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MacBook Pro Review: Apple Sticks To Its Priorities, And Nails Most Of Them

It's sleeker. It's ready for the brave new world of USB-C connectivity. And the Touch Bar is cool right now, with potential to spare.

MacBook Pro Review: Apple Sticks To Its Priorities, And Nails Most Of Them

[Photo: courtesy of Apple]

There’s a famous story about an Apple meeting that occurred soon after Steve Jobs returned in 1997. As the company's cofounder rationalized its product line—which at the time included a dizzying array of Mac versions—he sketched a grid on a whiteboard. Then he filled its quadrants with four computers—one desktop and one portable model apiece for consumers and for professionals.

Though the grid showed that Apple would pare its offerings way down, it also acknowledged a basic reality: You can’t please everybody with one machine. Consumers have their preferences; professional users have theirs.

Fast-forward to late 2016. At Apple’s October media event at its Cupertino campus, the company announced its newest MacBook Pro notebooks. The great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren of the computer that Jobs put in the professional/portable square of his grid, they're aimed at people who need serious computing muscle and advanced technologies and are willing to pay for them.

The new MacBook in three versions: 13" without Touch Bar, 13" with Touch Bar, and the 15 incherPhoto: courtesy of Apple

Making every potential customer happy in 2016 is no more of a cakewalk than it was a couple of decades ago. Some pro users—the sort whose work involves industrial-strength tasks such as advanced video editing—are disappointed with the direction of these new MacBook Pros. They say they’d prefer newer Intel processors than the ones Apple chose and higher maximum RAM capacity, and are wary of the Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports that the company has used to replace older, more familiar connectors. And as long as their laptop is powerful, they don’t particularly care if it’s thin and light or thick and heavy.

Apple, however, does care about computers being thin and light. It's long achieved that goal in part by wringing out aging technologies before every last potential customer is willing to say goodbye to them, and doesn't obsess over most standard tech specs. It loves to fuss over basic aspects of the experience such as screen quality. And it wants to introduce features that help Macs stand out from the the Windows-PC competition, such as its unique new Touch Bar.

Judged on those priorities, the new MacBook Pros are, in most respects, winners—assuming you can deal with their price tags. The line starts at $1,499 for the most basic 13" model, which lacks two major new features, the Touch Bar and Touch ID. For $1,799, you get a 13" version with Touch Bar, Touch ID, and slightly better processor, graphics, and Wi-Fi specs. The 15" model starts at $1,999. Prices max out at $3,499 for a fully tricked-out 15" unit. (I've been trying out both 13" variants and the 15" one, via review units supplied by Apple.)

Thin Is (Always) In

This being Apple, it’s no shocker that when you unbox a new MacBook Pro, the most instantly obvious thing is that there’s less of it. At 3.02 lbs and .59" thick, the 13" models are .46 of a pound lighter and .12" thinner than their immediate predecessors. They’re also only a smidge heavier than the 13" MacBook Air, and thinner than the chunky end of that wedge-shaped notebook—a striking improvement from the era when the Air earned its name by being far more pleasant to tote than the Pro.

Meanwhile, the 15" model, at 4.02 pounds and .61" thick is .47 of a pound lighter and a tenth of an inch thinner than the previous version. It's among the most portable full-power 15" notebooks out there, and maybe the first big-screen MacBook that truly makes sense for folks who like their laptops light.

The MacBook Pro's backside Apple remains iconic but no longer glows.Photo: Harry McCracken

If you own a MacBook Air, you should know that Apple ups its build-quality game with the Pro line. Their top halves are a single sweeping surface rather than a screen indented in a frame; there's no plasticky hump at the hinge; they're available in both silver and gray; in general, they just feel more solid and deluxe. (As they should at these prices.)

As it did with last year's 12" MacBook, Apple made these new Macs thinner in part by equipping them with a keyboard designed not to eat up much vertical space. Slightly improved in this new iteration, it sports keys that are roomy, stable, nicely sculpted, and illuminated with perfectly even backlighting. What they don’t have is the clacky full-travel feel that some people covet. My fingers (which are used to Apple’s Smart Keyboard for the iPad Pro) adjusted quickly and found the results comfy. But if you’re a keyboard conservative, I recommend visiting an Apple Store and trying this one out before you commit.

