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June 9, 2018

MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar review

by John_A


Research Center:

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar

Have you grown bored of seeing your local Starbucks awash in silver, mid-sized laptops, all sporting that glowing Apple logo? We don’t blame you. Apple has remained committed to the MacBook Pro’s design over the last four years, counting on engineering excellence to persevere through multiple product cycles. That decision drove Mac fans wild, as many itched for a newer, faster Pro – and ended up with “new” models that looked the same as what they already owned.

The base 13-inch model without the Touch Bar is $1,300, which comes with 128GB of storage. If you want the Touch Bar model we reviewed, you’ll have to shell out $1,800, though you at least get a processor upgrade as part of the deal.

$1,800 is a lot for a MacBook Pro 13 with a Core i5 processor, even by Apple’s standards. The sharp increase in price means you can only obtain a Core i5 MacBook Pro at prices that used to get you a Core i7, and perhaps a RAM upgrade as well. Can the new model live up to the expectations set by its price?

Still the most luxurious laptop

One look at the new MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar is all you need to know it’s a Mac. That’s even more impressive now that Apple has decided to take attention away from its branding, ditching the glowing white apple in favor of a slick, subtle gloss logo similar to what’s on the MacBook, the iPhone, and the iPad.

As before, the MacBook Pro 13 features an all-unibody design lacking any visible seams aside from those on the bottom. But the new version is slimmer and trimmer, shaving weight down to 3.02 pounds from 3.48 pounds, while thickness drops from 0.71 inches to 0.59 inches.

  • 1.
    Someone carrying the original macbook like this

And that’s not all. Apple, like Dell, has aggressively shaved space from the display bezels to reduce the overall footprint. The new MacBook Pro 13 remains slightly larger than the Dell XPS 13 overall, and a couple tenths of a pound heavier. Users with the older Pro model will appreciate the improvement.

Oh, and the new model comes in Space Gray, which hopefully is the beginning of a wider color selection. The 12-inch MacBook comes in Silver, Space Gray, Rose Gold, and Gold. Color choices may seem petty, but they add a touch of personality.

There’s no arguing with the new MacBook Pro’s elegance. The beauty of Apple design has always been subtle, which is why the company is sometimes accused of being safe, or boring. The new Pro doesn’t even try to side-step those criticisms. It’s not the smallest 13-inch laptop, or the lightest, and its materials feel much as before. There’s something to be said for design that works, though, even if it’s not innovative, and the new MacBook Pro remains the most luxurious laptop around.

Any port you want, as long as it’s USB-C

While the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar has a headphone jack, it makes another connectivity choice that’s just as controversial and, functionally, more important. Apple has decided that USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 is the future and has ditched every other port.

Yes, USB-C is all you get. The MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar has four of these ports, two on each side. Even the card reader is missing. Crazy as it sounds, the decision has it benefits. The simplicity of the port selection is hard to argue with, and every port is a charging port, so you can plug the wall adapter into whichever is more convenient. The ports are quick, too, so you can hook up multiple displays or use fast external SSDs without worry about connectivity bandwidth.

You’re going to need adapters, and you might need lots of them.

Now, for the bad news: You’re going to need adapters, and you might need lots of them. Do you use an external display? That’s an adapter. External hard drive? Adapter. Wired input of any sort? Adapter. Ethernet? Adapter. SDcard? Adapter. At best, you’ll need to purchase one or two dongles. At worst, you’re going to need a dock solution, which can add another $100 to $200 to the price.

The greatest irony? Even Apple’s iPhone can’t plug into any MacBook Pro 13 without purchasing an adapter.

However, thanks to Apple’s lead, this has increasingly become the norm for better or worse. Laptops like the Spectre 13 and MateBook X now have similar port options — and it’ll only continue to be the direction the way things go.

At least it can communicate wirelessly. Speaking of which, the new Pro 13 has the usual 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter paired with Bluetooth 4.2. It’s good to see the latest version of Bluetooth here, as it’ll help connect with a wireless keyboard and mouse.

The keyboard of the future isn’t very good

The 12-inch MacBook, released last year, debuted an all-new “butterfly” switch that’s much thinner than any used in a laptop keyboard prior. Though Apple touted it as having great feel, we complained that “typing for more than an hour [left our] fingers with a dull ache,” due to the keyboard’s stiff feel and limited travel.

