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MacBook Pro 13in (2018) Review

PRICE WHEN REVIEWED
  • From $1,799
Long had the MacBook Pro been the no-brainer laptop choice of the professional twenty-first century digital worker. Creatives, journalists and music producers alike would buy one, run it into the ground and then buy a new one.


But then Apple slimmed the Pro down, took away USB-A, took away the SD card slot, and even reinvented the function row as the Touch Bar. People still bought the new MacBook Pro, but a few others raised an eyebrow or two as the price went up and the ports disappeared.

Yet the 2018 13in MacBook Pro is still a great computer. It has exceptional build, a vibrant display, an improved keyboard and solid battery life. But its price and hamstrung ports might put off those who still need peripherals in their workflow and aren’t all in on cloud computing. Or dongles.

PRICE AND AVAILABILITY
Apple sells a 13in and a 15in MacBook Pro. Our colleagues at Macworld UK reviewed the 15in 2018 model

Here, we reviewed the 13in with Touch Bar, but you can also opt for a 13in without the Touch Bar. The latter is still the 2017 model, so if you want Coffee Lake 2018 Intel chips, you have to go for the more expensive Touch Bar models that start at £1,749/$1,799

The model we received for review from Apple costs £3,599/$3,699 and has an Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB RAM and 2TB storage. If you need the eye-wateringly expensive 6-core Core i9 processor or 4TB SSD option, Apple forces you to get the pricier 15in computer - and the same applies for 32GB RAM.

Purchasing the MacBook Pro directly from Apple allows you to upgrade the processor, RAM and storage at point of purchase, so choose wisely as this is not a computer you can upgrade over time given its sealed chassis design.

DESIGN AND BUILD
Like every MacBook Pro before it, the 2018 model is a paragon of sleek modern Apple design. Smart in silver but slicker in Space Grey, it’s a laptop that manages to feel as expensive as it is - not something we can say for every Windows ultrabook.

That said, this is the design Apple introduced in 2016 so it’s a third year vintage by now. But it’s an incredibly sturdy and solid design that is only 14.9mm thick.

More noticable, still, are the only ports: a headphone jack and four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports, two on either side of the base. We’ll discuss the limitations of what Apple calls ‘the most powerful and versatile port ever’ later in this review.

The thin speaker grilles either side of the keyboard are at right angles to the Touch Bar that still replaces the function row of keys. The lid is plain save for the metallic Apple logo that doesn’t light up anymore.

On the base are four rubber feet and barely anything else. The MacBook Pro is a closed aluminium shell of the highest quality with no bend or flex and we enjoyed using it as a desirable piece of tech just as much as the first MacBooks we ever laid hands on.

KEYBOARD AND TRACKPAD
The keyboard is full size with keys well spaced and with Apple’s third generation butterfly mechanism. The great news here is that the typing experience is a fine upgrade on the controversial keys that were reported to break at the merest hint of dust or crumb. 

The keys have a sturdier feel to them and are less clicky than the 2016 and 2017 versions, with more of a clunk. A teardown from iFixit shows that Apple has added a rubber membrane to the keys that it says makes the keyboard quieter, which it does, but this is also undoubtedly to stop dirt getting under the keys and breaking them.

The travel is still shallow and you may want to try one out before you buy, and we found the keyboard great even for long typing work days. But we are still more accurate with keys of higher travel like Apple’s Magic Keyboard or the Microsoft Surface Book 2. 
Above the keyboard is the controversial Touch Bar that we still find a hindrance. Unlike last year, Apple now forces you to get a Touch Bar MacBook Pro if you want the latest Intel chips but often all you want to do is hit escape or change the screen brightness or volume.

These common typing taks are now two, not one tap away and it’s as frustrating as it has ever been. We did get used to it after a week, but there are still no excellent software uses for the Touch Bar outside of scrubbing through audio or making minute rotation adjustments in Photoshop. The Touch Bar for most remains a feature that drives up the price and, most likely, drives down productivity.

Better is the enormous glass trackpad with Apple’s industry-leading Force Touch input. Clicking is simulated with haptic feedback but it feels for all the world like a real physical click. Pushing harder lets you ‘Force click’, a double click that triggers various functions depending on the software (on a web browser doing so on a word shows you its dictionary entry). It’s still the best trackpad on any computer.

Gestures on a pad of this size are also easier to pull off, and makes the combination of it with the improved keyboard a pleasure to use.

SCREEN
Apple will likely never make a touchscreen MacBook so as not to cannibalise its iPad line. But the display here is exceptionally good as you would expect from a Macintosh, and you won’t get it all smudged up with fingerprints.

It’s a 13.3in LED backlit IPS display with a resolution of 2560x1600 and 227ppi (translated: phenomenal). For 2018 Apple has added True Tone technology to its Touch Bar MacBook Pro screens previously only seen on the iPad Pro line. Brightness levels, as always, are excellent and utterly consistent over the entire screen area.

