Gears & Gadgets

15-inch MacBook Pro mini-review: How much does Apple’s fastest laptop offer?

For the longest time, one of my main frustrations with the 15-inch MacBook Pro has been that you could usually get much faster video performance in similar Windows machines. For computers intended for video editors, game developers, and so on, that’s a big problem.

The MacBook Pro we reviewed last year was generally a good workhorse for Mac users, albeit with a steep price tag. But since we published that review, Apple has expanded its configuration options in two very important ways for performance. First, you can configure a new MacBook Pro with an Intel Core i9 CPU with eight cores, not just six. Second, there are now pricier workstation graphics options that up the video performance ante over any other recent MacBook Pro.

Of course, selecting both these options when buying means you’re spending a minimum of $ 3,349. So the question now becomes: does the Pro deliver performance that’s worth the cost, and who is this for at that price?

We’re going to try to answer those questions about the maxed-out 2019 15-inch MacBook Pro. And since we’re just looking at a specs bump over the last 15-inch MacBook Pro we reviewed, this will be a narrower look focusing almost entirely on graphics and CPU performance. Other than a slightly tweaked keyboard, more CPU cores, and the much-faster Vega discrete GPU option, there’s not much new here. That may not be a bad thing.

Specs

Specs at a glance: 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro
Screen 2880×1800 at 15.4-inches and 500 nits
OS macOS Mojave 10.14.5
CPU 2.4GHz 8-core Intel Core i9 (5GHz Turbo) with 16MB shared L3 cache
RAM 32GB 2400MHz DDR4
GPU Radeon Pro Vega 20 with 4GB HMB2
HDD 4TB SSD
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi; IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n; Bluetooth 5.0
Ports 4x Thunderbolt 3, 3.5mm headphone
Size 0.61-inch×13.75-inch×9.48-inch (1.55cm×34.93cm×24.07cm)
Weight 4.02lbs (1.83kg)
Warranty 1 year, or 3 years with AppleCare+ ($ 379)
Price as reviewed $ 5,149
Other perks 720p FaceTime HD camera, stereo speakers, three microphones

We have a total of three ninth-generation Intel CPU configuration options. At the low end is a 2.6GHz, 6-core, Intel Core i7 with a 12MB L3 cache and Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz. The next step up is an 8-core Core i9 processor with a 16MB L3 cache and Turbo Boost up to 4.8GHz. Finally, you can amp that up ever-so-slightly by going to an otherwise-similar Core i9 with a 2.4GHz clock speed and Turbo Boost up to 5GHz.

In any case, you’re looking at an integrated Intel UHD Graphics 630 for low-power operations and support for 2400MHz DDR4 memory. Speaking of memory: the default is 16GB DDR4, but you can spend $ 400 to take it up to 32GB. Most people won’t need 32GB in the near future, but it’s a relatively recent addition that is nice to have for some use cases.

GPU comes in four discrete configurations. The bottom two are the ones we already saw in the 2018 model: AMD Radeon Pro 55X with 4GB of GDDR5, or AMD Radeon Pro 560X with 4GB. New since our last review are the Radeon Pro Vega 15 with 4GB of HBM2 memory and the Radeon Pro Vega 20 with the same.

Solid-state storage options include 512GB, 1TB, 2TB, or 4TB. Apple recently cut the prices of these to be much more competitive in the current marketplace, making 1TB a more viable upgrade at an additional $ 200 over the base spec. However, that 4TB option is still nuts, even though the upgrade costs half as much as it did before, at $ 1,400.

Like previous models, the Pro has four Thunderbolt 3 ports, a headphone jack, 802.11a/b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 5, a 15.4-inch 2,880×1,800-resolution display with a max of 500 nits of brightness and P3 wide color, and a 720p front-facing video camera. Apple estimates up to 10 hours of battery life for movie playback or wireless Web browsing.

Our review unit is fully maxed out. We have the 2.4GHz 8-core Core i9, 32GB of RAM, the Radeon Pro Vega 20, and 4TB of SSD storage. That means our unit would cost $ 5,149 in the Apple store, which is, of course, far outside most users’ price ranges. Note, though, that $ 1,400 is the SSD alone, and it’s more than $ 1,500 less expensive than the top-spec MacBook Pro just a year ago, despite delivering notably improved performance.

Still, this is one of the most expensive mainstream laptops you can buy. I’m not sure I’d even call it mainstream anymore, if for no other reason than it comes equipped with workstation-class graphics.

Design

The current 15-inch MacBook Pro looks and feels identical to the one we reviewed in 2018. It still has a Touch Bar, and it still has 15.4-inch IPS display with a resolution of 2880 x 1800 pixels. It still has the luxuriously large touch pad, it still has four Thunderbolt 3 ports, and it still weighs roughly four pounds and is 0.61 inches thick. A teardown by iFixit found the internals to be largely the same, too, for all intents and purposes.

The new new new butterfly keyboard

The only design change is the newest-generation butterfly keyboard, which Apple believes will be more reliable than its problem-laden predecessors. It’s too soon for us to make a judgment about the keyboard’s reliability for ourselves; it hasn’t broken in the few weeks we’ve had it, but that won’t tell you much.

It doesn’t feel any different under my fingers than the 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro I reviewed about a year ago. That keyboard did feel a bit different than the one that came before, and it was a little quieter, too. Those subtle benefits are here as well, but you probably wouldn’t be able to tell the difference even with the two most recent iterations side-by-side.

We’ve already written at length about the keyboard in these laptops, and the takeaway remains the same: they’re divisive. Some people like typing on them—I’m one of those people. Some people hate typing on them. Polling the Ars staff, it anecdotally seems like about a 60/40 split against the butterfly keyboards.

