Apple's MacBook Pro 13 With M2 Has Lost its Mainstream Appeal

Outstanding performance and battery life, enabled by the M2 processor, save this aging system.

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MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

The MacBook Pro 13 is a forgotten child, the only remaining product in Apple’s notebook family without a redesigned chassis and upgraded specs. Besides receiving a new processor, this latest model was left untouched. As such, this review is as much about Apple’s M2 chip as it is about the newest version of the MacBook Pro 13—what gains the processor brings are the only notable differences between this laptop and the model we reviewed in 2020.

Back then, we considered the MacBook Pro 13 a worthwhile upgrade for PC users thinking of making the switch or owners of previous Intel-based Mac notebooks. But oh, how the times have changed. Since the introduction of the MacBook Pro 14 and MacBook Pro 16, this entry-level model has lost some luster. And when a new MacBook Air stole its spotlight at WWDC this year, we raised our eyebrows and started wondering what purpose the MacBook Pro 13 served now that there is a similarly priced model with arguably better features.

I’m not ready to rule this contender out entirely, but the audience for the entry-level Pro is narrowing. What was once the clear choice for creative pros wanting a truly portable system can now only be recommended to those who either don’t want to splurge on a MacBook Pro 14, need the absolute longest battery life, or run demanding tasks for extended periods.

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MacBook Pro 13 price and configurations

The MacBook Pro starts at the same $1,299 price point as the previous model. That base configuration gets you the M2 CPU with a 10-core GPU, 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB SSD. Jumping to 16GB of RAM (which I recommend doing) costs another $200, and the 24GB version costs another $200 on top of that. Similarly, doubling storage capacity costs an extra $200 for each upgrade.

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The configuration Apple sent me, with an M2, 16GB of RAM, and a 1TB SSD, costs $1,899, or $100 less than a base MacBook Pro 14 with an M1 Pro chip, the same amount of RAM, and half the storage (512GB). You’ll spend $2,199 on the MacBook Pro 14 with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD.

We need to talk about MacBook Air pricing as well. Apple still sells the M1 version for $999, or you can pay $1,199 for the new M2 edition. At its base price, you get an M2 chip but only with an 8-core GPU. It’s another $100 to get the 10-core CPU, effectively making the new MacBook Pro and MacBook Air the same price.

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Similar engine, two more cylinders

I won’t waste your time: the M2 processor powering the MacBook Pro 13 is a solid upgrade over the M1 chip. But unlike that first attempt, this is no revelation. Remember, the M2 is essentially a refresh, and continues to be positioned below the M1 Pro, M1 Max, and M1 Ultra.

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On paper, the M2 is quite similar to the M1: a 5-nanometer processor sporting an eight-core CPU split between four performance cores and four efficiency cores. Improvements include two additional GPU cores, support for up to 24GB of memory (up from 16GB of RAM) with 100GB/s of memory bandwidth (a 50% upgrade), and a faster neural engine. Apple claims these enhancements result in 18% faster CPU performance and 35% faster GPU speeds over the M1. That’s supposedly enough oomph to playback 11 4K or two 8K streams simultaneously (because why the hell not?), whereas the M1 could do about five 4K streams before throttling.

MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo
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Our tests confirmed those claims, with the M2 chip propelling the MacBook Pro 13 to a Geekbench 5 score of 8,603, or about 15.2% above the previous model (7,470). While nowhere near the MacBook Pro 14 (12,663) with M1 Max or the beefier AMD chips found in gaming laptops like the Asus Zephyrus G14 (9,830), the MacBook Pro outmuscled peers like the Microsoft Surface Laptop 4 (6,643) and Lenovo Yoga 9i (7,259) with the latest Intel Core i7-1260P.

Rendering a 3D image in the Blender app, the M2 needed 4 minutes and 35 seconds using the CPU and 4:36 using the GPU. That’s a great result overall, coming in at nearly a minute and a half faster than the Yoga 9i (6:00) and outpacing the speedy Surface Laptop 4 (4:48). For reference, the MacBook Pro 14 needed only 3:32 and the Core i9-equipped Zenbook 14X OLED wrapped up in 3:26.

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MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

For some reason, Apple’s M-series processors don’t do well on our video transcoding test, which is when we convert a 4K clip to 1080p using H.264. It took the MacBook 17 minutes and 7 seconds, a slow result by any standard. After some research, I changed the video encoder to H.264 (Video Toolbox) and the MacBook Pro zipped to a time of 4:03. That’s one of the fastest times we’ve ever clocked, behind only the Zephyrus G14 (3:03), a compact gaming laptop. Video ToolBox, by the way, is Apple’s low-level framework that provides direct access to hardware encoders and decoders.