True Tone measures the ambient light and adjusts the display to represent the best tones for your environment and making the display kinder on the eyes. But some professionals working in photo and video will switch this off as it takes away the accuracy of colour reproduction necessary to their work.

The hues True Tone decides on are totally based on ambient light. Sometimes it'll add blues, sometimes it'll take them away and give you the most paper-like appearance it can. It works very well, and if you leave it on you won't realise it's working (in a good way).

And although you can barely notice it, the Touch Bar also has True Tone, which is toggled on and off along with the screen.

The 500 nits-capable display supports the P3 wide colour gamut for 25% more colours than sRGB, and supports scaling to three other resolutions. From word processing to spreadsheets, Netflix to Final Cut Pro, this is a display that is up there as one of the best you can buy on a laptop.

CORE SPECS AND PERFORMANCE
We can only benchmark the performance of the model we reviewed, which is the 2.7GHz eight-generation Intel Core i7 13in MacBook Pro with 16GB LPDDR3 RAM and a 2TB SSD. That 2.7GHz can max out at 4.5GHz if needed for intense renders.

Also inside is Apple’s T2 chip  that made its debut on the iMac Pro. It’s best to think of the T2 as the brain to the Intel processor’s muscle. It helps run manage subsystem processes and actually handles the speakers, mics and cooling system all on its own.

It does a lot more besides, and is a hint that Apple is moving towards phasing out Intel chips altogether. Apple built the T2 in-house, has its A series chips in its phones and its W series in its wireless headphones, so surely soon we'll see its own silicon in its MacBooks.

But for now we have Intel. The Core i7 in this 13in MacBook Pro holds its own in our benchmarking, beating last year’s model by some distance, but remember the base model has a lower powered i5. If you want i9 power, you’ll have to upgrade to the 15in version.

The below chart shows the MacBook Pro we reviewed pitched against the 2018 i9 15in model, the 15in i7 from 2017 and Acer, Dell and Microsoft rival latpops with similar silicon. The 13in i7 model reviewed here outperformed all but the Core i9 MacBook Pro in the Geekbench 4 multi-core test.

After the well documented issues with throttling in the Core i9 model, Apple has clearly fixed the problem (a problem that has never affected the 13in MacBook Pro).

You can also see the Cinebench GPU test vs last year’s i7 15in MacBook Pro, and it’s great to see the 13in i7 model we reviewed achieving practically the same score.

CONNECTIVITY AND AUDIO
Depending on your perspective, connectivity could be the MacBook Pro’s Achilles’ heel. With four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports (only two if you buy the cheaper 2017 non-Touch Bar version) the laptop is technically very capable. Thunderbolt 3 offers extremely fast throughput and the laptop can support two 4K displays or one 5K.

But many professionals and consumers alike do not have a Thunderbolt 3 ecosystem - for several years the older Thunderbolt 2 connections were based on a proprietary port. Much of the trouble Apple has faced in removing them from its laptops along with USB-A is the backlash from users who want the faster MacBook, but balk at having to buy USB-C dongles and Thunderbolt 3 compatible peripherals to take advantage of the new standard’s speed.

Thunderbolt 3 is capable of data transfer speeds of 40Gb/s, so the advantages are there for professionals who need that kind of performance in their workflow. But they’ll need to buy Thunderbolt 3 hard drives for a start, and the expenditure goes up. Soon, it’ll be accepted, but in this transition period it is Apple that is getting it in the neck about changing the standard to USB-C.

So if you can live with the dongles and adapters, your older Thunderbolt 2 devices are still compatible, just not as fast. Also on board is Bluetooth 5.0 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi as you’d expect from a high-end laptop in 2018.

Audio is covered by the stereo speakers flanking the keyboard. They get pleasingly loud and remain undistorted at all but the highest volume, and are better than most laptop speakers on the market. It’s an area Apple truly excels in particularly given the slim form factor of the MacBook Pro.

Three mics cover input duties (pretty much for video calling) while the trusty 3.5mm headphone jack remains. Taking that away is clearly one leap too far, even if it has left the iPhone.

BATTERY LIFE
Real world battery life on this laptop is outstanding. We could work through a full eight hour work day starting with a full charge and comfortably end the day at around 20% having used memory- and battery- guzzling apps like Photoshop, Chrome and Spotify with Bluetooth headphones.

As soon as you start to render video away from the power then you are looking at around three hours tops from the cell, but that’s still impressive given the power of the machine.

The below chart shows our standard battery test of looping a 720p video file at 120cd/m2 brightness from full until depleted. Only the Microsoft Surface Book 2 15in from 2018 outlasted the 13in MacBook Pro, which interestingly survived longer than the 15in model (we plan to retake this test to check that stat).


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