The M1 chip saved the MacBook — but now Apple has to win back the Pros

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It’s been hard to be an Apple power user for the last half-decade. The glory days of the original Retina MacBook Pro have long since vanished into the sunset, and recent years have seen computers with too many compromises and too few ports.

And while Apple’s first wave of M1-powered computers have been excellent, they’ve all been — relatively — low-powered. The MacBook Air, the M1 MacBook Pro, Mac Mini, and iMac are the cheapest computers Apple makes, meant more for checking email, writing essays, and the occasional light photo editing than they are for cranking out 4K video or Photoshop projects hundreds of layers deep.

That may be about to change with the presumed announcement of new, high-end MacBook Pro models, computers that are rumored to be Apple’s biggest laptop update in years. And new MacBook Pros are an opportunity for the company to get back the professional users that have been underserved and disappointed by the lackluster laptop options that the company has been releasing for several cycles.

James Bareham

Apple’s last major redesign for the MacBook Pro came in 2016 and made several missteps: the stripping away of SD card, HDMI, and USB-A ports (all essential tools for photographers, video editors, musicians, and other professional workers) in favor of exclusively using USB-C. There was the addition of the largely useless Touch Bar instead of reliable function keys. And, of course, the extremely fragile keyboard, which was prone to breaking on contact with dust or debris.

Subsequent models have tried to address some of those complaints (Apple finally reverted back to the older style keyboard and added a physical escape key to newer models of the MacBook Pro), but the overall approach of what should be Apple’s most functional devices still focus more on the form. Life as a professional on a Mac has meant dealing with too many dongles, buying new cables, and endlessly hunting around for an SD card adapter just to import files. All while getting processors that are years behind Windows devices, with screens that haven’t meaningfully changed since 2012, on computers that Apple charges a premium.

And hardcore users have been waiting for a while, especially compared to Apple’s last chip changeover. When Apple first announced that it would be transitioning its entire product lineup over to Apple Silicon products in 2020 (and away from the Intel chips that it had used since its last major architecture switch in 2005), it announced a two-year goal of getting all its products switched over. But a year in, and only Apple’s least powerful devices have made the change. If you want a more powerful laptop or desktop, then you’re still getting the old Intel models — models that, while still not on Apple Silicon hardware, also haven’t been updated with new Intel hardware in over a year and a half either.

The 16-inch MacBook Pro

Photo by Vjeran Pavic / The Verge

The most powerful 16-inch MacBook Pro you can buy right now — ostensibly Apple’s best and beefiest laptop — features a 9th-generation Intel Core i7 processor from early 2019. Mac users aren’t just missing out on the new 11th Gen Tiger Lake chips announced earlier this year, bringing generational changes in battery life and performance; they didn’t even get the more modest upgrades from Intel’s 2020 10th-gen chips, either.

Compare this whole sluggish Apple Silicon transition to the original Intel one, which happened much more swiftly; Apple announced the change in June 2005, released the first Intel-based Macs in January 2006, and had completely switched over its full product line with the Intel-powered Mac Pro in August 2006 — just eight months later.

Apple managed to change its entire lineup to Intel in just over a year, from announcement to release, the last time around. But with Apple Silicon, we’re already a year into this transition, and there are still a lot of crucial, unanswered questions. The current M1 chips only offer integrated GPUs, with no discrete graphics options available for more graphically intensive tasks (like those that video editors or graphic designers might need). Apple doesn’t sell an M1 device with more than 16GB of RAM, nor does it offer a laptop with more than two USB4 / Thunderbolt 4 ports — all areas that the company would likely have to address in some fashion on a pro-focused machine.

Plus, if Apple does fail at translating the success of its M1 chips to its more powerful machines, Intel is still ready and willing to try and pick up the slack. “I never give up on the idea of anything not running on Intel chips,” commented Intel CEO Pat Gelsinger in an interview with Axios. “Apple decided that they could do a better chip than we could, and they did a pretty good job. So what I have to do is create a better chip than they can do themselves… I’m gonna fight hard to win Tim [Cook’s] business in this area.”

There are theoretical benefits to the delay: developers have had a full year to transition their apps over to Apple’s M1 architecture. Things like Microsoft Office and key creative applications like Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Premiere, and Lightroom have all been natively ported to Apple’s new chips, and those updates took months to roll out.

Plus, a switch to Apple’s own in-house chips might not just mean the kind of performance and speed boosts that customers have been enjoying on the company’s less powerful machines. It also could mean an end to the glacial pace of upgrades for Mac processors. With Intel chips, Apple’s computers almost universally lagged behind their Windows-based competitors, taking months or even years to upgrade to Intel’s latest chips (and the performance and power benefits that newer silicon provided).

And if the rumors are correct, Apple is taking the new chips as an opportunity to roll out a new design for its MacBook Pro line, with bigger, better Mini LED displays, smaller bezels, more ports, and even the return of its breakaway magnetic MagSafe chargers — changes that would both modernize the lineup to be more on par with Windows competitors (which have long since lapped Apple in things like display technology) in addition to rolling back some of the more controversial aspects of the Touch Bar era.

With the first wave of Apple Silicon Macs, Apple proved it could make the best laptops around for most people. But Apple’s new MacBook Pros aren’t just about winning over power users — it’s a chance to prove that Apple Silicon (and the traditionally mobile-focused Arm technology it uses) can not only match but exceed what Intel and AMD have accomplished for years with x86 for high-end use cases.

And if Apple can succeed at that, it won’t just mean better laptops or desktops, but what could be the start of changing how we fundamentally think about designing computers — at least the inside of them — going forward.

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