The non-“Pro” Apple MacBook may be the most portable macOS laptop, but the 13-inch, Touch Bar-equipped Apple MacBook Pro (starts at $ 1,799; $ 3,699 as tested) is the most versatile. Savvy configuration options let it serve as an everyday ultraportable for a self-employed frequent traveler or a well-heeled college student, a platform for light-to-moderate video and photo editing, and many uses in between. The key upticks in Apple’s 2018 model include more processor cores and threads (the biggest deal, for most folks considering an upgrade), better security, and a tweaked keyboard and display. The laptop’s Achilles’ heel remains price; it’s still a no-doubt-premium buy versus competing Windows laptops such as the Dell XPS 13. Those wedded to macOS, though, now have new vistas of processing and local storage that just didn’t exist in a small Mac laptop before.
Beautiful, But No Thin Bezels
At first glance, the 2018 13-inch MacBook Pro looks identical to the version that Apple introduced in 2016. It’s a sleek ultraportable, clad in a silver or space gray aluminum finish that has spawned many clones, such as the near-dead-ringer Huawei MateBook X Pro. Unlike on many Windows machines, no Intel stickers mar the aluminum finish, despite the Intel silicon powering the works. At 0.59 by 11.97 by 8.36 inches (HWD) and 3.02 pounds, its size and weight are average for a high-end 13-inch ultraportable. You can get smaller, lighter laptops that still offer a 13.3-inch screen. At just 0.46 by 11.9 by 7.8 inches and 2.68 pounds, the Dell XPS 13 is a prime example of what’s possible.
To pull off this kind of relative miniaturization, though, requires dramatically slimming down the borders (or bezels) surrounding the display. It also means moving the webcam to the bottom of the display (as on the XPS 13), or even placing it in the keyboard, where you’ll find it on the MateBook X Pro. Thin bezels are all the rage these days, and they make a laptop look oh-so-sleek, but I’m actually glad that Apple didn’t go this route. A webcam placed anywhere other than above the screen results in awkward Skype sessions full of knuckles and your chin.
Webcam quality on the 13-inch MacBook Pro is unchanged from last year. It’s a 720p camera, which takes predictably grainy photos and video in low light conditions. It’s fine for video calling and the like, but not for keeper video. It’s a shame that Apple didn’t work in the 1080p camera that comes standard with the iMac Pro.
Screen quality, on the other hand, is excellent, thanks to the same Retina Display that has graced Apple ultraportables for a few years now. With a native resolution of 2,560 by 1,600 pixels, this panel is incredibly crisp, and In-Plane Switching (IPS) technology means that the picture quality remains unchanged even if you’re viewing the screen from extreme off-center angles. I noticed no color shifting, posterization, or fading of the image from offsides in any direction due to the panel tech.
That said, in practice, I do have one quibble with the screen: the high reflectivity, which confers its own set of issues. Some glare from ambient lights is to be expected from a glossy finish, but the MacBook Pro’s display is one of the most reflective I’ve used, and glare off of it can be distracting in fluorescent-lit rooms as you move your head from side to side, as you can see in the image above. Fortunately, turning up the display-brightness setting to the generous maximum of 500 nits somewhat mitigates the glare.
The standout new display feature in the 2018 refresh is the addition of support for True Tone, which made its debut on the Apple iPad Pro tablet. This feature automatically adjusts the white-balance point to account for the amount of ambient light where you are. You can toggle True Tone on and off in the laptop’s System Preferences.
With True Tone turned on, the color temperature becomes noticeably warmer, with more of an amber cast, when the laptop is outdoors or in a brightly lit space like PC Labs, but a bit cooler when it’s at home in a living room. Apple says this results in a “more natural and comfortable viewing experience,” and after a day of staring at the MacBook Pro, my eyes were indeed less fatigued than they typically are after staring at screens all day. True Tone is not a substitute for fine-tuned display color calibration, however, and professional photographers and videographers will still want to manually calibrate colors.
