Introduction, Design Features
It’s an understatement that the market for premium big-screen laptops—that is, computers that aren’t 2-in-1s, or for gaming—could use some attention. And some innovation.
Windows-device makers have been busy doing impressive things elsewhere, with smaller ultraportables such as the Dell XPS 13, or 2-in-1s like the Lenovo Yoga 910 or Microsoft’s excellent (but really expensive) Core i7 Surface Book. Most of the larger-screen laptops we see these days are gaming powerhouses like the MSI GT73VR Titan ProLenovo ThinkPad P50.
That leaves Apple with a lot less direct competition for its new 15-Inch MacBook Pro (the model we’re looking at here) than with the MacBook Pro 13-InchDell XPS 15, a laptop that we looked at almost exactly a year ago. The XPS 15 is still available, starting at just $999—a whole lot less than the $2,399 asking price of the MacBook Pro 15-Inch that Apple sent us for review. $2,399 is also the starting price of apple’s new 15-incher, though for that price, you get a much more powerful machine than the Core i3-equipped $999 base model of the Dell laptop. Apple’s 15-inch Pro model ships with a Core i7-6700 CPU, 16GB of RAM, and a very fast 256GB PCI Express solid-state boot drive.
And no other laptop, of course (save for some higher-end configs of the Apple MacBook Pro 13-Inch), sports the defining feature of Apple’s new-for-2016 laptops: the slick, morphing OLED Touch Bar that sits above the new keyboard, replacing the physical function-key row. Whether the Touch Bar will be an important addition to your workflow depends largely on what you do and how you type. But before we delve too deeply into the Touch Bar, let’s take a look at the rest of the new MacBook Pro’s design. Because quite a lot has changed, and not all of that (arguably) is for the best.
No doubt, the new MacBook Pro impresses on physical design—it’s a slim, sleek, and very solid-feeling slice of silver metal (or Space Grey, Apple’s other color choice for these new machines). But whether or not it’s the best option for you—even if you’re wedded to Apple’s ecosystem—may be down to how you feel about the new input devices, and how many key legacy peripherals you own that still use common USB Type-A ports.
Apple loaned us a Space Grey MacBook Pro 15-inch for our review, and the first things that stand out are just how solid it feels, and how seamless it looks.
The company was the first to perfect the “unibody” aluminum shell for laptops, and as far as we’re concerned, it’s still the front-runner on that score. It’s not the lightest 15-inch laptop, at just a whisker over 4 pounds (4.02, to be exact), but that weight is in line with the Dell XPS 15, which starts at 3.9 pounds for the non-touch-screen model. And at 0.61 inch thick, it’s slightly slimmer than Dell’s competing laptop, which is 0.66 inch at its thickest point. It’s also about a tenth of an inch thinner and a half-pound lighter than the previous-generation MacBook Pro design (which Apple still sells, starting at $1,999). As large-screen laptops go, the new MacBook Pro 15-Inch is tough to beat when it comes to sleek style and solid feel.
That said, the smooth lines of Apple’s latest laptops are partially down to the move away from larger, traditional USB 3.0 and video-output ports, which require a certain amount of edge profile to even be possible. The 2015-model MacBook Pro was loaded up with these, as well as a handy SD-card slot. With this new generation, you get just two USB Type-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports on the left edge…
…and two more of those ports, plus a headphone jack, on the right…
And that’s it for the ports.
Now, it’s certainly the case that the reversible Thunderbolt 3 port (which also incorporates the USB 3.1 spec and shares the same physical connector as USB Type-C) is the port of the future. (For more on that, see our explainer The Basics: USB 3.1 and USB Type-C.) These ports support throughput of up to 40Gbps (twice that of Thunderbolt 2), and they can handle data, video, and even charging power moving in either direction. But of course, at this point, most of our existing peripherals make use of USB or Thunderbolt 1 or 2. That means you’ll need adapters to plug things into the new MacBook Pro, and unlike many of the Windows-based laptops that have begun to include USB Type-C ports, Apple doesn’t include any adapters in the box.
Of course, you can buy adapters from Apple, at $19 for a traditional rectangular USB Type-A adapter, $49 for a Thunderbolt 2 adapter, and $69 each for HDMI and VGA adapters (both of which also include a USB-A port and a Thunderbolt 3 pass-through port for power). The Apple Store sells adapters for Ethernet and SD cards, as well. But instead of buying a bunch of separate, single-function adapters that are easy to misplace, we’d suggest getting a small dock that offers most of the ports you’re likely to need in a single package, like this $65 model from HooToo, which is well-reviewed on Amazon. [Editors’ Note: If you read this review not soon after it posts, note that Apple announced that it was reducing the price of its Thunderbolt 3 port adapters until March of 2017. The USB Type-A adapter will go from $19 to $9; the Thunderbolt 2, from $49 to $29; and the video-out adapters, from $69 to $49. But if it’s well into 2017 or later when you’re reading this, the prices for those adapters may have gone back up.]
