15in MacBook Pro (2018) full review
The 2018 versions of Apple's high-end MacBook Pro laptops are here, and they're fearsomely well-specced. We reviewed the new 13in model, but in this article we are going to evaluate the 15in, testing its speed, battery life, keyboard and trackpad, and reporting on its design, build quality and price.
We'll drill right down into the technical capabilities of this super-high-end device in due course, but we'll tell you right now that it's seriously fast and a pleasure to use, although we remain unconvinced by the keyboard layout.
Price and Availability
NOTE: The MacBook Pro range has been updated for 2019 with new processors in the form of Intel 9th-gen Core i7 and i9. Read about it more here. Below is our original 15in review from 2018, which is no longer part of the range.
There are two starting configurations of the 15in MacBook Pro for 2018: the 2.2GHz i7 model, which comes with 256GB of SSD storage, and the faster 2.6GHz i7 model with 512GB. (The latter also has a better graphics setup.)
- MacBook Pro 2.2GHz i7, 256GB: £2,349/$2,399. Available on Apple's website
- MacBook Pro 2.6GHz i7, 512GB: £2,699/$2,799. Available on Apple's website
If your budget allows, however, you can further upgrade your laptop with various build-to-order options; a super-fast i9 processor will set you back a further £350/$400 from the 2.2GHz starting config, for example, or £270/£300 from the 2.6GHz. A 4TB SSD adds an eye-watering £2,880/$3,200.
You can go seriously crazy on this laptop. We've worked out that the top-of-the-range model, souped up with every possible upgrade, will cost a whopping £6,708.98 (or $7,198.98) - but what a machine you'd have.
MacBooks are available from other distributors too. Browse our roundup of the best MacBook Pro deals for the lowest prices.
Design and Build
Let's start with the look and general exterior design of the new MacBook Pro.
In almost all respects it's the classic design launched in 2016. You get a slim and relatively lightweight (1.83kg) body with stereo speakers either side of a full-size keyboard, four USB-C ports (and no separate power port), a truly vast trackpad which we'll discuss in a moment and a large bright screen with small bezels.
The surface of the laptop is smooth, matt and friction-free; it feels great. And the neat scoop out of the front edge below the trackpad, which helps centre your hand without looking, has an appealing simplicity to it as well. The whole thing is a work of art, really, although even the art world can benefit from a radical change of approach from time to time.
The Apple logo on the lid doesn't light up, as it did on the 2012-2015 Pros. It's mirrored instead. And the Space Grey model looks achingly sophisticated and understated - but that colour option too has been offered since 2016.
The only changes for 2018 that could tenuously be grouped under exterior design affect the screen and the keyboard, and the latter is the next topic for discussion.
Keyboard and Trackpad
The 'Butterfly' key mechanism remains - this was introduced in 2016 and allows for a thinner design than was possible with the older scissor mechanism. But it has been tweaked for 2018 to make typing quieter... and possibly to solve an unrelated problem too.
Since the 2016 design was introduced, users have reported that the keyboard is prone to malfunctioning and in some cases refuses to work entirely. (We discuss this in our MacBook Pro problems article.) It's believed that this is caused by a susceptibility to dust and other particles getting under the keys, and Apple has admitted that there is a problem.
This time around, then, it was hoped that the problem would be addressed, and sure enough, teardowns discovered that a new silicone membrane around the keys provided improved protection against intruding particles. But Apple maintains that this is for reasons of noise.
The keys are pleasant to use, with a shallow but satisfying action, and the sound is not offensive. However, we do feel that they are crammed too close together. The writer of this review is normally a reasonably reliable typist, but found himself producing drivel like "ANother channel I ahve not been invoited to" at a standard speed - three typos in eight words! - simply because the gaps between the keys are so small.
The direction keys at the bottom right are probably the worst for this, and we found it impossible to use them without looking. But Cmd isn't much better, which is a major concern for hotkey combinations.
Note that these issues were also true of the previous MacBook Pro. We find typing easier on the 2015 MacBook Pro, however, which has noticeably more separated keys.
The trackpad, as we mentioned before, is huge: 16cm by 10cm. Combining size with a pleasingly smooth surface and Force Touch, this is an excellent component.
Finally, for those who didn't get the memo, there's a slender touchscreen running across the top of the keyboard, where the Function keys would previously have been. This is the Touch Bar, which displays various buttons depending on the app you're using and the way you've chosen to customise it. (It can also display the Function keys, if you're feeling nostalgic.)
