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2020 13-inch MacBook Pro review: The standard macOS workhorse


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2020 13-inch MacBook Pro review: The standard macOS workhorse

Bye bye butterfly — A new keyboard and faster performance make this slightly thicker laptop a winner. Samuel Axon – May 12, 2020 1:10 pm UTC The 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro. Samuel Axon This is the new Magic Keyboard, which changes the layout in a few subtle but important ways. Our review unit had four…

2020 13-inch MacBook Pro review: The standard macOS workhorse

Bye bye butterfly —

A new keyboard and faster performance make this slightly thicker laptop a winner.


  • The 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro.


    Samuel Axon

  • This is the new Magic Keyboard, which changes the layout in a few subtle but important ways.

  • Our review unit had four Thunderbolt ports, but the cheaper models have a woefully inadequate two.


    Samuel Axon

  • The lid looks the same as the previous model.


    Samuel Axon

  • It’s very slightly thicker than its predecessor, but it’s barely noticeable.


    Samuel Axon

  • The bottom of the 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro.


    Samuel Axon

Apple’s overhaul of its laptop lineup is complete: the new 13-inch MacBook Pro ditches the controversial butterfly keyboard in favor of the tried-and-true Magic Keyboard, and it brings spec bumps, to boot.

While the new 13-inch MacBook Pro is in most respects very similar to its 2019 predecessor, this update rounds out an overhaul of the MacBook lineup that Apple has had underway for several months.

The result is an effective workhorse machine that fills a gap in the lineup for the kinds of professional and hobbyist users who need strong CPU performance, but for whom graphics are secondary—people like developers and the like.

Table of Contents

Specifications

Specs at a glance: 2020 13-inch MacBook Pro
Screen 2560×1600 at 13.3 inches
OS macOS Catalina 10.15.3
CPU 2GHz 4-core Intel Core i5 (3.8GHz Turbo) with 6MB L3 cache
RAM 16GB 3733MHz LPDDR4
GPU Intel Iris Plus Graphics
HDD 512GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi; IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n; Bluetooth 5.0
Ports 4x Thunderbolt 3, 3.5mm headphone
Size 0.61 inch×11.97 inchx8.36-inch (1.56cm×30.41cm×21.24cm)
Weight 3.1lbs (1.4kg)
Warranty 1 year, or 3 years with AppleCare+
Price as reviewed $1,799
Other perks 720p FaceTime HD camera, stereo speakers

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2020) product image

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2020)

(Ars Technica may earn compensation for sales from links on this post through affiliate programs.)

There are a number of configuration options for the 13-inch MacBook Pro, of course, but the big divide is between the model with two Thunderbolt 3 ports and the one with four. The first two standard configurations—which start at $1,299 and $1,499—have the new Magic Keyboard, but they lack the 10th-generation Intel CPUs or the faster memory. Plus, two Thunderbolt 3 ports just isn’t optimal for most use cases.

Our review unit has four ports, and that’s the one we’d recommend buying to most people who are interested in this device. The benefit of the 13-inch MacBook Pro over the MacBook Air is a bit fuzzy at the former’s low-end specs. But going to those 10th-gen CPUs and four Thunderbolt ports makes a big difference. (The 4-port configurations start at $1,799.)

The cheapest two-port spec comes equipped with a 1.4GHz quad-core 8th generation Intel Core i5 CPU, Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645, 8GB of LPDDR3 memory at 2133MHz, and 256GB of solid-state storage. The four-port config starts with a 2GHz quad-core 10th-generation Core i5, newer Iris Plus graphics with 64 execution units 16GB of 3733MHz LPDDR4X memory, and 512GB of storage with read/write up to 3GB/s.

You can upgrade the CPU to a 2.3GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, the memory to 32GB, and the storage to 1, 2, or 4TB. (The last of those storage upgrades costs a bonkers $1,200 over the base 512GB option, so it certainly won’t be an option for everybody.)

Maybe this is just a person with a hammer seeing everything as a nail, but to me, this machine’s configuration options seem deliberately tailored for Web and mobile app developers. They’re more than adequate for most Web and mobile design work, too. However, as strong as Intel’s Iris Pro integrated graphics have gotten over the years, they still don’t hold a candle to discrete graphics. Potential buyers looking to do 3D modeling, game development, video editing, or even heavy-duty photo editing might want to look at the 16-inch model instead (or any number of desktops or Windows laptops, of course).

