or M1 Max.
13-inch MacBook Pro
The M1 processor in the 13-inch MacBook Pro is the same one used across Apple's other products. The exception is that there is a fan providing active cooling in this pro-model, so it has fewer thermal limitations and will operate longer at full load.
This model only has two available Thunderbolt ports no matter the configuration, and it can only connect to one external display at a time. This is largely a limitation of the M1 chip.
Customers can get the base model with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage for $1,299. This can be configured for up to 16GB of RAM and 2TB of storage for $2,299.
16-inch and 14-inch MacBook Pro
Customers can choose between the M1 Pro and M1 Max in either the 16-inch MacBook Pro or 14-inch MacBook Pro during purchase. Both models have identical port configurations, display specs, and designs — only the display size and battery life differ.
The M1 Pro can be configured with an 8-core or 10-core CPU, 14-core or 16-core GPU, and 16GB or 32GB of RAM. Customers can also purchase up to 8TB of integrated SSD storage.
The M1 Max can be configured with a 24-core or 32-core GPU and up to 64GB of RAM. Maxing out this processor adds $700 to the base price of the laptop, costing another $800 for the maximum RAM.
Apple moved away from the scissor-switch mechanism in favor of a thinner "butterfly" mechanism in 2015, which led to a number of issues. The MacBook keyboards have been under heavy scrutiny since.
The first version of the butterfly keyboard launched with the tiny 12-inch MacBook. That now-retired laptop sacrificed processing power for an ultra-thin and lightweight design, including a keyboard mechanism that prioritized thinness over travel distance and reliability. The controversial butterfly switch led to numerous issues, including stuck or unresponsive keys. The company eventually started a warranty program to service MacBooks with noticeable keyboard problems.
In late 2019, Apple debuted an updated 16-inch MacBook Pro with a return to the scissor-switch mechanism. Apple called it the Magic Keyboard, with scissor switches resembling those on Apple's desktop keyboard of the same name.
Apple never quite solved the butterfly issue, no matter the design revisions and fixes it provided. The butterfly keyboard was replaced with the new Magic Keyboard across the MacBook lineup. The last one to receive the new keyboard was the 13-inch MacBook Pro, released in early 2020.
In 2008, Apple debuted a new trackpad that users could click anywhere on the surface. Prior to that, trackpads had included left-click and right-click buttons underneath the touch-cursor portion.
The third-generation MacBook Pro included an updated trackpad with a larger surface and pressure-sensitive haptics. Called the Force Touch trackpad, it replaced the mechanical clicking hinge with a haptic motor that approximates a click-through vibration. The trackpad doesn't click or operate without power since it has no moving parts.
3D Touch was an iPhone feature that popped up extra software options when applying pressure with a click. While Apple removed this from the iPhone, the MacBook trackpad still uses the Mac's equivalent Force Touch system. Apple still ships trackpads that have Force Touch built-in, but it isn't emphasized in macOS.
The controversial fourth-generation MacBook Pro did more to change the keyboard than the butterfly switch — it also introduced the Touch Bar. The OLED strip replaced the function key row entirely, leading to many user complaints. The Touch Bar brought Touch ID with it, as well as the T1/T2 coprocessor.
The Touch Bar showed shortcut buttons based on the Mac's open and active application. Text suggestions, emoji, photo tools, and video timelines pop up depending on what a user is doing.
Apple still sells MacBooks with a Touch Bar, but the latest MacBook Pros ditched the strip in favor of full-sized function keys. It is likely that Apple will remove the Touch Bar from the remaining devices as new models are released.
The 2021 MacBook Pros have multiple types of ports, a change from Apple's previous move to remove everything other than USB-C and a headphone jack. Now, users will find three Thunderbolt 4 ports, an SD card slot, and an HDMI port.
The SD card slot doesn't offer the latest and greatest speeds, instead, it is limited to SDXC type cards. Also, the HDMI port is only HDMI 2.0 rather than the more modern HDMI 2.1 port. The included ports are focused on convenience more than functionality.
Apple's return to various port types comes after years of customers complaining about needing adapters to make any connection that wasn't USB to USB.
Apple also brought back the MagSafe charging port. This port is MagSafe 3 and can fast charge the 16-inch MacBook Pro at 140W for 50% battery in 30 minutes when an appropriate wall adapter is used.
Apple's Liquid Retina Display is available in the 14-inch MacBook Pro and 16-inch MacBook Pro, while a standard Retina Display is in the 13-inch MacBook Pro. The term "Retina" is used for Apple displays with a high enough pixel density to prevent individual pixels from being perceived at an average viewing distance.
The Liquid Retina Display uses mini-LED backlighting for a higher dynamic range and better blacks. It also has a 120Hz ProMotion display with a variable refresh rate that shows content in its native frame rate. Both of these technologies help improve overall battery life when viewing certain content.
The latest MacBook Pros have a 1000 nit normal operating brightness for HDR content and a 1600 nit peak brightness. This means content will be easier to view in bright environments.
macOS is the standard operating system for all Mac computers. The latest version, announced in 2021, is MacOS Monterey. This operating system update brings new social features, Universal Control, and new cross-app functionality.
Safari has been redesigned with a new tab system and changes to the address bar. Users can configure these changes based on preferences in the Preferences menu.
The Messages app includes new Memoji options, "Shared With You" items, and a new photo viewer. FaceTime has a function called SharePlay for listening to music or watching movies together during a call.