So we recommend trying one at the Apple Store (if one is nearby) before purchasing. Give it a little time; they feel quite different to type on than most laptop keyboards. You might find you like it after a while. Or you might really not. We can’t predict that for you, but they’re controversial enough that caution is advised.

Performance

Performance is what this review is all about, so let’s jump into the benchmarks. Here’s what we’re testing.

Model CPU GPU
2019 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar Intel Core i9-9980HK at 2.4GHz (5GHz Turbo) Radeon Pro Vega 20 4GB HMB2
2018 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar Intel Core i9-8950K at 2.9GHz (4.8GHz Turbo) AMD Radeon Pro 560X 4GB GDDR5
2018 Mac mini Intel Core i7-8700B at 3.2GHz (4.6GHz turbo) Intel UHD Graphics 630
2017 iMac Pro Intel Xeon W at 3GHz (4.5GHz Turbo) AMD Radeon Pro Vega 64 16GB HMB2
2019 HP Spectre x360 15 Intel Core i7-8750H at 2.2GHz (4.1GHz Turbo) Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti 4GB
2018 HP Spectre x360 15 Intel Core i7-8550U at 1.8GHz (4.0GHz Turbo) Nvidia GeForce MX150
2018 Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 Intel Core i7-8705G at 3.1GHz (4.1GHz Turbo) Radeon RX Vega M GL 4GB HMB2
Microsoft Surface Laptop 2 Intel Core i7-8650U at 1.9GHz (4.2GHz Turbo) Intel UHD Graphics 620

And now for the results.

Listing image by Samuel Axon

We saw 25-35% faster CPU performance over the fastest Core i9 CPU in the 2018 model, depending on the test. More significantly, we’re looking at up to 88% faster graphics performance from the Vega 20 compared to the 560X that was top-of-the-line last year. That’s a dramatic graphics-performance gain, and it puts this laptop in range of many of the most powerful 15-inch laptop workstations that are much less portable and much louder.

The Cinebench R15 test produced lower and lower results as we ran repeated successive tests, bottoming out around 1,125. This suggests some heat-related throttling that is endemic to this thin form factor. This is not unexpected, and it’s not anything at all like the severe, abnormal throttling we saw in last year’s model before a firmware update fixed an issue found in the first units. But it’s worth noting that the sustained performance ceiling is going to be a little lower than optimal to achieve the portability this laptop offers.

The takeaway here is that the MacBook Pro finally offers competitive discrete graphics performance, albeit at an unsurprisingly steep price. If you want a portable Mac that doesn’t need an eGPU for efficient video editing or even 60fps gaming, we’ve found it here.

You get what you pay for, at least where speed is concerned

All the usual caveats about divisive design features remain. There are no USB-A ports. There are no physical function keys. The touchpad is enormous. It has a butterfly-keyboard mechanism. If you’re reading this, I’m fairly certain you have already settled into an opinion on those items. (My takes: it’s still inconvenient at times to use USB-C, but it might be worthwhile in many cases. I’m mostly annoyed at peripheral-makers for not keeping up, as Apple is not the only company taking this approach now. I rather enjoy the huge touchpad. I like using the keyboard, but the reliability issues are a serious concern.)

However, one of my long-standing criticisms of the MacBook Pro has been addressed to some degree here: you can finally get some decently powerful video performance out of this machine. For several years, even the maxed-out 15-inch MacBook Pros had underwhelming discrete GPUs. The Vega 20 shows considerable improvement for workstation use cases, though I should note that it is a whopping $ 400 more than the previous top-GPU option.

The latest MacBook Pro’s inclusion of these hyper-expensive Vega workstation graphics is another in a long series of signals that Apple has two narrow primary audiences in mind for the MacBook Pro: creative production professionals, and iOS and Web developers. (Though the workstation graphics are not actually that relevant to the latter, in most cases.) This laptop is specialized to largely serve those audiences, apart from the keyboard-reliability concerns, which are still an open question with these new machines.

It might be enough to say that the new Pro is one of the fastest thin 15-inch laptops you can buy, but what’s doubly impressive is that the Pro accomplishes this while also having such a portable form factor. Apple achieved this by making the laptop virtually impossible to repair efficiently. The Pro is essentially one aluminum slab that, in many cases, must be serviced by a certified Apple repair technician. I wouldn’t buy one of these things without also buying AppleCare+—regardless of the fact that the keyboards are part of a free repair program, something else could go wrong too, and it’ll cost you don’t have AppleCare.

In other words, it’s a MacBook Pro as we’ve known it for a few years now. But it’s a MacBook Pro with blistering-fast workstation graphics and CPU cores-aplenty. It’s a very attractive machine if you—or perhaps more likely, your employer—have at least $ 3,500 to spend and you want something highly portable and powerful at the same time for certain kinds of work.

Is that a recommendation? I think so. But it’s a recommendation to an ever-smaller group of people, and Apple seems to be cool with that. At least with this spec, the “Pro” moniker is a lot harder to dispute.

The Good

  • Very strong graphics performance for this form factor
  • The best available CPU performance is less of an improvement, but it’s still a step up for multi-threaded workflows
  • Apple’s software, services, and support remain top-notch
  • It still has one of the best displays in any laptop in terms of color accuracy

The Bad

  • It’s extremely expensive, treading well into professional-use-only territory
  • The keyboard remains divisive and unreliable
  • A lot of people are itching for a new design, and I feel confident in speculating that this approach to the MacBook Pro is not too much longer for this world, given recent happenings at Apple and the company’s past cadence

The Ugly

  • You pretty much need AppleCare+ to buy a Mac without risking big-ticket repairs down the line these days, adding to an already steep cost and barriers to potential buyers who don’t live or work near an Apple Store

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Tech – Ars Technica

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