So Apple’s “Scary Fast” press event is done and over with – the only scary thing about it being how accurate all the information leaks leading to it actually are – and now the first reviews of what was revealed there are out. It’s fair to say that impressions are rather mixed.
On one hand, the company proved that it’s following a solid development plan for its M series of processors and that, despite the teething problems associated with transitions to new manufacturing processes, it can execute on that plan more or less on time. On the other hand, there’s a number of questionable choices Apple made in terms of how these M3 chips are actually used in new Mac computers and many seem to think that, because of those choices, the new models unveiled may not prove to be the slam dunk the company needs in order to give its declining Mac sales a boost.
In other words: there’s reason to be excited about what some of these new Macs bring to the table in terms of performance, while there’s also reason to be very, very weary of what consumers and professionals might think of Apple’s approach overall. Here’s why.
Apple M3 inside, everything else exactly the same on the outside
Quickly recapping what Apple announced and released, so there’s context to discuss: the M3 series of chips consists of the “regular” M3, the M3 Pro and the M3 Max (there might also be an M3 Ultra down the line but it’s definitely not coming any time soon). The M3 is offered in the exact same configuration of cores as the M2 (4 CPU performance cores plus 4 CPU efficiency cores plus 10 GPU cores), so any potential benefits are basically the result of the new 3nm manufacturing process all M3 chips are based on, as well as a few extra functions added by Apple: dynamic caching (for improved memory management), raytracing (for more realistic lighting in games), mesh shading (for significant acceleration of 3D graphics in games as well as in productivity apps) and AV1 codec support (for those who need that).
The M3 Pro is the weird one among Apple’s three new chips: if anything, this processor appears to be a downgrade compared to the M2 Pro as the new 3nm manufacturing process cannot make up for its cut-down specs. It offers two less CPU performance cores, one less GPU core and its memory bandwidth is reduced by 25%, which is hardly what one expects to see from a chip that’s succeeding another. The M3 Pro is still more capable than the M3, it does feature the extra functionality the M2 Pro doesn’t and it’s more power efficient, but it’s clear that it’s not intended to be the chip Apple would have consumers focus on.
Where the company has put the most amount of effort instead is on the M3 Max chip – and the results are astonishing. Those numbers speak for themselves: 12 CPU performance cores and 4 CPU efficiency cores, 40 GPU cores and up to 128GB of full-speed unified memory make for a system that’s built to impress (and last). Apple annoyingly chose to compare all the M3 chips to their M1, not M2, counterparts… but still: a third-gen new chip featuring more than double the performance of the first-gen one in less than three years is nothing to scoff at. Looking at what the rest of the industry has been doing since 2020 in terms of CPU and GPU improvements makes this abundantly clear.
Apple has so far built three new Macs around the M3 processors: a 24-inch iMac and two MacBook Pro models. The iMac looks exactly the same as before and, well, it practically is, save for that M3 processor (which is a nice upgrade from the M1 processor since no M2-based iMacs were released). Everything else is the same: same design, same colors, same screen, same camera, same speakers… you get the idea. Just a motherboard swap, then, which is not necessarily a bad thing but it’s also not exactly exciting. It’s the kind of natural upgrades that come along with the advancement of core tech such products are built around.
The two new MacBook Pro models follow the same pattern, so what sets them apart (other than screen size) is the kind of M3 chip they are based on. They look and sound the same as their M2-based counterparts, which is reassuring and disappointing at the same time. The new MacBook Pro 14 offers M3, M3 Pro and M3 Max options, while the new MacBook Pro 16 is strictly M3 Pro- or M3 Max-based.
The laptops built around the M3 Pro or M3 Max also get a fantastic new space black color (but not space grey) and all models come with at least 512GB of storage (so there’s no speed issue with their SSDs as was the case with older MacBook models that featured single-chip 256GB modules), capable of going up to 8TB depending on the configuration.
Apple’s questionable choices make for expensive M3 options
It’s when one takes a closer look at how Apple chose to make use of these new M3 processors that a number of problems become apparent. The obvious answer to the question “Who are these new M3 Mac models for? should have been “they are for everyone interested in getting a new iMac or MacBook Pro” but, in practice, that’s not the case. A more realistic answer would be “they are for people still using Intel-based iMac or MacBook models” or “they are for people who really, really push M1-based Mac models to their limits”. Using this general buying advice as a starting point, one can easily discern purchase decisions that make sense… as well as others that do not.
Apple’s decision, for instance, to finally axe the old, pointless 13-inch MacBook Pro with the TouchBar “in favor of” an entry-level 14-inch MacBook Pro makes sense, but then one realizes that the tempting $1599 price of the latter model only comes with 8GB of system memory (which is not upgradeable at a later date). This is unacceptable in 2024 terms for a “pro-level” laptop and people shouldn’t even be considering buying one unless it’s for simple, mainstream tasks only – in which case a MacBook Air would be a more fitting, less expensive option.
