Apple MacBook Pro 14 (2023) review: entry-level enigma


Goodbye, 13-inch MacBook Pro. I will not miss your cramped screen and Touch Bar. Hello, 14-inch M3 MacBook Pro, the new entry-level Pro on the block.

In many ways, this MacBook is my “what could’ve been.” Earlier this year, fed up with waiting for a larger iMac, I threw up my hands and traded in my personal laptop, a 13-inch Intel-powered MacBook Pro, for the 15-inch M2 MacBook Air. (Because, if you have the means, you should keep work and personal machines separate.) I briefly considered copping a 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro, but I was not keen to continue living that Touch Bar life and wanted a bigger display. The 14-inch had the M2 Pro chip, which was more chip than I needed for more dollars than I wanted to spend. In that context, the 15-inch made the most sense for my home setup.

If this 14-inch MacBook Pro had been around, I would have been a lot more conflicted.

Ports, design, and the lack of space black

The 14-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1,599 with the new M3 processor, 8GB of RAM, and 512GB of storage. For this review, Apple sent me a step-up configuration with the same M3 processor, 16GB of RAM, and 1TB of storage, which bumps the price to $1,999.

Reklama

This is just the base M3 chip — Apple also sells a 14-inch MacBook Pro with the beefier M3 Pro and M3 Max. The M3 Pro models also start at $1,999, while the Max starts at an eye-watering $3,199. On top of more powerful chips, those models will get you more (and faster) Thunderbolt ports, higher storage options, and more memory — starting at 18GB for the Pro (up to 36GB) or 36GB (up to 128GB) for the Max. Configurations can be a headache to sift through, but any way you slice it, it’s annoying that Apple’s base M3 starts so underpowered with just 8GB of RAM. And yes, I will get into why 8GB of unified memory is not enough.

Design-wise, there’s nothing to really write home about. If you’re a longtime MacBook follower, you know what to expect. The display is pretty, the touchpad works great, there sure is a notch, but you get used to it, and typing has been enjoyable ever since Apple did away with the butterfly switches a few years ago. The 1080p webcam makes you look like a human and not a potato on calls. Basically, it’s exactly what I’d want out of a MacBook Pro and includes all the good updates from the last few years. It’s still annoying that Apple doesn’t let you upgrade individual parts, but at this point, do we expect different from Apple?

But while I enjoyed using the 14-inch Pro overall, there was one thing that really irked me: ports.

… but choosing the M3 means you don’t get that third Thunderbolt port.

Since the move to Apple Silicon, the MacBook Pro has generally had three Thunderbolt ports, a headphone jack, MagSafe 3 port, an SDXC slot, and an HDMI port. The base model 14-inch Pro with M3 processor only has two Thunderbolt 3 ports. That third port — and Thunderbolt 4 — are reserved for the M3 Pro and M3 Max models.

On the one hand, this is still a step up from the now-discontinued 13-inch and both Air models — all of which only have two Thunderbolt ports, a headphone jack, and nothing else. On the other hand, why?

Why is Apple gatekeeping that third Thunderbolt port to the M3 Pro and M3 Max? You could argue that’s because the M3 chip only supports a single external display, while the M3 Pro and Max chips support two. (Another feature Apple gatekeeps.) The third Thunderbolt port is sandwiched between the HDMI and SDXC slot of the M3 Pro and M3 Max models, so I suppose it’s the one Apple thinks you’ll use for external monitors. It still feels like an arbitrary line that’s drawn to encourage you to buy a more expensive model. Even if both of these limitations are due to the M3 chip, Apple designed these chips itself, and any limitations are intentional. It’s a choice Apple makes.

For me, the appeal of a Pro over the Air is that you get a ticket out of dongletown. I often find myself wanting to plug a third device into my 15-inch Air, which means I have to scramble for a dongle or unplug something I’d rather not. I’ve had that issue with this M3 MacBook Pro, too. Is it the end of the world? Of course not. There are ways to work around it, and not everyone will miss that third port. It’s just the principle of the matter.

