13-inch MacBook Pro (2020) review: Apple's needful update

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This is Apple's new 13-inch MacBook Pro. The higher-end version. There are actually two new 13-inch MacBook Pros and, while that might sound confusing, it's really nothing new. We just tend to forget that Apple has had both lower and higher-end models on the market for… basically ever.

This year, those models include:

🚶‍♀️- A new, low-end two-port low-end that's pretty much the old 13-inch but with the new Magic Keyboard and double the storage for the same price, and;

🏃‍♂️- A new, high-end four-port that has that Magic Keyboard, double the storage for the same price, but also newer and optionally much bigger specs.

I'm Rene Ritchie and this… is the 13-inch MacBook Pro Review. 2020 style.

13-inch MacBook Pro (2020) Review: Design

13 Inch Macbook Pro 2020 Rene Podcast Hero

13 Inch Macbook Pro 2020 Rene Podcast Hero (Image credit: Rene Ritchie)

Very, very little has changed with the MacBook Pro design since the last big redesign in 2016. This is almost exactly the same chassis as before, just a tiny bit thicker, and it comes in exactly the same finishes: silver and space gray. Yeah, if you want gold, you gotta go with the MacBook Air.

Which, by the way, has the exact same width and depth as the pro now. It's just thinner at its thinner but also thicker at its thicket. Wedge-shaped more than boxy. And, the Pro is also about 0.3 lbs. heavier.

So, if you intend to travel a lot — you know, one day again, maybe — the Air will be a tad lighter for you. If you don't, the Pro will have a touch more room for performance.

I'm reviewing the higher end new 13-inch MacBook Pro which has 4 USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 speed, Thunderbolt 3 ports, which I vastly prefer of the two-port Pro and Air for a couple of reasons:

  1. First, when I do things like my new podcast, MacBreak Weekly, the Talk Show, VypDrive — basically anything multi-person and/or streaming, I need to plug-in power, an audio interface, a proper webcam, and ethernet. And that's a lot of plugs.
  2. Second, it's the only way to get ports on both sides of the MacBook Pro, which is far more convenient for the real world where real plugs can be on either side.

So, as much as Apple wants to keep one of the Pros lower-end, for me you just have to have the full complement of ports to really be a pro.

I've loved the look since it's ancestor, the Titanium MacBook first crawled out of the labs and onto the shelves.

That aside, I still love this design. I've loved the look since it's ancestor, the Titanium MacBook first crawled out of the labs and onto the shelves, and I've loved the feel since the first unibody aluminum model shipped.

The build quality is just so good, my god kids are using my old MacBook Pro from 2009 now, and it's still rock solid.

And that, to me, provides for a ton of value.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm eagerly anticipating the next new chassis design. It just has a very high bar to clear.

13-inch MacBook Pro (2020) Review: Audio & Video

The speakers on both sides are good if not 16-inch MacBook great — those basically sounds like Apple shoved a HomePod into chassis.

The 13-inch speakers still have higher dynamic range and, thanks to macOS Catalina, spatial audio and Dolby Atmos, so when I click on a new movie trailer, they still slap me awake and make me pay attention. Just the sound stage is in front of me, not all around me like the 16-inch is.

There's still a 3.5mm headphone jack if you or your workflow demands it. And, a 3-mic array. It's not what Apple calls "studio quality" like the iPad Pro or 16-inch MacBook Pro, but it's still is fine for work-from-home calls in a pinch.

I'll take a notch, I'll take a bump, I'll take whatever it takes to get iPad quality FaceTime cameras all up in the Mac.

Which is still more than anyone can say for the 720p webcam. Which is… ok in perfect lighting but not good and terrible if you're backlit or in low lighting.

I get that better cameras require depth and the MacBook lids have none to offer but, given how good iPhone, even iPad selfie cameras are, these cameras just aren't keeping up.

Again, I'll take a notch, I'll take a bump, I'll take whatever it takes to get iPad quality FaceTime cameras all up in the Mac.

Now, I had a weird glitch with the FaceTime system on my review unit, so I'll have to do my tests, but it's the same spec as the other current MacBooks, and you can see my comparison of the previous versions in the video.