If you opt for the smaller, entry-level MacBook Pro 13-inch that we tested a few weeks before this model, you get just two Thunderbolt 3 ports, and no Touch Bar. We’re happy that Apple included four here, but for many users, two should be plenty, especially if you buy a dock like the one mentioned above. The extra Thunderbolt 3 ports should really only be necessary for those planning on connecting a few high-bandwidth devices, such as 4K or 5K monitors, and/or multi-drive RAID external enclosures for serious video editing.
All that being said, we have seen similarly slim laptops, such as the Samsung Notebook 9 (available in both 13- and 15-inch varieties), that do include traditional USB Type A ports. So the lack of any of those here is clearly a choice, and not something 100 percent necessitated by the new, thinner design.
One benefit of having duplicate ports on either side of the laptop, though, is that you can charge the laptop from either the right or the left side (from any of the four ports on this model). That’s a minor advantage, but certainly helpful if you’re far away from the power plug, or computing in cramped quarters where you don’t have a lot of space on one side of the laptop.
The MacBook Pro 15-inch’s Retina screen also gets an upgrade with this latest redesign. It’s a 15.4-inch panel that uses IPS technology and delivers excellent viewing angles. And the native resolution is the same 2,800×1,800 pixels as the the 2015 model. But Apple says the displays in its new MacBook Pros are 67 percent brighter than the ones in previous models. (The new ones are rated to 500 nits.) There’s also improved contrast, plus the ability to display 25 percent more colors, in accordance with the DCI-P3 standard used in the film industry. The screen bezels have also shrunk a bit from the previous model, though they aren’t as trim as on the Dell XPS 15, the 2016 version of the HP Spectre x360, and a few other recent smaller Windows machines.
In person, like most displays in high-end laptops and tablets these days, the new MacBook Pro screen looks great. It makes the 400-nit 1080p screen in Dell’s XPS 13 look a little dull by comparison, though the MacBook Pro’s glossy screen covering (compared to the matte display on the XPS 13) helps make it more eye-pleasing as well. But OLED screens like those in the brand-new Alienware 13Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga OLED convertible look at least as good, with deeper blacks and richer (though, at times, oversaturated) colors.
Keyboard Touch Pad
The biggest upgrade with the new MacBook Pro—at least in a literal sense, in that it’s bigger—is the touch pad.
The touch pad is now positively massive, at about 7.3 inches on the diagonal. (It measures 7.25 inches across by about 3.8 inches front to back.) And it takes up more than half the wrist-rest area below the keyboard. Pressure-sensitive Force Touch is also still included, of course, as it was in the previous model. (More on Force Touch in a moment.) The company’s laptop cursor-control hardware has long been the best in the business, and that’s arguably still the case. It makes sense, then, that Apple would increase the size of its already excellent touch pad. Though we can’t say we felt the need for the pad to be so large, we experienced no issues with palm rejection while typing. So there’s really no reason not to make more of the space below the keyboard functional, as Apple did, rather than just a dumb metal wrist rest.
While the touch pad changed in terms of size, but feels the same, the keyboard on the new MacBook Pro looks roughly the same (at least below the function row). But it feels completely different.
Apple has doubled the height of the left- and right-arrow keys, which is welcome, but it has also nixed the comfy key switches of the previous MacBook Pro for a second-generation version of the “butterfly” switches that are used in the company’s more compact Apple MacBook laptop (that is, the non-Pro ultralight model). In case you haven’t had fingers-on time with one of those laptops, here’s our take: While you’ll feel a fair amount of tactile click when depressing the keys, there’s very little in the way of actual physical, up-and-down travel.
Compared to the key feel on the 2016 Apple MacBook, the keys here feel very slightly different, with a less sticky-feeling bottoming out and bounce-back. But there’s no improvement in key travel compared to that laptop, at least that our fingers could discern. And what we were most surprised about was just how loud the keyboard can get when typing. If you press the keys lightly, and type slowly, they’re fairly quiet. But when we started typing faster, our fingers hit the keys harder (likely because they’re used to more travel in the downstroke), and the typing noise became quite pronounced, almost akin to what we’re used to hearing from a clacky mechanical keyboard.