Now that same keyboard can be found on the MacBook Pro. Well, not exactly the same.  The Pro’s keyboard has a “second-generation butterfly mechanism,” with slightly more travel than the first. And it is an improvement. If you’re a writer, the MacBook Pro 13 will serve you better than the MacBook Pro 12.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

That’s not to say it’ll serve you well. While travel has improved, the keyboard continues to suffer a stiff, abrupt bottoming action that can make long typing sessions tiresome. The degree to which this will bother you is a matter of preference. A few Digital Trends writers thought it was perfectly acceptable and most thought they could learn to live with it. No one said they preferred it over the previous MacBook Pro 13.

And it’s not clear why this sacrifice was made. While the new MacBook Pro 13 is thin, it’s as thick or thicker than many competitors with better keyboards, such as the Acer Swift 7, HP Spectre, HP Spectre x360, and Dell XPS 13. Whatever the reason, it’s clear Apple had to make a compromise between size, performance, and keyboard quality, with the latter getting the bad end of the bargain. The increased complaints (and lawsuits) about sticking keys doesn’t help either.

The keyboard suffers a stiff, abrupt bottoming action that can make long typing sessions tiresome.

Below the keyboard is a revised, plus-sized touchpad. Unlike the keyboard, this is an unmitigated plus. The spacious surface improves the ease of using multi-touch gestures, which work consistently well. While the new, larger surface means constant contact between it and your palms, we didn’t notice a single instance of unintended input throughout our testing.

And don’t forget Force Touch. The haptic feedback system, which uses vibration to simulate a click, is so good at emulating real movement that most users never notice a difference. It’s quieter than it used to be too, without sacrificing the satisfying clarity of the click. The touch pad also offers force sensitivity, which can enable special interface functions — just like the iPhone. The feature isn’t widely embraced, even by Apple’s own software, but it’s great when offered.

The Touch Bar searches for purpose

In May of 2014, Apple Insider published an article talking about upcoming Macs with “in-key displays,” a rumor that began to snowball in early 2016. After several misses (the rumor mills thought it might appear in early 2016, then in summer), it’s finally here in all its OLED glory.

If nothing else, the Touch Bar is great to look at it. It boasts Retina-equivalent pixel density, which means icons are rendered with crisp, vibrant graphics. And because it’s OLED, blacks look inky black — so dark it’s often hard to find the Touch Bar’s boundaries.

As a conversation starter, then, it holds up. As a functional tool? Less so. Apple tries to integrate the Touch Bar in a way that makes it relevant even in everyday web browser, note-taking, and photo-viewing. Its display changes constantly as new apps are opened, and old ones closed. It performs well, keeping up no matter how quickly apps are switched, or how many are open.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Yet there’s rarely much use for it. At best, it provides a quick way to scroll through lists, such as your Photo Stream. It can also be useful if you’d like to scroll through a video – and it’s great at picking up on such content, activating a scroll bar even when browsing YouTube.

In other cases, though, it’s clearly a solution searching for a problem. Take typing, for instant. As you input text in Safari, Word, and other apps, the Touch Bar constantly flashes word suggestions. It’s a feature that works well on the iPhone, where typing is often slow and cumbersome.

On a laptop, it’s pointless. Type in “office,” for instance, and the Touch Bar will suggest alternatives. Did you mean “officers”? Or, perhaps “off-season”? This happens whether a word is spelled properly or not. Even if you do slip in a typo, it’s hard to imagine why a user would look to the Touch Bar for help when MacOS already presents a correction on-screen and, in most cases, will correct the spelling automatically.

Since its release, a growing number of apps now feature Touch Bar support — including Evernote, Microsoft Outlook, and LastPass. But even with more developer support than it had at launch, the Touch bar is still not quite as integral to the MacBook’s user experience as Apple would like it to be.

If nothing else, the Touch Bar is great to look at it.

Even where it might be useful, the Touch Bar is limited by its size. It automatically displays open Safari tabs, complete with miniature content previews, a feature that could prove helpful. Yet the previews are so small that it’s often hard to tell the tabs apart, even with just three or four open. If you open six, or eight, or ten tabs, then the previews become smaller still, until they’re so tiny that it’s hard to even tap the right one. Similar problems trouble its photo preview and video preview capabilities. In theory, you can scroll through photo collections. In practice, it’s harder to do than with the touchpad.

In short, the Touch Bar isn’t great. But giving the function row over to an OLED display does come with an important perk called Touch ID. Yes, you can now log in with your fingerprint, and it works as seamlessly as it does on iPhone. Fast, secure login authentication methods are a great way to improve security for the average user. And Touch ID integrates with Apple Pay, so you can use it to securely make online purchases — from stores that accept Apple Pay.

Display

A quick look at the specifications could make you think Apple’s new MacBook Pro 13 had an old display. It’s still Retina, which means the resolution is still 2,560 × 1,600. That was stunning in 2012, but today it seems mediocre next to QHD+ (3,200 × 1,800) and 4K screens.

