MacBook Pro may sound like one product, but with the introduction of Apple silicon, that's no longer the case. There are several options now that you must consider when choosing between a 13-inch and 16-inch model. Are you comfortable going with Apple's new internals, or would you rather stick with Intel? How much storage do you need? Let's break everything down.
MacBook Pro lineup
As of December 2020, Apple's MacBook Pro lineup includes 13-inch and 16-inch models. The former is available with Apple's all-new M1 system on a chip (SoC) or an Intel processor. The larger model is only available with an Intel processor at this time. There's also a 13-inch MacBook Air, which isn't discussed here.
For many, your choice of laptops may ultimately come down to screen size, one way or another. Having a smaller display means having a smaller machine to lug around, but a larger display means seeing more of your documents, images, or videos — or more details on them.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro has a LED-backlit display with IPS technology; 2560-by-1600 native resolution at 227 pixels per inch with support for millions of colors. The supported scaled resolutions include 1680 by 1050, 1440 by 900, and 1024 by 640.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro has a LED‑backlit display with IPS technology; 3072‑by‑1920 native resolution at 226 pixels per inch with support for millions of colors. Supported scaled resolutions are 2048 by 1280, 1792 by 1120, 1344 by 840, and 1152 by 720.
Both MacBook Pro models support DCI-P3 wide color gamut and other advanced technologies that provide brighter reds, deeper greens, and blacker blacks. They also include 500 nits brightness and True Tone technology.
Here's how the pixel differences look side-by-side:
- If you want the most portability, you want the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
- If you want the largest possible display, you want the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
You can also use external displays with the MacBook Pro. There are differences to consider, however.
The Apple M1 13-inch MacBook Pro can support one external display with up to 6K resolution at 60Hz. In comparison, the Intel models can run one external 6K display with 6016-by-3384 resolution at 60Hz at over a billion colors, or one external 5K display with 5120-by-2880 resolution at 60Hz at over a billion colors, or up to two external 4K displays with 4096-by-2304 resolution at 60Hz at millions of colors.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro can support up to two displays with 6016‑by‑3384 resolution at 60Hz at over a billion colors or up to four displays with 4096‑by‑2304 resolution at 60Hz at over a billion colors.
- If you want to drive only one 5K, consider the Apple M1 13-inch MacBook Pro.
- If you rather use two non-5K external displays, you want a 13-inch MacBook Pro.
- If you want to drive two 5K or four non-5K external displays, you want a 16-inch MacBook Pro.
About Apple M1
Apple's decision to move away from Intel-based processors requires a new way of thinking when looking at computer specifications. The company's M1 system on a chip (SoC) doesn't just include the CPU. Rather, it also integrates the GPU, Neural Engine, I/O, and much more. It's also the first personal computer chip built using 5‑nanometer process technology. This highly technological synergy offers unified memory that's shared across the entire system, which means improved performance and power efficiency compared to Intel-based systems.
From a buying perspective, what this means, ultimately, is that when choosing an Apple M1 machine, you're also selecting the processor and graphics and have fewer choices when it comes to memory.
Apple M1 13-inch MacBook Pros include an 8-core CPU with 4 performance cores and 4 efficiency cores. The former is designed to boost high-intensity jobs like Xcode compiling and Logic Pro music scoring, while the latter delivers efficiency for lighter weight tasks.
The other MacBook Pros currently offer 9th-generation and 10th-generation Intel processors. The upper tier of the 13-inch MacBook Pro starts with the 2.0GHz quad-core 10th-generation i5 with 16GB of RAM and is configurable up to 2.3GHz quad-core 10th-generation i7. The 16-inch model starts with a 2.6GHz 6-core 9th-generation Intel Core i7 processor, or you can go up to a 2.4GHz 8‑core 9th‑generation Intel Core i9 processor.
- For those who want something new, don't care about storage limitations (see below), and like a smaller display, go with the Apple M1 13-inch MacBook Pro.
- If you want good performance, only plan on doing minimal processor-intensive work, and want to stay with Intel this go-around, then you want a 13-inch MacBook Pro.
- If you want maximum performance for resource-heavy things like video editing, you want an 8-core 16-inch MacBook Pro.
The graphics processing unit (GPU) handles rendering and pushing the pixels. That includes everything from the macOS interface to photo and video editors to video games. The more powerful the GPU, the more pixels it can render and push, and the smoother and better the animations, apps, and the more realistic 3D you'll get.
