If the 16‑inch MacBook Pro was too much and the MacBook Air too little, is this latest 13‑inch MacBook Pro just right?
Following on from last year’s introduction of the 16‑inch MacBook Pro, and this year’s update to the MacBook Air, there was one MacBook in Apple’s line‑up that remained conspicuous in waiting to be refreshed with the company’s latest and greatest technologies: the 13‑inch MacBook Pro. Where the 16‑inch model — like the 15‑inch before it — offers Apple’s best in portable performance with a corresponding price tag, and the Air caters to users conscious of pecuniary matters (or those seeking the thinnest form factor), the 13‑inch MacBook Pro has always occupied the gap in between. And so, on May 4th, Apple announced this much‑anticipated update.
Unlike the 16‑inch MacBook Pro, the design and general feature set of the new fifth‑generation 13‑inch Pro has remained largely the same as last year’s model, which had its roots in 2016’s fourth‑generation refresh. Available in the usual Space Gray and Silver finishes, the new 13‑inch MacBook Pro shares the same 11.97 by 8.36‑inch dimensions as its predecessor, but is a shade thicker and heavier with a height of 0.62 inches over 0.59, weighing in at 3.1 versus 3.02. Sadly, this extra girth doesn’t translate into a larger battery, as it did in the 16‑inch, with the 2020 specifications still detailing a 58W‑hour lithium‑polymer battery.
In appearance, the 13‑inch MacBook Pro employs the same dazzling 13.3‑inch Retina display you’d expect from Apple, with 500 nits of brightness, a P3 wide colour gamut, and the marvellously visceral True Tone technology. With 2560 x 1600 pixels, the native resolution is identical to other, equivalently sized screens in the MacBook family, offering the same four scaled resolutions. Since our recent MacBook Air review included screenshots showing comparisons of these resolutions when running Logic Pro, Cubase Pro and Pro Tools, it seems unnecessary to include them here again. However, that review — and indeed, the full August issue of the magazine — can be read online by visiting the Sound On Sound website.
Whilst the display is obviously one of the most important components of a laptop, input devices like the keyboard are also significant. As such, one of the improvements users have been waiting for in a new 13‑inch MacBook Pro is the replacement of the unloved Butterfly keyboard mechanism with the newer, more conventional scissor‑based implementation seen first in the 16‑inch MacBook Pro and the latest MacBook Air. And although the new keyboard doesn’t have as much travel as the scissor mechanisms of yore, it is, however, a significant enhancement to daily use, offering greater comfort and reliability.
Like the 16‑inch MacBook Pro, the new 13‑inch model features a second‑generation Touch Bar, the touchable OLED strip that replaces the oh‑so‑passé function keys and incorporates an admittedly handy Touch ID sensor. The second‑generation Touch Bar is horizontally smaller than the first one used in the previous 13‑inch MacBook Pro, as it thankfully sees the return of a physical Escape key to its rightful place at the top‑left of the keyboard.
If you haven’t used a Touch Bar before, it essentially comprises two areas: the Control Strip, where you can adjust system settings like volume and brightness, and the App region, which provides dedicated controls for the application currently in focus. It’s possible to display virtual function keys by holding down the Function key, and this default behaviour can be configured in the System Preferences Keyboard pane.
In Douglas Adams and John Lloyd’s The Meaning Of Liff, an Ely is defined as “The first, tiniest inkling that something, somewhere has gone terribly wrong,” and you experience this with the Touch Bar when you first want to adjust the volume on the MacBook Pro. Rather than just tapping the volume shortcut keys as before, you now tap the volume button in the Touch Bar’s Control Strip, drag the slider that appears to set the appropriate level, and tap the close button when satisfied (or wait a few moments for this to happen automatically). Alternatively, if you press and hold the volume button, you can drag your finger in place to adjust the volume, and the slider disappears when you release the touch. The fact it takes so many words to describe something that used to require so few exemplifies my issue with the Touch Bar.
