Is MacBook Pro Good for Programming?

Although the question of “is the Macbook Pro good for programming?” seems straightforward, its subjective nature renders a simple “yes” or “no” impossible. Is the device good? Yes, of course. The MacBook Pro is an impressive display of engineering.

But in asking the question, “Is the MacBook Pro a good choice for programming?” what you’re probably asking is really, “Is the MacBook Pro able to function as my primary laptop for programming?” And, “Is the MacBook Pro the best option?”

The answer to the former question is a resounding yes – the MacBook Pro is great for programming, as you’ll see below.

And while the latter query is more nuanced and subject in large part to opinion, we’ll do our best to give you the facts and let you decide for yourself.

I’m Andrew, and as a former Mac administrator, I know the ins and outs of Apple’s Mac hardware and operating system. I’ll direct my analysis through three primary channels: hardware, operating system, and cost.

Shall we get started?

Hardware

We’ll start with the easy part first.

Apple’s forte is designing sleek, top-of-the-line hardware, and the company’s best-performing portable device is the MacBook Pro. Let’s look at a few different hardware considerations.

Performance

MacBook Pros have always been some of the best-performing laptops on the market. Apple insists on using bleeding-edge technology, often favoring performance over the convenience of legacy support.

Not only was Apple the first company to use Thunderbolt technology, but it was also the first to abandon optical drives and USB A ports.

Apple has continued the trend with the decision to shift from Intel processors to their own ARM-based chips they call Apple Silicon (M1). I was skeptical of the move, but that’s not to say I didn’t think it was the wise decision for Apple.

I knew that ARM-based architecture would achieve three of Apple’s primary goals: more efficient CPUs (see below), more internal control over hardware with less reliance on third parties, and a tighter architecture integration with Apple’s iOS and iPadOS devices.

But I anticipated a performance drop in favor of lower power consumption.

As often happens, Apple proved me wrong.

About Apple’s M1 Processor

The M1 processor, Apple’s first generation of in-house CPUs, has only increased performance while simultaneously reducing energy usage. Perhaps we should come to expect this type of innovation from Apple, but they seem to have done the impossible.

As of this writing, the M1 Max is the best processor available for MacBook Pros. Since its introduction, Intel has edged out the M1 Max in terms of performance, but at the cost of twice the power consumption.

Nevertheless, unless Apple changes its course, you can always count on the MacBook Pro ranking near the top of the list of fastest portable computers on the market. Therefore if performance is your sole concern, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend a MacBook Pro.

Battery Life

Of their 2021 MacBook Pros, Apple claims programmers can “compile up to four times as much code in Xcode” on a single charge. If that statement seems ambiguous to you, it does to me too.

But no matter how you slice it, MacBook Pros with M1 chips do have the best battery life of any laptop computer on the market.

Apple also claims the battery will endure 21 hours of video playback, but this data comes from the M1 Pro rather than the M1 Max. Tech website Tom’s Guide conducted its own test, which yielded 15 hours and 31 minutes of battery life on the 16-inch M1 Max MacBook Pro.

The next closest laptop on Tom’s list is the Asus Zenbook 13 OLED at nearly 15 hours. That sounds good until you realize that the Zenbook sports a Ryzen 7 5700u, a processor that the M1 Max crushes in performance tests.

Say what you will about Apple, but with the M1 chips up their sleeve, nothing on the market beats the performance per wattage of Apple Silicon.

If you’re a programmer chained to your desk all day, then battery life may not be important to you. But for those who require or desire mobility, the new MacBook Pros will survive your entire working day.

Display

If you’re staring at a screen all day, it should look pretty, right?

I remember the first time I held the 2012 MacBook Pro with Apple’s recently branded “Retina” display. It was a thing of beauty, with the most crisp visuals I had ever seen at the time from a laptop.

Apple has kept up its legacy of gorgeous displays with its most recent MacBook Pro models.

The company’s latest offering is the Liquid Retina XDR Display. As cool as the name sounds, it’s pure marketing speak. XDR stands for Extreme Dynamic Range (XDR sounds much better than EDR) and is meant to convey that the display surpasses the HDR standard in terms of brightness and contrast.

Quite honestly, it’s difficult to cut through all of the marketing hype to get to the actual specs, but the MacBook Pro displays continue to pass the eye test. In fact, Alex Wawro, senior editor of Tom’s Guide, called the Liquid Retina “one of the most beautiful screens I’ve ever seen in a laptop.”

Call him a fanboy if you will, but it might behoove you to have a look at the screen yourself.

Both the 14-inch and 16-inch 2021 MacBook Pros sport 254 pixels per inch at 3024 x 1964 and 3456 by 2234 resolutions, respectively. (For reference, 4K resolution is 3840 x 2160.)

