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MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, mid-2018) review

A solid improvement

Benchmarks

Here’s how the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (mid-2018) performed in our suite of benchmark tests:

Cinebench CPU: 669 points Graphics: 39 fps
Geekbench 4 Single-Core: 5,320; Multi-Core: 18,135
Battery Life (TechRadar movie test): 10 hours and 35 minutes

Recent Mac and iOS hardware enables playback of videos encoding using HEVC (High Efficiency Video Coding, also referred to as H.265). This offers similar quality to near-ubiquitous H.264, but in files of roughly half the size. Encoding to this format is a demanding process, so to see how these new MacBook Pros compare with older Mac hardware.

We transcoded a 57-minute, 1080p video to HEVC using HandBrake’s Apple 1080p30 Surround preset, with the video encoder switch to ‘H.265 (x265)’. The oldest Macs tested were a mid-2011 iMac with a 3.4GHz quad-core i7, and a late 2012 Mac mini with a 2.6GHz quad-core i7.

That Mac mini is from the oldest generation that macOS Mojave will support, giving a rough idea of the baseline lies for performance going forward. The iMac took 2 hours 48 minutes, and the Mac mini exceeded a factor of 3:1 in video duration to transcoding time, crossing the finish line in 3 hours 6 minutes.

We ran this test on a 15-inch MacBook Pro from late 2016 (2.7GHz, quad-core i7), where it took 1 hour 33 minutes to complete. Our new 13-inch model held up reasonably well, thanks to its quad-core i7 processor with Hyper-Threading, completing the task in 1 hour 32 minutes.

Also, this test was run after applying Apple's macOS High Sierra 10.13.6 Supplemental Update, which the company released to combat excessive CPU throttling for the 2018 models. When we ran the transcoding test before the patch, it took 2 hours and 4 minutes to complete.

Post macOS 10.13.6 patch

Just a few days after our review was originally published, Apple released a supplemental update to macOS 10.13.6, specifically for 2018 models of MacBook Pro. This update addresses a CPU throttling issue, which was suspected to affect the Core i9 processor that's available as a build-to-order option on 15-inch models.

In fact, Apple's update isn't just for the Core i9; the issue affects all of the new MacBook Pros featuring eighth-gen Intel Core processors, including the quad-core kind in 13-inch models.

In light of this, we have rerun our tests. There was no significant variation in Geekbench’s single-core and multi-core CPU scores, and a reasonable 8% improvement in Cinebench’s CPU score, which rose from 621 points to 669.

However, Apple’s software update delivered a huge improvement in our HandBrake video export benchmark. This is expected, because the app pretty much maxes out all CPU cores during this test, and the pre-update throttling has clearly affected performance. 

The test took 2 hours 4 minutes without the update, and finished after 1 hour 32 minutes with the fix installed. That puts our 13-inch review unit’s eight-gen, quad-core i7 just ahead of the sixth-gen, quad-core i7 processor in our 15-inch MacBook from late 2016 – both have a 2.7GHz clock speed.

Post-update performance from the Core i7 is a lot better, making its higher cost better value than we initially thought. However, our concerns about the near-two-grand prices of the two new 13-inch models stands – the off-the-shelf specifications don’t feature the Core i7 processor we were given to test, rather a 2.3GHz Core i5.

This review unit’s Intel Iris Plus 655 doesn’t sound like it should offer much of a boost to benchmarks. In our Cinebench test, the gains indeed aren’t groundbreaking, but they make a reasonable boost to the OpenGL test’s frame rate at 39 frames per second compared to 34 from last year’s model.

The Intel Core processor offers much bigger gains, which is unsurprising when Apple has upgraded from dual-core to quad-core versions. The single-core score in Geekbench amounts to a 21% improvement over last year’s dual-core i5 model – but we’re unable to make a straight comparison, because this time around Apple provided a custom model with a 2.7GHz Core i7 upgrade (which adds $300/£270/AU$480 to the cost), not the stock 2.3GHz Core i5. Last year’s 13-inch review unit had a 3.1GHz Core i5.

Battery life

That brings us to our battery life test, which is tougher than Apple’s – it sets the screen to 75% brightness and quotes up to 10 hours of wireless web browsing or iTunes video playback. Our test runs video on a loop in VLC Media Player, with the screen at 50% brightness to enable more direct comparisons with other hardware manufacturers.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro looped out video for 10 hours 35 minutes before going to sleep. That’s significantly higher than the 6 hours 37 minutes managed by last year’s model. Intel's 8th generation processors promised improved performance and better energy efficiency, and it looks like it has delivered here.

Verdict

The 2018, 13-inch MacBook Pro is a mixed bag. There are obvious gains on the CPU side. though Apple having supplied a custom build with a Core i7 means we’re unable to report at this stage how the standard Core i5 compares. The starting price of $1,799 (£1,749, AU$2,699) will put off many people.

That said, remember that the SSD here is very fast and has benefits whether you’re doing high-end creative work or merely want a laptop that’s very responsive, provided macOS has the apps you need.

True Tone is a welcome addition for anyone who works with words and numbers more than images. Overall, though, the 2018 13-inch MacBook Pro is the kind of iteration we’d expect after a year, with a few small kinks worked out, rather than representing a big leap ahead.

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