As mentioned already, the new 13‑inch MacBook hasn’t significantly benefited from features introduced with the 16‑inch MacBook Pro last December, and one relevant example would be the latter’s new audio system. While the 13‑inch MacBook Pro’s high dynamic range stereo speakers are simply good — pleasingly balanced with an abundance of amplitude — the 16‑inch’s six‑speaker system with force‑cancelling woofers are stunning by laptop standards. Like its bigger sibling, the 13‑inch also adds support for Dolby Atmos, although this is presumably handled in software.
Similarly, the 16‑inch’s new three‑mic array with high signal‑to‑noise ratio is arguably more ‘studio‑quality’ (to use Apple’s words) when compared with the 13‑inch MacBook Pro. Although it’s worth noting that this latest model is described as having a three‑mic array (like the 16‑inch MacBook Pro) rather than just three microphones as before. This terminology upgrade is likely because both laptops use directional beamforming to capture the clearest result, which, as with the Atmos support, is probably also a software improvement.
Finally, if you need to connect pair of headphones, you’ll still find an audio jack on the right side of the 13‑inch MacBook Pro like all other current MacBooks.
While the externals remain sympathetic to the fourth‑generation 13‑inch MacBook Pro, looking at the internals beneath the exterior tells a very different story, and this is where the real improvements are to be found in the latest, fifth‑generation 13‑inch MacBook Pro. Unlike Apple’s other portable Macs, where there’s basically one configuration that serves as the base model, the 13‑inch MacBook Pro remains available in two subtly distinct tiers. The differences between these tiers, as we’ll see, affect processor, memory, graphics and storage choices, as well as external expansion.
Although all 13‑inch MacBook Pros are still based around Intel quad‑core chips, that’s where the similarities end. The first‑tier models use the same eighth‑generation Core processors as before, which are built on the ‘Coffee Lake’ microarchitecture: either a 1.4GHz i5 with Turbo Boost up to 3.9GHz, or a 1.7GHz i7 with Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz. Since I didn’t have either of these for testing, I turned to the Geekbench Browser and found single‑ and multi‑core results of 909 and 3755 for the i5 model, and 935 and 4066 for i7 respectively. By comparison, the 2020 MacBook Air had a 1.1GHz quad‑core 10th‑generation Intel Core i5 (with Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz and a 6MB L3 cache), and scored 1023 and 2742 in single and multi‑core results.
For visual processing, these ‘entry level’ 13‑inch MacBook Pros employ Intel’s integrated Iris Plus Graphics 645 and include 8GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 memory. If this isn’t enough (and it probably won’t be), you can choose to have 16GB installed as a build‑to‑order option. For expansion, these 13‑inch MacBook Pros, like the MacBook Air, include only two Thunderbolt 3, USB‑C ports, each offering support for charging, DisplayPort, Thunderbolt (up to 40Gb/s) and USB 3.1 Gen 2 (up to 10Gb/s).
The second tier of 13‑inch MacBook Pro models now feature Intel’s latest 10th‑generation Core processors, based around the ‘Icy Lake’ microarchitecture. You can choose either a 2.0GHz i5 with Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz, or a 2.3GHz i7 with Turbo Boost up to 4.1GHz. As you might imagine, these chips yield better results than their eighth‑generation counterparts and I had both of these higher‑end options for testing (see box). Armed with the ever‑trusty Geekbench, the i5 scored 1145 and 4372 in the single‑ and multi‑core results, while the i7 reported scores of 1386 and 4800 respectively.
This higher‑end 13‑inch MacBook Pro model uses Intel’s improved Iris Plus integrated graphics (baptised without a number). You also get 16GB of 3733MHz LPDDR4X as standard (offering more bandwidth than the 2666MHz DDR3 memory used in the 16‑inch MacBook Pro), and there’s finally a 32GB option, which is a definite plus in situations where you might want to work with larger sample‑based instruments in a portable form factor. Finally, in terms of expansion, you get twice the number of USB‑C ports (like the 16‑inch MacBook Pro), again supporting Thunderbolt 3, USB 3.1 Gen 2, DisplayPort, and charging.
