Apple 2018 MacBook Pro

July was a good month for Apple power users, with the simultaneous release of Blackmagic Design’s eGPU and a refresh of Apple’s popular MacBook Pro line, including both 13″ and 15″ models. Although these new laptops retain the previous model’s form factor, they gained a bump-up in processors, RAM, and storage capacity.

Apple loaned me one of the Touch Bar space gray 15” models for this review. It came maxed out with the 8th generation 2.9 GHz 6-core Intel Core i9 CPU, 32GB DDR4 (faster) RAM, Radeon Pro 560X GPU, and a 2TB SSD. The price range on the 15″ model is pretty wide, due in part to the available SSD choices – from 256GB up to 4TB. Touch Bar 15” configurations start at $2,399 and can go all the way up to $6,699, once you spec the top upgrade for everything. My configuration was only $4,699 with the 2TB SSD. Of course, that’s before you add Apple Care (which I highly recommend for laptops) and any accessories.

Apple also released premium leather sleeves for both the 13″ and 15″ models in three colors ($199 for the 15″ size). They are pricey, of course, but not out of line with other branded, luxury products, like bags and watch bands. They fit the unit snuggly and protect it when you are out and about. In addition, they serve as a good pad on rough desk surfaces or when you have the MacBook Pro on your lap. Depending on the task you are performing, the bottom surface of the MacBook Pro can get warm, but nothing to be concerned about.

Before you point me to the nearest Windows gaming machine instead, let me mention that this review really isn’t a comparison against Windows laptops, but rather advances by Apple within the MacBook Pro line. But for context, I have owned six laptops to date – 3 PCs and 3 Macs. I shifted to Mac in order to have access to Final Cut Pro and have been happy with that move. The first 2 PCs developed stress fractures at the lid hinges before they were even a year old. The third, an HP, was solid, but after I gave it to my daughter, the power supply shorted. In addition, the hard drive became so corrupt (thank you Windows) that it wasn’t worth trying to recover. In short, my Mac laptop experience, like that of others, has been one of good value. MacBook Pros generally last years and if you use them for actual billable work (editing, DIT, sound design, etc.), then the investment will pay for itself.

This is the fastest and best laptop Apple has made. Apple engineering has nicely balanced power, size, weight, and battery life in a way that’s hard to counter. It is expensive, but if you try to find an equivalent PC, it is hard to actually find one with these exact same specs or components, until you get into gaming PCs. Those a) look pretty ugly, b) tend to be larger and heavier, with lower battery life, and c) cost about the same. There’s also the sales experience. Try to navigate nearly any PC-centric laptop supplier in an effort to customize the options and it tends to become an exercise in frustration. On the other hand, Apple makes it quite easy to buy and configure its machines with the options that you want.

I do have to mention that when these MacBook Pros first came out there was an issue of performance throttling, which was quickly addressed by Apple and fixed by a supplemental macOS release. That had already been installed on my unit, so no throttling issues that affected any of my performance tests.

Likewise, there have been debris complaints with the first run of the “butterfly” keys used in this and the previous version of these laptops. As other reviewers have stated when tear-downs have been done, Apple has added a membrane under the keys to help with sound dampening. Some reviewers have speculated that this also helps mitigate or even eliminate the debris issues. Whatever the reason, I liked typing on this keyboard and it did sound quieter to me. I tend to bang on keys, since I’m not a touch typist. The feel of a keyboard to a typist can be very subjective and in the course of a day, I tend to type on several vintages of Apple keyboards. In general, the keyboard on this newest MacBook Pro felt comfortable to me, when used for standard typing.

What did Apple bring new to the mix?

When Apple introduced the Touch Bar in 2016, I thought ‘meh’. But after these couple of weeks, I’ve really enjoyed it, especially when an application like Final Cut Pro X extends its controls to the Touch Bar. You can switch the Touch Bar preferences to only be function keys if you like. But having control strip options makes it quick to adjust screen brightness, volume, and so on. In the case of FCPX, you also get a mini-timeline view in some modes. Even QuickTime player calls up a small movie strip into the Touch Bar screen for the file being played.

