The last time Engadget reviewed a brand-new MacBook Pro design was in June of 2012. It weighed 4.46 pounds (a heavyweight by today’s standards) and it ushered in some newfangled thing called the Retina display. Though Apple has occasionally refreshed the processors (the last time being all the way back in early 2015), that design from 2012 is virtually the same one we’ve been reviewing all these years.
Thanks to that stale design and often neglected internals, many Mac fans out there have delayed upgrading – surely a new model was just around the corner, right? Though we’re not sure you all were able to hold off until now, Apple has finally updated its MacBook Pro line, and it’s not just a processor refresh either. Both of the new 13- and 15-inch Pros are thinner, lighter and more compact than their predecessors, with faster graphics and disk performance, a brighter, more colorful screen, Touch ID fingerprint sensor and louder, clearer audio.
Most notably, they mark the debut of yet another newfangled thing: the “Touch Bar,” an OLED strip above the keyboard that replaces the age-old Function bar with touch-sensitive controls that change depending on the app you’re using. Factor in a narrower selection of ports (almost guaranteeing you’ll need a dongle) and the MacBook Pro isn’t just a thinner or different-looking Mac; it’s one you’re meant to use differently. That’s not necessarily a good thing.
The new MacBook Pro is a clear departure from the previous generation, but it does look an awful lot like the more recent 12-inch MacBook. Like its stablemate, the new Pro has a unibody aluminum chassis, available in silver and space gray – a first for the Pro series. As on the smaller MacBook, there’s a metal logo on the lid where the glowing Apple used to be. (I don’t miss it, to be honest.) The keyboard has the same flat buttons as on the smaller MacBook, and the glass Force Touch trackpad is exactly what you’re used to, just a lot bigger this time.
Also familiar is the Retina display, whose 13.3-inch size and 2,560 x 1,600 resolution haven’t changed from last year’s MacBook Pro. (Ditto for the 15.4-inch screen, with a resolution of 2,880 x 1,800.) What has changed is the quality of the screen: It’s 67 percent brighter this year, with a max brightness rating of 500 nits. (Notebook displays don’t get much brighter than that.) Apple also promises a higher contrast ratio and a 25 percent wider color gamut that now includes the P3 color space – an important spec for photographers, videographers and other creative professionals.
As I said in my review of the current iMac, which also supports the P3 color gamut, you might not notice the difference in color on your own, but once someone points it out for you, it can be hard to un-see. In particular, you’ll notice the biggest difference with reds and greens, or even colors that occupy a similar spot on the spectrum, like orange.
There’s also a second display, if you will: the so-called Touch Bar sitting above the keyboard where the Function buttons used to be. I’ll spend a lot of time later explaining what the Touch Bar does and how it works, but for now, all you need to know is that this 2,170 x 60 touch strip offers a changing set of controls, depending on what app you’re using. There’s also a Touch ID fingerprint sensor built into the power button on the far-right side, which consistently delivered fast, accurate results in my tests. I much prefer it to entering a password or even logging in with an Apple Watch.
Again, I’ll have much more to say about the Touch Bar in just a moment, but suffice to say, as far as both design and features go, this is the single most obvious thing setting the new MacBook Pro apart from its predecessor. That’s especially true when the machine is powered on – the OLED strip displays millions of colors, the likes of which we’re not used to seeing emanating from a Mac keyboard.
Another noticeable change: The MacBook Pro is considerably thinner and lighter than before. The 13-inch model weighs just 3.02 pounds – a hair more than the 2.96-pound Air, and half a pound less than the last-gen MacBook Pro 13. It’s also 18 percent thinner, at 14.9mm thick, and has a 23 percent smaller footprint. Meanwhile, the 15-inch Pro comes in at 15.5mm thick, a 14 percent slim-down. It weighs four pounds, or about half a pound less than before, and takes up 20 percent less space.
Regardless of which size you choose, the port selection will be the same. Which is to say, less than on last year’s models. If you buy a MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar, you’ll get four Thunderbolt 3 ports, which use the USB Type-C standard. If you go with the entry-level MacBook 13, which does not have the Touch Bar, you’ll have to make do with two Thunderbolt connections.
Either way, it’s through one of those Thunderbolt ports that you’ll charge the laptop. That’s right, the ol’ MagSafe power connector is a thing of the past. I admit, I’ve been enjoying being able to charge my Mac on either side, depending on where the nearest power outlet happens to be. At the same time, this move to USB-C means there’s a greater risk of either breaking the cable or someone tripping over the cord and pulling your laptop to the ground.
Other than that, you just get a headphone jack. No SD slot, no HDMI output and no DisplayPort. You’ll need an adapter (sold separately, of course) to plug in just about any peripheral you already own. And given the MacBook Pro’s supposed demographic, I’m sure many people do indeed work with external monitors or backup drives attached. Photographers in particular like their memory card readers – heck, I needed one to produce this very review you’re reading.
I get why Apple went with USB-C – that standard is the future, and offers some real benefits like transfer speeds of up to 40Gbps and support for two external monitors up to 5K each. Right now, though, in the year 2016, I would have preferred a mix of USB-C and full-size USB sockets.
Apple must realize this new setup will be a pain for some: It temporarily slashed the prices of its adapters to as low as $9 for a USB-C-to-USB dongle. Take advantage of that soon, though, as Apple only plans to keep these prices in effect through the end of the year. Even if you do already own Thunderbolt 3 accessories, though, you might be disappointed to find that they don’t always work. We’ve already seen at least one report about the new MacBook Pros not playing nice with some existing peripherals.
It would be easy in our hardware tour to gloss over the small speaker grilles flanking the keyboard. As it happens, though, Apple retooled the audio setup within, adding stereo speakers offering twice the dynamic range and 58 percent more volume. The result is some of the clearest sound I’ve heard yet from a notebook. Everyone from Dolly Parton to Peggy Lee to Bob Dylan sounded more … present. With no discernible distortion crackling through the speakers, all my favorite artists sounded more than ever like they were in the room with me. Audiophiles might dispute my use of the phrase “studio quality,” but if nothing else, I think we can agree that, although laptop audio is usually unremarkable, this is actually pretty good.
Keyboard and trackpad
I was almost as pleasantly surprised by the keyboard. I did always love the cushy keyboard on the older MacBook Pro, and so I was wary when Apple announced it was moving to the same shallow keyboard used on the 12-inch MacBook. The buttons here use the second generation of Apple’s “butterfly” button design, offering four times more key stability than before. They also offer the same travel as on that smaller notebook: just 0.5 millimeters.
Indeed, though I’ve used the smaller MacBook, I still encountered something of a learning curve here. Particularly tricky were the sorts of long, complex passwords required by my company’s IT department. Though Apple claims the butterfly mechanism allows for more even button presses, my key strikes would sometimes fail to register, leading me to make typos and forcing me to go back and reenter my long password a second or even third time.
By now, though, after some two-odd weeks of testing, I’m typing at a faster clip. I still sometimes screw up my passwords, but my emails and first drafts (including this review!) are mostly clean. I’ve gone from merely tolerating the new keyboard to actually appreciating it.
Sitting beneath the keyboard, of course, is the touchpad, which is 46 percent larger than on the previous 13-inch model. On the 15-incher, it’s twice as big as before. And it’s ridiculous. Just look at it!