Just in time for the education ordering season, Apple has updated the Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro line with a variety of under-the-hood enhancements—8th-generation Intel processors, higher RAM ceilings, and larger SSDs—that make the laptops more powerful, all while retaining current prices. Also new and welcome are True Tone displays, a tweaked butterfly keyboard, and an Apple T2 chip.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro that has only two Thunderbolt 3 ports and function keys in place of the Touch Bar remains unchanged, as do the MacBook and MacBook Air lines.
In both the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro models, Apple is adding CPU cores. Previously, the 13-inch MacBook Pro offered three different speeds of Intel Core i5 and i7 chips, all of which were dual-core. Now the 13-inch model starts with a 2.3 GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 and offers one jump to a 2.7 GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 (for an additional $300). The new chips also feature faster Turbo Boost rates and 128 MB of performance-enhancing eDRAM (embedded DRAM), twice as much as before.
Similarly, for the 15-inch MacBook Pro, Apple has swapped out quad-core Intel Core i7 processors in favor of base 6-core models running at 2.2 GHz and 2.6 GHz with 9 MB of shared L3 cache. The top-of-the-line 15-inch model now sports a 2.9 GHz Intel Core i9 processor with 12 MB of shared L3 cache. That i9 processor doesn’t come cheap—it’s a $400 premium over the 2.2 GHz i7.
Someone will undoubtedly put these new MacBook Pros through benchmarks soon, but Apple is claiming performance boosts of up to 70 percent for the 15-inch models and up to 100 percent for the 13-inch models.
A common complaint with the MacBook Pro line concerned its 16 GB RAM ceiling. That maximum remains in place for the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which defaults to 8 GB and can be configured with 16 GB for an extra $200. The new 15-inch models, on the other hand, still ship with 16 GB, but now go up to 32 GB for $400 more.
In addition, while the current 13-inch models and previous 15-inch models rely on 2133 MHz DDR3 RAM, the new 15-inch models use 2400 MHz DDR4 RAM. DDR4 RAM is reportedly faster and uses less power (interestingly, DDR4 memory has been on the market since early 2015, so it has taken quite some time to appear in the Mac world).
If you cringed slightly at the $400 price increases for the faster CPU and more RAM, hold on to your socks when you look at storage options. The 13-inch MacBook Pro previously topped out with a 1 TB SSD option, but you can now increase the 256 GB default storage to 2 TB ($1400) or stick to 512 GB ($200) or 1 TB ($600).
For the 15-inch model, the maximum is now 4 TB, for which you’ll pay a whopping $3400. Other options include 512 GB ($200), 1 TB ($600), and 2 TB ($1400).
The 13-inch MacBook Pro continues to rely on integrated graphics but moves from Intel Iris Plus Graphics 650 to the 655.
The 15-inch models, which can switch back and forth between power-saving integrated graphics and faster discrete graphics, also get minor upgrades. The lower-end configuration of the 15-inch MacBook Pro moves from Intel HD Graphics 630 to the Intel UHD Graphics 630, and from the Radeon Pro 555 with 2 GB of GDDR5 memory to the Radeon Pro 555X with 4 GB of GDDR5 memory.
For more graphics performance, you can opt for a Radeon Pro 560X with 4 GB of GDDR5 memory—it’s only a $100 price bump.
Keyboard, True Tone, and Apple T2
One of the first questions in TidBITS Talk was about the controversial butterfly keyboard, which Apple introduced in 2016 and has revised once already to address frequent failures. Most recently, Apple launched a service program to repair stuck or dead keys for free (see “Apple Announces Service Program for Butterfly-Switch Keyboards,” 25 June 2018). It seems that Apple has again tweaked the butterfly keyboard to make it quieter, although it’s unclear whether that will address the complaints of those who dislike its feel.
True Tone is less controversial. First introduced with the iPad Pro and added to 2017’s iPhone models, True Tone adjusts the white balance of the screen based on ambient light with the goal of making it more comfortable to view the screen in different lighting conditions. For designers looking to match colors precisely, it might be a problem, but in general, we haven’t heard complaints.
Finally, the Apple T2 chip is quite interesting. The successor to the previous models’ T1 chip, it debuted in the iMac Pro and is an embedded control system that manages system features like the Touch Bar, Apple Pay, and more. Ars Technica described it in a review of the iMac Pro. For the MacBook Pro, it facilitates a secure boot feature, encrypts files on the fly, and perhaps most notably, enables Hey Siri so you can talk to your Mac without pressing a key.
Despite the fact that Apple’s battery life estimates of up to 10 hours usage remain the same, the new 13-inch model sports a 58.0-watt-hour battery, up from a 49.2-watt-hour battery in the previous model. Similarly, the 15-inch model now relies on an 83.6-watt-hour battery, up from a 76.0-watt-hour battery in the previous model, but also retains the same battery life estimates. That presumably means that the added performance comes at the cost of higher power usage.
Also new in all the updated models is support for Bluetooth 5.0 in addition to Bluetooth 4.2. That may eventually be more useful than you might think, since Bluetooth 5.0 offers twice the data rate, four times the range, and packets that are eight times larger. The faster data rate and larger packet size should improve throughput and overall performance—we’re hoping to see Bluetooth 5.0 for faster syncing in the next Apple Watch models. But the most important change may be the range. Bluetooth 4.2 is limited to about 50m, but Bluetooth 5.0 should work up to 200m. That’s an unobstructed range, so it will be much less indoors, but it should mean that Bluetooth 5.0 devices will work throughout a house rather than in just one room. The range is achieved by scaling down the data rate.
Most of the other specs in the MacBook Pro models remain the same: four Thunderbolt 3 ports, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, 720p FaceTime camera, stereo speakers, three microphones, and a 3.5mm headphone jack.
Price and Availability
The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1799 and the 15-inch model at $2399. Apple offers two versions of the 15-inch MacBook Pro, but the only real difference is that one has a 2.2 GHz i7 processor that can be upgraded only to a 2.9 GHz i9, whereas the other has a 2.6 GHz i7 that you can swap out for the same 2.9 GHz i9.
If you’re a college student buying a Mac, you can get one of these new MacBook Pros (or an iPad Pro) with a free pair of Beats headphones in Apple’s 2018 Back to School promotion.
With both the 13- and 15-inch models, you can choose between silver and space gray, and they’re available now on Apple’s online store and in Apple retail stores and independent Apple-authorized resellers.
As almost always seems to be the case, all these updates are welcome, and if you’ve been thinking about buying a MacBook Pro, now’s a good time. If you purchased one of the previous models in the last two weeks, you can return it and get one of the new models for the same price. If you’re just outside the two-week window, you might be able to plead your case with an Apple Store employee in person, but no guarantees.