With all the popularity of the iOS platform in recent years, the Mac platform has taken a back seat in Cupertino. To a certain degree, Apple’s implied forecast of the future – that iOS and non-traditional OS’ will succeed traditional desktop OS’ such as macOS — is correct. As more and more things move to the web, there becomes less of a need for something like a Mac. That said, there are still key things that while they can be done on a more mobile device or tablet, doesn’t mean they should or that such a scenario will be “the best”. Whatever your stance may be, it’s no secret that there are a lot of loyal Mac users out there. And while Mac Pro users are still waiting for a break in their 1,000+ day dry spell, MacBook Pro users can finally breathe a sigh of relief (or grief).
Design & Hardware
As is the case with almost every generational step forward in Apple’s history, thinness and reduced weight has taken a front seat, for better or worse. The latest 15″ MacBook Pro is thinner than the 13″ MacBook Air (at it’s thickest point). Yes – the MacBook Air is tapered where as the MacBook Pro is not. But to stop and think that a Pro-level machine with a dedicated video card is thinner than the MacBook Pro is pretty crazy. (Remember the size difference back when the Air first launched?) At 0.61″ thick and 4.02 pounds with just 5 total ports (4 Thunderbolt 3 w/ USB Type C and 1 headphone jack), the latest MacBook Pro is as thin (and hard to connect to) as ever. And therein lies the crux of the divisiveness this latest refresh has introduced.
To some, Apple’s strive for thinness and weight savings is and always should be at the top of their list, regardless of what sacrifices are made. After all, they’re pushing industrial design to the edge, and moving the var forward each year. For if it is raw power and specs you want, look elsewhere. To be fair, it is true that Apple has never been concerned with being “the” fastest. And it shows – the latest video cards in particular are very mid range AMD GPUs on paper. (Though admittedly reports put performance of the GPU at roughly 2x that of the original 2012 retina model.) The clear reasoning for that was battery savings, of course. The TDW of the GPUs inside these latest MacBook Pros is 35W whereas the equivalent mid to higher end Nvidia GPUs are more than double that. Considering the batteries are thinner and smaller than ever, every bit of power savings is hugely important.
The counterpoint to the pro-consumerization argument is that while Apple does in fact focus more and more on consumer-centric things such as battery life, weight savings, and thin designs, the pro-level market – even the Mac side – lean much more heavily on a couple key things such as power and functionality. It has itself always been a small exception to the rule in Apple’s history book. The “Pros” on the Mac side may appreciate and like Apple’s design choices and are more accepting of them than your traditional Windows professional, but they also do focus on and care about specs and power.
And that’s where both sides collide in a crescendo of applause and criticism. For many of the pros (admittedly, not all), the rather mid-range hardware inside combined with the higher than ever price tags are at a bit of an odds with one another. While pros have no qualms paying top dollar for top end hardware and good industrial design, the current dumbing down or consumerification of the high-end Pro line is putting many off. More than ever, there’s less of a gap between the consumer level hardware and pro level hardware where-as the cost gap has grown.
To many, this is an idiotic approach. To treat pros and apply the same focus on their products that you also do to the mainstream consumer market reeks of being out of touch. More worryingly though, is the realization that Apple isn’t being ignorant. Instead, they’re deliberately moving further away from the Mac/Pro market. While the writing has been on the wall for a long time, it’s still a sad thing for those who live and die (and love) the work they do on the Mac platform. On that same note, as I mentioned above, what you can achieve on a phone or a tablet these days is astounding. But just because you can doesn’t mean you should or that it is good. Some work flows and some things just work better on a Mac and will for the foreseeable future. And that’s that. I’m not saying that that will always be the case. (That would be foolish.) Instead, I’m merely saying that those workflows and/or apps and services that go with them simply aren’t where they need to be yet outside of the traditional desktop environment. Thankfully, if Apple keeps up their brute force, dragging-us-kicking-and-screaming approach, we’ll be there faster than ever.
One other divisive decision is the port situation. There are valid points on both sides so I’m not going to discount either one. There’s something to be said about forcing change in such a manner that forces countless manufacturers to fast track changes to their products to work with more modern and overall, better specs, ports, etc. On the flip side, the transitional period sucks horribly. We are smack dab in the middle of a transitional period for sure. And for the next year or two, we’re going to accept the trials and tribulations that come with that, namely, dongles… lots and lots of dongles and adapters. Speaking of dongles – we don’t really need to harp on that much more. Plenty of people have dogged the laptop and Apple’s design decisions necessitating dongles for literally anything and everything. As I said above, we are in the middle of a transitional period and this is one of those “cons”.
Moving on to more positive things, the display is as good as ever even if it is relatively unchanged to the naked eye. I say that because the resolution is still the same 2880 x 1800 (which different scaling steps for different resolutions). The improvements for 2016 come in the form of the wider P3 color gamut and increased 500 nit brightness. It looks great, honestly.
The speakers have been given a nice upgrade and our loud, fuller sounding than the outgoing model and overall good for a laptop. There was some drama revolving around the 13″ Touch Bar model as a recent iFixit teardown revealed that the majority of the speaker holes on the 13″ model didn’t even go all the way through the case, and that the speakers were actually located further south on the Mac. (Read: the speaker grills were largely cosmetic and non-functioning.) A follow-up report clarified that some of the speaker holes are functional though, a majority of the sound is pumped through the vents on the underside. Again, this is the 13″ MacBook Pro w/ Touch Bar.
