Thin, light, and stylish. Excellent trackpad. Long battery life. Brilliant display. Two Thunderbolt 3 ports.
Relatively expensive, even in starting config. Limited connectivity for peripherals in lower-end models. Polarizing keyboard lacks vertical travel.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro is Apple's best ultraportable laptop, thanks to stylish looks, an excellent touchpad, and long battery life.
On paper, through the lens of its specs, the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro might not seem like a compelling ultraportable laptop. For a starting price of $1,299, this silver clamshell offers an Intel Core i5 processor, 8GB of memory, and just 128GB of boot-drive storage. Our review unit bumps this up to a 256GB SSD for a total of $1,499, but it's still not a great look taken against similarly priced competitors that offer Core i7 CPUs, 16GB of memory, and 256GB or even 512GB drives at that price level. Dig deeper, though, and you find an exquisitely designed ultraportable that performs very well on everyday computing tasks, has good looks to spare, and will almost certainly last all day without being plugged in. Here in 2019, this is the best general-purpose Apple laptop for most users.
Before this summer, the entry-level MacBook Pro was getting a bit long in the tooth. We awarded its predecessor an Editors' Choice award when it debuted in 2017, but little changed since then, even as the higher-end 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros received significant CPU upgrades.
This summer, Apple fixed that. Not only does the entry-level MacBook Pro now have more-modern 8th Generation Intel processors, but it also boasts improved screen technology, more SSD configurations, and even Apple's familiar Touch Bar, a thin strip of a screen forward of the keyboard that represents the only form of touch input for macOS systems. (Before, the Touch Bar was reserved for higher-end MacBook Pros only.)
These are significant upgrades, and together they restore the MacBook Pro to our top choice for general-purpose Apple laptops, ahead of the MacBook Air. Even if the specs seem lacking on paper, the improvements also help make the MacBook Pro competitive with the best of what the Windows ultraportable world has to offer, including the Dell XPS 13, the Razer Blade Stealth, and the Lenovo Yoga C930.
With the lid closed, though, you can't really tell the new MacBook Pro apart from any of its predecessors released in the last few years. Apple offers it in the same unibody aluminum chassis and with the same Space Gray and Silver color options that are intimately familiar to anyone who's walked the halls of a university or frequented a WeWork of late. It measures 0.59 by 12 by 8.4 inches (HWD) and weighs 3 pounds, admirable dimensions that won't needlessly weigh down your backpack or handbag. You can do better, though: Thanks in part to narrower borders around its screen, the Dell XPS 13 is 0.46 by 11.9 by 7.8 inches and 2.7 pounds. The MacBook Air is also lighter, at 2.75 pounds. All three laptops have 13.3-inch displays.
As sturdy and reassuring as the MacBook Pro's grey or silver aluminium expanses may be, they won't turn heads by themselves. (Laptops with arguably more-innovative designs range from the leather-clad HP Spectre Folio to the astonishingly thin Acer Swift 7.) Still, the MacBook Pro will end up turning heads in the end, thanks to the iconic half-eaten piece of fruit emblazoned in the middle of the display lid. To my eyes, this laptop exudes timeless, at-home-anywhere style in a way that the frequently revamped XPS 13 and the serpent-bedecked Blade Stealth do not.
Once you crack open the MacBook Pro's magnetic latch—easy to do, thanks to the generously sized cutout in the center of the laptop's front edge—the MacBook Pro's best physical features greet you: the Retina Display, and the ingenious, giant Force Touch trackpad. (So does its most polarizing one—Apple's "butterfly"-switch keyboard—but I'll touch on that later.)
The display is mostly the same as the one on the previous entry-level MacBook Pro. That means it uses an LED backlight to achieve a very bright maximum 500 nits of luminance, and its 16:9 aspect ratio results in a not-quite-4K native resolution of 2,560 by 1,660 pixels. The Retina Display has excellent contrast and can display more colors than many competing screens, thanks to its support for the P3 color gamut rather than the more common sRGB one.
The result is satisfyingly crisp text and supremely colorful images and graphics. New this year, the screen can also automatically adjust its color temperature to complement the room's ambient light. That means it will look slightly different in harshly lit environments than in a lamp-lit living room. You can toggle this so-called "True Tone" feature on or off in Apple's System Preferences app, and while I don't think it necessarily improves the display quality, its effect is certainly noticeable.
One of the only obvious improvements Apple could make to the MacBook Pro's display would be to add touch support. It's an easy addition, in hardware theory—most Windows competitors offer it—but the macOS operating system itself lacks touch support. So a touch screen would actually not be especially useful unless both aspects, hardware and OS, were upgraded in concert.
