The New MacBook Pro Review

Posted by kdow on Dec 12, 2016 9:14:59 PM


I wrote about the new MacBook Pro just after Apple announced it. And then I went dark. Well, in terms of blogging at least. That’s moreso because I did a whole lot of travel & had no time for much else. But I’m back in action… before I start travelling again in 3 days.

Anyway, the new MBP has been released into the hands of the great unwashed. And the reviews are mixed, at best. There are hundreds of reasons for these mixed reviews. And a lot of them are coming from people who played with one for an hour or two before forming a definitive opinion. I’ve had mine for a few weeks now, and I’m typing this review on it.

I’ve broken this post up into a bunch of sections that hope to address or introduce various aspects of this new direction Apple are taking with the new Pro range. If I’m missing anything just send me a note and I’ll address it!

Genesis

It’s worth noting that I’ve been a devout Apple fan for many, many years. In my 30 years on this earth I’ve grown up with computers around me. I grew up with the internet far before anyone else I know thanks to my Dad’s job in telecomms back in the day. You all think you have it bad; I had to IRC on 9.6kbps!

Anyway, most of those years have been joyously with Macs. So I remember the good, bad & indifferent releases from Apple. These days it feels like people recall Steve Jobs’ Apple as hit after hit. Which is fair if you take the lickable iMacs, revolutionary iPhones & genre-defining iPads. There were duds in there.

For example, the original MacBook Air was a piece of shit; nearly every single one produced broke at the hinge. The pre-unibody MacBook Pro’s graphics card stopped working so much that Apple sued nVidia. Hell, the first wave of iPods (crowned as Jobs’ first big win back at Apple) barely worked, and when they did, they only worked on Firewire-capable Macs.

I lived through it all. Sometimes through gritted teeth. Hell, I adopted my first Mac as a user around the time that Gil Amelio was CEO. Gil fucking Amelio! No one even remembers him as CEO! Granted, I was 10 years old so I don’t remember him either.

The above few paragraphs are not a way for me to brag about my youthful resilience in the face of often subpar technology, but instead a way for me to highlight the fact that I have the scars produced by being an Apple devotee. I know the highs are really, really high but the lows are Captain Picard-level facepalm moments.

Right now, with the new Pro you’d swear Apple have released a dirt wrapped in a terminal illness if you stuck to the blogosphere/YouTuber batch of reviews doing the ‘rounds. It’s not all good. But it’s hardly that bad.

For the sake of clarity, I’m using the entry-level 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.

Keyboard

One of the big topic items in the reviewer world is the keyboard. Apparently it’s a slightly larger take on the entry level MacBooks’ keyboard, which I’ve only had some sparing use of in an Apple store. I didn’t love what I felt in the Apple Store, but using the keyboard now is a joy.

I won’t go as far as to say it’s the best keyboard they’ve ever produced, but it is great. And I say that as a Geekhack lurking nerd. Right next to me now is a 2016 Ducky Shine with cherry mx blue switches. I have two other cherry mx red keyboards in a cupboard somewhere, and in work I have a 2016 Das keyboard with cherry mx blue’s. Ladies, before you line up, know that this isn’t that much of a brag. Knowing your way around a top-of-the-line mechanical keyboard, and being a total dick about it, is equivalent to a rapper bragging about their shoes. Ostensibly it changes nothing, but makes you more annoying to those around you. But you feel fantastic.

In fact, the best keyboard Apple produced was the Apple Keyboard II (shipped with the Mac II & SE). It didn’t feature proper mechanical switches, but it felt great to type on.

But this keyboard is by far the best laptop keyboard I’ve ever used. It has a resilient click to it as you type. Though the keys don’t depress far down, which is something I’d address in a future version. It still feels great, and has an audible clack noise.

Moreover, and more importantly for most users, the backlight is isolated to the keys themselves. The prior model’s backlight was a huge grid, rather than isolated nodes. This lead to a huge amount of light leaking from behind the keys; especially the space bar. This means the new keyboard is far less annoying in dark situations.

Moreover, it’s augmented by the Touch Bar, but we’ll get to that.

Menu options in Pixelmator

Touch Bar

This “revolution” isn’t all that revolutionary. Sure, it changes contextually depending on what macOS app you have open. But in reality, it’s a crap iPad on the top of your keyboard.

For most people the Touch Bar will have a minimal effect on how they use their Mac. It’s a cool demo, for sure. And the black screen really does blend nicely into the keyboard. Some folks have suggested that it shines light and looks completely out of place. That might be the case in a retail outlet with an ungodly bright LED above it, but in any situation I’ve found myself in (dimly lit room, bright office space, outdoors!) it doesn’t come across that way at all.

