Tested: Thermal conditions in the 2018 i9 MacBook Pro dramatically hampering performance

Posted:
in Current Mac Hardware edited July 27
AppleInsider has both an i7 and i9 2018 MacBook Pro on hand, and it's time to do our own testing on the thermal throttling situation that positively afflicts the i9 model -- at least at launch.




How this began

Intel's 2.9GHz six-core Core i9 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 4.8GHz is offered as a premium $300 option on Apple's 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, but according to Lee, the chip is unable to reach its full potential due to the laptop's design.

2018 MacBook Pro


In a video posted to his YouTube channel on Tuesday, Dave Lee shows the top-of-the-line MacBook Pro running Adobe Premiere Pro at surprisingly low clock speeds. Tests conducted put the average clock speed of the processors under load at around 2.2GHz, well below the advertised 2.9GHz.

"This i9 in this MacBook can't even maintain the base clock speed," Lee said. "Forget about Turbos and all that stuff, it can't even maintain the 2.9GHz base clock, which is absurd. This CPU is an unlocked, over-clockable chip, but all of that CPU potential is wasted inside this chassis, or more the thermal solution that's inside here."

The internet's reaction to Lee's findings was about as expected.

What is thermal design point?

The Thermal Design Point (TDP) is defined by Intel as the "average power the processor dissipates when operating at base frequency with all cores active under a high-complexity workload." In short, it advises of how hot a processor can get when running at un-boosted capacity, and how much in the way of cooling systems a device manufacturer has to put in place to mitigate the generated heat. More on "unboosted" in a bit.

the 2018 MacBook Pro


Processors are created to run at a variety of different TDP levels, depending on their intended market. Processors meant for desktop computers can afford to have a higher TDP, while notebooks, mobile devices, and tablets tend to use processors with lower TDP values, due to the difficulty of cooling the chip down.

According to Intel Ark, the processor manufacturer's specifications website for all of its chips, the 2.9GHz Core i9-8950HK has a TDP of 45 Watts, the same TDP as the Core i7-8850H and Core i7-8750H. The TDP itself is low, so it shouldn't require an excessive amount of cooling, and with identical TDPs across the board, this means that Apple could add the same cooling system across the board, regardless of selected processor.

Notably, the 45-Watt TDP of the three processors used in the 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro line is the same as for the 3.1GHz Core i7-7920HQ, the processor used in the 2017 MacBook Pro.

While a processor is cool, it will exceed its normal operating clockspeed up to its boost speed. This generates more heat, of course.

As that heat builds, the processor will slow down to help dissipate the heat in conjunction with the cooling system. It can even go lower than the normal operating clockspeed if need be to prevent damage.

This is why Lee was seeing clockspeeds lower than the normal operating speed -- the processor decided it was too hot, and slowed down well past the normal speed to keep heat generation down to what it could dissipate through the cooling system.

The benchmarks

Lee's test was on Adobe Premiere -- a real world test, albeit one using software that performs better with an Nvidia GPU rather than an AMD one.

MacBook Pro 2018 Geekbench


According to Geekbench, the 2018 MacBook Pro have astounding benchmarks. The "baseline" 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro with i7-8750H processor has a 21042 in multi-core performance, ranging to a 22439 for the six-core i9-8850HK in the high-end MacBook Pro.

The benchmarks have come under fire from critics, with them saying that there are "breaks" to smooth out the performance. However, that does not appear to be the case.

While there are pauses in the test, they are done at the end of each test, not in the middle. So, individual tests are performed under full load, with no cool-down period during the test to keep processor speeds low.

In theory, the chips kept cool should be capable of delivering the performance illustrated by the crowdsourced Geekbench testing.

Our own testing

We shifted to a different benchmark for our own series of tests. Using Cinebench 15, we ran 10 total runs on the i9 MacBook Pro.

Immediately after starting the first test, the CPU clock speed shot up to 4.17 GHz. It rapidly drops to 3.86GHz until it hits the chip critical temperature of 100C. It then drops nearly immediately to 2.57GHz and also nearly immediately drops to 84C.\

MacBook 2018 ours


The speed of the processor varied between 2.33GHz and 2.9GHz generally, with one profound dip to 2.02GHz, and then the range drops to a peak of 2.65Ghz.

The first time we ran the test, it hit 921. The second time it scored an 877, with an average across the 10 tests of 906.

