The 14″ MacBook is the worst one

Apple Silicon's release in 2020 shook up the industry in a big way. The M-series chips have enabled Apple to produce laptops which are even better than the 2015 MacBook. Apple's new machines are quiet, reliable, and fast–the exact opposite of their previous generation of Intel-based computers.

At the end of last year, Apple doubled down on their in-house silicon by releasing new 14" and 16" MacBook Pros with even larger SoCs.

The new MacBooks are good–great, even–but I think they really exemplify the point I made in my review of the 13" MacBook Pro. While the chip is good, it's not magical. The M-series chips are a big step forward for mobile computing but it's not fundamentally changing anything, and truthfully a lot of the hype around the original devices was likely fuelled by Apple rectifying poor design decisions from past iterations of the MacBook.

While the 13" MacBook Air and Pro were virtually perfect computers, Apple had to make some unfortunate tradeoffs when developing the 14" and 16" variants. The 14" MacBook Pro suffers from design constraints far more than the 16", to the point where I think it might be the worst MacBook you can purchase right now.

Drawbacks of the 14" model

The biggest thing you notice after a day of working on one of the 13" devices is how much battery you have left over. Most laptops on the market are only good for a few hours of work but the M1 devices can go for ages between charges. Long battery life gives you the freedom to work wherever you want to without needing to worry about where you'll find your next wall outlet.

Unfortunately, the base 14" variant of the laptop has about a third less battery life than the older laptop. The larger M1 Pro SoC and improved screen suck back enough extra wattage that even with a 12W h larger battery the 14" laptop loses a lot of battery life. This problem gets worse if you decide to upgrade from the binned M1 Pro the base model ships with due to the additional silicon.

The reduction in battery life might not matter initially. The 11 hours of web browsing Apple quotes translates into a reasonable battery life for most development tasks, and the difference between arriving home at the end of the day with 15% or 25% battery is quite meaningless. But as you rack up battery cycles you'll get ever-closer to running out of juice, and there's a big difference between getting home with 0% battery instead of 10% battery.

Despite a 50% increase in performance core count, you're also only looking at about a 20% increase in performance (according to benchmarks, anyway...) which doesn't feel overly impressive. The M1 efficiency cores are surprisingly capable, so losing two of them really hurts the overall gain in performance. Going up to a more powerful chip means loss of even more battery, and running into thermal throttling depending on what your workloads look like.

You get a marginal increase in screen real estate, but it's not large enough to make a meaningful difference to your productivity. Having two code editors open side-by-side will feel cramped on both the 13" and 14" MacBooks, and if you have a text editor open next to a web browser the 14" screen is just small enough to wind up hitting your breakpoint for tablet screens which is quite frustrating.

And finally, the 14" laptop is noticeably heavier than the 13" ones. For some this may not matter, but it's worth keeping in mind that a 14" MacBook Pro offers less portability than the 13" MacBook Air or Pro.

Whether these tradeoffs are dealbreakers is up to you, but for me they are. I don't think the mini LED screen or improved webcam are worth the extra NZ$500 a base model 14" MacBook Pro will cost you over a similarly specced 13" MacBook Pro. The loss of battery life is a particularly hard pill to swallow.

Comparisons to the other MacBooks

I've glossed over some of the benefits the 14" laptop has over the 13" versions because they aren't terribly relevant to me as a software engineer. The dedicated media encoding hardware is great if you're making vidoes, and the massively increased GPU power is great for gamers but they're completely wasted on both me and–I assume–most other consumers.

The 16" MacBook mitigates a lot of the issues the 14" is plagued by: the larger chassis means that you're getting almost as much battery life as the 13" MacBook Pro, and the increase in screen real estate puts you over the tablet breakpoint when you have your editor open next to your browser. The increased thermal mass of the 16" MacBook means that you aren't going to run into throttling issues if you do decide to go for a more powerful SoC, although unfortunately you're also looking at another sizable bump in weight compared to the 14".

I think for most consumers, a 13" MacBook Air is really the optimal choice. You get fantastic portability, enough performance for any casual computing use, and a seemingly infinite battery. The teardrop chassis design is also significantly more ergonomic than the sharp edges of the MacBook Pro which, on the 13" and 14" laptops, dig terribly into my wrists when I'm typing.

For professionals, it's difficult to recommend a 14" MacBook Pro over the 16" variant. Once you bump the 14" MacBook Pro up to the 10-core M1 Pro the price difference reduces down to NZ$550 which–while still a decent chunk of change–feels like great value considering the benefits of the 16" chassis compared to the 14".

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