Apple MacBook Pro 14in review (M1 Max, 2021): The ultimate portable

Our Rating 
Price when reviewed 
inc VAT, base spec (£3,999 as tested)

A powerhouse tour de force, Apple’s 14in MacBook Pro is the ultimate mobile workstation

Loads of power
Stupendously good display
More portable than the Pro 16in

There’s an argument that you don’t need to read this review of the MacBook Pro 14in (2021). If you’ve already read up on the 16in MacBook Pro, then the 14in machine is essentially the same laptop, but a bit smaller. Just like the 16in model, it too is available with Apple’s upgraded, super-fast M1 Max and M1 Pro processors and it comes with the same fabulous 120Hz mini-LED display.

The only notable difference between the two is that the 14in is more portable. So, if you liked the idea of the MacBook Pro 16in 2021 but just couldn’t get past its size and 2.1kg weight, this is the laptop for you.

Apple MacBook Pro 14in (M1 Max, 2021) review: What you need to know

Alongside its big brother, the 14in MacBook Pro sits at the top of Apple’s laptop range and it’s designed principally for creative professionals who need the power of a desktop workstation in something that can be slung in a bag and used on the go. It’s powerful enough to deal with the heaviest workloads, even in its lowest specification, but you still have the choice to ramp up the features if you can afford to.

Just like the 16in model you get the choice of either the new Apple M1 Pro or Apple M1 Max processor. You can add between 16GB and 64GB of RAM, and storage starts at 512GB and runs to a gargantuan 8TB of internal storage.

There are some small differences, though, with a lower-spec model of the M1 Pro chip available on the 14in Pro. So, while the M1 Pro in the MacBook Pro 16in is only available with 10 CPU/16 GPU cores, the 14in model adds cheaper 8 CPU/14 GPU and 10 CPU/14 GPU core variants to the mix.

The M1 Max, meanwhile, is available in two different flavours, as it is on the MacBook Pro 16in: one with 10 CPU/24 GPU cores and the other with 10 CPU/32 GPU cores.

Aside from the core components, the MacBook Pro 14in’s key attraction is its mini-LED Liquid Retina XDR display, which combines near-OLED black-level response with searing peak brightness and professional-level colour accuracy. Oh, and Apple has also brought the SD card slot, a full-sized HDMI output and MagSafe charging.

MacBook Pro 14in (M1 Max, 2021) review: Price and competition

The model supplied by Apple for this review comes with the top-spec 10-core CPU, 32-core GPU M1 Max chip, 64GB of RAM and a 2TB SSD – a specification I’d never get close to stretching in day-to-day use and one I’d never be able to afford at £3,999.

You don’t have to lay out the cost of a decent second-hand car on the MacBook Pro 14in, though. It’s still by no means cheap, but you can grab the lowest spec model for as little as £1,899, which comes with an 8-core CPU, a 14-core GPU, 16GB of RAM and a 512GB SSD.

As for alternatives, there are a few you might want to consider at this price or lower. The 13in MacBook Pro comes with the older M1 chip, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD and starts at £1,159, although if you up the RAM and storage to the level of the cheapest 14in MacBook Pro it costs £1,699.

The M1 MacBook Air is better value still and remains our favourite ultraportable laptop. Again, it can’t match the sheer grunt of the 14in Pro and has a less powerful GPU than the 13in MacBook Pro but, with an RRP of £999, and prices that regularly dip as low as £900, it’s the best choice for most people.

If you must have a Windows laptop, or you’re an avid gamer, then consider Asus’ G-series. They’re portable, nicely designed and pack a 14in MacBook Pro-type punch, plus they come with discrete Nvidia graphics, enabling high-frame rate gaming.

The Asus ROG Zephyrus G15 we reviewed had a powerful AMD Ryzen 9 5900HS CPU, an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3080 GPU, 32GB of RAM, a 1TB SSD and a sumptuous 165Hz display. This is a laptop we called “the perfect gaming laptop for grown-ups”, and although prices can run quite high – our review sample was £2,699 – you can pick up a lower-spec model with an AMD Ryzen 9 5900HS chip and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 3070 GPU for a much more competitive £1,999.

READ NEXT: Our guide to the best laptops to buy

Apple MacBook Pro 14in (M1 Max, 2021) review: Design and new features

The most exciting features of MacBook Pro 14in are the new screen and processor, but the chassis has also come in for a redesign. It’s still recognisably a MacBook Pro, with its matte silver or space grey aluminium finish and bombproof build quality, but Apple has made some subtle changes. The lid and base are now flat rather than slightly rounded and the chiselled edges have been pared back to soft curves, which should mean they don’t dent quite as readily as with MacBook Pros of old.

This, the smaller of the 2021 MacBook Pro models, is the best choice for anyone who travels a lot for work. At 1.6kg and with a footprint of 313 x 212mm it’s a much nicer machine to carry around with you from location to location; at 15.5mm, it’s slimmer than the 16in model, too.

More importantly, perhaps, some much-missed features are making a return in this generation of MacBook Pro. Photographers will be very happy with the reintroduction of the SD card slot, which you’ll find back in its old home on the right-hand edge. 

This is now accompanied by a full-sized HDMI video output and ThunderBolt 4 port and, on the left edge, next to a pair of Thunderbolt 4 ports and a 3.5mm audio jack, is another feature MacBook devotees have been desperately hoping would make a return one day: a MagSafe charging connector.

You can still charge the laptop via any of its Thunderbolt ports, which is handy if you leave the rather chunky MagSafe adapter or cable at home, but stick with MagSafe and if anyone ever trips over your charging cable, it’ll just pop off the edge of the machine instead of yanking it off the desk to its doom.

