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Review: The $1,499 2016 MacBook Pro is an expensive MacBook Air on the inside


You can’t fault longtime die-hard Mac users for being a little frustrated with Apple. In the space of just a decade, they’ve watched their favorite platform go from being the center of the company’s attention to a minor line item. The iPhone gets refreshed promptly and consistently every September, while some Macs sit there for one or two or three years without even being mentioned. Macs aren’t even regularly refreshed with new processors from Intel, Nvidia, and AMD as they’re released anymore; we could rely on that as recently as three years ago.

The new MacBook Pros—released, for the record, a year and a half after the 2015 models, which were in some cases changed very little from the 2014 and 2013 models—have been birthed into this era of frustration. As a result, the initial reaction has been harsher than it would have been if Apple refreshed the Mac with the same regularity that it managed back in 2012 or 2013.

But not everyone is a longtime Mac user, and divorced from that context what you’ve got in the new MacBook Pros is a lineup of very nice-looking (if not game-changing) laptops that combine a refreshed design with a healthy dose of updated technology. Today, we’ll be examining the $1,499 version of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, the version with the row of function keys in place of the ballyhooed Touch Bar. We’ll be examining the other 13- and 15-inch model thoroughly when we can get them, of course, but the $1,499 version still tells us a lot about the design, the keyboard, the new Thunderbolt 3 ports, and about Apple’s design priorities and the Pro’s target audience.

Differences between the Touch Bar model and this one

The Touch Bar is the biggest feature separating this entry-level MacBook Pro from the more expensive models, but there are some other small and not-so-small differences you have to live with when you opt for the $1,499 model. This is the complete list—otherwise, assume that the two share all the same features.

  • The low-end Pro uses a 15W Core i5-6360U CPU with an Intel Iris 540 GPU; the high-end model uses a 28W Core i5-6267U CPU with an Intel Iris 550 GPU. The difference, aside from small boosts to CPU and GPU clock speeds, is that the 28W model can run faster for longer and throttle less frequently. The 15W model can also consume less power.
  • The low-end Pro uses a single “Alpine Ridge” Thunderbolt 3 controller from Intel while the high-end Pro uses two Thunderbolt controllers (one of those controllers uses “reduced PCI Express bandwidth,” which I assume means it’s using PCI Express 2.0 instead of 3.0). Intel’s Thunderbolt controllers support a maximum of two Thunderbolt 3 ports each, and while many PC OEMs are shipping Thunderbolt 3, none is providing more than one or two ports.
  • The low-end Pro uses 1866MHz LPDDR3 RAM while the high-end Pro uses 2133MHz LPDDR3. Apple has said it’s using LPDDR3 to save power, but it’s also the reason the systems max out at 16GB.
  • The low-end Pro actually has a larger battery than the high-end one: 54.5Whr compared to 49.2Whr. Apple says both laptops have 10 hours of battery life, but the lower-power processor, the larger battery, and the lack of a little second screen above the keyboard should all mean that the low-end model actually lasts a bit longer than the Touch Bar model.
  • The low-end model includes two integrated mics, while the high-end model includes three.

Look and feel

If the Retina MacBook was what you’d get if an iPad and a MacBook Air were put into the Large Hadron Collider and smashed into each other, the new MacBook Pro is what you’d get if you took the Retina MacBook and the first Retina MacBook Pro and did the same thing. Like the MacBook, the new Pros are slimmer, have much smaller display bezels and footprints, and jettison many ports. Like the previous Pro, they’re a uniform thickness throughout rather than tapered, they’ve still got more powerful processors, and because of those more powerful components they still have fans inside.