While I’m griping, the base 14-inch doesn’t get the space black color option. This is Apple Apple-ing — introducing an arbitrary way to differentiate the upgrade models (and upsell you in the process). I got nothing against space gray, and I’ll have more thoughts on space black (and the M3 Max) in my forthcoming 16-inch MacBook Pro review. But from where I’m standing, just give everyone all the colors!

Faster — but not scary faster

The performance boost from Intel to the M1 chips was significant. Now that we’re well into the third gen of Apple Silicon, the improvements are more incremental. Just look at our benchmark chart comparing the 15-inch M2 MacBook Air and the 14-inch M3 MacBook Pro.

(Note: Cinebench has updated its benchmark since we reviewed a similarly specced 15-inch M2 MacBook Air, so those scores aren’t really comparable. The rest of the tests are the same across platforms.)

In nearly every scenario, the M3 MacBook Pro 14 is slightly better than the M2 MacBook Air 15 — close to the roughly 10 percent mark Apple stated at its “Scary Fast” event. I didn’t include our M1 MacBook Pro 13 scores just because most of the benchmarks we ran on that machine, like Geekbench 5.3, Cinebench R23, and PugetBench for Adobe Premiere Pro, have since been updated and are no longer comparable. I also didn’t have access to a similarly specced 13-inch M1 MacBook Pro. But the public database of Geekbench 6 scores does have the M1 MacBook Pro 13 from 2020. Looking at that, you can see a more significant improvement, one that’s roughly in line with the 35 percent bump Apple said it would get.

Benchmarks have their time and place, but I suspect folks looking at an entry-level MacBook Pro care less about benchmarks and more about how this laptop would fit in everyday life. I also imagine there are lots of people like me who wonder if the extra juice of a MacBook Pro is worth it or if an Air would suffice.

First off, this is a quiet machine. The fans rarely kicked on, even during the more intensive benchmark tests like PugetBench for Adobe Premiere Pro or our 4K export test, which simulates video editing workloads. Even then, the fans never got to the point where it was distracting. It wheezed a bit while I ran Shadow of the Tomb Raider on the highest possible settings, though it never got too hot — and 32fps is playable, if not great, for single-player games. Even so, I maintain that Macs — let alone a base M3 — are not for gaming, no matter how much Apple keeps trying to make it happen. You can if you want to… so long as the game you want is even available for Mac.

The M3 chip handles your average workload with aplomb. And the battery lasts a real long time.

As for battery life, this laptop refuses to die on me. (Which makes my life difficult when trying to do battery rundown tests.) With the display at 300 nits, adaptive brightness disabled, and all battery-saving options turned off, I got between 12 and 14 hours of constant use every day. Admittedly, 300 nits is bright (I like things bright), and you’ll get a few hours more at the more typical 200 nits for average usage. I’ve no doubt it will go much, much longer if you do use power-saving features or close the lid when not in use. After a roughly three-and-a-half-hour writing session with the aforementioned settings and various other apps running in the background, I only lost 15 percent battery. I watched a two-hour movie, full-screen, and only lost about 20 percent. Your mileage will certainly vary, but just using this as I normally would, I’ve had a hard time getting this thing to zero in a single workday.

My everyday workload never taxed this MacBook, either. At one point, I had an ill-advised 55 open browser tabs, plus my calendar app, a YouTube video going, Messages, Slack, my email app, Photoshop, and several PDFs open at the same time. It was all groovy. I also did this while using my 27-inch monitor via Thunderbolt, streaming Peloton earnings and a recording app. Again, no issues. And that made me realize how hard I whiffed it when I bought my 15-inch M2 Air.

Should you get this over the 15-inch M2 Air?

For me, both the 13-inch MacBook Air and the 16-inch MacBook Pro have obvious audiences. Either you want the lightest laptop for an average workload at a good price or you’re purposely buying the biggest screen and a more powerful chip. It’s less clear for those of us hovering somewhere in the middle. It’ll inevitably lead you to where I’m at: debating between the 15-inch M2 Air and this 14-inch M3 MacBook Pro.

You get used to the notch life.

