Do I Need the 2021 MacBook Pro as a Writer?

16 min read
  • The 2021 MacBook Pros are terrific computers, but writers can save the money and buy the 2020 MacBook Air instead.
  • The difference in price isn’t as striking, considering that you’d have to (and probably should) buy additional memory and storage to bring the Air up to par with the 14″ Pro—but $600 is still a lot of money for something you might not need.
  • For most writers, the 512 GB/16 GB MacBook Air will offer the best value for money.

Whenever Apple announces new devices, journalists all over the world compete to write either the first or most comprehensive article about the event. Most of them do a great job comparing and judging the new products. But rarely any of those articles ever answers the most important question: Do I need this new Apple product? While I can’t answer this question for you specifically, I’d like to provide some guidance on whether writers should consider the new 2021 MacBook Pro models.

Let’s go through all the questions you might have, and I’ll give you my take on the specific features, the annoyances, and whether the MacBook Pros are worth your money. Or if you’re better off buying (or sticking with) a 2020 MacBook Air. There’s at least a $1,000 difference between both, and I’m sure you’d like to know if you can save them.

Do I need the larger and better screen?

Screen size is a very individual attribute. For a long time, I couldn’t imagine getting any work done on a laptop of any size. I was so used to working on a 27″ screen that even 16″ didn’t seem feasible. How would I arrange 11 windows from 9 different apps so they’re visible at the same time? I’m at a point where I hope that the next generation of iMacs will feature a larger screen, maybe 30″ or more (though apparently they won’t).

But meanwhile, I learned to love smaller screen sizes. Why? Because they provide one unique advantage apart from portability: They reduce clutter and overwhelm. On a smaller screen, there isn’t much that can attract your attention apart from the task at hand. Combine that with cutting off internet access, and you have a productivity machine.

For writing, I think, the screen size doesn’t matter as much. You won’t get a lot more out of the 14″ screen of the smaller MacBook Pro than out of the 13″ MacBook Air. And while the 16″ screen of the larger one might make a difference, it comes at a cost: The laptop is significantly heavier. I wouldn’t mind the 14″ screen because it offers that little bit more screen real estate that the 13″ lacks, but the 16″ makes more sense as a desktop replacement and for that, it’s by far too small.

The screens of the MacBook Pros have other advantages, though. Instead of a mere Retina Display like the MacBook Air, they feature a Liquid Retina XDR, that is much brighter (1000 nits vs 400 nits), and a 120 Hz adaptive refresh rate.1 Increased brightness doesn’t play a role when you’re inside or in the dark, but it can be crucial when you’re outside in the sun. The brighter the display, the more likely it is that it’ll be able to compete with the harsh sunlight. The 120 Hz refresh rate, which you know from modern iPhones and iPads, means that scrolling becomes much smoother. And depending on what you do, the refresh rate adapts to that, so it doesn’t use up as much energy all the time.

You should consider the brighter screen if you work outside a lot, as it can make or break your writing process, and that alone can justify the price tag. But the adaptive refresh rate isn’t worth your money. It’s just a gimmick.

Do I need the better chip?

Both the M1 Pro and the M1 Max chip sound impressive. I didn’t expect them to be that much better than last year’s M1 chip. That, however, cannot detract from the fact that the 2020 M1 is a terrific chip. And I’m not certain whether you, as a writer, will ever be able to test its limits.

The M1 chip is one reason I recommended every normal user to buy a 2020 MacBook Air because it’s all you need in a laptop. It’s far better than what most PCs could provide, and it’s probably going to last you many years. The M1 also makes your laptop quite future-proof (as far as that’s possible) because Apple and app developers will eventually phase out support for Intel chips.2 It’s not essential to get an M1 Pro or an M1 Max, it’s just crucial to get an M1 at all.

If you did heavy graphic design or video editing, the M1 Pro or M1 Max would make sense. As a writer who perhaps does some photo editing and who creates diagrams or other graphics, the M1 is more than enough. And using the word “enough” still doesn’t feel right, even when coupled with the qualifier “more than.” It’s a great chip that for the vast majority of users doesn’t need a replacement, and will not for a very long time. Don’t fall for the marketing here—the M1 Pro and Max are chips for people who already know they need these kinds of chips.

Do I need the additional memory / storage?

When it comes to the price, it’s important to consider the difference in memory and storage. When we compare the base model MacBook Air and the base model MacBook Pro 14″, the first comes with 8 GB of memory and 256 GB of storage for $999, and the latter comes with 16 GB of memory and 512 GB of storage for $1,999. To get the Air up to the same specs, you’d have to invest an additional $400. Which means for all the individual features of the MacBook Pro that the Air cannot offer, you pay “only” $600 more, not $1,000.