We ran the same tests on the base i7 equipped MacBook Pro and got relatively similar results -- which should not have been the case given the difference between the i7 and i9. Out of the gate, the i7 jumps to 3.8GHz, just below the advertised boosted clock rate of 4.1GHz for that chipset

After several back-to-back tests, keeping the processors warm and the fans running, we were able to regularly get impressive scores of up to 916. Using Intel Power Gadget, we clocked the processor speed averaging around 2.3Ghz and 2.6GHz, almost exactly what we were getting with the i9.

For our full reviews of both the i7 and i9 2018 MacBook Pros, we're going to hook them up to an external Graphics Processing Unit to see how much the thermal condition varies, when some of the heavy lifting is moved out of the MacBook Pro's chassis.

The same processors in other manufacturer's computers perform the tests faster, and with less throttling -- but all machines with the i9 chip do it to one level or another.

The core of the issue

Apple's 2016 MacBook Pro chassis was designed more than two years ago. We got the first glimpse of it in a photograph in May of 2016.

At the time, Intel was promising smaller and smaller dies, with lower and lower TDP to go with it. The company didn't make its own die-shrink projections. Even the processor in the MacBook Pro currently is well over 18 months late, according to Intel's ever-shifting timetables.

Odds are, Apple was counting on this when it developed the enclosure.

Apple is hardly the only vendor dealing with i9 thermal conditions, and like we said, Premiere performs far better with Nvidia GPU silicon than AMD Radeon gear which explains most of the Dell ripping through the test. However, while related, this isn't really the meat of the matter given that Lee put the MacBook Pro in the freezer and got better completion speeds out of it.

Video producer Lee suggested that the entire MacBook Pro cooling solution, an Apple-designed heatsink and fan module, is insufficient for the beefy (and hot) i9 Intel silicon as it stands.

We don't know how well Lee's machine was running from a cooling efficiency standpoint, but given the history of the channel, we aren't expecting anything out of the ordinary. Our machines' cooling systems are running fine, and as expected.

So, Lee is probably not wrong in his conclusions, given our own testing on the matter.

Apple, and users, have choices

This isn't a super-crisis, as long as this isn't another thermal paste situation, like back in the relative olden days. All manufacturers have to deal with it, and what varies is when the throttling kicks in as a result of the heat dissipation system engineering.

And, it is rectifiable after-the-fact to some extent.




The most obvious solution right now is for Apple alter the peak speed of the processor by adjusting the power that the chip gets. Ironically, slowing the peak speed of the processor may allow it to finish tasks quicker, as it will slow down less to keep the CPU cool.

As PC overclockers are aware, this is a setting that can be altered. But, not in hardware by users as we are far, far down the road from jumpers that set clock speeds on Macs. We are presently looking at a few software options, and we'll get back to you with our findings.

In an oddity of testing the fourth Cinebench run on the i9 MacBook Pro came in higher than the first, at 945. We expect that this is because the fans were already running at a good clip when we restarted the test.

So, Apple can also change the fan speed thresholds to accommodate a CPU load better, by setting them to kick in sooner, and faster than it does at present. This probably won't completely eliminate the thermal situation, but it will lengthen the time it will take to get there at the cost of a louder device when under heavy load. Users can do this with Macs Fan Control, or similar utility.

We didn't expect a fix from Apple any time soon. But, at least the first steps were taken with a patch on July 24. Time will tell how much of a difference that patch makes, and how well it holds up over time.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 158
    wood1208wood1208 Posts: 1,479member
    All 2018 15" Macbook Pro has processors with TDP of 45W but vversion with i7( i7-8850H,i7-8750H) Configurable TDP-down 35 W. The i9-8950HK spec for 45W TDP but no mention of TDP down to 35W...
    Avieshek
  • Reply 2 of 158
    Hey Mike ~ Who’s Lee? You don’t identify at the top of the article.
  • Reply 3 of 158
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,108administrator
    Hey Mike ~ Who’s Lee? You don’t identify at the top of the article.
    Sorry about that, Dave Lee - didn't survive the first edit. Fixed now.

    edited July 18 Alex1Nrepressthis
  • Reply 4 of 158
    emoelleremoeller Posts: 367member
    We now have more than one data point, and this is very disappointing news.    My new MBP has the i9 and I will need to decide if I need to return and wait until next year when Intel will hopefully have their laptop chips out (and Apple utilizes the new DRAM spec).  For me $5k+ is a lot of money, but more importantly I needed that extra computational capability for field 3d renderings of block models.
    soundsinamotionarthurbatyler82repressthismuthuk_vanalingamwilliamlondongeorgie01
  • Reply 5 of 158
    DuhSesameDuhSesame Posts: 281member
    There's one problem with TDP: what Intel states does not represent the actual power consumption.  Back when Haswell was a thing, the chip constantly hit almost 70W when running stress testing software such as Prime95.


