• February 26, 2024, 1:39 am

Apple MacBook Pro M3 Max review: The best laptop gets a power-up SoftAIT

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Update : Tuesday, November 7, 2023

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The 14-inch Apple MacBook Pro M3 Max on my desk has been cranking as hard as it can for six hours. It’s running Adobe Lightroom’s AI noise-reduction algorithm on a batch of 3,000 images, each of which is a 45-megapixel raw file from a Canon R5. It’s an unreasonable task, but I needed something to make this machine sweat. Until now, the M3 Max chip has shrugged off everything from high-res video editing to simple 3D rendering (my skills prevent me from creating anything too complicated). And this batch processing is something I wouldn’t even attempt with my trusty M1 Pro MacBook Pro that, up until now, felt totally sufficient. But, the M3 series MacBook Pros represent a big jump from the M1s. Apple continues to prove that its proprietary silicon can really scream.

Overview

  • Apple hasn’t changed the design much on its 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros, but each comes with the powerful M3-series chips now.
  • The 14-inch model offers the M3, M3 Pro, and M3 Max chips. The 16-inch machines only offer the more powerful M3 Pro and M3 Max configurations. 
  • Our test unit is a 14-inch model with an M3 Max chip, 16 CPU cores, 64GB shared memory, and 2TB storage, which is basically fully upgraded and retails for $4,299. 
  • The new Space Black color resists fingerprints and, frankly, looks sick.

Pros

  • M3 chips show a tangible speed boost over the previous generations
  • New M3 architecture supports ray tracing and mesh shading for improved graphical performance
  • The new finish looks excellent and resists fingerprints
  • Screen is still fantastic
  • Trackpack is still leaps and bounds better than everyone else’s
  • Even the 14-inch still offers a built-in card slot
  • Maxed-out configurations can now go to 16 CPU cores and 128GB shared memory

Cons

  • Still impossible to upgrade the hardware after purchase
  • It’s a bit pricey to start, but the cost skyrockets as you add upgrades
  • Space Black finish might show scratches more in the long run

Verdict

Every generation of the M-powered MacBook Pro has impressed us, and the M3 is no exception. We tested a very well-equipped 14-inch M3 Max configuration, and it smoked every single test we threw at it. These machines are expensive, but they’re beautifully designed, surprisingly efficient, and brutally powerful. This is the best laptop on the market right now. 

Apple MacBook Pro M3 Max design

The keyboard on the MacBook Pro 14-inch M3 Max
The keyboard is still excellent, and the trackpad is still better than anyone else’s on the market. Stan Horaczek

If you’re familiar with the M2-powered 14- and 16-inch MacBook Pros, there are really very few surprises here save for one: The new Space Black finish offers a darker hue than was previously available. Apple claims it’s better at resisting fingerprints than its lighter counterparts, and that proves true in the real world. The dark finish also just looks sick. 

The rest of the features haven’t changed much. Both screens are Liquid Retina XDR displays, mini-LED panels that don’t offer touch support but provide 1 billion colors with Display P3 for extremely beautiful and accurate images. The 14-inch model offers a 3024 x 1964 resolution (254 pixels per inch), while the 16-inch goes up to 3456 x 2234. Both versions offer adaptive refresh rates up to 120Hz, what Apple calls ProMotion, and fairly exceptional brightness—600 nits SDR, up to 1600 XDR—that makes them totally usable in bright outdoor environments.

MacBook Pro M3 Max build options

There is a little variability in the 14-inch models that you should consider before making a purchase. The version with the vanilla M3 chip caps out at 24GB of memory and 2TB of built-in storage. It also offers just two Thunderbolt/USB-C 4 ports, capable of up to 40Gb/s transfer speeds and DisplayPort support. The M3 Pro and M3 Max models pump the total Thunderbolt port count up to three and drastically increase the rest of the upgrade options. The M3 Pro and Max offer up to 16 CPU cores, 40 GPU cores, 8TB of built-in storage, and 128GB shared memory. The extra power is an obvious reason to upgrade, but the extra Thunderbolt port is pretty key, too. I have all three ports typically filled when working at my desk, and going down to two would be annoying. 

The 16-inch version doesn’t offer a vanilla M3 option at all. It’s only available with the Pro and Max chips. I work on a 16-inch MBP every day, and switching to the smaller 14-inch screen for this review did feel like an adjustment. In a machine with this much power, I’d prefer as much screen as I can get, but I’m also mostly editing photos and videos, both of which put screen real estate at a premium.

MacBook Pro M3 Max performance

MacBook Pro M3 Max with Cinebench software on the screen.
The MBP’s Cinebench score puts it up there with Threadripper machines. Stan Horaczek

As stated above, we tested a very burly spec of the 14-inch model. We’re running the M3 Max chip with 16 CPU cores and 64GB built-in storage. That pushes the price of our test rig up to around $4,200. That’s expensive, for sure, but it delivers performance to justify the investment. 

I only ran minimal benchmarking in the form of Cinebench, and the M3 Max machine scored in the same neighborhood as enterprise-grade, Threadripper–powered workstations. I was expecting it to score highly, but I didn’t think it would go quite that high. 

