The Magic Keyboard and fast performance steal the show on the 2020 13-inch MacBook Pros

Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Fri May 15, 2020

The 2020 MacBook Pro is best told as a tale of two devices.

You see, Apple's 2020 refresh on the 13-inch MacBook Pro isn't a redesign. It's still housed in its now-classic aluminum unibody design. There are USB Type-C ports. The headphone jack is still on board. It has Intel power processors and a solid state drive. And it keeps a 13-inch Retina display.

So what's new? Every 13-inch MacBook Pro now sports a Magic Keyboard, the processors are quicker and storage is doubled across all preconfigured models (which is a huge value).

Let's dive into what we found while testing out the 2020 MacBook Pros, and, like most tales, we'll begin with what you first see.

It's classic and slim

With the lid closed on the 13-inch MacBook Pro, you wouldn't know if it's the 2020 or the 2019 model. The 2020 MacBook Pro is slightly thicker to accommodate the Magic Keyboard, but by all accounts, this looks like a MacBook Pro.

The differences between the $1,299 and $1,799 models become apparent, though, when you look at the sides.

The base $1,299 model features two USB Type-C ports on the left side and an audio jack on the right. The $1,799 has four USB Type-C ports, split between two on the left and two on the right, plus a headphone jack on the right side. That's the only way to tell the difference.

Opening the lid presents you with the Retina display that still has bezels around every side. Above the display is a 720p webcam. It works well enough, but we're eagerly waiting for Apple to update this. Allow us to quickly make a plea to Apple: Please — pretty please — put a True Depth setup with Face ID here next time.

And then there's the Magic Keyboard in all its glory. Fun fact: Did you know the Magic Keyboard on the 13-inch is the same size as the one on the 16-inch? That's good news because it won't feel cramped. You have speaker grilles with drilled holes on the left and right side of the keyboards. The expansive trackpad is at the bottom.

The hinge for the display feels quite sturdy and you don't need to strain your hand or wrist when moving it to whatever degree works best for you. And coming down from the 16-inch MacBook Pro as our daily drive, it's remarkable how light the 13-inch MacBook Pro is in your hand. It weighs just north of 3 pounds, and even with the Magic Keyboard, it's less than an inch thick. And if you're upgrading from a previous model, this still fits snuggly in the Apple-made 13-inch MacBook Pro sleeves.

The Retina display still shines

Apple didn't change much here. You get a Retina display with True Tone, which allows it to intelligently adjust the color temperature of the display to your environment. It reads the room with the ambient light sensor.

The overall picture will be vivid with any use case and it leads to an immersive feel. It can present millions of colors and it supports the P3 Wide Color gamut. This notion is important for some pro workflows and creative tasks, and you can appropriately and effectively handle color grading. The MacBook Air doesn't support this and the MacBook Pro display also gets brighter than the Air at up to 500 nits.

Visuals are great on both models. You'll see a vibrant end result that takes good care of both brighter tones and darker tones to generate contrast. As we do with most devices, we tested Elsa's ocean during "Frozen II" streamed via Disney+. It's a good test, as there's Elsa with her bright white skin and a sparkly outfit against a dark sea background. It's a mixture of black, navy and dark blue waves — tinged with white sea foam — crashing during a storm. The MacBook Pro was up for the challenge and delivered an immersive experience. Compared to the MacBook Air, we found that the blacks and darker blues offered a deeper color level — likely a result of the P3 support and a larger range of brightness to move within. Additionally, with Elsa and her dress there was a wider range of whites and silvers being depicted. With a live action film like "Austin Powers: Goldmember," the vibrancy of the outfits was depicted quite well. They didn't appear overly vibrant or saturated as happens with some displays. The Retina display, overall, presents a more realistic visual experience.

Both of these are still 'Pro,' but 10th Gen makes a big difference

Anyway you slice it, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is still a Pro device.

In comparison with the MacBook Air, it's a faster chipset out of the box ---- even if the base 13-inch is sticking with an 8th Gen Core i5. And the $1,799 with 10th Gen Core i5s offers serious power. The interior thermal architecture works to keep the internals cool and ensures a safe operating experience. It also allows you to push these without buckling or hearing the fan kicking into overdrive during run-of-the-mill tasks. Or, at worst, causing a computer shutdown (which we didn't experience).

As with any Underscored review, we ran a series of benchmarks that put the devices through a series of tests aimed to mimic real-world cases. It gives us a quantitative analysis to match with our qualitative testing. Let's break it down.

The $1,299 13-inch MacBook Pro features an 8th Gen Intel Core i5 Processor, 8GBs of RAM, 256GBs of storage and Intel Iris Plus Graphics 645. On GeekBench 5, it received 863 on single-core and 3,113 on multi-core.

The $1,799 13-inch MacBook Pro features a 10th Gen Intel Core i5 Processor, 16GBs of RAM, 512GBs of storage and Intel Iris Plus Graphics. With those same tests on GeekBench 5, it received a 1,121 on single-core and a 4,172 on multi-core. That's a sizable difference on both single-core and multi-core tests and is in line with what we expected.

