Not Just a Cup of Coffee Lake: Apple MacBook Pro 2018 Preview

MacBook Pro 810

Apple previewed a revised line of MacBook Pro laptops at a showcase in New York on July 11, outlining its latest generation of machines geared toward content professionals, media creators and editors, and scientific/workstation users. It’s the biggest Mac hardware news since the rollout of the Apple iMac Pro in December. (Hit the link for a review of that model.) The company also teased a new Mac-compatible external graphics card (eGPU) solution from Blackmagic, and Apple-brand sleeves for the new MacBooks Pros. We took a look at all the new hardware in advance of its release, chatting with a select group of creative artists, musicians, academics, developers, and pro photographers who were given early access to the hardware. (We’ve highlighted a few of them below.)

The top-level takeaway from the MacBook Pro rollout? It’s mainly around options for “more” and “newer”: more CPU cores on the latest-gen Intel Core CPUs, more terabytes of storage, a higher ceiling on RAM, support for the latest variety of system memory. That said, some of the changes to these new machines center around the displays, and Apple’s also rolling out a tweaked keyboard on these machines, dubbed “third generation.” That comes in light of recent hubbub around higher-than-usual keyboard malfunction rates on previous-gen MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops that, ultimately, spurred an Apple-initiated repair program.

The new machines are the 15-inch and 13-inch MacBook Pro models with Touch Bar. They go on sale today via Apple.com, and later in the week will be in a subset of Apple Stores and available via some Apple authorized resellers. In the fall, all will be upgradable to macOS Mojave, the latest version of the operating system, upon its launch. (See our macOS Mojave preview.)


MacBook Pro 2018 - Main

The 15-Inch MacBook Pro With Touch Bar: Make My Coffee Lake an i9 Grande, Please

With laptop lines across the industry transitioning over to Intel’s “Coffee Lake” eight-generation mobile architecture, the MacBook Pro’s evolution was just a matter of time. It was just a question of which chips would be on offer.

As it turns out, the 2018 models present a couple of CPU-centric firsts on the Apple front. The MacBook Pro 15-inch with Touch Bar will be offered not just in Core i7 options, but a Core i9 config. And all of the CPUs on the 15-inch Pro are six-core chips, with support for 12 cores via Hyper-Threading.

Apple notes that this MacBook Pro will be able to turbo-boost its clocks as high as 4.8GHz, depending on the thermal situation and the specific CPU. We saw a variety of demos in our briefings that made use of the extra core muscle, which included CPU-intensive tasks such as 3D-model manipulation in Maya, manipulation of giant data sets, or real-time audio rendering of scads of soft-synths in Logic.

MacBook Pro 2018 - Saul Kato

Dr. Saul Kato, an assistant professor of neurology at UCSF, demonstrates how he uses the MacBook Pro to crunch large data sets in his work mapping the neurons of simple organisms.

The biggest benefit of adding these new-gen processors? It’s to marshal the oversize performance boost you get from applying more cores to tasks executed in software that’s optimized for multi-threaded operations. A move from four cores to six cores is a big deal, and Apple is claiming performance benefits of up to 70 percent generation over generation, under the right software conditions.

Radeon Pro graphics with 4GB of video memory is standard across the 15-inch Touch Bar models. Other core-component changes in the 15-inch MacBook Pro surround the main system memory and the storage. The MacBook Pro Touch Bar models now move from DDR3 to DDR4 memory, with a new ceiling of 32GB on the 15-incher. Apple made this change, a spokesperson noted, to accommodate professional content-creation applications and development environments that benefit from all the RAM they can get. Given that post-purchase RAM upgrade options are limited on Mac laptops, this is a welcome boost.

Likewise, the PCI Express-based internal solid-state drives in the MacBook Pro 15-inch have a new ceiling: 4TB, up from 2TB. This is to accommodate power users working with extremely large files who would like to execute tasks locally, forgoing tethered external hard drives, RAID drives, or proxy-content arrangements made to compensate for limited onboard storage capacities and slow throughput for direct-attached storage over connections such as USB. Also, a larger-capacity battery has been incorporated into the new 15-incher to offset some of the additional power draw from DDR4 and the new six-core processors.

