MacBook Pro 13 Battery Life: The Ugly Truth

I’ve had my MacBook Pro 13 for about two months now, and based on all the initial furor around battery life I wanted to wait until I had sufficient hands-on time with it to make my own determination. After two months of use, the truth is really simple: Apple put in a tiny battery because they felt people wanted a thinner/lighter MacBook more than people wanted long battery life. This is simply a laptop that was not designed for all-day battery life. There’s nothing more to this story than that.

People can talk about software optimizations, Chrome vs. Safari, etc. all day long – but the reality is that there’s no software tweak in the world that will make a tiny battery into a bigger one. The battery in the 2016 MacBook (49.2 Wh) holds about 38% less power than the 2015 MacBook (79.2 Wh) .

I’m a little upset that this machine I spent $2600 on has worse battery life than the last laptop I owned (which was 60% less expensive I should add). I am trying to come to terms with that reality; the only thing that helps is that the battery is so pathetically small it charges fast, and that the USB-C ports give me charging options I didn’t have before – I now carry a 10,000 mAH battery pack with me to top up the MacBook when needed. It’s worth pointing out though that I need to put the MacBook to sleep to get any real charging – most battery banks don’t put out enough power to charge the device while in use.

The Completely Unrealistic Passive Battery Test

To understand more about how passive battery consumption worked on this MacBook, I performed a simple test: leaving the MacBook on, at about 75% brightness, with Chrome running (one tab, no animations or refreshing) and Outlook open and polling for new email from my Exchange server. From a starting point of 95% battery level, the MacBook drained at 10% per hour – at the end of three hours it was down to 75%. Power settings were configured to leave the screen on and not dimming. In this scenario, the CPU was doing very little. Draining at 10% per hour doing effectively nothing isn’t what I was hoping to see because it’s effectively an unrealistic scenario.

I started up my 2014 Dell XPS 13 (52 Wh battery) running Windows 10 and in a similar scenario (Chrome open, same Web site, Outlook, 75% brightness) – albeit only for one hour – I saw the battery drain from 95% to 87%. Doing tests like this isn’t my day job any more, so I’m hesitant to claim anything definitive from this example – but I’m confident that the Dell would have outlasted the MacBook by a noticeable margin.

But Wait, There’s Some Good News

In an example that shows surprisingly strong battery life, I was using my MacBook to view Ripple Training videos for Final Cut Pro. I viewed the lessons in Chrome, at full screen, with brightness up around 75% and volume around 60%. I did 1 hour 7 minutes of lessons, and the battery went from 100% to 89%. You’d look at that and think “Wow, that’s basically 11 hours of playback”, and you’d be right. Isn’t it odd that there’s very little difference between the results of this test and the passive test above?

Measuring The Power Output

I was curious about how much power the MacBook used under various loads, so first I did a test where I exported a large set of raw files to JPEGs using Lightroom. The result? About 29 watts of power. This is measured using iStat Menu 5.

Above: 28.65 watts of power used when exporting a group of JPEGs from Lightroom with the display around 60%.

What about when you push the MacBook as hard as you can? With screen brightness set to maximum, and Handbrake transcoding a 15 GB 1080p MKV file to the Super HQ 1080p 30fps MP4, 32.92 watts of power are being consumed. When the MacBook is burning 33 watts constantly, that little battery doesn’t last long at all – I haven’t tested this, but I’d guess no more than 90 minutes.

Real-World Battery Life Tested

One of the things I’ve been using the MacBook for lately is working in Lightroom while sitting in a McDonalds play area – my kids run around and play, my wife and I chat and relax, and I work through my photos. Yeah, this is something suburban parents sometimes do, especially on cold, rainy days. ?

The brightness is at about 80%, and I’m doing a combination of culling in library view, full editing in develop view, exporting both the folder as a library and all the images exported at 85% JPEGs and videos as original videos (no transcoding). WiFi was on, but not connected to anything. I did this three Sundays in a row, and the results were quite disappointing every time.

I started each session with 100% battery charge, and each time was about two hours of use. The results never put a smile on my face: I was left with under 35% battery in every instance. I timed my most recent visit: I powered up at 12:30pm with 100% battery, and when I was finished nearly two hours later at 2:27pm, the MacBook was at 28% battery power. That means this MacBook would barely last three hours using Lightroom at 80% screen brightness. I find that simply terrible. Perhaps there’s some optimization Adobe can do with Lightroom to make it less power-hungry on the MacBook, but I’m not holding my breath. Given that mobile Lightroom usage is one of the biggest reasons I bought this MacBook, I’m extremely unimpressed with three hours of battery life.

In The End…

Despite these frustrations around battery life, I remain impressed with the other aspects of the MacBook. Performance is solid, the screen is fantastic, the trackpad is superb, the keyboard is just fine, and I genuinely enjoy macOS. A big plus is having all the apps I use on my iMac, especially Final Cut Pro, Luminar, and other key apps that are now a part of my photo and video workflow.

I will, however, always look at this MacBook and wish Apple had put a bigger battery inside it. This is a bigger, more powerful version of the 12″ MacBook – but it’s not the MacBook “Pro” a lot of people were hoping for.

