Apple MacBook Pro 15 (2019)
“The new MacBook Pro 15 is a minor refresh to a laptop that needs a reboot.”
- Keyboard has improved
- Beautiful 16:10 display
- Thin, light design
- Fantastic speakers
- Touch Bar is still useless
- Core i9 performance is limited
Apple wants to win back its pro audience. Whether it’s bringing back the upgradeable cheese grater Mac Pro or the Intel Core i9 processor to the MacBook Pro, the company seems determined to right its wrongs.
That backfired in last year’s implementation of the Core i9. Upon release, it severely throttled the performance of that monster chip — to the point where it was no faster than the Core i7 version. Now, Apple has pushed out its 2019 update, which includes an option for the even faster 9th-gen Intel Core i9. That’s eight cores and a boost clock of 5GHz the 15-inch MacBook Pro’s thin chassis.
Has Apple fixed the MacBook Pro 15’s design flaws, or is it just a repeat of last year?
Four generations and counting
We’re on year four of this design, which was first introduced in 2016. A few years separating new laptop designs isn’t a big deal, but the current MacBook Pro wasn’t that impressive at launch. It’s even less impressive now.
At launch, we bemoaned the low-travel keyboard that felt like typing on a block of wood. We questioned the decision to limit port selection to only USB-C. And most of all, we didn’t want to touch the Touch Bar. None of these choices have aged as well as Apple hoped, and even the company’s fans have come to terms with the Pro’s problems.
All our original complaints remain concerns today. After years of use, I still find myself wanting my function key row back — or at least some added functionality. Even the display bezels have grown outdated over the years. In 2016, Dell’s XPS devices had only begun to insist on reducing bezels. Today, everyone has embraced the trend, leaving the MacBook Pro behind.
There are a few areas of the MacBook Pro’s design that remains timeless. Build quality remains a highlight. There isn’t a laptop that feels as rigid and solid as this. Laptops like the Razer Blade, Dell XPS 13, and HP Spectre x360 come close, but they all have the slightest flex somewhere in the chassis. The MacBook Pro feels like a slate of solid aluminum, yet you can open the lid with one finger.
Even Apple enthusiasts have come to terms with the MacBook Pro’s design mishaps.
Portability is another strength. At 0.61 inches thick and just over 4 pounds, it’s still miraculous how thin this device is. There are trade-offs to this size limitation in terms of performance, of course, but that doesn’t make it any less impressive to carry. The Dell XPS 15, for example, is slightly thicker and heavier — as is the HP Spectre x360 15. No high-powered 15-inch laptop is as thin as the MacBook Pro, and few are this light. The extra pound the 15-inch Pro gains over the 13-inch model is hardly noticeable.
Apple’s forward-thinking approach to port selection has paid off. There’s just four Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headphone jack. Pro users have fought this decision for years now, and it’s still a hang-up for a lot of that market. However, the industry has adjusted well. As more and more peripherals move to USB-C, the lack of variety becomes less and less a problem. The lack of an SD card slot is the most egregious retraction, and it’s still an annoyance for photographers and videographers.
A troubling keyboard gets marginally better
Oh boy. It’s round four for the butterfly-mechanism keyboard, which has been nothing but trouble for Apple since the beginning. Or is it round five? Technically, this is the third-generation butterfly keyboard, but Apple has tweaked the keyboard with just about every MacBook release. What does the new generation try to address? Sticky keys, a problem reported by many owners over the past year.
Apple’s fix swaps out the material of the plastic membrane under the keycap. We won’t know the impact on long-term reliability, of course, but it does change the feel. Key travel is still short, and the actuation is still clicky, but keypresses feel softer. It’s a slight difference compared to last year’s model, but more significant compared to the 2016 model. The softer feel makes for a faster and more comfortable typing experience, however, it’s not going to convince those who cut ties with the MacBook because of the ultra-low travel keyboard.
One thing both you (and your coworkers) will be thankful for is a taming of the keyboard’s nature. It’s much quieter than past models, and a similar sound to that of the 2018 MacBook Air keyboard, and that’s something we can all appreciate.
The edge-to-edge trackpad is still the best, and largest, you can find on a laptop. Windows touchpads with Precision drivers don’t track quite as accurately as the MacBook Pro. You can comfortably rest your palms on the edges and don’t have to worry about accidental clicks or activating a multi-finger gesture by mistake.