These units also include Apple’s T2 security chip, which powers the fingerprint Touch ID and the newly added “Hey Siri” commands. The Retina screen on this laptop is gorgeous with up to 500 nits brightness and a wide color gamut. Another new addition is True Tone, which adjusts the display’s color temperature for the surrounding ambient light. That may become a more important selling point in the coming years. There is growing concern within the industry that blue light emitted from computer displays causes long-term eyesight damage. Generally, True Tone warms up the screen when under interior lighting, which reduces eye fatigue when you are working with a lot of white documents. But my recommendation is that editors, colorists, photographers, and designers turn this feature off when working on tasks that require color accuracy. Otherwise, the color balance of media will appear too warm (yellowish).

The 2018 15” MacBook Pro has four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports and a headphone jack. The four ports (two per side) are driven by two internal Thunderbolt 3 (40Gb/s) buses. It appears that’s one for each side, which means that plugging in two devices on one side will split the available Thunderbolt 3 bandwidth on that bus in half. Although, this doesn’t seem to be much of a factor during actual use. The internal bus routing does appear to be different from the previous model, in spite of what otherwise is more or less the same hardware configuration.

Gone are all other connections, so plan on purchasing an assortment of adapters to connect peripherals, such as those ubiquitous USB thumb drives or hardware dongles (license keys). I do wish that Apple had retained at least one standard USB port. Thunderbolt 3 supports power, so no separate MagSafe port is required either. (Power supply and cable are included.) One minor downside of this is that there is no indicator LED when a full battery charge is achieved, like we used to have on the MagSafe plug.

If connected to a Thunderbolt 3 device with an adequate power supply (e.g. the LG displays or the Blackmagic eGPU sold through Apple), then a single cable can both transfer data and power the laptop. One caveat is that Thunderbolt 3 doesn’t pass a video signal in the same way as Thunderbolt 2. You cannot simply add a Thunderbolt 3-to-Thunderbolt 2 adapter and connect a typical monitor’s MiniDisplayPort plug, as was possible with Thunderbolt 2 ports. External monitors without the correct connection will need to go through a dock or monitor adapter in order to pass a video signal. (This is also true for the iMac Pros.)

Many users have taken to relying on their MacBook Pros as the primary machine for their home or office, as well on the road. The upside of Thunderbolt connectively is that when you get back to the office, connecting a single Thunderbolt 3 cable to the rest of your suite peripherals (dock, display, eGPU, whatever) is all you need to get up and running. Simple and clean. Stick the laptop in a cradle in the clamshell mode or on a laptop stand, connect the cable, and you now have a powerful desktop machine. MacBook Pros have gained enough power in recent years that – unless your demands are heavy – they can easily service your editing, photography, and graphic needs.

Is it time to upgrade?

I own a mid-2014 15” MacBook Pro (the last series with an NVIDIA GPU), which I purchased in early 2015. Three years is often a good interval for most professional users to plan on a computer refresh, so I decided to compare the two. To start with, the new 2018 machine boots faster and apps also open faster. It’s even slightly smaller and thinner than the mid-2014 model. Both have fast SSDs, but the 2018 model is significantly faster (2645 MB/s write, 2722 MB/s read – Blackmagic Speed Test).

As with other reviews, I pulled an existing edit project for my test sequence. This timeline could be the same in Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, and Resolve – without effects unique to one specific software application. My timeline consisted of 4K Alexa ProResHQ files that had a LUT and were scaled into a 1080p sequence. A few 1080p B-roll shots were also part of this sequence. The only taxing effect was a reverse slomo 4K clip, using optical flow interpolation. Both machines handled 4K ProRes footage just fine at full resolution using various NLEs. Exports to ProRes and H.264 were approximately twice as fast from Final Cut Pro X on the newer MacBook Pro. The same exports from Premiere Pro were longer overall than from FCPX, but faster on the 2018 machine, as well (see the section at the end for performance by the numbers).

