MacBook Pro M2 16" (2023) Review

posted by Jeff | Friday, February 24, 2023, 3:00 PM | comments: 0

Over the years I've expressed my disappointment over the decline of Mac laptops. I won't re-litigate that, you can read for yourself. I wasn't planning to buy a new laptop this year, as my previous one was a little short of two-years old. But it kept coming up in content circles that I pay attention to. Video people had been raving about the M1-based machines for more than a year, because they can crush 4K video even with color grading and compositing. Also, the tools that I use for software development, .Net-based frameworks, had Apple silicon-native versions. With the triumphant return of good keyboards and ports (and banishment of the stupid touch bar), and the insane battery life afforded to machines using ARM processors and SoC's, I couldn't ignore these anymore.

There's one more important thing though, and that's the realization that small, thin laptops are kind of slow for software development, and not a great experience for video work. It's not always true, but it's a valid generalization. The MacBook Airs have been an exception, using these new processors. But small screens aren't great when you're looking at a wall of code either. Mac or not, I was ready to go big and heavy. I haven't had a big, powerful laptop since I replaced my 17" MacBook Pro back in 2012.

I knew what I was getting into because I've had the M1 version of this computer for a year, issued at work. It's total overkill for a people manager, and I've only had 10 battery charge cycles on it in that year. Even though it has mostly sat on my desk, I know it's big and heavy. The new version is basically the same on the outside. The trackpad is large enough to land a helicopter on, and the keyboard is the kind of solid amazing experience of the pre-2015 Macs. They've somehow managed to squeeze richer sound of the chassis as well. The sharp edge of the keyboard deck is still uncomfortable and not great, especially coming from a Surface Laptop with the Alcantara skin, and I don't know why they're too stubborn to go to a tapered or rounded edge.

There are vents on the sides, and in the hinge, though I've yet to encounter any fan noise, even when compressing video. At worst, I've felt a little warmness on the bottom, but never hot. The thermal management and energy efficiency is something to behold. Indeed, battery life for me has generally landed somewhere between 10 and 12 hours. I'm guessing a little because it's hard to keep track over several days, and it might be more. After it learns your habits, it may park the battery down at 80% (I wish you could explicitly do this), which is good for its longevity, but it hasn't done that for me yet. I may need to keep it plugged in more often.

The screen is as good as anything Apple has put out with high DPI's, and lettering appears to be painted on. I still haven't completely figured out color management as it relates to DaVinci Resolve, but what little I've edited on it appears to look right on Windows and Android. Because the battery is so enormous, you don't have to settle for 30% brightness to stretch the time between charges. This is very useful when you spend a lot of time out on a sunny patio.

Let's talk about performance. You really don't notice any differences across most devices these days when engaging in web nonsense. For software development, my usual situation beyond the browser is to run a few Docker containers, specifically for SQL Server, Redis and ElasticSearch, as well as the Azureite storage simulator. The IDE I use is JetBrains' Rider, which is absolutely fantastic and a lot faster than Visual Studio on Windows. Comparing the IDE's isn't really valid, but the one thing that I can compare is build time. A fresh build of POP Forums, the solution that I work with the most, takes just over 4 seconds. On my Windows desktop, which is about 3.5-years-old, it takes about 9 seconds. That's a crazy improvement. My laptop took nearly 12 seconds. The 700+ unit tests in that project also run in under 2 seconds, and again, about double on my desktop.

Do those few seconds matter? When you're making changes fast and want to see the results, yes. This new world of having hot-reload in your build makes it even more important to get that fast feedback. It's extraordinary not just for the speed, but the fact that it isn't on Windows. (Sidebar: My sites have all been running on Linux in the cloud for years, so the platform variation isn't a new thing.) I can even keep dynamic analysis running and looking for crappy coding on my behalf.

The other big use case is video. I graduated to 4K in mid-2020, about a year after I built my desktop PC. Video editing apps, specifically Adobe Premier Pro and DaVinci Resolve, take advantage of dedicated graphics processors. My desktop has an RTX 2070 card in it, which was not top of the line at the time, but it was still $460, way more than I ever spent on GPU's back in my pre-Intel Mac days. Because of this, both apps tend to export compressed video just slightly slower than real-time, which is to say a minute of finished video takes a few seconds over a minute to process. It's not very smooth in scrubbing across a clip or timeline though, especially if you've applied color grading. It skips around and stutters a bit, though not all of the time. The CPU is an i7-9700, overclocked, so it's not slow. But that 4K performance has been disappointing during editing and grading.

The new Mac is insane for video. Color graded 4K scrubs like buttah. Exports run at about half time, so a minute takes 30 seconds. I have the base level 16" M2, with 12 CPU cores, 19 GPU cores and 16 neural engine cores. I haven't even used features like noise reduction, voice isolation and other AI-based things that would benefit from the neural cores. But this overall capability changes video completely. The only problem is that I'm still not crazy about video work on a laptop, but the perf is too great to ignore. I wonder if one of these crazy Mac Minis are going to end up on my desk someday.

I haven't traveled yet with this big machine, but I've really enjoyed using it. I don't feel like I have to wait for anything. It really is noticeable, and I appreciate how far we've come for dev work. It's so fast.

The big question is whether or not the value is there given the performance. The thin and high-end laptops are generally in the $1,600-$1,900 range, and this one starts at $2,600. There are a few things you could bake into that, starting with an even more premium chassis and keyboard, one of the best screens on anything and better battery life. It's a little harder to compare on specs because the architecture is so fundamentally different than an Intel-based computer. The base starts with a half-terabyte of storage, and 16 gigs of RAM, which is just OK at this price. Adding in either category adds hundreds of dollars, which changes the value proposition for the negative. And the RAM part feels especially weird since it's all embedded into the CPU anyway, and there aren't additional parts. If you work backward from price, then a similarly priced Intel laptop has more "stuff," but performance is hard to nail down because you can't measure the same things. Well, you can measure gaming, but I don't think people are buying Macs for that. For my two big use cases, the new Macs are worth it, provided you don't go nuts on the upgrades.


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