Reviewers weigh in on the new MacBook Pro…

MacBook Pro Touch Bar emoji image 001

As first customers begin to receive the new MacBook Pro, reviews of the long-expected hardware refresh to Apple’s Pro notebook family hit the web this morning. Depending on the reviewer, the Touch Bar feature is either a gimmick or a productivity-boosting addition.

As for performance, the reviews are mixed: some people are saying that a lot faster SSD and RAM make the machine super snappy and others note Intel’s Skylake chips barely push performance forward versus 2013 or later MacBook Pros.

Jason Snell, Six Colors

The Touch Bar delighted Snell:

The Touch Bar is an animated interface through and through. Items don’t just fade in and out, but also slide smoothly back and forth. The arrow pointing from the Touch Bar to the Touch ID sensor during a request for an unlock grows and shrinks, practically begging you to put your finger down. There’s a lot more personality here than I expected.

To balance out the design, the Touch Bar’s OLED screen doesn’t extend all the way to the left edge of the glass. As a result, the Touch Bar always appears inset from the rest of the keyboard. It’s a bit weird.

Here’s a video of Snell’s thoughts on the Touch Bar.

For those wondering, you can hit the ESC key on the Touch Bar without hitting the button itself. Tapping the corner of the Touch Bar blindly triggers an ESC key event, as you can see in John Gruber’s video below.

This is great if you’d like to hit ESC without looking down at the keyboard.

Jim Dalrymple, The Loop

Jim discusses the RAM non-issue:

To see how the new 15-inch MacBook Pro would do with audio, I opened a 40-track Logic Pro project. The song had a mix of loops, drums, and live recorded instruments. I played back the track, recorded some more guitars, added effects and did everything I would normally do with a music project.

When I looked at the memory usage for Logic Pro, it was using 1GB RAM. The MacBook Pro has 16GB, so I have a lot of room before I ever have to worry about running out of memory.

I know that having 16GB RAM is a concern for some people, but you could never put more than 16GB RAM in a MacBook Pro, so I don’t get the problem. Pros and other customers have been successfully using these computers for years. Just because it takes more RAM to use a Windows machine effectively, that doesn’t mean the same thing for a Mac. You have to look at the entire picture, hardware, software, system software, and memory optimizations.

Unlike some other reviewers, Jim does not think that the Touch Bar is a gimmick.

Most of us are so engrained in our workflow that we do things without even thinking about. However, when you do think to check the Touch Bar, you can see how things can be done simpler and easier.

Here’s a small example. Have you ever opened the calculator app and had to choose to type in the numbers or click with the mouse? No matter what you do, it’s a pain just because of the type of app it is. With Touch Bar, all of the calculator functions are in the Touch Bar, directly above the numbers on the keyboard. This is clearly so much easier.

There are a lot of examples like this with Apple’s apps and there will be many more when third-party developers add support for Touch Bar in the next few months.

Touch Bar is cool, but let’s not neglect Touch ID.

When the system wants your password to make changes, or delete an app, you can just place your finger on the Touch ID sensor and you’re done. The same can be done in System Preferences when making changes. It’s so much quicker than typing in your password. It’s a small thing, but it all matters.

Susie Ochs, Macworld

Susie was impressed with the more powerful speakers.

What isn’t a bummer are the new speakers, my favorite non-Touch Bar feature of the new machines. Apple explained that since they are connected right to the battery with no transformer between them, the speakers can get twice the peak power—and you can really hear the difference.

Music sounds great when you turn the volume all the way up, and the speakers are powerful enough to provide satisfying sound while watching movies, TV, and sports. The 15-inch model’s speakers seem to have more oomph than the 13-incher’s, but both can ably fill a hotel room with music, if you should want to leave your portable Bluetooth speaker at home.

Her hands-on video is available at the source link. I’m not embedding it here due to Macworld’s ill-practice of auto-starting videos in the background.

Should you buy the new Pro now or later?

These new MacBook Pros have a lot going for them. Their biggest weakness, across the whole Touch Bar line, is price. These prices could come down a little bit next generation, but if you need a MacBook Pro right now, the late 2016 models are solid performers. If I were buying one for myself, I’d go with the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and max out the storage, although the 15-inch model is even better.