World-class sights and sounds
The MacBook Pro 15 is famous for both its display and its speakers. Both are industry-leaders, known for standing heads and shoulders over even the closest competition. Today, the MacBook Pro’s lead in these areas has lessened, though it still stands at the front of the pack.
First, the display. Though some laptops are moving to a 3:2 aspect ratio, Apple’s 16:10 feels like a boon over the typical 16:9 displays in most laptops. The extra vertical space provides a fuller view of your work, and if you’re looking at buying a productivity-minded 15-inch laptop, that’s something you want. The screen itself is fantastic on the MacBook Pro. It’s extremely sharp at 2,080 x 1,800 resolution, which is the one resolution option. That’s different from many other 15-inch laptops that offer both a 4K and 1080p option.
The image quality lives up to the hype in most areas, but color accuracy is its strongest suit. You won’t find another laptop screen with an average rate of color error this low, even in some of the great 4K models from Dell or HP. The same is true of color gamut, which is nearly 100% in both sRGB and AdobeRGB color spaces, making it the ultimate tool for photographers.
The screen is quite glossy, but because it maxes out well over 400 nits, reflections aren’t an issue in well-lit environments. We’ve tested screens with higher contrast ratio, whether that’s the Huawei MateBook X Pro, or the new crop of OLED laptops such as the HP Spectre x360 15. Apple’s LED screen can’t really compete with those in terms of black levels, but overall, the 15-inch MacBook Pro remains the best display you can buy on a laptop.
The same goes for speakers. The stereo, up-facing speakers here can actually fill a room with crisp, loud audio — whether that’s while watching a movie or providing some background music You can even catch the tiniest thump of bass, which makes the speakers on other laptops sound pretty pathetic in comparison.
Taking eight cores for a spin
Last year’s Core i9 MacBook Pro made both fans and critics unhappy. Rightfully so. The initial attempt was launched in the summer of 2018 with the Core i9-8950HK, an expensive upgrade over the Core i7 option. Not only was it the first mobile Core i9 (which had the same core count as the Core i7), the 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro was the thinnest laptop to have implemented it. Performance issues plagued it and, in some cases, the Core i9 model was hardly quicker than the Core i7.
I’m happy to report that the 2019 MacBook Pro handles the 9th-gen Core i9 with a bit more finesse — though it still has limitations.
This is impressive when you consider that the new Intel Core i9-9880HK is a big step up from its predecessor. With a jump up to eight cores, I saw a huge boost in multi-core performance in Geekbench 4. It’s 42% faster in multi-core performance than the Core i7-9750H in the Razer Blade 15, and 27% faster than the Core i7-8750H in the larger Asus ROG Zephyrus S. It’s still a ways behind the Core i9-9900K found in the 5K iMac or in gaming machines like the Alienware Area-51m, but given the size of the chassis, it’s impressive.
If larger jobs are a part of your workflow, the throttling is more apparent.
Fortunately, Apple is no longer selling last year’s model instead of just giving it a price reduction, so every MacBook Pro 15 sold from Apple will have the latest 9th-gen processors. Your options are the six-core Core i7-9750H, the eight-core Core i9-9880H, and the unlocked eight-core Core i9-9980HK, which can boost to 5.0GHz. Are the extra cores and the higher clock speeds worth the price, though?
The MacBook Pro, especially the top end 15-inch model, is a go-to device for video editors. With this new eight-core model, I wanted to see just how fast it was compared to another popular option for video editing, the 2019 Razer Blade with the Core i7-9750H, RTX 2070 Max-Q graphics, and 16GB of RAM. I rendered the same 5-minute 4K ProRes clip on both machines. To my surprise, the Razer Blade beat it by almost a full minute, taking 9 and a half minutes to finish the render, despite having less cores and slower boost speeds.
I used Adobe Premiere Pro, which is popular software, but we all know it doesn’t run as fast on a Mac. The same project rendered in Final Cut might produce a very different result, so I assume the software optimization plays a part in the result from our test. The other thing I noticed over the course of the render time was speeds that slowly tempered. Even though the MacBook Pro can boost up to 5GHz, these longer renders caused the machine to throttle performance. So, if larger jobs are a part of your workflow, the throttling is more apparent.
