2020 13-Inch MacBook Pro Review: It’s All About TDP


The 2020 13-Inch MacBook Pro

This is the ideal version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro that Apple has been selling since 2016.

The headline feature is the addition of the scissor-switch Magic keyboard. Besides that, there aren’t many other visible changes. The 13-inch didn’t get the same treatment as the 15-inch did last fall, when it got stretched to a 16-inch. Leading up to it’s release, there were rumors the smaller MacBook Pro was going to receive the same style update, becoming a 14-inch. That didn’t happen.


The new 13-inch MacBook Pro is a big update in some ways, but a small one in others. We didn’t get the mythical 14-inch, and that’s OK. This is the 13-inch MacBook Pro you’ve been waiting for.

TL;DR: There are different “classes” of MacBook, and you can sort them on their TDP. Higher TDP = higher performance.

7W = 12” MacBook (RIP)10W = 13” Retina MacBook Air15W = 13” 2-port MacBook Pro28W = 13” 4-port MacBook Pro45W = 15/16” MacBook Pro

Things improve with Intel’s CPU generations too, but that usually has less impact than TDP. That’s why the 8th-gen 15W 2-port MacBook Pro outperforms the 10th-gen 10W MacBook Air, for example. The MacBook Pro has better cooling, and a more powerful class of processor. The 10th-gen Air has better graphics performance though, due to the improvements in Intel’s 10th-gen integrated graphics. It can get complicated.

Two MacBook Pros, One Name

Since 2016, there have really been two different laptops living under the name “13-inch MacBook Pro.” There’s a lower-end model with two Thunderbolt 3 ports (on the left side), and a higher-end model with four ports (two on either side). Originally the lower-end model didn’t have a Touch Bar, but Apple added it to the low-end model last year.

There’s a big difference between the two models, one that’s been heightened with this set of updates. The low-end laptops start at $1299 and are powered by 8th-generation Intel processors. The high-end models start at $1799 and have received a boost to 10th-generation “Ice Lake” Intel processors. The low-end models are closer in base price to the $999 MacBook Air than to the high-end 13-inch MacBook Pro.


In my view, they are different enough to deserve different names. The official names are MacBook Pro 13-inch (2 Thunderbolt 3 ports) and MacBook Pro 13-inch (4 Thunderbolt 3 ports). They roll right off the tongue, don’t they? Apple’s naming and branding are weird sometimes. For simplicity, I am going to refer to the 2-port model, or the 4-port model. The 4-port is the real 13-inch MacBook Pro, the 2-port is the MacBook Pro Lite.

Besides the port counts and the prices, the biggest difference between the two models is CPU and GPU performance.

CPU and GPU Specifics: 8th-gen vs. 10th

Intel’s 10th-gen CPUs are made on the more-efficient 10nm process. The 8th-gen are 14nm, slightly slower, and less power-efficient. The 2020 2-port features the same 8th-gen i5-8257U that the 2019 2-port had. The 2019 and 2020 2-port models should offer the same performance.

The 4-port model features the i5-1038NG7. Compared to the 2019 with the i5-8279U, the 2020 model should give a modest CPU uplift (~15% single core and 5% multi core), but the biggest difference is in graphics. Apple quotes up to 80% better performance. You won’t see that 80% bump in every task. A 3D render in Final Cut should be around 60 percent faster, and image processing in Affinity Photo is 25 percent faster, according to Apple. Like all benchmarks and quoted performance improvements, it depends on what you are doing.

TDP Differences: One Fan vs. Two

Beyond the generational and graphics differences, the Intel CPUs in the 2-port and 4-port operate at different thermal design power (TDP). Thermal Design Power isn’t strictly the maximum power draw, it’s the minimum capacity of CPU cooler required to get a guaranteed level of performance. The CPU in the base 2020 4-port model is guaranteed to run at 2.0 GHz at Apple’s requested TDP, which is 28W. The 2-port model runs at 1.4 GHz, and uses a lower TDP of 15W.

This doesn’t take into account Turbo Boost, however. Turbo Boost allows CPUs to operate above TDP for a short time, as long as the temperatures are low enough, and the cooler can handle the extra heat. That’s why good cooling is so important.

The specifics of TDP are complicated, but what you need to know is the higher the TDP, the more work the CPU can do. Higher TDP CPUs require more cooling, and there’s a difference in the MacBook Pros there. The 2-Port has one fan, the 4-port has two fans. This allows the 4-port to achieve higher clock speeds, and get more work done. This is why the 4-port will be better for heavier tasks, like rendering video or compiling code. It also lets the 4-port run quieter in some situations, since it is more efficient at pulling heat away, due to it’s two fans.

