Apple MacBook Pro review: get ’em while they’re hot

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Apple MacBook Pro review: get ’em while they’re hot

I’m not sure what all the fuss is about.

From all the controversy that has surrounded Apple’s top-of-the-line 15-inch MacBook Pro for 2018, you’d think it was the first time it occurred to anyone that Apple might sometimes sacrifice utility for aesthetics.

The most expensive MacBook Pro, which features a brand-new Intel Core i9 processor rather than the Core i7 processor we had in last year’s top model, doesn’t make the best possible use of that processor, you see.

The new processor wants to run faster and hotter than the thermal design of the slim MacBook Pro can cope with, and it turns out that Apple could have given a bigger performance boost to its MacBook Pro by simply making it a bit thicker and adding a $4.80 cooling fan at the back, rather than adding a fancy Core i9 processor that adds $480 to the price.

The 13-inch model (left) and the 15-inch model may never be as pretty again.
The 13-inch model (left) and the 15-inch model may never be as pretty again.

To put it simply, it seems the performance of the Core i9 has been hobbled by Apple’s desire to keep the MacBook Pro as slim and as good looking as it is.

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Why is everybody so shocked by this?

You just need to look at the keyboard Apple has used on its past few MacBook Pros to know that Apple walks the thin line between style and substance. The keyboards are quite possibly the least comfortable keyboards to type on of any notebook we have ever reviewed here in the Labs, but boy, they sure do look purdy, and they keep the MacBook Pro all slim and purdy, too!

And, in any case, the new MacBook Pro with the Core i9 processor is no slouch, even if it’s not as fast as it might be. I’ve been using it here in the Labs for five days now, and even in its hobbled state it still blows away the other notebooks in our Labs.

It may not be as fast as it would be if it were a centimetre thicker and had a bigger, louder fan in it, allowing the Core i9 processor to run at its maximum speed for longer before it overheats and throttles its speed back, but it’s fast nevertheless. Oh my god it’s fast.

You hear a lot about video on the MacBook Pro, but more coders buy it than videographers, according to Apple
You hear a lot about video on the MacBook Pro, but more coders buy it than videographers, according to Apple

I’ve mainly been using the new MacBook Pro for software development (which it turns out is a more popular use case for MacBook Pros than video production, according to Apple, even if it’s not a demanding as the video software that the MacBook is usually reviewed against) and its speed is most definitely not one of the complaints I have about the machine.

Speed

Let me give you an example.

Lately we’ve been developing Android apps, using the latest preview version of Android Studio. On the high-end Core i7 Windows machines we usually use here in the Labs, the downloaded Android Studio app takes between 28 minutes and 33 minutes to unzip, depending on the machine.

But they do look prettier when pretty people use them to manipulate pretty images. (Coders of the world, unite!)
But they do look prettier when pretty people use them to manipulate pretty images. (Coders of the world, unite!)

On the new MacBook Pro, it takes me 10 seconds. I’m not making that up. It’s around 180 times faster.

Obviously, there’s a lot of things at play in that example. Windows clearly does a terrible job of unzipping files compared with macOS. The new MacBook Pro, which is double the price of our Windows machines, has faster storage and faster RAM than our Windows machines. With a job lasting only 10 seconds, any thermal problems the Core i9 may have on the MacBook Pro isn’t going to show up.

But still. That example alone amounts to about 30 minutes saved every three or four weeks, which is roughly how often I update Android Studio on my own machine.

And I daresay the daily time savings would add up to roughly as much. Building our Android application on the Windows machines takes me between 44 seconds and 1 minute 5 seconds, depending on the machine and the state of the app. On the new MacBook Pro it takes me between 12 and 14 seconds. If you’re doing that between 50 and 100 times per machine per day, which I guess I do (I’ve never really counted), it could easily add up to 30 minutes a day, just in build time.

Here it is doing some motion graphics. But who wrote that pretty visual effects app? (Coders of the world unite!)
Here it is doing some motion graphics. But who wrote that pretty visual effects app? (Coders of the world unite!)

Multiply that over the lifetime of the device, and the very expensive, top-of-the-line MacBook Pro might even pay for itself. 

Aesthetic sacrifices

So, no, performance isn’t the issue we have with the MacBook Pro.

It’s the other things that Apple has sacrificed in the name of aesthetics, sacrifices it made years ago, that continue to bug us.

In order to get the MacBook Pro as slim as it is, Apple has created a keyboard that has almost no travel in its keypress. It’s fast and it’s accurate, and this year the keyboard is quieter to type on than ever, but it’s just as fatiguing as ever, too.

And in order to keep the MacBook Pro as slim as it is, Apple has created a trackpad that has absolutely no travel in it whatsoever when you press down on it. It uses a nifty haptic feedback mechanism to fool your brain into thinking there’s travel, but we suspect that trick only makes finger fatigue worse. You think it’s softer than it is, so you press harder than you should.

After only four days my fingertips are already tingling.

We think those concerns, which aren’t new this year, are more troubling than the very fast (but could be faster!) speed of the device we’ve been reviewing.

That’s not to say Apple doesn’t have a problem on its hands with MacBook Pro speed though.

The fact that it seems to be pushing the thermal envelope of its current MacBook Pro design means it’s getting less differentiation between the expensive Core i9 model and the cheaper Core i7 model than it should, making the Core i9 model more difficult to justify for price-sensitive buyers. (The model we reviewed, which has 2 terabytes of storage, costs $7139, so it’s not exactly playing in the price-sensitive end of the market, but even so there may be people who’d opt for the $480-cheaper Core i7 model.)

And it also means Apple probably needs to overhaul the MacBook Pro’s look and feel next year, making it thicker and noisier than the current design, if it’s going to realise any meaningful performance improvement over this year’s models.

But isn’t that more reason to buy this year’s model, rather than less? It might never be as slim and good looking ever again.

And don’t people buy Apple products for their purdiness above all else?

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