On the Apple M1, you'll find an 8-core GPU that offers 5.6 times the graphics performance of a previously released 13-inch MacBook Pro model that included a 1.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 with Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645, configured with 16GB RAM and 2TB SSD. Over in Intel's world, the 13-inch MacBook Pro model is available with Iris Plus Graphics.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro version offers both the AMD Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB of GDDR6 memory or the Radeon Pro 5500M with 4GB of GDDR6 memory (depending on if you go for the base or higher-end model).
You can configure it to AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 8GB of GDDR6 memory or AMD Radeon Pro 5600M with 8GB of HBM2 memory in the base model, and AMD Radeon Pro 5600M with 8GB of HBM2 memory or AMD Radeon Pro 5600M with 8GB of HBM2 memory with the higher-end model.
- If you need basic graphics and don't plan on doing a lot of graphical work or play video games, then you want the 13-inch MacBook Pro. Look at other factors to determine which version to buy.
- If you want the biggest graphics boost you can get, you want the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
When it comes to battery life, the move to Apple silicon becomes perhaps the most apparent. The Apple M1 13-inch MacBook Pro features the best battery life in the history of the MacBook Pro.
The Apple M1 model promises up to 17 hours wireless web, 20 hours Apple TV app movie playback, and includes a built-in 58.2 watt-hours lithium-polymer battery with a 61W USB-C Power Adapter shipped.
The Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro model provides up to 10 hours wireless web, 10 hours Apple TV app movie playback, and includes a built-in 58.0 watt-hours lithium-polymer battery with a 61W USB-C Power Adapter.
Finally, the 16-inch MacBook Pro promises up to 11 hours of wireless web and Apple TV app movie playback with a 100‑watt‑hour lithium‑polymer battery enclosed and a 96W USB‑C Power Adapter.
- No doubt, the Apple M1 is the one to get when battery life is most important. Otherwise, look at other factors in making your choice.
The amount of random access memory (RAM) in your Mac determines how many apps you can keep open at a time, how big your photo or video editing projects can be without having to swap data back and forth on the drive, and otherwise keeps everything super fast. But again, Apple's move to the M1 SoC has changed the dynamics.
The M1 chip brings up to 16GB of unified memory. This single pool provides high‑bandwidth, low‑latency memory, allowing apps to efficiently share data between the CPU, GPU, and Neural Engine.
Meanwhile, the Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro starts with 16GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory and can go to 32GB 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory on both tiers. The 16-inch MacBook Pro starts with 16GB of 2666MHz DDR4 memory and can be upgraded to 32GB or 64GB.
- If you want the most RAM for all your app use and video editing needs, you want the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
Storage used to consist of big, noisy hard drive platters that spun around and didn't take well to bumps or power problems. Now they're solid-state — Flash chips with no moving parts. They don't hold as much as old-style hard drives and are still more expensive, but they're ultra-fast and far more resilient.
The Apple M1 13-inch MacBook Pro comes with 256GB SSD or 512GB SSD and is configurable with 1TB or 2TB. On Intel, you can buy the 13-inch MacBook Pro with 512GB or 1TB, upgradable to 2TB or 4TB. The 16-inch MacBook Pro comes with a 512GB SSD or 1TB SSD, depending on which model you get, and can be configured up to 8TB.
- If you want the largest amount of storage possible — 8 TB — you want the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
- If you want to save some money on up-front costs, you can still get up to 2TB or 4TB with the 13-inch Intel-based MacBook Pro.
Wired connections like USB, Thunderbolt, and HDMI let you connect to high-performance accessories like external displays, drives, networks, and more.
Currently, the Apple M1 13-inch MacBook Pro models only have 2x Thunderbolt 3 ports (USB-4), while the Intel versions have 4x Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports. The 16-inch MacBook Pro has 4x Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports as well.
- If your port needs are low or you have a USB-C Hub on-hand, the two-port Apple M1 13-inch MacBook Pro is for you.
- If you want a lot of USB-C ports but only need one that supports 5K external display connectivity, the 4x USB-C port 13-inch MacBook Pro will do the trick.
- If you want the highest data transfer possible and need two ports for connecting 5K external displays, the 16-inch MacBook Pro is the only one for you.