    TDP simply means "the load condition under Intel's standard", therefore it really means nothing if you want to push it to the limit.  Just another reason for me to wait until Apple release their own processors.


    I also want to mention that every chips have different thermal output, due to how processors are manufacturers (some are better than other).  So you might end up a MacBook Pro with i9 that can do more than 2.2 (Maybe 2.9).
    There's also a way to optimize your power consumption by undervolting and re-apply a better thermal paste.  All will probably gives you extra frequency, but don't expect maximum turbo frequency with 8th-gen i9
    edited July 18 arthurbaAvieshek
  • Reply 6 of 158
    ...does mojave make any difference...?
    arthurbacaladanianAvieshek
  • Reply 7 of 158
    Well after all these poor results I just cancelled my order for the top 2018 model. I’ll stick with my 2016 model until all these problems are figured out. 
    arthurbatyler82Alex1NKITArepressthis1983muthuk_vanalingamAvieshekelfig2012williamlondon
  • Reply 8 of 158
    emoeller said:
    We now have more than one data point, and this is very disappointing news.    My new MBP has the i9 and I will need to decide if I need to return and wait until next year when Intel will hopefully have their laptop chips out (and Apple utilizes the new DRAM spec).  For me $5k+ is a lot of money, but more importantly I needed that extra computational capability for field 3d renderings of block models.
    I cancelled my order...
    tyler82KITAAvieshekelfig2012williamlondonpkisseldm3
  • Reply 9 of 158
    Dutch magazine showed that The TDP is not 45W but 120W under load. Now all make sence. So no thermal but TDP problem instead.
    arthurbachasmmuthuk_vanalingamAvieshekelfig2012
  • Reply 10 of 158
    DuhSesameDuhSesame Posts: 281member
    tommy65 said:
    Dutch magazine showed that The TDP is not 45W but 120W under load. Now all make sence. So no thermal but TDP problem instead.
    120W for an core i9?  I remembered the worst chip from Intel in the previous generation only hit 90W almost, but not more than 100W.

    Not even a Type-C can give enough power to drive that thing.
    edited July 18 arthurbaAvieshek
  • Reply 11 of 158
    ahobbitahobbit Posts: 15member
    The real question is, how could this have gotten past Apple QC?
    if simple tests as the ones done by Lee, AI and others reveal a potential throttling issue where the i9 is unable to maintain the advertised base frequency, even ending up slower in some cases than last year's i7 model, how could Apple not have known about this?

    Does it mean, Apple cares more about specs on paper than real world performance for pro users?

    Didn't Apple bring in-house many pro users to have them help design the next Mac Pro?
    Why were these people not involved in the MacBook Pro i9 testing?  Wouldn't that seem obvious?
    A wasted opportunity?  
    A waste of in-house resources?

    Apple more and more seems poorly managed...
    For all the money and resources they have, they should produce better results - if it is true that they still care about pro users, as they claim.

    Either they don't actually care as much as they claim - or cannot do any better than that.
    Both are very troubling if you are a pro user.
    repressthis1983muthuk_vanalingammike54Avieshekelfig2012williamlondondm3
  • Reply 12 of 158
    blastdoorblastdoor Posts: 1,858member
    I have a 2017 15” MBP. I like it. I wouldn’t want them to change the form factor.

    There are two fundamental problems here from my point of view:

    1. Apple should not offer the i9 as an option if it has no real advantage. A big part of the advantage of Apple is that they don’t dump design decisions on the user. 

    2. Apple needs to offer better pro desktop options. The iMac pro is ok but we need a real pro desktop. If there were a real pro desktop option then people would be more willing to accept the compromises inherent in an elegantly designed laptop 


    backstab1983muthuk_vanalingammike54Avieshekelfig2012williamlondondm3
  • Reply 13 of 158
    This is not a new or unexpected problem. 

    The top top end processor for MBP or similar thin form factor notebooks is seldom the optimum performance solution in real terms due to thermal throttling and power consumption.

    Typically, these processors only provide short-term burst-mode performance advantages before they overheat and throttle

    Usually the best overall performance will be obtained with the middle processor choice combined with maximum memory.

    You can test the above to validate.
    1983
  • Reply 14 of 158
    DuhSesameDuhSesame Posts: 281member
    ahobbit said:
    The real question is, how could this have gotten past Apple QC?
    if simple tests as the ones done by Lee, AI and others reveal a potential throttling issue where the i9 is unable to maintain the advertised base frequency, even ending up slower in some cases than last year's i7 model, how could Apple not have known about this?

