A step forward and a step back

Another thing: I too often end up hitting the Touch Bar when I mean to strike the Delete key. By default, it’s Siri sitting in that spot above the backspace button, which means I’ve more than once summoned Apple’s virtual assistant when I didn’t mean to. I did use the settings menu to move Siri over to the left, but that just means something else will then be sitting above the Delete key, and you will accidentally hit that too. I’m frankly not sure what Apple should do about that. Maybe issue a software update that pushes those four shortcuts slightly left? Think on it, guys.

The Touch Bar works throughout the rest of macOS too, and occasionally it’s actually useful. In Safari, for instance, you can tap or slide to switch between open tabs. Also, when you put your cursor in the search field, your favorite websites will automatically pop up. In Mail you’ll see predictive text, formatting options (bold, italics, etc.) and even suggestions for where you should archive highlighted messages.

The Messages app also has Quick Type word suggestions, along with emoji and “Tapback” responses. In Calendar, you can select a day, month or year from the Touch Bar. Notes gives you checklists, formatting tools and, once again, predictive text. Rounding out the list, in Photos you’ll see a slider to scrub through your photos, along with buttons for cropping, favoriting, rotating pictures, or adding filters to them.

I think the reason some of these use cases work is that many of the things I just mentioned — picking emoji, accepting spellcheck suggestions — are things we’re already used to doing on touchscreens. Using iPhones for as long as nine years has prepared loyal Apple fans well for this moment. At the same time, I can understand why Apple didn’t go all in with a full touchscreen: macOS simply wasn’t designed to be finger friendly. Still, that didn’t stop me from poking the screen in vain several times, with the expectation that the Mac would behave the same as any Windows laptop I’ve tested recently.

In addition to those apps I mentioned, the Touch Bar works in other Apple programs like Pages, Numbers, Keynote and Final Cut Pro X. The company has also released an API for developers, and indeed, we’ve already seen previews of upcoming apps that take advantage of the Touch Bar, like Photoshop and Microsoft Office. For now, though, as this is only the first day that the Touch Bar MacBook Pros are on sale, the feature is mostly limited to first-party apps.

Performance and battery life

For its newest MacBook Pros, Apple went with sixth-, not seventh-generation (“Kaby Lake“) Intel Core CPUs. Which makes sense, because the specific (read: more powerful) Kaby Lake processors that Apple would need for the MacBook Pro series aren’t even available yet.

That said, even with the currently available Intel chips, Apple is claiming some big performance claims — up to 130 percent faster graphics on the 15-inch model, and up to 103 percent faster integrated graphics on the 13-inch model. The SSDs here are said to be up to 100 percent faster, with sequential read speeds of up to 3.1 gigabytes per second and sequential write speeds of up to 2.1 GB/s on the 13-inch model and up to 2.2 GB/s on the 15-incher.

As for disk speeds, the Blackmagic test showed average write speeds of 1.36 GB/s on the 13-inch Pro. (Blackmagic capped all read speeds at 2 GB/s — an error suggesting the test can’t handle disks this fast.) In a separate experiment, I duplicated a 6.02GB folder. This took as little as 8.2 seconds on the 15-inch model and a similar 8.44 seconds on the 13-incher.

Obviously, you’re not going to see maximum read or write speeds in a scenario like that, since both are happening at the same time. That said, speeds of 734 MB/s (or 713 MB/s on the 13-incher) are none too shabby. An eight-second transfer time is pretty brisk, considering how many photos, videos and other files I had in that six-gigabyte folder.

Boot-up took around 15 seconds to the login screen on the entry-level 13-inch model, though I logged a faster 10-second startup on my higher-specced 13-incher. In any case, this is on par with how last year’s models performed. This might be a good time to mention, by the way, that Apple has done away with its long-standing startup chime. I’ve been hearing some people say they miss it, but personally, I’ve been enjoying my silent boot-ups.

