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MacBook Pro’s bleeding-edge graphics: Like a gaming PC from 2012

Published Oct 28th, 2016 2:16PM EDT
MacBook Pro Specs

The new 15-inch MacBook Pro ships with a new graphics card, AMD’s new Radeon Pro 400 range. Apple spent quite some time on stage yesterday explaining how the new MacBook is fast and powerful, but the newly-released specs from AMD’s website paint quite a different picture.

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There’s three new cards, the Pro 450, Pro 455, and Pro 460. They’re all available in different configurations of the 15-inch MacBook Pro, all use AMD’s new Polaris architecture, and all run on 35W or less.

AMD says that the new cards “are designed specifically for today’s makers – the artists, designers, photographers, filmmakers, visualizers and engineers that shape the modern content creation era.” That’s a nice way of saying that they’re not very powerful.

Since the cards are brand-new, we don’t have a sense for how they’ll perform in the real world quite yet. But just by comparing some basic specs, we know that performance should be similar to or a little worse than the GTX 965m graphics card, as found in the new Surface Book and other portable laptops.

Looking at the benchmarks of that card, it should mean acceptable performance running something like Photoshop, easy playback of 4K video, or gaming at good settings, but only at a 1080p resolution.

That’s a problem, because the 15-inch MacBook Pro’s display is a much higher resolution than 1080[. Higher resolution needs a more powerful graphics card to push all those extra pixels, so to do any gaming on the new Pro, you’ll need to lower the settings or the resolution. That’s no fun.

Things get worse when you compare the $2,000+ laptop to other 15-inch Windows laptops, most of which tend to be designed for performance. A quick search throws up numerous 15-inch laptops around the $1,500 mark, which have much more powerful graphics cards, and more RAM and storage to boot. For a little extra weight, you can even get laptops with desktop-level GTX 1070 or 1080 cards, which are hilariously better than the Radeon Pro 400s in the MacBook Pros.

Comparing the Pro 400s to desktop graphics cards makes you realize that for a serious workstation running demanding programs on multiple monitors, even the best 15-inch Pro will be underpowered. The specs for that card aren’t far off the old Radeon HD 7770, a desktop graphics card I bought for about $200 in 2012. I replaced that two years ago with a GTX 970 when the old card started struggling to run games in 1080p.

Now, for sure, the rest of the MacBook Pro’s specs — particularly the absurdly fast solid-state drive — mean that it’s going to be better than my old PC. But if you’re buying a 15-inch Pro to be the centerpiece of your high-power, sometimes-portable workstation, you might want to think again.