Review: The 2018 Macbook Pro
Apple keeps up its active courting of professionals with a revision to the Macbook Pro.
It's no secret that we were not fans of the 2016 Macbook Pro. Previous Macbook Pros had everything most Pros needed without adapters (Thunderbolt! HDMI! Normal USB!), along with the amazing Magsafe power adapter. Going single port (with 4 matching T3/USB3.1 ports) didn't seem like the right move for actual professionals.The keyboard was nightmarishly loud, annoying to type on, and it had serious durability issues due to its design. The marketing around a P3 color gamut of the screen didn't live up to the hype. It didn't offer benefits over and above our legacy NVIDIA powered 2013 MBP, with many tests running the same speed (or even slower) on the 2016 system. The 2017 model was a small update, a slight spec bump, and not enough to look again at the laptop.
We were thus wary but excited by reports of the 2018 Pro getting a serious revision. Apple had been making a lot of noise and came close to an actual apology, recognizing its failure to deliver the tools pros need the most. The company even allowed a reporter from Tech Crunch a window into the future to see what the company was working on, a clear indication that it wasn't just focused on sheer horsepower numbers but actually identifying software/hardware hiccups that are slowing down workflows. After the pricey but powerful iMac Pro, the 2018 MBP was supposed to be the next step in that evolution.
While a lot of people love iMacs and use them every day, the MPB is traditionally the category leader for pros who are frequently traveling or on set. We were dying to use the 2018 Macbook Pro and we've now been using it on set and in post on several jobs for three months.
We like it. Mostly. It's not perfect, but the annoyances are ultimately worth it.
The first thing everyone wants to know about is speed. Dork in a tent returned their 2018, largely due to frustrations over speed, and that is more than fair, especially since as a working DIT, they still bring their 2013 Trashcan Mac to set when needed, and this laptop doesn't really compete with that desktop. Barefeets' numbers were a real bump, but sometimes pure test numbers don't actually speed up real-world workflows.
We found it to be fast enough to be worth it. It is by no means a desktop killer and you are still going to get real benefits from the iMac Pro or the 2013 Mac Pro tower. Most filmmakers don't want to drag those around. If you are rolling to set with a camera bag with a Fuji XH1 and a few lenses in it, you want a laptop to scarf down the footage and easily playback previews. That's what this is designed for and that's what this laptop does admirably. It is noticeably and enjoyably faster at tasks that filmmakers use all the time. Big media files play more easily in Resolve. Big Adobe Media Encoder Queues churn faster, sometimes as much as 30%.
Best of all, not only is it faster but it feels faster. We suspect that this is a result of the work discussed in that tech crunch article, watching closely as actual professionals work and paying attention to what hiccups are there and what the company might address, not just with hardware but with savvy hardware/software integration. The biggest gains we noticed were when playing with Final Cut X, which makes sense, but most of our testing was with Da Vinci Resolve and Adobe Premiere, the two applications we work in professionally on a daily basis, and the gains there were still appreciable.
For on-the-road editing, managing DIT, etc., it really bests the 2013 version. We aren't including tests, partially because they are admirably done elsewhere, and partly because they weren't consistent. They were consistent with a task (every time we ran a media encoder queue with H.264 from ProRes, it was the same speed-bump), but from task to task, some tasks were faster and some not as much. Some tasks feel optimized for the hardware and some don't, but it all behaved better.
A lot of this isn't just improvements from Apple, but also from software developers taking full advantage of the AMD Graphics hardware. When Apple went over to the AMD chips for the Mac Pro in 2013, it was a bold move, and we've been waiting for software platforms to catch up. We now hear from folks at Blackmagic that they internally feel like AMD and NVIDIA are equally strong in driving Resolve and testing appears to back that up. If we were building our own Windows system and could use whatever we wanted, it would be NVIDIA, but while we are stuck with AMD, it seems like software vendors are trying to make it as easy as possible.
Body and Ports
The body continues to have 4 USB-C ports, and that continues to be annoying, even in 2018. USB-C just hasn't taken off as quickly as Apple is hoping it will, and there are just so many times a legacy USB port would be great. However, every hard drive we've purchased in the last 2 years comes with both cables, and so the legacy USB port isn't a deal breaker like it was in 2016. We're starting not to mind it as much.
The port we do miss more than any other is an SD card slot. It's just so useful, being able to plug in an SD card directly without an adapter, and we've forgotten our reader so many times and been able to survive with the native slot. We'll get used to it, and frankly, we'll buy a few cheap ones to stuff in all of our bags just so it's more likely we won't forget the good one, but it is one thing that we both would love and think could easily fit.
One surprise is how much we really appreciate being able to plug in the charging cable on either side of the machine. This doesn't seem like that big a deal, but it really is kind of wonderful to be able to charge the Mac from either side and not have to string a cable across your lap or re-arrange your workspace when the charger almost makes it (but doesn't). We don't miss magsafe yet, but we know the first time we trip over the charging cable, yanking it out of the body, we will. However, the ability to buy longer "charging only" cables is a perk, and the fact that batteries are finally coming out that output enough juice for charge (Jackery and Hyper are claiming at least some Macbook Pro support, which is better than nothing on a long flight or train trip) makes it worth it to let magsafe go. We've tried some of the "magsafe replacement" cables, and they don't seem to last.
