Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2018) review: The tricked-out MacBook Pro recovers from an early software stumble
Update, Nov. 13, 2019: Apple has introduced a new 16-inch MacBook Pro with a larger screen and improved keyboard. It completely replaces the previous 15-inch model.
On paper, it looked like an impressive, if predictable, set of internal component upgrades. Apple's 13-inch and 15-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pro models would get new eighth-gen Intel processors, more storage and RAM options, a color-temperature-sensing True Tone screen and other tweaks -- all nice improvements over a ho-hum 2017 update. At the same time, the slim unibody aluminum design would remain unchanged since its last design overhaul in late 2016, keeping features both loved (the giant track pad) and not-so-loved (the slim-travel keyboard, the USB-C-only connections).
If anything, the expensive add-on option for one of Intel's new six-core Core i9 processors would appeal to pro-level users, such as video editors and 3D artists, who may be starting to feel that Apple isn't keeping up with their ever-expanding needs for high-end gear.
To say things got off to a rocky start is putting it mildly. First, there was confusion over that keyboard: Apple maintained that the new third-gen butterfly keyboard was quieter but otherwise unchanged -- but a teardown at repair site iFixit revealed a totally new membrane that may well address the issue of sticky and dust-afflicted keys on earlier models that have prompted class action lawsuits against Apple.
Secondly, there was the speed throttling issue that emerged just days after the July 12 announcement: Some of the most gung-ho early adopters who ran out and got Core i9 MacBook Pros as soon as they were released found mysteriously throttled performance. YouTube tech personality Dave Lee first brought the issue to public attention with a video in which he demonstrated the heat and throttling issues. These results were soon replicated by others, including our own CNET Labs testing.
To its credit, Apple quickly investigated the issue and determined that a simple software bug was to blame. A software update to the MacOS operating system seemed to solve the issue, and you can read more about our pre and post-patch experience here.
If you're one of those early adopters, instructions for how to install the MacOS 10.13.6 update are available here. The issue affected all of Apple's new MacBook Pro models, both 13- and 15-inch. The entry level 13-inch MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar isn't affected, as it has not been updated this year.
And now that the hype around this software bug is dying down, we're left to consider just how much is actually new inside the MacBook Pro, and if it meets the needs of a creative class increasingly moving towards 4K-and-higher video, and other power-hungry tasks. A more in-depth analysis of the new features and performance of the Core i9 15-inch MacBook Pro follows, but first we'll break down the key takeaways:
- Post-patch, the Core i9 version is much faster than last year's high-end Core i7 model
- The True Tone screen works well in a variety of lighting conditions
- Options for up to 32GB of RAM and 4TB of flash storage can greatly help with video production
- The "stealth" keyboard update makes it less prone to stuck keys, a major issue for some in the 2016 and 2017 models
- Only the more expensive Touch Bar models have been updated, leaving the entry level 13-inch Pro and the more affordable non-Pro MacBooks out in the cold (for now)
- You're still locked into only USB-C connectivity
- The super flat keyboard, while possibly more reliable, is still not particularly comfortable
- The Touch Bar sill feels like a technology in search of a purpose
High end, high prices
Get ready for some serious sticker shock if you want the new MacBook Pro's most-buzzed-about new components and features. The model I unboxed for testing and reviewing is a 15-inch MacBook Pro, which already sets the price floor at $2,399 (£2,349 or AU$3,499). But, this high-end configuration included one of Intel's new six-core Core i9 CPUs, a whopping 32GB of RAM and a hefty 2TB flash storage drive. (2TB used to be the upper limit, now a 4TB drive is available for anyone who wants to drop an extra $2,000.)
All those upgrades take this specific laptop up to $4,699 (£4,409 or AU$7,139). That's expensive, even for the type of creative or technical professional who would be in the market for a machine like this. But, wow, software patch issues aside, it's some powerhouse. When you pull out almost all the stops, you're going to get a laptop that screams, and this one does.