I have a personal stake in finding the answer. I, a dum-dum, was trying to save money and bought a base-model 15-inch M2 Air with just 8GB of RAM a few months ago. I regret that decision immensely. The short of it is, as soon as I open a 20th tab, the beachballing begins. Could I not have several dozen tabs open? Sure, but in 2023, it’s not too much to ask for a $1,300 computer to connect to a monitor and keep its shit together when you have 20 to 30 tabs open. I don’t care what people say online. In my experience, RAM still matters, and it’s silly that the base model only gets you 8GB. Of course, spend within your means, but I think it behooves everyone to get at least 16GB these days. Don’t be me!

In a just world, I’d be able to upgrade the RAM on my existing Air, but alas. I’ve now fallen down a rabbit hole of deciding whether to trade in my Air for a model with 16GB of RAM or just buy a 14-inch Pro for myself. Budget aside, it comes down to whether you want extra screen or extra ports.

The 14-inch’s display feels much less cramped than my company-issued 13-inch M1 Air. I can use it comfortably without my external display, whereas that’s a total pain on the M1 Air. I lined up all three of these computers, plus the new M3 16-inch Pro, side by side, and the 15-inch is truly the perfect screen size for the weight and portability. It’s not that much bigger than the 14-inch, but it’s enough that you can fit a little more information at a glance. For me, the 14-inch is a close second. If you’re unsure, I highly recommend checking these out in person.

Beyond size, even my garbage eyeballs can see the difference ProMotion and brighter SDR and HDR capabilities make on the Pro compared to the Air. But for my workload, it rarely matters because I mostly use this indoors and use my big, beautiful TV for consuming media. If that does matter to you, the Pro is worth considering.

Another odd thing is weight. The 14-inch weighs 3.4 pounds, while my 15-inch MacBook Air weighs 3.3 pounds. I held both, one in each hand, and because of the Air’s larger footprint, it sometimes felt heavier depending on my grip. The Air is still noticeably thinner, but as far as how it feels when you stick it in a backpack — they’re the same. Weight is no longer necessarily a point in the Air’s favor.

The 14-inch screen is better for my workload than a cramped 13-inch… but I still prefer the 15-inch display on the larger M2 Air.

Where the 14 wins is ports. I love not having to plug in my dock at my workstation if I want to get a few photos off my SD card. I like that I have the option of using HDMI for my monitor, which makes having only two Thunderbolt ports more bearable than with the Air. Though, depending on how you configure your base M3 model, you might actually find it more economical to get the M3 Pro. At least you’ll get an extra port — and a faster one at that.

The Air’s starting price is $400 lower, but if I configure the 15-inch Air properly for my needs versus a similarly specced 14-inch M3, I’m looking at a whopping $100 difference.

If you want a bigger screen, the Air is the way to go

If you want a bigger screen, the Air is the way to go. For most people, the Air is more than powerful enough for their workload. But if you want something a bit more versatile that can handle the odd power-intensive task — or just really really hate dongles — the Pro is the safer bet. You might as well get that extra 10 percent performance the M3 affords, at least until Apple updates the Air to the same chip. So long as you’re also getting 16GB of RAM.

Stuck in the middle with you

Overall, Apple made the right move consolidating and getting rid of the 13-inch Pro. That extra inch of screen is great, everything works beautifully, and the return of physical function keys on the entry-level MacBook Pro is chef’s kiss.

I just wish you got more for the starting price — $1,599 is too much for 8GB of RAM, and just because you can’t use two external displays with an M3 chip doesn’t mean you couldn’t make the most out of three Thunderbolt ports.

It’s hard to tell who Apple imagines using this entry-level MacBook Pro. It seems to have a clearer idea of the serious Pros and the hordes of casual users. But the line between an Air and an entry-level Pro is blurrier than ever. I consider myself smack dab in the heavy Air user / light Pro user category. I spent a lot of time hopping between them while writing this review, running numbers while sifting through various configurations. It just turned me into the confused math lady meme.

Gripes aside, I’ve been very happy using this as my daily driver for the past week. Whichever way you fall, I think you’ll ultimately be happy with either 16GB machine. So, even though I very much believe no one with an M1 or M2 needs to upgrade for speed alone, I’m tempted to buy one of these for myself, if only to rectify my RAM mistakes and get rid of a couple of dongles.



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