Apple has long avoided adding touch capabilities to macOS, instead preferring to let its unique and controversial Touch Bar serve as an alternative touch-input method. The company appears to be doubling down on this strategy by adding this touch-enabled secondary display to the entry-level MacBook Pro. We're not 100 percent sold on this method of touch input, in part because its usefulness varies wildly depending on whether the app you're using supports it. Some apps, from bundled Apple ones like Safari to those in the Adobe Creative Suite, make extensive use of the Touch Bar, offering the ability to open bookmarked web pages or adjust the diameter of a paintbrush tool. Many other apps offer no Touch Bar support, however, which means that the thin screen simply serves, in its default state, as a glorified control for screen brightness and audio volume.
This is a noticeable weakness compared with full-screen touch control in Windows 10, which offers a more consistent experience across all apps thanks to the operating system's native touch support. It's also a key reason why we recommended the 2017 entry-level MacBook Pro, which didn't have the Touch Bar, over the midrange Touch Bar-equipped one, which started at $500 more. Now that the 2019 MacBook Pros, up and down the line, have the Touch Bar, however, the entry-level one is even more compelling for those who find it useful. Those who do not can simply ignore it.
Next to the Touch Bar is a fingerprint reader that supports Apple's Touch ID protocol. In addition to letting you log in to your macOS account without typing a password, it also serves as a means of authenticating Apple Pay transactions and App Store purchases. The fingerprint sign-in process worked well for me, never failing to recognize my registered print over several days of testing.
The reader is especially useful because the MacBook Pro's webcam lacks IR sensors to let you sign in using face recognition, something that the Apple iPhone and Apple iPad Pro both offer. The webcam also lacks a physical privacy slider or hardware kill switch to thwart hackers, though it does offer decent video quality, free of annoying graininess even in indoor lighting conditions.
The touchpad is often one of the most overlooked components of a laptop. Clumsy, flimsy, inaccurate pads exasperated Microsoft so much that it came up with the Windows Precision Touchpad specification, which goes at least part of the way to solving the problem on laptops that support it.
By contrast, every Apple laptop comes with a Force Touch trackpad that leaves even Precision Touchpads behind. It's by far the most accurate pad I've ever used. Not only do finger motions register with high accuracy, but the clicks are virtual, simulated by tiny under-pad vibrations called haptic feedback instead of a physical hinge under the pad or dedicated buttons. This means you can click anywhere on the oversize pad and receive a uniform level of feedback, eliminating unnecessary finger movements.
You can customize how strong the virtual clicks are, turn them off completely, and adjust other features like multitouch gestures in the System Preferences app. The only departure from factory settings I made was to turn on the ability to tap-to-click, which is far fewer steps than I usually need to make to get a laptop's touchpad to track to my liking.
Alas, the MacBook Pro's keyboard does not replicate the excellence of the trackpad. Apple has gotten flak for this style of keyboard from many quarters for several years now, but the design persists. The key switches travel an extremely short distance, which means that your fingers end up noisily tapping rather than typing. Apple has consistently tweaked this keyboard design, and the current iteration is slightly quieter than the version in the 2017 MacBook Pro.
Apple also says debris is less likely to get stuck in the redesigned switches, which has been a problem for some users of earlier-generation MacBooks with this style of keyboard. Despite these improvements, the MacBook Pro's keyboard is still uncomfortable if your job requires you to type on it all day long. Thin laptops seldom have much key travel, but the MacBook Pro board takes this to the extreme. It's more board than keyboard.
Apart from the 3.5mm audio jack, the lower-end versions of the 2019 MacBook Pro have just two physical input/ouptut ports: a pair of USB Type-C ports on the left edge. That's it. There's no dedicated video output, no familiar USB Type-A port, and no SD card reader. There isn't even a lock slot to accept a tethering security cable.
There's really no excuse for this limited port selection, other than getting you to pay more money if you need more connectivity, seeing as the otherwise physically identical high-end versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro feature four USB Type-C ports instead of two. The high-end models of the 13-inch Pro command a $500 premium, starting at $1,799, which is probably not worth it if ports are the main reason you'd upgrade. You can buy quite a few dongles, special cables, and hubs for far less than $500.
One upside of these ports, as limiting as having just two may be, is that either port can be used to charge the MacBook Pro using the included USB Type-C charging cable and AC adapter. Another consolation is that both of the ports support Thunderbolt 3 speeds, up to 40Gbps. More than one Thunderbolt 3 connector is rare on a laptop at this price range at the moment, and if you use a Thunderbolt 3 dock, a single cable can provide access to external displays, drives, and other peripherals.
Wireless connectivity includes 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0. Note: Support for the nascent Wi-Fi 6 standard is absent on the MacBook Pro.