Force Touch trackpad
Apple now has Force Touch trackpads in all the MacBook Pro models. They use a Taptic Engine to simulate a traditional trackpad's click feeling, but over the entire surface and without the actual mechanical switch. Some people don't like the feeling, but it adds pressure sensitivity, is less prone to breakdown, and can be used in ways beyond a regular trackpad.
- All MacBook Pro models sport a large Force Touch Trackpad.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro now uses the same backlit Magic Keyboard that was introduced with the 16-inch MacBook Pro. This means that it eliminates the butterfly mechanism that caused many issues for users and is now back to the old scissor-switch design. This means that the keyboard is more reliable than the previous 13-inch MacBook Pros.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro debuted the full-size and built-in backlit Magic Keyboard. The 16-inch also has a physical ESC key once again while still retaining the Touch Bar with Touch ID.
Now that both the 13-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros have the same scissor-switch Magic Keyboard, there is no real difference between them aside from the size. These are less prone to failure and are much easier and more comfortable to type with.
- Both the 13-inch and 16-inch MacBook Pros have the same backlit Magic Keyboard, giving users an improved typing experience.
Touch Bar and Touch ID
All MacBook Pro models now being sold include the Touch Bar OLED with a matte finish that matches the keyboard keys' feel. It can display function keys and system and media controls, just like the old function row. There's also a physical ESC key on the keyboard on all models. The Touch Bar can also display curated, contextual shortcuts for whatever app you're working on at the time. That includes volume sliders, content scrubbers, color selectors, and more.
To the right of the Touch Bar is Touch ID. Once exclusive to iPhone and iPad, now you can have it on the Mac. It works off an Apple T2 chip, which is like a tiny, integrated iOS device embedded right in the MacBook Pro. It handles the secure enclave and secure presentation of Apple Pay information, but that fusion is hidden away.
- All-new MacBook Pros being sold by Apple come with the Touch Bar and Touch ID.
There was a time when you could only purchase a MacBook Pro in silver. Today, however, the laptop is also available in Space Gray. Alas, a gold finish version (like the MacBook Air) isn't available.
- All models of the MacBook Pro come in both Silver and Space Gray.
What about Windows?
If you enjoy using Boot Camp or a virtualization package to run Windows on your Mac, you won't want to select an Apple M1 machine. There's no Boot Camp available on these models and no official support from Microsoft to run Windows on these devices. Therefore, if running Windows on your MacBook Pro is important, choose an Intel-based model.
Who should get the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1
The future is now with the first MacBook Pro to feature Apple silicone. Offering a unified Apple M1 SoC, this 13-inch model offers efficiency and speed you won't find on other models. Still, if you need more than 2TB of storage and 2 ports, you should look elsewhere.
The newbie and future of Apple
For most folks wanting a 13-inch MacBook Pro, this is the model to get. It's cutting edge but also familiar.
Who should get the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Intel
Updated in 2020, the Intel-based 13-inch MacBook Pro models still pack a punch compared to the Apple M1 versions, at least in a few places. Purchase this model if you want something smaller but also need more maximum storage. It's also the one to get if you want to stick with Intel.
Power and portability
This 13-inch MacBook Pro comes with the latest 10th-generation i5 processors, more storage, and the Magic Keyboard.
Who should get the 16-inch MacBook Pro with Intel
The larger model MacBook Pro can have up to 64GB of RAM and 8TB of onboard storage. Combine this with the advanced Radeon Pro graphics card and 4GB of video memory, and you're talking about a pretty powerful beast in a somewhat-portable body.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro packs in a lot of power to help you get everything done without breaking a sweat. It can go up to 64GB of RAM and even 8TB of storage if you need it.
If you're still having trouble choosing which MacBook Pro is for you, leave us a question below. You should also check out our favorite MacBooks of the year.
Updated December 2020: Updated with the 2020 13-inch Apple M1 MacBook Pro.
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Christine Romero-Chan was formerly a Senior Editor for iMore. She has been writing about technology, specifically Apple, for over a decade at a variety of websites. She is currently part of the Digital Trends team, and has been using Apple’s smartphone since the original iPhone back in 2007. While her main speciality is the iPhone, she also covers Apple Watch, iPad, and Mac when needed.
When she isn’t writing about Apple, Christine can often be found at Disneyland in Anaheim, California, as she is a passholder and obsessed with all things Disney, especially Star Wars. Christine also enjoys coffee, food, photography, mechanical keyboards, and spending as much time with her new daughter as possible.