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16-inch MacBook Pro (2021): M1X and mini-LED?

It’s a brand new year — kind of! — and that means a brand new set of Apple products coming our way. The one I’m most looking forward to this year is the updated 16-inch MacBook Pro. M1X system-on-a-chip, Mini LED display, USB4 ports on both sides, maybe even a new design with Face ID.

I live in Final Cut Pro. (Yeah, Apple dropped the X a couple of months ago, so it’s just Final Cut Pro now.) Even though I’m not traveling between coasts these days, I am traveling between my studio and my living room. So, even now, having a powerful editing machine with a big display, a mobile Mac workstation just makes the kind of sense that does.

And here’s why I’m more excited than ever about the 16-inch MacBook Pro getting its M-series on.

16-inch MacBook Pro (2021) design rumors

There are two possibilities when it comes to the 16-inch MacBook Pro design. And I’m curious to hear which of them you’d prefer?

The first is… nothing. Yeah, just nothing and more nothing. That’s what Apple did last year with the first round of Apple Silicon, with the M1, the MacBook Air, MacBook Pro, Mac mini.

All of them, brand shiny new silicon hearts… same old bead-blasted aluminum bodies.

That lets Apple keep things simple, have a known thermal target to design for, and also keep a redesign in their back pocket for the next round of updates.

The second is… everything. That long-rumored MacBook redesign we’ve been hearing about for a couple of years now. And which everyone assumes will translate into even smaller bezels and an even sleeker chassis.

Since Apple already Thanos-snapped the bezels in the 16-inch model when it debuted just over a year ago. It’s possible they’ll stick with it for just a little longer.

Especially because it’s hard to see what a substantive redesign for the MacBook would even look like right now. Apple’s mostly been in refine mode for over a decade. Just iterating on the same basic design. Going unibody. Going thinner and lighter. Always. Getting that squared off industrial design, everyone wants to see come to the iMac. Keeping everything just ultra simple.

Except for the Touch Bar, which I’ll get to soon. Along with multitouch.

So, while I really do want to see an updated design for all the MacBooks, including and especially the 16-inch, I’ll only expect it when I see it.

16-inch MacBook Pro (2021) display rumors

The 16-inch MacBook Pro already has a pretty damn good display. Retina density. P3 wide color gamut. TrueTone dynamic color temperature matching. And a refresh rate you can toggle between 48 and 60 hz, so your movie-like or TV-like video and editing will look properly movie-like or TV-like.

But the big rumor for the next generation is mini-LED.

Yeah, mini-LED, not OLED. Because OLED not only still has issues like smearing, off-axis color shifting, pulse-width modulation, burn-in, and consistent brightness, it still has issues with yield and scale, even for phone-sized panels, never mind bigger-than phone-sized panels.

What mini-LED does is use thousands of tiny, 200 micron LEDs, grouped in local dimming zones. That lets them get blacks almost, if not quite, as deep as OLED, and contrast ratios that should be close to, if not full-on OLED-level HDR — high dynamic range. Not just for all the Hollywood content we’re getting now, but even for iPhones that can now shoot in Dolby Vision.

What hasn’t been rumored but what I’d love to see as well is moving those 48Hz and 60Hz static refresh rate to full-on adaptive ProMotion, which is the iPad Pro technology that dynamically ramps all the way down to 24Hz to save on power and up to 120Hz for smooth scrolling and high-frame-rate gaming.

But let’s just get that on the iPhone, and then we can worry about the Mac.

The only other thing is a nano-texture option. That debuted in 2019 with the Pro Display XDR but is now also available on the 27-inch iMac. It reduces glare without losing as much contrast as old-school matte coatings.

But while it’s great on a desktop where you might not be able to position your display to avoid glare, you need to be really, really careful to preserve the texture, and that sounds just all-shades of problematic on a laptop. But let me know what you think in the comments.

16-inch MacBook Pro (2021) radio rumors

I’ll get to the M1X in a hot minute, but I’ve also been thinking a lot about the radios. The current 16-inch MacBook Pro doesn’t have Wi-Fi 6. No Intel Mac does. It’s almost as if Apple was waiting on their own silicon to bring WI-Fi 6 to the Mac. Because that’s exactly what they did with the M1 Macs.

So, at the very least, the 16-inch MacBook Pro will be getting Wi-Fi 6 with the M1X. At the very least, because — for a variety of performance reasons — I’m personally waiting on the next-generation Wi-Fi 6E. That’s the one that’ll not just work better but work over 6GHz. And, since Apple has always been aggressive about adopting new Wi-Fi technologies, I’m holding to hope that’ll apply here as well.