The 15" MacBook Pro's trackpad is bigger than a giant iPhone.Photo: Harry McCracken

No such test drive is necessary for Apple's new trackpads: I can’t imagine anyone disliking them. As on the 12" MacBook and the the most recent previous round of MacBook Pros, they use Apple’s Force Touch technology, which means they're solid-state devices that uncannily mimic the feel of a click by vibrating. The fact that the trackpad doesn’t actually move up and down allowed Apple to make it larger; you can plop an iPhone 7 Plus down on the 15" model’s pad with space to spare. The extra real estate is a particular boon for maneuvers that call for precision, such as painting in Photoshop, as well as MacOS gestures that require you to splay your fingers out on the trackpad surface.

The trackpad may be bigger and better, but what sits above the keyboard on the $1,799 13" MacBook Pro and the 15" model is all-new. On the top-most, right-hand corner, where the power button has traditionally resided, there’s now a Touch ID fingerprint sensor, adopted from the iPhone and iPad. As on Apple’s mobile devices, it lets you unlock your Mac in a jiffy without a password and safely and swiftly pay at online stores that support Apple Pay. Coming soon: third-party apps with Touch ID support, such as a version of login manager 1Password.

To the left of the Touch ID sensor, instead of the top row of function keys that have been part of computer keyboards since mainframe days, is the long, skinny, touch-enabled OLED display known as the Touch Bar. This is the first time Apple has made Macs you can control by tapping on a screen, and you might instinctively use the touchscreen PCs that are common in the Windows world as a reference point. In fact, I did that myself.

But if you’re clamoring for Apple to put conventional touchscreens on Macs a la Microsoft's Surface—a move it's long said it has no interest in making—the Touch Bar will not mollify you even a tiny bit. Rather than being a halfway step to giving Macs a full touch interface, it’s an extension of the keyboard, designed to keep you productive without forcing you to lift your arm and jab at the main display. Apple underlined that point by giving the Touch Bar a predominantly black-and-white color scheme that matches that of the adjacent physical keys; even its surface feels much like the nearby keycaps. (As I used it, I tended to forget it was a screen at all.)

The $1799 13" MacBook Pro (left) has Touch Bar and Touch ID; the $1499 model does not.Photo: Harry McCracken

Conceptually, the Touch Bar offers two related benefits. With just a tap or two, it lets you access features that would ordinarily require you to swipe a mouse pointer around using the trackpad or a mouse. And because it can show features that are specific to the app and task you’re performing, it's able to expose functionality that would otherwise be buried deep in on-screen menus or toolbars.

The Touch Bar's most straightforward substitute for the classic top row of keys is called Control Strip. It gives you virtual keys for tweaking the brightness and volume, managing windows, and performing other jobs that the old keys did. But the Control Strip, unlike the plastic keys it replaces, is customizable. Want a button to lock the screen or call up MacOS’s dictation feature? Fine—you can drag it onto the Touch Bar as a substitute for one of the default buttons.

Control Strip lets you reconfigure the Touch Bar by dragging buttons right off the display.Photo: Harry McCracken

Where the Touch Bar really gets interesting is when you’re using an app that’s been designed with it in mind. In that instance, the Control Strip collapses down on the right side of the Touch Bar, and the rest of the space is devoted to functions specific to the task at hand. If you’re entering text in an app such as Messages, for instance, you get an emoji picker as well as smartphone-style autocomplete suggestions for the word you’re typing.

Touch Bar word and emoji suggestions

Apple has done a sweeping, imaginative job of building Touch Bar functionality into MacOS and the apps that ship with it. In Photos, for instance, you can dig deeply into the features for fiddling with an image without removing your finger from the Touch Bar. In Safari, you can skim through teensy half-a-pinky-size thumbnails of your open tabs. In the Numbers spreadsheet, you can construct formulas and format cells. In Reminders, you can check off completed to-dos or give yourself more time to tackle them. And on and on. Some apps—but not all of them—let you customize their Touch Bar capabilities in the the same way you can rearrange the Control Strip.

