MacBook Pro (15-inch, mid-2018) review

Same body, big leap in power

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Our Verdict

The MacBook Pro 2018 15-inch is a powerful pro notebook with a fantastic design. However, in its bid to appeal to the mass market, it might turn off some professionals.

For

  • Fantastic design
  • True Tone works well when you want it
  • Touch Bar is improving
  • Very good performance

Against

  • Expensive
  • Lack of ports
  • Keyboard still feels a little flat

The new MacBook Pro is an odd release – Apple typically surrounds new product launches with a lot of pomp and circumstance, but the unveiling of its 2018 pro laptop was pretty subdued. Even if it offers a huge upgrade over the 2017 MacBook Pro.

Instead of having its own launch event, like the iPhone XS or taking center stage at the popular WWDC event, Apple shared the MacBook Pro 2018 in a more intimate setting. And, like in previous generations, the MacBook Pro 15-inch comes alongside a 13-inch model, as well.

In spite of Apple’s subdued announcement, it’s still excited about the new MacBook Pro. Because, while iPads and iPhones, as well as the 12-inch MacBook and MacBook Air, are aimed at everyday users, the MacBook Pro has always been targeted at creatives and professionals with a level of performance – and price – to match.

Beyond the professional appeal that the MacBook Pro traditionally carries, Apple wants it to have widespread attention, too. So, if you’re after the most powerful MacBook ever made, you’ll fall in love with the new 15-inch MacBook Pro.

There’s enough of a difference between the two sizes when it comes to components to warrant two separate reviews, and here we’ll be looking at the flagship 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Spec sheet

Here is the 15-inch MacBook Pro configuration sent to TechRadar for review:

CPU: 2.9GHz Intel Core i9-8950HK (hex-core, 8 threads, 12MB cache, up to 4.8GHz)
Graphics: AMD Radeon Pro 560X, Intel UHD Graphics 630
RAM: 32GB (2,400MHz DDR4)
Screen: 15.4-inch, 2,880 x 1,800 Retina display (backlit LED, IPS, 500 nits brightness, wide color P3 gamut)
Storage: 2TB SSD
Ports: 4x Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C), 3.5mm headphone jack
Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-F, Bluetooth 5.0
Camera: 720p FaceTime HD webcam
Weight: 4.02 pounds (1.83kg)
Size: 13.75 x 9.48 x 0.61 inches (34.93 x 24.07 x 1.55cm; W x D x H)

Price and availability

As with previous versions of the MacBook Pro, the 2018 version comes in a variety of configurations and prices. The base configuration comes with a 2.2GHz, 6-core Intel Core i7 processor, Radeon Pro 555X graphics card, 16GB of DDR4 memory and 256GB SSD storage for $2,399 (£2,349, AU3,499).

This can be configured to add a 2.9GHz 6-core Intel Core i9 processor for $400 (£350, AU$600) more, 32GB of RAM for $400 (£360, AU$640) more, and an upgrade to the AMD Radeon Pro 560X for an additional $100 (£90, AU$160).

You can also upgrade the storage to a 512GB SSD for $200/£180/AU$320, 1TB SSD for $600/£540/AU$960, 2TB SSD for $1,400/£1,260/AU$2,240 and a 4TB SSD for $3,400/£3,060/AU$5,440.

It’s definitely an expensive device, but the MacBook Pro is worth it. It’s also noteworthy that the base configuration of the MacBook Pro doesn’t cost more than last year’s model. So, you can get a nice upgrade in specs, without an upgrade in price.

But, there’s more than the base model – there are plenty of options to mix and match components to get the 15-inch MacBook Pro 2018 that best suits your budget and needs. So, if you do a lot of video editing, you can upgrade the processor, while saving cash by sticking with a smaller SSD if you plan to save your work to an external hard drive. 

If you’re looking for a Windows 10 alternative, then the new Dell XPS 15 2018 offers similar spec options, with an option for an Intel Core i9-8950HK, 32GB of DDR4 RAM and a 2TB of PCIe NVMe SSD costing $3,299 (about £2,460, AU$4,303). While this is a lot of money, it’s still cheaper than a similarly-specced MacBook Pro 2018, which costs $4,699 (£4,409, AU$7,139). That’s enough of a price gap to make you seriously consider the Dell, unless you’re wedded to macOS.

Design

Apple’s MacBook Pros have been long lauded for their attractive designs, which fit powerful components into slim and light chassis, and Apple has taken a ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ approach with the MacBook Pro 2018.

This means the new MacBook Pro is almost the same design last year, right down to the same dimensions and weight. The height when closed is 1.55cm (0.61 inches), and it weighs just 1.83kg (4.02 pounds).

This is awesome for anyone that loves the design of previous MacBook Pro devices, and the dimensions and weight remain impressive for a powerful laptop with a 15-inch display. It’s just a bit thinner than the Dell XPS 15, and is lighter than the Surface Book 2 (which tips the scales at 4.2 pounds/1.9kg). These are arguably the MacBook Pro’s biggest Windows-based competitors, and the fact that the MacBook Pro 2018 comfortably beats them on power,while being thinner and lighter is a big win for Apple.

All 15-inch models of the MacBook Pro 2018 also feature the Touch Bar. This is a thin glass touchscreen that runs along the top of the keyboard, and it displays context-sensitive buttons on its 2,170 x 60 resolution screen. These buttons change depending on the application or task that you’re performing, and they are designed to give you quick shortcuts to help speed up your workflow.

