The MacBook Pro Kerfuffle

Just last week it seemed life was promising. There were new MacBook Pros with beefy specs, and life was good.

Then, this week, spurred in part by a Youtuber and more detailed reviews of the shipping machines, reality reared its ugly head.

The latest Apple snafu, as it turns out, is that several SKUs of the MacBook Pro throttle heavily under intensive workloads. In some cases this means they drop down below their advertised base core clocks, to say nothing of their turbo boost speeds, and as a result are in fact slower than the last-generation Intel CPUs in the 2017 models.

There’s blame to go around here. The problem starts with Intel, who is currently facing some troubles and renewed competition from AMD. With their original CPU roadmap now terribly late, Intel tried to compensate and bumped the core counts for the 28-watt and 45-watt chips the 13 and 15″ MacBook Pro models use. The result is a far more power-hungry chip that upsets the general computing trend of better performance-per-watt with each generation. Intel released a bad product.

Of course, Apple still had a role to play in this. At this point they’ve become famous for extremely tight tolerances on their products, so much so that they admitted they designed the Mac Pro into a “thermal corner” where they could not easily refresh the machine and ended up making the 2013 redesign of the product an evolutionary dead end. With the 2016 MacBook Pro refresh Apple once again made the notebooks thinner, and while its size and thermal dissipation solution was adequate for Intel’s previous offerings, placing the new chips in the same cooling solution has resulted in some bad results. It’s a bit naive to expect Apple to drastically redesign their product every year when it turns out Intel has released a dud, but at the same time they put themselves in a tougher situation than it needed to be. And at the end of the day, people aren’t going to blame Intel for this—they’re going to blame Apple.1

It’s not all doom and gloom. Early indications are that the new ‘quieter’ third-generation butterfly keyboards on the 2018 models actually do feature much more robust protection from paralyzing dust, and the keys themselves are easier to service without requiring a full top replacement. And the new MacBooks aren’t necessarily forever crippled; Apple could update their firmware to have more aggressive fan curves, for instance, which would help mitigate some of the throttling by anticipating the extra heat. But it’s still not a great look to have your most expensive SKUs on a product targeted to professional users turn out to have a big asterisk by their specs. People have been complaining about Apple prioritizing thinness and quiet performance over raw power and cooler temperatures for years now, and it seems like those complaints have caught up to them decisively.

The gentlemen at Accidental Tech Podcast are (uncharacteristically?) bullish about this news, arguing that Apple has already turned a corner and that a “Mac renaissance” is coming, albeit slowly to outsiders given the amount of time it takes to change course. Apple’s response to the MacBook Pro throttling issue, and whatever form the Mac Pro takes next year, will be the indicators to watch to see whether that prediction holds.

EDIT (07/24/2018): Apple released a supplemental update to address the slowdown, blaming a firmware issue. We’ll see if that quells the complaints.

  1. This is also more fuel on the fire that is whether or not Apple should ditch Intel and create their own Mac processors, as is rumored. It still remains to be seen whether Apple’s industry-leading A-series chips in their iOS devices could scale to adequate pro-level performance, but Apple controlling the stack and having a much better idea of where chips are headed seems like it would have presented a blunder of this magnitude.

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