Why the New MacBook Pro Won’t Be a Great Gaming Laptop

Apple's new MacBook Pros

Image: Apple

Apple just took the wraps off its redesigned MacBook Pros featuring new custom M1 Pro and M1 Max chips. And while I can’t help but be impressed by Apple’s lofty performance claims, folks are now wondering if this means the new MacBook Pros are suddenly good gaming laptops now. We haven’t used the new Pros so it’s too soon to tell, but I would venture to say the answer is no, not really.

The new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips have 10-core CPUs, with the Pro sporting a 16-core GPU and the Max a 32-core GPU integrated into the same SoC (system on a chip), allowing for increased performance and better energy efficiency. And on top of the increased core counts, Apple’s new chips also have the benefit of being able to share up to 32GB on the Pro or 64GB on the M1 Max of unified memory between its CPU and GPU—something that allows for speedy memory bandwidths of up to 200 GB/s (Pro) or 400 GB/s (Max).

And thanks to these changes in architecture, Apple says the performance of its new MacBook Pros doesn’t take a hit when running solely on battery, so you’ll get the same blazing performance regardless of where you are. That’s really nice, especially coming from a lot of Windows laptops that automatically drop down to a more conservative performance profile when operating unplugged.

When compared to the latest 8-core PC laptop chip, Apple says the M1 Pro provides 1.7 times the CPU performance at the same power level while using 70% less power, and the M1 Pro’s GPU is up to 7 times faster than the same 8-core PC laptop’s integrated graphics, and delivers more performance using 70% less power compared to a discrete GPU for PC notebooks.

Apple M1 Pro and M1 Max performance claims.

Apple’s new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips are certainly impressive, but it’s important to read the fine print to get a better sense of context.
Image: Apple

Now all those performance claims sound impressive until you dive a little deeper into the fine print. The footnote at the bottom of Apple’s press release specifies that 1.7 times better CPU performance claim is measuring an M1 Pro against an MSI GP66 Leopard, which features a 10th-gen Intel chip that’s a generation old, and is about to be two generations old when Intel introduces new Alder Lake laptops chips later this year.

When it comes to graphics, the “powerful discrete GPU for PC notebooks” Apple lists as a comparison model in its footnotes is an Nvidia 3050 Ti from a Lenovo Legion 5 (82JW0012US). Now I’m not trying to throw shade at the 3050 Ti, but it’s not exactly what comes to mind when I think about powerful discrete notebook GPUs. If you’re into gaming, you’re generally going for at least an RTX 3060 (or equivalent AMD GPU) or higher.

But more importantly, the MacBook Pro Apple is using as its benchmark system is a pre-production 16-inch MacBook Pro with a M1 Pro chip with a 16-core GPU and 32GB of RAM, which costs a whopping $3,100 compared to just $1,050 for the Lenovo Legion 5. So while those performance numbers are still impressive, we’re not exactly comparing apples to apples, so to speak.

Apple M1 Pro workloads

There’s no doubt Apple’s new chips and MacBooks are powerful, but gaming machines they are not.
Photo: Apple

I don’t want to downplay the performance of Apple’s new M1 Pro and M1 Max chips too much, because it really is quite impressive what Apple is doing with its custom ARM-based silicon, especially when it comes to energy efficiency in portable workstation-level machines. But like so many Apple devices, with a starting price of $1,999 for the least expensive new MacBook Pro, these things definitely aren’t cheap.

There’s another, perhaps more significant issue: Today’s resource-hungry AAA games simply don’t run on Macs. Just take a look around at new or upcoming PC games like Far Cry 6, Deathloop, New World, and others—none of them are compatible with macOS. So unless you want to play one of the few games that runs on M1 Macs, like World of Warcraft, you’re basically out of luck when it comes to playing hot new games. Bootcamp doesn’t work on M1 Macs either, so don’t even think about trying to install Windows on a new M1 MacBook Pro.

Apple M1 Max power efficiency claims.

While Apple’s M1 Max has a clear advantage in power efficiency, performance is actually pretty close. And once again, Apple’s benchmark machine costs slightly more than the comparison PC laptop.
Image: Apple

Apple isn’t calling the new MacBook Pros gaming laptops, but the company did use a number of assets from games during its presentation, in addition to trotting out various developers who praised the performance of Apple’s new silicon and laptops. And to Apple’s credit, some of the other comparison benchmarks were made using a Razer Blade Advanced 15. Though once again, the chart above is really showing Apple’s advantage in power efficiency (which is very important), with actual performance being quite close.

The new M1 Pro and M1 Max MacBook Pros are machines that may be great for building and developing games, but might not actually be great at playing them due to OS limitations.

But for people who have been dreaming about playing AAA games on MacBooks, there is some light at the end of the tunnel. With Apple’s new and more powerful silicon, developers may be more willing to create games designed for Macs and macOS. It will certainly be an uphill battle to break the hold Windows has on PC gaming, but Apple’s powerful new processors are a critical step toward making MacBooks more competitive gaming laptops.