M1 MacBook Pro vs M1 iPad Pro: Which is quickest in the real world?

Apple's new M1 chips make MacBook Pros and iPad Pros faster than ever. But is there a big difference between the two? Erik Eckel aimed to find out.

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Apple's M1-powered iPad Pro is a serious tablet more than capable of replacing a MacBook Pro, no performance laggard itself.

Image: Apple

Advertising doesn't always match true street performance. To achieve a published acceleration rate for a specific car, for example, you might require just a quarter tank of gas, no passengers, the A/C off and the car to be pointed downhill to even get close. Is the same true with computers? Do new M1-powered Macs and iPad Pros really perform quickly, and how do they compare? I've gone on record stating the M1 iPad Pros can replace a Mac. Does that hold up?

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The short answer is yes, the M1-powered systems are truly fast. Jack Wallen observed this fact in May when he wrote the TechRepublic article Apple M1 MacBook Pro is the speed king of his work day.

The Apple M1 chip in the 13-inch MacBook Pro provides up to 2.8-times faster CPU performance and up to five times faster graphics performance than previous Intel models. The M1 also boasts Apple's most advanced Neural Engine.

How does that break down in real English?

Because Apple's M1 Silicon chip combines high-bandwidth and low-latency memory into a single pool, all the chip's components can access the same data without having to first copy that data between multiple memory locations, thereby boosting efficiencies and, ultimately, performance.

In case you're into the numbers, with 16 billion transistors the M1 system-on-a-chip packs extra punch by integrating the CPU, GPU, Neural Engine, input and output functions and even security operations on a single chip. Previously Macs (like PCs) typically leveraged an architecture in which multiple chips were used to perform the individual CPU, input and output, security functions and other tasks. The M1 is actually a single SoC packing eight CPU cores. Four of those CPU cores are for performance, boosting Xcode compile rates and mastering audio, for example, and four are dedicated to efficiency, such as coordinating and executing multithreaded tasks.

The M1 also packs 8 GPU cores, which accelerate playing high-resolution videos and rendering 3D graphics. With the eight cores capable of running nearly 25,000 threads simultaneously and supporting up to 2.6 teraflops of throughput, according to Apple, the GPU manages highly demanding graphics calculations quickly, which translates to smoother 4K and 8K video playback and 3D graphics and image rendering. 

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Finally, the M1 boasts 16 Neural Engine cores. The Neural Engine can manage 11 trillion operations per second. Why is that important? The result is up to 15 times faster performance for your MacBook Pro or iPad Pro when performing such machine learning tasks as automation, video analysis, voice recognition, image processing and similar functions.

Previous iPad Pro performance was already impressive, which makes the new M1 version's envelope that much more remarkable. In the iPad Pro, Apple's M1 chip produces better CPU and graphics performance translating to faster augmented reality development, higher video frame rates, improved graphics speed and image editing and overall quicker operation.

As for Xcode rendering using Final Cut Pro, Affinity Photo and Logic Pro, Apple said its tests show the M1-equipped 13-inch MacBook Pro is 2.8-times faster completing builds versus the previous 13-inch MacBook Pro. That's from where the 2.8-times faster metric mentioned earlier derives.

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M1-equipped MacBook Pros are true workhorses and possibly, pound-for-pound, the best-performing laptops on the market.

Image: Apple

As for the 5.9-times faster GPU performance claim? Apple said that increase was observed using Final Cut Pro, Unity Editor, Shapr 3D and Shadow of the Tomb Raider rendering 3D titles, at least when compared to previous 13-inch Intel-powered MacBook Pros. Apple said the iPad Pro's M1 chip delivers 50% faster CPU performance and 40% faster graphics performance, compared with previous models powered by the A12Z Bionic chip, including when using three-dimensional augmented reality and presentations applications.

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Apple's M1 is a complete system on a chip (SoC).

Image: Apple

So, how do all those capabilities and improvements translate to the real world? How quickly does it take to be able to actually perform work from a dead stop, in which the device is powered down? Do these devices access and open Microsoft Planner quickly? Does Safari open quickly? Which downloads a 125MB file from a popular Internet site the fastest?

I set to find out. While these tests weren't scientific, they were performed on new devices just a few months old and running current macOS and iPadOS versions on the same network at the same time.

From a powered down state to fully logged in and the device being ready to perform work, the M1-powered 11-inch iPad Pro clocked in at just 16 seconds versus 53 for my M1-powered 13-inch MacBook Pro. Just opening a browser took about two seconds, initially, on the iPad Pro and MacBook Pro. Subsequent secondary browser sessions required only 1.1 seconds to open on the iPad Pro, versus 1.3 on the MacBook Pro, a negligible difference.

Fully accessing a website not previously cached required 5.6 seconds on the iPad Pro and eight seconds on the MacBook Pro, whereas downloading a 125MB file from a popular U.S.-based photography site took 9.13 seconds on the iPad Pro and 10 seconds flat on the MacBook Pro. Those numbers were consistent with simple download tests run on both devices in which the iPad Pro measured in at 210.8Mbps downstream, 10.62Mbps upstream and just 17ms for pings, close to identical to the MacBook Pro's 211.39Mbps down, 10.76Mbps up and 20ms.

Opening commonly used Microsoft tools, such as Outlook and Planner, required only two seconds and one second, respectively, on the iPad Pro and 11.22 seconds for Outlook and 4.22 seconds for Planner on the MacBook Pro. With the exception of time-to-boot from a fully powered-down state, where the difference was noticeable, the machines are almost identical. It's clear, though, that for these common tasks the iPad Pro boasts a subtle edge in almost every category.

Do these performance advantages provide a definitive reason to select the tablet over the laptop? I don't think so, but they do prove the iPad Pro has grown into a sound laptop replacement option, especially when paired with Apple's Smart Keyboard Folio.

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By Erik Eckel

Erik Eckel owns and operates two technology companies. As a managing partner with Louisville Geek, he works daily as an IT consultant to assist small businesses in overcoming technology challenges and maximizing IT investments. He is also president o...