The Pro’s construction is still rock solid despite being thinner and lighter, and there’s still not a trace of creaking or flexing anywhere in its aluminum unibody design. If you were bothered by previous designs’ unadorned metal or the hard corners of their wrist rests, none of that has changed. Apple does offer both a “space gray” finish alongside the classic silver, though the MacBook’s gold and rose gold finishes and the iPhone 7’s black and jet black finishes aren’t available. I tend to prefer darker gray and black colors when I can get them, and the space gray finish is really nice even if it still bothers me that Apple can’t quite keep the “space gray” color consistent across different product lines and model years.

At 3.02 pounds, the new Pro is around half a pound lighter than last year’s and roughly the same weight as the 13-inch MacBook Air. I’m jumping from the 13-inch Air to the 13-inch Pro since I can’t quite live with the 12-inch MacBook’s performance or its individual port, so if you’re making that jump the laptop is going to feel exactly the same in your bag. The weight savings is noticeable but not life-changing if you’re coming from an earlier Retina model, but remember that it’s a full 1.5 pounds lighter than a pre-Retina, 13-inch unibody Pro—if you’re coming from one of those older machines, it makes a huge difference.

The laptop’s fan is normally not audible in a room with little to no ambient noise. You can definitely notice it spin up if you’re pushing the laptop’s performance for an extended period, but it’s quieter than the previous Pros or Airs, and it’s much quieter than the jet engine-style noises that come out of some PC Ultrabooks. Even when the fan is going at full-tilt, the laptop can still get pretty warm, especially underneath and on the area above the keyboard. Still, it never gets too uncomfortable to hold or rest on your lap.

Keyboard, trackpad, and palm rejection

The base of the laptop is dominated by its keyboard and trackpad, the latter of which has been expanded to take up more room than ever—the size of the trackpad in the 15-inch model is twice as large as before, and the one in the 13-inch model is close.

Apple says that the size of the new trackpad is made possible in part by the move to Force Touch trackpads—a conventional trackpad this large would need to move quite a bit to achieve a clicky feel throughout, but since the “click” in a Force Touch pad is entirely simulated it feels the same no matter how you click it. This saves a fair bit of room inside the laptop (Apple also says it has made the whole Force Touch assembly thinner than the one used in older MacBooks and Pros and the Magic Trackpad 2, but we’ll need to wait for an iFixit teardown to see how things have changed). Under the “firm” settings in System Preferences, I’m still pleasantly surprised by how well it approximates a physical clicking sensation. It’s not the same, but it’s close, and you rapidly get used to it. The only thing I miss is the “silent clicking” option that the older models had, which kept the same feel but mostly eliminated noise.

The larger trackpad surface feels great if you’re a heavy user of macOS’ trackpad gestures, which I am. Your hands need to move around less, and you don’t need to worry about being precise, since the new trackpad is pretty hard to miss. The only thing I occasionally had trouble with was palm rejection.

I normally use my left thumb to tap the spacebar as I type, which means that the base of my palm is almost always touching or threatening to touch the trackpad. If you have one or both of your palms solidly on the trackpad, it actually does a pretty good job not just ignoring your palm but also tracking the presence of your fingers if you touch the trackpad at the same time. If, like me, part of your palm occasionally brushes the trackpad but your hands and wrists aren’t actually rested on it, the laptop can sometimes misinterpret that as input, which can make the cursor jump around onscreen a little.

I’m definitely noticing this phenomenon less after a few days with the laptop. I imagine that most people will intentionally or subconsciously adjust their typing habits enough to avoid major problems. But it’s also pretty much the only problem I’ve had with a trackpad in the half-decade since I made the jump from a PC laptop to some flavor of MacBook, so it’s something you should keep in mind as you begin using the new Pros.

If the trackpad is different but still pretty familiar to anyone who has ever used a Mac trackpad, the keyboard is a more drastic departure. The new Pros use a second-generation of the same low-travel chiclet keyboard that the company introduced in the MacBook last year. This is the first major change Apple has made to the look and feel of its laptop keyboards since the aluminum unibody models came out in late 2008, and the look and feel are much different.