Or simply wait (if you can) until prices of the new Pros inevitably fall next year as Apple refreshes them around Intel’s Kaby Lake chips.

Walt Mossberg, The Verge

WSJ’s former technology columnist took his 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar for a spin, deciding that the notebook that was once mainly aimed straight at people who do especially taxing work like professional video editing or serious design is “now being stretched to suit a much larger audience.”

He experienced some problems with the inconsistent battery life:

On my rigorous test, which I’ve used for years, the machine actually exceeded Apple’s claim of up to 10 hours of battery life. The test involves setting the screen at 100 percent, keeping it on and undimmed constantly, playing an endless loop of music, and leaving Wi-Fi on to collect email, tweets, and Facebook posts in the background. Result: 11 hours and 38 minutes.

I ran a second test with all of Apple’s default energy-saving settings on, the screen at 75 percent and a perfectly normal (for me) mix of tasks like web browsing, email, a few short videos, Twitter, Facebook, some light writing, and Slack. The Pro died at 8 hours and 22 minutes.

To make things worse, Apple’s built-in prediction of how much time the battery had left before dying fluctuated a lot and was mostly wrong.

According to Mossberg, Apple says this is a known problem caused by the fact that modern processors can power up and down rapidly over a much wider range than in the past, making estimates much more difficult.

In conclusion, he wrote:

The new 13” MacBooks—even the base model without the Touch Bar—are costly. And they may make pros unhappy. But, for everyday Mac lovers—users of the Air or maybe the older low-end Pro—they are now your only thin, modern, option with a full-fledged processor.

The Touch Bar has potential, but it’s not magic. The battery isn’t likely to deliver on Apple’s claims. You can’t count on liking the keyboard. But, if you’re a Mac devotee ready to move past the Air—not back to a lower-powered MacBook—this is what Apple is offering. Take it or leave it.

The new MacBook Pro is a “fast, slim tweener,” wrote Mossberg.

Joanna Stern, The Wall Street Journal

Even with the faster chips and new hardware features like the Touch Bar and Touch ID, you’ll get the same performance and battery as in the older model, notes WSJ.

So how do you decide? Do you invest in the present—the “old” MacBook Pro with performance, good-enough portability, a keyboard to cherish and lots of ports? Or do you invest in the future—a beautiful, highly portable machine with new tricks? Or maybe you do what I’m doing: Stare down at your three-year-old laptop and wonder if you can tough it out another year or two while this sorts itself out.

Here’s her video hands-on.

Brian Heater, TechCrunch

Brian likes the speed bump provided by faster chips, SSD and RAM, saying these features make the new MacBook Pros worthy upgrades, “particularly for those who have been suffering through their old system’s death rattles (or fan buzzing, at least), waiting for a significant update” from Apple.

Better processors, more storage, a brighter display and better speakers are all wrapped up in a sleeker and lighter package than before. The Touch Bar feels like a nice bonus for the time being. It’s a compelling new input device that has the potential to alter the way we interact with applications on a laptop.

In conclusion, the author wrote:

For those who have been holding out on buying a new MacBook, the time is right, with an upgrade that should be sufficiently future-proof to take on the next few years — or however long it takes for the next major upgrade. Hopefully you’ve been saving up in the meantime.

Brian X. Chen, The New York Times

Brian calls the new MacBook Pros light and fast—“probably powerful enough for most professionals”—but notes these machines aren’t for everyone because the Touch Bar so far “feels gimmicky” and “not many devices or accessories come with USB-C connectors yet.”

One thing is sure: For casual users or anyone buying their first laptop, who may just want a computer for web browsing and lightweight apps, the MacBook Pro is overkill.

So if you aren’t ready to make the jump to USB-C and you don’t want to spend a big chunk of your savings, it’s reasonable to wait for the new Apple notebooks to realize their potential or drop in price.

Dan Ackerman, CNET

Dan thinks Apple’s new mainstream MacBook Pro is going to be liked by a whole lot of new customers. On the downside, he notes that the Touch Bar itself “isn’t a must-have” right now. In his opinion, the 13-inch MacBook Pro without Touch Bar is likely going to be the default mainstream choice for price-sensitive consumers.