This new 15-inch MacBook Pro and the 13-inch model with Apple's Touch Bar are the only new Mac laptops of 2018 to date, though the rest of the line is rumored to be getting a refresh before the end of the year. As for the Touch Bar itself, its fingerprint reader works with a new separate security chip called the T2 that adds a few extras, like a secure boot path to make sure no tricky malware sneaks into your bootup process. But the Touch Bar itself gains no new killer features, and remains as vexing as ever.
- New eighth-gen quad-core Intel CPU (i7 or i9).
- Support for twice as much RAM (now up to 32GB).
- Twice as much SSD storage capacity available (now up to 4TB).
- New display support for True Tone, which optimizes colors to ambient light conditions.
- New T2 subprocessor for Touch ID security and encryption.
(say "Hey, Siri" to activate).
- Modest tweaks to the super-flat butterfly keyboard. Apple says the changes are only intended to quiet key clack, but they may (or may not) affect reliability, too.
To the nines
This has been my first chance to test a laptop with Intel's eighth-gen, six-core Core i9 CPU. Previously, the 15-inch Pro topped out at a seventh-gen quad-core Core i7, itself no slouch, after the last line update in spring 2017.
Compared to a 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro with a quad-core Core i7, the new six-core Core i9 was significantly faster in the standard benchmark tests we ran, even before Apple patched the CPU throttling issue.
But -- before Apple released the patch -- when setting up an intensive workload to deliberately push the system, we were able to easily cause the Core i9 CPU in our 2018 MacBook Pro to ping-pong its internal temperature and CPU clock speed up and down rapidly, in both video encoding and 3D gaming.
Once Apple released the update, we installed it on our Core i9 15-inch MacBook Pro and repeated some of the same tests. The CPU throttling stopped, and the clock frequency of the CPU and internal system temperature both remained fairly stable, even when running a 4K video encode or a game set to maximum detail settings. In our standard benchmarks, which don't run long enough to have triggered the throttling issue, the pre and post-patch performance was essentially identical.
Do you need that kind of power? Most mere mortals don't, which is why more affordable 12-inch MacBooks and MacBook Air models are still perfectly fine for the websurfing masses. But this the MacBook Pro, and the pro audience does a lot more than websurfing.
For example, when Apple briefed me on the new Pros, the company offered in-person testimonials and demos from several power users, including Carlos Perez, director of the record-breaking Despacito music video, who talked about how the larger storage and faster processor in the MacBook Pro could let him preview and color correct 5K footage in real time, cutting out intermediary steps from his workflow.
Consider the graphics power under the hood, too: While the AMD Radeon Pro 560 inside isn't necessarily a gaming GPU, photo, video and design professionals who are editing 4K video or rendering giant 3D models will find it to be a decent step up from the baseline Intel integrated graphics on the 13-inch model. But for video pros really looking to amp up the power, Apple is also promoting a new $700 external GPU box made by a company called Blackmagic -- albeit sealed with non-upgradeable Radeon video cards.
Tone on tone
True Tone is a display technology already found on recent iPhones and iPad Pros, using light sensors to automatically adjust the color temperature of the display to best match your viewing environment. It can make the color range warmer or colder on the fly by adjusting the white balance. For example, the screen will display colors in a way that better matches how that color would look on a real-world wall or object in your current lighting conditions.
Under all but the most extreme lighting situations, it's a subtle effect at best. Under warm studio lighting, for example, True Tone reflected the color temperature of the room. Clicking the checkbox to turn it off quickly shifted the image back toward a colder tone with a more prominent blue tint.
Anyone editing precise images or video who doesn't want that adjustment can turn True Tone off in the settings menu. And if you're working on an external monitor, the effect can also be used on certain supported external displays, including Apple's recent Thunderbolt Display and LG's UltraFine 4K and 5K monitors.
Keep that keyboard quiet
What's the biggest issue people have with the MacBook's current keyboard design? Is it that the ultraflat keys don't have the same tactile response as the older, deeper keys? Is it the stories about small particles getting wedged in the tight keycaps, leaving some keys sticky or unresponsive? Or is it that the keyboard was just too clacky and loud?
