Review: The New 13-Inch MacBook Pro is Surprisingly Powerful

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro is a confusing proposition from Apple. We called it a “half update” in our first impressions, and I stand by that. But it’s also an important update that gives photographers and video editors a lot more performance bang for their buck—as long as they’re willing to spend $1,800 or more. Let’s dive in.

Side Note

A note about operating systems before we start. For the purposes of this review, I won’t be making comparisons between Windows and MacOS.

We covered this in more depth when comparing the 16-inch MacBook Pro against the 15-inch Razer Blade Studio last year, and it’s not worth rehashing this argument every time we test a new computer. There are objective pros and cons to each operating system, but macOS and Windows 10 have reached a level of near-parity in terms of basic usability—as far as I’m concerned, there are no more “deal breakers” on either side.

If you’re familiar (and comfortable) with both operating systems, the decision to go PC or Mac has more to do with hardware options, build quality, price, usability, and upgradability, which are the comparisons we’ll touch on.

Overview and Specs

As we mentioned in our announcement coverage, this update can be broken down into two parts: the minor updates to the base model, and the more significant updates to the top-tier variant.

The base model is identical to last year with two exceptions: the new “Magic Keyboard” (praise the Lord), and 256GB of storage for the same entry-level price ($1,300). Otherwise, it’s unchanged. Same 8th-Gen quad-core i5 or i7 CPU, same integrated graphics, same max 16GB of DDR3 RAM and 2TB of max storage.

All of the true performance updates were saved for the $1,800 model and up. This is where you now get either a 10th-Gen quad-core i5 or i7 with the new Intel Iris Plus Graphics, up to 32GB of extremely fast LPDDR4X RAM, and up to a whopping 4TB of fast storage. As I mention in the performance section below, for creators, it is well worth it to step up to the $1,800 tier if you can afford it. Below that, it’s hard to justify Mac over PC.

The model we were loaned for testing would run you $3,000 as specced: 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7, 32GB of RAM, and a 2TB SSD. That last metric is overkill: you could get away with spending $2,400 for the same performance, but only 512GB of on-board storage.

Usability and Build

Build quality is classic Apple, which is to say: fantastic. The aluminum unibody design is as solid as ever, even if it hasn’t actually changed in years. The massive trackpad is still the benchmark that other computers are measured against, and while the speakers, battery, and the display have not been changed since last year, that’s not a bad thing. They were already great.

Admittedly, the bezels on the display are getting a bit thick for 2020 (have you seen the new Dell XPS lineup?) but it’s still a bright, highly accurate monitor that’s perfect for color critical tasks.

Only two things are worth calling out IMO:

The New Keyboard

The more I use the new Magic Keyboard the more I like it, and I don’t just mean compared to the crappy butterfly keys on my last-gen 13-inch MBP. This is a genuinely good keyboard. Unlike the trackpad, it’s not the “best in any laptop,” but it’s certainly “one of the best” as it attempts to strike the right balance between key travel and typing speed.

I find myself wishing for just… 0.2 or 0.3mm more key travel (the new Magic Keyboard has 1mm, the old butterfly switches were 0.5mm). It feels like I “bottom out” right as I’m about to stop pressing. But this is an extreme nitpick, and your mileage may vary depending on your typing style. My suggestion? Whenever this is an option again, go to a Best Buy and actually try it alongside some of the PC alternatives. You’ll see what I mean.

Other improvements include the return of a dedicated ESC key and inverted T arrow keys, both of which are a win in my book, and a dedicated Touch ID/Power button that’s separate from the rest of the Touch Bar, also a plus. The Touch Bar is still there, and it’s still less than ideal, but it hasn’t frozen on me at all during this review, so that’s an improvement.

At this point, the Touch Bar is a known entity. You either like it or you don’t. I don’t…

Speaking of which.

No SD Card Slot

This is my hill, and I’m going to die on it. Until and unless Apple releases a 14-inch MBP or 16-inch MBP (ideally both) with a build-in SD card reader, the MacBooks will be less convenient to use than their main PC alternatives.

I can excuse leaving out an HDMI port and USB-A connections. Almost all of the latest peripherals are going USB-C anyway, and having four full Thunderbolt ports (on the top-end model) that can all be used to charge the device or transfer files at up to 40Gb/s is the best you’ll find in any laptop at any size. But I don’t want to break out a card reader every single time I need to offload images.

Companies like Razer and Dell and ASUS are all prioritizing SD card readers in their “creator” laptops, even as they remove other ports. Apple should do the same.

Performance

This is where the new 13-inch MacBook Pro really surprised me, especially compared to the base model. The combination of Intel’s excellent 10th-Gen chips and the ability to pack in more, faster RAM means that the 13-inch MBP only trails behind the bigger six-core and eight-core alternatives by a slim margin. Slim enough to wonder if it’s worth upgrading.

You pay for that performance, but the lack of a dedicated GPU or a six-core variant of this computer was less of a factor than I imagined, and the latter isn’t even an option unless they update the chassis and up their cooling game. They stuck with the same design, and the engineers deserve props for squeezing every last ounce of performance they could out of that form-factor.

Let’s dive into the numbers.

Import/Export Test

We tested both import and export in Adobe Lightroom using 110 61MP Sony a7R IV files and 150 100MP PhaseOne IQ7 files. These are the same exact photos we used when testing the 16-inch MBP and Razer Blade 15 Studio in December. All tests were performed at least 3 times in quick succession, clearing the Camera RAW cache and restarting the program between runs.

For imports, we created Standard previews and left Smart Previews unchecked.

For exports, we applied the same heavy global edit to each batch of photos, and then did three runs each exporting 100% JPEGs (sRGB), 16-bit TIFFs (AdobeRGB), and DNGs with Medium JPEG previews.