While the five percent of the laptop buyers who consider themselves true creative professionals may take various issues with the machine, the remaining 95 percent should see it as a compelling choice.

It’s far and away Apple’s most-advanced laptop. The touchpad has double the surface area of the previous model, it’s about as light as a MacBook Air but much thinner (14.9mm versus 18mm), and the flatter butterfly style keyboard has been subtly tweaked to work better here than it does in the 12-inch MacBook.

Andrew Cunningham, Ars Technica

Andrew notes that folks who use their notebook connected to an external display most of the time with its lid closed won’t have much use for the Touch Bar shortcuts.

If it’s being used as a desktop with an external keyboard a significant amount of the time, the Touch Bar does nothing for you. When I went out of my way to use Apple’s apps, I liked the Touch Bar a lot.

It just takes one or two useful buttons—creating a new tab in Safari, looking up a main page in Terminal, changing font sizes or creating checklists in Notes—to make you glad the Touch Bar is there.

However, a typical day for me is spent mostly in Word, Outlook, Slack, Tweetbot, and Chrome. Microsoft is bringing Touch Bar support to Office, but if other app makers don’t start adding in support, a big chunk of that bar is going to end up sitting empty most of the time.

Moving on to graphics, Apple states that the discreet Polaris-based AMD chip (Radeon Pro 450, Radeon Pro 455 and built-to-order Radeon Pro 460) inside the new Pro can drive up to four 4K external displays at 60 Hz simultaneously or two 5K displays at 60 Hz simultaneously (alongside the built-in screen).

This is possible thanks to a technique called Multi-Stream Transport (MST) which permits the machine to push two DisplayPort 1.2 streams to the monitor over the single Thunderbolt 3 cable.

When you hook one of LG’s 5K monitors to one of the new MacBook Pros, what you’re actually seeing on the screen is two pictures stitched together to make a single seamless image. This is because the version of the DisplayPort specification supported by Intel’s GPUs and almost all monitors these days—version 1.2—doesn’t have enough bandwidth to drive a 5K display at 60Hz all by itself.

There’s nothing wrong with this method, except that it cuts down on the number of external displays your computer can support. Intel’s integrated GPUs can drive a total of three displays, but you use up two of those three streams to drive one 5K monitor and one of them to drive the laptop’s internal display.

AMD’s GPUs support up to six displays, so you can use two of those connections for one 5K monitor, two of them for the other 5K monitor, one for the laptop’s internal display, and still have one left over for yet another monitor if you really wanted to use one.

Switching from Intel’s integrated Iris Pro graphics in favor of dedicated AMD GPUs has resulted in significant graphics performance improvements over previous models, Andrew observes.

In his tests, the mid-range 2.7GHz 15-inch MacBook Pro model with AMD’s built-in Radeon Pro 455 graphics chip showed a “significant boost” over this year’s revised twelve-inch MacBook and older 2012-2015 MacBook Pros dedicated GPUs (Nvidia’s built-to-order GeForce GTX 650M and GeForce GTX 750M, plus AMD’s Radeon R9 M370X).

Omg the flip side, the new Pros lack the oomph required for high-end gaming and VR.

Is it disappointing that Apple didn’t decide to push the envelope a little more? Sure. Is it too bad that performance and power efficiency were apparently sacrificed in the name of external display support? Yes. Are these midrange GPUs in any way inconsistent with any MacBook Pro released in the last decade? No.

Here’s how the new Pro scored in the GFXbench synthetic GPU benchmark.

MacBook Pro GFXBench Metal Onscreen Ars chart 001

Apple says that the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Touch ID has 130 percent faster graphics and up to 2.5x more computing power per watt versus the previous-generation 15-incher, but keep in mind that Apple’s numbers are based on AMD’s built-to-order Radeon Pro 460 chip.

Andrew doesn’t think Apple should have used Nvidia’s Pascal-based GPUs instead of AMD’s even though Nvidia chips do provide support for the latest DisplayPort 1.3 specification. That’s because Thunderbolt 3 and external displays currently max out at DisplayPort 1.2 and are yet to implement support for DisplayPort 1.3.