Here are the basic facts for anyone who hasn’t tried the MacBook keyboard yet: the keys are very slightly larger than they were before, but they move much less. The butterfly switch mechanism only allows for 0.5mm of travel, a change Apple has made primarily to make the keyboard (and, by extension, the laptop) slightly thinner. To offset this, the keys are much firmer—it takes a slightly greater amount of force to press a key down, and they wiggle very little, which helps protect from accidental key presses. A low-travel keyboard with mushy keys is the worst possible combination, so Apple has tried to firm up the keys to compensate for the low travel.

The Pros use a “second-generation” version of the MacBook’s butterfly switch mechanism, which has, according to Phil Schiller, “an even greater sense of keyboard travel.” Note the carefully chosen words: it gives a greater sense of keyboard travel than the MacBook, but the actual keyboard travel is the same. Going forward, it looks like Apple is going to continue refining its new switch mechanism to address user complaints, but it’s only willing to do that if it doesn’t have to make the keyboard thicker.

Among MacBook users in the Ars Slack channel, the general consensus is that you can mostly get used to the new keyboard, though some individuals maintain that it is “garbage,” and that’s a completely understandable opinion. The new keyboard does feel noticeably better than the old one when you use them side-by-side—it combines the keys’ pleasant firmness and larger size with a greater feeling of travel and a more satisfying clicky sound. But I suspect that most people who view this keyboard as an improvement will be the ones who have already made peace with the MacBook’s keyboard. It may be able to convince some people who were on the fence, but I don’t think it’s going to win over many people who have decided they absolutely hate the MacBook’s keyboard.

Screen

All the new Pros have the same screen sizes, resolutions, and pixel densities as the old ones. For the 13-inch models, that means a 13.3-inch 2560×1600 227 PPI screen. The panel is the same size, but the bezels around it have been drastically reduced, not quite to the point of the XPS 13 (Apple wanted to keep the webcam above the display panel and centered, a quibble we have with Dell’s design) but pretty close. Attentive buyers will also notice that the MacBook Pro branding is back on the bezel instead of on the underside of the laptop.

Apple has made three major improvements to the display aside from the thinness of the display assembly and the smaller bezels. First, its maximum brightness has increased from 300 nits to 500 nits, which, when paired with the anti-reflective screen coating, makes the laptop a bit more usable in bright light. Second, its contrast ratio improves by quite a bit—it’s 1500:1 in the new Pros, compared to 900:1 in the previous models. Finally, it supports the DCI-P3 color space, which Apple has also added to the 4K and 5K iMacs, the 9.7-inch iPad Pro, and the iPhone 7 and 7 Plus in the last year. Apple calls this “wide color” in most of its documentation and marketing.

The DCI-P3 color space contains around 25 percent more colors than the sRGB space that Apple used previously, and it’s mostly noticeable when viewing more vivid shades of red and green (the blue end of the DCI P3 gamut is pretty similar to sRGB). Sierra provides updates to system frameworks like Core Graphics, Core Image, Metal, and AVFoundation that make it relatively simple for apps to support the wider color gamut. If you work with photos and video and you want to support the wider gamut, you’ll have to make sure you’re shooting with a camera that supports it (or you’ll want to shoot in RAW mode and process the images in an app that supports wide color). The iPhone 7 and 9.7-inch iPad Pro cameras all shoot in wide color, and more recent DSLRs and mirrorless cameras are introducing support for wider-than-sRGB color spaces, too.

The 13-inch Pros have always supported four Retina “scaling” modes—1024×640, 1280×800, 1440×900, and 1680×1050. Of those, only 1280×800 mode actually uses the panel’s native 2560×1600 resolution. The others all use the GPU to draw a larger (or smaller) image and then resize it to the panel’s native resolution, and Retina screens are sharp enough to mask the fuzziness that normally results from resizing images. Apple has used this trick to avoid shipping multiple display panel configurations in the Retina Pros.

