Receiving a new MacBook Pro is very exciting (unless you experience the same delivery woes as I).
But, buying one? That isn’t exciting, at all. In fact, it’s damn confusing.
There are so many numbers.
For all Apple’s determination to democratise all of this power and make it as non-geeky as possible, the sheer range of CPUs, GPUs, unified memory options, and chip iterations makes for a perilous buying experience.
Today, we’re going to focus on the GPU cores, because I think they’re easily the most misunderstood element of the new MacBook Pro – and I’ve rounded on a blindingly-simple conclusion.
If you thought choosing between the M1 Pro and M1 Max was difficult, or have spent the last few weeks running around in circles between 16, 32, and 64GB of unified memory, wait until you get stuck into the GPU options.
On the 14-inch MacBook Pro, the fewest number of GPU cores you can opt for is 14 in the base level machine on the M1 Pro chip. From there, if you spend an extra $300, you bag yourself the 16-core version.
However, spend $500 extra, and you’ll suddenly be in M1 Max land and find yourself with a hefty 24-cores of GPU to play with. Feeling flush? Chuck another $200 on top of that, and you’ll end up with 32-cores.
The 16-inch version of the MacBook Pro starts at 16-cores of GPU with the M1 Pro and a max (excuse the pun) additional spend of $300 will net you the M1 Max 32-core version – the one I went for.
Confused? I understand why. There are, after all, only a couple of cores (eight, at the most) between each option.
Does that really make a difference?
I did a test thing to find out.
I recently measured the performance of the base-level 14-inch M1 Pro MacBook Pro and a 32-core GPU M1 Max 16-inch MacBook Pro. This involved a 20 minute piece of 4K footage, shot on my Sony FX3 in 10-bit 4:2:2 colour and at 24fps.
To put each chip to task, I rendered and exported said footage. Here’s what happened:
- M1 Pro 14-inch MacBook Pro (14-core GPU): 3:14
- M1 Max 16-inch MacBook Pro (32-core GPU): 3:09
- Time saved: 15 seconds
- M1 Pro 14-inch MacBook Pro (14-core GPU): 9:54
- M1 Max 16-inch MacBook Pro (32-core GPU): 5:36
- Time saved: 4 minutes 19 seconds
So, as far as rendering is concerned, there appear to be practically zero benefits on the table if you opt for the more expensive machine. Exporting is a different matter – indeed, four minutes is a long time in the world of creative work and tight deadlines.
But is it worth £1,800? More importantly – who on earth is that 32-core M1 Max chip aimed at?
The simplest conclusion
This is all you need to know about the new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips: the law of diminishing returns enters far sooner than ever before.
A case in point: I don’t need the M1 Max 16-inch MacBook Pro I’ve spent a shed load of cash on.
I’d argue that once you go beyond the 16-core GPU option and into M1 Max territory, you really will need to be pushing that chip incredibly hard every single day to see any kind of meaningful return on your investment. And even then, it will only arrive after several years of hard use.
Oh, and if you work with anything other than graphics, imagery, or video, ignore the GPU options. Just focus your spending on whatever sized device you need, and the unified memory and onboard storage options that will benefit your workflow. Seriously.
If you do work with visual stuff, I’d spend as much as you’re comfortable with. My tests above are not scientific at all, but they neatly reveal what these chips are capable of when quickly asked to undertake two very common tasks for video editors. The significantly decreased wait times for video exporting on the 16-inch MacBook Pro versus my Mac mini will have a measurably positive impact on my business. But does the £1,800 uplift in price make it a better tool than the base spec 14-inch version?
Would I miss all of that power if I’d instead gone with the latter?
As it turns out, 14-cores of GPU on the M1 Pro are more than enough for most people. I can confirm that editing the aforementioned footage on that chip results in zero frame dropping, skipping, waiting, or beach balling. It’s a dream to work on.
Working in 8K? Spec up those cores. But if you’re not – save your money and buy me a beer if we ever meet in person.
My M1 Pro and M1 Max buying guides
I’ve made a few other buying guides for the MacBook Pro. Check them out below (they cover topics that are, in my opinion, far more important than the GPU options):