Though the MacBook Pro wasn’t intended for gaming, per se, for this kind of money it had better be able to do a passable job when pros feel like taking a break from work. For the purposes of this review, I installed Tomb Raider and used its built-in benchmark to measure frame rates. (Yes, I observed actual gameplay too.)

At the game’s native resolution (1,440 x 900 on the 13-inch Pro), I saw an average of 40.5 frames per second on the entry-level model, with frame rates ranging from 48.8 all the way down to a sluggish 18.8 at one point. On a more souped-up 13-inch Pro (one with a Touch Bar), the frame rate average rose to 47.4, with a range of 21.3 to 58.1 in my tests. Whichever configuration you get, the gameplay will net out to playable frame rates at default settings, though I can’t guarantee you won’t see any slowdowns.

As you’d expect, things improve a bit on the 15-inch model, which comes standard with discrete graphics. The Radeon Pro 455 GPU in my unit delivered average frame rates of 53 frames per second in Tomb Raider, with the default screen resolution of 1,650 x 1,050. Even the lowest frame rates were more playable here, with the fps rating ranging from 31.4 to 60.5.

This would be a good time to talk about operating temperatures. The 15-inch model in particular adds a split-blade fan design that promises more efficient cooling. Both models got hot on the bottom after just a few minutes of gaming, but in regular use they were more tolerable to keep in my lap — they sometimes got warm after a while, but never uncomfortably hot with more mundane use.

Apple rates both the 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pro for up to 10 hours of battery life, and that’s either with web surfing or iTunes movie playback. Even after half a dozen battery tests, I’m still noticing some inconsistencies in my results: 13-inch battery life is sometimes in the seven- to eight-hour range, with some tests hinting at a ten-and-a-half-hour capacity. Testing on the 15-inch model has also been inconclusive. I’ve generally seen between nine and 10 hours of video playback, but in one instance I exceeded the 13-hour mark by lowering the brightness slightly. I’ll be conducting more tests and updating this review with final battery life results.

Either way, it’s worth noting that earlier-gen MacBook Pros lasted longer on a charge. In particular, the 13-inch MacBook Pro I tested a year ago was rated for 12 hours of iTunes playback, and logged nearly 11 and a half hours in the same test I used this time. That’s an hour longer than even the best time I’ve gotten so far on this year’s 13-incher.

And then you have to consider what other computer makers are doing. Microsoft’s updated Surface Book, which just began shipping yesterday, is rated for up to 16 hours, and I actually got slightly more than that in my video rundown test (and that was with a Core i7 processor and discrete graphics, mind you). And while the Surface Book admittedly achieves that runtime with a heftier, 3.68-pound design, the same can’t be said of the 13-inch HP Spectre x360 — it lasted 10 hours in our video test with a Core i7 processor and a 2.85-pound design that weighs less than either of Apple’s MacBook Pros.

Taking all that into consideration, I’d be even happier with the battery life on the 13-inch model if Apple had been able to accomplish the same thing with a lighter design à la HP, or if it had accepted a slightly heavier build in the name of better endurance.

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The 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at $1,299 without the controversial Touch Bar. For the money, you get a 2.0GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 128GB solid-state drive, integrated Intel Iris 6100 graphics and just two USB-C ports. The non–Touch Bar machine is also available with a bigger 256GB drive, a different 2GHz Core i5 processor and Intel Iris 540 graphics for $1,499.

The Touch Bar models start at $1,799, and it’s at this tier, too, that you step up from two USB-C ports to four. At that price you get a 2.9GHz dual-core Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, a 256GB SSD and Intel Iris 550 graphics. The top-end model has a 512GB drive, bringing the total to $1,999.

Well, assuming you don’t buy any add-ons. You can purchase a 3.1GHz Core i5 processor for $100 or a 3.3GHz dual-core Core i7 CPU for $300. Doubling the RAM to 16GB costs $200. A 1TB SSD, meanwhile, costs an extra $400. This means the most tricked-out 13-inch Pro will set you back $2,899. Price of dongles not included.

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