When the Touch Bar first showed up on the MacBook Pro 2016, not everyone was convinced by its use, though we were quite enamored with it. Over the years, Touch Bar compatibility has grown, so not only does basically every Apple app benefit from Touch Bar utility, many popular third party apps, like Adobe Photoshop and Google Chrome, take advantage of the Touch Bar in the MacBook Pro 2018.

This can be genuinely useful, and once you get used to the new Touch Bar buttons, they can help speed up your workflow. However, there are a few drawbacks. Because they are context-sensitive, they change depending on what app you’re using, which means you’ll never really be able to use them without checking where they are – unlike physical buttons where you can memorize their location. It’s a small complaint, but one that might make sticking to keyboard shortcuts for your most-used tasks faster.

Next to the Touch Bar is a fingerprint scanner for logging into the MacBook Pro (and authorising payments). It's quick and easy to set up, and accurately reads your fingerprint and logs you in without fuss - something that some fingerprint readers on laptops fail to manage.

Not everything is exactly the same, however. The keyboard has had a revision, which will be good news for many people, though some will complain that the update doesn’t go far enough. The keyboards of previous MacBook Pros with the ‘butterfly’ switch have been criticized for having higher than usual failure rates, and experiencing issues such as ‘sticky keys,’ which is where a key remains active even after it has been pressed and released. Apple was even forced to admit that some of its keyboards break too easily

While Apple has boasted that the MacBook Pro 2018 comes with an improved keyboard, it didn’t specifically mention that the revisions were aimed at fixing these issues, instead highlighting the fact that it is quieter to type on. If you’re a fast typer who likes to hammer keys while working, this improvement will be welcome (to you and your co-workers).

We do find the new MacBook Pro keyboard to be less noisy in practice, though the shallow key travel remains. This means the keys don’t feel quite as tactile or responsive while typing. However, you may prefer this approach, if you like shallower keyboards.

A new silicone membrane helps keep the noise of the keyboard under control, and should stop dust from getting in and messing up the switch – a complaint some people have had with previous MacBook Pro models.

The screen has also had a revamp. While it keeps the 2,880 x 1,800 resolution and 220ppi (pixels per inch) pixel density of previous 15-inch MacBook Pros, it now also features Apple’s True Tone display technology, which debuted on the iPad Pro, and also features on the iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X.

This technology senses the ambient light of the environment you’re working in and adjust the display so that you get a bright and vibrant image, no matter where you’re working.

You can switch this mode on and off in the Display section of System Preferences in macOS, and the difference is quite striking, giving the screen a warmer feel. This is a nice feature if you mainly work with word processing, spreadsheets or coding applications. However, if your job involves work were color accuracy is essential, such as photo and video editing, then you’ll need to turn this feature off. It’s a welcome feature, but one that will be aimed more at consumers rather than professionals.

How thin is too thin? 

There’s no doubt that the MacBook Pro 2018 15-inch’s thin and light design makes for a very attractive and desirable design. However, we need to remember that Apple is marketing the MacBook Pro 2018 at professionals first and foremost, and it’s here that we have to wonder if it’s thinness may be a hindrance.

This is because professional devices need to put workflow above all else – including aesthetics. Because of it’s thin design, the MacBook Pro 2018 comes with just four USB-C ports, and one headphone jack port.

To be fair, these are all Thunderbolt 3, which means data transfer is extremely fast if you have compatible devices. However, if you’re trying to use legacy hardware with the MacBook Pro, like anything that requires a standard USB A port, you’ll need to use an adapter – which you’ll have to buy separately. 

If you want to plug it into an Ethernet cable, again you’ll need an adapter. Are you a photographer who needs to transfer photos from a memory card? Again, you’ll need an adapter.

While some people will say that the lack of ports is a price to pay for the thin and light design, if you’re after a workstation that handles everything you need with a minimum of fuss, then you’ll soon get frustrated with the MacBook Pro.

If you look at other professional-centered laptops, like Lenovo’s ThinkPad, they are good examples of putting usability above svelte design. They have workman-like appearances and can be big and bulky – but you’ll be able to plug your hardware in quickly and easily. If compatibility and ease of use is your top priority, you may want to look at a less flashy pro laptop that supports legacy hardware rather than the MacBook Pro.

However, the gorgeously-thin design of the MacBook Pro means it’s a professional notebook that appeals to consumers as well. If you love Apple’s device and want the most powerful MacBook ever made, then the MacBook Pro 2018 15-inch is going to be incredibly tempting.

Still, the unending pursuit of thinness by Apple does have other implications for the MacBook Pro. There’s some very powerful hardware crammed into the MacBook Pro’s tiny body, and the more powerful the hardware, the hotter it runs. With a thin and light chassis, this means there needs to be a very good cooling solution that can keep it from overheating.

While on the whole the cooling solution of the MacBook Pro 2018 15-inch does a good job – there’s not much annoying fan noise whirring up when performing intensive tasks like some laptops, there have been worrying reports that the MacBook Pro 2018 throttles the performance of its processor when it gets too hot.

This is the process of limiting the performance of the processor to stop it overheating. While this does happen with other laptops, the worrying thing here is how quickly the MacBook Pro 2018 seems to throttle the processor. It means that a cheaper MacBook Pro, with a core i7 processor, rather than a core i9 chip, can actually perform better during intensive tasks.

We’ll look into this further later on in this review, but the implication is that Apple’s thin design of the MacBook Pro may actually hamper its performance. If that is indeed the case, then you may want to think carefully about how important a thin and light design is when looking for a laptop to help you with your professional work.

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