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Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2018) review:The tricked-out MacBook Pro recovers from an early software stumble

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The Good The latest 15-inch MacBook Pro offers major internal upgrades to the CPU, RAM, storage and display. The Core i9 version delivers a worthwhile speed boost on processor-intensive tasks.

The Bad The basic design hasn't been updated, keeping the same advantages and flaws. Adding the new high-end options drives the cost way up.

The Bottom Line The 2018 MacBook Pro 15-inch laptop delivers the serious computing muscle that power users and creative pros crave -- but everyone else should wait for the rest of the line to be updated.

8.2 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 8
  • Performance 9
  • Battery 8

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: 

MacBook Go!

  • 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

MacBook No!

  • 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

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Sarah Tew/CNET

The specs

Here's a rundown of all of the new and improved 13-inch and 15-inch specs:

  • 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.
  • Hands-free Siri (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 ($1,269 at Amazon) and MacBook Air ($875 at Walmart) 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.

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Carlos Perez, director of the Despacito music video.

Brooks Kraft

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.

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