One feature users may not appreciate quite so much is the notch at the top of the display that houses the 1080p FaceTime HD webcam. The picture quality is a big step up from the disappointing 720p effort in the current MacBook Pro and Air, but did Apple really need a notch to house it in? I’m not so sure.

Regardless, in most applications, the notch fits neatly into the menu bar and doesn’t impinge on your working space. And it’s a pretty easy thing to ignore when the rest of the package is so compelling.

The backlit Magic Keyboard, for instance, is superbly comfortable, with plenty of soft, responsive travel. The Touch Bar is no more, instead replaced by a normal function key row with a larger Touch ID power button combo in the top right corner. The huge, glass-topped Force Touch trackpad is as accurate and responsive as ever.

And if you’ve ever moaned about your laptop speakers sounding tinny, prepare to be amazed by the new six-driver system in the MacBook Pro 14in. Considering how little physical space the engineers had to play around with here, the body, richness and volume these are capable of kicking out is nothing short of remarkable.

Apple MacBook Pro 14in (M1 Max, 2021) review: Display

The 14.2in display is the star of the show here: it’s a real feast for the eyes and technically superb. The 16:10 aspect ratio is ideal for getting work done, the 3,024 x 1,964 Retina resolution is perfectly sharp and the mini LED panel technology Apple is using here ensures HDR photos and videos look their fabulous best.

Throw in the 120Hz refresh rate and Apple’s excellent True Tone technology, which adapts the colour temperature of the display to the ambient lighting in the room, and you have what I believe to be the best display you’ll find anywhere on any laptop. 

What’s perhaps most impressive, however, is that the laptop is supplied with not one, not two or even three professionally calibrated presets but, in a possibly unintentional This is Spinal Tap reference, 11.

The default “Apple XDR Display (P3-1600 nits)” profile gives the widest dynamic range, the highest brightness and the broadest colour coverage and it’s what Apple presumably sees people using most of the time. But there are also modes for web design, SDR and HDR10 video mastering, professional photo editing and more.

In testing, the display performed faultlessly. In default mode, on a 10% white window, I measured peak brightness of 1,313cd/m², effectively perfect contrast and an average delta E colour variance score of 2.1. And the results were just as impressive in other modes, if not more so, with the “Internet & Web (sRGB)” mode the best of the lot, delivering an average delta E of 0.5 (the lower the better). In this mode, the brightness is locked to a very low brightness of 80cd/m², as per the sRGB standard, so you need to dim the lights or draw the curtains to get the most out of it.

READ NEXT: Our guide to the best laptops to buy

Apple MacBook Pro 14in (M1 Max, 2021) review: Performance

The all-round performance of the Apple MacBook Pro 14in (2021) is very nearly as impressive as the display – there’s nothing the M1 Max inside our review sample can’t handle.

All of Apple’s M1 chips are essentially minor variations of the same piece of silicon, so it wasn’t a surprise to discover that the 10-core CPU in the M1 Max (divided into eight performance cores and two efficiency cores) delivered similar results to the 10-core CPU in the M1 Pro MacBook Pro 16in we tested:

The M1 Max we have on test here has more memory bandwidth to play with at 400GB/sec (vs 200GB/sec) and more GPU oomph, with double the number of cores, so you’ll see more of an uplift in highly intensive workloads and workloads involving the GPU.

The latter leads to a significant uplift in the frame rates of the GFXBench Car Chase benchmark, as seen below, but any application that uses a significant amount of GPU processing should benefit from the increase in horsepower.

That’s not the only thing the M1 Max can do better than the M1 Pro. It can support the connection of up to three external 6K displays and a fourth 4K screen, where the M1 Pro can support a “mere” two 6K monitors.

The M1 Max also has a beefed-up “Media Engine”, which delivers faster video encoding and decoding, particularly of ProRes raw video files. Apple says this enables the M1 Max to stream up to seven 8K video streams at once while remaining perfectly responsive.

I fired up DaVinci Resolve to see if I would be able to hit the limits of the M1 Max and, after adding 12 4K 25fps 150Mbits/sec 4:2:2 AVCHD clips to the timeline and seeing no slowdown whatsoever, I admitted defeat. This laptop is a video-editing monster.

Other aspects of performance hit the spot, too. The 2TB SSD drive inside this laptop is rip-roaringly fast, reaching sustained read and write speeds of 5,352MB/sec and 6,351MB/sec respectively.

And, as with the M1 Pro-powered 16in MacBook Pro, the 14in model is also very power efficient. It isn’t quite the longest-lasting laptop we’ve ever tested – that honour falls to the MacBook Pro 13in (M1) – but it lasted an impressive 13hrs 11mins in our video rundown test, and I’ve used it for a full day of moderate use without running the battery dry.

It’s the perfect on-the-go creative workstation, in other words. It will run and run when all you want to do is write emails, browse the web and catch a cheeky Netflix stream during lunch, but as soon as the need arises, it will chew through heavy-duty video-editing, programming and photo-editing jobs with ease.

Apple MacBook Pro 14in review: Verdict

My verdict on the MacBook Pro 14in, then, is very much the same as it was for the MacBook Pro 16in. It’s a stupendous laptop and, if you have the cash and need a powerful portable for demanding creative work, then it’s a no brainer. Just go out and buy one.

If the cost isn’t a deal-breaker, then the only decision you’ll have to make is whether to buy the 14in model or the larger, heavier 16in one. My preference would be to opt for this smaller machine as it’s cheaper, lighter and more portable, yet still just as powerful as the larger laptop. Plus you still get great battery life.

By all means, go for the larger 16in MacBook Pro if money is no object and you see yourself using it principally at home, or if you require a larger screen to make video and photo editing more comfortable; for me, however, the 14in just edges the battle between the two as the best all-round laptop in the land.

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