The main problem with this, though, is that upgrading that base M3 model to 16GB of RAM raises its cost to the price point of the base M3 Pro model ($1799), which features 18GB of RAM by default. So what is the point of that base 14-inch M3 MacBook Pro anyway, especially when it comes to “professional use”?
Talking about professional use cases for a laptop, people who really intend to push a new MacBook Pro hard and take full advantage of its capabilities are also given a choice… of sorts. It’s clear that Apple held the M3 Pro processor back in order to make the M3 Max seem more tempting and, in terms of pure performance, the difference is significant indeed. But the M3 Max-based models of the new MacBook Pros are considerably more expensive (compared to the M3 Pro-based ones as well as equivalent past MacBook Pro models), which is obviously less than ideal for everyone but Apple.
In addition to that, people who actually need the most powerful variant of an Apple MacBook Pro don’t usually go for the 14-inch model, but for the 16-inch one (because of better thermals and a larger battery and a bigger screen when on the go). For the majority of demanding pros, then, the actual cost of getting a new M3-powered MacBook Pro is $3499, which is more expensive compared to past MacBook models and definitely expensive as an “entry point” (one can literally pay twice that amount by fully upgrading it too!).
It’s almost like Apple has laid this all out in a mocking fashion. “Oh, you’re saying that you’d like a MacBook Pro model because of all the niceties… but you are a casual, mainstream laptop user? Then you’ll pay through the nose for it”. “So, you are a demanding professional who needs a lot of power from a laptop… but you don’t like the thought of working with a compromised processor? Well then, it’s M3 Max for you, but you’ll be paying more for the privilege”. It’s all partly because of the low yields currently achieved by the new 3nm manufacturing process, yes, but it’s also disheartening to witness such attitude from a trillion-dollar company regardless of circumstances.
So who are these new Apple M3 Mac models actually for?
Back to purchasing decisions that make sense, then: for all Intel-based MacBook Pro owners who were initially hesitant to go for the M1 because of software immaturity reasons – but knew that the M2 was a stopgap of a processor – transitioning to one of the new M3-based MacBook Pros is now safe and appropriate. Anything other than the base 14-inch model will be a fantastic upgrade. How powerful an M3-based MacBook Pro they actually need obviously depends on their workloads and workflows, but yours truly suspects that the M3 Max is so powerful, very few pros will make the most out of it. Let’s put it this way: if you truly need one, you don’t need buying advice from anyone on the matter. You probably know already.
The same goes for professionals who jumped on the M1 bandwagon early on: they are presumably in a position to know whether they need the extra processing power of Apple’s new chips or not. The M1 is still a very capable processor (especially the Max variant) and it’s only in specific “time-is-money” situations that call for a laptop built around an M3. The M1-based MacBook Pros sport pretty much the same design, screen, keyboard, touchpad, speakers and camera, so the user experience itself is not all that different.
Again, let’s put it this way: if Marques Brownlee a.k.a. MKBHD, one of the most prominent tech creators on YouTube, says he does not feel like he actually needs an M3-based MacBook Pro for work – he’s perfectly fine with the M1 Max-based MacBook Pro most of the time – then not many professionals out there will fully utilize the processing power difference between an M1 chip and an M3 chip (unless we’re talking about the base M1 and the M3 Max one).
Needless to say, if this is the case with M1-based MacBook Pros, then people who invested in an M2-based MacBook Pro earlier in the year need not consider buying a new M3-based model at all (unless they found out in the meantime that they need a model with more system memory).
The same is true for the new iMac: yours truly is willing to bet that anyone who got an M1-based iMac 24-inch at some point between April 2021 and October 2023 is still perfectly happy with it, at least for the typical use cases mainstream consumers buy an all-in-one computer. Some people in that crowd may have become more demanding in the meantime and are now in need of an iMac with more RAM – in which case they’d practically be buying the same computer again, only capable of doing more things comfortably. Not too tough a sell, but not an easy one either.
Taking all of the above into account, it’s not hard to see why it’s basically the Intel-based iMac/MacBook Pro owners that should be taking a look at the new M3-based machines Apple is now offering. Professionals that need a lot of processing power on the go might be tempted too – and, let’s be honest here, that awesome black is tempting all on its own – but they also need to justify the high cost of an M3 Max-based MacBook Pro, the only one worth investing in long-term. Some will be able to do so, many won’t. An M4 Pro- or M4 Max-based MacBook Pro that also comes with a fresh new design does sound more tempting after all, no?