In a shorter test like our Handbrake encoding test, the Core i9 MacBook Pro handedly beat every six-core gaming laptop we’ve tested. Outside of the desktop-class Alienware Area-51m, it’s set a record for laptop speed in this test. These results can be chalked up to the fact that the 2019 MacBook Pro uses the same thermal system as before, with only some slight software tweaking in how hard the system throttles under pressure. When the two fans inside kick on, they really churn. At idle, however, the MacBook Pro keeps surface temperatures low.
All options come with at least 16GB of DDR4 RAM and a fast SSD for storage, starting at 256GB and going all the way up to 4TB. As with past MacBooks, storage performance is excellent. In the Blackmagic Disk test, read speeds averaged around 2,500 megabytes per second, and write speeds were over 1,800 MB/s. It’s similar performance to what we’ve seen in other Mac products such as the Mac Mini or 5K iMac, meaning everything from file transfers to opening applications feels snappy.
Held back by Vega
The 15-inch MacBook Pro’s best graphics option is the AMD Radeon Vega 20, which launched in late 2018. You also have the option for the Radeon Pro 555X, 560X, and Vega 16, none of which are the kind of card that will provide super-smooth, high resolution gaming.
The MacBook Pro should last you through the majority of a work day.
3DMark doesn’t run on Macs, so I tested a couple of games to see how the Vega 20 held up. It can’t handle most games at its native 2,880 x 1,800 resolution, but games fared better at 2,560 x 1,280. I pushed Fortnite to over 60 frames per second at Medium settings.
Civilization VI provided modest results. It averaged 43 FPS at 1,680 x 1,050 resolution and Ultra settings. That’s not amazing given the extra $350 the Vega 20 card costs. Game performance lines up closely with a GTX 1050 Ti in a laptop like the HP Spectre x360 15. Depending on how much work with 3D or gaming you plan on doing, the limitations of AMD’s Vega mobile cards (and the thermals) keep the MacBook Pro from excelling in graphics.
No longer a battery life champion
Battery life was once a boon for the MacBook Pro, but the 2016 redesign put a halt to that. And while the MacBook Pro has sat still over the past three years, options like the Dell XPS 15 and HP Spectre x360 have pushed forward in that time.
Apple claims the laptop can last for ten hours, and we saw close to that in our local 1080p video playback test. In a more general web browsing test, that number sank down to around eight hours. In the Basemark benchmark, the MacBook Pro lasted under two hours.
These aren’t horrible results, especially when you consider the bright, high-resolution screen. But because Apple doesn’t offer a lower resolution, it’s the only option. The 1080p HP Spectre x360 15 will last you a couple more hours in both video playback and web browsing, while the 1080p model of the Dell XPS 15 lasted over fourteen and a half hours in video loop. That’s the kind of competition the MacBook Pro is up against. With that said, the MacBook Pro should last through the majority of a work day.
The MacBook Pro 15 has all the same problems as it did when it launched in 2016, and the 2019 update isn’t going to change anyone’s opinion. Battery life isn’t amazing, the keyboard is troubling, and the Touch Bar isn’t helpful. The changes to the keyboard and performance are both positive, but they aren’t completely resolved.
The price of entry is high at $2,400, and the Core i9 will set you back an extra $300.
Is there a better alternative?
The best alternative to the Core i9 MacBook Pro 15-inch is the Dell XPS 15. The 2019 model will include the same eight-core Core i9 processor, as well as an option for a 4K OLED screen. We haven’t tested it yet to see which system handles the Core i9, but it comes at a significantly cheaper price.
Razer’s Blade is another solid option. While technically a gaming laptop, the new silver and white “Mercury” edition looks more professional. It offers Nvidia RTX-series graphics for improved performance in 3D work, as well as for gaming. If you opt for the 4K OLED version, the Razer Blade falls in a similar price range as the 15-inch MacBook Pro.
If you don’t really need the power of the 15-inch MacBook Pro, dipping down to the MacBook Air or 13-inch MacBook Pro is a better idea. They’re a better choice for typical day-to-day use.
How long will it last?
The MacBook Pro is future-proofed in port selection and durability, though with rumors of a redesign coming, an updated chassis could be around the corner. The Pro comes with a standard one-year limited warranty, but Apple offers great customer service and in-store repairs that outdoes most of the competition.
Should you buy it?
No. The MacBook Pro 15 is the most powerful MacBook, but it’s outclassed by Windows rivals in battery life, overall performance, and value.
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