The 2016 Macbook Pro Part 2: The Specs

In case you missed it, you can check out Part 1 here.

Disclaimer: These are thoughts about a line of products I have not yet used. While they are still opinions, please keep in mind that this is NOT a review.

Apple is not known to fixate on the underlying specs that power their Mac lineup of computers. On the one hand, the fact that Apple doesn't need to market their Macs based on specs is a testament to their marketability over commodity PCs. If specs were all that mattered, Macs should have been extinct a long time ago. Instead, Macs continue to sell in profitable numbers, riding on a marketing story that focuses on the experience of using a computer rather than CPU core counts and RAM size. Apple was successfully able to leverage their design chops and hardware-software synergies to come up with a line of desktops and laptops that were greater than the sum of their parts. Other PCs, by comparison, were the sum of their parts.

On the other hand, it is still super handy to care about the specs of the Mac. After all, the Mac's languishing specs until now is why we nerds knew that a refresh was coming in the first place, and that it was better to wait. Even the Mac's software strengths must stand on a strong hardware foundation, and as macOS continues to evolve and become more sophisticated, so must the underlying hardware that powers it all.

In this second part, I will tackle more PC-like concerns such as the CPU and GPU to see if they are a worthy upgrade over previous iterations. Let's start by tackling a misconception.

Why Not Kaby Lake?

This has been one of the primary complaints lobbed at the new Macbook Pro, and I will do my best to explain why these complaints are completely unfounded.

For those who aren't yet familiar, Kaby Lake is the codename for Intel's lineup of processors for 2016. The complaint is that Apple used Intel's 2015 lineup of processors, codenamed Skylake, instead. The accusation, therefore, is that Apple is behind the PC curve because they are using last-gen processors to power their newest Macs.

What's actually going on is that the Kaby Lake lineup is incomplete, while Skylake provides the most up-to-date processors that Apple actually uses in its Macbook Pros.

Keep in mind that Intel's mobile processors need to target specific TDPs (Thermal Design Power) in order to be suitable for specific form factors or hit specific performance targets. High TDP processors can achieve high performance, but require plenty of cooling to do so, while low TDP processors are more performance-constrained, but run cool enough to be used in thinner and lighter devices. Intel's mobile lineup can be divided into four tiers, each representing a different form factor and performance target:

  • Tier 1: TDP of 5 W; Dual core; For fanless systems
  • Tier 2: TDP of 15 W; Dual core; For ultraportables
  • Tier 3: TDP of 28 W; Dual core; For mainstream portables
  • Tier 4: TDP of 45 W; Quad core; For high performance systems

As you can probably guess, you can find a Macbook for every tier on the list. Tier 1 powers the 12-inch Macbook line, Tier 2 powers the Macbook Air and the newly released Macbook Escape, Tier 3 powers the 13-inch Macbook Pro, and Tier 4 powers the 15-inch Macbook Pro.

So what does this have to do with Skylake and Kaby Lake? At the time that the new Macbook Pros were designed, announced and shipped, the Kaby Lake lineup only included Tier 1 and 2 CPUs. That means the Touch Bar equipped 13-inch and 15-inch Macbook Pros are forced to use Skylake chips, but the Macbook Escape can't use Kaby Lake's Tier 2 chips either because of a notable omission: Intel Iris.

Even though Apple doesn't like including a discrete GPU in their sub-15-inch notebook lineup, they still had the decency to pack as powerful an integrated GPU as they can. When it comes to Intel's GPUs, the Iris lineup is the cream of the crop (more on Intel Iris in the next section). As you can probably guess, Iris GPUs have not yet arrived in Kaby Lake's Tier 2 lineup. By sticking with Skylake, Apple sacrificed CPU clock speed (the main improvement in Kaby Lake) in order to provide a huge GPU boost to the Macbook Escape. Now that the Macbook Air's successor has a Retina display, every bit of GPU improvement counts.

If there's any Mac that can be upgraded to the Kaby Lake right now, it would be the 12-inch Macbook. I suspect Apple will update that notebook to Kaby Lake once they manage to fit the new Butterfly Switch 2.0 keyboard into that tiny chassis. As for the Macbook Pros, Kaby Lake's mobile lineup is practically complete as of CES 2017. My hope is that Apple will update the Pros pretty soon, but the Mac's slowing update frequency in recent years isn't a good sign this will be the case.

What Skylake Brings to the Macbook Pros

Usually the reason to wait for a notebook lineup to be updated with a new generation of processors is for performance reasons. The pace of CPU innovation in portables was so dramatic that it was deemed foolish to purchase a notebook (PC or Mac) with year-old specs when a new spec sheet was around the corner.

