The new MacBook Pro comes in three flavors: two 13-inch models and a 15-incher. They all have thinner bodies, better screens, and trackpads so big they blot out the sun. And you can buy it in space gray. But the important addition is the Touch Bar. This capacitive strip of OLED glass above the keyboard is supposed to change everything, again, about how you use your laptop.
Apple MacBook Pro With Touch Bar
Thinner, lighter, prettier. There’s no such thing as a too-big trackpad. The Touch Bar is remarkably well-executed. The ability to charge from any port is pretty great.
The world is not quite ready for USB-C, and you’re not either. The Touch Bar needs more customization, and soon. Laptops aren’t supposed to be this expensive, are they?
“For 25 years,” Tim Cook said while unveiling the device, “we’ve been defining and redefining what a notebook is and what it can do.” Dramatic pause. “And today, we’re going to do it again.” Of course, Apple expects you to pay up: the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar starts at $1,800.
It’s been several years since the last big MacBook update, and mine is, like yours, long in the tooth. I’d been waiting for a reason to buy a new one, and jumped at the chance to try the new Pro. This is supposed to be it! The laptop of the future, and the future of the laptop. After using it, poking and prodding it, and plugging things into it, I have one word of advice.
Can Touch This
People love Apple computers because Apple gets the basics right. The keyboard, the trackpad, the screen, the speakers, all the table-stakes things too many companies get wrong. And in most cases, Apple made the best even better with the new MacBook Pro.
Apple’s Touch Bar doesn’t quite count as a revolutionary overhaul, but it’s certainly the biggest change Apple’s made in years.
The trackpad doesn’t physically click, but feels like it does, and it is so big and smooth you’d be crazy to use a mouse. The keyboard (a refined take on the 12-inch MacBook’s butterfly keys) doesn’t have much travel and takes getting used to, but it’s accurate and crisp and works beautifully. The speakers are louder and clearer than ever. I get eight or nine hours from the battery, as long as I’m not Photoshopping all day and keep the brightness below eye-bleeding levels. And the screen is, well, the screen is ridiculous. Apple’s ultra-wide color gamut, on top of the super-high resolution, makes it the best laptop display I’ve ever seen.
The 13-inch Pro, which I’ve been using, is a bit over half an inch thick and weighs almost exactly three pounds. I carried a MacBook Air for years, and this feels like that. (The footprint is actually a bit smaller.) Everything about it, even the charger, is smaller than ever. Apple could have kept the body the same and added more battery, or more power, but opted for smaller and lighter. How you feel about that says a lot about whether you’ll like the new Pro.
Apple’s Touch Bar doesn’t quite count as revolutionary, but it’s the biggest change in years. The thin OLED strip, where the function keys used to be, knows which app you’re in, tries to guess which features or settings you might need, and puts them within reach (barely) of your fingertips. In Safari, the Touch Bar offers small indicators for each tab and bookmark, plus quick access for search and opening a tab. In Messages, it becomes the Emoji Bar, which is objectively the best thing ever. You can scrub through your timeline in Final Cut, or swipe through photo albums in Photos. There’s no new functionality here, just easier and more obvious access to common stuff.
Technically, the Touch Bar works brilliantly. It’s fast and smooth and responsive. The textured glass feels great, and looks fantastic. Using my fingerprint on the Touch ID reader to log in and to pay for stuff is the best. But the implementation feels unfinished.
With no function keys, shortcuts for adjusting brightness and controlling music are hidden in a tiny menu to the right of the Touch Bar. Three are accessible at a tap: mute, volume, and screen brightness. (What madman needs brightness controls that much?) Pausing or playing music—something I do about 45,000 times daily—requires carefully tapping on the tiny left arrow, waiting a moment for the menu to expand, then finding and pressing the button.
“It takes a heartbeat longer to pause my music” hardly qualifies as a burn-it-down kind of problem. But the Touch Bar exists precisely to make these small, repetitive tasks easier. And too often, it just doesn’t have the option or button I’m looking for. The screen changes constantly, moving things around to the point where I can’t find anything. I’d like to see Apple open the Touch Bar so users can customize it. Then it could be everything I want it to be, because I could make it so. Right now, I’m subject to Apple’s best guess about what I want.
Apple often guesses wrong.
Pros, and Cons
The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar costs $1,799. It has a 2.9GHz Core i5 processor, 256 gigs of solid-state storage, eight gigs of RAM, and Intel Iris 550 graphics. Most benchmarks show that it’s faster than the previous Pro without being preposterously so. Now, if you don’t know or care what any of that means, it’s probably way more computer than you need. So is the 12-inch MacBook, honestly. That’s probably a better machine, if you don’t need more than a browser.
If you’re a spec-hungry power-user, you might be underwhelmed. You might not like that Apple called this MacBook “Pro” and made it even more expensive while using an old version of Intel’s processors, something less than the fastest graphics cards, and limited it to 16 gigs of RAM, max, on the super-high-end, $4,200 15-inch model. You definitely won’t like that Apple ditched every one of its previous ports in favor of Thunderbolt 3 ports jacks that require spending between $20 and $2 billion on adapters.
In my experience, there’s plenty of power here. My workflow isn’t everyone’s, but I can run Photoshop, Photos, 25 browser tabs, Slack (which is weirdly power-hungry at times), and a handful of other apps, no sweat. It’s not enough for high-end gaming, or really intensive video editing, but it’s more than enough for everyone else.
But the ports. Apple. WTF? I can conclusively say The Dongle Life sucks. It’s great that my laptop is smaller and lighter, but hunting through my bag for the tiny adapter to plug in my hard drive, which is different from the one I need for my monitor, which won’t work to plug in my phone, is infuriating exercise. Lots of people don’t connect things to their laptops, but those people aren’t the people who need a MacBook Pro. Pro users need RAID arrays, and second displays, and Ethernet connections.
Apple’s response, as with so many things, is: We know better than you do, so give it a minute. USB-C is here, or at least coming quickly, and you need to get on board. If you don’t buy a USB-C computer now because you don’t want adapters, you’ll be buying adapters in a couple years to connect your new stuff to your legacy computer. Everyone complains, but figures it out. There’s no better way to kickstart the ecosystem than to put the new world order in front of the pros who will build it.
All of that is true. But it won’t help you connect your SD card.
Do you desperately need a new laptop right this second? If not, wait. Run your current (and probably still excellent) machine into the ground, then buy a new one. In a year or two USB-C accessories will be everywhere, developers will have figured out what the Touch Bar is good for, and Apple may even give the Pro spec bump.
If you are in the market, though, consider your next purchase an investment and buy something this powerful, this nice, and this future-proof. Most people won’t need more oomph until we’re all living in VR, Ready Player One-style. Your best bet may be a MacBook Pro. Or, you could spend a lot less on a Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre 13, or Microsoft Surface Book, all of which are similarly great.
The new MacBook Pro is a terrific laptop and, like the super-skinny MacBook, a clear indication of where most of the computing world is going. But comes with growing pains while your workflow and other devices adjust to a new way of doing things. I can eke another nine months or so out of my old Pro before springing for the upgrade. You probably can too. But we all need to start getting ready for the one-port, no-wires, un-repairable future now, because it’s coming.