Neophobia – the fear of the new, or the fear of change – is an increasingly common affliction among Apple fans. The company is infamous for gleefully tossing past-it tech on the scrap heap, often long before many users have had the chance to properly say goodbye. First, Apple came for your serial port, then your parallel port, and in 2016 it took your phone’s headphone socket, too. Now, the new MacBook Pro family has come for your Function keys and USB ports.
If you want old-school Function keys, then you can still get your fix with the “entry-level” 13in MacBook Pro ($2,199). If you want a MacBook Pro with the all-new Touch Bar, however, you’ll need to find at least another $500. And if you also have your heart set on upgraded SSDs and top-flight processors the new MacBook Pro family is going to cost you big time.
Drinking in the Bar
The Touch Bar is a thin strip of OLED touchscreen that sits directly above the keyboard. What appears on the Touch Bar is programmable and – importantly – context-sensitive, so different “keys” can appear in different applications. For example, Safari displays a set of “keys” representing your open tabs, allowing you to quickly flip between them. Play a YouTube video and a progress bar pops up, allowing you to quickly jump back and forth with a tap or drag of a finger. It’s quite ingenious.
In the Photos app, not only can you navigate quickly between image thumbnails by swiping left and right, you can also, once images are opened, carry out basic editing tasks in full-screen view without having to go near the touchpad. In Messages, you’ll see Quick Text suggestions, including emoji; in Mail, there are shortcut keys that let you send and reply, among others; Final Cut Pro displays a timeline track allowing you to scroll quickly through your project while previewing the video full-screen.
And anyone worried about losing the Escape and Function keys of the old MacBook shouldn’t worry unduly. If there’s an application that you always use Function keys in, it’s possible to add that to a whitelist in the MacBook’s settings so that they always appear when that application is open and in the foreground. And regardless, you can get to these keys quickly and easily by holding down the Fn key, at which point the keys appear instantly along the top row.
The other big news is the inclusion of a Touch ID sensor at the right-hand side of the Touch Bar. The Touch ID sensor isn’t quite flush with the rest of the bar, which, while not aesthetically pleasing, does make it easier to find by touch alone. As with the iPhone and iPad, you simply place your finger on it to unlock the Mac. What’s more, you can set it up so different users’ fingerprints will log them into their account without having to first log you out.
Slim yet powerful
It’s no surprise that these are the thinnest and lightest MacBook Pros ever, with the 13in version coming in at a mere 1.4kg – the same as a 13in MacBook Air. If you think that’s impressive, then consider that it’s also thinner than an Air – at least at the thick end. It doesn’t taper like a MacBook Air to a razor-thin edge, but it’s still a very slender machine.
The 15in model has also emerged transformed. Weight has fallen from over 2kg to 1.83kg, and Apple has trimmed down the girth from 18mm to an impressively slender 15mm. As 15.4in laptops go, this is as thin and light as you could possibly ask for.
Thankfully, those slender bodies haven’t forced Apple to compromise on performance. The non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro is the slower of the three, principally because it makes do with 15W TDP versions of Intel’s Core i5 and Core i7 processors, rather than the 28W CPUs found in the Touch Bar-equipped 13in MacBook Pro. Move up to the 15in MacBook Pro and you choose between two substantially more powerful 45W Core i7 CPUs, a choice of AMD’s Radeon Pro 450, 455 and 460 GPUs, and 16GB of memory as standard. If it’s power you seek, then the larger MacBook Pro is still a big step up.
Apple has upgraded the SSD inside the new MacBooks, claiming the new generation is 50% faster. The SSDs inside the 2015 MacBook Pros were darn fast already, but Apple’s custom-built drives in the new models blow them into the weeds. By using four PCI Express 3 lanes, the drive in the new MacBook offers potentially double the bandwidth of the previous generation; and in testing, the new models produced a fiery performance. In fact, it proved to be the most impressive upgrade, with sequential read rates of up to 3.1GB/sec and write speeds of up to 1.4GB/sec.
The result of all Apple’s work – not to mention the shift from Intel’s Broadwell to the Skylake generation – is that even the low-end MacBook Pro is now faster than its predecessors. In my time with the three new models, it was striking that even the $2,199 model felt quicker than the now rather portly-looking 13in MacBook Pro sitting on my desk. I suspect that the new SSD was making the biggest difference, though. As you can see from the benchmarks on the following page, its sibling’s faster Core i5 CPU delivered a relatively modest improvement.
It’s no surprise to find that the 15in MacBook Pro bounds past its smaller cousins. The combination of those quad-core processors and lightning-quick SSD is a match made in heaven, and in most of the tests the king-sized MacBook Pro proved to be roughly twice as quick as the dual-core Core i5 in the mid-range 13in model.
