The new MacBook Pro has been a long time coming.
It’s been over four years since its last significant update. In the meantime, we’ve seen a bunch of impressive new takes on pro-level hardware, especially the Surface Book from Microsoft.
Apple was past due for something new.
The latest MacBook Pro model is slimmer, more powerful, and downright attractive.
But the real story is the impressive new Touch Bar, a touchscreen at the top of the keyboard that replaces the traditional function keys in favour of digital keys that change depending on the app you’re using.
The computer isn’t without controversy either. Apple decided to eliminate the standard ports professionals love on the MacBook Pro in favour of a new kind of port called Thunderbolt 3 that does everything from charging to connecting to external displays. The backlash among the pro community has been pretty loud in the weeks since the MacBook Pro’s debut, forcing Apple to make a major concession by temporarily slashing the costs of accessories.
Most of all, the MacBook Pro represents a major shift computers are going through right now, from a smattering of different plugs to a new universal standard called USB-C that will soon be on most electronics. It’s not going to be an easy transition, but it’s happening.
The new MacBook Pro is available now, starting at $1,499 for the model without the Touch Bar and $1,799 for the model with the Touch Bar. There’s also a 15-inch model with Touch Bar that starts at $1,999.
It’s the best MacBook you can buy, but it’s also not for everyone.
The Touch Bar
Let’s begin with the Touch Bar, since that’s the hallmark feature of the MacBook Pro.
The Touch Bar has a unique design that’s cleverly executed. This isn’t a bright, glowing screen like the one on your iPhone. Instead, Apple gave the glass strip a matte finish that blends right into the laptop’s physical keys. The digital function keys (and emojis!) look as if they were painted on the surface. The photos don’t do it justice. It really is impressive in person.
In addition to all the standard function keys like volume control and screen brightness, there’s a dedicated button that activates Siri and plenty of room to add your own customised function keys for the stuff you do the most.
But the real benefit comes from the Touch Bar’s intelligence that adapts to whatever app you’re using. It works with all of the Apple apps that ship with the MacBook, plus a few third-party apps like Photoshop and Microsoft Office. Other app makers just got their hands on the tools they need to make their programs compatible with the Touch Bar, so expect even more support soon.
There are loads of examples of what the Touch Bar can do, so I thought it’d be best to break down some of my favourites:
The Touch Bar lets you scrub through your photo library in chronological order. It also has a set of editing tools when you select a photo. It definitely improves the experience when tweaking your photos.
Your bookmarks appear in the Touch Bar, so you just have to tap to launch one of your favourite sites. It’s also a lot easier to launch a new tab or window. (This was my favourite use for the Touch Bar.)
Another cool feature: When you’re watching a web video, the Touch Bar brings up controls so you can play/pause or scrub through the video.
At last, Apple has invented the emoji keyboard you’ve always wanted on a laptop. (Yes, I’m being facetious, but how often have you wished for an easier way to type out emojis?)
When typing an iMessage, you can tap the emoji button to bring up a row of emojis that you can swipe through, just like on your iPhone.
When you’re typing an email address into the “To” field, the Touch Bar suggests other addresses you might want to add to the thread based on people you commonly email. This is my favourite feature with the Touch Bar in Mail. There are a also a bunch of text formatting options, which you’ll find in other word processing apps as well.
Apple added its Touch ID fingerprint sensor to the MacBook for the first time. It sits at the right end of the Touch Bar and doubles as the computer’s power button.
Touch ID lets you log into your MacBook without typing your password, and it can be programmed for multiple user accounts. It also works with Apple Pay purchases on supported sites if you use the Safari browser.
That’s not even close to a comprehensive list of everything the Touch Bar does, but hopefully it gives you a good taste of what you’re in for. The best part about it is how it’s always automatically changing and adapting to what you’re working on.
There are only a few things that don’t make sense on the Touch Bar. For example, there’s a word suggestion feature while typing, similar to what you see on your iPhone. It simply doesn’t make sense on a laptop though. You’re already looking at your laptop screen while you type, so it seems counterintuitive to expect users to stare at the Touch Bar and tap on the words it suggests. The only benefit I see here is that it makes a decent real-time spell checker.
