We’re well into an effort by Apple to win over pro Mac users who have been dissatisfied with recent design and technology choices. But even as many of those users have expressed frustration, MacBook Pro sales have been relatively strong.
Part of that disconnect comes down to parsing what Apple means when it adds the “Pro” label to a piece of hardware. Naturally, the term means different things to different people depending on what exactly they’re professionals at doing.
Then there’s the fact that the MacBook Pro has lived a double life not just as a pro workstation but as the high-end consumer Mac. Lots of people buy MacBook Pros who aren’t professionals—at least, not professionals at doing the sorts of things they might actually need a $3,000 computer for. These users buy it because it’s simply the best-performing Mac laptop.
So what kinds of professionals are the newly revised MacBook Pros for? Is it a worthwhile investment for consumers? We recently spent a week with the top spec of the 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro to find out.
Let’s start with the 13-inch model’s specs. The entry-level specification is priced at $1,299 (though the one with the Touch Bar starts at $1,799).
The screen is unchanged compared to the previous one. It’s a 13.3-inch LED-backlit IPS display with a resolution of 2,560×1,600 pixels—that’s 227 pixels per inch. It maxes out at 500 nits of brightness and supports P3 Wide Color and Apple’s True Tone feature.
Specs at a glance: 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro Screen 2880×1800 at 15.4-inches and 500 nits OS macOS High Sierra 10.13.6 CPU 2.9GHz 6-core Intel Core i9 (4.8GHz Turbo) with 12MB shared L3 cache RAM 32GB 2400MHz DDR4 GPU Radeon Pro 560X 4GB GDDR5 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 $6,699 Other perks 720p FaceTime HD camera, stereo speakers, three microphones
There are two CPU options in the 13-inch model: a 2.3GHz Intel Core i5 quad-core processor and a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 for an additional $300. RAM is LPDDR3 (so the same as last year) at 2133MHz. The base spec is 8GB, but it can be upgraded to 16GB for $200. Solid-state storage starts at 256GB, with more expensive 512GB, 1TB, and 2TB options.
Those chipsets bring Intel Iris Plus 650 graphics—this time with 128MB of eDRAM, twice as much as before. For reference, last year’s models only had two cores and less maximum storage. For connectivity, you get four Thunderbolt 3 ports and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
And then there’s the 15-inch, which we’re reviewing today. It starts at $2,399. Once again, the display is the same: a 15.4-inch, 500-nit LED-backlit IPS display with a 2,880×1,800 resolution at 220ppi, with P3 Wide Color and True Tone support.
There are three Intel CPU options, all Coffee Lake/8th generation: a 2.2GHz Core i7 processor with six cores and with Intel’s Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz; a 2.6GHz Core i7 with 4.3GHz Turbo Boost, and a 2.9GHz Core i9—also with six cores, and with Turbo Boost up to 4.8GHz. The base spec has 16GB of 2400MHz DDR4 memory—that’s compared to LPDDR3 last year, and there is now an upgrade option to 32GB for $400.
The base GPU is a Radeon Pro 555X with 4GB of GDDR5, and you can upgrade to the 560X with the same amount of memory for an additional $100. All 15-inch models additionally have Intel’s integrated UHD Graphics 630.
Things get really wild price-wise when we factor in the SSD. The options start at 256GB, but you can upgrade to 512GB (for an additional $200 over the base spec), 1TB ($600), 2TB ($1,400), or for the first time, 4TB ($3,400). For connectivity, we’re again looking at four Thunderbolt 3 ports and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
Some notes on configurations and pricing
Our review unit is a maxed-out 15-inch model with the 6-core Intel Core i9 CPU (8950HK). It also means 32GB of 2400Mhz DDR4 memory, a Radeon Pro 560X discrete GPU with 4GB of GDDR5 memory, and a whopping 4TB of flash storage.
To buy a MacBook Pro with the same specs from Apple’s store, you’d have to spend $6,699. That’s obviously outrageous territory for most consumers (though not necessarily for all pros) but note that the storage upgrade accounts for about half of that price. Dropping the SSD to a more modest 512GB lowers the price to a still pricey but more normal $3,500.
Apart from attaching Thunderbolt peripherals like external SSDs and eGPUs, there is no realistic upgrade path for any component in this computer. So make sure you get what you need in the initial configuration if you buy.
But do you actually need to spring for those additions? I live in Los Angeles, and many of my friends work in Hollywood in exactly the sorts of creative roles Apple had in mind with this machine. So I reached out to a couple of video editor friends asking if they would spring $3,200 to get 4TB of internal storage.
I got different answers; unsurprisingly, needs and priorities vary even within one profession. To be fair, though, they worked in different types of roles. The first works at a major broadcast network producing and editing on-air promos, and the second is a freelance story producer and editor for documentary films and reality series on Netflix and cable networks.