Apple will have more flexibility again when DisplayPort 1.3 becomes more common. Those future laptops will be able to drive two 5K screens plus a laptop’s internal screen using just three DisplayPort streams instead of five. For now, though, if pushing two high-end 5K screens at once was a design goal for Apple, AMD was the only way to go.

Fun fact: Pascal GPUs from Nvidia cannot drive dual 5K displays via MST.

Does he recommend buying the new Pro?

If you’ve got a MacBook Pro that you bought in 2012 or earlier and if you’re convinced of the potential utility and novelty of the Touch Bar, these 2016 MacBook Pros were just about worth the wait. Replace a four- or five-year-old laptop with one of these and you’ll get a great new design, a respectable performance boost, a nice screen, the single most versatile port you can get in any computer, and a new input device…The main problem at this point isn’t that the Touch Bar is a bad idea, but that these laptops cost a whole bunch of money.

Great, premium PC laptops are available for half this price, even if Apple still maintains an edge when it comes to graphics and SSD speeds. It really feels like the Touch Bar needs to be included in the $1,499 model, and that versions of the new designs without Touch Bars should be the entry level systems—right now, Apple’s entry-level Mac laptops were all released in mid 2015, and that’s only going to get more embarrassing as time moves on.

Lance Ulanoff, Mashable

On the removal of all the legacy ports from the new Pro and the Dongle Hell:

Removing all those ports was certainly a risky move for Apple, but, in truth, the most you could fault them for is maybe leaping a little too far into the future. Apple is not the only company adopting USB-C.

It’s a standard, after all, and just like USB spelled the end of the line for parallel and serial ports, USB-C will eventually be the port to rule all ports, and those peripherals you’re clinging to will someday, in the not too distant future, be deemed too slow or feature-poor to keep you competitive.

Is “Dongle Hell” a real thing? In the short term, yes. In the long term, a single multipurpose port will always be the winner.

Lance criticizes the new Pros as being a bit on the expensive side, but they’re still “an excellent upgrade with a fascinating and highly extensible new Touch Bar.”

Dana Wollman, Engadget

I’m one of many Mac owners out there who has been waiting for Apple to upgrade the MacBook Pro line. Now that it finally has, I find the new laptop isn’t quite what I wanted. For me, the ideal MacBook Pro is actually a mashup between this and last year’s model.

She disliked the fact that some system controls are buried within Touch Bar menus:

What’s annoying about this whole setup is that either way, some of the most important system controls are now buried in Touch Bar menus. Want to lower the volume? You can either hit the volume icon and hit the slider, or hit the arrow key and tap the volume up or down key.

That’s less efficient than just pressing a dedicated volume button in the function row. It’s inconvenient enough that I eventually started using my mouse to do things like pause Spotify or raise the volume on a track. Apple made me change my way of doing things, and not necessarily for the better. That pisses me off.

Touch ID and a thinner design are nice, but she wants her ports back.

There’s lots to like about the new MacBook Pro: its slimmed-down design, brighter screen, improved audio, faster graphics and disk speeds. But by doing things like removing full-sized USB ports, the memory card reader and even the Function row, Apple seems to forgotten how many of us actually work.

An even better MacBook Pro would be one that doesn’t require users to make “drastic changes to their workflow,” she says. Then, of course, there would be no progress if Apple didn’t challenge the status quo.

Christina Warren, Gizmodo

To Christina, the new MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar is currently a gimmick that’s not worth the money until more third-party applications support it.

It’s somewhat useful, but it’s still so undersupported for apps beyond Apple’s that, at least for right now, the Touch Bar is not reason enough to get a new MacBook Pro. Particularly if you’re already satisfied with the performance of your existing machine.

If you need a new MacBook Pro and you can’t wait for the Kaby Lake refreshes already rumored, the benefits of the internal specs matched with the cool-factor of the Touch Bar make this a good Mac. For everyone else this is a gimmick on a very good, way too expensive laptop.

Third-party support for the Touch Bar is sparse but growing. Expect apps focused on design and coding to adopt first. My favorite Touch Bar app so far is 1Password, largely because it uses the Touch Bar and Touch ID. I really hope Google chooses to support the Touch Bar. It could be very useful, especially with extensions.

