DEC 3, 2021 / Apple

Apple MacBook Pro 16 Inch Review: Powerful, flexible… and expensive

Apple’s recently refreshed MacBook Pro 16 certainly lives up to its Pro suffix, but that’s both a blessing and a curse if you’re after an Apple-centric laptop. If you’ve got need of its Pro power it’s an easy recommendation, but this is a serious beast of a machine with an equally frightening asking price, even for the lowest level versions.

Like any 16-inch laptop, this is a big unit, and one that I’d more comfortably call “luggable” than portable, but with that you do get a very nice 16-inch display. Apple’s borrowed a trick from the iPhone with the new MacBook Pro, because where older MacBooks hid the front-facing camera under a black bar at the top of the screen, the new 16 inch model has a notch. That gives it just a little more screen space, although it’s only used for now for the menu bar.

Elsewhere, Apple’s gone back to the future, grabbing design elements from much older MacBook Pro models. If you didn’t like the “Touch Bar” interface at the top of many recent MacBooks, you’ll be pleased to hear that it’s not in the new MacBook Pro 16 at all. Instead, you get a row of function keys. Of course, if you were a fan of the Touch Bar’s modular approach, that’s bad news.

Speaking of everything old being new again, Apple has also brought back the Magsafe charger it abandoned on MacBooks about five years ago with the new 16-inch model only. The magnetic attachment is pretty strong, and charging is quite fast. Again, you’d expect that on a Pro-level device.

Side view of the MacBook Pro 16-inch, showing the ports

You also get the welcome return of a lot of flexible connection ports. Where recent MacBooks (and quite a few PCs) have opted for just a few USB C ports, the MacBook Pro offers up 3 USB-C/Thunderbolt ports, HDMI video connectivity and an SDXC card slot to boot. Basically, if you want to hook up anything from external storage to displays, network cables or more, you can do it with ease.

It’s also great to see Apple finally coming to the Full HD party when it comes to video conferencing. That’s become much more of a vital part of many of our everyday lives over the past couple of years, but prior MacBooks all struggled with often dim 720p capable cameras. The 1080p camera on the MacBook Pro under the screen notch shoots wide and well, even in moderately low light.

Apple’s MacBook lines shifted over to Apple’s own “M1” processors last year for the most part, but the 16-inch variant was the holdout, until now. Apple’s M1 is very powerful, but the issue to date has been that every M1 system has been essentially the same as every other M1 system. Buy the 13-inch M1 MacBook Air, and you got the basic same performance as the pricier 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro.

That’s not an issue the 16-inch MacBook Pro has, to put it politely. It’s a laptop that ships with a choice of processors, labelled as either “M1 Pro” or “M1 Max” with a big uptick in performance, especially graphics performance with up to 32 GPU cores for video rendering purposes. They’re also capable of being shipped with up to 64GB of onboard RAM.

Image showing that the Magsafe charger has returned

The catch here – beyond the asking price, which starts high and goes higher from there – is that M1 systems use what’s called a “system on a chip”, which means processor, graphics, storage and RAM all live on the same chip. That has huge benefits for performance, because all parts can talk to each other rapidly and efficiently. However, it also means that you can’t upgrade much once you’ve purchased the system. You could expand storage via an external USB-C connected hard drive, but not change the internal one, or bump up the RAM after the fact.

All that being said, the MacBook Pro 16 absolutely flies through complex computing tasks. MacBooks still aren’t gaming laptops, but for jobs like editing and rendering video the model I tested – which was a pricey top tier M1 Max variant with 64GB RAM ran rings around a nearby M1 13-inch MacBook Pro.

You might have noticed I’ve referenced the price a lot, and that’s because while the MacBook Pro 16 is an absolute supercar of a laptop, just like those shiny high-performance vehicles, they’re not devices that everyone can either afford or indeed that they actually need. If you’re looking at a device for lots of GPU-intensive tasks the MacBook Pro 16 will work wonders, and there’s no doubt that some businesses would see enough improvement for them to pay that premium.

For everyday use, though, they’re total overkill, even if you do like Apple’s macOS platform. If you’re more after a computer for basic office tasks, study or web browsing and social media, the simpler and far more affordable M1 MacBook Air remains my pick of the bunch. You don’t get as many ports for connectivity, but you get a considerably more portable device that still benefits from great battery life and an easy-to-understand operating system without the sting of that high MacBook Pro 16 price tag.

Verdict: The 16 Inch MacBook Pro is ideal if you’ve got heavy computer workloads to throw at it, with power to spare both in computing and battery life terms. However, it’s priced accordingly, and if your needs are more modest, the regular MacBook Air is a better everyday bet.

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Alex Kidman
Tech Journalist