Key Change: Quieter Butterfly Switches
The biggest physical change to the MacBook Pro this year, and the most awaited one, is the tweaking of its keyboard switches. The first and second generation of Apple’s extremely shallow “butterfly” switches have been the subject of much consternation, a class-action lawsuit, and eventually a free-replacement program, initiated by Apple, for laptops whose keys prematurely fail. The keyboard switches enter their third generation with the 2018 MacBook Pro, but all that Apple touts is that they’re now quieter to type on. Indeed, after typing several thousand words, I didn’t notice as much clacking as I did with previous MacBook keyboards, though the overall feeling was almost exactly the same.
The fact that the keys themselves hardly move up and down when you press them means that they are jarring to type on if you’re used to a pre-2016 MacBook Pro, but you’ll quickly get used to the feeling, and you might even appreciate the precision like I do. Even PCMag’s resident (and sternest) Apple-keyboard critic, Sascha Segan, thinks the third generation in this model is a moderate improvement. Each key is now built with a thin film of silicone that should prevent any dust from getting in and clogging the switches, according to an iFixit teardown.
The upward-firing speakers offer the same excellent sound quality as before; it’s rich and full, but not quite as rich or as full as the audio that emanates from the MateBook X Pro. The touchpad also remains the same, which is a very good thing. It’s a giant slab of glass equipped with haptic feedback that replaces a physical switch and simulates clicks. It is still the best pad I’ve ever used. Not only does virtual clicking mean you can tap anywhere and receive uniform feedback pressure, but it also enables a secondary “force-click” feature for previewing files and other tasks. (You’re likely familiar with the concept if you’ve used an Apple iPhone 6s or later.)
Even better, the pad’s sensitivity and accidental-input rejection are excellent out of the box, which means no fiddling with settings. I’ve never tested a Windows laptop that didn’t require some adjustments to optimize the touchpad.
Touch Bar: Still a Touchy Subject
Then there’s the Touch Bar. If you’ve played with the previous-generation MacBook Pros, you may have seen models with this long, thin, multi-touch screen that resides above the keyboard and replaces the function keys. It remains unchanged, apart from the fact that it now has True Tone support built in to tweak the relative color scheme based on ambient light. It also remains the only opportunity you get to interact with macOS via onscreen touch input, since Apple has withheld full touch screens from its laptops even as they’ve proliferated among Windows models.
For some applications, such as Adobe Photoshop and Final Cut Pro X, the Touch Bar is very useful, allowing you to scrub through a video or swap editing tools with the swipe of a finger. If a program is written to leverage the Touch Bar, it adapts the tools you see on the Bar when you have that program active. For other apps, especially third-party web browsers like Mozilla Firefox, the Touch Bar offers no advantage, and simply displays virtual versions of the usual function keys.
As a result, I continue to recommend that most consumers who don’t need the higher processing power and loftier storage options of this Touch Bar MacBook Pro consider the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar. The problem is, that model didn’t receive any updates during the July 2018 refresh, and remains a dual-core-only model starting at $ 1,299. It’s only worth paying extra for a Touch Bar-equipped model if you need access to the more powerful component options, which, sadly, aren’t available on the non-Touch Bar version.
The new MacBook Pro includes Bluetooth 5.0, up from version 4.2 in the old one. The 802.11ac Wi-Fi is unchanged, and so is the port selection: four USB Type-C/Thunderbolt 3 connectors and a 3.5mm audio jack. Four Thunderbolt 3 ports is more than most of the MacBook Pro’s competitors offer, but you’ll need to buy an adapter to connect pretty much any older peripheral. That includes external displays, mice, and even the Lightning charging cable for the iPhone and iPad, which still requires a USB Type-A port.
As usual, Apple offers an included one-year warranty that is extendable to three years for an additional charge.
A Maxed-Out Component Mix
So, you can get a 2018 13-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pro starting at $ 1,799, as I mentioned up top, but you can spend a bunch more on upgrades, too, which are much of the point of this year’s refresh.