13-inch MacBook Pro (2020) Review: Display

The panel in this new MacBook Pro is the same as the previous MacBook Pro. 13.3-inches diagonal and 500 nits. It's Retina, which means an average person shouldn't be able to make out individual pixels at an average viewing distance, and P3 wide gamut, which means reds look richer and greens deeper. And True Tone, which lets the color temperate of the display adjust to the world around it so whites look less yellow or blue and more properly paper white.

And yeah, the display is 13-inches, not 14-inches. So, Apple didn't continue its war on bezels here like they did on the new 16-inch MacBook Pro — keeping almost the same chassis size but pushing the screen out further towards the edges.

I wish they had. Screen to bezel ratio isn't just one area where Apple is lagging behind the competition, bigger screen sizes have tangible benefits to pro users, who stuff everything from extra lines of code to extra bits of palette into whatever space we can get.

It's also still not OLED, which I'm actually fine with. OLED is still a technology that looks great, with deep inky blacks and high sustained and peak brightness for full, real HDR… but requires significant mitigations and workarounds for stuff like off-axis color shift, burn-in, dimming, sub-pixel longevity, and more. And that all just seems to work better on small phone-sized displays and big TV-sized displays than it does on tablet and laptop-sized displays, especially when it comes to things like consistent brightness levels.

MiniLED and MicroLED should offer the best of both worlds… at least eventually.

My guess is that a redesign is still on the way, it's just either late thanks to everything that's happening in the world right now, or the next-generation externals are waiting on some next-generation internals to go with them.

Otherwise, the display still looks great and is both 20% brighter and offers a wider gamut than the Air, which is something to seriously consider if you do a lot of imaging work of any kind.

13-inch MacBook Pro (2020) Review: Performance

First, there's no WiFi6, which a lot of people, myself included, were hoping to get with this update, especially since the iPhone and iPad Pro already have it.

Since none of the recent Macs do, though, and Apple has a history of being a very early to new Wi-Fi standards, I'm guessing they're deliberately choosing to sit this one out on the Mac, stick with the very, very mature 802.11ac, and then pick up with whatever better, brighter version of the WiFi standard comes next, whether that's WiFi 6e or 802.11ay or… who even knows at this point.

Second, There's still an Apple T2 ARM-based co-processor riding shotgun on the new MacBooks Pro. Similar to the A-series found in previous generation iPhones, it handles everything from Touch ID and Apple Pay authentication, to securing the camera and microphone, to real-time encryption, to acceleration blocks for things like H.265 encode and decode, to custom controllers for the various other components. It adds some expense to the MacBook lineup, but it also differentiates it in terms of technology and capabilities from everything else on the market. If you care about this kind of architectural stuff, which I do.

That it's the same T2 we've had for a few years now does rankle my inner nerd, though I expect we'll only see a T3, based on more recent, Bionic designs with neural engine cores, when Apple is ready to move the Mac to Face ID. Which I legit, cannot wait for.

Third, for a long time, Apple has kept around previous generation or lower-specced versions of the Mac to hit lower price points.

The truth is, the latest and greatest specs come with latest and greatest price tags and while Apple will eat some of that on the high-end, they do what they can to keep the entry-level models… entry level. For people who prefer the Pro design or simply want to flex the Pro branding.

Basically, they know their price points and they pack in what they can to meet those price points.

This year, that means keeping Intel's 8th generation processors and Iris 645 graphics on the lower end models.

I don't think anyone is really happy with Intel at this point. We're all having fever dreams of AMD, or even custom ARM-based chips like the iPad Pro

Because Intel is so far behind on their roadmap, there's realistically not as big a performance gap between the low-end 8th gen and the low-end 10th gen as anyone would hope there'd be. But, because Intel keeps raising prices, what there is is a pretty big price gap.

Especially for the top of the line chips with all the priority, customization, and integration Apple demands.

It's the difference of a couple or few hundred bucks, but a couple or few hundred bucks is also the difference between the low end and higher-end price tags.

The higher-end models like the one I'm reviewing come with Intel's latest 10th generation processors and new Iris Plus graphics.

Those offer far more execution units and the ability to do display stream compression, should you want to connect up to Apple's 6K Pro Display XDR. You know, as one does.

