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Apple MacBook Pro 2021 review: Everything the fans want

Apple’s 14-inch MacBook ProTodd Haselton | CNBCApple’s 14-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pro laptops launch in stores this week. I’ve been testing the 14-inch model for the past several days.The new MacBook Pros now have a clear focus on design and function. It’s a change from 2016 when, in the name of a cleaner design, Apple angered some customers by removing the ports many still found useful. And it required those customers to buy adapters to plug their cameras and card readers into the ports. Worse, the keyboard wasn’t very good and broke for many until it was updated last year. Now, Apple customers have a MacBook Pro without any design compromises. There are plenty of ports and a great keyboard.It shows Apple listened to its most loyal fans.The new MacBook Pros are Apple’s most high-end laptops, and arrive in stores Tuesday. They’re beloved by people who do heavy photo and video editing and by developers who need a Mac to create apps for Apple’s products, like the iPhone. The 14-inch model starts at $2,000 while the 16-inch version starts at $2,500.MacBook sales are on a tear. Apple CEO Tim Cook said in June that the first M1 chip, in computers like the MacBook Air, helped “fuel” Mac growth, likely on top of increased demand for new computers due to the coronvirus pandemic. Sales of Macs were up 16% year over year in the June quarter.The new MacBook Pro can help Apple maintain that momentum, particularly among app developers, and video and audio professionals, who need more power than the MacBook Air offers. And it may even appeal to folks who haven’t upgraded from the 2015 or earlier MacBook Pros, due to the lack of port options in earlier models.I tested the 14-inch model. It’s the nicest Apple laptop I’ve ever used and has way more power than I know what to do with. Here’s what you need to know about it.What’s goodApple’s 14-inch MacBook ProTodd Haselton | CNBCThe new MacBooks Pros were completely redesigned from a relatively boxy look to a newer, more rounded design that I really like. The 14-inch model I have reminds me of a much thinner and lighter version of the 15-inch PowerBooks or Apple’s plastic MacBooks that were discontinued in 2011. And I like that it’s not too big.MageSafe, two Thunderbolt 4 USB-C ports and a headphone jack.Todd Haselton | CNBCBoth models now have nicer screens, an HDMI port and SD card slots and faster Apple M1 Pro or M1 Max processors. They also have three Thunderbolt 4 ports for adding things like external monitors and other accessories.Apple’s 14-inch MacBook ProTodd Haselton | CNBCApple brought back MagSafe this year, the popular magnetic charger that it ditched after the 2017 MacBook Air. I like it because it helps charge the MacBook Pro up to 50% in just 30 minutes. It also pulls out if you trip on the cord so the whole MacBook doesn’t come crashing down. You can still use the Thunderbolt ports to charge with a USB-C power adapter if you want to.SD card slot, a Thunderbolt 4 USB-C port and an HDMI port.Todd Haselton | CNBCThat new 14.2-inch Liquid Retina XDR display might be my favorite feature of all. Professionals will probably appreciate the main reason it exists: so you can color grade really sharp HDR videos and photos accurately. But I like it because it’s incredibly bright.Apple’s 14-inch MacBook ProTodd Haselton | CNBCI don’t often drop numbers in reviews because they don’t mean much to most people, but they’re easiest to explain this. The 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro has 500 nits of brightness while the MacBook Air has 400 nits. The new 14-inch MacBook Pro, by comparison, has 1,000 nits of brightness but can hit 1,600 nits thanks to the new mini-LED backlighting, which allows certain areas of the display to get super bright for movies or photos. The screen has a million-to-one contrast ratio, too, which means really deep blacks and bright whites. The sharp resolution combined, rich colors, high brightness and large contrast ratio give you picture quality that’s better than some high-end HDTVs.For normal folks like me, that means colors really pop in movies and TV shows, and even my photos snapped with HDR on my iPhone 13 look the way they do on my iPhone screen, which also supports HDR. It’s just a huge difference from my M1 MacBook Air. I also appreciate the addition of ProMotion, which makes scrolling smoother. That’s a feature that’s on Apple’s new iPhone 13 Pro models and the iPad Pros, too, and it makes a difference when you’re scrolling through a news story. And it adjusts on the fly to save battery life if you’re not scrolling or doing something that requires that high refresh rate. But you can turn it off or select a specific rate if you’re a video editor who needs a specific refresh rate. The speakers are way better than any other laptop speaker I’ve tested. They have a noticeably