The MacBook Pro family’s legendary battery life hasn’t suffered, either, and in our video-playback test the three models exhibited broadly similar levels of stamina. The non-Touch Bar model lasted a little longer than its pricier cousins, thanks mainly to a more power-efficient CPU and a slightly larger battery than its Touch Bar-equipped sibling. However, it’s impressive to see that the 15in model keeps pace, and actually beats one of its smaller cousins, eventually expiring a minute short of nine hours.
Displays of strength
Elsewhere, the speakers have had an update, and now flank each side of the keyboard. Apple claims they produce twice the dynamic range of the previous model; audio quality is clearly better, with more solidity, clarity and body all-round.
There are differences between the models here, though. Surprisingly, the 13in non-Touch Bar model is noticeably quieter than the pricier Touch Bar model, but it’s also fuller-sounding and more bassy. I suspect there’s good reason for this, though: the faster processors in the 13in Touch Bar models required Apple to fit a secondary fan and adopt a different internal design. Step up to the 15in model and there’s another improvement thanks to greater clarity, and basslines that are inaudible on the smaller models suddenly reappear.
The screen is superb on all versions. As with the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, Apple is moving from sRGB to the wider DCI-P3 colour gamut for the MacBook Pro displays, and everything looks richer and fuller in colour. The maximum brightness of the screens has leapt upwards, too: the 15in brings up the rear with a maximum brightness of 505cd/m2; the non-Touch Bar 13in model reaches 542cd/m2; and the 13in Touch Bar soars up to 591cd/m2. Contrast is exceptional across the board, with every single model breaking the 1,400:1 mark, and every panel covers 99.3% of the DCI-P3 colour gamut. Regardless of which model you buy, you’re guaranteed to be looking at a truly exceptional screen.
The MacBook Pro’s Marmite moment is its butterfly-switch keyboard, seemingly borrowed in all its shallow-keyed glory from the diminutive 12in MacBook. I’m well aware this won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but try it, and I suspect it may grow on you. Personally, I don’t mind the shorter travel, and found it rather easy to get used to. Indeed, the travel on the MacBook Pro feels more positive than on the MacBook. Whichever model you choose, though, the keyboard is the same size and layout.
The bigger trackpad is less controversial. Compared to previous iterations, it’s twice the area on the 15in MacBook Pro, and 46% larger on the 13in machine. It’s a great-quality trackpad, complete with its haptic, non-mechanical “click” and Apple’s responsive and intuitive multitouch gestures.
And if you’re worried about constantly moving the cursor with your palms while typing, then don’t be – the palm rejection is absolutely first-class. With the touchpad effectively occupying almost half of the wristrest, and the touchpad a mere 4mm away from the bottom of the keyboard, your thumbs are constantly in close proximity or resting upon the top edge of the pad’s surface. The MacBook Pro ships with tap-to-click disabled, but even with this feature enabled, I’ve found miraculously few incidents of the cursor jumping around the screen. Overall, it’s fantastic – macOS’s multitouch gestures feel more fluid and natural than ever.
Alas, there’s no positive spin I can put on the MacBook Pro’s most irritating shortfall, and that’s its lack of ports. I love the way I can hook up an HDMI monitor, two USB 3 devices and a pair of Thunderbolt peripherals to my current MacBook, without the need for extra adapters. However, the new MacBook Pro cuts almost all of that out.
In fact, the 13in base model has only a pair of USB-Type C, Thunderbolt 3-enabled sockets on its left-hand edge – meaning that if you want to attach more than one external device while you’re charging it, you’ll have to budget extra for a USB Type-C adapter or doc king station. Pay the extra for the Touch Bar models, however, and you get four of those Thunderbolt 3-ready ports instead.
Despite that, there’s no doubt that Apple’s new MacBook Pro is a sizable step in the right direction. They’re universally slimmer, lighter, faster and more pleasant to use than their predecessors. There is a price to pay, however: the cheapest MacBook Pro you can buy is $2,199. To put this into context, that’s $245 more expensive than the equivalent Dell XPS 13, and that laptop comes with a touchscreen and a better selection of ports.
If you want the 13in Touch Bar model, you’ll be paying even more at $2,699. Want a 15in version? You’ll pay at least $3,599. This isn’t even for the top-of-the-range machine – the “entry-level” 15in comes with 256GB of SSD storage, which feels more than mean. Upgrading to a more reasonable 512GB costs an extra $650 – and with that you do also get a marginally (100MHz) faster CPU.
Right now, the move to USB Type-C at the expense of everything else seems crazy – but in a year or two, I suspect you’ll find USB Type-C cables trailing from every monitor and self-respecting peripheral, delivering 100W of power, super-fast data and docking flexibility in a single cable.
Despite the pangs of loss for SD card slots and traditional USB, these are without question the most refined, high-end laptops that I’ve ever used. If you can stomach the increased prices and single-minded connectivity, and you just so happen to be sold on the macOS way of doing things, then there’s simply nothing to touch them. And even if you’re a die-hard Windows fan, don’t be afraid – the new MacBook Pros might be just the change you’ve been waiting for.