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“Study the past if you would define the future."

Confucius might well have been referring to the 2021 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pro laptops—and the secret behind why they’re so wonderful.

These laptops are studies of the past, restoring many features Apple confidently told us belonged in history books: Full-size ports! A MagSafe charger! Function keys! Everything but the floppy drive has been resurrected.

“We’re constantly listening to our customers and with this new lineup of MacBook Pros we decided to make some changes as we do a lot on the Mac," Tom Boger, Apple’s Vice President of Mac and iPad Product Marketing, told me.

Run that through the executive-to-English translator and it comes out pretty clear: We were wrong.

But the backtracking is only part of what makes these new $1,999-and-up laptops such a pleasure to use: It’s Apple’s move from Intel chips to its very own M1 Pro and M1 Max that wowed me in my last two weeks of testing.

You don’t have to be a total nerd to appreciate the Silicon Switcheroo, either. Don’t like your laptop sounding like a leaf blower and feeling like a space heater when you’re hard at work? Do you constantly scan for wall outlets at the coffee shop or airport? Bid all that goodbye.

These laptops balance high performance, portability and power savings in ways we just haven’t known in previous Macs and Windows machines. And Apple itself seems to have learned that prioritizing thinness over, well, everything else just isn’t worth it. Mr. Boger acknowledged that to get the right features and capabilities, “the 16-inch MacBook got a little bit thicker, a little bit heavier."

Are these absolutely perfect laptops? Well, no, nothing is perfect—especially at these prices—but they are so good they give us a glimpse of the future, and what we’ll complain about next now that our biggest current problems have been solved.

The Past

I won’t complain about how the new MacBook Pro feels heavier or thicker, because Apple did that to make room for all the things.

On the right side lives a full-size HDMI port and an SD card slot. There go two dongles from the dongle bag. The left edge welcomes back the MagSafe charging port, that magnetic charger that latched into place and detached when your kid came running by and tripped over the cord. I missed you, little charging indicator light. It tells you the charging status even when the laptop is closed.

If you prefer to charge via USB-C ports, there are still three of those, nicely distributed on both sides of the laptop. Finally, you can charge comfortably in bed, whether you sleep on the right or left side!

Perhaps I wouldn’t be so madly in love with the keyboards on these machines if Apple hadn’t so royally messed up the previous models, replacing a functional function row with the always-in-the-way Touch Bar screen. But here I am, gushing over real keys that actually work when you hit them. Innovation!

The Present

The break from the past comes right at you when you power on the beautiful and bright high-resolution displays, which make these laptops more akin to iPads and iPhones than older MacBooks. The ProMotion technology—which ratchets up the screen refresh to 120 times a second when needed—also makes everything feel snappier, especially when scrolling through long webpages.

Just one problem with that display: There’s a black rectangle, aka “notch," surrounding the new 1080p webcam. Since Apple narrowed the screen bezel, it had to make extra room within the display for the camera. It’s notch the best. That said, camera quality is up a notch. It’s still notch as good (OK, I’m done) as an iPhone’s selfie cam, but compared with previous MacBook webcams, you’ll appear sharper and less grainy in all lighting conditions.

What makes these systems so stellar, however, is totally invisible to you. Some quick Computer Science 101: The Intel chips in your laptop, based on x86 architecture, are quite power hungry. More power means more heat, which means more fan noise. And all of that means less battery life. Apple’s new M1 family of chips, based on Arm architecture, tend to run cooler and be more power-efficient.

While Apple has already transitioned its lower-priced iMac, MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro to the M1 chips, these new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips significantly up the performance, graphics and memory capabilities.

Using my typical apps on the baseline $1,999 14-inch model with M1 Pro chip and 16GB of RAM, I couldn’t get the thing to slow down. Even when I simultaneously exported a video in Adobe Premiere, listened to music in Apple Music, played the racing game “Asphalt 9" and launched 30-something Chrome tabs, the thing never revved its fans.

Attempting the same thing on an older 13-inch Intel MacBook Pro gave me a spinning rainbow, and the system sounded like it was about to take William Shatner to space.

I had similar cool running on the $4,099 M1 Max-powered 16-inch MacBook Pro with 64GB of RAM. That’s far too much power for my usual workload, so if you do care about all the cores and stats and extreme power benefits—especially compared with Intel’s higher-end chips—check out this review.

But, oh boy, did I test the battery life! Since Apple boldly proclaimed that the 16-inch model has the longest in a Mac notebook to date, with 21 hours of video playback, I deemed it my mission to see if that was really true. After dozens of tests, I determined a few things:

• No matter what the test, Apple’s new machines lasted up to 6 hours longer than their Intel counterparts. When streaming YouTube, the new 16-inch lasted nearly 16 hours. The Intel machine, with the same size battery, went for just over 9 hours.

• The Apple systems blew away one of the longest-running Intel-powered systems, the 14-inch Asus ExpertBook B9, by more than three hours.

• In real-world tests with Safari, Apple Music, Slack and Messages, I got 8 hours of use on the 16-inch, and 6 hours and 35 minutes on the 14-inch. (Using Chrome took about an hour off.)

• My M1 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2020 lasts just as long as those in the real world.

• You probably won’t see 21 hours of battery life. As I explain in my video, the fine print requires you to turn off pretty much everything, including Wi-Fi, auto brightness and the keyboard backlight, then watch downloaded videos at 50% brightness. Apple and other companies should stop quoting unrealistic battery-life results.

Still, the battery will last the length of a cross-country flight and then some, and when you land, you can charge it up to 50% in around 30 minutes—if you have a faster, 96W-or-higher charger. If you go for the baseline 14-inch model, you’ll need to shell out an extra $20 for it.

The Future?

So where does the Mac laptop go from here if these are so close to perfect? Well, I can think of a few missing items, which I probed Apple executives about.

While nearly every Windows laptop and Chromebook has a touch screen, Macs continue to have only touchpads—albeit ones the size of Olympic swimming pools.

“We make the world’s best touch computer on an iPad. It’s totally optimized for that. And the Mac is totally optimized for indirect input. We haven’t really felt a reason to change that," John Ternus, Apple’s senior vice president of hardware engineering, told me.

And Face ID? When I stare at the laptop’s giant notch, I wonder why I can’t unlock the machine with my face. Mr. Boger said Touch ID is more convenient on a laptop since your hands are already on the keyboard.

Finally, there are repairs and upgrades—or a lack thereof. You can’t, for example, upgrade the RAM after buying. Both Mr. Boger and Mr. Ternus said the “unified memory architecture" is part of the reason for the improved performance.

As I found a few months ago, if you spill water all over MacBooks and don’t have AppleCare, you could save hundreds of dollars by going to an independent repair shop—but only if the shop has the right parts and information to fix them. They often don’t. Mr. Boger said the company continues to “do work in that space."

Both of them stared at me blankly on Zoom when I asked about a water-resistant laptop. “That hasn’t been on many people’s lists," Mr. Boger said.

Sure, but now that most everything on our previous lists has been checked off, we have some new requests.

 

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