We still don't totally get the Touch Bar, but it's now integrated into most applications so there are plenty of ways for you to benefit from it. You might like to use its iPhone-esque auto-suggestions when typing, for instance.
You'd better like it, anyway: whereas the 13in Pro is still offered without a Touch Bar, it's compulsory for 15in buyers.
You get a big, bright 15in display with a Retina-rated resolution of 2880 x 1800 at 220ppi (pixels per inch). Colours are clear and vivid.
We find the MBP's screen plenty sharp enough for our purposes but there are better-specced alternatives out there: the Dell XPS 15 9560, for instance, offers a resolution of 3840 x 2160 at 282ppi.
The above specs have remained constant since 2012, which partly explains why rivals have caught up and surpassed them. What is different about this generation of screen is the inclusion of True Tone, which was introduced with the 2016 iPad Pro and more recently brought to the 2017 iPhones.
True Tone is an adaptive tech: it adjusts the screen's colour balance to achieve consistent output under differing environmental conditions. It's a similar kind of idea to Night Shift, producing a warmer, yellower colour palette where the lighting requires it.
If you go into System Preferences > Displays you can toggle the feature on and off, which makes it easy to see what it's up to. We tested True Tone in three indoor settings - brightly sunlit, electric light only, and near dark - and in all three we found that it was cranking up the yellow pretty heavily. In each case switching True Tone off made the screen (quite slowly) turn shockingly blue.
We also tried the same trick outdoors (in the height of a summer afternoon) and it appeared not to be doing much at all - which makes sense, because there was plenty of yellow light without any electronic adjustment.
The funny thing about True Tone is that, unless you specifically seek out the controls and turn it off and on, you probably won't notice it's happening. We imagine most users will be only dimly aware that the screen seems to have good colour output without being sure why.
Core Specs and Performance
This is a supremely powerful machine. Pro users will be pleased to hear that Apple has found space for processors released only a few months ago - the eighth-generation 'Coffee Lake' line of Intel chips - with six cores for the first time. As stated above you get the choice of 2.2GHz or 2.6GHz i7, or the 2.9GHz i9 8950K, and Apple promises up to 70 percent speed gains on the 2017 generation.
(There's also a proprietary T2 chip, which is separate to the main processor. The T2 is for system management, SSD management and similar tasks, and offers Hey Siri support. There was a T1 in the 2017 Pro.)
The RAM limit has been raised to 32GB, although you'll have to pay extra for that as a build-to-order option. The standard is 16GB.
We tested a heavily souped-up model, kitted out with the i9 processor, 32GB of RAM and a 2TB SSD. Here's how it got on in our testing labs. As mentioned earlier, the 15in MacBook Pro has now been updated for 2019 with 9th-gen Intel processors.
In the Geekbench 4 CPU test, which evaluates overall processing speed, our i9 MacBook scored 5,531 in single-core mode and 23,028 in multicore. That's a fair bit higher than the 13in (quad-core 2.7GHz i7) model we tested at the same time, which posted 5,386 and 18,454.
This compares even more favourably - as you would hope - with earlier generations. The 15in MBP from 2017, equipped with a 2.9GHz quad-core i7 from the 'Kaby Lake' generation, scored 4,739 and 15,731. That's a multicore increase of about 47 percent, thanks to the two extra cores and the newer chips.
Not quite 70 percent, but 2017's Pro was only 19 percent up on the year before that: the 2.7GHz, 15in MacBook Pro from late 2016, equipped with a 2.7GHz chip, scored 4,101 and 13,193.
(Take these comparisons with a pinch of salt: it's very difficult to exactly match the specs head to head so there are other variables. But it gives a general idea of how much of a leap we're seeing this year.)
If you'd like to know how high Geekbench scores can get, the truly monstrous £9k/$9k iMac Pro we looked at in February scored a whopping 36,901 in multicore.
AJA System Test
The next test is AJA System Test Lite, which evaluates drive performance. We tested using the settings 5K RED, 4GB, single file and disk cache disable; higher scores are better.
The MBP recorded an average of 2,914 MBps write speed (excellent) and 3,069 MBps read speed (superb). The latter is better than any other Mac we've tested.
Some comparisons: this year's 13in Pro scored 2,764 MBps write and 2,513 MBps read; the 2017 15in Pro scored 2,054 MBps write and 2,574 MBps read. Even the mighty iMac Pro was lower on read speed (2,636 MBps) although it did better on write speed (3,149 MBps).
