The option for an Intel Core i9 processor with six cores and a clock-speed ceiling of 4.8GHz makes its way to the 2018 refresh of Apple’s 15-inch MacBook Pro (starts at $2,399; $4,699 as tested). Not only does it offer the best raw computing performance we’ve seen from an Apple laptop, but it also helps make the MacBook Pro competitive with similarly priced Windows machines—mostly gaming laptops and workstations. Even better, this beast of a chip fits into the same sleek enclosure that the MacBook Pro has sported for a few years now, making it the rare desktop-replacement laptop that’s also handsome, thin, and light. Perhaps best of all for people who actually want to use this machine away from a power outlet, the machine returned excellent results on our battery-life testing. It costs a pretty penny, but overall it’s one of the best 15-inch laptops that power users can buy right now.
A Familiar Chassis Meets the Core i9
The new MacBook Pro’s crowning achievement is shoehorning a much-upgraded processor and a potent graphics chip into the same enclosure as last year’s model without changing the physical design. Our review unit is the very same size (0.61 by 13.75 by 9.48 inches, HWD) and weight (4.02 pounds) as last year’s 15-inch MacBook Pro. Of course, the mobile version of the Intel Core i9 consumes far less heat and requires far less power than the desktop versions. Still, this is by far the sleekest Core i9-powered laptop, even though the chassis design has been around for a few years now.
Consider that the only other Core i9 mainstream laptop we’ve tested is the Asus ZenBook Pro 15, which comes in at 0.75 by 14.37 by 9.88 inches. Even though it weighs about the same as the MacBook Pro (4.1 pounds), the ZenBook Pro’s taller and wider stature makes it feel considerably heftier. Other laptops with Core i9 CPUs and similar price ranges are bulkier still. For instance, the gargantuan Alienware 17 R5 gaming laptop measures 1.18 by 16.7 by 13.1 inches and weighs 9.77 pounds.
Normally, a years-old design would be a downside, especially for deep-pocketed early adopters who want both an Intel Core i9 and a PC that will look cutting-edge for several years. But the MacBook Pro, available in either silver or the darker Space Gray of our review unit, is one exception. Apple’s design decisions are often in the vanguard, with pioneering flourishes like unibody construction and Thunderbolt 3 ports now present on a wide range of both inexpensive and high-end Windows machines. You can bet that even if Apple radically changes the MacBook Pro’s design next year, the current model will still look very modern.
Some of the familiar downsides to the MacBook Pro’s physical design aren’t improved with the 2018 refresh, however. Chief among them is the extremely limited port selection. All you get is a 3.5mm audio jack and four USB Type-C ports, two on the left edge and two on the right edge. This is the same selection you get with the Touch Bar-equipped 13-inch MacBook Pro. That’s unfortunate, because many photographers use MacBook Pros as in-the-field editing workhorses and would therefore benefit from an SD card slot to offload photos. Even charging your iPhone requires an adapter, since iPhones still use conventional USB Type-A charging cables.
There are a few silver linings to this port setup. For example, any of the four USB Type-C ports can accept the MacBook Pro’s power adapter, and all of them support Thunderbolt 3. Four Thunderbolt 3 ports is a rarity on any computer, let alone a laptop. More important, multimedia pros probably won’t need any adapters if they’ve bought into the Apple ecosystem. Apple iPads, computers, and iPhones can quickly transfer data among themselves wirelessly using AirDrop (a proprietary interface that uses the MacBook Pro’s built-in 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0). And you can find several professional and prosumer external hard drives that connect via USB Type-C or Thunderbolt 3 and include built-in card readers.
Besides the Core i9 CPU offering, the updated Retina Display on the MacBook Pro is the only other significant new feature offering for 2018. It now features the True Tone automatic white-balance adjustment that debuted on the Apple iPad Pro. True Tone uses a sensor to evaluate the color temperature of the light around you to provide what Apple calls, cryptically, a “more natural viewing experience.” In practice, I found the color temperature becomes noticeably warmer (that is, more red) in fluorescent-lit environments like PC Labs, while it’s noticeably cooler (more blue) in my softly lit living room.
