MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, mid-2018)

Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat – if you weren’t a fan of the new MacBook Pro’s ultra-thin redesign, and its use of Thunderbolt 3 as the exclusive means of connecting things, Apple’s 2018 lineup isn’t going to change your mind.

However, if these inconveniences don’t bother you, and you’re a fan of macOS, this is a solid but not all-out inspiring improvement. 

However, besides the 15-inch MacBook Pro, only the two Touch-Bar equipped models of the 13-inch MacBook see an upgrade, so if you’re looking for the Touch Bar-less model, you’ll have to live with older hardware. 

Price and availability

The lower-spec versions really aren’t worth your time unless you can find a sweet Black Friday and Cyber Monday deal – they’re still based on 7th-gen Intel Core processors. So, the real starting point for the MacBook Pro 2018 is $1,799 (£1,749, AU$2,699). That price will get you a slightly tight 256GB SSD, and for $1,999 (£1,949, AU$2,999) that’s doubled.

As well as CPU and GPU upgrades that you’ll expect (which we’ll come to later), there’s a small but welcome change to the Thunderbolt 3 ports. Each of the Touch Bar models has four Thunderbolt 3 ports, and in previous versions the two on the right were subject to throttling. That’s no longer the case. 

So, if you’ll use an external graphics card (eGPU), you won’t have to think about where you connect it, unlike on 2016 and 2017 models.

Design

On the outside, the 13-inch MacBook Pro 2018 appears almost identical to last year's model, even down to the similar size and weight. As with 2017’s MacBook Pro, there’s no change to the Retina display’s resolution. The 13.3-inch panel continues to pack 2560x1600 pixels. Some rivals exceeded that even before last year’s models came along, so the 13-inch MacBook Pro loses out on sharpness, but the P3 wide color gamut of Apple’s panel is an attractive proposition for photographic and design work.

There’s one new feature to the display: True Tone, previously available on iPhone X and most iPad Pros, this feature is akin to an enhanced version of the Night Shift setting. 

Whereas the latter warms the color temperature late at night through to early morning, True Tone works all day long and goes further; rather than shifting the temperature to a fixed setting, it uses a sensor to read ambient lighting and adjusts the colors on the screen accordingly for your comfort.

Apple provides just one way to toggle True Tone. You have to go into the Displays preferences pane. Though there’s a key combo (Option and the Touch Bar’s screen brightness key) takes you there, we would’ve liked a single key press to toggle the effect at any time.

With over a year’s experience of True Tone on iPad Pro, and slightly less on iPhone X, we’re sold on True Tone’s benefits for non-creative tasks. It’s only when you turn it off in the middle of writing emails, working on a report, or even simply reading web pages that you realise how effective it is – and you’ll want to turn it on again quick sharp.

True Tone’s suitability depends on the kind of pro user you are. If you work in any sort of visual art, you’re almost certain to turn it off. Its presence on the 13-inch MacBook Pro ought to be welcomed by students, writers and other mobile workers.

Meanwhile, if you're hoping for a full-on keyboard redesign, then you're out of luck. Keys with low travel remain the order of the day across Apple’s pro-focused laptops. Even after a couple of years with this layout, we trip up when feeling for the arrow keys (full-size left and right ones with half-height up and down sandwiched between). Apple’s marketing mentions just one benefit of the new keyboard: it says it’s quieter.

iFixit’s initial teardown revealed that there’s a silicone membrane between the key caps and the butterfly mechanisms beneath. Anecdotally, typing fast sounds less click-clacky. Whether hammering away at a lengthy document or a quick email, it’s a lot less distracting – or, rather, less distracting for others nearby if you’re working somewhere quiet.

Further testing by the teardown specialist suggests the membrane also brings some success at keeping foreign particles away from the mechanism beneath; that’s said to be a contributor to Apple’s recently introduced repair program for earlier butterfly keyboard designs. 

Note, though, that Apple doesn’t make any public claims about durability as a benefit of the third generation. It’ll take the keyboard getting under many more hands to see if reliability complaints persist and to what degree.

Meanwhile, the Touch Bar remains contentious for many people. Though you can switch it to show function keys or the media, volume and brightness controls, the problem you might run into is more how easy it is, without the tactile response of a key edge, to overreach the actual keys and brush the virtual ones by accident. It takes just light contact to trigger a function by mistake, and we’ve found this most often when trying to delete a character and unexpectedly hearing Siri chime in.

The bar’s value to your workflow depends on whether your apps make good use of it. In Apple’s Pages word processor, for example, you can quickly apply visual changes to selected text without lifting your hands off the keyboard to move the pointer. As the bar is context sensitive, it takes the time of checking what it’s showing at a given time to know where it can save you time.