This might get better over time, as your fingers adjust to the keys and strike them more softly. But if you’re not a delicate typist, you probably wouldn’t want to use this keyboard in a setting like a quiet library. Heck, you may even get shushed by fellow patrons in a coffee shop.
For all that, we don’t dislike the MacBook Pro’s new keyboard, though we know it’s gotten a mixed reception. We’re fans of “true” mechanical keyboards, and its unique feel is oddly compelling. And after testing both the smaller Apple MacBook, the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and now this model, all of them with that similar key feel, we’re getting used the distinct feel of Apple’s new keyboards. The real question is why anyone should have to make this adjustment when the keyboard in previous models was one of the best in the business.
Now, as for the Touch Bar. This, the marquee feature of the new MacBook Pros, is an OLED display strip that takes the place of the usual function keys, and shows different virtual “buttons” depending on what program you’re in (or if you’re at the desktop).
Touch typists in particular may find having to look away from the screen to use the Touch Bar disruptive to their workflow. But those working with content-creation software that takes advantage of the feature (such as Adobe’s Creative Cloud, which was recently updated to work with the Touch Bar) may enjoy the new way to work. And iPhone addicts eager to drop lots of emojis into their Message conversations and e-mails will no doubt take to the Bar, which also introduces text prediction to the macOS environment. (It suggests the word you’re typing before you complete it.)
For a first-generation addition, what’s most impressive about the Touch Bar is just how well it works. Performance was always smooth during our testing, and we’re impressed by Apple’s ability to deliver a slick software experience with fast adoption from big-name software players. As seen above, the Touch Bar can also be used to graphically display Safari shortcuts.
All that being said, we suspect how useful you’ll actually find the Touch Bar on a daily basis will come down to how much of what you do is down to muscle memory. Younger users who are still learning to use software for video and image editing may take to it much better than computing veterans. But considering the lofty $2,399 starting price of this machine, it’s not exactly priced for loan-laden students or those just entering the workforce.
One thing we do wholeheartedly approve of about the Touch Bar is the Touch ID fingerprint reader that sits at the right end. Much like the sensor on recent Apple iPhones, it can be used to unlock or log in to your device, as well as make purchases via Apple Pay. Apple’s sensor had a near 100 percent accuracy rate when we used it, and the addition of simple security is welcome in the traditional computing environment. That said, many laptops (particularly business models) have had fingerprint readers for several years. And plenty of new Windows laptops and convertibles feature Windows Hello IR cameras for even more convenient logins. (You just look at the screen.) So while adding Touch ID here is certainly welcome, and Apple’s implementation of it is stellar, biometric authentication is far from ground-breaking in the computing space.
Shifting to the audio front, the speakers here are quite good for a thin laptop, with a lot of volume—easily enough to fill a small room. That said, when approaching maximum volume, just as we noted on the 13-inch model, the highs become more pronounced and a little harsher than we’d like. And although we didn’t have the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro models side-by-side for testing, we don’t feel the larger model gets noticeably louder. That leaves us a bit less impressed with the 15-inch’s speakers. They’re good, mind you. But we’ve heard better in (admittedly much thicker) 15-inch gaming laptops.
Other key bits of hardware that the new MacBook Pro 15-inch offers are a 720p FaceTime HD camera (the same resolution, and the same generally above-average quality, as the previous model), and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, which was also offered on last year’s model. The Bluetooth radio gets a bump up from 4.0 to 4.2 spec support with the newer model.
Of course, the new MacBook Pro ships with Apple’s latest version of macOS, “Sierra,” which finally integrates Siri (via an icon next to Finder, or to the left of the Touch ID sensor, on the right side of the Touch Bar) into the company’s laptops.
Sierra also introduces a universal clipboard, so you can copy and paste between your laptop and an iPhone or an iPad (presuming they’re running iOS 10), and automatic uploading of your Documents and Desktop folders to iCloud (similar to Windows 10’s OneDrive integration). For more details of Sierra’s new features, check out the full review of Sierra at our sibling publication, PCMag.com.
We will say here that macOS still handles scaling on high-resolution screens (like the Retina panel in this MacBook Pro) better than Windows 10. And we enjoy using Force Touch on the touch pad to preview files and rename items just by pressing down with a little, well, force. And as people who write and edit for a living (as well as making lots of charts, as you’re about to see on the next page), we very much appreciate that Apple continues to include a competent word processor (Pages) and spreadsheet app (Numbers) with its operating system, rather than forcing students and productivity users to pay for software like Microsoft Office, or use a free alternative.
We still think Siri could use more functionality—particularly on the desktop, rather than in a smartphone that doesn’t have a dedicated keyboard. But we’d say the same thing about Cortana in Windows 10.