If you are a fan of Final Cut Pro X, this machine is one of the best to use it on, especially if you can store your media on the internal drive. However, as an equalizer of sorts, I also ran these same test projects from an external SSD connected via USB3. While fast (over 200+ MB/s read/write), it wasn’t nearly as fast as the internal SSDs. Nevertheless, performance didn’t really lag behind with either FCPX or Premiere Pro. However, the optical flow clip did pose some issues. It played smoothly at “best quality” in FCPX, but oddly stuttered in the “best performance” setting. It did not play well in Premiere Pro at either full or half resolution. I also believe it contributed to the slower export times evident with Premiere Pro.

I tested a second project made up of all 4K REDCODE raw footage, which was placed into a 4K timeline. The 2018 MacBook Pro played the individual files and edited sequences smoothly when set to “best performance” in FCPX or half resolution in Premiere Pro. However, bumping the settings up to full quality caused stuttering with either NLE.

My last test was the same DaVinci Resolve project that I’ve used for my eGPU “stress” tests. These are anamorphic 4K Alexa files in a 2K DCI timeline. I stripped off all of the added filters that I had applied for the test of the eGPU, leaving a typical editing timeline with only a LUT and basic correction. This sequence played smoothly without dropping frames, which bodes well for editors who are considering a shift to Resolve as their main NLE.

Speaking of the Blackmagic eGPU tests, I had one day of overlap between the loans of the MacBook Pro and the Blackmagic eGPU. DaVinci Resolve’s real-time playback performance and exports were improved by about a 2X factor with the eGPU connected to the 15” model. Naturally,  the 15” machine by itself was quite a bit faster than the 13” MacBook Pro, so the improvement with an eGPU attached wasn’t as dramatic of a margin as the test with the 13” demonstrated. Even with this powerhouse MacBook Pro, the Blackmagic eGPU still adds value as a general appliance, as well as providing Resolve acceleration.

A note on battery life. The spec claims about 10 hours, but that’s largely for simple use, like watching web movies or listening to iTunes. Most of these activities do not cause the graphics to switch over from the integrated Intel to the Radeon Pro GPU, which consumes more power. In my editing tests with the Radeon GPU constantly on – and most of the energy saving settings disabled – I got five to six hours of battery life. That’s even when an application like FCPX was open, but minimized, without any real activity being done on the laptop.

I also ran a “heavy load” test, which involved continually looping my sample 1080 timeline (with 4K source media) full screen at “best quality” in FCPX. This is obviously a worst case scenario, but the charge only lasted about two hours. In short, the battery capacity is very good for a laptop, but one can only expect so much. If you plan on a heavy workload for an extended period of time, stay plugged in.

The 2018 MacBook Pro is a solid update that creative professionals will certainly enjoy, both in the field and even as a desktop replacement. If you bought last year’s model, there’s little reason to refresh your computer, yet. But three years or more? Get out the credit card!

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Performance by the numbers

Blackmagic Design eGPU test

DaVinci Resolve renders/exports
(using the same test sequence as used for my eGPU review)

13” 2018 MacBook Pro – internal Intel graphics only
Render at source resolution – 1fps
Render at timeline resolution – 4fps

13” 2018 MacBook Pro – with Blackmagic eGPU
Render at source resolution – 5.5fps
Render at timeline resolution – 17.5fps

15” 2018 MacBook Pro – internal Radeon graphics only
Render at source resolution – 2.5fps
Render at timeline resolution – 8fps

15” 2018 MacBook Pro – with Blackmagic eGPU
Render at source resolution – 5.5fps
Render at timeline resolution – 16fps

Standard performance tests – 2018 15” MacBook Pro vs. Mid-2014
(using editing test sequence – 4K ProResHQ media)

2018 export from FCPX to ProRes  :30
2018 export from FCPX to H.264 at 10Mbps  :57
2014 export from FCPX to ProRes  :57
2014 export from FCPX to H.264 at 10Mbps  1:42

2018 export from Premiere Pro to ProRes  2:59
2018 export from Premiere Pro to H.264 at 10Mbps  2:32
2014 export from Premiere Pro to ProRes  3:35
2014 export from Premiere Pro to H.264 at 10Mbps  3:25

2018 export from Resolve to ProRes :35
2018 export from Resolve to H.264 at 10Mbps  :35
(Mid-2014 MBP was not used in this test)

Originally written for RedSharkNews

©2018 Oliver Peters

Blackmagic Design eGPU

Power users have grown to rely on graphics processing units from AMD, Intel and Nvidia to accelerate a wide range of computational functions – from visual effect filters to gaming and 360VR, and even to bitcoin mining. Apple finally supports external GPUs, which can easily be added as plug-and-play devices without any hack. Blackmagic Design just released its own eGPU product for the Mac, which is sold exclusively through Apple ($699 USD). It requires macOS 10.13.6 or later, and a Thunderbolt 3 connection. (Thunderbolt 2, even with adapters, will not work.)