Audio quality from the stereo speakers located on both sides of the keyboard is excellent. I was impressed by the surprisingly robust bass while listening to our punishing test track, "Silent Shout" by The Knife. The maximum volume level is more than loud enough to fill an average-size living room or a small conference room.
Although the 8th Generation CPU options now available on the entry-level MacBook Pro are one generation behind the cutting edge (and soon will be two, with the imminent arrival of the first 10th Gen Core laptops and chips), they are still very capable processors. Our review unit features an Intel Core i5, a quad-core chip with a base clock speed of 1.4GHz and a maximum boost speed of 3.9GHz. This CPU supports multi-threading, which means each core can handle two instruction threads at a time, for a maximum of eight, a boon to modern apps written to take advantage of as many cores and threads as possible. It also features Intel's Iris Plus 655 graphics, a step above the UHD Graphics processors that most ultraportable laptops use.
Still, some competitors in the $1,000 to $1,500 range, including the Razer Blade Stealth, use a more powerful Core i7 CPU. In the chart below, you'll find the key specs of the MacBook Pro and a few of its competitors PC Labs has tested. All are priced similarly except the XPS 13, which cost more than $2,000 in the muscled-up configuration we reviewed. Note that you can easily boost the MacBook Pro's price above $2,000, as well, by adding options like a Core i7, 16GB of memory, and gargantuan 1TB or 2TB SSDs.
Our performance tests for Apple computers consist mostly of specialized multimedia workflows. We measure 3D rendering performance with Maxon's CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC's suitability for processor-intensive workloads. In what will be a consistent pattern, all of the systems performed similarly on the Cinebench test with the exception of the MacBook Air, which uses a very different ultra-low-power version of Intel's Core i5. Any score above 650 on this test is excellent for a general-purpose ultraportable laptop. The fact that the Core i5 and Core i7 systems performed so similarly is partly because most of them have the same four cores and eight processing threads.
Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video-editing trial, another tough, threaded workout that's highly CPU-dependent and scales well with cores and threads. In it, we put a stopwatch on test systems as they transcode a standard 12-minute clip of 4K video (the open-source Blender demo movie Tears of Steel) to a 1080p MP4 file. It's a timed test, and lower results are better. Indeed, the Handbrake results closely mirror those of Cinebench, though it's particularly nice to see that the MacBook Pro is tied for the quickest time to complete this test.
We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. Using an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop, we apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. As with Handbrake, lower times are better here. The Photoshop test stresses CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost.
Because the Photoshop test makes more comprehensive use of a system's resources, the results are a bit different. The MacBook Pro's Iris Plus graphics chip didn't help it perform as well as the XPS 13 or the Razer Blade Stealth, though it was within a few seconds of the Surface Laptop 2's time. As a side benefit, the Iris Plus means slightly improved graphics performance on 3D games, though don't expect to play any recent demanding AAA titles at high resolution. Stick to browser games and the ones you'll find on the Mac app store. The MacBook Pro and all of its competitors—including the Blade Stealth—are most certainly not gaming laptops.
Despite its more powerful CPU and graphics, the MacBook Pro's battery life, as measured by our rundown test, is only two hours shorter than that of the MacBook Air. At more than 18 hours, it far outlasted either the XPS 13 or the Razer Blade Stealth. It's especially nice to see that the addition of the small second screen in the form of the Touch Bar doesn't meaningfully shorten the battery life.
Because our battery test involves playing a locally stored 720p video file at 50 percent screen brightness with Wi-Fi turned off, your results will vary. But it will almost certainly last through an 8-hour day at the office or play enough movies to fill a cross-country flight.
Although the 2019 entry-level versions of the MacBook Pro are a bit more expensive than the MacBook Air (which starts at $1,099), the 2019 Pro adds novel features like the Touch Bar, and essential features like increased computing performance.
Not only is it therefore a better value than the Air and the best mainstream Apple laptop, but it also holds its own against formidable Windows competition, especially from the near-flawless Dell XPS 13. As long as you can deal with minor inconveniences like scarce I/O ports and shallow key travel, and you are partial to macOS, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is one of the best ultraportables you can buy. It punches above the weight that its relatively pedestrian computing specs might suggest and easily earns our latest Editors' Choice award for Mac laptops.
Bottom Line: The 13-inch MacBook Pro is Apple's best ultraportable laptop, thanks to stylish looks, an excellent touchpad, and long battery life.
Tom tests and reviews laptops, peripherals, and much more at PC Labs in New York City. He previously covered the consumer tech beat as a news reporter for PCMag in San Francisco, where he rode in several self-driving cars and witnessed the rise and fall of a few startups. Before that, he occasionally dunked waterproof hard drives in glasses of wate... See Full Bio
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