Using the Touch ID fingerprint reader to quickly resume work is a bonus if you’re tired of typing even your login password. Wearing your Apple Watch (assuming you have one) offers the path of least resistance though – by the time the lid is fully open, you’re in. Disappointed that there’s no Face ID à la iPhone X? That would require a depth-sensing camera upgrade. However, you could argue that the MacBook Pro’s camera could do with a much simpler upgrade from 720p.

Behind the scenes, the Touch Bar as well as Apple’s Secure Boot technology are driven by an upgraded ARM-based processor, the T2, which debuted in the iMac Pro at the end of 2017. You can read about the security benefits of the T2 at Apple’s site.

Where there are obvious improvements that Apple might make to the Touch Bar in the future, it has plenty of leeway when it comes to trackpads. For about a decade, it’s been the clear leader in this area. 

We could argue the pros and cons of touchscreen Macs till the cows come home, but the roomy multitouch area in front of the MacBook Pro’s keyboard is comfortable and productive, once you learn a few gestures. We can even forgive the Force Touch feature, partly because it’s so forgettable – just like 3D Touch on recent iPhones – and under-utilised, though using it to preview files and folders or call up dictionary definitions is nice, if you remember it exists – which we tend to when applying extra pressure by accident.

Upgraded internals

A major criticism from high-end pro users has been the MacBook Pro’s 16GB memory limit. Sadly, the 13-inch models haven’t received the boost to DDR4 memory, as their 15-inch siblings have. 

Memory on all 13-inch models goes no higher than 16GB, and it’s the same 2,133MHz LPDDR3 type as last year’s models. 8GB remains the starting point across the 13-inch line-up, and fitting more has to be done at the time you buy.

If 8GB seems stingy, when you take the base model as a starting point and match its CPU speed, RAM and SSD capacities to a Surface Book, the MacBook Pro works out around $500/£400/AU$700 more expensive. 

But, things aren’t like for like. For starters, the Mac has: double the amount of eDRAM (128MB), a slightly better GPU (an Iris Plus 655 rather than a 640); and the benefit of four ultra-fast and adaptable Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Even so, your opinions on having to buy adapters or a dock to plug in USB-A and other devices might make you unappreciative that Apple doesn’t include an adapter in the box, even though its latest phones recognise that bundling a 3.5mm adapter for headphones, rather than making you pay for one separately, is a decent concession that not everyone will have the latest and greatest accessories to connect. 

If only Apple would apply that here. Wirelessly transferring files with other Apple devices over AirDrop, or going via the internet, is easy enough, but something it’s still easier to use a USB thumb drive.

A contributor to the MacBook Pro’s cost is its use of superfast NVMe-based storage. Alongside the slimline MacBook Pro design’s introduction in 2016, storage was at that time upgraded to give outrageously fast rates for reading data, exceeding 3GB/sec. That’s true of writing data too.

Our review unit was equipped with a 2TB SSD, so it wasn’t an off-the-shelf configuration, which would be 256GB or 512GB. 2TB is the maximum capacity for the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and it costs $1,400/£1,400/AU$2,100 or $1,200/£1,200/AU$1,800 depending on which respective model you pick as your starting point.

With neither of the standard capacities provided, we have no test results to verify whether their performance also matches Apple’s marketing quote of “up to 3.2GB/sec” read speeds.

Our tests showed a peak read speed of 3,104MB/s (3.1GB/s), so just a little behind Apple’s claim of “up to 3.2GB/sec” for that task. Peak performance when writing was actually more impressive, reaching 3,201.1MB/s (3.2GB/sec). As usual with drives, mean average transfer rates are lower whether reading or writing, managing 2,289.5MB/s and 2,217.3MB/s respectively.

If you’re not sure you need that kind of performance, on the whole you probably don’t. However, it’s a bonus for visual creatives – photographers or videographers who need to get hundreds of gigabytes or even over of a terabyte to a Mac in minimal time, so they can get down to work without waiting for slower storage.

However, there’s another reason that often goes unmentioned that also reduces delays, albeit on a less frequent basis. Whenever you need to restart your Mac (or switch user account), all the apps and windows you had open previously are brought back in quick time. The difference here over even a SATA-connected SSD doesn’t quite rival instant resuming on a tablet, but it’s impressive for eliminating sluggishness.

Recent Mac and iOS hardware enables playback of videos encoding using HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding, also referred to as H.265). This offers similar quality to near-ubiquitous H.264, but in files of roughly half the size. Encoding to this format is a demanding process, so to see how these new MacBook Pros compare with older Mac hardware.