The review unit I have here has all of the component options topped out, and for an eye-watering $ 3,699, it had better. Inside, there’s a new 2.7GHz quad-core, eight-thread Intel Core i7 “Coffee Lake” CPU whose clock speeds can reach 4.5GHz, as well as 16GB of RAM and a whopping 2TB PCIe NVMe solid-state drive. The drive recorded 2,627MBps write speeds on the Blackmagic disk benchmark, compared with the 1,744MBps throughput of the previous-gen MacBook Pro’s 512GB SSD. Read speeds are also slightly improved, up from 2,355MBps to 2,505MBps. Downstream of the maxed-out model, you can opt for 8GB of RAM, and a 256GB, 512GB, or 1TB SSD. (The $ 1,799 base model gets you a Core i5 four-core CPU, 8GB of RAM, and the 256GB SSD.)
There’s also an improved secondary processor that acts as a system management controller (SMC) for the SSD, speakers, Touch Bar, camera, fingerprint reader, and other features. This so-called “T2” chip, designed in-house by Apple, is powerful enough to enable an always-listening mode for Siri. As you would with the iPad or iPhone, you can now say “Hey Siri,” and the personal digital assistant built into the MacBook Pro will respond with no physical input necessary.
The new T2 chip also enables secure booting, which you can configure using the macOS recovery utility. Just as intriguing, it also provides hardware encryption for the entire SSD, a welcome supplement to macOS’s built-in software encryption if you’re privy to extremely sensitive data.
$ 3,699 Worth of MacBook: To the Test!
The maxed-out components deliver considerable power in our spate of bench tests, if not a whole lot more than similarly priced or similarly equipped Windows competitors, as you’ll see in the charts below.
The new MacBook Pro took just 1 minute and 11 seconds to encode a four-minute HD video file into an iPhone-friendly format using Handbrake, a task that’s a hard grind for the CPU and makes use of the most cores and threads it can get its mitts on. The four cores and eight threads in the 2018 MacBook Pro’s Core i7 chip are telling here. The encoding time, as you can see, is nearly twice as fast as last year’s dual-core base-model 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, and within 5 seconds of last year’s 15-inch MacBook Pro (1:06, not charted here), which includes a more powerful processor and a dedicated graphics chip.
Some decidedly bigger Windows laptops we’ve tested with the latest CPUs were significantly faster on this test; I included a few here not because they are direct competitors (an Alienware machine certainly is not) but for the context of what a higher-powered CPU can do. With its beastly Intel Core i9 processor, the Alienware 17 R5 gaming laptop accomplished the Handbrake conversion in just 48 seconds. The Dell XPS 15 2-in-1, meanwhile, was not far behind, with its unusual Intel Core i7 and AMD Radeon RX Vega “Kaby Lake G” combination eking out a 57-second showing.
Note that the also-revamped 15-inch MacBook Pro is available with a Core i9 CPU as an upgrade option, along with a dedicated Radeon graphics chip that comes standard; I haven’t tested it yet. Some reports have been circling, however, of possible CPU thermal throttling on the part of the Core i9 chip in that machine under sustained tasks that hit the CPU hard. PCMag has not independently verified those claims.
The performance story is much the same when it comes to our Cinebench R15 test, which almost exclusively harnesses CPU performance. The more cores and threads a CPU has, the better it will do on this test. Unsurprisingly, with a score of 597, the 2018 MacBook Pro is well on its way to being twice as fast as its predecessor (381), which, in our test configuration, had an Intel Core i5 with half the number of cores and threads. But, just like on the Handbrake video-encoding test, the new MacBook Pro is not a match for the bigger, less thermally constrained Alienware 17 R5 (1,036) or Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 (739). It did perform slightly better than the HP ZBook x2 (534), a detachable 2-in-1 workstation-grade tablet that, like the MacBook Pro itself, is marketed as a powerhouse for creative professionals.
Again, though, I emphasize this: The machines with 15-inch chassis and higher-power Intel Core H-series processors (as opposed to the ultra-low-power U-series ones in the MacBook Pros) are not strict competitors, but charted here for perspective, an indication of how far the four-core uptick brings the MacBook Pro relative to bigger notebooks that cost roughly the same. There’s no shame in this 13-inch model being surpassed by a Core i9 in a big, honking Alienware machine.
When it comes to editing images in Photoshop CS6, one of the quintessential Mac computing tasks, the new MacBook Pro again showed itself vastly improved compared with last year’s model. It finished applying our lineup of 11 sample image filters in just 2 minutes and 43 seconds, compared with 3:59 for the previous generation. Only the Alienware 17 R5 fared better in our competitive set, at 2:30.