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During everyday use, the MacBook Pro 13 with 16GB of RAM and a 1TB SSD was a speedy companion. Apps opened instantly, the high-res photos I edited for this review rendered in seconds, and my embarrassing poor browser tab management didn’t affect the MacBook Pro 13 as much as it did my mental state. The system never stuttered, and the soft whine of the fans was only audible during my GPU testing. If I’m nitpicking, the MacBook Pro 13 now only supports up to 24GB of RAM (up from 16GB), which is still short of the 32GB found on some PC rivals.

MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo
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I used the MacBook Pro for four days, both during work and while spending a weekend on the couch. The only hiccups I encountered were—go figure—related to gaming. First, Steam wouldn’t launch and it took instructions posted by a helpful Reddit user to get it going again. Once I was in, I tried the Civilization VI benchmark, only to find that it doesn’t play well with Retina displays and sets the maximum resolution to 1440 x 900 pixels (unless you mod it).

I was going to scrap the benchmark altogether, except that even at the lower resolution, the game played at only 22 frames per second. Similarly, the MacBook Pro 13 played Total War: Warhammer II at 1920 x 1200 resolution on Ultra at only 27 fps. And so the age-old advice is repeated: Macs aren’t great for gaming despite strong GPU performance for an integrated solution and Apple’s claims of the M2 Macbook Air being able to run Resident Evil Village natively at 1080p (something I haven’t tested yet).

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Excellent inputs…and oh look, a Touch Bar

We all have keyboard preferences, and mine puts the MacBook Pro 13 toward the top half of its class. My fingers immediately felt at home on the traditional layout and the dedicated inverted-T arrow keys were easy to find without moving my eyes from the screen. Much improved from the dreadful Butterfly switches of old, these keys are fairly comfortable thanks to their clicky feedback and snappy responsiveness. As a snob about these sorts of things, I should point out that the keys are fairly shallow and not as springy and comfortable as those on Microsoft’s Surface Laptop 4. Regardless, on a standardized online typing test, I hit 118 words per minute at a 97% accuracy, both of which match my average.

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MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

As always, this Mac trackpad is excellent. While modern PCs have narrowed the gap, the large, silky smooth surface on the MacBook Pro is one of the best. Apple maximized the palm rest space to cram in the largest possible surface, a massive rectangle that measures 5.2 x 3.25 inches. Palm rejection is graciously reliable and gestures are executed instantly. Force Touch, the haptic, pressure sensor-based technology threatens my preference for tactile inputs; I’ve become a full convert over the years–the simulated clicks (which can be executed from anywhere on this surface) are convincing and require just the right amount of force to activate.

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MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Above the keyboard is a familiar foe: the Touch Bar. Likely breathing its last before being replaced with traditional keys is the slim rectangular OLED display positioned above the number row. Introduced to us in 2016, the Touch Bar is arguably the most daring–and divisive–feature Apple had ever brought to the MacBook.

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Though it has some advantages over standard keys, the Touch Bar hasn’t caught on, and Apple has left it to languish on most products. As much as I like using the slider to change volume or screen brightness, I agree with the majority here: the Touch Bar needs to go—lowering your eyes from the screen to fumble with basic controls is an annoyance we don’t need in our lives.

MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo
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Next to the keyboard is a power button that doubles as a small fingerprint sensor. It swiftly and reliably logged me into the system but isn’t as effortless as the facial recognition technology found on most modern PCs. For whatever reason, not even the redesigned MacBooks with notches have Face ID.

Wrinkles are starting to show

The MacBook Pro 13 has aged like fine wine, but this past year has brought on a slightly sour taste. After the MacBook Air was remodeled with a more modern design, the MacBook Pro 13 became Apple’s only laptop with an older chassis. That means thick display bezels, tapered aerodynamics, no notch, a smaller screen, and two familiar (you guessed it: silver and space gray) color options.

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MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Although it hasn’t been touched since 2017, the MacBook Pro still feels like a premium product. A sturdy, precision-crafted machine made with a seamless unibody recycled aluminum, the MacBook Pro 13 is an attractive, ultra-portable system that weighs just 3 pounds and measures 12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches.

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There are even things I like about the old design, including the tapered shape that makes the MacBook Pro 13 appear slimmer than it really is. Also, the contrasting keys look better, to my eyes, than the all-black keyboard on the newer releases. Then there is the notch on the redesigned model, which looks like a bad haircut even if it isn’t as distracting as some folks say.

MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo
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On the other hand, the MacBook Pro 13 has fewer ports–two Thunderbolt 4 and a headphone jack–than its larger siblings, and while it has a clean, straight-edge fade, the thick-rimmed bezels surrounding its screen are out of style.

Blah on paper, good in person

To me, appearance is less of a concern than screen size. When Apple trimmed the bezels from its other models, it expanded the screens without compromising portability. Sadly, this MacBook Pro keeps its 13.3-inch display, which is now the smallest on any Apple notebook. Size aside, the 2560 x 1600-pixel Retina display is a good one–even if it can’t match the standards of today.