The Blackmagic eGPU features a sleek, aluminum enclosure that makes a fine piece of desk art. It’s of similar size and weight to a 2013 Mac Pro and is optimized for both cooling and low noise. The unit is built around the AMD Radeon Pro 580 GPU with 8GB of video memory. It delivers 5.5 teraflops of processing power and is the same GPU used in Apple’s top-end, 27” Retina 5K iMac.

Leveraging Thunderbolt 3

Thunderbolt 3 technology supports 40Gb/s of bandwidth, as well as power. The Blackmagic eGPU includes a beefy power supply that can also power and/or charge a connected MacBook Pro. There are two Thunderbolt 3 ports, four USB3.1 ports, and HDMI. Therefore, you can connect a Mac, two displays, plus various USB peripherals. It’s easy to think of it as an accelerator, but it is also an appliance that can be useful in other ways to extend the connectivity and performance of MacBook Pros. Competing products with the same Radeon 580 GPU may be a bit less expensive, but they don’t offer this level of connectivity.

Apple and Blackmagic both promote eGPUs as an add-on for laptops, but any Thunderbolt 3 Mac qualifies. I tested the Blackmagic eGPU with both a high-end iMac Pro and the base model 13” 2018 MacBook Pro with touch bar. This model of iMac Pro is configured with the more advanced Vega Pro 64 GPU (16GB VRAM). My main interest in including the iMac Pro was simply to see whether there would be enough performance boost to justify adding an eGPU to a Mac that is already Apple’s most powerful. Installation of the eGPU was simply a matter of plugging it in. A top menu icon appears on the Mac screen to let you know it’s there and so you can disconnect the unit while the Mac is powered up.

Pushing the boundaries through testing

My focus is editing and color correction and not gaming or VR. Therefore, I ran tests with and without the eGPU, using Final Cut Pro X, Premiere Pro, and DaVinci Resolve (Resolve Studio 15 beta). Anamorphic ARRI Alexa ProRes 4444 camera files (2880×2160, native / 5760×2160 pixels, unsqueezed) were cut into 2K DCI (Resolve) and/or 4K DCI (FCPX, Premiere Pro) sequences. This meant that every clip got a Log-C LUT and color correction, as well as aspect ratio correction and scaling. In order to really stress the system, I added several GPU-accelerated effect filters, like glow, film grain, and so on. Finally, timed exports went back to ProRes 4444 – using the internal SSD for media and render files to avoid storage bottlenecks.

Not many applications take advantage of this newfound power, yet. Neither FCPX nor Premiere utilize the eGPU correctly or even at all. Premiere exports were actually slower using the eGPU. In my tests, only DaVinci Resolve gained measurable acceleration from the eGPU, which also held true for a competing eGPU that I compared.

If editing, grading or possibly location DIT work is your main interest, then consider the Blackmagic eGPU a good accessory for DaVinci Resolve running on a MacBook Pro. As a general rule, lesser-powered machines benefit more from eGPU acceleration than powerful ones, like the iMac Pro, with its already-powerful, built-in Vega Pro 64 GPU.

Performance by the numbers (iMac Pro only)

To provide some context, here are the results I got with the iMac Pro:

Resolve on iMac Pro (internal V64 chip) – NO eGPU – Auto GPU config

Playback of timeline at real-time 23.976 without frames dropping

Render at source resolution – average 11fps (slower than real-time)

Render at timeline resolution – average 33fps (faster than real-time)

Resolve on iMac Pro – with BMD eGPU (580 chip) – OpenCL

Playback of timeline at real-time 23.976 without frames dropping

Render at source resolution – average 11fps (slower than real-time)

Render at timeline resolution – average 37fps (faster than real-time)

Metal

Apple’s ability to work with eGPUs is enabled by Metal. This is their framework for addressing hardware components, like graphics and central processors. The industry has relied on other frameworks, including OpenGL, OpenCL and CUDA. The first two are open standards written for a wide range of hardware platforms, while CUDA is specific to Nvidia GPUs. Apple is deprecating all of these in favor of Metal (now Metal 2). With each coming OS update, these will become more and more “legacy” until presumably, at some point in the future, macOS may only support Metal.