But don’t worry, Mac faithful. You can banish any concerns about the display from your mind. It’s fantastic.

We measured a maximum brightness of 548 lux. That’s ridiculously brilliant, and complete overkill for use indoors, but it can help make the screen, which is still very glossy, usable in extreme situations. By comparison, the Dell XPS 13 with QHD+ display only hits 278 lux, and the HP Spectre x360 hits 355 lux. Both those systems can have a problem with glare in bright conditions, though Dell gives you the choice to combat that with a matte display option.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Brightness is only important in a bright room. What’ll stun you, no matter where you use the MacBook Pro 13, is its color. The display can achieve 100 percent of the sRGB gamut, as well as 91 percent of AdobeRGB. It also delivered an average color error value of 0.72 (lower is better). Anything below one is generally unnoticeable to the human eye, and this reading is the lowest we’ve ever recorded from a laptop. The previous record holder, Dell’s XPS 15, boasted an average error value of 0.78.

Even the contrast ratio of 1,200:1 is excellent. The Pro can deliver dark blacks next to brilliant colors without trouble.

The only flaw we found is gamma, which came in at a reading of 2.3. The ideal curve is 2.2, and the MacBook Pro 13’s result indicates it portrays content a bit darker than it should. But this is a very minor fluctuation, and plenty of competitors miss it, too.

The Retina display may not be this Pro’s headline feature, but it remains its most attractive trait.

When the numbers are tallied, the new Retina display comes away a winner. It defeats the Dell XPS 13, Acer Swift 7, Asus Zenbook 3, HP Spectre x360, and Lenovo Yoga 910, beating all of them in color gamut, color accuracy, and contrast ratio.

That’s not to say it lacks competition, though. Microsoft’s Surface Book can go toe-to-toe with it. Though our tests found the Surface Book had a narrower contrast ratio of 1,010:1, its gamma curve reading was the proper 2.2. Its successor, the Surface Book 2, raised the bar even more with a 1,400-1 contrast ratio. But even still, in terms of color accuracy and brightness, they still don’t quite match up.

There’s also a small handful of Windows systems, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga, available with OLED displays. These clobber the MacBook Pro 13’s strong contrast ratio, and deliver an even wider color gamut, all with accurate gamma. But they don’t match the Mac’s out-of-the-box color accuracy.

Numbers aside, the display on the MacBook Pro 13 is excellent, and looks it in everyday use. Games and movies are crisp and vibrant, and high-quality photos render with such detail that you might think your display was switched with a canvas print. The Retina display may not be this Pro’s headline feature, but it remains its most attractive trait.

Pump up the bass

Apple has always shown an affinity for audio quality rarely found elsewhere, and the MacBook Pro is no exception. In fact, its speakers are the best we can recall hearing in a 13-inch system. That’s saying a lot, because a few recent laptops in this category, like the Asus Zenbook 3, have surprised us with their quality.

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar Compared To

Asus Zenbook UX330UA-AH54

Acer Swift 7 SF713-51-M90J

Lenovo Ideapad 710S

Acer Aspire S 13 S5-371-52JR

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch with…

Apple Macbook Pro 13-Inch (2013)

Apple MacBook Air 13.3-inch…

Apple MacBook 2009

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2008)

Apple MacBook (2.4GHz, 2008)

Apple MacBook Air (80GB)

Apple MacBook Pro 15″ 2.4GHz

Apple MacBook Pro 2.33GHz

Apple MacBook 2.0GHz

Apple MacBook Pro 15.4-inch 2.16GHz

The MacBook Pro 13 offers a wide range of volume and, at maximum, it’s far louder than most people will need in normal use, and capable of filling a large room with tunes. Bass is present and accounted for in minimal but noticeable amounts – the thump can be felt through the keyboard at higher volumes. High and mid-range sound remains clear and free of distortion.

External speakers will be an improvement, as always, but the audio quality present here is surprising, and may convince you there’s no need to plug anything into the headphone jack.

A fast processor, facing stiff competition

Specifications have never been Apple’s area of focus, but that used to be a marketing concern rather than an indication of the company’s preference for hardware. Over the last few years, though, that has changed. The MacBook Pro fell behind, adopting new Intel processor lines late — or not at all.

The MacBook Pro only partially addresses the problem. Our entry-level MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar we reviewed has an Intel Core i5-6267U, though it’s been recently updated to 7th-gen Intel Core processors.