Overall, True Tone improves what is already an excellent display, thanks to its 2,880-by-1,800-pixel native resolution, In-Plane Switching (IPS) technology to prevent washout at extreme off-center viewing angles, and support for the P3 color gamut. The only thing missing from the MacBook Pro’s display is support for touch input, but that’s a moot nitpick, since the macOS operating system itself doesn’t support touch input, and Apple has shown no sign of adding it anytime soon.
You can interact with the MacBook Pro using touch, however, thanks to the Touch Bar, a long, thin touchscreen that replaces the row of function keys traditionally located above the keyboard. Its usefulness depends on which apps you use frequently. Adobe Photoshop and the Safari web browser make extensive use of the Touch Bar, while other third-party apps don’t use it at all. (For more on the Touch Bar’s strengths and weaknesses, check out our review of last year’s 15-inch MacBook Pro as well of our list of cool things to do with it.)
The Touch Bar includes a power button that doubles as a fingerprint reader, which you can use to unlock your MacBook Pro, permit app installations, and authenticate online purchases using Apple Pay, among other uses. The fingerprint reader is among the most accurate I’ve used on a laptop, which is good since the MacBook Pro lacks the face-recognizing webcam that many premium Windows PCs sport to make logging in even easier.
That said, the MacBook Pro’s webcam is among the better laptop cameras I’ve used. Its 720p resolution trails the full HD (1080p) resolution that you’ll find on the camera in the Apple iMac Pro, but it nevertheless captured videos and photos that were almost entirely free of the graininess that many portable webcams suffer from.
The sound system offers richly detailed and impressively loud audio, thanks to a total of four speaker grilles: two upward-firing ones that flank the keyboard, and two downward-firing ones that add bass. Unfortunately, vocals can be distorted when you max out the volume, as I found while watching the trailer to Ant-Man. I actually noted better sound quality on the Huawei MateBook X Pro, which mimics the MacBook Pro’s speaker arrangement. I did not, however, experience any of the crackling issues that some early MacBook Pro owners have reported. Apple claims to have addressed this problem with a macOS update issued late in August 2018; the update had been installed in the unit I tested.
The enormous touchpad is unchanged from last year’s model. I find it to be one of the most precise and comfortable pads of any laptop, thanks in part to the fact that it uses haptic feedback to simulate clicks instead of a physical clicking mechanism. Apple refers to this as Force Touch, and it means that you get a uniform clicking sensation no matter where your finger meets this 7.28-inch surface.
The MacBook Pro’s keyboard is mostly unchanged, but it does get an updated switch mechanism that may alleviate some of the problems that owners of previous MacBook and MacBook Pro models have experienced with debris finding its way inside the keyboard. What hasn’t changed is the extremely shallow key travel. Whether or not this is a problem depends on personal preference. I’ve largely become accustomed to tapping the MacBook Pro keys rather than striking them, but they’re still not as comfortable as the luxurious keys on many of Lenovo’s ThinkPad laptops.
Apple includes a one-year warranty with new MacBook Pros, which you can extend to three years for an additional charge. The company also offers accidental damage coverage.
Performance Where It Counts
Enough about all the warranties, ports, and Force Touch, though. The new Intel Core i9-8950HK is the star attraction of our review unit, boasting six cores and 12 threads. It’s capable of clock speeds up to 4.8GHz, even though thermal constraints keep it much closer to its base 2.9GHz most of the time. Together with 32GB of 2,400MHz DDR4 RAM, it significantly narrows the performance-for-dollar gap that the MacBook Pro has long suffered when compared with Windows laptops, at least when it comes to the types of tasks that video editors, architects, digital artists, and other similar users care about.
Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than on our Cinebench R15 3D rendering benchmark, a relatively simple test that heavily favors CPUs with more cores and threads. The MacBook Pro achieved a score of 1,066 on this proprietary trial, which puts it squarely between the Alienware 17 R5 (1,036) and the Asus ZenBook Pro 15 (1,222), and represents a massive increase over the 2017 15-inch MacBook Pro’s score of 760. The story is much the same on our Handbrake video-rendering test, which took each system about 45 seconds to complete, save for the 2015 MacBook Pro’s much slower time of 1:06.
Cinebench and Handbrake are excellent predictors of how well a system will perform under sustained heavy workloads that max out the available CPU cores and threads. That explains why the hexa-core Core i7 in the 2018 Razer Blade managed to turn in similar scores to those of the MacBook Pro. But neither of these tests approximates “bursty” workloads like applying filters to images in Photoshop. On our Photoshop CS6 test, which involves a series of 11 filters, the Core i9-powered systems all finished within a few seconds of the 2-minute-and-30-second mark, while the Core i7-powered Razer Blade and 2017 MacBook Pro were significantly slower.
Although our review unit is $4,699, much of that high cost is attributable to its gigantic 2TB SSD that uses Apple’s custom storage controller. A Core i9 configuration with a more down-to-earth 512GB SSD currently retails for $2,999, compared with $2,299 for a similarly equipped Asus ZenBook Pro 15. The Core i7-equipped Razer Blade is $2,599, while the Microsoft Surface Book 2, with a much less-powerful U-series Intel Core i7, is $2,899. Neither of these last two laptops offers a Core i9.
For those extra few benjamins, not only do you get exquisite design and craftsmanship, but you also get excellent battery life, which means you can actually use this machine as a laptop rather than leaving it plugged in on your desk much of the time. At 16 hours and 27 minutes on our battery rundown test, the MacBook Pro far outlasted any of the systems listed here, and comes close to the 17-hour endurance of the dual-battery Surface Book 2.
Since the MacBook Pro isn’t designed for gaming, it’s equipped with an AMD Radeon Pro 560X GPU, which is intended mainly to accept processing tasks such as those that pro-level software assigns to it, instead of rendering an AAA game in maximum quality and full HD splendor. As a result, the MacBook Pro’s GPU has far more oomph than the integrated graphics in the 13-inch MacBook Pro, but it lags behind Nvidia’s GeForce GTX 10-series chips, which are the favorite of gaming rigs like the Alienware 17 R5 and the Razer Blade.
That means you can enjoy GPU-intensive games if you’re willing to settle for medium quality settings and lower resolutions. The MacBook Pro achieved frame rates above 50 frames per second (fps) on our Heaven and Valley game simulations at these settings. It can’t match the 100fps or more that you’ll get from a GeForce GTX 1070 or GTX 1080, but it will do just fine for casual gaming.
Worth noting, on the subject of performance: In the days following the MacBook Pro’s release in July, Apple discovered a serious oversight in the firmware governing the laptop’s thermal-management system that resulted in significant CPU throttling under heavy workloads. A supplemental macOS update fixed this problem, which resulted in performance improvements of more than 25 percent on the 13-inch MacBook Pro. (See our analysis of the issue at the time.) With up-to-date software on our 15-inch MacBook Pro review unit, I didn’t experience any throttling issues, but those early stumbles are a good reminder to regularly perform OS updates.
The Best MacBook Pro Yet
On the other hand, a GTX 1070 or GTX 1080 would almost certainly produce too much heat for the 15-inch MacBook Pro’s slender enclosure. Which brings us back to the laptop’s signature achievement: fitting Intel’s top-of-the-line consumer CPU into one of the slimmest and best-looking 15-inchers on the market. There are mobile Xeon chips with more threads and cores, to be sure, but you’ll find them exclusively in far thicker mobile workstations like the Dell Precision 5530.
The new MacBook Pro therefore hits a sweet spot that we’ve rarely seen from an Apple laptop. It’s powerful enough to match the performance of similarly configured $3,000 Windows machines on the types of tasks that its owners will likely care about, while remaining a standard-bearer in terms of design, portability, and battery life. This is the best MacBook Pro yet, and it’s one of the best large laptops you can buy—period.