The first told me that, while filmed footage takes an enormous amount of hard drive space, video producers and editors are already accustomed to working on an external drive, and the existing connection for that (Thunderbolt 3) is good enough to make that workflow relatively painless. “I don’t see a reason to pay extra for the flash storage,” he concluded.
But the second friend told me that you can’t put a dollar value on being able to do your work on the fly without extra equipment for certain types of productions—she specifically named big-budget reality shows that do lots of on-location shooting. She said, “that’s a lot of money,” but that she “can imagine some scenarios where that could be useful.”
No matter where you settle on that, these are expensive computers, and most consumers don’t need to spend that much. The entry-level spec of the 13-inch MacBook Pro is good enough for most people who want strong performance from a laptop, and the MacBook and aging MacBook Air are still attractive machines for everyone else. And there are the parallel worlds of Windows laptops and two-in-ones, Chromebooks, and even the iPad—all also viable options, depending on your priorities.
In my estimation, there are mainly three types of people who would spend $6,699, $3,500, or even $2,699 on this laptop: creative professionals and developers (and the companies that employ them) whose livelihoods depend on performance, core gamers who are married to the Mac platform and have no other viable choices with strong enough video performance, and well-heeled consumers who just want the best computer they can buy, whether they need it or not.
The MacBook Pro is available either in the silver we’ve known for a long time, or the “space gray” that Apple introduced to the line in 2016. If you liked the 2016 and 2017 MacBook Pro, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t, it won’t change your mind. That’s because the basic design remains the same.
The only major difference in the design department is the keyboard, so let’s start there—there’s a lot to unpack on that subject.
The keyboard: Butterfly 3.0
The third-generation butterfly keyboard in this MacBook Pro is an incremental improvement over its immediate predecessor, which was an even smaller improvement over the initial keyboard introduced in the 2016 MacBook Pro. Apple claims the keyboard on this machine is quieter than its predecessor. It is, though not drastically so. It also has slightly softer-feeling feedback for each key press. I like the changes; it feels and sounds just a little more like the old chiclet keyboards.
There’s a vocal crowd of users who passionately dislike these butterfly keyboards. I’m not one of them. I find the short travel allows me to type faster than I can on most other keyboards, and I don’t mind the click-y feel they have either. I enjoy it. But it comes down to personal preference. Apple chose this keyboard design because it allows the company to make its laptops thinner and because the short travel allows the people who adjust to these keyboards and who like them to type very fast.
If you liked the previous butterfly keyboards, you’ll like this one. If you didn’t, I doubt it will change your mind.
Then there’s the question of reliability. The 2016 MacBook Pro’s butterfly keyboards had a dust problem. Keys could get stuck and lock up—you might have had a situation in which a key endlessly repeated even though it wasn’t being pressed or wouldn’t register a press at all.
Based on reports we’ve seen, this was more common with the 2016 version of the keyboard than the 2017 one—the latter apparently made some small tweaks that improved the failure rate. But the problem was widespread enough that Apple launched a repair program for those keyboards; users who encountered the problem could get it fixed for free, whether they had bought AppleCare or not.
I encountered that myself in a 2016 model; my “z” key got stuck. Because of the way the computer is built, Apple had to replace the entire keyboard and other hardware around it to fix that issue. It cost me nothing because I had AppleCare, but the receipt I received revealed it would have cost $700 otherwise. Apple replaced my 2016 keyboard with the slightly improved 2017 one, but we’ve learned that 2016 and 2017 models that are serviced in the program will not receive the 2018 keyboard as a replacement, unfortunately.
When Apple first showed us this new 2018 MacBook Pro earlier this month, no claims were made about improvements to reliability for the keyboard. But thanks to a teardown at iFixit and an internal document reportedly distributed to Apple Authorized Service Providers, we’ve learned that this keyboard does appear to address those reliability concerns. There is now a membrane under the keycaps that may prevent debris from getting in under the keys.
Apple hasn’t publicly confirmed this, but it might have reasons not to. The problems with the keyboards in previous models have led to some lawsuits, and publicly discussing the changes could complicate those lawsuits. Whatever the case, I believe it’s likely that this keyboard won’t have the same frequency of issues. Another hint: Apple says the 2018 keyboard is not covered in the repair program.
I like this keyboard and believe that most people who give it a shot will get used to it—though it will take an adjustment period if you’re coming from something wildly different.
My only major complaint about the MacBook Pro’s keyboards up until this point was the reliability issue. So if this iteration is less likely to need repairs, all the better. But if you hate it, you hate it. Regardless of which camp you fall into, I don’t think this design is going away any time soon.