With its Intel Iris Plus graphics silicon (part of the new Core i7 CPU), the 13-inch MacBook Pro offers slightly better graphics performance than you’ll get from most ultraportables, which are equipped with lesser integrated Intel GPUs. This year’s Iris Plus silicon recorded 39 frames per second (fps) on the Cinebench OpenGL test. That is slightly better than last year’s model’s 36fps and above the 30fps minimum for enjoyable gameplay. But even the Iris Plus silicon is not capable enough to play demanding games at HD resolution and maximum quality settings, or to serve as a proficient accelerator for video-editing suites like Davinci Resolve.
I used Cinebench OpenGL in place of our standard Heaven and Valley tests because they showed “surging” in the graphics—specifically, jerky pauses every few seconds during the duration of our test run. I noted the same start-and-stop graphical behavior when running the benchmark routine in the popular game Rise of the Tomb Raider, as well as the older game title Hitman: Absolution. At times, the stuttery onscreen behavior welled up when using the onboard camera, too; the onscreen image would pause instead of keeping up with the camera’s input.
A full macOS reinstall did not resolve the issue, and running Apple’s built-in hardware diagnostics routine turned up nothing amiss. I believe this to be an issue specific to this test sample, and I’m working with Apple to resolve the cause. This review will be updated once it is resolved.
This aside, you can sidestep the ho-hum frame rates of the Iris Plus by plugging in an external GPU (eGPU) box. In rolling out this laptop, Apple also showed off a MacBook Pro-compatible eGPU from Blackmagic, available from the Apple Store for $ 699. But the fact that Apple still doesn’t offer any form of discrete graphics chip on the 13-inch MacBook Pro is somewhat disappointing, especially if you’re eyeing the top-of-the line version. The Asus ZenBook Flip 14 and MateBook X Pro both offer discrete GPUs that aren’t powerful enough for gaming, but will still speed up rendering speeds. Both of these machines are roughly the same size as the MacBook Pro, but even thinner.
During each of the performance tests, and even while typing this story, the entire chassis of the laptop grew quite warm to the touch, though not uncomfortably hot. Despite the heat, fan noise is rare. I was able to hear the fans spooling up only once during a full day of mixed use.
Still a Long-Runner, Despite More Cores
Then there’s the battery life, which did not take the hit it could have by this machine moving to four cores. At 14 hours and 35 minutes of nonstop video playback at halfway screen brightness, battery life is excellent, and nearly identical to last year’s model. It will certainly last you through a full day of web browsing, typing, and other light use without visiting a wall plug. The battery life is even more impressive considering the more powerful processor, though sustained, hard use that hits the CPU and RAM often will likely shorten the number.
In Short: Power to the Professionals
As an incremental improvement over last year’s Touch Bar-equipped 13-inch MacBook Pro, the 2018 model is not worth an immediate upgrade if you have a 2016 or later model MacBook Pro, unless you absolutely need both the raw processing uptick and, for whatever reason, cannot sacrifice any portability to get it. If you’re on a longer upgrade cycle, though, and like to order a top-of-the-line laptop in the hopes of future-proofing, it’s worth a closer look.
Ultimately, this 2018 MacBook Pro model comes down to giving you options. If you need four cores of oomph, you get them standard, and can pay to get as good a U-series CPU as you can get in an ultraportable. If you need lots of superfast storage right at hand for production work on the go, the 1TB and 2TB SSD options will be pricey, but you’ll have extremely fast local storage that doesn’t rely on external drives or arrays.
In the end, the decision—as always, with a Mac laptop—also comes down to whether or not you’re comfortable paying a premium for macOS. You can get a similarly powerful Windows laptop, such as the Editors’ Choice Dell XPS 13, for considerably less money, or a less powerful, same-portability model in the MacBook Pro 13-incher without the Touch Bar. But if you’ve got a ticket to the end of the line on the macOS train, this 2018 revision of the MacBook Pro 13-incher will please, if you truly need the speed. Just know: It’s an express that sells first-class tickets only.