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Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2018) review: Quad-core CPU and all-day battery life

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  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent

Pros

  • Slimline, lightweight design
  • All-day battery life
  • Quad-core Coffee Lake Intel Core processor
  • Attractive Retina display with True Tone technology

Cons

  • Expensive
  • No discrete GPU
  • No user upgrades

Apple recently launched a new advertising campaign called Behind The Mac, that focuses on professional Mac users such as photographers, musicians and coders (Apple's current flavour of the month). Apple has had many notable ad campaigns over the years -- some good, some bad -- and this current campaign pales in comparison to predecessors such as the iconic 1984 ad, directed by Ridley Scott, or Justin Long proclaiming I'm A Mac in 2006.

But the real significance of Behind The Mac is that the campaign is clearly intended to counter increasing criticism that Apple has neglected the Mac in recent years, while single-mindedly focusing its attention on the all-conquering iPhone.

The MacBook Pro typifies the problems Apple has been having with the Mac, as the new Touch Bar models that were introduced in 2016 received a mixed response from Apple's professional users. There was a minor update in 2017, with the introduction of Intel's 7th-generation Kaby Lake processors, and it was expected that there would be a similar update for the new Coffee Lake chips this summer. But, stung by criticism that the Touch Bar laptops lacked the high-end performance and features required by professional users, Apple has given the 2018 range a more significant update than many Apple watchers had anticipated. First out of the gate is the 13-inch version reviewed here, with the high-end 15-inch model due in August.

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Developers are a key focus for Apple in its latest MacBook Pro marketing campaign.

Image: Apple

Pricing & options

The external design of the MacBook Pro hasn't changed since the last major revamp in 2016. The 13-inch models remain attractively slim and portable, measuring 14.9mm thick, 304mm wide, and 212.4mm deep, with a weight of 1.37kg. In fact, the 'entry-level' 13-inch model -- which does not include a Touch Bar or Touch ID sensor -- doesn't appear to have changed at all since last year: it still costs £1,040.83 (ex. VAT, £1,249 inc. VAT, or $1,299) with a 7th generation, dual-core Core i5 processor running at 2.3GHz.

SEE: How to optimize the smart office (ZDNet special report) | Download the report as a PDF (TechRepublic)

Thankfully, the Touch Bar model gets a more significant update. Again, the starting price remains unchanged, at £1,457.50 (ex. VAT, £1,749 inc. VAT, or $1,799), but the dual-core, 7th-generation Core i5 processor with 3.1GHz clock speed steps up to a quad-core, 8th generation Core i5-8259U running at 2.3GHz (up to 3.8GHz with TurboBoost). That model includes 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD, or you can double the storage to 512GB, which brings the price to £1,624.17 (ex. VAT, £1,949 inc. VAT, or $1,999).

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Our review unit also benefited from some additional build-to-order upgrades, including 16GB of RAM and a quad-core Core i7-8559U processor running at 2.7GHz (up to 4.5GHz with TurboBoost), which bring the total price to £1,999.16 (ex. VAT, £2,399 inc. VAT, or $2,499). And, as the MacBook Pro doesn't support internal user upgrades, Apple also offers some rather expensive storage upgrades at purchase time, going right up to a 2TB SSD that adds a hefty £1,000 (ex. VAT) to the price (that's £1,200 inc. VAT, or $1,200). With four Thunderbolt 3 ports available on the Touch Bar models, it's probably wiser to opt for external storage when extra capacity becomes necessary.

Feature upgrades

The 13.3-inch display has the same 2,560-by-1,600 resolution (227dpi) as before, but the Touch Bar model has been enhanced with the True Tone technology already used on the iPhone and iPad, which adjusts the colour 'temperature' of the screen to match the ambient light around you. Apple also claims to have modified the 'butterfly' mechanism on its thin keyboard panel to make the keys quieter when typing, and to provide greater protection against dust and other particles that have caused problems on some models. That's welcome, of course, although I still find the soft, lifeless feel of the keys rather irritating when typing at speed.

More significantly, the new MacBook Pro models also include Apple's custom T2 chip, which was introduced with the iMac Pro, and which handles security features such as the fingerprint sensor and the encryption of data on the solid-state drive. The T2 also handles Siri voice commands, and allows the MacBook Pro to continuously listen out for the 'Hey Siri' vocal prompt, rather than requiring you to manually activate the Siri app as was previously the case on Macs.

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Key upgrades for the 2018 13-inch MacBook Pro include True Tone display technology, an improved keyboard mechanism and the T2 security chip.

Image: Apple

Performance

The Core i7 upgrade in our review unit adds £270 to the cost of the MacBook Pro, but it does provide strong performance. Single-core performance isn't a major advance, with a Geekbench 4 score of 5,416 compared to 4,409 from last year's less expensive Core i5 model. However, multi-core performance is far stronger, with the 2018 Core i7 model delivering 18,580 -- that's double the 9,255 score from last year's i5 system. The SSD is a strong performer too, delivering read and write speeds of 2,450MB/s and 2,550MB/s respectively.

If there's a weak link here, it's the lack of a discrete GPU, as the 13-inch MacBook Pro still relies on Intel's integrated Iris Plus 655, which lingers at around 40fps in the Cinebench R15 OpenGL test -- just as it did with last year's model. That probably explains why Apple is now promoting the Blackmagic eGPU (external GPU) as a semi-official upgrade for the MacBook Pro. The Blackmagic box houses a Radeon Pro 580 graphics card to enhance performance, and connects to the MacBook Pro via one of its Thunderbolt 3 ports. Currently still on pre-order, the Blackmagic eGPU costs an additional £499.17 (ex. VAT, £599 inc. VAT, or $699) and while that might be a tempting upgrade option for the base £1,249 version of the MacBook Pro, customers paying a minimum of £1,749 for the Touch Bar models might feel that that a discrete GPU should be a standard feature rather than an expensive add-on.

We were, however, pleased with the battery life on this year's model. The 2017 version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro lasted for 7 hours 15 minutes when streaming video from the BBC iPlayer (with the screen brightness set to a comfortably visible 50%). The 2018 model comfortably outstripped that, lasting for a full 9 hours 7 minutes when running the iPlayer. This means you should have no trouble getting a full day's work from the 13-inch MacBook Pro when you're on the road.

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Image: Apple

Conclusions

The price may not have changed since last year, but the 2018 version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro does deliver stronger performance and good battery life, which help to justify its premium price tag. Its slim, lightweight design will also appeal to business users who need a travelling laptop that can provide desktop levels of performance. However, the lack of a discrete GPU remains a weakness in a 'pro' laptop, and suggests that Apple still has some lost ground to make up with its loyal professional users.

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