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 used the laptop for many months to find out whether the Touch Bar is a gimmick or a must-have essential for the future of work.
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What ports does the MacBook Pro (2017) 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.
Here the biggest pain point for us has been having to use a dongle to connect an SD card and reading files from a USB thumb drive. With the non-Touch Bar variant of the MacBook Pro plugging in a dongle wipes out the use of the other port, but because you've got ports on both sides of the screen you can still use one side for power and perhaps connecting an external monitor and the other side for your "large dongles".
What's new in the 2017 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
The design hasn't changed from the 2016 refresh for the 2017 MacBook Pro, but you do get more power in terms of processor.
The keyboard feels firm, certainly compared to the now older 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 and iPhone 8's Home buttons.
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.
It sounds like stuff of the future, but in reality it's a huge fad and one that we can't, and suspect many others, justify. Using an array of apps like Mail, Safari, Excel, Word, and other general "office-style" apps we've failed to see the point or the benefit. It's not that the tech doesn't work, it's just we've not found the benefit and moving back to a non Touch Bar model showed that we haven't missed it either, if anything it was the opposite: while using it we missed physical keys.
Is Touch ID in the MacBook Pro (2017) useful?
- Touch Bar models include Touch ID fingerprint scanner
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 MacBook Pro (2017)?
- Upto 3.1GHz Intel Core i7 processor options
- 8GB - 16GB RAM options
- Storage from 256GB to 2TB SSD
- Radeon Pro 555 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 updated 13-inch MacBook Pro features Kaby Lake processors up to 3.5 GHz Core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 4.0 GHz, and the 15-inch MacBook Pro goes up to 3.1 GHz Core i7 with Turbo Boost up to 4.1 GHz. The 15-inch MacBook Pro now comes standard with more powerful discrete graphics with more video memory.
The starting 13-inch Pro with Touch Bar features a 3.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.5GHz, 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.
If you want to go big, the 15-inch Pro comes with a 2.8GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.8GHz, 16GB RAM, discrete Radeon Pro 555 graphics (with 2GB RAM), and 256GB SSD. But that costs £2,349. There's also a 2.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost speeds up to 3.9GHz model with 16GB RAM, and 512GB of SSD storage that will set you back £2,699.
If you're keen to pay more you can configure it with even more power, such as adding the 2TB SSD storage and a faster 3.1GHz processor. That custom model will set you back £3,969 in the UK.
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, and certainly when you have the screen brightness all the way up.
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've learnt 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 in terms of on the go computing, but you do get a much more powerful machine for it.
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 time we've actually miss 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.
For the 15-inch offering you can't get it without the Touch Bar, but for the 13-inch user, now the 2017 includes two non-Touch Bar variants, it might be worth looking at whether they will be powerful enough to serve your needs, and save you having to completely raid the piggy bank.
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.
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