Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch (2018) Review: Actually for Pros

Dual-core processors just aren’t enough for real professionals anymore. Graphics work, video editing and photo manipulation require more power than ever. And while Apple caught flack for a lack of power in the 13-inch MacBook Pro last year, the company’s update to quad-core chips packs a punch. The Core i7-8559U on our review config was speedy, and the laptop also features some of the fastest SSD storage we’ve ever seen. Additionally, it offers some features from the iPad, like True Tone and “Hey Siri,” for the first time on the Mac. But the design hasn’t changed, so if you’re not a fan of low travel keyboards and don’t want to live the dongle life with only Thunderbolt 3 ports, it still has shortcomings.

Design

The 2018 refresh of the MacBook Pro doesn’t change the laptop’s aesthetics. It’s identical to the 2017 model with its slim design and strong build quality unlike almost any other manufacturer in the laptop space. Our review unit came in space gray, which remains my favorite shade Apple has ever produced, but it also comes in silver.

There are some downsides to keeping the same design. The bezels around the 13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,440 retina display are thicker than on some competing notebooks — notably, Dell’s XPS line.

The island-style keyboard is flanked by two speaker grilles with a spacious touchpad below and, above, the Touch Bar, including the Touch ID fingerprint reader to sign in and to make payments with Apple Pay.

Apple’s decision to rely exclusively on Thunderbolt 3 ports is less polarizing than it was a year ago. Other notebook makers, like Dell with its XPS 13, are slowly starting to follow suit (but at least that notebook has a microSD card reader). Still, the total of four Thunderbolt 3 ports, two on each side of the laptop, still necessitates the use of dongles for older hard drives, memory cards and monitors. An SD card reader would have been a nice addition.

Weighing in at 3 pounds and 12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches, the MacBook Pro doesn’t have the same size advantage it used to over some Windows PCs. The Dell XPS 13 is slighter in every way at 12 x 8 x 0.5 inches and 2.7 pounds, and the Huawei MateBook X Pro, essentially a copycat of Apple’s design, is 2.9 pounds and 12 x 8.5 x 0.6 inches. Microsoft's creative-oriented 13-inch Surface Book 2, however, is a heavier 3.6 pounds and 12.3 x 9.1 x 0.9 inches.

Specifications

Display13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 IPS retina display with True Tone
CPUIntel Core i7-8559U
GraphicsIntel Iris Plus Graphics 655
Memory16GB 2,133MHz LPDDR3
SSD2TB SSD
Optical
Networking802.11ac, Bluetooth 5.0
Ports(4) Thunderbolt 3
AudioStereo speakers, Headphone/microphone combo jack
Camera720p FaceTime webcam
Battery58 Wh
Power Adapter61W
Operating SystemmacOS High Sierra (10.13.x)
Dimensions (WxDxH)12 x 8.4 x 0.6 inches
Weight3 pounds
OtherTouch Bar with Touch ID Sensor, T2 chip 
Price (as configured)$3,699

Performance

Our review configuration of the new MacBook Pro used an Intel Core i7-8559U with a 2.7GHz base clock and Turbo up to 4.5 GHz, 16GB of 2,133MHz LPDDR3 RAM, Intel Iris Plus 655 graphics and 2TB of SSD storage. That means that a light workload with 25 Chrome tabs, one of which was streaming a 1080p episode of The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, was no problem for it.

On the Geekbench 4 overall performance test, the MacBook Pro smoked the competition. It earned a score of 17,348, surpassing the premium laptop category average (11,507), Surface Book 2, MateBook X Pro and XPS 13.

With our standard file transfer test, copying 4.97GB of mixed-media files was almost instantaneous. So we turned to the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, which measured speeds of 2,519Mbps. That’s the fastest I’ve ever seen and puts the premium laptop average (350MBps) to shame. It’s like it finished a race before the XPS, MateBook and Surface had time to start.

Those speed tests could be attributed to several factors. For one, Apple’s APFS file system is incredibly quick and can clone files with minimal amounts of data from the original. It also calculates data in a way that may make read speeds faster. Additionally, Apple’s T2 chip, which is showing up for the first time in a MacBook Pro here, serves as the SSD controller and could be working some other technical magic.

The MacBook Pro took 1 minute and 16 seconds to complete our Excel macro test, in which notebooks pair 65,000 names and addresses. That’s faster than the average, as well as the MateBook and the Surface. Only the XPS was faster.

On our Handbrake video editing test, the MacBook Pro transcoded a 4K video to 1080p in 14 minutes and 47 seconds,again far ahead of the average (21:35) and besting all of the competition.

