However, the more recent MacBooks I’ve used have been a mixed bag. Not only are Apple’s last couple MacBook iterations unrepairable and non-upgradeable, but I find that the computing experience has been compromised in some key areas. Apple’s laptops used to be so competitive that I’d recommend them just for use with Windows. But then PC manufacturers started upping their game, and since late 2016, it’s been extremely hard to recommend the Pros. How did we get to this place?
The new 2018 MacBook Pros attempt to atone for some of the line’s recent performance missteps by throwing powerful new processors, tweaked graphics cards, a massaged keyboard, more RAM, and bigger SSDs into a product meant for the professionals who consistently rely on these machines. But over the past week that I’ve been using the new, 15-inch MacBook Pro running on a top-of-the-line Intel processor, I’ve found that what Apple’s offering has a surprising number of caveats—its eye-watering price tag among them—you’ll have to consider.
Apple gets complaints from the Mac faithful. Mac fans are a passionate minority who like to kvetch about everything from file systems to UI consistency. The top complaint might be that the Cupertino company just isn’t as consistent at updating its products as other PC makers. For instance, the Mac mini continues to feature Intel chips from 2014. And desktop users still wait with bated breath for the triumphant return of the Mac Pro, which was last released in 2013 and…never got better internals.
The eighth-generation Intel processors in the absolute newest MacBooks give pro users a big reason to consider upgrading.
Mac laptops have been updated more consistently, but as they’ve been updated, they’ve also shed some features (like popular ports) that have forced customers into what feels like laptop limbo where they can’t find a computer that meets all their needs. Thankfully, the eighth-generation Intel processors in the absolute newest MacBooks give pro users a big reason to consider upgrading. In every model, you’ll get more processor cores, better graphics (be they discrete or integrated) and overall faster performance.
This is especially the case with the 15-inch models. Apple pro laptops were capped at four cores for a long time—until now. The new eighth-gen Intel chips in these machines, no matter which 15-inch you pick up, now include two bonus cores. As muscle car fans might say, there’s no replacement for displacement, and these tiny silicon engines give you a whopping total of 6 cores and 12 threads, leaving previous Macs in the dust at the drag strip.
The 15-inch model I sampled sported 32 GB of RAM and a new Intel processor, the Core i9. Don’t let the confusing naming throw you off, though—this 6-core, 12-thread, $350 upgrade is just a faster i7. I was able to use the new MacBook Pro to encode a video into the demanding H.265 codec 26 percent faster than a previous, quad-core 15-inch Pro.
Our video and graphics team, who, let’s face it, are the real pro users at WIRED, put the i9 MacBook Pro through its paces as well. The Cinema4D performance from this laptop was impressive, and they noted a marked improvement in render times of 3-D frames with complex material reflections.
Most folks will opt for the cheaper i7-based models. I think that’s reasonable, given the kinds of money you can throw at a spec’d-out Pro. My review unit came with a blisteringly fast 2TB SSD as well, ringing the till at $4,700. If you opt for the 4TB SSD, the price blows beyond the $6K mark quickly, reaching $6,700 if you tick the box for every build-to-order hardware option available.
Accompanying the feats of logical strength was the MacBook Pro’s twin fan setup, which made its presence known by hissing like a white noise generator whenever extra power was called upon. It’s worth noting, as well, that my final tests were run after Apple’s performance patch was applied to the review system. After that update, I noticed significantly more consistent speeds with less fluctuation than before.
Though pros will appreciate the extra cores when it comes to rendering and compiling, I’m a semi-pro on the best of days. But even I was wowed by the additional headroom the new CPU grants users. I could keep working in Chrome while running an intensive app like Handbrake in the background without noticing much, if any, slowdown. There’s enough power for all kinds of multitasking, whether that means keeping more tabs open, granting a virtual machine an extra processor, or juggling Word and OneNote and Adobe Lightroom.
Battery life seemed pretty good, at least when the system wasn’t terribly taxed. I could easily make it through a few hours of light work and web use without getting range anxiety. Obviously, once you push the pedal to the floor, you’ll be able to watch the battery meter tick down, but I think any mobile workstation user already carries a power adapter at all times—at least Apple’s included white USB-C power brick is relatively compact.
In the 2016 redesign of its top-tier notebooks, Apple switched out a tried-and-true scissor switch with the now-infamous butterfly mechanism, reducing key travel to a measly half a millimeter. The company spun the decision as one to increase the “stability” of said keys, though I don’t think that’s a complaint anyone ever had with the softer, more comfortable MacBook keyboards of yore.
Personally, I feel that in swapping the Pro keyboard for the shallow butterfly-style version, Apple severely damaged its MacBook Pro line. Anecdotal reliability issues aside (myself and coworkers have suffered through jammed key switches on our last-gen MacBooks, for what it’s worth), I was told by its defenders that the butterfly keyboard just “takes getting used to,” which isn’t something you could say about the excellent input devices built into the laptop’s forbears.
These new 2018 MacBook Pros have a similar butterfly keyboard mechanism. The choice is bound to be similarly controversial, even though Apple’s touting its improved switch design. Teardowns show that the new version of the keyboard adds a silicone baffle under each keycap. Whether it’s designed to keep dust from jamming up the switch or to simply muffle the sound of the keyboard is beside the point. I’d say that the new keyboard is a little quieter, but it mostly has a less obnoxious sonic signature. Instead of a high-pitched, clacky pocka-pocka-pocka echoing around your local café, you’ll now hear a slightly lower, less nervous sound. The new switches had a slightly softer feel to them, which my sensitive fingers appreciated.
