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The alarm bells have clearly been ringing at Apple's 'spaceship campus' HQ in Cupertino. After years spent focusing all its efforts on the all-conquering iPhone, Apple has begun to realise that the Mac risks losing out on important new technologies such as VR and AR. Those concerns were no doubt exacerbated when its most recent financial results revealed a significant fall in Mac sales.
As a result, this year's update to the MacBook Pro range has delivered more than the straightforward speed-bump that was expected following the introduction of Intel's Coffee Lake processors.
The first model to ship was the 13-inch version of the MacBook Pro, which stepped up from a quad-core to a six-core processor that doubled the laptop's raw processor performance. But, despite its high price, the 13-inch MacBook Pro still lacks a discrete GPU, relying instead on the more modest integrated graphics of the Intel processor. Professional users who need high-end graphics performance from their laptop should therefore consider the new 15-inch version of the MacBook Pro, which is now available.
Like its 13-inch counterpart, the 15-inch MacBook Pro looks largely unchanged on the outside, with an admirably sleek, portable design that measures just 15.5mm thick and weighs 1.83kg. That's impressive for a 15-inch laptop, especially when compared to rival high-end laptops such as HP's ZBook x2 G4, which weighs in at close to 2.2kg with a smaller 14-inch display.
But Apple's lightweight design comes at a cost, as the 2016 revamp that introduced the new slimline design -- along with the context-sensitive Touch Bar -- also limited this 'pro' laptop to a maximum of 16GB of RAM. That clearly didn't impress professional users of apps such as Photoshop and Apple's own Final Cut Pro, so the memory of the 15-inch model can now be upgraded to 32GB. Unfortunately, this is only available as a build-to-order option at the time of purchase -- and for a hefty £300 (ex. VAT; £360 inc. VAT, or $400) -- as the MacBook Pro still doesn't provide any scope for user-upgrades or repairs at all.
When it comes to upgrades and expansion, Apple places all its bets on the MacBook Pro's four Thunderbolt 3 ports, along with its recent embrace of external GPU upgrades, such as the Blackmagic eGPU that's currently being promoted on the Apple Store.
The 15.4-inch display is also unchanged, offering an admirably bright and colourful 2,880-by-1,800-pixel resolution (220dpi), although this is now complemented by the True Tone technology from the iPad, which adjusts the display depending on ambient light conditions.
Apple has modified the keyboard, claiming that it's now quieter -- and, hopefully, less prone to the problems that have affected the 'butterfly' mechanism used in the MacBook keyboards in the last couple of years. Unfortunately, I still find that the thin keyboard panel feels rather lifeless and unresponsive, especially when typing at speed.
Pricing & options
There are more significant changes on the inside, with the 15-inch MacBook Pro also stepping up to six-core processors. Thankfully, though, Apple's pricing hasn't changed this year, with the 'entry-level' model remaining at £1,957.50 (ex. VAT; £2,349 inc. VAT, or $2,399) with a Core i7-8750H running at 2.2GHz (4.1GHz with TurboBoost) along with 16GB of 2400MHz DDR4 RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive, and a discrete Radeon Pro 555X GPU with 4GB of VRAM.
The second standard configuration also retains last year's price tag of £2,249.16 (ex. VAT; £2,699 inc. VAT, or $2,799) and now offers a six-core Core i7-8850H running at 2.6GHz (4.3GHz with TurboBoost) as well as doubling the storage to 512GB, and further boosting graphics performance with a Radeon Pro 560X. Our review unit was further upgraded with an optional Core i9-8950HK processor -- making this the first Core i9 laptop that we've come across -- with a clock speed of 2.9GHz (4.8GHz with TurboBoost), for a total price of £2,474.16 (ex. VAT; £2,969 inc. VAT, or $3,099).
And, if you really want to go to town, you can increase the solid-state drive to as much as 4TB, which brings the 15-inch MacBook Pro with every optional extra to an eye-watering £5,174.16 (ex. VAT; £6,209 inc. VAT, or $6,699). To be fair, the inclusion of four Thunderbolt 3 ports means that you can at least upgrade your storage with more affordable third-party drives. Even so, that still leaves our review unit costing the best part of £3,000 ($3,100), so the MacBook Pro needs to perform pretty well in order to justify that sort of price.
As we mentioned, the 15-inch MacBook Pro gave us our first opportunity to test a laptop equipped with Intel's latest Core i9 processor, and this certainly proves to be a worthwhile upgrade for professional users who need the best possible performance from their laptop.
Geekbench 4.2 reported a score of 5,600 for single-core performance, but multi-core performance hit an impressive 24,586 -- around 55 percent higher than the model we tested last year.
The Radeon Pro 560X also allowed the MacBook Pro to reach 106fps when running the Cinebench R15 OpenGL test, compared to the 85fps provided by the Radeon Pro 560 of last year.
Even the solid-state drive romps ahead of previous models, achieving write and read speeds of 2,675MB/s and 2,732MB/s respectively.
And, despite the outstanding performance of the Core i9 processor, the new MacBook Pro manages to provide longer battery life as well. Apple's 'automatic graphics switching' allows the MacBook Pro to switch between the discrete Radeon GPU and the Core i9's integrated graphics depending on workload.
When using automatic switching to stream video from the BBC iPlayer, with screen brightness set at 50 percent, the MacBook Pro's 58Wh battery lasted for 8 hours and 35 minutes, compared to 7.5 hours for last year's model. Turning the automatic switching option off forces the MacBook Pro to use the Radeon GPU, but this still resulted in 5 hours and 15 minutes, so as long as you're not rendering 4K video all day long you should get a full day's work out of the MacBook Pro even when using the more powerful GPU.
The 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro provides impressive performance -- especially if you add the Core i9 upgrade tested here. The fact that the MacBook Pro can accommodate a powerful CPU and GPU without increasing its size or weight -- or affecting battery life -- is no mean feat either. There are few laptops that combine heavyweight performance and lightweight design so effectively, and owners of older MacBook models will certainly view the 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro as a tempting upgrade. If they can afford it, that is.