The current version of macOS supports external GPU solutions, and Apple sells one in its own store from Blackmagic Design that includes a Radeon Pro 580 GPU with 8GB of GDDR5 memory. That’s a step-up for this device, but that GPU is getting a little long in the tooth, and Apple seems to have stopped selling a more expensive, more powerful alternative from Blackmagic.

All that is to say that as long as graphics performance is not your main priority, the 13-inch MacBook Pro offers plenty of configuration options to you.

In terms of other specs, the MacBook Pro has a 720p front-facing camera (which seems a little weak for this price, to be honest), and it supports Bluetooth 5.0. Unfortunately, this laptop doesn’t support Wi-Fi 6—an unfortunate omission given that these laptops should be built to last, and Apple’s new mobile devices have it. Wi-Fi 6 isn’t widespread yet, but it surely will be well before this laptop’s life cycle is over.

This device has a 2,560×1,600-pixel, 13.3-inch display at 500 nits of brightness. It’s a very good display, and while there are higher-resolution screens out there, it’s more than good enough for this screen size.

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Apple claims this laptop can get up to 10 hours of battery life when browsing the Web wirelessly or watching video content on the Apple TV app.

Design

At first glance, you might not notice a difference between this MacBook Pro and its immediate predecessor. While Apple slimmed the bezels and increased the screen size from 15 inches to 16 in this laptop’s bigger cousin, the basic design is essentially unchanged here.

It’s very slightly, barely noticeably thicker to accommodate the new keyboard. And obviously, the keyboard and Touch Bar layout is different. But other than that, this is the same old 13-inch MacBook Pro. That’s not a bad thing, though it would have been nice to get just a little more screen real estate like we did in the bigger MacBook Pro.

The laptop comes in two color options: silver and space gray.

As mentioned above, there are configurations with two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and others with four. For most use cases this laptop is intended for, I don’t feel that two is enough—especially since one is going to be used for power.

Buying the two-port option essentially guarantees that most users will want to buy a USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 dock, and many of those are pricey enough that a lot of people might as well just buy the four-port version of this laptop.

Yes, the butterfly keyboard is gone

The most noticeable change is the new keyboard. I’ve already written quite a bit about this transition in the previously published 16-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air reviews, but the short version is that the butterfly keyboards included in the previous model were both divisive (some people hated the typing experiences, others liked it) and unreliable.

The latter was arguably the biggest issue; Apple had to launch a free repair program for virtually its entire laptop line to fix repeatedly failing butterfly keyboards. The company tried updating the design a couple times, which might have helped with reliability, but ultimately the answer was to hit the reset button and go to a tried-and-true scissor switch design modeled after the Magic Keyboard peripheral that Apple has long sold to go along with Macs.

So, this laptop’s keyboard is now called the “Magic Keyboard.”

Sometimes I wonder if Apple’s propensity for clearly absurd names like “Magic Keyboard” drives away more customers than it inspires; it might make people assume Apple is composed of charlatans selling snake oil. But in any case, it’s a very good laptop keyboard, even if it’s not “magic.”

It offers 1mm of key travel. Apple says a rubber dome under each keycap preserves more energy than before, and the scissor mechanism locks into the keycap at the top of travel. Apple claims the latter of those details reduces wobble and increases stability.

The layout is a little different from prior, butterfly-equipped units, too. The arrow keys now have an inverted T shape, there’s a physical escape key, and the Touch ID sensor (which doubles as the power button) is now distinct from the Touch Bar.

Touch Bar support from third-party apps is still mixed, and no one really needs a Touch Bar, but it can be nice to have. The only thing you’re sacrificing for it now is physical function keys. Most users won’t care, but a few will. Unfortunately for them, Apple no longer sells any MacBook Pros with physical function keys.

I didn’t hate the butterfly keyboards as much as some people did, but I think this scissor-switch design offers a great typing experience. Between that and Apple’s top-notch touchpad, I don’t think most people will have many complaints about input, here.

Even if you preferred the butterfly keyboard, I don’t think you’ll hate this one. The reliability improvements probably make it worth the change no matter how you felt about the old keyboard.

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