If you’re interested in more details on the impact of TDP on the 2-port vs 4-port models, MaxTech has a good video which shows this.

Magic Keyboard

The Butterfly keyboard was controversial since it’s introduction in the 2015 12” MacBook. It was also prone to hardware failure. Apple released a few revisions to improve reliability. After the updates in 2018 and 2019, things seemed to improve, but there were plenty of reports of those failing as well.

When the butterfly keyboard needed to be repaired, Apple had to replace the entire top case of the laptop, including the glued-in battery. That cost $700 out of warranty, until Apple created the keyboard service program. Even still, once those 4 years of free coverage are over, you are on the hook for any repairs.


After several years of trying to make the Butterfly work, the scissor-switch Magic Keyboard proved to be the best fix. The Magic Keyboard has been Apple’s desktop keyboard for years. It debuted on laptops with the 16-inch MacBook Pro in November 2019. The MacBook Air got it in March 2020, and now in May 2020 all MacBooks have it.

There’s nothing new in this laptop’s keyboard compared to the 16-inch, or the 2020 Air. It’s the same keyboard, with the same key layout and 1mm of travel. There’s a physical escape key and four arrow keys in the classic “inverted T” shape. It’s also quieter than the Butterfly keyboard.

The 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro is slightly thicker (.59 inches vs .61 inches) and heavier (3.02 pounds vs. 3.1 pounds) than the 2019. If that’s the cost of the Magic keyboard, I’ll gladly take it.

The Butterfly Isn’t Dead Yet

While new MacBooks are safe, the Butterfly isn’t fully gone. It’s still on every 2015-2017 12” MacBook, 2016-2019 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro, and 2018-2019 Air. There are millions of those keyboards out in the world, and they are likely to fail at some point. I would not recommend keeping any of those models long-term.

The Butterfly keyboard is also still hiding out under the fabric of the iPad Smart Keyboard Folio. Those have not had any widespread reliability issues. It seems the fabric covering, combined with the keyboard not laying directly on hot components, allowed the iPad covers to avoid the problems the Butterfly keyboard had on MacBooks. It seems like the two biggest causes of failure were debris getting in the keys, and the metal warping from heat. Only time will tell if the Magic keyboard can avoid the same fate, but scissor switches have a long track record of being reliable, and I’ve heard of no problems with any Magic keyboard so far.

It feels good to remove that asterisk, and not have to worry about the reliability of the keyboard again. The MacBook’s keyboard is back to being function over form. While they both got the new keyboard, the 2-port and 4-port are still very different. Let’s look at them individually.

2-Port Got A Minor Bump, Trades Blows With MacBook Air

The 2-port didn’t change much at all. It received the Magic keyboard and doubled the included SSD storage. The $1299 base configuration still comes standard with an 8th-gen quad-core i5 and 8 GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM.

The 2-port model being left on 8th-gen processors puts it in a weird spot in the lineup. If you step sideways to the $1299 quad core Air, there are some confusing comparisons and differences.

The 2-port Pro has a higher TDP CPU (15W vs 10W), and much better cooling than the Air. The Air is thermally limited, but has all the benefits of Intel’s 10th-gen CPUs. On a sustained load the $1299 Pro will beat the $1299 Air, but the Air is faster than the 2-port Pro over short bursts. The Air also has a slight advantage on single threaded tasks and GPU performance. These differences show up in a few ways. For example, the 2020 Air supports external 6K displays, while the 2020 2-port Pro doesn’t.

In some ways, the 2-port is the awkward middle child. In others, it is an acceptable middle option if the Air’s thermal performance isn’t enough for your workload.

13-Inch MacBook Pro (2-Port) Upgrades Available

  • CPUi7-8557U offering 1.7 GHz base clock and up to 3.8 GHz Turbo Boost.

4-Port Got A Bigger Bump

The 4-port received the same updates as the 2-port, doubling the included SSD storage and adding the Magic keyboard. It also received a few others.

The biggest change is the CPU. It is a i5-1038NG7, designed for 28W TDP. Not a lot of other manufacturers make laptops in the 28W class, choosing to focus on thin and light (15W and under) like the Air, or big and beefy (45W and up) like the 16-inch MacBook Pro. The 13-inch MacBook Pro has always been in the middle ground. The 10 nm process and 2 fans mean the 4-port has a major advantage over the Air and the 2-port when it comes to sustained performance. It’ll run faster and/or quieter than those machines.