Editing a photo in Apple's Photos app via the Touch Bar

This context sensitivity will not be limited to Apple’s own wares. At the MacBook Pro launch event, Adobe previewed an upcoming Touch Bar-aware version of Photoshop that could make it a lot simpler to make the most of that notoriously opaque program. By the end of the year, Apple says, a bunch of other popular MacOS apps will support the Touch Bar, including Microsoft Office, Skype, OmniFocus, Pixelmator, Coda, Sketch, and more. (If Chrome doesn’t join that list, it might force me to switch to Safari.)

Assuming that third-party developers take the Touch Bar seriously—and Apple puts it on other machines, such as the iMac—it could become an indispensable part of the Mac interface. But it isn’t the sort of feature you encounter for the first time and immediately begin using as if you’d known it for eons. For me, it took a few days of use before I’d figured out all the major icons and was able to maneuver around on autopilot. (Apple provides some tips and tricks, but something closer to a full-blown interactive tutorial might have been in order.)

Hardcore touch typists will also have to adjust their work habits: The Touch Bar requires you to at least peek at your keyboard as you work. This fact bothered me more in theory than in practice, perhaps because it's located close enough to the main display that I was able to glance downward when I needed it.

The more useful you find the Touch Bar, the more likely it is that you’ll come up with ways it could be even better. At first, my right hand's ring finger had a tendency to brush against the Siri button and accidentally trigger it, so I removed Siri and replaced it with a section of blank space. But it turned out I could only do that in the full-width Control Strip, not the reduced-size one. I also found that the media-player feature sometimes didn't work or played back sound effects such as Slack's alert ping rather than anything I'd want to control.

On the Touch Bar, your Safari tabs are really tiny

Ultimately, not every Mac user is going to take to the Touch Bar. But I think that some skeptics will have second thoughts after they’ve gotten their fingers on it for a while. And I’m looking forward to seeing where Apple takes this concept with Touch Bar 2.0, 3.0, and beyond.

Port Overhaul

When Apple takes bulk out of a laptop, it often does so in part by retiring components that it thinks are headed for the parts graveyard anyway, such as DVD burners and Ethernet jacks. In the case of the new MacBook Pros, this streamlining comes mostly in the form of providing Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports to replace a disparate collection of connectors.

The previous MacBook Pros had a MagSafe power connector, two USB ports, two Thunderbolt 2 ones, an HDMI jack for TV hookups, a headphone jack, and an SD memory-card slot. The new $1,799 13" model and the 15" one boil this down to the headphone jack—insert your own iPhone 7 reference here—and four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ones.

Two Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports and a good old headphone jack.Photo: Harry McCracken

I say "Thunderbolt 3/USB-C" because while the two technologies use the same slim, reversible connector, they aren’t actually the same thing. Between them, the vision is to let you plug into AC adapters, displays, storage devices, and more, all using one do-everything port. Fast Company contributor Glenn Fleishman does a good job of sorting out the details, which are manifold, in this article.

When Apple introduced USB-C last year on the 12" MacBook, it went overboard with minimalistic zeal and equipped the machine with one port, which meant you couldn’t even plug in your laptop and charge your phone at the same time without the use of an external adapter. The four ports you get on the higher-end 13" MacBook Pro and the 15" model should be enough for almost anybody. The $1,499 MacBook Pro has only two ports, located on the left side, which is (barely) adequate—but I wish Apple had put one on each side of the case, which would let you more conveniently charge your Mac regardless of whether you're sitting to the left or right of a power plug.

Even with a MacBook Pro with plentiful ports, the issue remains that Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C are not yet anything like commonplace. Devices such as desktop monitors, hard disks, and thumb drives that are built for them are still greatly outnumbered by ones designed for earlier standards. For now, if you buy one of these MacBook Pros and bide your time until the new standards are widely supported, you'll have to invest in the necessary cables and adapters—available from Apple at temporarily discounted prices as well as from other makers—to make your new Mac work with old stuff. Or in some cases you might just go wireless: For instance, Apple says that it ditched the SD slot in part because so many new cameras ship with built-in Wi-Fi.