All the old Retina Pros used the 1280×800 mode as their default, but the new ones use 1440×900 mode by default; Apple does something similar with the Retina MacBook, which uses 1280×800 mode by default even though the 1152×720 mode actually reflects the panel’s native resolution. It’s a way to make the panels look higher-resolution than they are without increasing costs or wearing down the battery more quickly.

All of these improvements are unquestionably nice to have, though for me personally none of them rise to the “need to have” level if you’ve already got a Retina MacBook Pro of some stripe. On the other hand, if you’re coming from a non-Retina laptop like an Air or an older Pro, it’s a huge leap forward. It’s bright and sharp and gorgeous, and it has the added crispness for text and thumbnails. If you’ve already got a Retina MacBook, you’ll have a hard time telling the two displays apart without looking at the right kind of images on both screens at the same time. DCI-P3 screens are great, and I’m glad Apple is using more of them, but they aren’t a major functional leap forward like Retina screens can be.

Speakers

Speakers aren’t usually much of a selling point for phones, tablets, or laptops—they range from poor to unexceptional in the vast majority of cases, Apple included. But the speakers in the Pros definitely sound nicer than the ones in most laptops.

There are now two stereo speaker grilles, one on either side of the keyboard, and Apple told us that the laptops also route some sound through the heatsink and vents (if you cover both grilles there’s still sound coming out from around the hinge where the air vents are located). True to Apple’s marketing, the new speakers boast higher dynamic range than the old ones—bass is more audible, and treble is clearer and cleaner than before. The speakers also do a pretty nice job with stereo separation. Despite the laptop’s relatively small size, it’s clear which sounds are coming out of the left speaker and which sounds are coming out of the right. You’re not going to want to use this thing to get your next dance party started, but it’s great for listening to music or podcasts, and it’s totally usable if you want to play some background music for a small get-together.

Apple says that the speakers in the 15-inch version of the Pro should be even better because there’s more room to work with in a larger laptop. We’ll give it a listen when we have a 15-inch model available to test with.

Ports: Thunderbolt 3 vs. USB-C, and living in dongle hell

USB-C to USB-A and Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 dongles. This is what the future is going to look like, at least for a little bit.
USB-C to USB-A and Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 dongles. This is what the future is going to look like, at least for a little bit.

In case it wasn’t clear from the Retina MacBook, Apple thinks that USB Type-C is the future of ports (at least on the Mac). They’re small and relatively unobtrusive, and when you support all of the USB-IF’s complementary specifications, you can make it charge the laptop, drive displays, and transfer data.

The difference between the MacBook Pro’s two USB-C ports and the one on the MacBook is that Apple is using Intel’s “Alpine Ridge” Thunderbolt 3 controllers to further increase their speed and flexibility. Since it uses the same physical port as USB-C and can still interface with standard USB-C cables and accessories, for our purposes we can consider Thunderbolt 3 in the MacBook Pro to be a superset of USB-C as it exists in the MacBook.

Thunderbolt 3 doubles the speed of Thunderbolt 2 from a maximum of 20Gbps to 40Gbps, a substantial increase that is already opening the door to high-end external graphics docks in some PCs. On top of that, it lets the MacBooks support the confusingly named “USB 3.1 gen 2” instead of the “USB 3.1 gen 1” in the MacBook. This increases USB transfer speeds from 5Gbps to 10Gbps, and since USB accessories tend to be cheaper and more widely available than Thunderbolt ones, this will no doubt be useful for flash drives and external hard drives going forward.

The ports also enable a jump forward in external display support. This laptop can drive a single 5K display at 60Hz over a single Thunderbolt 3 cable (accomplished by combining two DisplayPort 1.2 streams into a single image), or it can handle two 60Hz 4K screens at once (we’ll talk more about performance while driving external displays later on). The 13-inch 2015 MacBook Pro could only do one 4K display at 60Hz over DisplayPort.

