M1 Pro vs M1 Max — The Ugly Truth

Ok, real talk. I haven’t seen this many comments, tweets, chats, DMs, just questions and confusion in general about anything since 8GB vs. 16GB on last year’s M1 Macs:

Should you get the M1 Pro or M1 Max MacBook Pro

And yeah, because despite all the reviews, all the recommendations, all the benchmark LARP, it still seems just super hard, really an inconvenience to get a simple, straight, easy to understand answer. Well, I’m Rene Ritchie and I’m going to give it to you. Right now.

I think the reason 8GB vs. 16GB was so confusing last time was because M1 was only in ultra-low power Macs and people who would normally buy higher end Macs were desperate for M1, didn’t want to wait, and were trying to figure out if they could fit into the more widely available 8GB models.

And I think the reason for M1 Pro vs. M1 Max is so confusing now is broadly the same. Those higher-end chips are only in MacBook Pros right now and people who would normally by iMacs or even Mac Pros are desperate for Apple Silicon, don’t want to wait, and are trying to figure out if they can fit into a laptop for now.

And because, in a way, it’s simpler than the old Intel i5 vs i7 vs i9 with Iris integrated or AMD discrete graphics, and the reputation M1 has built for punching just way, way above its weight, and, honestly, 2021 being as awful in its own way as 2021, especially in terms of how much everything costs, I think people really do want to figure out if they need to go Max or can save some money and with the Pro.

And it doesn’t help that every second tweet is from someone saying how awesome or terrible the battery life is, because they don’t realize surfing the web in safari hits so different than rendering video in Premiere Pro. Or if there’s a memory leak, or if you’re stuck on Intel emulation in Rosetta and the app never bothered to update for Metal, or any of a dozen other things or context.

So for people who really just want to know which MacBook Pro they can use as a bridge machine for the eventual iMac or Mac Pro, or pros looking to switch to the MacBook Pro for the first time and wondering how much they really need to spend, well, here’s the honest answer.

If battery life is the absolute most important thing to you, if you need to be able to use your MacBook Pro away from main power, a lot, the added size and weight isn’t an issue for you, because you just need your laptop to last as long as it can possibly last, get the 16-inch M1 Pro.

It’ll save you $200 to $400 bucks off the cost of an M1 Max, or let you put that money towards more RAM or a SSD instead.

The 16-inch has a bigger battery, so you have more potential power to begin with, and a bigger thermal envelop, so it doesn’t get as hot and there’s even less change the fans will have to power up. The M1 Pro also has fewer transistors, in other words, fewer graphics cores, fewer media engines, and potentially less RAM to light up, which means it uses less power as well. It does have a bigger display to drive, but all in all, the combination of bigger battery, bigger thermal envelope, and less silicon, makes it the battery life champ.

Of course, if you do light up all the transistors in M1, like rendering video with a ton of effects applies, with screen brightness all the way up, on a shoddy Wi-Fi connection, on a hot Arizona day, you can still kill even the 16-inch battery pretty quick. That’s why I keep saying potential. Battery is fuel and a bigger tank is just a bigger tank. The more and faster you go, the more and faster it’ll go.

Now, if performance is the absolute most important thing to you, if time is literally money, or far more precious to you than money, and the faster your can get through your work, or the more work you can can get done any given day, is everything, than get the 16-inch M1 Pro Max.

The CPUs are mostly all the same. Mostly. And I’ll get to the exceptions in a binned-down minute. So, if you’re doing music with a ton of plugins, for example, or anything CPU bound, it won’t really make a difference. But the M1 Max has up to double the GPU cores, which means it’ll just tear through any heavy graphics work, from 3D modeling to textures, transformations, effects, and more, and double the Media Engines, so H.264, HEVC, and ProRes will render almost literally twice as fast. And while they’re rendering, because they’re on the Media Engines and not CPU or GPU bound, you can still use that CPU and GPU for other work. If you have time. Because so damn fast.

Because the 16-inch has a bigger thermal envelop, those extra GPU cores have more room to breathe before they start saturating the cooling system, and the 16-inch even has a high power mode so you can unleash the fans and the cores to get the most performance possible, at least within the limits of physics. I’m not going to say it’s like hitting nitro on that fuel tank, all the speed but all the drain. Because I honestly don’t know enough about racing to land that particular analogy. But I’m not not going to not not say it either.

So, what about the 14-inch models, if you really need to save some extra cash or you just need something smaller and lighter to carry around, or work on planes, train, busses, and in coffee shops, hotels, and venues?

Well, they have physically smaller batteries and smaller thermal envelopes, so even though they have smaller displays to drive, they still offer less potential power. There is a binned down 8-CPU and 14-GPU version of the M1 Pro for the 14-inch, which means even less silicon that can be lit up, so even less drain even if or when fully lit. The also a low power mode in macOS Monterey that reduces overall draw, so you can get even more time on the battery you have, if you’re not doing anything too demanding or intense. That’d be the best bet if you want or need the 14-inch but battery life is still critical to you.

And if you want or need the 14-inch, don’t care about battery life, but do want as much performance as you can get, the M1 Max is absolutely, positively, still a monster even in the smaller thermal envelope. You can’t go as long between charges, of course, but you can still get a ton done.

Just remember, Macs are built like… aluminum bricks. They typically last 5 or more years. So don’t just think about what present you needs today. Consider what future you, or whomever you give, hand-down, or sell off to will need tomorrow. You can get batteries replaced if and when they age out. You can hang external storage off a USB4 port. You can’t add or takeout RAM or swap an M1 Pro for an M1 Max chipset, or vice versa. If you have limited cash on hand, of course, only ever get what you can afford. But if you’re at all flexible, don’t just consider up-front cost, think carefully about long term value.

Like on Twitter or in comments, you may see people warn you away from the 14-inch M1 Max. And I for one got the 16-inch Max for all the reasons I just went over. But you know who got the 14-inch M1 Max? Apple’s VP of Silicon, the guy who helped create it, and Apple’s VP of Mac Product Marketing, the guy who helped spec it all out, because they want the power and the portability, and everyone knows their own workloads the best, so seriously, ask all the questions you want, but make sure you do you and get what you need.