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

Same body, big leap in power

macbook pro

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

Apple has a reputation for launching new versions of its devices with a lot of fanfare, but when it released the new Macbook Pro, it did it so under the radar. In fact, the latest MacBook Pro experienced a low-key launch, despite touting much more powerful hardware – alongside an improved keyboard. And, just like the previous generation, the 15-inch MacBook Pro arrives alongside its 13-inch counterpart.

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Apple still loves the MacBook Pro though, despite the quiet release. This is because, while the iPhone XS and iPad, along with the 12-inch MacBook, are aimed at mass consumers, the MacBook Pro has always been aimed at the creative and professional audience. And, this new MacBook Pro brings a level of performance (and price) that’s noticeably higher than its more consumer-oriented devices, in order to meet the growing demands of its target users.

However, that doesn’t mean that Apple does want mainstream users to buy into the MacBook Pro. If you want the most powerful MacBook to date, the new MacBook Pro should be right up your alley. Just keep in mind that, while the keyboard has been updated, there are still reliability issues, though that’s hardly a deal-breaker to diehard Mac fans.

Between the two sizes, there’s enough of a difference in performance to warrant two separate reviews. In this one, we’ll be looking at how the flagship 15-inch MacBook Pro performs in 2019.

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 past MacBook Pro models, the new 15-inch comes in several configurations. The base model comes with a 2.2GHz, 6-core Intel Core i7 CPU, Radeon Pro 555X GPU, 16GB of DDR4 memory and a 256GB SSD for $2,399 (£2,349, AU$3,499).

Again, there’s more than just the base model – you can mix and match different components to tailor the MacBook Pro 15-inch to your needs (and budget). If you’re doing a lot of video editing, for instance, you can upgrade the processor, while saving cash by sticking to a smaller SSD and utilizing an external hard drive, preferably with a Thunderbolt port, instead.

The MacBook Pro 2018 can be configured to switch to a 2.9GHz 6-core Intel Core i9 CPU 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).

Apple also offers an option for Radeon Pro Vega graphics. This will set you back $250 (£225, AU$400) for the Radeon Pro Vega 16, and $350 (£315, AU$560) for the Radeon Pro Vega 20. However, you’ll have to opt for at least a 512GB SSD for this graphics option.

While we’re on the topic, 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). Though it’s worth noting that you’re better off with an external SSD drive, as you’ll find many with more storage and more than half the price.

The MacBook Pro 15-inch is definitely expensive, but the price of entry is worth it. Still, it’s great that the MacBook Pro doesn’t raise the base price over the 2017 model. You can get a notable upgrade in specs, without spending significantly more.

If you’re looking for a MacBook Pro alternative running on Windows 10, then the new Dell XPS 15 2018 offers similar spec options – with up to an Intel Core i9-8950HK, Nvidia GeForce GTX 1050Ti graphics, 32GB of RAM and a 2TB PCIe NVMe SSD for $3,199 (about £2,520, AU$4,616). 

While this is a high asking price, it’s still cheaper than a similarly specced Macbook Pro with Radeon Pro VEGA 20 graphics, which will set you back $4,549 (£4,274, AU$6,899). That’s enough of a price gap to seriously consider the Dell, unless you’re wedded to macOS or want to utilize the new features that comes with macOS Catalina, which rolls out in Fall 2019.

  • Get the best Mac VPN to protect your MacBook Pro

macbook pro

Design

The MacBook Pro has gained popularity for its beautiful design that fits powerful components into a slim and light MacBook Pro chassis, and Apple has taken an ‘if it’s not broke, don’t fix it’ approach with the 2018 model.

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

Anyone that loves the design of older MacBook Pro laptops will appreciate this, especially with the weight and dimensions that are still incredible for a laptop that’s this powerful with a 15-inch display. It’s slightly thinner than the Dell XPS 15, and a bit lighter than Microsoft’s Surface Book 2. These are arguably the MacBook Pro’s biggest Windows-based competitors, and the fact that the MacBook Pro 2018 easily beats them on power, while being thinner and lighter is a huge win for Apple.

macbook pro

All 15-inch models of the MacBook Pro 2018 feature the Touch Bar, a thin glass touchscreen that runs along the top of the keyboard, and 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 for a more seamless workflow.

When the Touch Bar first made an appearance on the MacBook Pro 2016, not everyone was sold on the idea, though we ourselves were quite enamored with it. However, over the years, Touch Bar compatibility has grown, so basically every Apple app, alongside many popular third party apps like Adobe Photoshop and Google Chrome, take advantage of the Touch Bar in the MacBook Pro 2018.

This feature can be really useful, and once you get used to the new Touch Bar buttons, they really can help speed up your workflow. Not that there aren’t any drawbacks. They are context-sensitive and 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 whose locations you can quickly memorize. It’s a small criticism, but one that might make sticking to keyboard shortcuts for your most-used tasks a better option.

Next to the Touch Bar is a fingerprint scanner for logging unto the computer as well as authorizing payments. It's quick and easy to set up, and very 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 just got an update, which will be good news for many people, though some will still complain that the update isn’t good 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.’ Apple was even forced to admit that some of its keyboards break too easily.

macbook pro

While Apple has bragged 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, it emphasized 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).

But, while we do find the new MacBook Pro keyboard to be less noisy in practice, the shallow key travel remains, which means the keys don’t feel quite as tactile or responsive while typing. However, you may actually like 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 many people have had with previous MacBook Pro models.

Lastly, the screen also sees some improvements. While it still keeps its 2,880 x 1,800 resolution and 220 ppi of pixel density, it now also features Apple’s True Tone display tech, which debuted on the iPad Pro and is featured in the new iPhone XS, XS Max and XR

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

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 to have if you mainly work with word processing, spreadsheets or coding applications. However, if your job involves work where color accuracy is essential, such as photo and video editing, then you’ll need to turn this feature off. It’s a welcome extra, but one that is aimed more at consumers rather than creative professionals.

macbook pro

How thin is too thin? 

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

After all, 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, including that external SSD you’re looking to save money on. However, if you’re going 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, adding to your cost.

If you want to connect to an Ethernet cable, again you’ll need an adapter. Are you a photographer who needs to transfer photos from a memory card? You’ll need a memory card reader, if you don't already have one.

While some people will say that the lack of ports is a small price to pay for the thin and light design, if you’re a creative that needs a device with everything you need on offer and very minimal fuss, then you’ll soon get frustrated with the MacBook Pro. That’s not good, considering the laptop is designed for users just like you.

If you look at other laptops designed for professionals, like Lenovo’s ThinkPad, they are good examples of putting usability above svelte design. They have a workman-like appearance 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 instead of the MacBook Pro.

To be fair, the gorgeously-thin design of the MacBook Pro means it’s a creative’s notebook that also appeals to consumers. If you’re invested in the Apple ecosystem and want the most powerful MacBook ever made, then the MacBook Pro 2018 15-inch is going to be incredibly tempting.

Just bear in mind that 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.

The MacBook Pro 2018’s cooling system does work – there’s not much annoying fan noise whirring up when performing intensive tasks like some other laptops, but we’ve seen some worrying reports that the MacBook Pro 2018 throttles the processor when it gets hot, 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 when performing intensive tasks. Still, it’s good to know that there’s been a macOS update to address this.

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.

Images Credit: TechRadar

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