On the other hand, she totally loves Touch ID and thinks it’s an “awesome” addition to the Mac, but is also  ”bummed” about the lack of a rose gold color option.

Dongle Hell?

To use your old peripherals, you’ll be in dongle hell for the short term, but the 4 Thunderbolt 3 ports at least give lots of connectivity options for the future.

As for the performance, her review states that both the base 13-inch model without Touch Bar and the base 15-inch model with Touch Bar were performant across Gizmodo’s benchmarks.

Christina offered a word of advice to would-be buyers: “If you’re getting the 13-inch, consider spending the extra $200 on 16GB of RAM now, since you cannot upgrade later.”

Harry McCracken, FastCo

Beyond the svelter design, Touch Bar, and new ports, the new MacBook Pros shows multiple refinements that, on their own, wouldn’t prompt anyone to splurge on a new computer. They just make that new computer better once you have it, and are the sort of improvements that Apple never gets enough credit for making.

The MacBook Pro’s high-resolution Retina display would have been one of the biggest reasons to upgrade from a MacBook Air no matter what. But it’s also brighter than previous screens—at full blast, it makes my eyeballs tingle—offers better contrast, and has a wider color gamut for more accurate reproduction of photos.

Edward C. Baig, USA Today

Edward likes using Touch ID to get into the computer and approve purchases. He’s not too concerned about the removal of legacy ports in favor of USB-C. In fact, USB-S, he writes, at least gives consumers more choices in terms of the chargers.

You can use pretty much any USB-C charger to juice up your Mac, though if you try a cellphone charger as I did, it might not charge quite as fast as using the supplied USB-C power adapter, which incidentally replaces the old MacSafe adapter.

He’s a fan of the redesigned speaker system that Apple says provides twice the dynamic range of earlier MacBook Pros (“What I can say is that the speakers are loud and crisp, and the overall audio quality is excellent”) and likes the new low-profile keyboard:

I never fully cozied up to the “butterfly” style Qwerty keyboard on Apple’s MacBook notebook and was worried when I first learned that the MacBook Pro keyboard was based on the same technology. But the refined second-generation butterfly mechanism used here represents a marked improvement. The keys are responsive. I felt perfectly comfortable, for instance, typing this column out on the keyboard.

Like many other reviewers, he balked at the MacBook Pro’s high price which makes the powerful notebook pricier than it’s ever been before and out of reach of many notebook buyers like myself.

Chris Davies, Slashgear

In dropping almost all legacy ports in favor of Thunderbolt 3, ignoring the Windows 10 style of touchscreen in favor of supplementary Touch Bar and adopting the low-profile butterfly keyboard, Apple has created a pretty “contentious machine,” Chris writes.

In his opinion, Apple has not really forgotten the “professional” in recreating the MacBook Pro as other commenters have claimed before him.

Has Apple forgotten the professionals which are arguably its most vocal advocates? I don’t think that’s true, though I do suspect that group now finds itself at the fringe of MacBook Pro users. Such is the side-effect of a user group in general expanding.

Like Touch ID, the Touch Bar as a brand new hardware feature is currently in infancy and will need some time to take off and realize its potential in full:

Ergonomically, I’m among those still content with a non-touch primary display. My experience with the Touch Bar, meanwhile, has left me mighty curious to see what comes next as third-party developers get to grips with the potential of the added interface.

Right now, a large part of its usefulness is in replicating keyboard shortcuts: that’s handy if you’re unfamiliar with them, but it’s no great surprise that longtime Mac users have been less wowed.

The new MacBook Pros have huge trackpads, but Chris saw no issues resting his hand on them due to flawless palm rejection.

All that extra room makes macOS gestures easier, and there’s less swipe-and-lift involved in general navigation. I was a little worried about palm-rejection, given the size of the trackpad means there’s a reasonable chance some part of your hand or wrist might be resting on it at times, but Apple’s improved algorithms there have seemingly done the trick, and I’ve not noticed any issues.

The sheer size of the trackpad makes him wish that Apple had added Pencil compatibility for repurposing the trackpad as a graphics tablet.

Now, that’s a clever idea!