MacBook Pro History
Apple's professional laptop has seen many changes over the years, and one of the biggest arrived in late 2020. The fifth-generation MacBook Pro launched in November 2020 with custom Apple Silicon inside. The machine abandoned Intel processors in favor of the M1.
With Apple controlling the entire hardware and software stack in the Mac line for the first time, it means big performance gains and improved battery life. Apple says the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1 chip is up to 2.8x faster with up to 5x faster graphics compared to its early 2020 Intel predecessor.
Security is also much improved due to the nature of having new custom system architecture on the market – no malware or adware will have yet been spotted for the product.
As described before, Apple continued innovating with its Apple Silicon when it released the M1 Pro and M1 Max alongside the updated 16-inch MacBook Pro and new 14-inch model. Thanks to integrated CPUs and GPUs sharing a unified memory stack, these computers operate as much as 3.7x faster than the Intel variants.
This generation also marks the end of the Touch Bar and the introduction of more ports, like HDMI and SD card slots. Apple is expected to release a redesigned 13-inch MacBook Pro with an "M2" processor and similar design changes sometime in 2022.
The fourth-generation MacBook Pro was released in October 2016, updating both the 15-inch and 13-inch models. The MacBook Pro hadn't been updated in years, and some pro users voiced their uneasiness about Apple's attention discrepancy between rapidly advancing mobile devices and the stagnating Mac. However, the machine's significant 2016 updates proved more controversial than widely embraced.
The ultra-thin MacBook Pro needed the smallest ports available, so it came with USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports. They were versatile but new to users who would need adapters or all new equipment to use the port. There was no more MagSafe, but all ports could power the laptop without the need for a proprietary cable.
However, all eyes were on the new generation's keyboard, which had carried over from the 12-inch MacBook. Thinner keys with a butterfly mechanism and less space between them, a touch screen panel instead of a function row, and a giant trackpad all made this design futuristic and new. Apple also added its Touch ID technology in a button next to the Touch Bar that acted as the sleep/wake switch.
Through the years, the ports change mattered less as more users got USB accessories to match, but the keyboard didn't live up to Apple's hopes. April of 2018 saw a report that said the butterfly keyboard was failing at up to twice the rate of the previous generations.
Class-action lawsuits were filed, Apple updated the keyboard with membrane material to prevent foreign object ingress, and a final update to the keyboard in May 2019 changed out materials for stronger ones. Apple also announced a keyboard service program for all the affected MacBooks. These changes have seemed to reduce the need for repair of "sticky keys," but they still weren't enough for users expecting their devices to "just work."
The first revision to the fourth-generation MacBook Pro came in November 2019, and along with it a newly dubbed "Magic Keyboard." Apple brought back the scissor mechanisms, and even the physical escape key, to finally and hopefully bring the years of keyboard issues to rest. This 16-inch model also included new spec updates to bring it in line with the iMac Pro and increased the battery to the maximum allowed for plane travel, 100W.
In May 2020, Apple released a 13-inch update with a new Magic Keyboard, faster processors, and more storage.
At WWDC 2012, Apple announced a third-generation "MacBook Pro with Retina display." As its name implies, it was the first Apple notebook with a high-resolution screen. It also added Core i7 processors, USB 3.0, a second Thunderbolt port, and HDMI. To further accommodate the thinning of the laptop, Apple added MagSafe 2, which had a thinner connector and port. FireWire 800 and Ethernet were dropped to allow for the new ports, but users could still connect them via thunderbolt adapters.
This laptop also lost some moving parts. Apple dropped the disk drive and switched the hard drive to a solid-state drive. The design further removed user upgradeability by soldering in the memory and gluing in the battery.
This generation saw more significant user-facing updates than the standard memory or screen changes. In 2013, the laptops gained Thunderbolt 2, Iris graphics, 802.11ac WiFi, and the higher-end 15-inch model got additional Nvidia graphics. 4K support was added via the HDMI as well.
The 2015 update, the last before the current generation, included all of the usual speed updates, along with some hardware changes. That generation marked the Force Touch trackpad's debut, making for quieter and softer clicks and allowing for deep-press-triggered contextual menus.
Apple announced the second-generation MacBook Pro during a press event in October 2008. A new design, dumping the old PowerBook chassis, sported a unibody aluminum enclosure with tapered edges, like the MacBook Air. The optical drive and ports were rearranged for the new body style: ports on the left and optical drive on the right. Apple changed ports and dropped FireWire 400, but the FireWire 800 port remained. The update also changed the DVI port to a Mini DisplayPort.
This generation allowed users to change their battery out, useful for travel or switching in a spare. Given that the battery only lasted about five hours on one charge, buying an extra allowed the device to last closer to a full day.
Along with its new sleek aluminum case, Apple added a glass surface trackpad. Users could click the new trackpad anywhere, an upgrade over designated buttons below on the first-generation trackpad. Later updates to the line added inertial scrolling, similar to what iOS offered.
Among the first Intel Macs, the first-generation MacBook Pro arrived in January 2006 with a 15-inch screen. Apple launched a larger 17-inch variant in April. These were the first MacBooks with webcams. They also introduced the MagSafe connector.
The move from PowerPC to Intel was much faster than anyone, even Apple had anticipated. The process went without too many hitches, and it proved to be up to three times as fast as the PowerBook G4 it replaced.