MacBook Pro 2018 - Daniel Beltra

Environmentally minded photographer Daniel Beltra explains how the much expanded local-storage ceiling on the MacBook Pro 15-inch will enable him to rely less on external storage when shooting in remote locations.

Other changes to the MacBook Pro 15-inch center around the display and keyboard. The laptop gets the True Tone functionality that came in with the 2016 Apple iPad Pro tablet. With True Tone activated (there’s a software toggle), a light sensor detects and analyzes the ambient light in the room. It then adjusts the white point to ensure a more favorable perception of contrast, as well as a “truer” feel to whites under the prevailing lighting conditions. Interestingly, on the new MacBook Pros, True Tone is applied to both the main display and the Touch Bar strip. We got a brief demo of the True Tone toggle in person, and activating the feature under Apple’s demo-space lighting indeed lent the screen of the 15-inch MacBook Pro more of a warm, amber cast than the brittler-feeling default color temperature, which in comparison tended toward a cooler blue.

The keyboard, meanwhile, we’d like to spend some more time with. Apple is calling this a “third generation” keyboard; the company did not specify the difference in measurements but noted that it is slightly wider than before, with a different key-action feel. We flexed our fingers in a brief typing demo in our limited hands-on time with the MacBook Pro 15-inch. You still get a bit of haptic-source click feedback, which is, as before, in contrast to the minimal key travel; we’ve felt plenty of keyboards with far deeper keypress distances elicit less under-finger feedback. But in practical fact, the keys themselves barely depress. It’s uncannily effective, and you have to try it to fully appreciate and understand it. Apple was not divulging or discussing the exact key travel distance, but does claim that these new keyboards are quieter to type on.

MacBook Pro 2018 - Aaron Axelrod

L.A.-based multiple-medium artist Aaron Axelrod uses the 15-incher as a media creation and control tool.

Another item coming over from the iMac Pro is Apple’s T2 subprocessor chip. This is an upgrade from the T1 in the previous-gen MacBook Pros. This chip powers the Touch Bar and Apple’s Touch ID functionality. With T2, further functionality comes aboard: the key ones for most users will be encryption-based security for the onboard storage, and secure-boot functionality. (In essence, the onboard storage in the MacBook Pro is encrypted and decrypted via this chip; separating the internal storage from the Mac makes the data on it unreadable.) Siri voice control also comes to the MacBook Pro with assistance from this chip.

What It Costs: The base model of the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is $2,399, and goes on sale on July 12.


The 13-Inch MacBook Pro With Touch Bar: Quad-Core Coffee, Similar Updates

Coffee Lake is coming to the Touch Bar version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, as well, but in Core i5 and i7 flavors, all quad-core. The Core i9 and the six-core Core i7s are not an option here.

Other changes coming to the 13-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pro parallel those on the 15-incher. The ceiling on internal storage goes to 2TB, and the move from Apple T1 to Apple T2 (supporting the ancillary functions mentioned above) also holds for the 13-incher, including the support for encrypted storage and the “Hey Siri” voice assistant. The display and Touch Bar both gain support for True Tone; the battery has been enlarged; and the keyboard also has seen tweakage in the feel and sound of the key action.

The 13-inch Touch Bar model makes use of Intel Iris Plus 655 graphics integrated into the CPUs; this is a key difference versus the dedicated Radeon Pro silicon in the 15-inch Touch Bar. Note that the 13-inch MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar will remain on the market, in the same dual-core Core i5 configurations as the current models.

What It Costs: The new 13-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pro starts at $1,799. The existing configurations of the non-Touch Bar model still begin at $1,299.


MacBook Pro 2018 Sleeve

Leather Sleeves, and a Promotion

Apple spokespeople also noted the rollout of leather sleeves for the new 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro. (These were first introduced with the non-Pro MacBooks.) These sleeves come in two sizes to match the screen size of the model in question, and in three colors: Saddle Brown, Midnight Blue, and black. The exterior is leather, and the interior portion touching the actual laptop is a microfiber layer.