Included with the jump to 10th-gen is the upgrade to faster RAM. The 4-port supports 3733 MHz LPDDR4X RAM, and can be upgraded to 32GB for the first time in a 13-inch MacBook Pro. Graphics are the biggest jump — up to 80%, and that’s thanks to Intel’s integrated G7 Iris Plus Graphics. The new GPU gets rid of the Crystalwell eDRAM, and increased the main memory bandwidth to compensate. Just like the 28W TDP, not all manufacturers go for the highest-end integrated graphics like Apple does.

Another small upgrade came along for the ride. The speakers in the 4-port are better, thanks to an included subwoofer. It’s not the same 6-speaker array the 16-inch got. They are good though: plenty loud, with good bass and minimal distortion at high volumes.

A few things didn’t change. The 3-mic array is still good, but it’s not “studio-quality” like the 16-inch. The screen is the same, still 500 nits of P3-wide color at 2560×1600 in a 16:10 ratio. It’s still a great screen. Unlike the 16-inch, there aren’t significant improvements to the thermal system, but it seems like they weren’t really needed. The biggest disappointment to me is that the 2020 MacBook Pro is still using 802.11ac AKA Wi-Fi 5.

Even without the redesign, larger screen, and a few goodies from the 16-inch, this is an good spec bump and quality-of-life upgrade. The keyboard change alone is what most people were waiting for. The performance increases are icing on the cake.

13-Inch MacBook Pro (4-Port) Upgrades Available

  • CPU – An upgrade to the i7-1068NG7 is available, offering a higher base clock speed (2.0 vs. 2.3 GHz) and a larger L2 cache (6 Mb vs 8 Mb). Expect a 10% to 15% performance improvement depending on the task. Unlike in years past, the i5 part has Hyperthreading, meaning they are both 4 core, 8 thread parts. Clock speed and cache size are the only differences, and you are likely to be thermally constrained at the high-end anyway. If you need more performance, you may want to look at the 16-inch MacBook Pro instead.

Possible Future Improvements

Each of these topics could be an article to themselves, but lets quickly go over some shortcomings of the 2020 MacBook Pro, and how they could improve in the future.

Webcam

It’s really unfortunate that during a massive upswing in remote work and video conferencing, built-in webcams in MacBooks are still so bad. It’s confusing how Apple can be so good with cameras in their iOS devices, and so bad with their Macs. The 2020 MacBook Pro, and most laptops Apple have made for the nearly a decade, has the same old 720p FaceTime HD camera. It ranges from bad in decent lighting, to terrible in low light. It’s time for an upgrade here.

14-inch

A lot of people were hoping for a 14-inch MacBook Pro. A 14-inch would also likely have improved thermals, and possibly add dedicated graphics like the 16-inch. Apple seems happy to stay with the current form factor for now, but maybe the 2021 MacBook Pro could make those changes. I could imagine a 14-inch similar to the Razer Blade Stealth, which features a GTX 1650ti and a 120 Hz screen.

FaceID

iPhones and iPads have the ability of using FaceID for biometric authentication. The Mac hasn’t made it past TouchID yet. I still this this is the right call, for now. Adding FaceID to the Mac would require extra silicon and camera sensors. Perhaps an updated T2 (T3?) with more custom silicon from Apple’s A-series CPUs.

I suspect the display assembly and lid of modern MacBooks is too shallow to put the required hardware in there. If I had to choose between FaceID, a thicker display and higher cost, and what we have now, I’d choose what we have now. TouchID is a good fit for the Mac, and FaceID will come in time, I’m sure.

The Wi-FI 6 Saga

Interesting enough, there is no WIFI 6 support. Intel’s 10th-gen CPUs make it available via the chipset, so Apple is actively avoiding it.

It’s a little funny that even the $399 iPhone SE has Wi-Fi 6, and MacBooks that cost several times that don’t have the option. Seems like apple has some sort of exclusive contract with Broadcom, as they still use their 3×3 Wi-Fi 5 (802.11ac) chip. They chose to not add Intel’s companion RF module, which would let Apple use the Wi-Fi 6 support integrated into the Ice Lake platform. I have no idea if these are related, but Intel and Apple’s lawsuit, and Apple’s purchase of Intel’s modem division could be playing a part here.

Getting “stuck” with Wi-Fi 5 isn’t the end of the world. It’s a bit disappointing for people that were holding off on upgrading, and plan on keeping this for years to come. Issues like this are another sign that Apple isn’t investing in the Mac as much as the iOS ecosystem. Can you imagine if the iPhone 11 Pro didn’t have Wi-Fi 6?

AMD x86 CPUs, or ARM Macs?