If you have to have 4K resolution, pass on the latest MacBook Pros. Otherwise, you can’t go wrong with the impressive levels of brightness, contrast, and the number of colors in the MacBook Pro display.

Design

While design legend Jony Ive might be gone, Apple’s legacy of sleek design continues.

Because of Apple’s status in the PC industry, design decisions will always face increased scrutiny. Yes, Apple has had its fair share of blunders (here’s looking at you, Butterfly Keyboard). But overall, MacBook Pro design decisions are well-conceived.

One advantage Apple has over its competitors is complete control of both hardware and operating system, so it can integrate hardware elements with OS functionality, including function keys and charging, to name two.

An item of particular note is Apple’s trackpad. While I’m comfortable on just about any touchpad, no PC I’ve used has ever been able to match the smoothness and responsiveness of Apple’s trackpad.

Limitations

One limitation is the MacBook Pro’s lack of a native USB A port. If you need to test devices via regular old USB, you’re out of luck without purchasing an adapter.

Another drawback is the complete lack of upgradability. Gone are the years when you could upgrade the RAM or swap out the hard drive for more storage. What you get is what you get.

If upgradability is a must, don’t get a MacBook Pro. Beware, though many PC manufacturers are also moving in this direction.

Operating System

The biggest question looming over Macintosh computers for programmers is support for various programming languages and integrated developer environments (IDEs).

Before 2015, we might have steered developers away from macOS.

What happened in 2015? Microsoft released Visual Studio Code, its code and text editor for Mac OS X (as the operating system was still called back then). A year later, Microsoft released its full-blown IDE, Visual Studio, for macOS.

Visual Studio enables native C# and .NET development on the MacBook Pro, one of the last barriers for programmers looking to switch from Windows to macOS.

While you can program in C# and .NET framework, you would obviously need an actual Windows instance to test the compiled code. But consider this: it is possible to run Windows on macOS.

The reverse is not true. Barring some hacking wizardry, installing macOS on non-Apple hardware is impossible. So if you ever have the inclination to program for iOS or macOS, you’d be out of luck with a non-Apple laptop.

You can write code for almost every popular programming language, including Java, Python, R, PHP, C, and of course, Apple’s own Swift.

With all of this in mind, be aware that Windows is still the most popular operating system among programmers.

A 2021 Stack Social survey shows that 30% of professional programmers use macOS while 41% use Windows. So if you want to go with the plurality of developers, choose a device running Windows rather than a MacBook Pro.

Cost

Perhaps the most significant deterrent to buying a MacBook Pro is its hefty price tag. All that innovation, performance, and sleek design come at a premium. And then some. Apple’s strategy is to cater to people willing to pay a steep price to get good quality.

You can get similar performance from a Windows laptop for a lower price, but you will sacrifice battery life, performance, and a top-notch display.

But if you’re on a budget, these are probably sacrifices you can live with.

FAQs

You might have other questions about programming on the MacBook Pro, so let’s answer some common ones here. 

What about Intel MacBook Pros?

While Apple Silicon is the future for all Mac users, Intel MacBook Pros are still useful, productive computers. Be aware that you won’t reap the efficiency benefits of the M1 chip, so your battery life will be less.

Is the MacBook Air good for programming?

We have another write-up on the usefulness of the MacBook Air for programming. Without stealing her thunder, this question centers more on performance. Can the Air’s lesser hardware hold up to the job?

Unless you’re working on intensive projects in the realm of AI or Machine Learning or need high graphics horsepower, the MacBook Air should suit your needs.

Is the MacBook Pro 13 good for programming?

Most of the above apply to the 13-inch MacBook Pro with M1. One obvious limitation is the smaller screen size. Many users find a 13-inch screen to be too small to be productive (but you can connect up to four external displays).

Conclusion

Is the MacBook Pro a good machine for programming? Yes. Is it necessary? No, unless you plan on writing software for one of Apple’s platforms.

The MacBook Pro is an excellent piece of hardware, but for most, it’s a luxury. Few coders will ever need the full performance that the laptop can deliver.

But that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong choice. If you can stomach the high price tag of the MacBook Pro, Apple’s high-end laptop really is an excellent choice for professional programmers. 

Plus, you can use the MacBook Pro for more than just programming.

Have you written code on a MacBook Pro? Do you recommend it? Let us know in the comments below. 

About Andrew Gilmore
Based in Norman, Oklahoma, Andrew is an ex-certified Apple technician with over fifteen years of experience in the IT world specializing in macOS and iOS. When he's not writing, he enjoys video games, reading, and really bad movies.

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