Testing the Most Expensive MacBook Pro Apple Makes

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When Apple announced the new, more powerful GPU configuration for the 16-inch MacBook Pro, we reached out to ask about performance. How did it compare to the previous top-of-the line model that we tested in December? Apple’s response: test it out for yourself.

A few days and a little bit of loan paperwork later, we were the proud (and very temporary) owners of the most expensive MacBook Pro Apple makes: a beast of a machine with a 9th-Gen 2.4GHz 8-core Intel Core i9 processor, 64GB of RAM, a whopping 8TB of storage, and the new-and-improved AMD Radeon Pro 5600M with 8GB of specialized HBM2 high bandwidth memory.

Price tag? An eye watering $6,700 if you opt for the fully-loaded 8TB version. But even with a more reasonable 1TB of SSD storage, you’re still looking at $4,500—that’s $600 more than the previous top-of-the-line model with the Radeon 5500M and 8GB of VRAM.

Which begs the question… is that $600 upgrade worth it? And what does $6,700 worth of Apple laptop get you? We took Apple’s advice to heart, and tested it out for yourselves.

Design, Build Quality, etc.

I won’t belabor this point since, aesthetically speaking, the 16-inch MacBook Pro in my lap right now is no different from the 16-inch MacBook Pro we reviewed in December. Key points are all the same:

  • The fit and finish of the computer is fantastic, as we’ve come to expect from the aluminum unibody MacBooks over the years.
  • The updated keyboard is great, with twice the travel of the notorious butterfly keys and far less likely to be brought to its clickity clackity knees by a errant crumb.
  • The new 16-inch display is great, with the same great color accuracy, 500 nit brightness, and smaller bezels that look far more modern than even the newest 13-inch MBP.
  • The speakers are the best you’ll find in laptop, period. Seriously, you have to hear them to believe it.
  • The 100Wh battery is the largest ever in a MacBook, and helps to deliver all-day battery life despite the bigger screen.
  • The Touch Bar is still lame but it’s gotten less and less buggy, and at least they brought back the physical ESC key.
  • There is still no SD card slot or any other I/O other than four Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headphone jack.

All in all, nobody is going to pick up this laptop and be disappointed by the build quality, the display quality, or any part of the design. But we already knew that. What we want to find out is just how much more powerful this 2020 model with the Radeon 5600M really is…

Performance

We ran the new 2020 model through the same battery of photography-specific tests that we run every laptop we’ve reviewed so far: Puget Systems’ PugetBench Photoshop benchmark, a Lightroom import test, a Lightroom export test, and just for good measure we ran a Blackmagic Disk Speed test to see how fast the built-in storage really is.

Let’s take them one at a time.

Disk Speed Test

We didn’t run this test on our previous 16-inch MacBook Pro, but the results from this one were promising. As you can see from the screenshot below, the SSDs inside the 16-inch MacBook Pro are very fast—more than fast enough for all your creative needs:

For comparison’s sake, here’s the same disk speed test run on my one-generation-old, base-model 13-inch MacBook Pro:

And again on Microsoft’s brand new Surface Book 3 that we reviewed last month:

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro (review here) showed the same results as the new 16-inch MacBook Pro, so it looks like Apple has upgraded their SSDs in the latest iteration of both product lines. Rest assured, they’re top of the line.

Lightroom Import

For anything that’s primarily CPU based—like Lightroom Import and Export—you can expect very little (if any) difference between the 16-inch MBP we tested in December and this more powerful model. Both use the same exact CPU, and as expected, both perform equally well. As a reminder, our import test involves importing 110 61MP Sony A7R IV files and 150 100MP PhaseOne XF files, while creating standard previews.

In the charts below, we’ve also included our results from the top-of-the-line 13-inch MacBook Pro for comparison. That smaller computer has no integrated GPU and uses a 10th-gen 2.3GHz quad-core Core i7 CPU, but you can see why we called it “surprisingly powerful” in our review:

Lightroom Export

Same disclaimer applies as above: we didn’t expect the new GPU to help with this test, and we were proven right. As a reminder, our export test involves exporting those same Sony and PhaseOne files after applying heavy global edits—we export as 100% JPEGs (sRGB), 16-bit TIFFs (AdobeRGB), and DNGs with Medium JPEG previews.

Photoshop Benchmark

This is where things get interesting. As of our most recent PugetBench benchmarks, the 16-inch MacBook Pro we reviewed in December was still the highest-scoring laptop we’d tested. That includes the 2020 Razer Blade 15 Studio Edition, which we’re in the process of reviewing right now (stay tuned…).

It was the highest scoring. The Radeon 5600M helped the newer computer blow the previous model out of the park. More importantly, it did so in ways that will matter to some photographers and retouchers.

Here’s the top score from the “old” 16-inch MacBook Pro with 32GB of RAM and a Radeon 5500M with 8GB of GDDR6 memory:

And heres the top score from the “most expensive” model with 64GB of RAM and the Radeon 5600M with 8GB of specialized HMB2 memory:

Not only were the GPU, Filter, and Photomerge scores—and therefore, the Overall score—all higher, look closely at the times for GPU accelerated Filters. Everything that’s GPU dependent/GPU accelerated saw a significant improvement: Smart Sharpen, Field Blur, Tilt-Shift Blur, and Iris Blur in particular saw a noticeable speed bumps.

As a bonus, the maximum 64GB of RAM in the new computer seems to have improved the Photomerge tests as well, which both saw between a 5% and 15% speed bump. We know that’s not GPU accelerated (see here) and that’s backed up by the fact that there’s no difference between the score we got with the new 13-inch MacBook Pro (no GPU, 32GB of RAM) and the previous 16-inch MacBook Pro we tested (older GPU, 32GB of RAM).

The charts below show the average Overall and Category scores, based on 5 consecutive runs of the benchmark. The new computer didn’t manage to break the 900 barrier, but we have a new champ:

Conclusion

Back in December when we compared the 16-inch MacBook Pro against the 2019 Razer Blade 15 Studio Edition, we pointed out that a more powerful GPU didn’t necessarily mean better performance for photographers. That’s doubly relevant when the GPU we were talking about was an NVIDIA Quadro model, which is really designed for CAD work and 3D modeling tasks, not photo editing.

The chance to test out a maxed-out MacBook Pro put this theory of ours to the test, and it was mostly confirmed: where photo editing is concerned, a more powerful GPU really only impacts very specific stills tasks that companies like Adobe have bothered to properly optimize/accelerate.

The question you have to ask yourself is: what kind of work are you doing?

If you’re making use of Photoshop’s GPU accelerated filters a lot, the extra $600 you have to spend on the AMD Radeon 5600M model might be worthwhile—it actually does make a real-world difference, and would probably make an even bigger difference for GPU accelerated video editing in Adobe Premiere. For the rest of us, we can spend that cash maxing out the RAM and CPU instead. That, combined with 1TB of storage and the lower-end Radeon 5500M GPU comes out to $3,800.

Say what you will, but that’s a lot more palatable than $6,700.

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