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MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Everything from the college baseball World Series and the sci-fi flick Spiderhead to Google Docs and this webpage looked crisp and vibrant on this laptop. Colors popped and the screen was bright enough to use on a cafe patio on a sunny day in Texas. When I got back home, my colorimeter clocked an outstanding peak brightness of 515 nits. While that’s up there with some of the top performers, it doesn’t hold a candle to the 1,600 nits the MacBook Pro 14 and Pro 16 are capable of reaching when playing certain HDR content. Keep in mind that those larger models will run at a max of 500 nits when playing standard content.

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Owners of the MacBook Pro 13 will be satisfied until they gaze at the mini-LED panels on the larger models or the OLED screens becoming popular on premium PCs (like the Yoga 9i). Compared to those, this IPS screen doesn’t have the same contrast, black levels, or color range. And with the MacBook Pro being stuck at 60Hz, you also miss out on ProMotion, Apple’s variable refresh rate system that goes up to 120Hz on the larger Pro model. This is a good display underpinned by aging technologies that make me question Apple’s use of the term “Pro.”

Not-so-‘Pro’ specs

The same idea applies to the speakers. While the twin stereo speakers on the MacBook Pro sound fine, they aren’t as impressive as the quad or six-speaker systems in the other models (even the MacBook Air now has four speakers!). Fortunately, Apple’s sound engineers did some heavy lifting, tuning these dual drivers to be fairly balanced. When I listened to The Head And The Heart’s “Paradigm,” the midrange was crisp and the song was loud enough to fill my home office without distorting.

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MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

However, Jessie Reyez’s “IMPORTED” revealed serious limitations, including a weak low end, thin midrange, and at times piercing treble. Fortunately, I could plug in my Sennheiser HD650 and enjoy wonderful sound quality thanks to the MacBook Pro’s high-impedance 3.5mm headphone jack, which is as close as you can get to a dedicated DAC/AMP.

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MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

Another area where the MacBook Air has an advantage over this Pro is video quality. The MacBook Pro 13 retains its 720p HD camera, whereas the new MacBook Air matches the more expensive Pro models with a 1080p webcam. I haven’t tested the Air yet, but we can assume Zoom and FaceTime calls are more detailed and less noisy than those on this 13-inch Pro model. Even with a studio light illuminating my office, the above selfie I snapped has a shroud of visual noise. It’s fine for casual use but that’s about it.

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Marathon winner

Price aside, the best reason to buy the MacBook Pro 13 over the more expensive models is for its record-breaking battery life. The thing just doesn’t die. In fact, the battery dripped so slowly that I had to stop our test to complete this review in time for the embargo. I’m going to rerun the test and update this article with more definitive results soon.

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MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

In the meantime, the laptop dropped to 25% after 11 hours and 50 minutes. Quick math puts the battery life at around 15 hours and 47 minutes, or nearly twice that of the MacBook Pro 14 (8:39) and another hour and 45 minutes ahead of the MacBook Air (14:02). Simply put: the battery life is astonishing, with only the IdeaPad Slim 7 (17:27) topping that result.

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Unlike the other MacBooks, the Pro 13 charges via a standard USB-C cable instead of MagSafe. For me, this is both good and bad. While MagSafe frees up another USB-C port, it’s nice to be able to charge all of my gadgets using the included USB-C adapter instead of being stuck with a proprietary connection. I do wish the cable weren’t so short and the plug end so chunky.

Should you buy the MacBook Pro 13?

Viewed in a vacuum, the MacBook Pro 13 is a great laptop with outstanding performance and unbeatable battery life, characteristics that put it ahead of some of its PC rivals. Zoom out and it’s hard to see where this model fits within Apple’s portfolio. The most direct rival to this entry-level Pro isn’t the more premium versions, but rather, the MacBook Air. Not only does the Air have a lower starting price, but it has a larger display, a better webcam, quad speakers, more interesting color options, a slimmer chassis, and the benefit of a traditional shortcut row.

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MacBook Pro 13 with M2
MacBook Pro 13 with M2
Photo: Phillip Tracy/Gizmodo

You have to squint to see the advantages of the MacBook Pro 13, which include slightly longer battery life, studio-quality mics, and a notch-free design. And so we get to the heart of this review: why should anyone buy the MacBook Pro 13? It’s all about the fans. I don’t mean the diehards–I’m talking about those spinning things in the base of the MacBook that keep it cool under a heavy workload. Need to run intensive tasks for hours on end, with a budget that doesn’t exceed $2,000? Then the MacBook Pro 13 is your best option if only by process of elimination.

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What’s clear is that this entry-level Pro model doesn’t feel so “Pro” anymore. To put it bluntly, Apple should either plan a major update for next year or let the new MacBook Air take its place.