I replaced my 15″ Intel MacBook Pro with a M1 MacBook Air about 20 months ago and I’ve been pretty happy with it. In general, performance is great, battery life is great, the keyboard is great, the size is nice, it’s light, and the screen is good. The issues pop up when I run Lightroom to organize and edit photos, which I do frequently enough that it starts to become problematic.
My primary issue is memory: I bought an 8 GB model so that it would be completely covered by gift cards from my rewards program at work and unfortunately it just isn’t enough. While Adobe’s M1 updates made things much better, I’m still 50% below the recommended memory to run Lightroom at peak efficiency, and it shows. Things start to get a bit sluggish after ending 10 or 20 RAW photos and memory pressure from Activity Monitor is up around 60%. Plugging into an external monitor is nearly useless for editing because it puts more pressure on the already limited memory available. My recent upgrade to macOS Monterey has made things worse, as Monterey is more of a hog than Big Sur was.
CPU performance is great in general, except after longer periods of editing RAW files. Even the Air gets hot after heavy use, and since it doesn’t have a fan, all it can do is slow down the CPU to manage its temperature. When this happens I lose about 25% of its performance. It isn’t nearly as impactful as the memory issue, but it is noticeable.
What Pro Though?
Since it didn’t cost me anything, I considered my Air an “experiment” and had been waiting to see what Apple’s answer for Pro machines would be. Apple answered with the M1 Pro and M1 Max-based 14″ and 16″ models introduced in October 2021. They provided a new design, beautiful displays, more ports, larger memory ceilings, and even better performance but they were very expensive. I decided that I’d try to hold off until the second generation was released with the M2. This would make the investment more worth it for me – I could either get better features for the same price or score some savings on M1 Pro models going out of stock.
With the release of the redesigned MacBook Air in July, the M2 generation has officially begun. While I really like the new design of the Air, the MagSafe port, the brighter screen, the higher memory ceiling (24 GB), and the 20% performance boost, it still doesn’t have a fan which will nullify the performance gain when it heats up. I’m the kind of user that actually needs active cooling in a laptop and I’d also prefer 32 GB RAM to feed hungry, hungry Lightroom further into the future. Guess the MacBook Pro is still in.
I’d target the 14″ model with the 10-core Pro CPU with 16 GPU cores and 1 TB storage. One thing I love about this generation is that the features and performance (with minor exceptions) is nearly identical between the 16″ and 14″ models. I prefer the smaller size machine but want the best performance I can get.
I still plan to wait for an M2 version of the Pro1 but I’m not sure when that will arrive. I’ve read rumors that they are planned for fall 2022, which would be awesome, but I’m not sure how likely it is. The current Pro was released an entire year after the M1 Air. If the M2 Pro is released in November, that’s only four months, If the M2 Pro / Max follow the same scaling formula as the M1 Pro / Max do, it might be possible, but 66% faster delivery is kind of nuts given current challenges with supply chains and manufacturing capacity.
The Benefits of Going Pro
Regardless of when it’s available, a Pro would give me several benefits over my Air:
- 40 – 70% better multicore (more with an M2 Pro)
- 2 – 4x GPU performance (which isn’t currently a limiting factor for me but I’ll take it)
- 32 GB RAM (to make all of my Lightroom memory problems go away2)
- Four Thunderbolt ports (vs 2)
- An SD Card reader (no more dongle!)
- Really, really good speakers
- Active cooling, but only when needed
- A 14″ screen with about 20% more resolution, far brighter colors, deeper blacks, and a buttery smooth high refresh rate
Battery life would be slightly reduced, but it’s not a big deal. My Air is rated for 15 hours of “wireless web”, which is about 6 hours of hardcore Lightroom editing. The Pro gets 11 hours of “wireless web”, which would probably be about 5 Lightroom hours. That’s still far better than the 2 hours I got on my 2016 MacBook Pro and it would be blazing fast.
A Most Excellently-Expensive Computer
M2 or not, the MacBook Pro is expensive. The 14″ model I want to buy with the 10 core CPU, 16 core GPU, 32 GB RAM, and 1 TB hard drive costs $2,800. That’s the most I’ve ever spent on any computer so it isn’t a decision I take lightly. The good news is that it’s a decision I don’t have to make until November, or later.
1 I’m specifically talking about the 14/16″ MacBook Pro. An M2 version of the 13″ MacBook Pro was released alongside the new MacBook Air but I don’t want the older design, screen, ports, and speakers with the regular M2. I want the M2 Pro chip 🙂 The 14″ Pro is about $700 more for a similar configuration.
2 Yes, I do realize that no amount of memory will ever make all of my Lightroom problems go away, but it will definitely make one of them go away.