We transcoded a 57-minute, 1080p video to HEVC using HandBrake’s Apple 1080p30 Surround preset, with the video encoder switch to ‘H.265 (x265)’. The oldest Macs tested were a mid-2011 iMac with a 3.4GHz quad-core i7, and a late 2012 Mac mini with a 2.6GHz quad-core i7.

That Mac mini is from the oldest generation that macOS Mojave will support, giving a rough idea of the baseline lies for performance going forward. The iMac took 2 hours 48 minutes, and the Mac mini exceeded a factor of 3:1 in video duration to transcoding time, crossing the finish line in 3 hours 6 minutes.

We ran this test on a 15-inch MacBook Pro from late 2016 (2.7GHz, quad-core i7), where it took 1 hour 33 minutes to complete. Our new 13-inch model held up reasonably well, thanks to its quad-core i7 processor with Hyper-Threading, completing the task in 1 hour 32 minutes.

Also, this test was run after applying Apple's macOS High Sierra 10.13.6 Supplemental Update, which the company released to combat excessive CPU throttling for the 2018 models. When we ran the transcoding test before the patch, it took 2 hours and 4 minutes to complete.

Post macOS 10.13.6 patch

Just a few days after our review was originally published, Apple released a supplemental update to macOS 10.13.6, specifically for 2018 models of MacBook Pro. This update addresses a CPU throttling issue, which was suspected to affect the Core i9 processor that's available as a build-to-order option on 15-inch models.

In fact, Apple's update isn't just for the Core i9; the issue affects all of the new MacBook Pros featuring eighth-gen Intel Core processors, including the quad-core kind in 13-inch models.

In light of this, we have rerun our tests. There was no significant variation in Geekbench’s single-core and multi-core CPU scores, and a reasonable 8% improvement in Cinebench’s CPU score, which rose from 621 points to 669.

However, Apple’s software update delivered a huge improvement in our HandBrake video export benchmark. This is expected, because the app pretty much maxes out all CPU cores during this test, and the pre-update throttling has clearly affected performance. 

The test took 2 hours 4 minutes without the update, and finished after 1 hour 32 minutes with the fix installed. That puts our 13-inch review unit’s eight-gen, quad-core i7 just ahead of the sixth-gen, quad-core i7 processor in our 15-inch MacBook from late 2016 – both have a 2.7GHz clock speed.

Post-update performance from the Core i7 is a lot better, making its higher cost better value than we initially thought. However, our concerns about the near-two-grand prices of the two new 13-inch models stands – the off-the-shelf specifications don’t feature the Core i7 processor we were given to test, rather a 2.3GHz Core i5.

This review unit’s Intel Iris Plus 655 doesn’t sound like it should offer much of a boost to benchmarks. In our Cinebench test, the gains indeed aren’t groundbreaking, but they make a reasonable boost to the OpenGL test’s frame rate at 39 frames per second compared to 34 from last year’s model.

The Intel Core processor offers much bigger gains, which is unsurprising when Apple has upgraded from dual-core to quad-core versions. The single-core score in Geekbench amounts to a 21% improvement over last year’s dual-core i5 model – but we’re unable to make a straight comparison, because this time around Apple provided a custom model with a 2.7GHz Core i7 upgrade (which adds $300/£270/AU$480 to the cost), not the stock 2.3GHz Core i5. Last year’s 13-inch review unit had a 3.1GHz Core i5.

Battery life

That brings us to our battery life test, which is tougher than Apple’s – it sets the screen to 75% brightness and quotes up to 10 hours of wireless web browsing or iTunes video playback. Our test runs video on a loop in VLC Media Player, with the screen at 50% brightness to enable more direct comparisons with other hardware manufacturers.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro looped out video for 10 hours 35 minutes before going to sleep. That’s significantly higher than the 6 hours 37 minutes managed by last year’s model. Intel's 8th generation processors promised improved performance and better energy efficiency, and it looks like it has delivered here.

Verdict

The 2018, 13-inch MacBook Pro is a mixed bag. There are obvious gains on the CPU side. though Apple having supplied a custom build with a Core i7 means we’re unable to report at this stage how the standard Core i5 compares. The starting price of $1,799 (£1,749, AU$2,699) will put off many people.

That said, remember that the SSD here is very fast and has benefits whether you’re doing high-end creative work or merely want a laptop that’s very responsive, provided macOS has the apps you need.

True Tone is a welcome addition for anyone who works with words and numbers more than images. Overall, though, the 2018 13-inch MacBook Pro is the kind of iteration we’d expect after a year, with a few small kinks worked out, rather than representing a big leap ahead.



from TechRadar - Technology Reviews http://www.techradar.com/reviews/macbook-pro-2018-with-touch-bar-13-inch