For the most part, yes. The system’s Geekbench 3 multi-core score of 7,638 is not the best we’ve seen, but it’s certainly in range of competitors. The Lenovo Yoga 910 hit 7,973, and the Dell XPS 13 hit 7,835. Both were tested with Intel’s Core i7-7500U. The MacBook Pro 13 scored even better in Geekbench 3’s single-core metric, beating all competitors, if only by a hair.

You might wonder how the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar can keep up, given it has an older architecture. The secret is the specific processor used by Apple. It has a 28-watt Thermal Design Power, while most Intel Core mobile chips are designed under a 15-watt Thermal Design Power. Put simply, the MacBook Pro 13 keeps itself competitive by drawing more juice under load.

While the Pro does keep up, it’s still disappointing to see it stick with an older generation of hardware, especially given the price and the availability of newer Intel CPUs. The faster Core i7 in competitors we tested can be had for hundreds less than the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar. Though quick, this level of performance is typical in laptops priced above $1,000.

Despite being well in 2018, Apple has still not announced an 8th-gen update, making the CPU available here feel more outdated with every day that goes by.

The hard drive to rule them all

Drive performance is often overlooked by consumers, but it’s important to a system’s overall capability. Apple knows this, and has been a leader in storage performance for years. The new MacBook Pro line is no exception. It quotes read speeds of 3.1 gigabytes per second, and write speeds of 2.2 gigabytes per second.

We can’t do an apples-to-apples comparison with Windows competitors here, because the tools we normally use to test performance aren’t compatible with MacOS. However, we did test using two benchmarks that run only on Apple’s operating system.

First up was Blackmagic, a test designed to tell professionals if a drive is up to the task of handling content at specific framerates and resolutions. It produced a write speed result of 1,348 megabytes per second, and a read result of two gigabytes per second (annoyingly, this appears to be the maximum result the benchmark can show). That’s a big improvement over the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina (2015). It hit a write speed of 647MB/s, and a read speed of 1,056MB/s.

We also fired up DiskMark. It spat out sequential read performance of 1,826MB/s, and sequential write performance of 1,289MB/s.  We hadn’t tested with that benchmark before, so take the numbers with a grain of salt. Still, they’re good figures, and reasonably consistent with Blackmagic.

Again, these benchmarks do not run on Windows, so we can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison of hard drive performance. But numbers we have from CrystalDiskMark, our Windows test, suggest Apple is at the head of the pack.

The Dell XPS 13 with 512GB solid state drive scored a read speed of 1,285MB/s and a write sped of 572.8MB/s. The best drive performance we’ve seen from a Windows laptop came from the Vaio Z Flip. It scored read speeds of 1621.7MB/s, and write speeds of 1565.3MB/s.

If this all sounds confusing, don’t worry. While the numbers are outstanding, you don’t need to obsess over them. It’s clear the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar has outstanding drive performance, and it’ll handle any workload you ask of it. This is the most future-proof component in the entire system.

Mac gaming is still a bad idea

As in most past incarnations, the Apple MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar relies on Intel integrated graphics. If you want a more powerful discrete graphics solution, then you’ll need to accept the MacBook Pro 15’s larger footprint.

With that said, our review unit did boast Intel Iris Graphics 550 which, in theory, should be much quicker than standard Intel HD graphics. Compared to Intel HD 620, the solution most common in modern Windows laptops, Iris Graphics 550 has double the execution units (48 vs. 24) and a higher maximum clock speed (1,100MHz vs. 1,050MHz). Better still, Iris Graphics 550 has 64 megabytes of dedicated eDRAM, something you’ll never find with Intel HD 620.

But does that mean you can play games better than with a typical Windows ultrabook? To find out we fired up Civilization VI, testing it at 1,440 x 900 resolution on the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar, and on the same resolution on HP’s Spectre x360, with minimum detail and memory consumption selected.

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The game performed identically — and poorly — on both, delivering 21 frames per second through the in-game benchmark. But the HP was the better experience, as the Mac suffered graphical glitches that weren’t present on the HP Spectre x360.

If you’re curious why the game performs poorly despite greater technical capability, blame Apple’s OpenGL support, which hasn’t been updated significantly for years. Instead, the company prefers Metal, its own API which can be used on both iOS and MacOS devices. The problem? Porting a game from Windows’ popular DirectX API to Metal is unfamiliar territory. Developers of Windows PC games don’t have a good option for porting to the Mac, and the result is often performance that’s less impressive than you’d expect.

You’ll have better luck with games ported over from iOS, such as CSR Racing Pro 3, Super Octagon, and Limbo. There’s a fair selection of such games on the Mac App Store. These also tend to suffer problems, though, especially in control, which is often poorly converted from touch to keyboard and mouse.

