Apple has revamped its MacBook Pro range, delivering a laptop that is thinner, lighter and more powerful than before.
Rather than just roll out the typical annual revamp of new and improved internal specs, the company has added a new feature to its top-spec machines, called Touch Bar. This configurable OLED screen strip with integrated Touch ID fingerprint sensor replaces where the F-keys are on a conventional keyboard.
We've been using the laptop for the last couple of weeks to find out whether the Touch Bar is a gimmick or a must-have essential for the future of work.
What ports does the new MacBook Pro have?
- No USB, SD card, or HDMI sockets
- Four Thunderbolt 3 ports
- Thinner and lighter design than before
Now available in grey or the traditional silver, the new MacBook Pro comes in 13- and 15-inch models. The Touch Bar is standard on the 15-inch, but only available on the higher-spec 13-inch models.
That's not the only big change though. The new Pro models ditch the USB sockets, the SD card slot, DisplayPort, the Magsafe power adapter - in fact everything except the headphone socket (clearly not enough courage to drop that one just yet). It's following in the footsteps of the 2015 MacBook, which also did away with its conventional ports.
Don't panic though, the new MacBook Pro does have connections. There are four Thunderbolt 3 sockets (just two such ports without Touch Bar) that can be used to power and connect to an array of different devices, supporting standards like USB Type-C, DisplayPort, HDMI and more.
Those changes mean the laptop is now smaller and thinner than before. Apple has shaved 3mm off the thickness without resorting to the MacBook Air trick of a thin wedge design.
So its the port situation a conundrum? The lack of USB connections only becomes a problem when you need to connect something - which for the most part, so goes Apple's reasoning, is that you don't. But if you're used to plugging in no end of different devices to your laptop that you'll need to invest in a bevy of dongles - from Apple, obviously - to solve your connection problems.
We remember when Apple removed the optical drive: we whinged, but then found ourselves never really needing to use CDs. Then Apple removed the Ethernet dongle and the same thing happened. The first batch of users will have to invest in dongles, that's a given, but in the future we suspect the issue about what will and won't fit won't be as big a issue as it is today.
What's new in the 2016 MacBook Pro refresh?
- 13-inch: 2560 x 1600 / 15-inch: 2880 x 1800 resolution
- Firmer keyboard (similar to 12in MacBook)
- Much larger trackpad with Force Touch
Flip the lid and the new MacBook Pro has undergone some distinctive design changes too.
The keyboard feels firm, certainly compared to the current MacBook Pro range, as it's based on the tech and shallow keys found in the current 12-inch MacBook keyboard. It's improved on the Pro, though, and feels more comfortable to type on.
While the keyboard is identical in size on both the 13 and 15-inch models, the trackpad has doubled in size compared to the previous generation. It's now huge. But don't let its bigger scale put you off - we find the extra real-estate of both models makes swiping and navigating around the screen even better. It also doesn't physically click, yet feels like it does due to haptic feedback, similar to the iPhone 7's Home button.
The screen is also much brighter, crisper, and more colourful than before. The 13-inch model offers a 2560 x 1600 pixel resolution, while the 15-inch model offers 2880 x 1800 pixels. Both are 500-nits, so nice and bright.
The tighter keyboard is sandwiched between two speakers that promise to be louder and clearer than ever before. Rather than bounce the sound off the screen, Apple has reverted back to the speakers being on the side of the keyboard, something that is even more pronounced on the 15-inch model. Given the size of the speakers the sound is pretty good and comparable to the iPad Pro in terms of performance, if not slightly better. It's certainly good enough to watch a video on, listen to music while you work, or hear a presentation over a video conference.
Is the Touch Bar a gimmick?
- OLED strip above the keyboard
- Touch ID sensor
- Not supported by all apps
The biggest change of all - and one that is likely to get the biggest wow - is the introduction of the new Touch Bar. Well, unless you choose the entry-level 13-inch Pro model.
The Touch Bar is an OLED strip that replaces the system and F-keys, running across the top of the keyboard, so if you're used to those shortcut keys then you might find yourself struggling without them. However, the Touch Bar's display dynamically changes based on what apps you're using and what you're doing with them.
That means it can go from offering volume keys one minute to displaying an array of smiling emoji the next. It's very cool, very responsive, and very easy to use. We especially like the ability to scroll through pictures in the Photos App or picking the right emoji in a tweet - although as you might have gathered it's all a bit supplemental.