There's no discreet GPU option like there is on the 16-inch MacBook Pro, likely because of the size and thermal differences, but can add an external, eGPU over thunderbolt if you want or need to.

So, how well do they perform? Pretty much exactly as expected. Intel is silicon'ing different these days. They're basically throwing cores at their problems and guaranteeing only base and lower power frequencies, using Turbo and short bursts of higher power to create the perception of greater speed for app launches, web page loads, and other short, high-demand tasks. Then ramping down hard for sustained activity.

In terms of battery life, Apple promises 10 hours of very light workloads on these new MacBooks Pro, which is slightly less than the 11 hours they promise for the MacBook Air.

But, the Pros are using more powerful U-series processors while the Airs are using more efficient Y-series processors. So, Apple's to crabapples?

Apple's also fine running processors at thermal max, so once you ramp them up, not only will you need to either cool them or your lap, that battery life will burn down much, master faster.

To test one of the heavier potential workloads, I imported 5 minutes of 12-bit 4K Canon RAW Lite footage into Final Cut Pro X, applied a lookup table, or LUT, added a basic color grade, and then rendered it out on this machine as well as the i5 Air and i9 16-inch.

None of this is scientific of course, because there are way too many variables, but:

  • It took the 16-inch less than 10 minutes.
  • It took this 13-inch just over 16 minutes.
  • It took the Air almost 50 minutes.

Yeah, that's totally not a realistic workload for the Air, but you can see how they all play out.

So, as usual, the 13-inch Pro, especially on the higher end, is really about choosing as much portability as you can get while retaining as much performance as possible.

Still, I don't think anyone is really happy with Intel at this point. We're all having fever dreams of AMD, or even custom ARM-based chips like the iPad Pro's had… going on half a decade.

My guess is Apple won't ever pick and choose silicon suppliers on a year-by-year, generation-by-generation basis. AMD would have to outperform Intel, even on laptops, for several years, and crush them on roadmap, before Apple would give up the pricing, customization, and integration benefits of single vendor relationship.

And, if we're talking multiple years before there'd even be a transition, it feels more and more likely we'd already be in the midst of an Apple custom silicon transition by then anyway.

And, for as many early adopters who would absolutely love to leap on that, there'll be just as many, if not more, that will want to keep buying Intel — the devil silicon they know — until whatever's next proves itself for that same several year period first.

13-inch MacBook Pro (2020) Review: Storage and memory

The key to Apple's update strategy in the mid-range, for a long time now, has been giving you more bang for your buck. At the lower end, they'll price drop more aggressively. For example, to get the Air back under $1000. At the high-end, they'll occasionally add new technologies that can even bump up the price for a while.

In the mid-range, though, it's what you paid yesterday, only better. And that's absolutely true for the new 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Now, you start off with double the storage, a 256GB SSD at the entry-level, but can push it up to 2TB.

On the high end, you start with 512GB but can push it up to 4TB. It's not as much as the new 8GB option on the 16-inch, but it's much better than before.

Especially these days, where it's finally affordable enough, to have storage enough, to keep more than a few big Pro apps projects on your internal drive, so you can move around with a bunch of SSDs and card dongles dangling around you.

I think the sweet spot for most people is probably around 1TB, but if you do a lot of video work, it's great that you can go higher.

Especially since these are the typical, ultra-high performance SSDs that Apple's been using for a while now, the ones that are fast enough it can make swap almost feel like RAM. Almost.

The low-end memory options still start at 8GB and can go to 16GB, because that's still the limit on low-power memory for 8th gen Intel chips.

The high end starts at 16GB now and can go to 32GB because that's possible with the new, 10th gen Intel chips. Hell, the 16-inch can even go to 64GB now.

I think 16GB is good for most people unless you know you'll be doing something like running a bunch of virtual machines or simulators or other memory-intensive tasks.

Remember, this is the baby Pro. There's still the 16-inch if you want or need more.