That Keyboard Though
The keyboard is a major improvement over the 2016 version. It doesn't feel like the 2013-2015 model, which was really wonderful, but it does feel quieter, smoother, and after you adapt, there is a real joy in typing on it that just doesn't seem to exist in the 2016. Teardowns also indicate that the company seems to have designed it with better protection against dust and dirt that should lead to more durability. If you use covers and skins, be wary, the shallow nature of the keys make them slip more often than they do on the older model. It doesn't "sit" as well. It's still worth it, however, for the speed of looking up keyboard shortcuts and for the protection.
As someone who has spilled entire coffee cups on a laptop (only once, but it was painful), a keyboard cover is essential, and you need to get used to pushing the keys slightly differently to keep it in place even on the shallower keys. Additionally, the tolerance is so tight on this machine that you are encouraged to store the keyboard coseparatelytely from the laptop, though in reality, we've left our KB Cover Resolve cover on full time for three months now and it seems fine.
While many filmmakers, especially color professionals, are against True Tone, the technology Apple uses to measure ambient light color and volume and change the screen, we're fine with it. We deeply believe you should only really be evaluating color on an external, calibrated broadcast monitor being fed an accurate signal. Since you shouldn't be evaluating color on your desktop monitor anyway, why should it stay the same in all light?
True Tone is designed to try for more accuracy, changing in response to ambient light, and that is great, but the fear filmmakers have is that it won't do it well but will create the impression in clients that they should trust their laptop when they shouldn't. This is just part of educating clients, and we are OK with it, especially since we highly encourage the use of tools like Night Shift and F.Lux to limit the blue light received by users that can be disruptive to sleep. Filmmakers are burnt out enough and we should use whatever tools are available to us to make staring at screens less painful.
Our frustration with True Tone isn't that it exists, it's that its sensor is built right next to the webcam, which is something practically everyone we know tapes up. We use the EFF sticker set, but any sticker will do. Walk around most film sets and more than half of the webcams are taped over, since hacking webcams is a real thing that happens, and it's better safe than sorry. We would guess that on the set of a major, spoiler-worried Marvel movie, it's a requirement to tape over webcams, or it soon will be.
By sticking that sensor in next to the webcam, you now have to choose to live without True Tone, which is a cool and useful feature, or live with an uncovered camera most of the time. Maybe someone will make a translucent sticker that transmits light value and color temperature without transmitting image.
The Touch Bar
The other annoyance is the touch bar. We're open to being sold on it, but we just aren't sold yet. Tactile memory is just too important, and learning to live without it will be difficult for a tool that so far doesn't seem to offer a lot of benefits. Also, sometimes working at night, we'll turn screen brightness down to the bottom and turn off keyboard brightness, and the touch bar will still be there, overly bright, not scaling with the features around it. Then, of course, it doesn't dim and stay on, it dims slightly, then 10 seconds later goes to black.
What we desperately want for the Touch Bar is a preference pane to make it dimmer full time, and then to keep it on. To use "Esc" and "Mute," we want to be able to just tap the location, not tap the bar to wake it up, then tap the key. To make it slightly easier, we've put a few LightDims stickers on the bar, so we can at least get a tactile feel for where we are without having to look down, and it seems to be helping without interfering with the function of the bar, but having to double tap is still super frustrating for commonly used buttons like "Esc."
We spent time with both the uber-powered souped up 15" and the top of the line 13", and we want to report that, especially in combination with the Blackmagic eGPU, the 13" is something filmmakers should be willing to consider again. Traditionally, filmmakers stick to the 15" for its more powerful GPU option, but we had a great time with the 13". The ability to have a smaller, lighter laptop for day-to-day use, and then occasionally "power up" with the eGPU for transcodes or renders, is a great combo. The eGPU makes the most sense teamed up with the 13" model, and if you are a filmmaker who mostly writes and does lightweight editing (only needing heavy graphics power every few weeks for bigger gigs or final color), the 13" is now a contender. Of course, full-time editors, colorists, DPs, and DITs should stick to the 15", but that 13" can be an option for writers, directors, and producers who occasionally want to be able to open up their projects and still crank out some work. We wish ejecting the eGPU was easier (why do we have to close chrome to do it?) but that again is a minor annoyance.
After two years of giving out the advice of "find a 2015 Pro with AppleCare on the Apple site," it seems like the 2018 version is the first of the Touchbar macs we can really recommend. There are frustrations, the lack of SD card slot and the touch bar chief among them, but the benefits finally outweigh those drawbacks. We are finally looking at a laptop that is powerful enough to be worth those sacrifices and it's starting to feel like Apple is listening to Pros.
From 2008-2013, we bought a new Macbook Pro whenever it was released. Macs kept their value well enough that we were able to sell last year's laptop for only a 10-20% loss, and thus effectively were paying something like $400/year to "rent" the newest computer Apple offered, which as a working professional who was regularly waiting on renders/downloads, was well worth the expense. That stopped with the 2014, which left NVIDIA and thus didn't seem worth it, but finally we feel like we might be back in the space where we upgrade on an annual basis. Of course, since our 2013 version, long out of Applecare, has very little resale value, this 2018 purchase was a big financial hit. But for the first time in a long time, it was likely worth it.
2019 is going to be fascinating in this space.
- Up to 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7 Six-Core
- 16GB of 2400 MHz RAM, upgradeable to 32GB
- 512GB SSD standard, up to 4TB
- 15.4" 2880 x 1800 Retina Display
- AMD Radeon Pro 560X GPU (4GB GGDR5)
- True Tone Technology
- 802.11ac Wi-Fi | Bluetooth 5.0
- Touch Bar | Touch ID Sensor
- 4 x Thunderbolt 3 (USB Type-C) Ports
- Force Touch Trackpad
- macOS High Sierra