A smaller battery leads to adequate endurance

While the MacBook Pro 13 takes a step forward in processor performance, it takes a significant step back in battery capacity. The previous model had a 74.9 watt-hour battery, but the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar has 49.2 watt-hour battery (the model without Touch Bar has a slightly larger 54.5 watt-hour battery). That’s a reduction in capacity of almost 35 percent.

Despite that, Apple quotes the same battery life as before. The company obviously thinks that efficiency will make up for the smaller battery, but we didn’t find that to be the case.

Peacekeeper, a looped web browsing benchmark, drained a full charge in five hours and three minutes. That’s not a bad result, but it’s not amazing, either. The Dell XPS 13 with Core i7 lasted five hours and seven minutes, while the Acer Swift 7 lasted five hours and 56 minutes. The HP Spectre lasted a tad bit less at four hours and 54 minutes.

We also tested the system in a video loop, using iTunes. It drained the battery in ten hours and 17 minutes. That’s another solid result, though behind the HP Spectre x360, and barely ahead of the Lenovo Yoga 910. The Dell XPS 13 with Core i7 comes up a bit short here, hitting nine hours and 12 minutes.

In real-world use, we found battery life to be average. Most 13-inch laptops priced about $1,000 can last through nearly a workday of a use, and the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar can, as well. But this assumes your “normal” use isn’t constant use, and that you stay away from demanding applications.

Some users have noted that Safari seems to drain the battery more quickly than hoped. We’ve noted that, as well, even after the 10.12.3 update, which fixed a bug that caused Safari to use more graphics horsepower than needed.

If you want amazing portability, you should aim for Dell’s XPS 13 with 1080p display and Core i5 processor. It lasted an outstanding six hours and 12 minutes in Peacekeeper, and twelve hours 43 minutes in our video loop. The best of all options in terms of battery life is the Surface Book 2 13, which lasted an amazing 17 hours of battery life in our video playback test. The MacBook Pro 13 used to be the last word in battery life, but the new model — or, at least, the Touch Bar version — has lost the crown.

MacOS or Windows 10? You’ve probably already decided

The MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar of course runs MacOS, while most other laptops run Windows. For some, that’s all the information needed. If you prefer MacOS, then you’re going to need to buy a MacBook, and the new Pro models are the most powerful Mac laptops available.

If you’re not familiar with Windows 10 and MacOS, give our reviews a read. We generally recommend Windows 10 over Apple’s operating system. It offers better task management, superior notifications, a more versatile digital assistant, and extensive cloud integration. MacOS does have strengths, though. It remains intuitive to use, and it works extremely well with iOS devices, as users can quickly share content between them or send text messages through the MacOS iMessage app.

The usual warranty terms, with Apple Store convivence

Apple ships every MacBook with a one-year warranty that includes 90 days of phone support. The terms are typical for the industry. The company’s retail stores give an edge, though, because owners can stop by for in-person support. That’s much more convenient than calling a hotline or shipping a system back — if you live near an Apple store, of course.

Our Take

Apple’s new MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar is a beautiful machine, but it has several flaws, and it’s far too expensive.

Is there a better alternative?

That depends on if you’d consider a Windows computer. If not, the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar is an attractive option – though you should consider the model without Touch Bar first. It’s more affordable, and has a larger battery. The processor is not quite as fast, but the downgrade won’t be significant for most people.

If you’re open-minded about choosing between Windows 10 and MacOS, there are numerous competitors. They include the Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre x360, Huawei Matebook X Pro, Surface Book 2, and Razer Blade Stealth. Many of these are a bit quicker, some have better battery life, and all offer a better keyboard. The Windows alternatives also offer an optional touchscreen, and some are 2-in-1 devices usable as either laptop or tablet.

The main sacrifice you’ll make with these alternatives is display quality. Only Microsoft’s Surface Book, and the handful of OLED laptops currently available, can go toe-to-toe with the new Pro in that area.

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Kensington SD4500 USB-C Docking Station

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Logitech MX Anywhere 2 Wireless Mobile Mouse

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How long will it last?

Apple has control of each Mac’s lifespan by dictating which systems will receive MacOS updates. Since the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar was just released, it’s safe to say it’ll last as long as any Mac currently available. With this MacBook in particular, the real danger is in the keyboard, which has had notable reliability issues.

Should you buy it?

No, at least not at the configuration we reviewed.

The MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar is not a bad laptop. On the contrary, it’s good. But the $1,800 price tag demands more than just good. A laptop sold for that, as an entry-level model, must be among the best of the best. The MacBook Pro 13 without Touch Bar (starting at $1,300) and MacBook Pro 15 (starting at $2,400) are both better values for what you pay.

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