These laptops will surely be popular choices for college students in engineering, computer science, and technical/media fields, and Apple is also sweetening the pot around the Mac for 2018 back-to-school buying time with a giveaway incentive. This time, it’s a set of wireless Beats headphones in a selection of colors, provided free with the purchase of a Mac, offered via the Apple Education Store.


The Blackmagic eGPU

The last item in the showcase tour was an eGPU assembly from Mac storage stalwart Blackmagic. This is a slick-looking external graphics box with two key differences from most models in this emerging category of hardware.

For one, this is a sealed-unit eGPU box, ready to go right as you unpack it. Unlike most eGPUs we’ve seen, such as the Razer Core X, the Blackmagic eGPU comes with the dedicated graphics card pre-installed, in this case an AMD Radeon Pro 580 supplemented by 8GB of GDDR5 memory. This is the same graphics solution found in the 5K-screened 2017 Apple iMac.

The idea behind an eGPU is to provide an easy, single-cable upgrade to a laptop’s graphics-processing capabilities for gaming, as well as professional apps that benefit from GPU acceleration. The app needs to be modified to make use of the extra eGPU muscle. In most cases, you plug the eGPU directly into a Thunderbolt 3 port on your laptop. The takeaway from the Blackmagic eGPU, per Apple’s claim: up to a 2.8-times increase in graphics performance over the dedicated graphics on the MacBook Pro 15, and up to an eight-fold increase on the MacBook Pro 13-inch using Intel integrated graphics.

MacBook Pro 2018 - Akshaya Dinesh

Akshaya Dinesh, the 18-year old founder of Girls Make Apps, explains how the Blackmagic eGPU (shown on the desk) enables VR development from the MacBook Pro.

As a bit of background, most eGPU solutions make you bring your own video card to the party (one from a list of compatible cards) and install it in the eGPU chassis yourself, making the whole experience more of a DIY affair. (A key exception is the Gigabyte Aorus GTX 1070 Gaming Box, which comes with a muscular GeForce card pre-installed.) eGPU chassis from Akitio, Asus, HP, Razer, and others also tend to have much larger footprints than this one, sometimes with full-size ATX PC power supplies inside to support very high-end video cards. The Blackmagic model’s vertical design and more integrated internals make for space savings and a more attractive desktop look and feel. (One of the reasons most eGPU chassis are less elegant than this one is that the usual design is long and horizontal, mirroring the shape of the video card it contains and big enough to accommodate brawny high-end cards.)

The other big difference between this eGPU and others is the connectivity mix—which incorporates an industry first, namely support for Thunderbolt 3-interface monitors like LG’s UltraFine 5K Display. This eGPU supports Thunderbolt monitors off of the two Thunderbolt 3 ports on the chassis. (That’s in contrast to typical eGPU solutions, which have you attach your monitor directly to the backplane of the video card via DVI, DisplayPort, or HDMI.) Also on the back of the Blackmagic eGPU you’ll find four USB 3 ports and an HDMI 2 port. The idea here is that you have enough connectivity to hook up a virtual-reality (VR) head-mounted display such as the HTC Vive, making use of the USB and HDMI ports. (The Radeon Pro 580 is rated as VR-ready.) That’s handy not just from a VR-aficionado’s point of view but for folks who do development for VR apps and environments on the Mac platform.

MacBook Pro 2018 - Janet Iwasa

Dr. Janet Iwasa of the University Of Utah demonstrates her use of the MacBook Pro with eGPU to model and animate molecules in 3D using Maya.

Apple spokespeople noted that the Blackmagic eGPU is rated to run relatively quietly (up to about 18 decibels) and will also deliver 85 watts of power via the Thunderbolt 3 connection (say, for laptop charging).

What It Costs: The Blackmagic eGPU is expected to sell for $699.

Stay tuned for full reviews of the new MacBook Pros along with the Blackmagic eGPU in the coming weeks.