One opportunity, however, that the MacBook Air lacks, is increasing the memory beyond 16 GB and the storage beyond 1 TB. If you need more than that, there’s no other way than getting the MacBook Pro. But do you?

Storage is easy. You likely know how much storage you have on your Mac now, and whether you could outsource many of your files. You’ll need more going forward, but if 128 GB suffice now, you won’t need a 2 TB drive anytime soon. Even if you’re a used to having a lot of space, ask yourself whether you need all that space on your computer’s primary drive. It’s straightforward to attach an external hard drive and outsource most of your files. 256 GB is fine for some, but I wouldn’t recommend going below 512 GB these days. Remember that the operating system alone takes up a considerable chunk of that space.

Memory is a bit harder. For writing, 8 GB might be enough. But for researching, that is, browsing the web a lot, you can notice the limit. One thing the M1 chip does is that it’ll write to your SSD if you need more memory, so you won’t run out of it so quickly. But it’s not good for the lifespan of your SDD, and it’s still slower than using actual memory. If you have the chance, get 16 GB, especially if you plan to use your MacBook for many years to come.

If you’re a writer, if you do a lot of web browsing (with sometimes hundreds of tabs open across multiple windows), and especially if you intend to keep your new MacBook around for at least 5 years, spend the extra money on 16 GB of memory and 512 GB of storage. You might not realize that this was a good decision immediately, but sometime down the line. At $1,400, the MacBook Air is still great value for money.

Don’t take it to the extreme, though (we all understand this urge to max out the machines we buy): For most people, there’s no reason to get more than a 512 GB/16 GB machine. If you need more, you already know that you do.

Can I deal with less battery life?

The MacBook Pro offers less battery life than the MacBook Air—can that be possible? It depends. Apple says that the 14″ MacBook Pro offers up to 17 hrs of battery life and the 16″ up to 21 hours. In comparison, the 2020 MacBook Air offers up to 18 hours, so it beats at least the smaller MacBook Pro.

But what about the larger one? Does it feature so much more battery life than the Air? If you look deeper into the specs, you find that the large MacBook Pro gives you up to 14 hours of “wireless web,” as Apple calls it. The Air, however, gets up to 15 hours (the smaller MacBook Pro tunes out at a mere 11 hours). Only when you consider “Apple TV app movie playback,” the large MacBook Pro outperforms the MacBook Air in terms of battery life. The reason for that is presumably the more efficient GPU, but I’m not certain.

For the typical work a writer does, the Air keeps up the longest of all current MacBooks.

Should the lack of battery life deter you from buying a MacBook Pro? We live in an era where the Air as well as the Pros offer plenty of battery life. It’ll get you through the workday, regardless of which one you buy. If you use it only a few hours a day, and if you write more than you surf the web, any of the MacBooks might last you days or even a week. So, I wouldn’t refrain from buying any of the MacBook Pros because of the battery life. But if you’re considering buying the 16″, the additional hours compared to the 14″ could make your decision a little easier.

Can I handle the larger size and heavier weight?

The new MacBook Pros are larger than the MacBook Air—the difference in screen size is telling. But the Pros are also shaped differently than the Air. While the Air has a wedge-like shape that is thinner at some and thicker at other points, the Pro has the same thickness overall. The smaller Pro is somewhat thinner than the Air at its thickest point, while the larger Pro is marginally thicker than the Air at its thickest point (we’re talking 0.0x cm here). Will that make any noticeable difference? Probably not.

What could, however, is the additional weight. The Air weighs 2.8 pounds (1.29 kg), while the MacBook Pros come in at 3.5 pounds (1.6 kg) and 4.7 pounds (2.1 kg) respectively. If you move around a lot with your laptop, that can be significant. To me, the 16″ model seems more suited for semi-stationary use. Between the Air and the 14″ Pro model, I don’t see a difference that would justify not getting the Pro.

Do I need the better camera and audio?

Did we ever imagine that we would need the camera of our laptops as often as we did in 2020? From a feature most of us weren’t concerned with too much, it became an essential element. Luckily, Apple provided the new MacBook Pros with a 1080p FaceTime HD camera. Last year’s MacBook Air only got a 720p HD camera. That’s still not as brilliant as an iPhone, but it’s an improvement. The difference in quality between the 720p and the 1080p is striking, so if you constantly find yourself in video calls, this might be a decisive factor. The better the quality of your video, the more professional you’ll appear—at the very least on a subconscious level.