    Does it mean, Apple cares more about specs on paper than real world performance for pro users?

    Didn't Apple bring in-house many pro users to have them help design the next Mac Pro?
    Why were these people not involved in the MacBook Pro i9 testing?  Wouldn't that seem obvious?
    A wasted opportunity?  
    A waste of in-house resources?

    Apple more and more seems poorly managed...
    For all the money and resources they have, they should produce better results - if it is true that they still care about pro users, as they claim.

    Either they don't actually care as much as they claim - or cannot do any better than that.
    Both are very troubling if you are a pro user.
    Again, short-time bursts.  i9 will make things like opening applications or other small actions faster, but not long-term computing.

    The only thing that can provide maximum turbo boost for an i9 can only be those huge gaming laptops.
    edited July 18 cgWerkselfig2012
  • Reply 15 of 158
    Mike WuertheleMike Wuerthele Posts: 3,108administrator
    ...does mojave make any difference...?
    Not at present.

    The amelioration methods we covered, minus manual fan control, will need an OS update of some sort.
    Alex1Ncaladanian1983muthuk_vanalingam
  • Reply 16 of 158
    Sorin AstroSorin Astro Posts: 2unconfirmed, member
    Apple has been form over function for some time. It's unfortunate, their quest for sleek and thin, rather than functional. Not only performance, but keyboard ergonomics (and reliability) are at issue with the 2016 and newer models. The same has of course been true of the current Mac Pro - too much form over function, and customers started to turn up their noses. Apple needs to reel in their designers and allow the engineers to build better, more functional machines. The quest for thin and small needs to stop, and reverse course a bit.
    Avieshekwilliamlondonsingularity
  • Reply 17 of 158
    Alex1NAlex1N Posts: 36member
    "Thermalgate", anyone? Sorry, couldn't resist.

    On a serious note, none of this sounds good. Thanks for the quick test set.

    Mike: any chance that the thermal paste choice is having an impact on this?

    Cheers,
    Alex.
    Avieshek
  • Reply 18 of 158
    canukstormcanukstorm Posts: 1,489member
    DuhSesame said:
    There's one problem with TDP: what Intel states does not represent the actual power consumption.  Back when Haswell was a thing, the chip constantly hit almost 70W when running stress testing software such as Prime95.


    TDP simply means "the load condition under Intel's standard", therefore it really means nothing if you want to push it to the limit.  Just another reason for me to wait until Apple release their own processors.


    I also want to mention that every chips have different thermal output, due to how processors are manufacturers (some are better than other).  So you might end up a MacBook Pro with i9 that can do more than 2.2 (Maybe 2.9).
    There's also a way to optimize your power consumption by undervolting and re-apply a better thermal paste.  All will probably gives you extra frequency, but don't expect maximum turbo frequency with 8th-gen i9
    "Just another reason for me to wait until Apple release their own processors."

    That's a big IF
    Avieshek
  • Reply 19 of 158
    DuhSesameDuhSesame Posts: 281member
    DuhSesame said:
    There's one problem with TDP: what Intel states does not represent the actual power consumption.  Back when Haswell was a thing, the chip constantly hit almost 70W when running stress testing software such as Prime95.


    TDP simply means "the load condition under Intel's standard", therefore it really means nothing if you want to push it to the limit.  Just another reason for me to wait until Apple release their own processors.


    I also want to mention that every chips have different thermal output, due to how processors are manufacturers (some are better than other).  So you might end up a MacBook Pro with i9 that can do more than 2.2 (Maybe 2.9).
    There's also a way to optimize your power consumption by undervolting and re-apply a better thermal paste.  All will probably gives you extra frequency, but don't expect maximum turbo frequency with 8th-gen i9
    "Just another reason for me to wait until Apple release their own processors."

    That's a big IF
    But it's a better hope.  I don't expect Intel have the ability to keep the thermal under control anymore.  Even AMD did it better in this regard, if Apple wants to shift to them.
    edited July 18 Avieshekdm3
  • Reply 20 of 158
    anomeanome Posts: 1,033member
    Hey Mike ~ Who’s Lee? You don’t identify at the top of the article.
    Sorry about that, Dave Lee - didn't survive the first edit. Fixed now.

    My condolences to his family.

    What I want to know is, can I use the waste heat to make tea? It would save me having to keep going to the kitchen.

    Cheap gags aside, am I to understand we're not seeing similar issues with the quad-core 13"? Or the hex-core i7? Or is it just that everyone bought the i9 because they wanted MOAR POWER!!!, and so we don't have anyone testing the lower tiers?

    cgWerksrepressthisAvieshekpkissel
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