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Review: Apple MacBook Pro (M3 Max, 16 Inch)

Can a world-class laptop get any better in the space of just a few months?
2023 Apple MacBook Pro M3
Photograph: Apple
Apple MacBook Pro (M3 Max, 16 Inch)
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Everything is top of the line here: Performance and battery life are untouchable across the board. New black chassis option is sharp. Speakers slap.
Very loud fan under load and High Power Mode. Can’t we color-match the power brick, Apple? Display notch is unappealing. With great power comes a great price tag.

While it’s the second update to the MacBook Pro line this year, this fall’s crop has been hotly anticipated, thanks to the launch of the latest from Apple’s in-house silicon production, the M3 CPU. And much like the prior upgrade (which introduced the M2 Pro and M2 Max CPUs), this new revision is almost entirely about power under the hood rather than cosmetics. Can a world-class laptop get any better in the space of just a few months? Let’s find out.

The 2023 Apple MacBook Pro with M3 in the Space Black finish.Photograph: Apple

I should start with the sole exception to my prior statement about cosmetic enhancements and point out availability of the new fingerprint-reducing Space Black finish. This sharp alternative to the classic silver makes for a more cohesive look alongside the MacBook’s all-black keyboard tray—and it does help cut down on smudges. Those opting for a silver Pro will likely be hard-pressed to find any physical difference at all.

Photograph: Apple

The M3 chip is the much bigger news, with a collection of processors that includes the M3, M3 Pro, and the M3 Max. Apple loaned me an M3 Max machine—a configuration that starts at $3,199—so that’s what we’re reviewing here. It’s a faster chip (now hitting 4.05 GHz, up from 3.66 GHz on the M2 Max) that’s based on the new 3-nanometer production process, and it carries a max of 16 cores instead of 12. That’s geek-speak for more raw power, but there’s more buried in the silicon, including hardware-accelerated ray tracing and mesh shading on the onboard GPU (30 or 40 cores, depending on configuration). Both of those features should dramatically improve graphical and gaming capabilities. There’s also a dynamic caching system to improve memory allocation. Apple calls all of this “the biggest breakthrough yet for Apple silicon”—although for what it’s worth, Apple silicon is only three years old.

Like the M2, the M3 series uses “unified memory” that is shared between the CPU and GPU and everything else. This machine is outfitted with 36 GB as an entry-level configuration and tops out at a whopping 128 GB. Apple’s Neural Engine, designed to support machine intelligence tasks, is also included, now designed as a 16-core processor.

Photograph: Apple

It sounds good on paper, but what difference does all of this make? On the performance front, you can expect incremental but measurable improvements over any prior-generation MacBook. I don’t have an apples-to-apples MacBook Pro with an M2 chip for comparative testing, but with each benchmark I threw at the system, it blew everything else I’ve ever tested out of the water. Cross-platform benchmarks are always a little iffy, and there aren’t a lot of them, but Geekbench 6 scores were three to five times faster than those on newer Intel-based PCs, and the Cinebench rendering test bested the highest score I’ve ever seen by a phenomenal 46 percent. Apple’s internal numbers suggest you’ll get about 10 percent better performance over an M2 Pro system on photo- and video-editing tasks and more than double the performance on a few tasks, such as using the Redshift renderer.

While the system has an automatic power-switching mode that’s turned on by default, Apple suggested running benchmark tests in High Power Mode, which pulls out all the stops. Surprisingly, I didn’t see much difference in performance scores between the two modes (save for the latest Cinebench GPU test, which improved by less than 10 percent in High Power Mode). This suggests the auto-switching system is plenty capable of knowing when it needs to kick things into a higher gear.

Photograph: Apple

All that power must eat away at battery life, right? Surprise: Battery performance has gone way, way up. While WIRED reported a mere 12 hours of running time on the older M2 model, I got a jaw-dropping maximum of 19 hours and 20 minutes of YouTube video playback time during my testing. That is more than enough time to watch movies flying all the way from New York to London and back without having to recharge—and that was on High Power Mode. Note that battery life will vary significantly based on screen brightness; I ran three different power tests and managed just over 15 hours with a fully bright, all-white screen.

The use of High Power Mode did have one major impact, however, and that was on fan speed. While the MacBook Pro isn’t exactly quiet under load while using the automatic power mode, when I flipped on High Power Mode, things got decidedly raucous. I measured the fan volume at 60 decibels when rendering at full tilt—the highest level I’ve seen since I started formally measuring fan volume.

Most other features on the system haven’t been touched, probably because they were already best in class and didn’t need further upgrades. The 16.2-inch Liquid Retina display, at 3456 x 2234 pixels, remains impossibly sharp and appropriately bright—though there are plenty of significantly brighter displays on the market if that’s your jam. Note that it doesn’t include a touchscreen, and it does retain the uglyish “notch” in the top center of the screen, where the 1080p webcam is located.

Photograph: Apple

The impossibly good six-speaker sound system remains top shelf, and is probably three speakers more than most users will really need on a laptop. The trackpad and keyboard are still solid, with the latter retaining the full-height function key row and power button with its embedded fingerprint reader. Connectivity options haven’t changed meaningfully and continue to include three USB-C-Thunderbolt-USB 4 ports, a full-size HDMI output jack, an SD card slot, and Apple’s long-running MagSafe port. The MagSafe cable is color-matched to your device, but the beefy 140-watt power adapter remains boringly white.

The 16-inch version of the MacBook Pro with M3 Max starts at $3,499, which makes it slightly more expensive than the similarly no-holds-barred Microsoft Surface Laptop Studio 2. You can, of course, crank your MacBook Pro’s price tag up to well over $5,000 by maxing out your memory and storage options. And don’t forget to throw in a $19 polishing cloth to keep everything nice and shiny.