In terms of utility, the keyboard suggestions on how words are spelled or what the next word should be mimics the iOS utility when typing. But on iOS it’s useful. On macOS it’s never going to keep up with my typing speed. Granted, that may not be true for everyone.

Where Touch Bar shines is media & functionality. Media (iTunes, YouTube, Netflix etc.), screen brightness & volume are all analogue inputs on sliders. Just like iOS. They’re not “accessible.” They’re right there! It’s just as easy to change the volume or brightness as it was on older Macs. If not easier. And there’s an interactive emoji bar.

The function keys, those precious keys everyone cried about when they saw the Touch Bar, isn’t hidden. It can be brought forward easily. Or if you hit the fn key, it’ll reveal the functions. You know, basically the same input dynamics as Macs from the last 10 years or so.

To the left-hand-side of the Touch Bar is another neat little feature: Touch ID. Just like my iPhone or iPad, I can unlock my Mac or pay with Apple Pay (joking, that’s not in Ireland yet ). Not game-changing by any means. But useful nonetheless.

Touch Bar isn’t a revolution. It’s nice, but not so valuable as to render this Mac the best ever produced. It’s sort-of like Nintendo’s hardware over the last 10 years. There’s always a gimmick to draw you in, but you settle into using it the way you used the same features prior to having it anyway.

Plug

Yeah. The plug.

Apple have innovated laptops in many ways over the last decade. But one of the most over-looked, under-appreciated and important ones is the humble plug.

Let’s look at the features of the old plug:

  • ‘Wings’ to wrap the cable around when travelling.
  • Included was always a long chord as well as a simple duckhead when a long cable wasn’t required.
  • The duckhead was super simple to replace (I even had an accessory to make it a USB-charging wall-socket with replaceable heads for various countries!).
  • A light to indicate whether the computer was charging or fully charged.
  • MagSafe.

All but the duckhead are gone now. And worse, the duckhead’s metal pin that allows you to glide a duckhead or chord onto the plug is a different size, so old accessories or other-country plugs are now useless.

Aside from the pointlessness of that being gone, the lack of ability to wrap the cable around wings is really irritating. Especially since I travel so much. I mean, the machine is a laptop. It’s a computer for travelling. And Apple has made it irritatingly more messy to do so with a MacBook Pro.

They’re betting that the removable USB-C cable (more on that coming) is enough for people to feel comfortable without the wings on the power brick itself, but that’s not fair. I really loved being able to keep my cable in good nick by having it wrap-around. I never had one break, ever.

More irritatingly with the introduction of USB-C as a charging device is the fact that it can no longer support MagSafe technology. MagSafe, for the uninitiated, was the magnetised port on a MacBook that let you trip over a cable without ripping your laptop to the ground and breaking it. It was super handy. And now the USB-C port returns us to an era where it’s really fiddly to plug it in. And without checking the software, there’s no visual indicator to say whether the laptop is fully charged or charging.

USB-C

USB-C is the looming demon above all of our portable devices. It’s better, it’s coming and Apple, Intel & others are going to force the change as fast as possible.

Yes, it’s hard to let go. Yes, it’s a bit weird to use a USB->USB-C dongle but we’re here. We’ve been here before. Let go of your old shit and move on, folks.

I remember when Apple ditched Firewire. All the “creatives” who buy 1 machine every 15 years ravaged Apple in the nascent era of blogs & social media. But Apple — and everyone else — marched onwards without Firewire. Today a Firewire device belongs in a museum, or in a digital painters’ den attached to a dongle.

It was even worse when Apple stopped shipping portables with SuperDrive’s (Apple’s weird name for a DVD tray). You could (and still can) buy a separate unit that plugged in via USB. People went nuts, but the world kept turning and now I barf at a laptop with a CD tray. What would you even use it for?

USB is a sore one for most people because everyone has multiple devices with USB. Included in the plethora of USB-enabled devices you own are every other portable Apple device. None of which come with USB-C cables. Yep, I had to hang my head in shame when I went to a store to buy a Lightning->USB-C cable. Nope, Apple didn’t provide one. Cheapskates.

Even worse, and something that would help the transition a lot, would have been if Apple included a USB->USB-C adapter. Sure, it’ll cost them a few extra quid per unit shipped, but requiring us all to shift cold turkey is impossible because nothing, not even Apple’s own products, ship with USB-C cables.

The benefits of USB-C are obvious. It’s more reliable, faster, can power devices from any port and is incredibly versatile because of this. And the world is ready for a shift. But Apple could have made USB-C easier to deal with. The MacBook pro is expensive. Don’t screw us with having to spend more on dongles that will obviously be required by everyone. Moreover, spend some R&D budget on replacing MagSafe on USB-C. There has to be a way to do that without breaking the switch to USB-C.