But, for me, this is still a sub-par keyboard. I shouldn’t have to “get used to” a keyboard on a multi-thousand-dollar computer, and it shouldn’t make my hands hurt doing what it was designed to do. The older keyboards were better, and Mac users deserve a better typing experience for what they’re paying.
Then there’s the Touch Bar. Somewhere between a keyboard and a touchscreen, this tiny display sits atop the keyboard and offers up some alternative, touch-friendly controls. You can program it to display controls from third-party apps, like Adobe Photoshop, but I’ve found that the Touch Bar works best for me when it’s set up to act like a normal assortment of buttons.
While some pieces of software offer up some unique interactive experiences, I find the Touch Bar’s presence incredibly distracting—the lower strip flashes between controls as you click around, and it constantly draws my eyes away from the big, gorgeous Retina display that I’m supposed to be looking at. Y’know, that vivid, high-resolution screen where all the real work gets done? My twitchy peepers see a sudden pop of color or motion down below and they lock onto the Bar every. Single. Time.
The best part of the Touch Bar setup, however, is the inclusion of a fast, accurate fingerprint sensor for logins and for authorizing Apple Pay transactions. I would have loved for Apple to bring the iPhone X’s Face ID to the Mac, but given how long it took the company to grant the Mac any built-in biometric security, it’s likely going to be a while before we get facial recognition on an Apple laptop.
One thing Apple’s added to this batch of Pros is its True Tone color-shifting feature, first seen on the iPad Pro. This means the laptop, using ambient sensors, will adjust the tone of the screen based on the environment you’re working in. I think this is a nice-to-have for everyone but the pro users Apple hopes to win back. Meaning, it’s great for people who just want something that’s easy on the eyes, but pros working on visual projects might not always want a calibrated screen that skews color to match the lighting of the surrounding environment. Like the Touch Bar, this is a feature the MacBook Pro’s target audience might even disable as soon as they set up their new computer, making it a dubious value add.
When Apple went all-in on USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 in the 2016 MacBook Pro, the change was surprising. Especially to pros with mountains of accessories and a workflow to maintain, it was understandably disruptive coming off the prior MacBook Pros—y’know, the old ones with the regular USB ports and HDMI and an SD card reader? Since then, the state of USB-C accessories has improved quite a bit, and those who need to remain on a MacBook Pro have adapted (heh) and accepted their new one-port-to-rule-them-all lord-of-the-ports USB-C.
And things are trending towards Apple’s precedent. More and more Windows laptops are adopting the Thunderbolt/USB-C setup because it has some advantages—it can be used for all kinds of peripherals from external GPUs to keyboards and mice. That said, Apple’s MacBook Pro is the lone pro-grade notebook that has nothing but Thunderbolt 3, and for some that’ll continue to be annoying.
People in hell want ice water, and creative pros in dongle hell want USB-A and an SD card reader. The ability to plug any device into any port, in any orientation is one thing. But diminished utility is another. For my day-to-day routine, fishing a USB-A to USB-C adapter out of my backpack just so I can occasionally authenticate using my YubiKey is vexing. I can only imagine what it’s like for working professionals to have to juggle adapters for hard drives, external displays, SD card readers, and other requisite peripherals. (Though I will admit, it’s also nice to top off my Nintendo Switch with a MacBook charger in a pinch.)
Does USB-C simplify the MacBook Pro? Yes. But it can put the burden on the user, something a truly elegant solution should never do.
When you spend a boatload of money on something, you expect it to satisfy your needs. With the 2018 MacBook Pro, it’ll depend—making it a hard decision. The model I tried was well-equipped with the Core i9 processor, 32 GB of DDR4 RAM, and a blisteringly-quick 2 TB SSD. The price? $4,700. Ouch.
For me, what you don’t get is almost as staggering as the price: there are no USB-C adapters in the box, the power cord no longer comes with an extension cord, everything is soldered down, making the MacBook Pro impervious to upgrades or emergency component swaps. Did the guy in seat 23B spill his ginger ale onto your Mac? Hope you backed up terabytes of your client’s work before boarding—the $1,400 SSD might have survived unscathed, but it’s wedded to a RAM chip that was bathed in fizz and now your laptop won’t boot.
It used to be that when you bought a MacBook Pro, you got the best hardware around, along with the best operating system. Increasingly, these MacBooks feel like they beat up on the Mac faithful for favoring that ecosystem. It’s an exercise in maddening compromises: with the 2018 Pro, you’ll get the fastest-ever mobile Intel chips, but that silicon is saddled to a laptop with a keyboard that’s just not great. You’ll finally get the option to get 32 GB of RAM, but you’ll have to carry a gaggle of dongles everywhere you go. You’ll get a gorgeous display, but it’s not true 4K.
And, even with the performance updates in place, the thin chassis of the MacBook Pro will likely never let the hot Core i9 chip run at its maximum advertised Turbo Boost speeds, at least not for more than a fleeting moment. The laws of physics still apply, no matter how chic your industrial design appears.
What adds insult to injury is that better-than-ever notebooks on the Windows side of the fence don’t carry a lot of those compromises. But you certainly won’t be able to run Apple’s macOS on them—and if you need a powerful, portable Mac, this is the option you have.
When you spend a ton of cold, hard, cash on something, you should get everything you need. Unfortunately, Mac users can only buy hardware from one source—Apple. Apple’s made a lot of noise lately about taking the needs of pros seriously. But I’ve used this finished product for a while and have to wonder about that. Because, if you let creative professionals design the 2018 MacBook Pro, I think it’d look a whole lot different than it does right now. I think it would be more modular, have a higher-res screen, a normal keyboard without a superfluous Touch Bar, and a wider array of useful ports.
But the trackpad, that can stay. That part they got right.