rich bass and can fill a room with audio. They support spatial audio, too, which is like surround sound if you’re playing movies or music encoded with Dolby Atmos. It makes a movie or music sound like it’s coming from all around instead of just from the left or right of the laptop.Apple MacBook Pro keyboardSource: AppleThe keyboard works just as well as the last-generation model, which received a big update after Apple’s Butterfly keyboards caused all sorts of issues, from sticky keys to repetitive keystrokes. It feels just as easy to type on as my M1 MacBook Air. I like that Apple got rid of the Touch Bar screen up top, which I didn’t really find useful on earlier MacBook Pro models, and instead replaced it with full-sized function keys that are easy to tap to adjust the volume, screen brightness and more. Apple’s 14-inch MacBook ProTodd Haselton | CNBCThen there’s the new M1 Pro chip. It’s way more powerful than what I need in a laptop, which is why it’s really marketed toward professionals. I tested out some demos where I was able to test six iOS apps running side by side in Xcode, like a developer might if they were trying to see how well their new app ran on different models of iPhones. You can edit multiple 8K HDR video scenes (or Apple’s brighter XDR content) in real time within apps like Final Cut Pro, or render and tweak how the sun falls on 3D models in Cinema 4D, all without waiting for the computer to render. Professionals will likely appreciate being able to do these tasks from a laptop with a screen and processors that enable them to. Lastly, you can add up to two additional displays with the M1 Pro or three screens if you upgrade to the M1 Max chip. That’s up from a single external monitor with the M1 chips last year, and it’s a big deal for folks like me who prefer to run several screens at once.Back to something everyone can appreciate: there’s a 1080p webcam. Apple is finally moving on from the 720p camera on earlier models. That actually improved a lot last year thanks to the M1 chip, which used software to boost the quality. But the sharper resolution this year is noticeable, and you’ll finally look clear in video chats. I just wish Apple found a way to add its Center Stage feature, which tracks you as you move around on iPads, to its laptop. The studio mics also help you sound clear.Apple’s 14-inch MacBook ProTodd Haselton | CNBCFinally, the battery life is good considering all the power you get. Apple promises up to 17 hours of battery life for HD video playback with the screen at 8 notches of brightness, and I got close to that in my video playback tests, losing about 23% of battery every 4 hours of video playback. Of course, your mileage is going to vary. Video rendering will cut that down, for example. But anyone who needs this for web browsing and document editing should get through a workday just fine.What’s badApple’s 14-inch MacBook ProTodd Haselton | CNBCThere’s a notch for the webcam in the top of the display. People are going to have strong opinions about it. I don’t mind it in most situations.You won’t notice it if you have the laptop on dark mode, which is what I did, since everything around the notch is dark anyway. And I prefer the trade-off: you get slimmer bezels on the top of the screen instead of big borders like on earlier models. You’ll see the notch if you have a bright background and menus but it fades into the background even better than it does on an iPhone, where it cuts into video content, for example. But, I wish Apple the notch also had Face ID, the facial recognition feature that unlocks iPhones and some iPad models.Apple’s 14-inch MacBook ProTodd Haselton | CNBCI’m fine with the Touch ID fingerprint reader since it’s what I’ve been used to on other Macs. Face ID would allow the laptop to boot right to your desktop in a split second as you sit down, though. And some Windows laptops, like Microsoft’s Surface products, have a similar face recognition option with Windows Hello.2020 MacBook Air on top of 2021 14-inch MacBook ProTodd Haselton | CNBCAlso, all that power comes with a small trade-off. It’s a bit heavier than I expected at 3.5 pounds.2020 MacBook Air on top of 2021 14-inch MacBook ProTodd Haselton | CNBCIt’s not too heavy, but more so than the 2.8-pound MacBook Air and a half-pound heavier than last year’s 13-inch MacBook Pro.Should you buy it?Apple’s 14-inch MacBook ProTodd Haselton | CNBCThe 14-inch MacBook Pro is a nearly perfect combination of power and portability. Though everyone will appreciate the amazing screen, great speakers, fast charging and improved webcam, this laptop is best suited for professionals who need all of the ports, added power and display tech that aren’t available in Apple’s other laptops. The M1 MacBook Air is still the laptop for most people, and it costs $1,000 less, but I wouldn’t blame you if you bought this instead.Subscribe to CNBC on YouTube. 

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