When Apple introduced the M1 chip in 2020, it ushered in a brand new realm of computing on the Mac platform.
Built on years of experience designing their own chips for iPhones and iPads, the M1 is a stunningly good performer. I’m not one for benchmarks, but it’s impossible to ignore just how competently these new Macs outperform both the competition and their own brethren.
There’s just one problem: picking the right configuration isn’t particularly easy. I’ve learned this from the countless comments I’ve received on my YouTube channel, and it’s clear that the most significant buyer confusion centres around the differences between the M1 MacBook Air and M1 MacBook Pro.
You can read my M1 MacBook Air buying guide here, but if you’re already swaying towards the M1 MacBook Pro (or have decided that’s definitely the route you need to take), this guide is for you.
The big decision: M1 MacBook Air or M1 MacBook Pro?
Some people just want a MacBook Pro. And that’s cool – this is a personal choice, after all. But if you’re on the fence about what’s right for you between the Air and the Pro, the decision becomes far harder.
I believe it can be distilled down to 5 questions you need to ask yourself:
- What kind of workload do you undertake on a daily basis?
- Is the Touch Bar something you need (or want)?
- How mobile are you?
- Do you work outside a lot?
- Do you just want a MacBook Pro?
I’ve already provided some insight into what these questions mean, but it boils down to whether or not you undertake sustained, processor-intensive tasks such as video editing, audio production or coding. If you do, the presence of the fan on the MacBook Pro’s M1 chip will ensure the computer doesn’t throttle under load.
‘Throttling’ in this sense simply means that the computer will slow down the processor speed when you start to push it over a sustained amount of time. The M1 MacBook Air has no choice but to do this because it doesn’t have a fan. The M1 MacBook Pro does have a fan, but, regardless, it’s pretty hard to make it spin up in practice.
For creatives who want plenty of performance headroom, the presence of that fan matters far more than additional RAM or storage. And the same goes for the additional two hours of battery life the Pro provides over the Air.
Lastly, there’s the smaller stuff. The M1 MacBook Pro has a slightly brighter screen (which is only of use if you’re working outside or within very bright rooms), and the Touch Bar. There are rumours that the latter won’t appear in the next generation of MacBooks, though, therefore its days are numbered in terms of support from Apple and third-party software developers.
The biggest difference between the Air and the Pro really is that fan, and you’ll only need it if you’re really going to be pushing this machine.
Unlike the M1 MacBook Air, the MacBook Pro only comes in two colour choices: Space Grey or Silver.
Aesthetics generally matter a great deal to MacBook owners, therefore if you’re after something a little different, the MacBook Air offers an additional gold option.
Some people may make their purchase decision based on colour, which is absolutely fine. If you’re willing to forgo some of the Pro’s features because you want that gold colour, I get you, totally. MacBooks have always been very personal devices, which is why you still see so many older variants sitting proudly in front of people on coffee shop tables.
If you’re fixed on an M1 MacBook Pro, I’m afraid you’re stuck with these relatively dour choices. As always, I opted for the Space Grey, simply because that’s my default MacBook colour these days.
8GB or 16GB?
Apple presents two variants of the M1 MacBook Pro when you start your configuration journey. However, tellingly, the only difference between the two is that the more expensive one has more storage (512GB versus 256GB).
The RAM upgrade option comes later.
So, why has Apple chosen to only differentiate the two starting point specs by storage? Clearly, they think it’s a more important consideration, and I’d be inclined to agree.
The RAM debate has changed, big time. I used to recommend getting as much RAM as you can afford, always, and while that’s still good practice, it’s less of an issue if you simply can’t afford to stump up the £200/$200 upgrade price Apple asks for if you want 16GB.
I have an M1 Mac mini as my studio workhorse, and it packs in 16GB of RAM. That computer is used all day for ‘normal’ stuff, but also 4K video editing, music production and photo editing. I leave most of the apps required to do this stuff open with gay abandon.
Despite this, my M1 Mac mini hardly ever uses more than 8GB of RAM. Seriously. And it’s basically the same computer as the M1 MacBook Pro.
Therefore, if you want some additional headroom just for peace of mind and can afford to upgrade to 16GB, go for it. But if you can’t, you really don’t need to lose sleep over it.
How much storage?
The M1 MacBook Pro can be specced up to a humungous 2TB of storage. But that’s an £800/$800 option, and third-party external storage offers considerably more value.
Therefore the question about how much storage you need largely boils down to, a) your budget, and, b) whether or not you’re happy to carry around external drives.
If the prospect of the latter doesn’t bother you, I’d go base level 256GB. That is unless you prefer to work with large files directly on the laptop. Video editors may prefer the speed afforded by this, and in that case, I’d recommend going for the 1TB option, as I did for that exact purpose with the 16” MacBook Pro (just remember that you’ll need to transfer files onto external storage once you’re done working with them – it’s a pretty nice workflow).
If everything you do resides in the cloud, 256GB should be ample. It’s a shame Apple’s storage options are so expensive, but with external SSD pricing pretty affordable these days, you have plenty of options if you’d rather go that route to increase your available storage.
Should you buy AppleCare+?
AppleCare+ for the M1 MacBook Pro is £249/$249. Which isn’t cheap. But it does increase the warranty period to three years (including accidental damage), and provides 24/7 access to Apple’s support team.
If this is going to be a business laptop tasked with making you money, I’d go for AppleCare+ at the drop of a hat. The peace of mind it offers is worth its weight in gold.
If you’re buying the M1 MacBook Pro as a personal machine and can’t stretch to AppleCare+, don’t worry. These laptops last, and last, and last, in my experience. It’s why you see so many ‘old’ MacBooks out in the wild.
Apple has fixed the dreadful keyboard issues which plagued previous MacBooks, and the chassis used for the M1 MacBook Pro is the same unibody design that’s been around since 2016. It is, in my experience, pretty bulletproof and built to last for many years.
AppleCare+ is a nice-to-have, but it isn’t for every budget, and it certainly isn’t something to lose sleep over.
Wrap up: a word of warning
The M1 MacBook Pro is a fantastic laptop. The power, battery life and build quality make it a superb investment.
There’s just one word of warning before I sign off. In 2021, it’s highly expected that we’re going to see the first significant redesign of the MacBook Pro since 2016. The likelihood is that it’ll include a larger screen (14” to be exact), thinner screen bezels and a new variant of the M chip with additional options (most likely related to RAM, CPU cores and GPU performance).
So, if you can wait, it might be worth it. As always with Apple’s release schedule, it’s complete guesswork unless you’re a member of their executive team, but most agree the that the next iteration of the MacBook Pro will arrive sometime during Q3 of 2021.
Can’t wait? If you either need a MacBook Pro now for business reasons or simply want one sooner rather than later, I hope my buying guide has proved helpful and saved you a few pennies.