With each passing year the trackpad seems to encroach more and more. The late-2016 MacBook Pro continues the trend. Outside of size though, it’s really the same track pad we’ve come to know and love for the most part in terms of functionality. No new features to speak of have been added on the software layer. On the hardware layer however, things are continuing to move in the less is more direction. Much like the other models have eschewed the physicality of the trackpad, this MacBook Pro now joins the ranks. The feeling you get when depressing the trackpad on these new MacBook Pros is entirely digitized thanks to a vibration motor. For better or worse, physical actuation is continuing to be kicked to the curb. In my use over the last week, there are times when the non-physical nature of it is more apparent than others (usually it depends on what surface the laptop is on). But from a raw usability standpoint I haven’t been affected nor do I notice it most of the time.
Keyboard & Touch Bar
Keeping with the scandalous theme, the latest MacBook Pros adopt the (almost identical) keyboard form the 12″ MacBook. If you’ve ever tried the 12″ MacBook’s keyboard, you’ll be mostly in the know of the late 2016 model’s implementation of it. Apple says that it has been slightly tweaked for the new hardware. I will have to take their word on it for now as I don’t have a 12″ MacBook to test side-by-side and instead have to go off of memory on how it felt ~6 months ago. Essentially, the difference is small enough so that if you didn’t like the 12″ MacBook keyboard, you probably won’t like the new 2016 MacBook Pro keyboard either.
For me – I love it. Key travel is indeed very short and the end of key travel ends abruptly with a sturdy, almost “chunky” click sound. Now, it’s not “loud” or mechanical keyboard feeling, but it almost has a tiny bit of that sound. The combination is perfect for me. The audible feedback and low key travel make it feel like a very fast keyboard but also maintain some physical and tactical feedback.
You’ll notice on the Touch Bar models that the top row of keys that traditionally holds the function keys is gone, replaced by the new Touch Bar. My short and TL;DR thought on the Touch Bar: cool but not necessary. Expanding on this, I don’t think the Touch Bar will ever be a “big” thing. Instead, it is a small addition whose robust capabilities will allow it to slowly seep into your daily work flows. A year down the road you won’t think about how much you use it until you use some other laptop without and notice all the small or novelty tasks you moved over to the Touch Bar.
The final and perhaps most important (and useful) feature revolving around the keyboard and the Touch Bar is the Touch ID sensor located at the far right of the Touch Bar area. It’s the same Touch ID you know and love on the iOS platform now finally making its debut on macOS. It’s hands down the best fingerprint sensor I’ve used on a laptop to date. Windows manufacturers have toyed with finger print sensors for years. And despite having years of iteration on their side, they’ve managed to do nothing but produce garbage. The Touch ID sensor in the MacBook Pro is fast, though I would say not quite as quick as the latest iPhone 7 and 7 Plus phones. I would also like to see more things use it. That is more-so a result of the limited time it has been on the market. I’m certain that in time, more developers will tap into it. For now however, we’ll have to make do with some built-in Apple services such as iTunes and the App Store and unlocking the laptop. Apple Pay on the web is supported too. Like I said, in time more developers will update their apps for Touch ID and we’ll all be for the better.
Apple has, for the better part of a decade now, bucked the industry trend of overly optimistic battery life estimates and instead published rather accurate ratings. For 2016 I can handedly say they have gone away from that trend. After the better part of a week, I don’t know how anyone would ever get 10 hours on the 15″ model. On average I get 5-7 hours both in actual real world usage as well as the amount of time remaining as indicated by iStat Menus (a fantastic app for monitoring Mac resources, by the way). During last week’s podcast while we were just sitting there and I wasn’t doing anything on the Mac besides keeping the screen alive and a static Google Docs tab open, even at 100% I never saw a time estimate above ~5.5 hours. To be fair, the few scenarios being based off of a time estimation may not be overall representative of normal actual run times. More to that point, for example, for a few days iStat Menus reported ~5-5.5 hours remaining for a solid 2 hours. Nonetheless, even factoring in my real world usage on a daily basis, I still maintain that 10 hours is a very optimistic rating.
Let me be clear: I love this laptop. It’s the best laptop I’ve owned yet. And while I have certainly been highly critical of decisions made up to this point, it’s still the best tool for me. That doesn’t mean I don’t worry about it for my uses as well as higher end pros – their livelihood is even more in danger. That said, if you have a higher end MacBook Pro from the last couple of years, it’s not really “worth” the upgrade. Being the tech lover that I am however, I can and will find ways to rationalize every upgrade, no matter how ridiculous the reasoning or outrageous the cost to do so. It’s just who I am.
But if you do upgrade, I assure you that you almost certainly won’t be disappointed. It’s once again a fantastic laptop that will do a lot – just about anything you throw at it. Unfortunately, the barrier to entry is also as high as ever. Combined with Apple’s decisions with this latest refresh to be even more consumer focused than normal and the whole port/dongle debacle, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for comfort or safety in the brand, and in turn, long-term longevity. Still, if you can stomach all of that, you’ll be the owner of one of the best laptops on the market.