Hands on: 15-in. MacBook Pro delivers on speed and design – for a price

Hands on: 15-in. MacBook Pro delivers on speed and design – for a price

There's a lot to like in Apple's new laptop lineup, from the updated internal architecture to the twice-as-big multi- and force-touch trackpad and the brighter, more color-accurate Retina display.

But the question I keep getting asked about the latest 15-in. MacBook Pro is whether the new Touch Bar is a gimmick.

The Touch Bar is Apple's replacement for the Function key row. Instead of keys, there's a 2170-x-60-pixel OLED multitouch display that dynamically changes based on app use and context.

Of course, that's not all that's new. There's also a flatter keyboard, new Thunderbolt 3  ports and even Touch ID -- all neatly packaged in an enclosure that's both lighter and thinner than any previous 15-in. MacBook Pro and starts at the not-inexpensive price of $2,399. (This is also the first major redesign to the line in four years.)

But none of those changes, not even new Skylake chips, new GPUs or a weight reduction to 4 lb.-- the kinds of things that usually get Apple buyers excited -- compares to the Touch Bar for sparking interest in the MacBook Pro.

The main event: The Touch Bar

So let's get right to it. The theory behind the Touch Bar is sound: Instead of reaching for and touching the main display, there is an area directly above the keyboard (where your hands are already naturally positioned) that dynamically changes depending what you're doing.

maps on mbp Michael DeAgonia

Apple's Maps app has been updated to showcase the various uses for the Touch Bar.

Is it a gimmick? Technically, yes. But so is every new technology looking for a foothold in the habits of its users. The original Mac's gimmick was to be a self-contained computer when such a thing was rare; the PowerBook 500 was the first notebook to ship with a gimmick called the trackpad; the iPhone's gimmick was the multitouch interface; and now the Touch Bar is here to entice buyers.

touch bar shot

A Touch Bar screen shot showing the standard configuration when the Maps app is open.

The more accurate question is: Is it useful?

After spending a week with the entry-level 15-in. MacBook Pro (256GB of storage, 16GB of RAM, and a quad-core Intel Core i7 processor), I've come to realize that the answer is nuanced. The Touch Bar can be customized in the Keyboard section of System Preferences and that customization is key to getting the most from it.

To begin with, if you're a traditionalist and don't want a dynamic strip, the Touch Bar can simply display actual function keys (from Esc to F12). You can also use it as an expanded Control Strip, so that it emulates the keyboard F-row system shortcuts found in earlier Apple laptops. If you're unfamiliar with the Control Strip, it shows display and keyboard brightness controls, Mission Control window management and media and volume controls.

The Touch Bar's default view is App Controls with Control Strip. In this view, there are four icons to the right of the Touch Bar for convenient access. This area can be customized in the Keyboard preference pane by tapping Customize Control Strip and then dragging the functions you consider most useful onto the Touch Bar. You can choose from Screen Lock, Launch Pad, Siri activation, volume and mute, brightness controls, Show Desktop, Start Screen Saver and several others. (I had mine configured to Brightness, Volume, Dictation, and Siri.)

Better yet, the Touch Bar can be customized within each app that supports it. Just go to View in the Menubar at the top of the screen and select "Customize Touch Bar..." The overall implementation is clever and well-done, and delivers more flexibility than you'd think.

I like the overall concept, but some current uses are redundant. For instance, when you open System Preferences and select a preference, the Touch Bar displays Show All, which, when pressed, takes you back to the main System Preferences window. When you're using Safari, the Touch Bar displays open browser tabs; and tapping on any one of them jumps to that tab in the browser on your screen. And onscreen dialogue boxes display even more options on the Touch Bar.

Touch Bar and keyboard Michael DeAgonia

The Touch Bar and newly redesigned keyboard, with larger keys and reduced key "travel," are two of the more obvious changes to the MacBook Pro. Users will also notice that the keyboard has a more pronounced "clacky" sound.

This all sounds great in theory, but it's different in the real world. When activating a screen saver or showing the desktop, you could reach over and use the Touch Bar, sure. But it is faster to use multitouch gestures on the trackpad to do the same thing. For example, when I tried it out with the System Preferences and Safari tabs described above, moving my hand to reach for the Touch Bar took longer than using the equivalent keyboard combo. Since my hand was already on the trackpad, mousing to and clicking onscreen elements was faster than reaching for the Touch Bar. And in the case of the dialogue boxes, it was easier for me to make my selection by hitting the Return key than it was to reach over and tap. We're talking milliseconds here, but it's noticeable.

