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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

13-inch MacBook Pro (2020) review: Two laptops, one keyboard

The most important feature of the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is the keyboard.

With the addition of the new Magic Keyboard design originally introduced in late 2019 with the 16” MacBook Pro to this model, all of Apple’s current laptop line is using a traditional scissor-switch keyboard with more travel and presumably more reliability than the “butterfly” keyboard design that took over all Apple laptops between 2016 and 2019.

The completion is the big story here. There’s nothing new in this laptop’s keyboard compared to that 16-inch MacBook Pro, or the 2020 revision of the MacBook Air. It’s the same keyboard, with 65 physical keys with scissor switches and decent travel. There’s a physical escape key and four arrow keys in the classic “inverted T” shape. It’s good. It’s the end, at long last, of a disastrous product decision.

Beyond the new keyboard, these are very modest revisions to the existing 13-inch MacBook Pro designs. The 13-inch model has not gotten the revamp that the 15-inch model did when it transformed into a 16-inch laptop last fall. Perhaps that will happen in the future, but this particular revision is all about adding that keyboard and doing some basic upgrades and tweaks.

And it will probably sell well to a lot of people who prefer smaller laptops and have desperately been waiting for a revision of the 13-inch MacBook Pro without that butterfly keyboard. Yes, this is the one you’ve been waiting for.

Apple’s 13-inch laptops seen edge on (top to bottom): iPad Pro with Magic Keyboard, MacBook Air, 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Two models in one

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.

Apple furnished me with a high-end model for my review, so I can’t speak to the performance of the low-end models, though I’d imagine they’re not particularly different than last year’s version. They’ll be faster than the 2020 MacBook Air, certainly, especially in multi-processor performance, owing to the four processor cores versus the two on the base configuration of the MacBook Air. (There’s also a quad-core version of the Air available… for the same $1299 price tag as the base 13-inch MacBook Pro.)

Clearly Apple feels that there is room in its product line between the MacBook Air and the high-end 13-inch MacBook Pro, and for the last four years this lower-end model has served that purpose. It feels wrong, though, like it’s the vestige of an old laptop strategy that hasn’t quite faded away.

In any event, if you’re shopping for a new Apple laptop and you’re wary of the $1799 starting price of the high-end 13-inch MacBook Pro, you should consider the MacBook Air as well as the low-end Pro. They’re more alike than you might imagine, the Air is lighter and cheaper, and if you have no use for the Touch Bar, all the better.

The lower-end 13-inch MacBook Pro and the MacBook Air—too close for comfort?

There’s not a lot of news on the low-end model beyond the keyboard upgrade. Apple has boosted the base storage to 256GB, and held the price the same. Well done.

New processors on the high end

The high-end model has more going on. As on the low end, Apple has doubled the base storage capacity—it’s now 512GB—without changing the price. But the big story is the processor.

The high-end models use 10th generation Intel processors. These chips run at lower clock speeds than the previous generation, but are faster and more efficient due to the shrink of the process size to 10 nanometers. Integrated graphics performance is boosted in this generation, RAM speeds are faster, and the memory capacity has been doubled—16GB is standard and you can now configure the four-port 13-inch MacBook Pro with up to 32GB of RAM.

In my tests the new high-end model was definitely faster than last year’s high-end model, across the board. Though Apple claims that graphics performance should receive an extra boost in this upgrade (when compared to last year’s model), the Geekbench 5 scores only showed improvement in line with the general CPU performance. This may be an artifact of Geekbench itself; as I don’t have the previous model to test in graphics-intensive apps like Final Cut Pro X or games, I can’t speak to that.

(There’s also the not-inconsequential fact that the high-end 13-inch MacBook Pro can now drive Apple’s fancy Pro Display XDR at full resolution. I didn’t test this, because I am not fancy enough to own one of those displays.)

This isn’t an enormous upgrade over last year’s model, but it’s a measurable one. (And, of course, the keyboard is the spec most likely to draw upgrades from owners of more recent models.) And if you’ve been holding on to a 2015 MacBook Pro waiting to upgrade, you’re in for a very nice boost.

Where do we go from here?

Apple’s 13-inch laptops.

Keyboard aside, this is a strange update, if only because it holds back some of the improvements that Apple introduced to the 16-inch MacBook Pro last year. It sure would be swell if this 13-inch model became a 14-inch model with smaller bezels and an upgraded audio system—but alas, that is not this update.

As someone who doesn’t have any Touch Bar laptops in my house, every time I review a MacBook Pro I am reminded of its wasted potential. Very little has changed in the Touch Bar software since it was introduced. There’s still no way for users to customize it beyond some very basic choices, and there’s no third party access to the Control Strip. Apps that embrace the Touch Bar can create a rich set of controls, but beyond that, things get rough. (I was appalled to see that one of my favorite apps, BBEdit, still has only perfunctory Touch Bar support.)

Apple can make the Touch Bar better by opening it up. Give third-party apps more control over not only their own space, but access to the Control Strip. Let users assign their own Quick Actions and scripts. A little would go a long way here—but it’s been more than three years and it’s as limited as the day it was released. (Yes, BetterTouchTool will let you customize the Touch Bar—but it’s a hack, and it shouldn’t need to be.)

Whenever Apple makes its next move with the 13-inch MacBook Pro, I hope it’ll also reconsider its confusing decision to sell two entirely different laptops under the same name. The original low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro was intended to be a replacement for the MacBook Air, but it never managed to do it, probably because it was overpriced. Apple finally learned its lesson and released the Retina MacBook Air—but this low-end MacBook Pro remains. It’s appreciably worse than the high-end model in many dimensions, and the gap is only increasing. Perhaps if an equivalent upgrade to the 16-inch MacBook Pro is on the horizon for this class of laptop, it would be time to retire the two-port MacBook Pro for good.

But let’s leave all that aside. The most important feature of these new laptops, by a country mile, is the keyboard. There are legions of MacBook Pro users who have been hanging on, desperate to upgrade but not wanting to buy a laptop with a butterfly keyboard. For some of them, the 16-inch MacBook Pro was just too much—in size, in price, or both.

All of those people who were hanging on can finally let go. There’s a 13-inch Mac laptop, with a good keyboard, waiting for you. Actually, there are now three of them. One’s the MacBook Air, and the other two are the new 13-inch MacBook Pro.

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