When Apple released the MacBook Pro with (and without) Touch Bar last year, there was one glaring hole in its specifications: it didn’t use the latest Kaby Lake series Intel processors. Apple has now rectified this, and the 2017 MacBook Pro Kaby Lake versions are available. But do they improve things much?
New MacBook Pro (2016) review: In full
Every few years Apple gives its MacBook Pro model a complete redesign – with some designs more conservative than others. The new 2017 MacBook Pro represents one of the biggest changes ever to Apple’s flagship laptop, and you’ll either love it or hate it. First, Apple came for your serial port, then your parallel port, and in 2016 it took your phone’s headphone socket. Now, the new MacBook Pro family has come for pretty much everything else – the function keys, HDMI and display ports, memory card reader and pretty much everything else has gone.
For all the design tweaks, all those alluring nips and tucks, it’s the arrival of the Touch Bar – and more to the point the departure of physical function keys – that’s caused the biggest waves. If you want old-school function keys, then it’s worth saying it upfront: you can still get your fix with the “entry-level” 13in MacBook Pro (which has been reduced in price from £1,449 to £1,249). If you want a MacBook Pro with the all-new Touch Bar, however, you’ll need to find at least another £500. That’s another change from the launch when the price difference between Touch Bar and non-Touch Bar models was just £300.
And if you’ve also got your heart set on upgraded SSDs and top-flight processors, then trust me, the new MacBook Pro family are going to cost you big time. Want a 3.1GHz i5 with 8Gb of RAM and a 512GB SSD? That will be £1,949. And if you want an i7 with 16GB of RAM you’re going to pay £2,399. These are not, in any way, cheap machines.
New MacBook Pro (2016) review: Design
But they are undoubtedly beautiful to look at. There are three areas that define the new MacBook Pro family: the thinness, the keyboard and trackpad, and the screen.
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 a MacBook Air, at least at the thick end. Of course, 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 a whisker 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 pretty much as thin and light as you could ask for.
New MacBook Pro (2016) review: The Touch Bar
The Touch Bar is a thin strip of OLED touchscreen that sits directly above the keyboard, replacing the function-key row. What appears on the Touch Bar is programmable and – importantly – context-sensitive, so different applications can have different “keys” appear. For example, in Safari you see a set of “keys” representing your open tabs, allowing you to quickly flip between them with a quick dab of the finger. 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, you can not only navigate quickly between image thumbnails by swiping left and right but 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; while Final Cut Pro displays a timeline track allowing you to scroll quickly through your project while previewing the video in full-screen.
And anyone worried about losing the escape key 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.
Third party Touch Bar support is also on the horizon. Adobe has said its new version of Photoshop, which can work with Apple’s Touch Bar should be available by the end of the year.
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 the most 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 first to log out.
New MacBook Pro (2016) review: Performance
Regarding performance, the base 13in model is, understandably, the slowest of the bunch. The MacBook Pro lineup has recently seen a Kaby Lake upgrade across the board, and the performance bump shows, as you can see below.
Apple has upgraded the SSD inside the new MacBooks, and as a result, the new generation is a claimed 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 is that even the low-end MacBook Pro is now easily faster than any of the 2015 models. In my time with the three new models, it was striking that even the lowest-cost model breezed past the now-portly looking 13in MacBook Pro sitting on my desk. I suspect that the super-quick SSD was making the biggest difference, though.
All this power, however, comes at a price. Kaby Lake longevity suffers, demonstrably, with these newer chips appearing to be not so power efficient as first thought. As the below chart indicates, this updated MacBook Pro last 2 hours less sans wall socket compared to its Skylake based elder. Not surprisingly, this isn’t far behind Dell’s XPS 13, which also relies on Intel latest architecture.
New MacBook Pro (2016): The speakers
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, which is tricky to test, but audio quality is 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 noticeably fuller-sounding and bassier. I suspect there’s good reason for this, though, as the faster processors in the 13in Touch Bar models required Apple to fit a secondary fan and adopt a different internal design – this has had a knock-on effect on sound quality. Step up to the 15in model, though, and there’s another improvement thanks to greater clarity, and basslines that are inaudible on the smaller models suddenly reappear.
New MacBook Pro (2016) review: Display
The screen is delicious. As with the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, Apple is moving from sRGB to the wider DCI P3 colour gamut for the new MacBook Pro displays, and the result is that everything looks a touch 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.
New MacBook Pro (2016) review: Keyboard, trackpad, connections
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 at all and found it rather easy to get used to here. Indeed, the travel on the MacBook Pro feels somewhat more positive than on the MacBook, which helps keep typos to a minimum. Whichever model you choose, though, the keyboard is the same size and layout – barring, of course, those absent function keys on the pricier models.
Likely to be less controversial is the bigger trackpad. It’s twice the area on the 15in MacBook Pro and 46% larger on this 13in machine. Given that Apple has always led the way when it comes to making trackpads bigger, this isn’t a surprise, and as always it’s a great-quality trackpad, complete with its haptic, non-mechanical “click” and Apple’s gloriously 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 first-class. With the touchpad effectively occupying almost half of the wrist rest, and the touchpad a mere 4mm away from the bottom of the keyboard, your thumbs are constantly nearby, or resting upon, the top edge of the pad’s surface. Perhaps in acknowledgement of this fact, the MacBook Pro ships with tap-to-click disabled (as it has for some time, now, in fact), but even with this feature enabled I’ve found incidents of the cursor jumping around the screen miraculously low in frequency. Overall, it’s still fantastic – macOS’s multitouch gestures feel more fluid and natural than ever.
It’s tougher to put a positive spin on the MacBook Pro’s lack of ports. I’m quite used to connecting an HDMI monitor, two USB 3 devices and a pair of Thunderbolt peripherals to my current MacBook without the need for extra adapters. The new MacBook Pro, however, 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 – it’s not until you pay the extra for the Touch Bar models that you get the full complement of four ports. Right now, this means that buying a MacBook Pro guarantees that you’ll need to budget for a clutch of essential USB Type-C adapters, and most likely a docking station. Or, maybe, just one of those new fangled USB Type-C-ready monitors. The benefit? One single USB Type-C cable can transmit 100W of power, gigabytes of data, and carry video signals to a series of outboard monitors. Once USB Type-C is ubiquitous, which probably won’t be that far into the future, Apple’s madness may begin to seem a little more like genius. Time will tell.
New MacBook Pro (2016) review: Verdict and price
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 £1,249. To put this into context, that’s £120 more expensive than the equivalent Dell XPS 13, and that laptop comes with a touchscreen and a better selection of ports. There’s a cheaper, non-touchscreen XPS 13, too, on offer for £899.
And if you want the 13in Touch Bar model, you’ll be paying even more at £1,749. Want a 15in version? You’ll pay at least £2,349. That’s a heck of a lot of money, and that’s not even for the top-of-the-range machine – the “entry-level” 15in comes with 256GB of SSD storage, which feels pretty mean.
Right now, the move to USB Type-C at the expense of everything else seems slightly bonkers – but in a year or two, I suspect you’ll find USB Type-C cables trailing from every monitor and self-respecting peripheral. Right now, it’s a pain, but like it or not – this is a step in the right direction.
And despite the understandable pangs of loss for SD card slots and USB Type-A, these are without question the most refined, high-end laptops 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.