Essentially, the Touch Bar requires you to unlearn years of muscle memory. It has taken some getting used to, mostly because I've spent an entire lifetime not using a physical keyboard with a built-in touch area.

This sounds like I'm negative on the Touch Bar, but I'm not. I just find that it works best when it's acting as a shortcut for an action that eliminates multiple clicks and mouse travel. In other words, there has to be a good, time-saving reason to learn new movements. That said, I like having the options that the Touch Bar enables; I also like the contextually dynamic capabilities in each supported app -- like being able to scroll through selections and interacting with what were previously static keys.

In fact, the more I use this laptop, the more I find myself eying the space above the Touch Bar and wishing it used up more of that space. Then I take that a step further and envision individual keys on the keyboard that could dynamically change like the characters on Touch Bar. After all, not every app needs the alphabet displayed at all times. So in that sci-fi sense, Apple could be opening the door for dramatically different keyboards. I like that idea.

Touch to confirm ID

To the right of the Touch Bar is a camouflaged power button that also doubles as a Touch ID sensor. It can be used to authenticate dialog boxes for software installs or authenticate Apple Pay payments, log in to your Mac, or quickly switch to another user account on the Mac.

Touch ID Michael DeAgonia

Touch ID works much like it does on the iPhone once your fingerprint has been recorded.

Fingerprints can be added in the Touch ID System Preference much as they are on the iPhone or iPad, along with three options as to what Touch ID will authenticate. It hasn't gotten the attention it should, but it works well, is incredibly useful, and is one of my favorite additions to the MacBook Pro lineup. It also opens up Apple Pay on the desktop, meaning you can quickly and easily make online purchases - just in time for the holidays.

More nitty-gritty tech details

At 4 lb. and just 15.5mm thick with the lid closed, the new MacBook Pro looks sharp, has a smaller footprint than previous 15-in. models, and yet manages to feel even more sturdy. The one thing you can't fault Apple for is its focus on design and build quality. This notebook continues that tradition, and comes in two colors: the traditional silver aluminum, or the darker Space Gray. I prefer the latter because it's both newer and more stylish.

A few words about the hardware specs: The larger MacBook Pros feature sixth-generation Intel Skylake processors. The model I tested has a quad-core i7 running at 2.6GHz with the capability of increasing its speed to 3.5GHz when extra power is needed. There are build-to-order processor upgrades up to 2.9GHz (with a corresponding 3.8GHz turbo boost). Every MacBook Pro ships with Intel HD 530 integrated graphics, as well as an AMD Polaris Radeon GPU for more graphics and processing oomph.

This unit sports the Radeon Pro 450 with 2GB of video RAM, but you can upgrade to the Radeon Pro 455 or 460 chipset. The latter offers 4GB of dedicated video memory.

Those video cards power an updated LED Retina display with 2880-x-1800-pixel native resolution packed into a 15.4 in. display. That's 220 pixels per inch, and with the built-in scaling of the macOS, it delivers clear, sharp text and images. At 500 nits, the display is also one of the brightest ever shipped by Apple; and finally, it supports a wider color gamut than before (the P3 profile), translating to brighter whites and deeper blacks, and a greater nuance in colors. The difference between this year's models and last year's is noticeable.

The 15-in. MacBook Pros all ship with 16GB of 2,133MHz LPDDR3 memory, which cannot be upgraded in any way; SSD storage starts at 256GB on the $2,399 model and 512GB on the $2,799 version. There are custom configurations for 1TB and 2TB drives, but they'll cost you (for the model I reviewed, the 2TB option would cost $1,200 more). Since the SSD is soldered to the motherboard, you won't be able to upgrade later, so get as much as you need -- and then some -- when buying.

DVI attempt on MBP Michael DeAgonia

Don't try this at home. Trying to connect an older DVI monitor using a Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 USB-C adapter didn't work. (That's the last-generation MacBook Pro.)