Throttling? Not a Problem

To see how well the MacBook Pro 13-inch handles lengthy intensive tasks that heat up the CPU, I did a real-world video editing test. In Final Cut Pro X, I uploaded a 4K video I shot on my iPhone and added a soundtrack with some open-source audio. I added a bunch of transitions and exported my project as a 4K video.

You don't need to worry about CPU throttling. During that time-consuming export, the average clock speed was just under 3GHz (0.3 above base), according to the Intel Power Gadget. That’s not to say it never ran below base clock speed, because it did for a few seconds at a time, but usually that meant that the Intel Iris Plus graphics were taking over in the rendering and exporting process. The CPU ran at an average temperature of 87 degrees Celsius (188.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

I ran Cinebench’s CPU test five times on the MacBook Pro and its competitors, and Apple's offering not only offered higher scores than competitors, but also stayed relatively steady. While the MacBook Pro 15-inch launched with some throttling issues, on the 13-inch machine, it’s safe to consider them solved.

The Iris Plus Graphics, however, were outclassed by those in other devices. On the Dirt 3 gaming test, the MacBook Pro ran at 47 frames per second (fps), below the 69-fps average and the Surface Book 2 and Huawei Mate Book X Pro's scores.

Display

The 13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 IPS display on the MacBook Pro is bright and vivid. This is the first time Apple’s True Tone tech, which adjusts the color temperature of the display based on the ambient lighting in the environment, has come to a laptop. It definitely looks great, but I spent the majority of my testing with it off. After all, professionals editing photos and videos need to know exactly which colors they’re working.

When I watched a 1080p trailer for Aquaman with True Tone on, Hera’s unnaturally red hair popped against the walls of a sandy cave, and the blues and oranges in a battle between sea creatures and fire monsters was extremely vibrant.

The screen measured an average of 327 nits of brightness on our light meter, surpassing the premium laptop category average of 307 nits, but falling below the Surface Book 2, MateBook X Pro and both the 1080p and 4K variants of the XPS 13.

It covers 125.3 percent of the sRGB color gamut, surpassing the average (111 percent), 1080p XPS 13 (117 percent) and MateBook Pro X (124 percent). Both the 4K XPS 13 and the Surface reached 130 percent. 

Comparison Products

Keyboard, Touchpad and Touch Bar

The keyboard is likely the most polarizing part of the MacBook Pro.

Apple’s low-travel keyboard, with just 0.5 millimeters of travel, requires 61 grams to actuate. On the 10fastfingers.com typing test, I reached 113 words per minute, which is my high end, with my usual 2 percent error rate. While we usually prefer systems with at least 1.5 millimeters of travel, I didn't find the lack of travel to be uncomfortable.

While I’m OK with the keyboard, Apple faithfuls on the internet, tech enthusiasts, as well as some of my colleagues have vocally disagreed with me for the past few years. This keyboard won’t change their minds. The only thing that has changed, according to Apple, is that it’s quieter, and that seems about right. The clicking is more muted than on last year’s model, though you can still hear it if you type hard enough.

What we don’t know for sure is if the keyboard is more reliable than the ones on models dating back to 2015 and for which Apple now has a replacement program. But iFixIt’s teardown of the machine revealed a silicone membrane around the switches. Leaked documents and a patent from March suggest this membrane could block dirt and dust from getting into the keyboard, but no one has said anything about it officially.

The 5.2 x 3.2-inch touchpad is spacious, and like models going back several years now, doesn’t actually click. Instead, it uses haptic feedback to simulate the feeling that you’re pushing down. I never once had an issue with a gesture, like swiping between Spaces with four fingers, pinching out with five fingers to reveal the desktop, or two-finger scrolling.

The OLED Touch Bar on top of the keyboard is only as strong as its developer support. And right now, I don’t feel that there’s enough developer support to make it a must-have (except for the fact that to get the latest CPU, you need to get a MacBook Pro with one). I’ve grown to accept the Touch Bar (and definitely appreciate having Touch ID attached), and scrubbing through video with it is cool, but I still prefer the dedicated function keys.

T2 Chip

The new generation of MacBook Pros are the first to feature Apple’s T2 chip, which takes on some capabilities from the CPU. It uses Apple’s secure enclave co-processing technology for encryption and secure booting and also serves as the SSD controller. Additionally, it allows these laptops to use the “Hey Siri” command to summon Apple’s digital assistant. I don’t use Siri a lot on the Mac, but it brings the laptops up to par with the iPhone and iPad in terms of using the assistant.

Audio

Considering how thin the MacBook Pro is, the speakers on either side of the keyboard are impressive. When I listened to P!nk’s “Raise Your Glass,” the vocals, keyboard and guitars were clear, and the drums really pounded. I wish the bass stood out a little more, but the music easily filled our mid-sized conference room.