Now, is the Touch Bar worth the extra price? Does it fundamentally change the way you use the MacBook?
For some, maybe. For me, it was nice to have, but not essential. The Touch Bar is clever and well executed, but it’s not something you absolutely need. Luckily, you can buy a version of the MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar and still enjoy many of the other benefits the computer offers while saving $300.
Design and performance
The MacBook Pro is significantly slimmed down. The 13-inch model is now about the same size and weight as the MacBook Air, but with a lot more power and that beautiful high-resolution Retina display.
The Pro takes a lot of its design cues from the “regular” MacBook, that super-thin model that launched last year. It even has a similar keyboard, with keys that don’t travel as much and are almost flush with the surface. It takes some getting used to, but I love typing on it. (Apple improved the keyboard on the MacBook Pro to feel like the keys press in more than they actually do.)
It also comes in Space Grey or the classic silver colour, but Space Grey is the one that stands out. As far as I’m concerned, it’s the only colour you should choose.
I won’t get into too many technical details about the internal specs, but overall the MacBook Pro is a powerful machine, running the latest processors from Intel. The 15-inch model has some impressive graphics capabilities too. However, as my colleague Tony Villas-Boas pointed out a few weeks ago, there are plenty of Windows laptops that have just as much or more power and cost a lot less than the MacBook Pro.
Ports and dongles
Welcome to the future.
The MacBook Pro doesn’t have any of the traditional ports you’d expect, except for a standard headphone jack. That means no USB. No HDMI. No SD card reader.
Instead, you have Thunderbolt 3, the new port that’s also compatible with the new USB-C standard.
But Thunderbolt can do it all. It runs 5K external displays and connects to any other external accessory. It’s also used for charging the MacBook, which is a disappointing move since Apple ditched its clever MagSafe plug in favour of Thunderbolt. The upside is battery life on the MacBook is much better, so you likely won’t need to charge it during the day. Apple says you’ll get up to 10 hours per charge, but I didn’t get that close. It was more like eight hours. (Although I tend to keep my screen brighter than most people.)
Thunderbolt 3 is a blessing and a curse. It’s great to have one port for everything, but as the industry transitions to USB-C, you’re going to find yourself using a lot of new kinds of cables, adapters, and dongles in order to get your old accessories to work with the new MacBook Pro. It’s disappointing Apple didn’t include at least one adaptor with the computer like it did to help everyone transition to the lack of headphone jack on the iPhone 7.
Apple has a long history of killing legacy inputs and pushing the industry towards its vision. So far, it’s worked every time. It killed the floppy disc drive, DVD drive, Ethernet port, and more. Now it has abandoned everything but Thunderbolt/USB-C. For better or for worse, you have no choice but to get used to it. Few dispute that USB-C is the future, but it’s going to be a messy transition for the next few years.
A “prosumer” computer
I’m not a graphics artist. I’m not a video editor. I’m not an app developer.
I’m a writer, and my computer use is pretty simple. I browse the web, manage my photos, send emails, and, of course, write. For me, the MacBook Pro has been a dream. Between the design, sharp screen, and extra power, it makes my two-year-old MacBook Air feel ancient.
But I can also understand the qualms people in the professional community have with the MacBook Pro. I spoke to one photographer friend of mine who said the lack of SD card reader is a deal breaker for many in his line of work. The fact that you can only get up to 16 GB of RAM is another sore spot for many.
I hate using this word, but I see the MacBook Pro as more of a “prosumer” device, at least until we see more adoption of USB-C and Apple allows you to add more memory. It’s easily the best laptop for someone who favours design and power and doesn’t mind dropping $1,800 or more. However, I can also understand why so many in the pro community feel like Apple left them out.
That said, most people don’t have those expectations, and they will love the MacBook Pro. I definitely did. (I’m this close to pulling the trigger and buying one myself.) It’s the best laptop you can buy.
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