If you've been paying even a sliver of attention to the technology world this week, you probably know that Apple just launched its colorful new iMac, powered by the M1 chip. However, one of Apple's best Macs has been waiting for an update for nearly two years now – the 16-inch MacBook Pro.
Since it got the major redesign in 2019, the only update this laptop has seen was a minor GPU bump in 2020, but using the same Intel processor. And now that Apple has its own processors, it's unlikely that we're going to get a quick 11th-generation Intel CPU upgrade – Apple's going to want to shove its own silicon in there.
But with the Apple M1 launching relatively recently in November 2020, when can we reasonably expect a more powerful follow-up that can sustain the beefier workloads that the 16-inch MacBook Pro supports? Well, we think it might be WWDC 2021 in June 2021.
Isn't that a bit soon?
We get it. Apple launched its most recent processor back in November 2020, powering the 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air (and it's in the iPad Pro and iMac now too), and it seems like it'd be too soon to launch a whole new processor. But when we're talking about mobile CPUs, we can look to AMD and Intel as an example of how generational launches usually go.
When a new CPU architecture is launched, like, let's say Tiger Lake, it's rare that Intel will drop the U-series chips for Ultrabooks and the H-series chips for gaming laptops and workstations at the same time. Instead, Team Blue will launch its low-power processors first, and then follow with its H-series chips a few months later. We think that's likely what Apple will do.
While Apple did shove the M1 into the iMac for some reason, we doubt it's going to put the same processor into the MacBook Pro 16-inch, which means that a higher-binned processor is going to be necessary.
And that wouldn't really be out of the blue for the way Apple does things anyway. For a while, Apple has been making its own processors for the iPhone and iPad, and they typically follow this same kind of pattern. In the past, Apple has launched a new SoC (System on a Chip) for an iPhone, then followed that up a while later with a more powerful version of that chip for an iPad or something similar.
For instance, Apple launched the A9 for the iPhone 6S and followed that up a couple of months later with the Apple A9X for the first-generation iPad Pro. And while that time scale is a little off for this case – it's been more than just two months since the M1 debuted – we still think Apple is going to follow this model.
Why not an M1-based MacBook Pro 16-inch?
The main reason we don't think we're going to see the 16-inch MacBook Pro adopt the M1 as it exists right now is that it's just not powerful enough to bring over the professional video editors, musicians and artists that depend on that laptop to make their living.
Don't get us wrong, the M1 is an amazing little piece of silicon, and in our testing is consistently one of the best processors for ultraportable devices. But once you start bringing high-performance H-series processors into the equation, that performance train will lose steam fast.
For people that need to do a lot of work in Blender or edit videos in 4K, they're going to need much stronger multi-core CPU performance, and that's where a higher-power version of the M1 would come into play, and the rumors are that it's already on the way.
Known Apple leaker @Jioriku suggests that the 16-inch MacBook Pro is going to be using an M1X, but won't be the most powerful version of it – with it likely showing up in an iMac – much like the M1. But because this is all in the world of conjecture and gossip, we don't really know for sure whether or not it's actually going to happen or what it will look like.
I talked about it in a comment thread, but the preliminary data from the new M series chip (M1X) in the 16” MacBook Pro looks really solid. This chip does have the potential to be in other products such as the new iMac as well which is promising for a few reasons1/March 19, 2021
The closest thing we've heard about the supposed M1X comes from way back in November 2020, when Twitter user @LeaksApplePro suggested that it would be a 12-core chip, with 8 high performance cores and 4 efficiency cores. That would be double the high performance cores that the M1 offers, and combined with the higher power budget, will probably result in a huge boost in performance.
But, again, as mentioned in that @Jioriku thread, the name of the game is thermals, and with how thin and light Apple insists on making its MacBook Pro these days, we likely won't see the full potential of the chip until much later.
Apple M1X:-12 Cores.- 8 performance cores.- 4 high efficiency cores.- Coming first on a MacBook Pro 16” unveiling as a press release.- According to a source who used a prototype, “if you think M1 is fast, you haven’t seen M1X”.-Name isn’t final though. pic.twitter.com/tpBhXpDCadNovember 22, 2020
If those specs are accurate – and considering their age they probably aren't – the improvements to the MacBook Pro 16-inch over the latest 13-inch model are going to be massive for its performance profile. It will probably mean that battery life probably won't be as good as the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but we think that's probably fine anyways, and what you would expect from a larger laptop.
What is essentially a 12-core processor could also be much more powerful than what Intel, and even AMD, brings to the high-performance mobile market right now, though, and could make for a really compelling laptop. Like, you know, if it exists.
Shut up and get to the point. MacBook Pro when?
Apple is weird. You never know how Apple is going to reveal a MacBook Pro. We've seen them shown off at WWDC and we've seen them just kind of thrown out in the wild with a short press release and a store page. But going back to that leak from November, if the M1X is that beefy and the 16-inch MacBook Pro is the computer that's going to be debuted alongside it, why wouldn't Apple go big with it?
And, well, WWDC 2021 is coming up pretty soon on June 7. And because the main audience for that conference is, well, developers, it would make sense to debut the more powerful version of the silicon that debuted at WWDC 2020.
Especially given how powerful and popular the M1 has been – the MacBook Air all of a sudden catapulted to being our favorite laptop – it would make sense for Apple to do some kind of victory lap around the M1's success.
Then again, Apple could spend literally the whole time talking about iOS 15 and macOS 12 Bigger Sur, and not announce any hardware at all, and then just sneak the MacBook Pro 16-inch out two weeks later. Either way, the MacBook Pro 16-inch and the Apple M1X are probably coming soon. After all, we seriously doubt Apple is going to launch its flagship laptop in 2021 without its own special little processor powering it.
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Jackie Thomas is the Hardware and Buying Guides Editor at IGN. Previously, she was TechRadar's US computing editor. She is fat, queer and extremely online. Computers are the devil, but she just happens to be a satanist. If you need to know anything about computing components, PC gaming or the best laptop on the market, don't be afraid to drop her a line on Twitter or through email.