Apple’s intention is to gain performance improvements by optimizing the code at a lower level “closer to the metal”. It is possible to do this when you only address a limited number of hardware options, which may explain why Apple has focused on using only AMD and Intel GPUs. The downside is that developers must write code that is proprietary to Apple computers. Metal is in part what gives Final Cut Pro X it’s smooth media handling and real-time performance. Both Premiere Pro and Resolve give you the option to select Metal, when installed on Macs.

In the tests that I ran, I presume FCPX only used Metal, since there is no option to select anything else. I did, however, test both Premiere Pro/Adobe Media Encoder and Resolve with both Metal and again with OpenCL specifically selected. I didn’t see much difference in render times with either setting in Premiere/AME. Resolve showed definite differences, with OpenCL the clear winner. For now, Resolve is still optimized for OpenCL over Metal.

Power for the on-the-go editor and colorist

The MacBook Pro is where the Blackmagic eGPU makes the most sense. It gives you better performance with faster exports, and adds badly-needed connectivity. My test Resolve sequence is a lot more stressful than I would normally create. It’s the sort of sequence I would never work with in the real world on a lower-end machine, like this 13” model. But, of course, I’m purposefully pushing it through a demanding task.

When I ran the test on the laptop without the eGPU connected, it would barely play at all. Exports at source resolution rendered at around 1fps. Once I added the Blackmagic eGPU, this sequence played in real-time, although the viewer would start to drop frames towards the end of each shot. Exports at the source resolution averaged 5.5fps. At timeline resolution (2K DCI) it rendered at up to 17fps, as opposed to 4fps without it. That’s over 4X improvement.

Everyone’s set of formats and use of color correction and filters are different. Nevertheless, once you add the Blackmagic eGPU to this MacBook Pro model, functionality in Resolve goes from insanely slow to definitely useable. If you intend to do reliable color correction using Resolve, then a Thunderbolt 3 UltraStudio HD Mini or 4K Extreme 3 is also required for proper video monitoring. Resolve doesn’t send video signals over HDMI, like Premiere Pro and Final Cut Pro X can.

It will be interesting to see if Blackmagic also offers a second eGPU model with the higher-end chip in the future. That would likely double the price of the unit. In the testing I’ve done with other eGPUs that used a version of the Vega 64 GPU, I’m not convinced that such a product would consistently deliver 2X more performance to justify the cost. This Blackmagic eGPU adds a healthy does of power and connectivity for current MacBook Pro users and that will only get better in the future.

I think it’s clear that Apple is looking towards eGPUs are a way to enhance the performance of its MacBook Pro line, without compromising design, battery life, and cooling. Cable up to an external device and you’ve gained back horsepower that wouldn’t be there in the standard machine. After all, you mainly need this power when you are in a fixed, rather than mobile, location. The Blackmagic eGPU is portable enough, so that as long as you have electrical power, you are good to go.

In his review of the 2018 MacBook Pro, Ars Technica writer Samuel Axon stated, “Apple is trying to push its own envelope with the CPU options it has included in the 2018 MacBook Pro, but it’s business as usual in terms of GPU performance. I believe that’s because Apple wants to wean pro users with serious graphics needs onto external GPUs. Those users need more power than a laptop can ever reasonably provide – especially one with a commitment to portability.”

I think that neatly sums it up, so it’s nice to see Blackmagic Design fill in the gaps.

UPDATE: The September 2018 release of Mojave has changed the behavior of Final Cut Pro X when an eGPU is connected. It is now possible to set a preference for whether the internal or external GPU is to be used with Final Cut Pro X.

Originally written for RedShark News.

©2018 Oliver Peters