Upgradeability

There are five pentalobe screws on the bottom of the MacBook Pro, but the laptop isn’t designed to be user upgradeable. While most laptops have the CPU soldered to the motherboard, Apple has also attached the storage and RAM directly to the board. If you think you’ll need extra RAM or storage, you should get it when you first order the notebook. (Of course, you can always add more external storage via Thunderbolt 3).

Battery Life

You’ll likely be able to get a day’s worth of productivity work out of the MacBook Pro. Its 58 Wh battery endured for 8 hours and 44 minutes on our battery test, which continuously browses the web, streams videos and runs graphics tests at 150 nits of average brightness. That’s higher than the average for premium laptops (8:26), but the XPS 13 outperformed, running just shy of 12 hours on a charge with a lesser 1080p display and 8:23 with a 4K screen. The MateBook Pro lasted a little more than an hour longer.

Heat

The MacBook Pro won’t get too hot to use on your lap. After 15 minutes of streaming HD video, the bottom measured 35.6 degrees Celsius (96 degrees Fahrenheit), the center of the keyboard hit 32.8 degrees Celsius (91 degrees Fahrenheit) and the touchpad was a cool 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit).

Webcam

Apple’s 720p FaceTime camera is sufficient for video chatting for work and with family. It’s clear and color accurate. A picture I took of myself in the Photo Booth app showed every individual hair in my beard and caught my dimple. The blue checks in my shirt were well-defined and didn’t bleed into the white square. The light coming in from some nearby windows was slightly blown out, though.

macOS, Software and Warranty

Some people buy Apple machines because of the company’s dedication to well-designed hardware, but professionals are going to get this notebook because of macOS. The MacBook Pro comes running macOS High Sierra (10.13) and will be eligible to upgrade to macOS Mojave (10.14) later this year.

Apple’s free software includes its iWork suite: Pages, Numbers and Keynote, as well as iMovie for basic video editing, GarageBand for music editing and, of course, Apple stalwart Messages, which lets you send iMessages and texts from your iPhone. Many of these sync with iCloud, making it seamless to retrieve files on your other Apple devices.

Apple sells the MacBook Pro with a 1-year warranty and 90 days of free technical support. Warranty and technical support can be increased to three years with AppleCare+ ($269).

Configurations

Our 13-inch MacBook Pro review unit came maxed out with a 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-8559U, Intel Iris Plus 655 graphics, 2TB of SSD storage and 16GB of LPDDR3 RAM. That costs $3,699, most of which is attributed to the additional storage.

The cheapest of the new MacBook Pros with Touch Bar is $1,799, with a 2.4GHz, 8th generation Intel Core i5 CPU, Iris Plug 655 graphics, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.

Apple still sells MacBook Pros with dual-core, 7th generation Intel Core i5 and i7 processors without the Touch Bar and with just two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Those start at $1,299 but were not upgraded this year. For casual users who aren’t editing photos and videos, however, they will likely be sufficient.

Bottom Line

Apple’s refreshed 13-inch MacBook Pros delivers a significant boost in power over the last generation, with 8th generation Core processors and the fastest SSD speeds I have ever seen. The True Tone display option is nice, but you’ll want to turn it off while doing creative work. Battery life, however, is shorter than competing Windows systems, and if you don’t like using adapters, the four Thunderbolt 3 ports might be the bane of your existence. And if you do to a price comparison, you'll find you have to pay a fair amount more for Apple’s device if you add a lot of storage.

If you want to use macOS and its ecosystem of apps, there really isn’t a competitor to recommend. But if you’re flexible and willing to try Windows, the Huawei MateBook X Pro with a design that apes Apple's, can be had for $1,599 with an Intel Core i7-8550U processor, a 3,000 x 2,000 display and discrete Nvidia GeForce MX150 graphics. That price includes a 512GB NVMe PCIe SSD, so you can’t get as much internal storage as Apple offers (and it sure won’t be as fast as the MacBook Pro).

Dell’s XPS 13 does much better on battery life, but only with a 1080p display. A $1,649.99 configuration with a 512GB PCIe SSD, 16GB of RAM and Intel Core i7-8550U will likely last longer, but getting more internal storage forces you to a 4K touch screen without the extra endurance. Still, loading it up with 2TB of storage is cheaper than the MacBook at $2,659.99, though with lesser UHD Graphics 620.

Apple has proven with this machine that yes, the MacBook Pro can be for an actual pro. It would do well to use a discrete GPU like Huawei does, and the battery life can be improved. But if macOS is your preferred ecosystem and you’re willing to pay up, this refresh brings the power a high-end ultraportable should.

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