When it comes to connecting external displays, given that the first‑tier 13‑inch MacBook Pros use the same Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645 as the previous generation, they support the same configurations. You can attach an additional 5K display with a 5120 x 2880 resolution, or two 4K displays with 4096 x 2304 pixels, and the usual video over VGA, HDMI, DVI and Thunderbolt 2 are all supported using the appropriate adapters. Since the second‑tier models feature Intel’s newer Iris Plus Graphics, in addition to offering the same external display support as with the lower‑tier models, it’s now possible to connect a 6K display with a 6016 x 3384 resolution, such as Apple’s own Pro Display XDR.
The first two 13‑inch MacBook Pro models now start with either 256GB or 512GB SSDs, with higher capacities of 1TB and 2TB available as build‑to‑order upgrades (see box). The second‑tier models have a 512GB SSD as standard, and you can choose 1TB, 2TB or a larger 4TB option instead if such a large quantity of internal storage is required. As always, I would say buy what you can afford, safe in the knowledge you’re always going to need more storage, although 512GB is a sensible minimum these days.
Using AJA’s System Test Lite, the 13‑inch MacBook Pro with a 2.0GHz i5 processor and a 512GB SSD achieved read and write scores of 2753 and 2591 MB/sec; the 2.3GHz i7 model (also with a 512GB SSD) gave results of 2587 and 2572 MB/sec respectively. (See graph for other comparisons.)
Using a 256MB test file, this graph illustrates storage performance numbers for the current MacBook line‑up. Notice that while read speeds are similar across different models, there’s a noticeable difference between write scores. And while I wouldn’t concentrate too heavily on the absolute values of these tests, since they often vary from one run to another, they do provide a ballpark figure to indicate relative performance.
To put the latest 13‑inch MacBook Pro through its paces, I donned a fetching chapeau with an appropriate monocle and performed an array of experiments on the 2.0GHz Core i5 and 2.3GHz i7‑based higher‑tier models I had available for testing — which is to say that I ran the latest versions of Logic Pro, Cubase Pro and Pro Tools with some audio running through various insert effects.
Once again, all tests were performed with the built‑in audio hardware running at 44.1kHz with a buffer size of 256 samples, a 24‑bit resolution, and all other audio‑related settings left to the defaults as defined by each application. As usual, the tests are designed to illustrate generalised performance such that they can be easily recreated on other systems, enabling you to undertake comparisons of your own (including on Windows‑based systems, with the exception of Logic Pro).
Starting with Logic Pro 10.5.1, I began with my usual recreation of a test Apple have described before. With each stereo audio track playing the same audio file through an instance of Amp Designer running as an insert (with the Brit Reverb preset), I could play back 275 such tracks on the i7 model and 278 on the i5.
As you might imagine, I was a little taken aback by these results; because, while impressive, they raised a few questions. To begin with, when I performed the same test on a base 16‑inch MacBook Pro last year (which was based around a more powerful, 2.6GHz 6‑core Intel Core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 4.5GHz), I peaked at 183 tracks before the system gave up. However, such a discrepancy could be explained by the fact I was using earlier versions of Mac OS Catalina (10.15.1) and, of course, Logic Pro X (10.4.7), and it’s entirely possible both the operating system and application have been optimised in the latest versions. More on this in a moment.
Moving on to Cubase Pro 10.5.20, I once again started with an audio track playing back the same file, but this time with a VST Amp Rack insert on each channel (employing the Big Clean Reverb) preset to give the processor something to think about (this plug‑in is more intensive than Logic’s Amp Designer). I was able to play back 102 tracks simultaneously on the i7 and 101 with the i5.
And finally, when I proceeded to test with Pro Tools Ultimate 2020.5.0, creating a Session to play back a series of Audio Tracks, using the bundled Eleven Lite plug‑in with the factory default preset as my guitar amp du jour. This also happens to be the most computationally intensive of the guitar‑oriented effects included with their respective hosts, and the track counts were 26 and 25 for the i7‑ and i5‑based models respectively.