As for audio, the MacBook Pros got a better sound system than the Air, “studio-quality” microphones, and an improved headphone jack (that supports high-impedance headphones). That’s nothing a writer desperately needs, but it’s nice to have. However, the sound that comes out of the 2020 MacBook Air is already stunning for a laptop. And the studio mics won’t be enough to use them for podcasting anyway (they might improve the sound during video conferences, though). If you consider getting a MacBook Pro because of the better camera, the improved mics are an additional reason to get it. That way, your whole appearance during video calls will benefit from better video and sound quality. But none of that is a necessity for writers, especially if you have a modern iPhone that you could use for video calls instead.3

Do I need the additional ports?

Surprisingly, Apple fell in love with ports again. It was a disgrace that they removed more and more ports from their previous products—something that we might have to thank Jony Ive for. But this is not the time to assign blame, since Apple seems to have reconsidered what the actual needs of their users are.

While the 2020 MacBook Air has only two Thunderbolt ports (apart from the headphone jack), the 2021 MacBook Pros feature three Thunderbolt ports (even the USB-C ones) as well as an HDMI port and an SD card slot. The SD card slot can come in handy for writers, too, since some also take photographs with a professional camera. If you hold speeches, you’ll value the HDMI port.

The Pros also feature MagSafe, that came back from the dead. You can use it to charge your MacBook, and since it’s magnetic, it’ll come off if you pull on the cable instead of yanking your MacBook right off the table. But most importantly: With MagSafe, you don’t need to use your precious Thunderbolt ports for charging. Take into consideration that you’ll need one of the two Thunderbolt Ports on your MacBook Air to charge it. Which means, effectively, you only have one. For most writers, that should still be enough, but only you know how many and which devices you’ve attached to your MacBook, and whether you’ll need a dongle.

Will the notch eventually bother me?

The first thing you might notice about the new MacBook Pros is that notch at the top of the screen. You’ve seen the notch on recent iPhones, but it’s the first time that we get it on a MacBook. I can’t say for sure if it’ll bother you down the line, but I can give you my thoughts on it.

First, you’re not losing any screen real estate through it, you’re gaining some. If the notch wasn’t there, the frame around your display would be thicker. Now, it’s much more economical, and you can use the space left and right to it. That makes sense because that’s where the menu bar goes. You gain screen real estate below your menu bar, while your menu bar has to get by with less space because it’s now divided by the notch.

Second, design-wise we’ll consider it the new standard soon anyway, and all MacBooks without that notch will seem old (until MacBooks come without a notch again in approximately 5-10 years, I suppose). I’m just waiting for PC laptop manufacturers to adopt that notch so their products won’t look as outdated.

Final verdict: Is the 2021 MacBook Pro worth the $1,000 premium for writers?

The new MacBook Pros are impressive—but are they worth the extra money if you’re a writer?

  1. Consider that the MacBook Pros come with at least 16 GB of memory and 512 GB of storage—something that I’d recommend you buy anyway, especially if you intend to use your MacBook for a few years. Buying a MacBook Air with this kind of memory and storage will cost you $400 more. That makes the MacBook Pros “only” $600 more expensive.
  2. Debate whether all the other features are worth $600 for you. Do you use your MacBook outside a lot and benefit from a much brighter screen? Do you engage in numerous video conferences so that the better camera and mics will improve your overall appearance? Do you need the additional ports because you use SD cards a lot or because you want to attach a projector?
  3. Don’t forget the shortcomings. The chips are magnificent, but you won’t even realize that you have them most of the time. The difference in screen size between the Air and the smaller Pro isn’t huge, but therefore the Pros are heavier. And the battery life is the longest in the Air, at least for the tasks you’re likely to perform.

If you can’t justify the Pro, get the 2020 MacBook Air. For most writers, it offers plenty of power, it has amazing battery life, and there’s nothing to complain about apart from the lack of ports. It’s still a great laptop for most people. If you can afford it and if you plan to use it for a long time, get it with 16 GB of memory and 512 GB of storage. If you can afford only one upgrade, get the additional memory because you can always add storage through an external hard drive later on.

But even if you go with the base model MacBook Air, you’ll get a great computer at a comparably low price that almost every writer I can think of will have a great time with. The MacBook Pros are fantastic machines, too, but they won’t make you a professional writer solely because of their name.

  1. It also looks much better since it’s a true 2x display. If brilliant sharpness is something that value, the MacBook Pros offer an additional advantage over the MacBook Air. Jump back.︎
  2. Even in macOS Monterey, some features are only available on machines with at least an M1 chip. You can imagine how much an Intel Mac will lack behind in the next years by looking at the macOS features it doesn’t support. That’s why I cannot stress this enough: If you want to buy a Mac today, don’t buy an Intel Mac unless you get it almost for free. It’s history. Jump back.︎
  3. No video nor mic quality can make up for the fact that your MacBook’s camera will almost always be at the wrong angle for video calls. So, usually, you’re much better off putting your phone on a small tripod and placing it next to your computer. Jump back.︎