If you chose the third option, you're in luck! Apple says the the new third-generation flat keyboard on the MacBook Pro is quieter than the previous versions. The company officially says this keyboard update has no new engineering or tweaks to specifically address the sticky keys issue, currently the subject of both multiple lawsuits and a new Apple repair program.
But that may not be the whole story. Early teardowns showed a new membrane under the keys, which seems designed to keep at least some dust and grit particles out. Time (and users) will tell if this is enough to mitigate enough of the particulate abuse people submit their laptops to.
Having used Apple's butterfly keyboard across nearly every product shipped with it, starting with the first 12-inch MacBook in 2015, I can say I've encountered the stuck-key issue only occasionally. Not to the point where the keyboard ceases to function, but it was still frustrating when it happened. I found this cleaning methodology worked for all my stuck key issues. At the same time, I've talked to MacBook owners who have had to send their still-new laptops away for keyboard repair, so it is a real issue for some.
This new keyboard is indeed ever-so-slightly quieter. Not that the previous keyboard was especially loud. These new keys have a more muted "thunk" when pressed, rather than a sharp clack. It feels like a softer contact against the button of the key mechanism, which may be due to the transparent silicone membrane. You'd really have to try both generations of MacBook Pro keyboards side by side (which I did) to tell the difference.
The waiting game
Apple clearly wants pro-level customers to feel like they're being heard and that their needs are understood and addressed. Improved pro-level options are finally flowing into the Mac line, starting with the iMac Pro all-in-one late in 2017, and now with these new and improved MacBook Pro laptops. And -- sometime in 2019 -- with a redesigned Mac Pro desktop.
Still, it sometimes feels like it's two steps forward and one step back. The generally impressive iMac Pro is still built around a years-old design and is locked into its nonupgradeable display and components. These new MacBook Pro models finally have the CPU and memory horsepower to make handling large files and complex tasks easier (if you pay up for the biggest upgrades), but the keyboard saga and embarrassing thermal throttling glitch distracted from an otherwise solid upgrade cycle, albeit one lacking significant leaps such as a design overhaul or the addition of Face ID.
All the while, Apple is laddering up to a 2019 relaunch of the Mac Pro desktop. It hasn't gotten a real facelift since the 2013 because its "trashcan" cylinder design couldn't handle the heat (literally) of newer CPU and GPU components. As the redesign progresses, Apple has even set up a so-called Pro Workflow Team to further focus on the sort of elite digital artists -- filmmakers, photographers, designers -- that it continues to target. That's great, but a quick perusal of Twitter would show that pro users want simple but decidedly non-Apple concessions, like keeping a few old-school USB ports on-board. Whether Apple's vision of the new "modular" Mac Pro fits a traditional "slide in new RAM and video cards" vision, or means daisy-chaining locked-down Blackmagic boxes is anyone's guess.
In the meantime, the new MacBook Pro remains the king of the all-around productivity laptops, and if you have a pre-2016 model and are looking for a serious upgrade, it's a clear winner.
For the professionals depending on a serious pro-level tool for their livelihoods, the 15-inch is worth the extra expense, because of its bigger display, AMD GPU power and the new CPUs, including the Core i9 option (although the Core i7 should be enough for many users).
Those seeking a great all-around laptop, and perhaps something a little more portable should look to the 13-inch Pro, which gets most of the same upgrades (and reportedly adds higher-speed Thunderbolt 3 bandwidth to all of its USB-C ports, not just half).
If you're looking to get something nearly as good but spend significantly less, the entry level 13-inch Pro has no new 2018 updates, and no Touch Bar, but is a lot of laptop for $1,299.
However, if you already have a current-design MacBook Pro and you don't need cutting-edge power or more memory headroom, there's probably not enough new to justify a new purchase.