As to 5G cellular networking on the Mac, well, that’s something Apple didn’t deliver with the M1 or on the MacBook Air or lowest-end MacBook Pro.

I’d love to see it as an option, even if Qualcomm would make it an expensive, expensive option. But it’s another one of those things I’ll only expect when I see it.

I’ve got higher hopes for a U1, or ultra-wideband, spatial positioning chip. Apple’s been moving those across the higher-end iOS lineup for over a year now, and it’d be great for the Mac to get into that object aware action.

16-inch MacBook Pro (2021) Multitouch rumors

I know some people still really want multitouch on the Mac. Apple says they’re not doing it, which means either they’re really not doing it, or they’re working on it but won’t breathe a word about it until it’s ready to launch. I have a whole video up where I argue over every pro and con with Daring Fireball’s John Gruber, so check that out for more.

Until then, we seem stuck with the Touch Bar, and I say stuck because Apple introduced it in 2016 but haven’t iterated on it at all since then. Like, at all. Not even with Taptics.

And that’s a shame because it surfaces a ton of shortcuts and could, potentially, make us much more productive.

16-inch MacBook Pro (2021) M1X rumors

We’ve seen M1 now. We’ve seen what’s’ basically an A14X with some Mac-specific IP for virtualization and translation acceleration and onboard Thunderbolt controllers — we’ve seen what that can do on the entry-level MacBook Air and MacBook Pro. And that’ll pretty much blow the doors off almost every other processor and embedded graphics system in the business.

I’ve done a deep dive on why that is and how M1 works, so check that out for more.

So, what does Apple do to up that M-series ante even further for the 16-inch MacBook Pro? My guess is the same thing they’ve been doing for the iPad Pro — throw in more cores.

Right now, in M1, we have 4 efficiency cores, 4 performance cores, 8 graphics cores, and 16 neural engine cores.

Early rumors and speculation suggested Apple would go to 8 performance cores for the M1X. More recent rumors, as many as 12 or even 16 cores. Up to 16 graphics cores as well.

Now, adding cores doesn’t do anything to increase single-core speeds. That’s what affects things like interface responsiveness and app launching. But Apple already has some of the fastest single-core performance in the industry, so the bigger thermal envelop of, the bigger 16-inch unibody, and active cooling system might encourage Apple to clock the cores a little faster and let them run full-out for a lot longer, but at this point that’s just frosting.

Whether or not Apple does anything with discrete graphics instead of sticking with the system-on-a-chip and unified memory… Johny Srouji said we’d be getting a family of SoC with the what’s now known as the M-series, so an SoC is what I’m expecting.

And honestly, as long as performance is there, embedded and discrete are just implementation details. When it comes to Apple meeting or beating Nvidia and AMD, I don’t particularly care how they do it. I just want them to do it.

For memory, M1 only has 8 and 16 GB options, but we’ve come to expect 32 and even 64 GB. Like with the graphics, I don’t particularly care if it’s on-board or off-board; I just want the option.

My biggest question is whether or not we could see something like the Afterburner Apple introduced with the new Mac Pro. A reprogrammable ASIC that just accelerates things like ProRes.

Right now, Apple has H.264 and H.265 encode and decode blocks on M1, but as far as I know, ProRes still hits the CPU. Bigger MacBook, maybe a bigger potential to shift that to something like Afterburner

That’s also why I don’t think Apple will use any savings from M-series chips over Intel to drop the price on the MacBook Pro. I think, instead, Apple will spend that budget on paying down M-series as fast as possible and on adding even newer technology. Like mini-LED and maybe even like Face ID.

16-inch MacBook Pro (2021) Face ID rumors

The current 16-inch MacBook Pro has a T2 chip, a variant of the A10 SoC, to basically work around everything Intel’s core series wasn’t good at. That includes real-time encryption, signal processing, acceleration, and more. Like, Touch ID.

The M-series does all of that already, onboard Secure Enclave and everything, so no more T2 chip needed. But, it also has a full-on ANE — Apple Neural Engine. Which just happens to be what Face ID depends on as well.

And, as much as I like Touch ID, the idea of just lifting the lid on a MacBook Pro and having Face ID see me, match me, and unlock for me is, well, like full-on Force powers.

It would require a TrueDepth camera array, which would probably mean finally getting a decent camera on a MacBook but would also require a redesign to fit that camera into the lid… which is currently so thin it probably can’t fit a decent camera.

Personally, I’d take a notch, a camera bump, anything at this point. I want it. But let me know what you think in the comments.

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