Once upon a time, Apple’s MacBook lineups were clearly the best designed, best built and among the most powerful laptops around. The MacBook Air, in particular, was a stunner of a device and a game changer for the industry.
That gap in quality has closed dramatically in recent years. Today, top-tier Windows laptops are almost as well-built, and in many cases more powerful. But after testing the 13-inch 2018 MacBook Pro for a week, I am reminded that, yes, Apple is the originator of the “premium” laptop, and it still has a couple of tricks up its sleeves to keep that status.
Usual Apple flourishes
The first is MacOS, which in my opinion is superior to Windows as a computing operating system. Keep in mind, I’m no Apple loyalist–I like Android over iOS as a mobile platform–but on a laptop, MacOS is just so much more intuitive and aesthetically pleasing than Windows. I particularly like the various trackpad gestures, specifically the three finger tap on any word or string of words to see a quick pop-up window with relevant information such as link preview or word definition.
The other is build quality. I reviewed the Huawei MateBook X Pro very recently and thought its build quality was top notch. But after handling it alongside the MacBook Pro side by side, I can see and feel the difference. When the MacBook Pro is closed, the hinge area is completely flushed, and the entire device feels like one sturdy, dense piece of metal. Huawei’s laptop, when closed, has a slightly protruding hinge area, and if I press hard on the laptop I can feel the aluminum casing give.
These are minor, minor things, but still worth mentioning in a review. A MacBook’s hinge and sturdiness is still unparalleled in laptops.
Some things could be improved…
Open up the clamshell, however, and the MacBook Pro looks a bit dated compared to the Huawei MateBook X Pro or even the Dell XPS 13. That’s because the bezels around the MacBook Pro’s screen aren’t tiny. They’re not huge–just noticeable. Huawei’s laptop screen, by comparison, stretches almost border to border. This doesn’t just make things more immersive, but has a practical use: Huawei’s laptop has half an inch more screen despite keeping roughly the same physical footprint as the 13-inch MacBook Pro.
While we’re nitpicking, I might as well get the biggest flaw of the MacBook Pro out of the way now: the keyboard, which uses Apple’s “butterfly mechanism.” Simply put, the butterfly mechanism keeps the keyboard keys flatter and less “elevated” than just about every laptop keyboard ever made. It certainly looks cool–the keyboard looks almost flushed with the trackpad–but it does not make for a better typing experience. Keys have less travel and tactile feedback than, well, almost every other laptop out there. I’m a touch typer, so the lack of travel really threw me off initially.
Apple claims this change was made to improve keyboard stability, but I’ve never heard anyone complain about Apple keyboards pre-butterfly. I have a 2012 MacBook Air at home, and I still like that keyboard better.
The butterfly keyboards won’t be a dealbreaker for most. People who make this MacBook Pro their sole computing machine (a realistic usage scenario, given the prevalence of smartphones) will get used to the keyboard and not think much about it. But people who jump between a MacBook and a desktop or even another laptop will be reminded of Apple’s weird flat keys.
Power and glory
Let’s get to the real reason the new MacBook Pro exists: the 8th-gen Intel silicon bump. My demo unit is an i7 clocked at 4.5Ghz. There’s a base model with an i5 and a more premium i9 model that’s only available on the 15-incher. And with the new processors paired with Apple’s T2 chipset, these laptops are blazing fast. Not once during my testing period did I see the dreaded “spinning ball” that now dominates my 2012 MacBook Air. Even when pushed to do intensive tasks, such as outputting 4k videos, my unit never got warm nor made the loud fan noises that I’d get from Huawei’s MateBook X Pro.
It’s worth mentioning that the top tier i9 model did suffer from throttling problems during the first week of launch, as first noticed by tech YouTuber Dave Lee, but Apple has since fixed it with a software update. This type of quick response is commendable.
Also new to this year’s laptop is TrueTone display and Siri support. The former is Apple’s smart tech carried over from the iPad Pro and iPhone X that automatically adjusts display temperature to better suit the lighting in the environment. While useful, I turned it off because I prefer accurate colors when examining photos and editing videos. Much more useful to me was Siri support, because I was able to summon it by voice to help fact check as I’m typing articles.
The final Apple-specific feature is the Touch Bar, a digital touchscreen strip that replaces the F-keys on keyboards. The strip is context sensitive and will display relevant action buttons depending on what I have opened. These include fluffy things, such as a quick emoji shortcut button during typing, and actually useful things such as full-on video controls, including a scrubber. I love being able to fast forward or rewind video clips by swiping on the Touch Bar.
Some reviews dismiss the Touch Bar as a gimmick, but considering how rarely the F-keys are used by the average person, I think it’s a clever innovation.
Dongle hell, but a necessary evil
In the recently released Mission Impossible movie, Tom Cruise is tasked to stop a terrorist group who lives by the mantra “there cannot be peace without first, a great suffering.”
I look at the “dongle hell” situation of the MacBook Pros as something alongside that train of thought. The 2018 MacBook Pros, like the 2017 and 2016 versions, only offers USB-C ports and nothing else. This means most users need to plug in an additional accessory (a.k.a. dongle) just to get the widely used ports, such as USB-A, HDMI out and memory card reader.
I can’t even use my wireless mouse with the laptop because I don’t currently own a dongle, but unlike most reviewers, I’m not annoyed by it. I see it as a necessary sacrifice. USB-C is the all-in-one cable that the tech industry has been pushing for for three years. But due to manufacturers wanting to play it safe and cater to the masses, adaptation of it is still slow. Sure, people with new Android phones all have a USB-C cable, but outside of that group, most people still rely on USB-A, which is an outdated port that needs to die. USB-Cs are far more flexible, adaptable and capable of transferring power and data.
Apple forcing USB-C on MacBook users could force accessory makers to concede and just go USB-C all the way. We need to suffer through dongle hell now in order to live a future in which everybody can just use one cable for every accessory and device.
Of course, there is great irony in this, because Apple still insists on using its own proprietary Lightning port for iPhones when it’s obvious USB-Cs are better for power delivery and data transfer. It’s also amusing to me that Android users who carry a MacBook can use one cable and charging brick to power everything, while iPhone users with a MacBook need two cables.
Speaking of charging, the MacBook Pro thankfully won’t need that too often. The 13-inch unit I tested has the best battery life I’ve ever seen on a lightweight computing machine. When used for normal work things such as writing word documents, browsing through the web and listening to Spotify, the MacBook Pro can last me nearly ten hours. If I push it and use it and a movie-watching machine, it’s good for at least two movies.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience with the MacBook Pro and understand why they dominate every coffee shop I go to. But there is one major caveat: these things are expensive. The base model of the 13-incher, with an i5 processor, 256GB of internal storage and just 8GB of RAM, starts at $1,800. And that configuration is not going to be enough for most to be honest. Consumers will want to at least bump specs up to i7 and 512GB storage, at which point the price jumps to $2,300. Similarly spec’d Huawei MateBook X Pro and Dell XPS 13 sell for $400 to $500 less.
So is the MacBook Pro a great value? No. But this definitely doesn’t matter to loyal Apple fans, nor creative professionals who want the most “premium” machine possible.