Review of the 2021 MacBook Pro

Continuing the philosophy of true desktop power on the go, just like its predecessor, the 1989 Macintosh Portable

Nov 10, 2021 • Extra Ordinary



We’d all like to forget the 2016-era MacBook Pros, so in this review, I’m just going to pretend they didn’t happen.

Stephen Hackett’s review of the 2021 MacBook Pro is framed around the idea that the 2021 MacBook Pro is not a successor to the 2016–2020 model, but the 2012–2015 model.

In my review, I will take Hackett’s idea to the illogical extreme. I posit the 2021 MacBook Pro returns to the philosophy of uncompromised desktop performance last seen only on the Macintosh Portable from 1989.1

Continuing the philosophy

The Macintosh Portable, Apple’s first foray into portable computing, was designed around the unwavering constraint that it must be equally as capable as the desktop Macintosh. Jean-Louis Gassée was so unwilling to compromise on this vision that the Macintosh Portable—compared to the Macintosh SE—offered twice the clock speed on the same 68000 processor, included a larger display by nearly an inch and shipped with a hard drive stock on the base model. You get all of these niceties in a package that is almost 6% lighter than the 17 lb. desktop Macintosh and at only 187% of the cost!

The PowerBooks that followed were disappointing to say the least. In the vapid and vain pursuit of thinness and lightness, the PowerBook 170 nixes the lead-acid battery; it features only a 68030 processor instead of the 68040 available on the Quadra 700; the desktop arrangement of the track ball on either side of the keyboard is haphazardly rearranged in a bizarre layout where the trackball is beneath the keyboard. All of these compromises are made only to save an insignificant nine pounds of weight and 1.8″ of thickness.

The 2021 MacBook Pro lineup continues the thinking of Apple’s best product visionary, Jean-Louis Gassée. The last remnants of Apple’s worst-ever decision makers, Steve Jobs and Jony Ive,2 are finally gone. Once again, the portable computers surpass their desktop brethren in power and capability.

M1 Max

The M1 Max is the culmination of Apple’s all-important chip transition to their own silicon from the Motorola 68k-series chips. Macs of this era suffered from heat management problems, forcing Apple to reverse their decision to ship the original Macintosh without a fan, adding one in the Macintosh SE and all subsequent models.

While the new MacBook Pro has a fan, the power efficiency of Apple silicon is such that you never hear it in daily use. The most performance you will ever need is just enough to not hear a fan.

Design

The new MacBook Pro is a real let down in design. Apple is losing their artistic mojo of making beautiful appliances. One look at the new MacBook Pro and I see that it is clearly designed for function over form.

The Macintosh Portable was designed by the biggest name in industrial design: frog. The design language, called Snow White, defines the eggshell color, the flat angular shape and the super-cool looking prominent vents.

Display

While the Macintosh Portable was only able to affix a 4:3 display panel in its widescreen lid, it surpassed the standard 9″ 512 × 384 display common on the Macintosh with an expansive and roomy 9.8″ 640 × 480 panel. Unlike the PowerBook that followed it, the MacBook Pro stretches its display to fill the entire widescreen space rather than shrink the computer to fit the squarer panel.

The MacBook Pro display is now physically rounded on top rather than rounded in software.

These new displays are now in color, which nice, I suppose, if you’re into that sort of thing. The System 6.0.8 operating system doesn’t make extensive use of color anyways—the only app I use that would take advantage of this is MacPaint. It’s specified clearly in the new Human Interface Guidelines that “[Developers] should design [their applications] first in black and white […] Color shouldn’t be the only thing that distinguishes two objects.” If you need a color display, this is a pleasant upgrade; I would personally settle for a cheaper model without a color display if I had the choice.

Ports and connectors

Everyone is talking about the ports on the new MacBook Pro.

Unfortunately the Apple Desktop Bus, SCSI and two serial ports are replaced by only three Thunderbolt 4 ports. If you expect to use your existing ADB Mouse, external 40 MB hard drive, LaserWriter printer and AppleTalk network on your new MacBook Pro, you will quickly run out of ports.

It still has a headphone jack, a sound upgrade from the 8-bit mono output with a more powerful ADC and support for high-impedance headphones.

The new MacBook Pro has a fancy new magnetic power connector. I’m not sure why they call it MagSafe 3 when we have obviously never had MagSafe 1 or 2. The claim here is that pulling the power cord won’t pull the computer off the table. How typical of Apple, designing solutions for problems they create for themselves. I tried tugging the power cable on my 16 lb. Macintosh Portable and it didn’t budge.

The dedicated display connector changes from HDI to HDMI. I don’t know what HDMI is but it can’t be that much better since it’s only one more letter.

Tidbits

Battery life

The lead-acid battery in my Macintosh Portable got me up to 12 hours of battery life if I ran it without the backlight. The new MacBook Pro bumps this up by a few hours, even with the backlight on the entire time. This is thanks to novel lithium-ion battery technology which packs a solid punch in a small amount of space and weight.

Camera

Photographers are rejoicing at the addition of the SD card slot. In order to import your pictures on the Macintosh Portable, one had to develop a roll of camera film, buy a scanner and scan in your prints.

One can also take pictures on the MacBook Pro directly. The digital camera built into the lid handily outperforms the most expensive and only digital camera on sale in 1989, the Fujifilm Fujix DS-X.

Keyboard

Journalists are raving about the function keys on the keyboard of the MacBook Pro. Frankly, what are they, and why does the Macintosh need them? Apple has done nothing to improve the function keys since adding them. I might go back to my Macintosh Portable until I can get a MacBook Pro without function keys.

Follow for more

Add Extra Ordinary to your RSS reader or Twitter client of choice to get next week’s post: Can the iPad mini finally replace my Apple Newton MessagePad 2100?3

Footnotes

  1. I do not actually own a Macintosh Portable nor a 2021 MacBook Pro. This is not a serious review.
  2. Typing this sentence caused physical pain in my stomach.
  3. This line is actually the most truthful in the entire review. I use a Newton MessagePad for my D&D character sheets.

More from Extra OrdinaryReply on Twitter