Not all apps currently support the Touch Bar feature and there's no guarantee that they will in the future. Even then you might find yourself not really wanting what it offers. You can customise the Touch Bar to help that, but it's not hard to press CMD + B when you want to bold something rather than reaching up to the Touch Bar to press the B button to do the same thing. Some of its features seem superfluous.
However, the real power will come when your favourite app gives you a series of shortcuts that will maximise your workflow fully, but from the Apple apps we've used, it's just as easy to use a keyboard shortcut or the trackpad to do the same thing.
The visual performance is similar to the Apple Watch; it is beautifully crisp and clean even in daylight conditions. And it's designed to be touched (although there's no haptic feedback), acting as Apple's way of avoiding the main display being a touchscreen.
Is Touch ID in the new MacBook Pro useful?
- Touch Bar models include Touch ID fingerprint scanner
Furthermore, the Touch Bar has a Touch ID sensor buried beneath it at the far right-hand side, hidden under a small piece of sapphire crystal (presumably to stop it scratching).
That means you'll not only be able to unlock your Mac in the same way you do your iPhone, but also use Apple Pay on the web. Shame the entry-level 13-inch model doesn't get this addition - it's part an parcel of the Touch Bar.
The Touch ID button is physical and doubles as the power button for turning on the laptop. Like with the iPhone and iPad, the sensor is very good and recognising your registered fingerprints, so using it to unlock your laptop is a lot easier that typing a password every time.
How powerful is the 2016 MacBook Pro?
- 2GHz to 3.6GHz Intel Core i5/i7 processor options
- 8GB - 16GB RAM options
- Storage from 256GB to 2TB SSD
- Radeon Pro discrete graphics for 15-inch model only
It's not just about the exterior, though, the internals gets a refresh too. There are the latest processors, new graphics, discrete graphics options for the 15-inch model, and faster storage. Configuring the MacBook Pro to suit your needs will add considerable price premiums though.
The 13-inch Pro with Touch Bar features a 2.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.3GHz, 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD storage. It costs £1,749 - making it a pricey upgrade from the £900 12-inch MacBook or £949 MacBook Air. The lower-power Touch Bar-free model starts at £1,449.
If you want to go big, the 15-inch Pro comes with a 2.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.5GHz, 16GB RAM, discrete Radeon Pro graphics (with 2GB RAM), and 256GB SSD. But that costs £2,349. Configure it with even more power, such as adding the 4GB RAM Radeon Pro graphics, and the price keeps on rising.
The performance is just as you would expect from a "Pro" named laptop: ideal for crunching through video and photo editing with ease, although the reduced battery life of around 10 hours compared to the previous year's 12-hours does mean you'll need to find a power socket on long days out of the office. It's not a deal-breaker, but we did notice the difference in battery life in day to day usage.
The MacBook Pro has lots of things going for it. We love the keyboard, the trackpad, the screen, the performance, and the inclusion of the Touch ID sensor.
We aren't so keen about losing all those ports - although we'll learn to live with it. The reduced battery life compared to the previous generation means that the Pro still can't touch the MacBook Air either.
Adding the Touch Bar is certainly a bold move, one that's not just visually striking but could also provide lots of potential in the future. But while we were excited about it first, having now used it for some weeks time we've actually missed the physical F-keys. We can't help feel that, for most, it will end up being a frustration rather than a benefit most of the time.
In some ways we wish the 13-inch Pro offered a Touch ID sensor without the Touch Bar. That might then be the ultimate Pro laptop in the right configuration.
MacBook Pro with Touch Bar: Alternatives to consider
If you think the whole Touch Bar is an unnecessary extra then the entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro might be the perfect alternative. It can't be specced-out to as high-end a degree at the Touch Bar models, but for a cut of the price this super-slim Mac might be the perfect choice (if you can cope without the full-size USB ports anyway).
Want Windows instead, without sacrificing style or portability? Dell has the best option that ticks all the boxes: the XPS 15 (or smaller-scale 13 option). It won't cost as much, despite having an almost bezel-free screen, and can be ranged to feature anything from a Full HD (1080p) screen through to a super-sharp 4K (2160p) option instead.
Quality with a side order of shiny gold hot pants is the HP Spectre 13's way. Whereas other recent HP laptops have made a great impression with their price, this one makes an impression with its design. It looks great for a Windows machine, has plenty of power to boot, but can be a little noisy.