Lastly, there are four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports -- two on each side -- and one 3.5-in. headphone jack on the right. The Thunderbolt 3 ports are compatible with USB 3.1 Gen 2 and  operate at speeds up to 40Gbps. Unfortunately, those are the only ports, meaning older devices will require dongles and adapters. The SD card slot is gone, too, as is the MagSafe magnetic charging connector. The good news is that any one of the new ports can be used to run external monitors, hard drives or storage arrays or to charge the computer. 

After the initial announcements, I certainly was less than impressed with the specs, both in terms of RAM limits and storage options -- especially given the prices Apple charges. (Okay, I was downright angry.)

Beyond theory

While I was a vocal critic of the MacBook Pro's specs at first, it's clear that this Mac is more powerful than the specs imply. For instance, the graphics card didn't impress me on paper. But in practice, it works really well. Everything was smooth and responsive. It takes a pretty powerful machine to run four external 4K monitors at a time in concert with the built-in high resolution display.

Are these the fastest cards on the market? No. But they're a good balance between capabilities and energy efficiency, and that's what is most important for Apple.

In real-world use, this computer is also faster than its specs would indicate. That has a lot to do with the speed of the internal architecture and the new storage system.

To compare, I ran a benchmark called Blackmagic Disk Speed Test and saw between 1.3GBps and 1.4GBps per second write speeds. Impressive. More impressive? The MacBook Pro pinned the needle at 2GBps for reads. Testing on the higher-end 15-in. model with a 2.7GHz i7 processor and 512GB of storage showed even faster write speeds, topping out at around 1.8GBps.

speedtest Ken Mingis

How fast is the MacBook Pro's SSD? The entry-level model hit 1.3GBps and 2.0+GBps in write/read tests. And results for the pricier model (shown here) were even faster.

I also duplicated several iMovie project libraries, and in the case of an 11GB project, a mid-2015 MacBook Pro was able to duplicate the file in slightly less than 20 seconds; this model accomplished the task in 12.5 seconds. For videographers, that's going to represent serious time savings on their work.

This amount of speed even helps a bit in offsetting the 16GB memory ceiling and would make any paging activity that occurs if you run short of RAM palatable. It also makes this laptop really fast.

My biggest complaint is, as noted earlier, that you can't update the hardware later. This laptop is frozen in time once you order it.

Trackpad touching

I love the new oversized trackpad; despite its size, it doesn't get in the way of typing. The built-in palm rejection software is choice, so the cursor never winds up being flung all over the display accidentally. But it also means you sometimes have to be careful when using multitouch gestures. I find I have to be a little bit more deliberate with some gestures. Scrolling with two fingers while resting my palm on the trackpad always works, but more elaborate gestures (like showing the Desktop or bringing up Launchpad) work more consistently when I raise my hand from the trackpad and <i>then</i> perform the gesture. That's leftover movement from using the smaller Trackpads in earlier MacBook Pros. Again, muscle memory is getting in the way.</p>

The speakers are better designed and sound good to my ears, especially for a device this thin, with robust highs and mid-ranges. You're not getting sound reproduction that will replace your living room system, but it is certainly a noticeable improvement over previous models.

When it comes to battery life, Apple says you've got 10 hours without needing a charge. That dovetails with what I've seen, though I did not do a rigorous test - largely because I haven't had to worry about battery life yet. I have been leaving the charger at work and then coming home and just using this laptop the rest of the night. Whether I've been editing video or writing reviews or browsing the web, the MacBook Pro's battery has lasted well into the early morning hours with a couple of hours of battery life to spare.

Bottom line

My biggest point of contention with this year's line-up has been that I thought Apple skimped on storage and RAM while boosting the entry price for the MacBook Pros with Touch Bar. I felt Apple was nickel and diming its customers, especially considering the company's average profit margins (over 38% last quarter).

After having spent time with this MacBook Pro -- as well as the 13-in. models with and without the Touch Bar -- I can say they offer great design, great real world speed and great build quality. You're paying good money, but at least you're paying for quality.

That said, there are drawbacks I'm not comfortable living with yet, such as the storage offered at current prices and the need for more dongles and adapters. Some users will be able to live with this; others who may not think much about their needs in two or three years could wind up regretting their purchase if they don't get enough storage. That's especially true since Apple's notebooks tend to last for many, many years. (My current MacBook Pro is four years old now and still going strong.)

I'm not quite ready to purchase a new MacBook Pro, but it's going to hurt -- a lot - not to do so. We'll see how long my resolve lasts when I go back to my old MacBook Pro. 

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