Photo-editing test

For real-world tests of Apple’s hardware-accelerated media engine claims, I started with some tasks from my typical real-life workflow. I dumped 3,000 raw photos from a Canon R5 into Adobe’s famously resource-intensive image editing software, Lightroom Classic. I spend hours every week in this program, so I’m very familiar with how it typically runs on my mid-level 16-inch M1-powered MacBook Pro. The M3 Max screamed through the images, instantly rendering full-res previews, whereas my M1-powered machine takes a solid second (sometimes more during long editing sessions) for the high-res preview to snap into view. All that speed literally allows me to change my workflow slightly by having the original images load immediately instead of working with the JPEG preview files during the sorting process. This may be too in the weeds for non-photo nerds, but I think that makes it appropriate as an example. These machines are overkill for many people, but that power can make a big difference for users who can put it to good use. 

Even flipping quickly through images in Lightroom, I couldn’t choke the machine. So, I set it up to do the arduous task of applying Adobe Lightroom’s AI-powered noise reduction algorithm to the entire 3,000-image collection. This is a notoriously brutal process in terms of resource consumption. Ultimately, the whole process took in the neighborhood of 10 hours. That’s a long time, but consider that it’s an hour shorter than the M2 Max-powered Mac Studio claimed it would take. Also, whenever I tried the same with my M1 Pro machine, the dialog would hang, and I couldn’t even start the process. In short, the M3 Max is a monster. 

A right side view of the ports on the MacBook Pro 14-inch M3 Max
Stan Horaczek

Video editing test

Since my photography workflow didn’t phase the M3, I moved on to video editing. I use Final Cut for my editing, and I fed the M3 Max some 8K footage captured with the same Canon R5. Again, the results were impressive. Because Final Cut comes directly from Apple, it’s designed specifically to take advantage of Apple silicon. Scrubbing through 8K footage and rendering clips certainly taxed the system enough to get the fans going, but it barely stuttered. I imagine a system with less shared memory wouldn’t glide through UHD footage so gracefully, but that’s why I recommend getting as much shared memory as you can when you buy one of these machines. You can’t upgrade later, and it makes a big difference. In fact, the 8GB starting point for the vanilla M3 model actually seems a little silly here in 2023.

Gaming test

I’m admittedly not the biggest gamer in the world, but I did fire up Baldur’s Gate 3 just to see how the machine handled a heavy AAA title. Predictably, I could run the game on high-quality settings and still get solid framerates. Again, it got the fans spinning, but it rarely stuttered. This is the first time we’re seeing ray tracing and mesh shading natively from the MacBook Pro, and Apple seems very bullish on the machine’s gaming capabilities. While you’re almost certainly not buying this primarily as a gaming PC replacement, it is nice to know it can run pretty much anything at a decent frame rate should you want to take a break from work.

Battery power

I squeezed nearly two full work days worth of juice out of a single charge while writing articles, checking emails, and working in the CMS. Apple claims the more powerful 14-inch models can get up to 18 hours on a single charge, and that actually seems to ring true in the real world. The 16-inch model promises up to 22 hours thanks to its larger battery, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that were close to the real-world number as well. Despite all the power inside these machines, they run exceptionally efficiently thanks to Apple’s new tech, which ramps the power up and down to meet the specific needs of the task you’re doing. 

Simple web browsing doesn’t require that much oomph, so the MacBook Pro will prioritize efficiency. Once you turn to more resource-intensive tasks, it ramps up the power. This isn’t a new concept by any means, but Apple does it very, very well. 

The rest of the MacBook Pro M3 Max experience

A left side view of the MacBook Pro 14-inch M3 Max on a red blanket
Stan Horaczek

The machine comes with a MagSafe 3 power cable and a burly power block that varies between 70 and 96 watts, depending on the 14-inch configuration you get. The 16-inch model comes with a massive 140W brick. I’m glad the MagSafe cable is back, but I personally just keep my computer plugged into a USB-C monitor most of the time when I’m sitting at my desk, which also charges the laptop. I definitely still appreciate the built-in SDXC card reader, even though it weirdly sometimes takes a few tries of plugging in the card before the computer recognizes it. I have also never used an HDMI cable, personally, but it likely comes in handy for some users. I’d definitely trade it for one more Thunderbolt port, but that’s my personal preference. And there’s still a 3.5mm headphone jack if you want consistently higher-fidelity listening than you can get from wireless but don’t want to deal with an external audio interface.

So, who should buy the M3-powered MacBook Pro?

If you’re a typical computer user who checks email, watches YouTube, surfs the web, and does the occasional photo edit, then the MacBook Air is probably still the right call for you. Apple really has put the “Pro” back in MacBook Pro since the M-series chips debuted. If you regularly work in resource-greedy programs like photo- and video-editing programs or 3D-modeling environments, that’s when the MBP shines. 

As for configuration, the vanilla M3 option is relatively affordable with a $1,599 starting price, but the spec is disappointing. You might be better off looking for a more powerful M2 Pro or even an M1 Pro machine for the same price. 

Get as much shared memory as possible because it will have a direct effect on your performance, and you can’t upgrade it later. And when it comes to size, it’s really a personal preference. I still prefer the 16-inch machine, but it weighs a bulky 4.7 pounds compared to 3.5 pounds for the 14-inch. 

This isn’t the best laptop for most people, but it is the best laptop I’ve ever used. If you already have an M2 Pro or M2 Max, the nominal (but still tangible) speed bump probably isn’t worth the cost. If you’re coming from an M1 chip or, heaven forbid, an Intel Mac, it will make a huge difference.

Honestly, the Apple MacBook M3 Max might be a bit overkill even for me. But I never mind having some headroom for even greedier programs and media files coming down the road. These megapixels aren’t getting any smaller.



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