The 2020 MacBook Air, comparatively speaking, scored a 912 on single-core and 1743 on multi-core. That's less on both multi-core tests, but slightly higher than the single-core of the base MacBook Pro. The fan kicked in for more tasks on the MacBook Air, though. It's still best for most users, but those looking for more of a runway might want to jump to the MacBook Pro. Extra cores, thermal cooling and a faster processor will make the difference.

Aside from that quantitative take, we also used both as our daily driver. That means emailing in Outlook and Mac Mail, photo editing in Photoshop and Lightroom, video editing in iMovie, typing in Notes, hundreds of tabs open in Google Chrome and Safari, working with PDFs in Preview, constant Slacking, music playing from Spotify and Apple Music, and several FaceTime calls. We also plugged into an external monitor.

We noticed the $1,299 slowed down with this workload and the fan would kick on sooner. This generally occurs with all of those apps open and us working on images in Photoshop. The fan kicked in to help with the load and eventually turned off. It still gave us more of a runway than the 2020 MacBook Air and didn't feel that much slower in comparison to a 16-inch MacBook Pro or the $1,799.

The higher-end 2020 Macbook Pro showed off a bit more when it came to overall performance. It felt as if we had more of a runway for the tasks on hand, and while the fan kicked in, it wouldn't run as long. It didn't seem to buckle unless the task was a lot more rigorous. Photoshop, iMovie and Final Cut Pro X exports were all faster and the fan only kicked in with larger files. In iMovie or FCP, that meant 4K, and in Photoshop, it was several photos being exported at once.

The 10th Gen makes a noticeable impact with responsiveness as well. With mutliple apps open in the background, including Google Chrome (which is known for being a resources hog), it was still fast to run other processes. That's not to say that the 8th Gen model couldn't handle these, but it did get bogged down a bit more.

MacOS Catalina and battery life

We've hinted at it, but why does the MacBook Pro have all this processing power? Well, it's to power macOS Catalina and all the apps you need to get work done. Whether it's for work or play, the processor powers the backbone of the interface.

We set up both models as new devices and with Migration Assistant. That is a built-in program that allows for data transfer via a cable connecting two machines or by creating a peer-to-peer network to transfer selected information.

You also get access to Apple's services right out of the box. It's a long list, but to mention the big hitters: Photos, Mail, App Store, News, TV and Music.

If you have an iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch, there's a lot of integrations that happen. You can unlock your Mac with your watch and seamlessly transition an app or URL between iOS and macOs with handoff. You can even copy something on the iPhone and paste it on the Mac (or vice versa).

Storage is doubled on all these models, which simply means more value. The $1,299 previously shipped with a 128GB SSD, but now you get a 256GB SSD. Same goes for the $1,799, which had a 256GB SSD, but now has a 512GB SSD.

And you'll get pretty much a full day's worth of power, as we got close to eight hours of use out of them with our workload. We also ran them through the same battery test that all of our devices go through. We turned off connectivity (like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth), set the brightness to 50% and ran a 4K video on a loop in VLC. The $1,299 model lasted 10 hours, 20 minutes, while the $1,799 model lasted for 10 hours, 12 minutes.

The Magic Keyboard is seriously impressive

Did we save the best feature for last? Sort of.

The Magic Keyboard performs incredibly well on the 13-inch MacBook Pro. We've had it a week and feel as great about it now as we did 48 hours into testing. The typing experience is identical to what we found on the 2020 MacBook Air and the 16-inch MacBook Pro. It's an almost addictive typing experience, and while it's the same as the keyboard on the 16-inch, we found ourselves reaching for the 13-inch.

The Magic Keyboard's keys pop out more from the frame and deliver 1-millimeter of travel. Even with hard presses, you don't feel these bottom out and the rubber dome underneath the plastic key caps give you a certain sense of inertia to bounce back. This also uses a scissor switch mechanism that reduces debris falling under the keys and gives you a satisfactory click-clack when typing. You get a physical escape key in the top left corner, the Touch Bar goes across the top center and there's a Touch ID sensor in the top right corner.

You also get a bit more room between the keys and rows than on the previous Butterfly Keyboard that Apple previously used on laptops.

Bottom line

It really is a tale of two devices: one with an 8th Gen Core i5 and one with a 10th Gen Core i5. The Magic Keyboard pushes the 13-inch MacBook Pro forward, so even if it's a nearly identical design and the $1,299 has the same processor as last year, these still feel like Pro devices.

Which one is right for you? That likely comes down to use cases.

If you want a fully pro machine in a more portable format (aka not a 16-inch MacBook Pro), we recommend going for the $1,799 model. But if you want a laptop that's portable and combines entertainment, productivity and higher performance tasks, the $1,299 base model will work just fine.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.