The long anticipated redesigned flagship MacBook Pro hit my doorstep yesterday. It sports a brand new flashy Touch Bar and lacks any ports you’re used to seeing on a computer. Is it really as impressive as it is expensive?
Chassis and build quality
The new MacBook Pro takes the same compact design of the 12 inch MacBook and adds specifications more appropriate for working with digital media. The new 15 inch MacBook Pro has smaller footprint than the outgoing model thanks to shrunken bezels and it is just 15.5 mm thick (0.61 inches). This is thinner than the current (and probably last ever) MacBook Air. Weight has been dropped considerably to just 4.02 lb (1.83 kg).
The whole thing feels incredible in your hands, when it is closed appears smaller than any 15 inch Mac laptop that came before. Attention to detail in manufacturing tolerances are jewel-like as we have come to expect from Apple. The new Space Grey color option is the same tone you’ve seen on iPads and iPhones. It works very well on a larger body of the MacBook Pro, but silver is still available if you prefer.
The new 15 inch MacBook Pro body is only slightly wider and deeper than the current MacBook Air.
Ports, where did they all go?
This is going to get some people really excited, but a real deal breaker for others. Gone are traditional USB ports, Thunderbolt ports, MagSafe charging port, and the beloved SD Card reader. In their places, Apple has supplied four Thunderbolt 3 ports which compatible with USB Type-C ports. These are essentially USB-C ports for most intents and purposes because the cable connectors are compatible. But using Thunderbolt 3 peripherals opens the door to 40 Gbit/s of bandwidth compared to 10 Gbit/s available on USB-C.
Charging is also achieved through any of the four USB-C ports. It is great to be able to charge the computer from either side, and USB-C makes the charging situation significantly more universal than Apple’s old proprietary MagSafe chargers. But the magnetic MagSafe connector had two advantages over the new USB-C charger; it had a built-in charging indicator light, and it safely detached from the laptop when someone trips over the cable. But this is just the cost of progress on the path to a future with single connector for everything. In the meantime, prepare to use dongles. A USB-C to USB adapter should cover you in most situations for storage media, but a much more expensive USB-C to Digital AV adapter is required for connecting HDMI displays. Neither adapter is included in the box, but at least the dongles are on sale for the rest of the year to help ease the transition period.
USB-C has industry-wide support, it is not proprietary to any one manufacturer. We can expect that most storage drives, displays, and other peripherals will have USB-C connectivity and everyone will be better off a year from now, at the cost of minor inconveniences in the short term. However, one decision I strongly disagree with was the removal of the SD Card slot. Most media capturing equipment records to SD or micro-SD cards. A built-in slot for this media format is appreciated on a $500 consumer grade laptop, but removing the SD Card slot from a computer designed for digital media professionals seems utterly insane.
Wireless photo transfer solutions are still clunky and unreliable at best. There is simply no easier way to import hundreds of 30MB raw image files than with a SD Card slot. In an interview with The Independent, Apple defends their decision on the SD slot removal because the port is “cumbersome” and the thing “sticks halfway out“, but in my opinion it is much less cumbersome than having to carry additional adapters that stick out much further. Apple could have still been a USB-C campion by leaving this useful slot alone.
The Screen is as good as you’d expect
The retina screen was one of the best features of the previous generation of MacBook Pro. The 2016 MacBook Pro screen has the same resolution as before but improves in critical areas of color accuracy and brightness. The new screen meets DCI P3 color gamut spec, same as the retina iMacs. Brightness now measures 500 nits, up from 300 nits on the outgoing model.
In simple terms, the new screen is beautiful and crisp from any angle, it does a better job reproducing colors accurately, and bright enough to use comfortably in more environments. I am sitting by a sunny window as I write this, and I am not even using full brightness to see the screen comfortably.
The frame of the screen is thinner than before, but there is no concern of it bending in regular usage. However there are two notable downsides to this thinner screen assembly.
- The webcam resolution is limited to a rather low 720p. While still good enough for video chatting, 720p is on the lower end of what is available on the market. The 12″ MacBook which shares a similar design was also criticized for its 480p webcam resolution when it was unveiled.
- The Apple logo on the back of the display is no longer illuminated. Purely aesthetic and non functional change. I did not think I would care, but now that it is gone I wish it was there. On the bright side, there is no more light leaking into the display from the back when working by a window on a sunny day.
You can’t miss it. The Touch Bar is the first thing you notice about the new MacBook Pros. With the new Touch Bar Apple is introducing a touchscreen interface to the Mac like for the first time. This is a very different approach from the way that Windows PCs handle touch screen input. In place of the age-old function key row lies 2170×60 pixel OLED retina touchscreen and TouchID fingerprint sensor. The screen displays system keys and application specific controls at your finger tips only when you need them. Word processors will have copy/paste and text styling keys, image/video editing suites will have color pickers and transform sliders, etc… Time will tell whether these controls are faster in day to day use than mice and keyboard shortcuts.
Right now the contextual key functionality is present in several Apple apps and a few third party developers have announced support. Touch Bar offers predictive text when you are typing into a text field, but I have found it is faster just to touch type on the keyboard in most situations when you know how to spell. My most frequent use of the Touch Bar is quick selection of emojis in iMessage.