Speaking of imagining things, imagine what could have been if Apple was using AMD chips right now. Over the past few years, AMD’s Ryzen desktop processors brought competition to Intel. With Ryzen mobile 3rd and 4th-gen, AMD is challenging Intel in the mobile space as well.

Unfortunately, Apple is stuck with Intel for the time being. It seems unlikely Apple would trade one 3rd party x86 CPU vendor for another, since Apple like’s to control it’s own destiny. This semi-low-effort update the 13-inch got could be a sign Apple’s engineers are focused on other issues, like ARM macs. It could also mean nothing.

MacBook Vs. iPad

2020 13-inch MacBook Pro next to a 2020 iPad Pro + Magic keyboard.

This is a whole discussion unto itself, but it’s worth noting that Apple now has a whole other line of laptop-shaped computers. The iPad Pro + Magic keyboard just came out, and makes the iPad more laptop-like than ever. I am going to be writing a full comparison soon, I just need more time to process the differences and gather my thoughts.

Whether you can do your work on an iPad or not is a personal thing. I still think iPads are a better compliment to a Mac than a replacement. Your mileage may vary.

The good news is we have a bunch of different options. The 4-port 13-inch MacBook Pro is perfect for me. Hopefully this post helped you decide what is perfect for you.

If you want to dig deeper into TDP, keep reading.



What is TDP (Thermal Design Power)

? from Dr. Ian Cuttress at AnandTech

With every processor, Intel guarantees a specific frequency at a specific power, often with a particular grade of cooler in mind. Most people equate a chip’s TDP rating directly to its maximum power draw, given that the heat energy that needs to be dissipated from the processor is equal to the power consumed in doing calculations. Normally, the TDP rating is that specific power.

But TDP, in its strictest sense, relates to the ability of the cooler to dissipate heat. TDP is the minimum capacity of the CPU cooler required to get that guaranteed level of performance. Some energy dissipation also occurs through the socket and motherboard, which means that technically the cooler rating can be lower than the TDP, but in most circles TDP and power consumption are used to mean the same thing: how much power a CPU draws under load.

For any given processor, Intel will guarantee both a rated frequency to run at (known as the base frequency) for a given power, which is the rated TDP. This means that a processor like the 65W Core i7-8700, which has a base frequency of 3.2 GHz and a turbo of 4.7 GHz, is only guaranteed to be at or below 65W when the processor is running at 3.2 GHz. Intel does not guarantee any level of performance above this 3.2 GHz / 65W value.

On top of the base values, Intel implements Turbo. As mentioned, something like the Core i7-8700 can have a turbo of 4.7 GHz, which draws a lot more power than the processor running at 3.2 GHz. The all-core turbo value for a processor like the Core i7-8700 is 4.3 GHz, which is well above the guaranteed 3.2 GHz. What makes it all the more complicated is when none of those turbo modes go down to the base frequency. It means that the processor will be operating above its TDP rating all the time, and that 65W cooler you purchased (or perhaps it even came with the processor) has become a bottleneck of sorts. If more performance is required, it needs to go in the bin, as you’ll need something better.

But the manufacturer doesn’t tell you that. If the cooling isn’t sufficient for the turbo modes, and the processor reaches its temperature limit, most processors will go into a power limited mode, reducing performance to stay within that power limit. All of a sudden that fast processor isn’t living up to its peak capabilities.

Ian Cuttress, and Anandtech in general, are such an amazing resource for things like this. Anandtech is my go-to source for this kind of detailed, in-the-weeds information.

Some Notes on TDP and How It Affects the MacBook Line:

  • Lower TDP and less cooling is the reason the 2-port is slower than the 4-port, and the reason the Air is slowest of them all.

  • Somewhat egregiously, the heat pipe on the MacBook Air is not connected to the fan. The exhaust fan only exists to create a negative pressure inside, which helps the Air bring cool air in. This leads to the fan ramping up early and often, and a hard performance limit when under load. This is most pronounced on the 2020 quad core Air.

  • Apple has roughly around 50W of total thermal capacity in the 13-inch 4-port, and around 100W in the 16-inch.

  • The CPU in the 16-inch can draw over 40W by itself, which leads to it having by far the most CPU performance of any MacBook.

  • The 16-inch is the only MacBook available with a dedicated GPU, making it a better fit for graphics-intensive work.

  • Even with the improved integrated graphics in the 10th gen CPUs, there is still a large different between dedicated and integrated graphics.

  • If you are maxing the computer out, higher TDP systems will get more done, but also create more heat, increasing fan noise and decreasing battery life. Higher TDP generally equals shorter battery life under load.