Now, Apple didn’t go whole-hog for Thunderbolt 3/USB-C without reason. The company has always been willing to usher customers into a period of disruptive transition in order to help propagate new standards. (Exhibit A: The iPhone’s Lightning plug, which replaced the once-pervasive Dock connector and had some folks squawking for a spell.) This is a strikingly different philosophy than that practiced by many makers of Windows PCs—companies such as Dell will still sell you a laptop with an elephantine, 1980s-era VGA port if that is what you want.

As in previous instances, the fact that Apple has embraced these new technologies with such gusto should help nudge the rest of the industry to do the same that much quicker. But that doesn’t mean that you, Mac user, must feel obligated to make the move before you're ready. If the prospect sounds daunting, there's no shame in holding off on getting a new MacBook Pro—and the longer you wait, the more appealing the Thunderbolt 3/USB-C proposition will get.

New power adapter: no MagSafe, no cord-wrapping wings.Photo: Harry McCracken

Oh, one other thing: As became obvious last year when Apple released the 12" MacBook, the arrival of USB-C as the new means of charging Macs means the end of MagSafe, the beloved, ingenious technology that prevented a power cord that got accidentally jostled from dragging the entire computer with it onto the floor. It's sad to see it go. But personally, I miss the fold-out wings on the old-style MacBook’s power brick—which let you neatly wrap up the cord for travel—more than MagSafe. The new brick, which looks like a giant iPhone charger, lacks them.

Apple Polishing

Beyond the svelter design, Touch Bar, and new ports, the new MacBook Pros shows multiple refinements that, on their own, wouldn't prompt anyone to splurge on a new computer. They just make that new computer better once you have it, and are the sort of improvements that Apple never gets enough credit for making.

The MacBook Pro's high-resolution Retina display would have been one of the biggest reasons to upgrade from a MacBook Air no matter what. But it's also brighter than previous screens—at full blast, it makes my eyeballs tingle—offers better contrast, and has a wider color gamut for more accurate reproduction of photos.

Apple also lavished attention on the speakers, which you can crank way, way up without turning music or movie soundtracks into a distorted mess. The ones on the 15" model, amazingly, sound better to my ears than the audio system built into my aging 42" HDTV.

Given that some of Apple's most demanding professional users are fretting about these machines' processors and RAM capacities, should those of us who don't need tippy-top-of-the-line performance be concerned? I'll leave benchmarking to experts such as the folks at AnandTech, but these Macs have more than enough horsepower for non-superhuman computing tasks; even though Apple didn't use Intel's latest processors, it called on technologies such as high-speed solid-state storage to keep things fast. The three units I tried were the base-model versions at each price point—$1,499, $1,799, and $1,999—and none of them ever felt slow.

Photo: courtesy of Apple

I also didn't try to formally measure battery life, which Apple rates at up to 10 hours. The company has clearly decided that this figure—basically, one especially busy workday—is ideal for most computing devices, which is why it's what it strives to attain on all versions of the iPad as well as these new laptops.

Ultimately, the design decisions that Apple made with these new-generation MacBook Pros result in machines that I think will please many people. What they don't do is clarify the future of the Mac for every type of buyer.

Besides those power users who were hoping for even more potent MacBook Pros—and may get them in updates to these models—there's the far larger audience of people who don't need boundless computing muscle and are at least somewhat price-conscious. At the same time that Apple announced the new Pros, it discontinued sales of the $899 11" MacBook Air—a candidate for my own personal pantheon of the greatest computers ever—except to educational institutions. The 13" Air remains in the lineup for now as a $999 budget model, but with its non-Retina screen, it's a bit of a throwback. The 12" MacBook is $1,299, and aimed at people who crave portability above all else.

That makes the non-Touch Bar version of the 13" MacBook Pro the cheapest up-to-date, general-purpose Mac notebook. Its starting price of $1,499 is $200 more than the previous-generation 13" Pro. You don't need to be an incurable cheapskate to hope that Apple fills in the hole that creates in its lineup, either by cutting the entry-level cost for a MacBook Pro or releasing something new and versatile that isn't a Pro and costs at least a couple of hundred dollars less.

Such a MacBook would be the modern-day descendant of the one that Steve Jobs put in the consumer/portable quadrant of his 1997 grid. Did I mention you can't make everybody happy with one kind of computer?

Related Video: The history of Apple in under 3 minutes

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