  • (BTW, one tip worth pursuing: play with the display brightness. The display is quite bright, and at its highest levels really does eat up power disproportionately.)

  • One thing I noticed tonight: watching a movie in MP4 format at 45% brightness used only 2% battery after 38 minutes. That is shockingly good. So for some things, the MacBook Pro 13 sips power…

  • I read Gordon’s article a few weeks ago, and the thing that bugged me about it is that it was just as synthetic as most of the other journalist’s articles. Meaning that no one is really going to watch 10+ hours of video on their laptop in one day, so how useful of a test is that? I get that tests like this are one of the only ways to get repeatable results, but in the end the numbers shown don’t help much. Well, unless you like to game on your MacBook and the results show you it won’t last past 80 minutes. I suppose that would be useful to someone. ?

    I agree with you that Apple will keep this form factor and that future MacBook Pros will have better battery life – it burns all of us who bought this “first try” version though. Maybe by the next gen they’ll have worked out whatever battery challenge they had with this one – if the rumours about the new battery tech being swapped out with current battery tech were true.

  • Indeed – I am one of those people who only has the display as bright as it needs to be. If I can go lower, I will. But in a brightly lit McDonalds, not much you can do if you want to see the screen.

  • Well, testing is synthetic by definition. In terms of utility, I find it to be fair. For example, most of my use is in Safari, Chrome, OmniFocus, iTunes, and some text editing and Xcode. I tried using my new 15″ untethered yesterday and the battery was solid—I estimate I’d get 7-8 hours with this workflow.

    Note that all of the above doesn’t use too much CPU (unless I have a ton of tabs in Chrome)—even Xcode is pretty CPU efficient except when I’m compiling code. So, *some* Pro use cases are covered by the tradeoffs in this design, just not all of them.

    I’m not sure I buy the tiered battery tech rumors. If there was a bigger, just more tiered battery, in here, there would still be a weight trade-off, and it’s pretty clear that Apple emphasized weight in this generation.

  • Well, if I were to create a test for someone like me, I’d take a set of 300 photos, apply the same presets to all of them, export to JPEG, time it all and repeat. That is a more relevant test for the things I care about. Or even the battery hit exporting 4K video for instance. But I understand that tech journalists can’t test things outside their comfort zone.

    The battery rumours I read about weren’t tiered – it was this one:

    “Take the company’s attempt to create a longer-lasting battery for the MacBook Pro. Apple engineers wanted to use higher capacity battery packs shaped to the insides of the laptop versus the standard square cells found in most machines. The design would have boosted battery life. In the run-up to the MacBook Pro’s planned debut this year, the new battery failed a key test, according to a person familiar with the situation. Rather than delay the launch and risk missing the crucial holiday shopping season, Apple decided to revert to an older design. The change required roping in engineers from other teams to finish the job, meaning work on other Macs languished, the person said.”

  • I read the same thing (sorry, “tiered” was probably the wrong word and a mis-remembering). My question (and others I’ve read) is whether the new battery design would have increased weight or not. I guess we’ll find out next cycle 🙂

    My *suspicion* is your workflow is not frequently tested because it’s not what many folks do on the go. I agree that the 13″ touch bar MBP is probably not a great device for photographers on the go, between the lack of SD slot and smaller battery. It’s too bad, really, because as you said the device is solid for everything else. e.g., in my case the 15″ touch bar MBP has exceeded my expectations so far.

    I’m disappointed in Apple’s non-focus (or perhaps rather poor execution) on the creatives market at the moment, between this and more noticeably the languishing Mac Pro. I have a Mac Pro on my desk at work, and while it works OK, the product situation is laughable.

    Since you are presumably outside the return window, I think your best strategy at the moment would be to carry external USB-C power with you when you need this. It’s at least one advantage of standardizing on USB-C: there will be plenty of accessories of this type.

  • I don’t know Janak…if Apple didn’t create a MacBook Pro 13 for photographers who are going to use Lightroom (the defacto industry standard for raw workflows at the amateur/prosumer level without a doubt), who exactly did they create it for? If I was griping about weak battery life use using Lightroom on a 12″ MacBook, I might agree with you…but surely Apple knew that photographers like me might want a MacBook Pro that would last more than 4 hours? ?

  • Programmers, sysadmins, office professionals? /shrug

    Apple has complicated and conflicting product priorities, and I don’t pretend to know exactly what their plans are. I can guess given the tradeoffs, and it’s clear they traded off thinness and lightness against battery life with sustained CPU.

    I can say, now that I have a 15″ Touch Bar MBP from work, that I find the battery life excellent (~8 hours), but my workloads are substantially different than yours. I only really fire up Lightroom at home, and I note that the dGPU turns on with Lightroom. I suspect if I used Lightroom on the go I’d feel differently. In the meantime, I really appreciate the lighter and smaller formfactor, and I’m really pleasantly impressed with the Touch Bar, finding myself using it much more than I thought I would.

    Nifty tip: you can put a screenshot feature on the control strip, and it provides all sorts of neat controls on the Touch Bar.