We ran these tests on our maxed out 13-inch MBP and my last-gen base model 13-inch MacBook Pro for comparison. We obviously can’t confirm this, but since the specs are identical, my last-gen MBP should perform exactly the same as the current generation base model—that’s how we’ve labeled it in the charts below. We also threw in the 16-inch MBP results from our December review for reference.

Import Test

This was the most surprising result. Thanks to its faster RAM (probably) and its lower resolution screen (Adobe confirmed this to me directly, and you can read about it here under the heading ‘High Resolution Displays’) the 13-inch MacBook Pro actually has a performance advantage over the more powerful 16-inch we tested in December.

That’s why it either matched or beat that 8-core machine when importing photos:

Export Test

Export results weren’t quite as strong, but the difference in performance between the maxed out 13-inch MBP and a maxed out 16-inch MBP was still surprisingly small across the board. Display resolution may have helped here too, but otherwise the only real difference between the two machines was the CPU (4-core i7 vs 8-core i9) and GPU (Intel Iris Plus vs AMD Radeon Pro 5500M).

Photoshop Benchmark

To test Photoshop performance, we used Puget Systems’ excellent PugetBench benchmark again. Unfortunately, for the latest version (v0.9) Puget Systems dropped the photo merge tests, and so the scores aren’t comparable with previous versions of the benchmark. As a result, we opted to use our copy of the older v0.8 Beta so that we could compare the results against previous tests.

We did run the newer version as well, just to make sure we were getting consistent results, but all of the data you see below is from version 0.8. All benchmarks were run 5 times in quick succession.

Here’s are the top scores from both machines, and you can find a slew of the latest runs from various computers on Puget System’s website at this link.

New 13-inch MacBook Pro

Base Model 13-inch MacBook Pro

And here’s a comparison of the average Overall, General, GPU, Filter and Photomerge scores from all of the runs we did for the 13-inch MBP, Base Model MBP, and the 16-inch MBP:

Overall Score

General, GPU, Filter and Photomerge Scores


Editor’s Note: As we were preparing to publish this review, Linus Tech Tips published theirs, and the Photoshop score they got for the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro on PugetBench doesn’t match ours. In fact, it’s much higher. We can’t explain this right now (it seems we both ran our benchmarks multiple times to confirm results) but if you want to see their review, click here.


Takeaways

The results show a two things.

Firstly, while you do take a performance hit stepping down to quad-core, the improvements Intel made to these new CPUs, and the ability to put 32GB of extremely fast RAM into this machine, means that the new 13-inch MacBook Pro punches well above its weight.

Secondly, this only reinforces the massive performance jump you’ll get by upgrading to a higher-spec machine. Yes, 16GB of RAM would have helped the base-model make up some of the shortfall, but a fully specced base model with 16GB or RAM and a faster CPU costs $1,800. For the same exact price, you get an even faster 10th-Gen CPU, 16GB of faster RAM, and 256GB of extra storage if you buy the higher tier model in the first place.

It’s as clear cut as it can be: do not buy the base model. If you need a portable machine for creative work, and $1,800 is out of your price range, look at some PC alternatives. If you can’t live without MacOS, it’s well worth spending the extra cash on the higher tier.

Do You Need Dedicated Graphics?

This was one of the main questions that I came into this review with. Rumors and speculation point towards a 14-inch MacBook Pro coming out, possibly as soon as this Fall, with a dedicated graphics card and maybe even a 6-core CPU. That would be Apple’s performance-and-portability king.

But in the meantime, the question has to be asked: how much does it even matter?

Based on the benchmarks above, the answer is: not much. Intel made a major integrated graphics leap with their 10-nanometer “Ice Lake” architecture, and it shows. For most photo tasks the bottleneck is the CPU, not the GPU, and while the GPU “score” does suffer (see above), stills photographers probably won’t notice very often… if you notice at all.

What’s Missing: My Wishlist

As with any product, there are definitely omissions. Besides the SD card slot already mentioned above, here are some of the main things I wish Apple had included with this upgrade. Omissions that will actually impact your day-to-day life, and may impact your buying decision.

  • New, thicker chassis with better cooling
  • 6-core CPU option
  • Bigger screen and smaller bezels
  • 1080p webcam
  • WiFi 6
  • Hardware Upgradability

That last point is and will remain the biggest mark against Apple, even for diehard fans. While laptops have never and will never be as upgradeable as desktop PCs, it’s common to be able to swap out your WiFi Card, throw in another M.2 SSD, and upgrade your RAM by simply taking the bottom off of your laptop. This is not the case, and probably will never be the case, on Apple’s MacBook Pros.

If Apple did let people upgrade their own RAM and storage, they would blow people’s minds and make this an even more compelling purchase. Especially since most of the so-called “Apple Tax” is applied in the shopping cart, when upgrading RAM and storage.

Conclusion

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro offers more performance for the same price. Of course, you can describe pretty much every new computer Apple has ever released in this way, but in the case of the latest update, the higher tier model has gotten a major, noticeable boost. It gets you a lot of the way to the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s performance in a much more manageable form factor that many users (this reviewer included) prefer.

Let’s put it this way: I’m in the market for a new MacBook Pro—my mid-2015 15-inch MacBook Pro is really starting to show its age—and if I were to buy one now, I’d get the computer on my lap (with less storage) for $2,400, or I’d spend $2,000 on the same computer with 16GB of RAM instead of 32GB. I wouldn’t even consider the 16-inch, because the additional performance won’t be worth the additional heft until you’re spending way more money on the 8-core model.

Since CPU performance trumps all when it comes to photo and video editing, you’ll always benefit from more CPU cores and faster clock speeds. There’s just no way around it. But previously, I couldn’t recommend any of the 13-inch MacBook Pros for serious creative work. Now I can.

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