Intel’s Power Gadget utility showing an analysis of usage during Geekbench’s CPU test on the top‑tier, i5‑based 13‑inch MacBook Pro.
You might be noticing a trend emerging from the results I noted in Logic Pro, Cubase Pro and Pro Tools, which, as I mentioned, were rather curious. If you look at the Geekbench scores, the i7‑based model scores higher than the i5 in both the single‑ and multi‑core results; and if you consider the specifications of the two processors, while similar, the i7 is obviously clocked faster. So what might explain this discrepancy between the more academic Geekbench results and the real‑world performance attained in typical music and audio applications?
Intel’s Power Gadget utility showing Logic Pro playing back the same Project on the high‑end i7‑based model.
If you look at the three Intel Power Gadget screenshots, you’ll see the i5 running Geekbench’s CPU test, and both the i5 and i7 running at peak performance in Logic Pro. If you look at the screenshot showing the Geekbench test, you’ll see bursts of activity mirrored across the Power, Frequency, Temperature and Utilization graphs as the different tests are performed. However, if you look at the screenshots of the Logic Pro test, you’ll see the level of performance being maintained constantly, which also correlates to power usage and, therefore, temperature. Notice the similarity in clock speeds (thanks to Turbo Boost) between the i5 and i7, and that the i5 has greater core utilisation at the same temperature compared with the i7, which essentially has to be throttled back slightly in terms of performance because the temperature is hitting the ceiling. This explains why you basically get the same results in terms of plug‑in counts on both models.
Normally, I wouldn’t be able to make this kind of observation since we usually only have one model of a given product to review. But in this case, having access to both top‑tier models allows you to see that at peak performance, the marginally different specifications between the chips doesn’t really offer any benefits.
Not every project you have is going to be running the chip at peak performance in the same way as the test projects, of course. So if your project has portions that only require bursts of peak performance during certain parts, you might experience some of the benefits the extra performance of the i7 option can afford. On the other hand, you might not, and this is nearly impossible to quantify given the non‑deterministic nature of native audio engines.
In considering a portable Mac, if the MacBook Air indeed offers too little and the 16‑inch MacBook Pro is too much, the 13‑inch MacBook Pro more than comfortably occupies the ‘just right’ spot, and will likely be the model chosen by the majority of musicians and audio engineers. While the noise emitted by the fan is more present than on the 16‑inch model, it’s also less audibly intrusive than the MacBook Air and has a little more runaway in terms of thermal performance before it kicks in.
If you’ve followed the review this far (refraining from skipping ahead to the spoiler) it won’t come as a surprise that the second tier, i5‑based model is the 13‑inch MacBook I would recommend. I don’t think it’s worth spending the extra £200$200 on the i7 configuration; that money would be better spent on having 32GB memory and possibly 1TB or more additional storage (in that order) if finances allow. External storage can always be added, whereas memory is forever! Which is one of many reasons I think you’d regret not having the two extra Thunderbolt ports, especially since the architecture of the first‑tier models is built around Intel’s eighth‑generation Core technology.
Another reason you’ll want to consider your à la carte options (see box) more seriously than usual is that, given Apple’s recent announcements regarding the Mac’s transition to using the company’s own custom silicon, this could well be the last Intel‑based 13‑inch MacBook available. And given the time it will inevitably take for music and audio applications, specialist hardware drivers, and plug‑ins to complete this transition (as we’ll discuss more comprehensively in a forthcoming article), you might well find yourself relying on this laptop for longer than usual before it makes sense to consider another upgrade.
As discussed in the main text, two base model tiers can be configured on Apple’s online store with the following options:
Although the new 13‑inch MacBook feels more evolutionary than revolutionary, lacking many of the technologies found in its more radical, bigger sibling, it maintains its position between the 16‑inch model and the MacBook Air in performance, size and price.