And while this may be the end of the Touch Bar MacBook Pro's story this year, there may yet be more new Macs coming soon. The 12-inch MacBook and MacBook Air, all of the Mac desktops and even the 13-inch Pro without the TouchBar are still only available in their 2017 (or earlier) iterations -- at least for now. You can see the latest predictions about other Mac updates later this year here.
|Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2018)||Apple MacOS Sierra 10.13.6; 2.9GHz Intel Core i9-8950HK; 32GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 4GB Radeon Pro 560X / 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 630; 2TB SSD|
|Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2017)||Apple MacOS Sierra 10.12.5; 2.9GHz Intel Core i7-7820HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 4GB Radeon Pro 560 / 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 630; 512GB SSD|
|Dell XPS 15 9575 2-in-1||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 3.1GHz Intel Core i7-8705G; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,400MHz; 4GB AMD Radeon RX Vega M GL Graphics; 512GB SSD|
|Razer Blade (15-inch, 2018)||Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i7-8750H; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,660MHz; 8GB Nvidia GeFroce GTX 1070 with Max-Q Design; 512GB SSD|
Here's how the new 2018 MacBook Pro with Touch Bar models compare with their 2017 predecessors:
2018 vs. 2017 Apple MacBook Pro specs
|13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (2018)||13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (2017)||15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (2018)||15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (2017)|
|Starting price (USD)||$1,799||$1,799||$2,399||$2,399|
|Starting price (UK)||£1,749||£1,749||£2,349||£2,349|
|Starting price (AUS)||AU$2,699||AU$2,699||AU$3,499||AU$3,499|
|Display||13.3-inch 2,560x1,600-pixel||13.3-inch 2,560x1,600-pixel||15.4-inch 2,880x1,880-pixel||15.4-inch 2,880x1,880-pixel|
|Pixel density||227 ppi||227 ppi||220 ppi||220 ppi|
|Dimensions (imperial)||11.97 x 8.36 inches||11.97 x 8.36 inches||13.75 x 9.48 inches||13.75 x 9.48 inches|
|Dimensions (metric)||304 x 212mm||304 x 212mm||349 x 241mm||349 x 241mm|
|Thickness||0.59 in. (14.9mm)||0.59 in. (14.9mm)||0.61 in. (15.5mm)||0.61 in. (15.5mm)|
|Weight||3.02 lb. (1.37kg)||3.02 lb. (1.37kg)||4.02 lb. (1.83kg)||4.02 lb. (1.83kg)|
|Operating system||MacOS High Sierra||MacOS High Sierra||MacOS High Sierra||MacOS High Sierra|
|Processors||2.3GHz 4-core Intel i5||3.1GHz 2-core Intel i5||2.2GHz 6-core Intel Core i7||2.8GHz 4-core Intel i7|
|Graphics||Intel Iris Plus 655||Intel Iris Plus 650||AMD Radeon Pro 650X (4GB)||AMD Radeon Pro 555 (2GB)|
|Up-spec||2.7GHz 4-core Intel i7||3.5GHz 2-core Intel i7||2.9GHz 6-core Intel i9, Radeon Pro 560X (4GB)||3.1GHz 4-core Intel i7, Radeon 560 (4GB)|
|Storage||256GB / 512GB / 1TB / 2TB||256GB / 512GB / 1TB||512GB / 1TB / 2TB / 4TB||256GB / 512GB / 2TB|
|RAM||8GB / 16GB||8GB / 16GB||16GB / 32GB||16GB|
|Battery (Apple estimate)||10 hours||10 hours||10 hours||10 hours|
|Networking||802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2||802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2||802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2||802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2|
|Ports||4x USB-C (Thunderbolt 3), any can charge; 1x 3.5mm headset||4x USB-C (Thunderbolt 3), any can charge; 1x 3.5mm headset||4x USB-C (Thunderbolt 3), any can charge; 1x 3.5mm headset||4x USB-C (Thunderbolt 3), any can charge; 1x 3.5mm headset|
|Cameras||720p FaceTime HD||720p FaceTime HD||720p FaceTime HD||720p FaceTime HD|
|Touch Bar/Touch ID||Yes, powered by T2 subprocessor||Yes, powered by T1 subprocessor||Yes, powered by T2 subprocessor||Yes, powered by T1 subprocessor|
|Trackpad||Force Touch||Force Touch||Force Touch||Force Touch|
|Colors||Space gray, silver||Space gray, silver||Space gray, silver||Space gray, silver|
Senior Editor Justin Jaffe contributed to this review.
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