13-inch MacBook Pro (2020) Review: Keyboard

13 Inch Macbook Pro 2020 Rene Keyboard Hero

13 Inch Macbook Pro 2020 Rene Keyboard Hero (Image credit: Rene Ritchie)

For a while now, ever since Apple introduced the new scissor-switch Magic Keyboard on the 16-inch MacBook Pro, people like me have been waiting, Judge Judy watch-tapping style, for it to spread meme-like across Apple's MacBook lineup.

And, with this 13-inch MacBook Pro, it finally has. The failure of butterfly is now complete, and the Magic Keyboard future is fully operational, to totally mix my Star Wars metaphors.

I know some people still prefer the older, clickety-clacketier scissor switches of ought 15 and earlier, and others still prefer the stability of the butterfly switches, but for me, these new Magic Keyboards really are the best of both keyboard worlds.

They have a bit more travel at the cost of a bit more thickness, which is fine, and maintain a lot of the stability and the expense of some of the clickety-clack.

It also has a proper escape key, which will delight developers and traditionalist everywhere, and a proper set of inverted-T arrow keys, which will delight touch typists or, basically, anyone who types.

Maybe it's time to go all-in on making the Touch Bar better and more ubiquitous, or just to get out and give people their function and media keys back.

It also still has the Touch Bar between the escape key and the Touch ID-enabled power button, making up most of the top row.

I know some people hate it and would rather have traditional function and media keys up there. I don't mind it in theory, like it even for the shortcuts it exposes and the ease of scrubbing between browser taps and through timelines it enables. But it's going on 4 years old and Apple hasn't expanded it to any other Macs, including the iMac Pro or new Mac Pro, and hasn't evolved the technology in any significant way, especially to my interests, hasn't added anything by way of haptics.

And I never want to be put in the position of wondering whether I'm investing in a feature more than the company who made it is.

So, maybe it's time to go all-in on making the Touch Bar better and more ubiquitous, or just to get out and give people their function and media keys back. Let me know which one you prefer in the comments.

Here's how the 13-inch version sounds alongside the more massive keyboard clack test I did a couple of weeks ago.

I know a lot of people, yeah, including me are complaining about the lack of an embiggened display and other, more substantial updates this time around, but most of us are also the same people who up until now were saying please, for the love of all things holy, just push that new keyboard across the line.

And this gives us exactly that, plus just a little bit more.

13-inch MacBook Pro (2020) Review: Pricing

The new, low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1299 U.S. on the low end. That's for the 2-port, 8th gen model, which can be build-to-order-optioned all the way up to $2,499 U.S.

For that, you get pretty much the previous MacBook Pro with double the storage and the magic keyboard.

And, that's for anyone who might otherwise go for a MacBook Air but either wants the pro design, the Pro brand, or does something like photography that'll benefit from the brighter, wider gamut pro display.

The new high end starts at $1,799 U.S. That's for the 4-port, 10th gen model, which can go all the way up to $3,599 U.S. with all the bells and whistles.

That's for anyone who either has an iMac, iMac Pro, or Mac Pro, maybe even a 16-inch MacBook Pro but needs a lighter, still as powerful-as-possible Mac to travel with — when travel becomes a thing again.

Or for people who just want as pro a Mac as possible but don't want anything even a couple of inches bigger or that's bound to a desktop.

13-inch MacBook Pro (2020) Review: Conclusion

This isn't the MacBook Pro update of anyone's rumor-filled dreams. It certainly isn't mine. But I truly believe Apple should be updating the lineup any and every time they can. Whenever new and better processors or graphics and storage options are available. That way, whenever someone is ready to buy, they'll know they're getting the absolute best Mac they can for their money, and one that will last them absolutely as long as it can.

So, yeah, I'm still missing things like a more expansive display, a better camera, 16-inch quality mics and speakers, and ARM inside. That's the update everyone really wanted. But getting Intel 10th gen, Iris Plus graphics, and most importantly, the new Magic Keyboard. That's the update everyone really needed. At least for now.

Personally, I'm all in on the 16-inch MacBook Pro because I'm also spending all day in Final Cut Pro, but if you need to better balance your performance with greater portability, and the Air just isn't it for you, finally, there's an updated 13-inch Pro I can recommend and you can buy without any of the previous caveats or hesitations.

And more importantly, it's one more sign Apple is really getting their Mac mojo back.

Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.