For CPUs those days seem to be over. In regular use mobile CPUs have been good enough for several years now, and when it comes to benchmarks and high performance applications Skylake has a noticeable but unremarkable performance advantage over previous generation CPUs used in older Macbook Pros. But there are non-CPU improvements in Skylake that make the wait very much worth it.

There is of course native support for Thunderbolt 3, a blazingly fast data transfer standard that we'll talk about in a future post.

Although not explicitly tied to Skylake's feature set, many notebooks in the Skylake generation (including the new Macbook Pros) also support the NVMe standard, which allow for the fastest SSD transfer speeds possible in the market.

Perhaps the most important update to Skylake, in my opinion, are the changes to the Iris GPU lineup. The updates to Intel Iris don't affect the 15-inch lineup since they use AMD GPUs anyway, but Skylake is a crucial update to the 13-inch line for the graphics alone.

Beginning with the Skylake update, all Intel processors that come with Iris GPUs also come with 64 MB of very high-bandwidth RAM called embedded DRAM (eDRAM). Technically both the CPU and GPU have access to this piece of memory, but everyone including Intel knows that the main beneficiary of eDRAM is the Iris GPU. In practice this little cache effectively becomes the Iris GPU's video memory, and the inclusion of any video memory makes a huge difference in performance.

eDRAM used to only be found in quad-core Tier 4 CPUs that came with the higher-end Iris Pro GPU, but Skylake fixes this by bringing the benefits of eDRAM to Tier 2 and Tier 3 chips used in the 13-inch Macbook Pros, reducing memory bottlenecks and dramatically boosting their graphics performance. Pro applications that use the GPU should be much faster in the new 13-inch Pros, and certain categories of PC games should be more viable to play as well, but this doesn't make the 13-inch Pro a gaming machine by any modern definition.

AMD Polaris on the 15-inch Pro

The previous two generations of the 15-inch Macbook Pro saw the lowest end model feature the aforementioned Iris Pro GPU as its one and only graphics processor, while more expensive configurations would also throw in a dedicated GPU from either Nvidia or AMD. The newest 15-inch refresh breaks this trend by removing this previously existing price tier (around $1999), and including an AMD GPU in every 15-inch model you can buy. Curiously there are three possible AMD GPUs you could end up with depending on how much you pay for your notebook. These are the AMD Radeon Pro 450, 455 or 460, in ascending order of performance and all based on AMD's latest Polaris architecture.

The Polaris architecture itself is a welcome change for the Macbook Pro, bringing support for more contemporary display standards, power efficient encoding and decoding of the latest H.265 video codec, and the ability to drive up to two 5K displays at 60 Hz, on top of increased performance over previous generations for the same amount of power consumption.

Some professional users and gamers are upset that these Radeon GPUs are nowhere as powerful as, say, the mobile Nvidia GTX 1060 found in the 2016 Razer Blade. The truth is that with the current state of mobile dedicated GPUs, this really is the best Apple could do, and just like with the CPUs it's all about our old friend TDP. On AMD's side, nothing is more powerful than the Radeon Pro 460, and if there was such a GPU it would easily exceed the 460's TDP of 35W[1], and would likely draw more power than Apple's charger can provide and generate more heat than the notebook can vent. Nvidia is the opposite, where the lowest end mobile GPU they have based on their latest Pascal architecture, the GTX 1060, has a minimum TDP of 75W. To contain that GPU would mean making a notebook that consumed a lot more power than its predecessor, a precedent Apple staunchly refuses to set. Nvidia could come up with a GPU with a TDP of 35W to 45W, but that's still in the future, and it remains to be seen if that GPU would be faster than the Radeon Pro 460 that ships today.

These aren't bad GPUs by any means, but certain design decisions made by Apple a long time ago mean the 15-inch line don't have the best graphics performance per gram compared to the competition. For doing Adobe CC work inside a Mac environment, I think these GPUs will work perfectly fine. As a gaming machine, it's a rather weak value proposition.

Next time I talk about other aspects of the Macbook Pro that have somehow managed to stir even more controversy, such as the futuristic Thunderbolt 3 ports, and of course, the widely publicized Touch Bar. Stay tuned!

You can check out Part 1, where I talk about the Macbook Pro's new design

  1. As far as I can tell there is no officially labelled TDP for any of the Radeons found on the 15-inch Macbook Pros. The closest I can find is a PR post from AMD saying the power draw is 35W. This isn't the same as TDP, but given how processors work we can assume that the TDP would be a value close to 35W. ↩︎

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