This looks very promising as a new way to interact with computers and streamline workflows, but just as any new UI hardware it is going to take a little while to sort out best practices and types of interactions.
TouchID was lifted from the iPhone/iPad and placed into the power button on the new MacBook Pros. The main usage of a finger print sensor on the mac is to authenticate users quickly, and use ApplePay for online Purchases. I haven’t been able to experiment with with ApplePay yet, but user authentication works quickly and reliably as it does on the latest iPhones.
Keyboard feels great
The keyword is another piece straight from the 12 inch MacBook design. In order to make the computer thinner, key travel had to be reduced. Apple pioneered their butterfly key mechanism on the 12 inch MacBook, and improved it to provide more key feedback on the 2016 MacBook Pros. Many users have criticized the lack of feel on the original butterfly keyboard, but this improved version of the keyboard on the Pro feels great to me. Once you stop testing the thing and just begin typing the keyboard is a pleasure to use I am not making any more mistakes than with previous keyboards.
The keys are also physically larger due to smaller keyboard gaps, and the left and right arrows keys are square and take up all of the space available to them. The keyboard is backlit, as we’ve come to expect from Apple laptops. Thanks to the reduced key travel and smaller gaps, there is now less backlighting leaking from the edges of the keys.
Trackpad is massive
The biggest change to the trackpads are well… how big they are. The one on the 15 inch model is an absolute monster, it provides roughly twice the surface area of the previous model to give you more room for multi-touch gestures. Luckily, palm rejection seems to be up to the task of ignoring accidental touches. Macs were already years ahead of the industry with their large glass multi-touch trackpads, nobody in the Windows world even comes close. Last year Apple introduced Force Touch technology to their trackpads where a vibration motor provides tactile click feedback in place of a mechanical click. It sounds odd, but it works great in practice. The same Force Touch tech is used on the new MacBook Pros. You get an equal amount of tactile feedback when clicking anywhere on the trackpad surface.
Both 13 and 15 inch varieties of the MacBook pro have proper user facing speaker grills in this generation. No more pumping sound through the keyboard here. Apple boasts that the new speaker system contains twice the dynamic range and two and half times more bass than before. This was achieved in part by connecting the speakers directly to system power. These changes do make a perceivable difference. Sound is noticeably louder, while it is still clear without introducing much distortion. The bass won’t blow you away, but it is more than you would expect from such a thin laptop enclosure. These are easily the best laptop speakers I have ever experienced.
A three microphone setup is built-in for improved ambient noise cancelling. (Two mics on the non-Touch Bar 13 inch Pro) I had no issues making a brief FaceTime video call in a moderately noisy office environment.
And yes, the 3.5 mm headphone jack lives on the MacBook Pros. All is well here.
Performance and battery life
I am using the base configuration of the 15 inch 2016 MacBook Pro. It is packing a 2.6 GHz quad core Intel i7 processor, 256 GB of speedy flash storage, 16 GB of memory, and Radeon Pro 450 for graphics in addition to the integrated Intel HD 530 chip. Looking at the spec sheets, it appears that Apple has prioritized energy efficiency and a smaller thermal envelope to raw pixel crushing performance.
In day to day use I may have 20-30 Chrome tabs open, a couple of editors for web development, small to medium sized Photoshop files, and occasionally I may cut together some 4K drone footage in Final Cut. This MacBook Pro flies through every task with ease. The fans stay at idle speed most of the time unless I am exporting a video project.
I can certainly see more demanding users running into performance limitations working on larger media projects. Although you can buy your way to a faster processor, more storage, and graphics chips, the memory is limited to 16 GB. This was done again out of energy efficiency considerations. The memory limit is going to be the most apparent bottleneck for Pro users, and ultimately limit the useful life time of this computer.
I’ve tested the battery through two full load cycles so far, and I am seeing about 8 hours under moderate system loads, without me considering energy consumption. Apple rates this laptop to work for 10 hours, and I have no doubt this is achievable by giving up some screen brightness, closing unneeded apps and about a million browser tabs. This is inline with the previous generation despite having a smaller battery. With more efficient internals and screen, Apple reduced the battery capacity by about one quarter to cut down on thickness while maintaining similar battery life performance.
The 15 inch MacBook Pro has long been an aspirational product, a status symbol and a very capable premium laptop. You could always buy more raw power and specs from competing laptop manufacturers. But few others come close to achieving a balance of power, portability, battery life, and construction quality.
Apple is taking an industry leadership position with the MacBook Pro in terms of I/O ports. A single port to handle every task has been a long dream in the making, but it is going to result in some short term headaches and lots of dongles. Apple wants to accelerate the adoption of USB-C and push the industry into the future, but in my first day with the MacBook Pro I felt I had gone back a decade. To import the photos from my DSLR to the 2016 MacBook Pro I had to dig out a SD to USB card adapter from by obsolete tech drawer and connect it to a USB-C to USB adapter.
The new MacBook Pro is an absolute gorgeous machine that gets a lot of things right. It will have a big influence of the design of competing Windows based laptops in the next couple of years just as previous MacBooks had done before.
The 2016 MacBook Pro is designed for a future that isn’t quite here, yet. If you don’t want to live the #donglelife now, it may be worth waiting the USB-C market to mature, and the inevitable spec bump next year. But even with these shortcomings it is an exceptionally well rounded premium computer.