Today I have to buy dongles to adapt the world to USB-C, but it won’t take long for the world to adapt and everyone else will need USB-C->USB dongles until they buy new hardware.

Display

For all the misgivings of switching to USB-C without a transition period and the lack of MagSafe — or the lack of true revolution here — the display makes up for it. Honestly, the USB-C ports could emit life threatening diseases and I’d still buy this laptop for the display.

It is by far, by far, the best display I’ve ever used in my life. I can’t even imagine what I was doing before this display came along. I want to cut my eyes out every time I look at my 1080p PC gaming display.

Everything pops. Every single colour is rendered in their true form. Text reads like a book printed with the same lasers used for laser eye surgery. Black is black. Red is red. Green is… you get the point. Even at weird angles the display pops. And outdoors, or near a window, there glare is easily compensated by how bright the display is.

I still use the 2015 MacBook Pro for work and the display on that is world class — better than any Lenovo or prior Mac I’ve ever used. But the 2016 MacBook Pro is absolutely, absolutely, the finest display on the market.

It’s so good that when Apple & LG actually ship that ugly mess of a 5K display (featuring USB-C), I’ll be compelled to buy one. Just because no other display can accurately compliment this display.

I know this is an old, tired & jaded adage, but this display must be seen to be believed.

Force Touch Trackpad

The giant trackpad looks like it might be annoying on first contact. But it’s really good. Palm rejection is great, though my palms still sit on either side of the trackpad (this might not be the case with the smaller 13-inch model) but as a very heavy user of gestures, this trackpad is perfect.

The click is a little odd at first. Coming from the older MacBook Pro, which is a physical click, the new one has a virtual click. It uses the same Force Touch technology (a haptic engine underneath the hardware) as the iPhone 7 (which I also own). Which means, in terms of a demo, when the laptop isn’t powered on the trackpad has no click.

This means the click isn’t as deep as the old one, but it is responsive throughout the trackpad; hence why Apple could make it so big.

Apple’s stuck to their old manufacturing process by keeping a thin layer of glass on top of it, making it absolutely beautiful to glide your hands on. It’s funny, you don’t think of the trackpad as part of the sales pitch on a Mac, but when you use someone else’s non-Mac laptop, you really notice immediately by how god awful the trackpad is. Lenovo’s weird braille system being a particular eyesore (fingersore?).

Form factor

This has been written about a lot, but despite still being a 15-inch laptop, the form factor is tiny compared to the old one. And the old one is a work of art!

The housing, case and overall aesthetic of the new MacBook Pro is stunning. As is usual with a new Apple product, the build quality makes the old one look like it was made with old pieces of wood that were found in a fire.

But this new form factor brings a new joy to my life. You see, I love my bags. I have three or four different bags, but two are in heavy rotation. One barely holds my old 15-inch laptop. But now it comfortably holds this one. This means the bag will be spared the fate of being torn apart by the old one stretching the seams within.

Performance, specs, etc.

Steve Jobs, if he had one wish, would have been for people to shut up about specs. People who buy a camera because it has a higher megapixel count are buying a camera for the wrong reasons. You’re not printing a billboard with your 25-mp camera you dolt.

I don’t know what the specs of my top-of-the-line MacBook Pro from work are, but they’re great. And I’ve never had it struggle, bounce around or complain. I’ve maybe had one beachball ever.

And the new one feels great. The specs are probably fine. Maybe they’re not as good as they should be compared to other computers on the market in the same price range. But those older computers likely won’t have the same build quality, longevity or features as my MacBook Pro. I’m not being apologetic, honestly. People need to calm down about certain numbers being bigger than others.

If I was to give Apple one bad mark it’s the amount of RAM. 8GB as standard feels like they’re penney-pinching. Even though the performance of the machine is likely going to be totally fine.

To conclude

I can’t think of any other features worth talking about (again, ping me if I’m missing something), but all-in-all this is one of the best Macs Apple have ever put out. Then again, that’s easy when the last one was 4 years ago and the main competition are black plastic boxes produced by Lenovo.

This isn’t a revolutionary new Mac. It does push things along with a beautiful display, great trackpad and yes — even though it’s cumbersome right now — USB-C.

The aesthetics are beautiful. Stunning, in fact. As is expected from Apple. And it fits nicely with the rest of Apple’s existing hardware lines (iPhone 7 & iPad Pro). The display pops, the audio is crisp and the machine generally feels like a beast to use.

Is it worth the cost? If you expect this to last a few years, absolutely. If you’re hunting hardware specs, probably not.