The 15in MBP offers a choice of discrete GPUs as well as the integrated Intel GPU: either the Radeon Pro 555X or 560X. In either case it comes with 4GB of graphical memory.
In other words, this laptop has been put together with creative professionals in mind, and such users will be looking for extreme graphics capabilities. (If that sounds like you, incidentally, you may like to read Digital Arts' MacBook Pro 15 review for designers and artists.)
We began our graphics benchmarking with the Cinebench suite, which tests a system's ability to render 3D scenes and stresses both CPU and GPU.
The 2018 Pro recorded 104fps in the OGL test, and 915 in the render. Those are impressive numbers for a laptop (again, higher scores are better in this test), and well up on both last year's 15in Pro (92fps and 764) and this year's 13in Pro with its integrated graphics (39fps and 727).
Premium desktops remain the gold standard in this regard: the current iMac and iMac Pro scored 126fps and 138fps respectively. But for many creatives these will not be practical choices.
The Unigine Valley benchmark tests performance and stability under high graphical workloads. We ran this at the top setting, Extreme HD, to see how well the Pro would cope.
It did fine. It ran at an average of 20.9fps and scored 875 (the higher the better), a fair way ahead of last year's 15in model (789 points). This suggests it will cope comfortably with the most demanding of graphical tasks, and those numbers are well ahead of our lower-powered 2018 13in model (521) and the 2017 13in (448).
(For comparison with high-end desktops, the iMac Pro scored a whopping 2,520 points, while the 2017 iMac scored 1,635.)
Note that the scores above include the Supplemental Update to macOS 10.13.6 released on 24 July. This update was released in response to complaints about 'thermal throttling'.
When review samples were first going out, an eagle-eyed YouTuber spotted that the MacBook Pro ran hot and then saw dramatic loss of performance. It turned out that an error in the firmware was causing a thermal throttling mechanism to kick in and slow down the processor, and this resulted in inconsistent and disappointing speed test results under a variety of conditions.
It's been quite a saga, but the good news is that the update appears to fix the issue. Here's a video explaining everything you need to know:
We found, incidentally, that the underside of the (post-update) Pro got quite warm in normal 'laptop' use - just internet use and word processing. This didn't result in any apparent loss of speed or other sign of distress, however.
Literally placing a laptop on your lap is frowned upon by manufacturers, which is why many have tried to push the alternative term 'notebook'; it's hard for the machine to vent out excess heat with a load of warm leg and cloth beneath it. But even using the MBP on a desk for a couple of hours (in hot weather, but an air-conditioned office) saw the bottom heat up and the fans kick in.
Connectivity and Audio
The 2018 MBP gets Bluetooth 5.0, an upgrade from the Bluetooth 4.2 in the 2016 and 2017 models. This has an improved low-energy mode and works more efficiently with Internet of Things appliances; it also has the capability to double data bandwidth over short distances.
The 15in Pro has four USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports, two on each side. That's decent, but remember that one of these will need to double up as a power connector when you're plugged into the mains: there isn't a separate MagSafe port. The loss of MagSafe and its clever ability to disconnect when the cord is yanked, thereby saving many a MacBook from being pulled off a desk, is a shame, but that ship sailed back in 2016.
There's also a headphone port and stereo speakers either side of the keyboard. It's a shame that a Pro device like this has no HDMI port or SD card slot, especially when it's aimed at those using memory cards like photographers.
By the standards of laptop onboard audio the MacBook does a solid job: jazz was fairly warm-sounding and offered good detail, and the speakers are positioned far enough apart for the stereo effect to kick in. But of course there isn't any bass kick to speak of, and the position of the speakers mean they will sometimes get obstructed by your hands - and slightly muffled - while typing. If audio is your thing you should get separate speakers.
The battery has a capacity of 83.6Wh, compared with 58Wh on the 13in Touch Bar model and 54.5Wh on the non-Touch Bar.
We put the Pro through our standard battery test: a looping film set to run continuously until expiry, with the screen calibrated at 120cd/m2. It lasted a very decent 9 hours and 40 minutes.
Comparison with previous testing would place that at the upper-medium end of the market. We've seen wildly differing performance from the various laptops we've subjected to this test, with most sitting somewhere between 6 and 10 hours.
Microsoft's Surface devices, however, are an exception in this regard and have recorded scores of 16 hours (Surface Laptop i5), 13:43 (Surface Book 2) and 17:15 (Surface Book 2 i7). But the Surfaces are almost a law unto themselves when it comes to battery performance.