The $1,499 MacBook Pro is the only one that ships with two Thunderbolt 3 ports instead of four (it’s right there in the super-catchy name: MacBook Pro (13-inch, Late 2016, Two Thunderbolt 3 ports), which is something you should keep in mind when you buy it. Two ports is far more flexible than one—you can charge it and pop in a USB stick or dongle at the same time, or charge it and plug in a docking station simultaneously. Would I take more ports? Yes, definitely. Is two an acceptable minimum? Yeah, most of the time, especially since the Pros continue to include a standard 3.5mm headphone jack.

I like Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C very much, and I think having two or four ports is basically an acceptable compromise between expandability and simplicity. But USB-C is still a forward-looking port, and in 2016 you still can’t expect to have it in everything you buy. You’ll also probably already own many devices with old USB Type-A or Type-B ports for quite some time. So buying and using one of the new Pros is going to plunge you into cable and dongle hell, at least for a while.

The previous-generation MacBook Pro could connect things to its USB Type-A, HDMI, mini DisplayPort, and Thunderbolt 2 ports, its 3.5mm headphone jack, and its SD card slot without a single new cable or dongle. Of those, the 3.5mm jack is the only one that the new MacBook Pro still has. At a bare minimum, that means buying cables or dongles or docks to replace four different interfaces or changing your workflows to include fewer wires. Depending on the connectors you use, it’s not hard to spend $100 or more on top of the cost of the Pro to build the bridge between USB-C and all of your other stuff.

Even Apple is having trouble making the transition, which is a little embarrassing for a company that so routinely brags about how well its products all work together. A brand-new iPhone 7 comes with a pair of Lightning earbuds, a 3.5mm-to-Lightning adapter dongle, and a Lightning-to-USB-A cable, none of which can be connected directly into the new Pro. The headphone thing in particular is frustrating given that Apple clearly doesn’t see a future for the 3.5mm jack in its most popular product—it puts users in a weird situation where using one pair of headphones with all their brand-new Apple stuff necessitates either wireless headphones or using 3.5mm headphones with the Lightning dongle on your phone so you can plug those same headphones into other stuff. It’s easier to connect a Google phone to your new MacBook than it is to connect an iPhone to it, which feels silly.

If there’s any silver lining here, it’s that USB-C at least has the benefit of being a standard that anyone can use, so you don’t need to rely on Apple to make affordable adapters that do the stuff you want. But it’s hard to imagine buying a Pro today without also buying at least one adapter or dongle or dock, and that’s going to be true for the foreseeable future.

Farewell to MagSafe (and other missing things)

All the new Pros have a few regressions that longtime Mac owners will miss, and the biggest one is the MagSafe connector. Introduced a full decade ago with the first of the Intel MacBooks, MagSafe and MagSafe 2 were intended to make it so that tripping over your power cable wouldn’t damage your laptop, either by yanking it off a table to the floor or by putting pressure on and breaking the connector itself. They also had indicator lights that would show you when your device was done charging, something the new USB-C adapters fail to do. MagSafe adapters are prone to fraying over time, but they were excellent at preventing damage to expensive laptops. For the most part, the technology is justifiably beloved.

It’s gone now, and that’s too bad. This $1,499 model doesn’t even include one of the consolation prizes—unlike the models with four Thunderbolt 3 ports, you can’t plug this one in from either side. It may, in theory, be cheaper to replace Apple’s charger with standard USB Type-C chargers going forward (it was useful to be able to charge the MacBook review unit with the charger for Acer’s Swift 7, another USB-C laptop I’m testing at the moment) but for now Apple is the only company making 61W Type-C chargers, and poorly made counterfeit chargers are going to remain a problem. There are trade-offs, but they won’t matter much if your laptop breaks because you pulled it off your desk by accident.

This isn’t the only power adapter-related irritation. The longer extension cord that runs from the adapter to the wall is no longer included in the box; it’s now a $19 add-on, though cables from older adapters work fine with the new ones. And the little “arms” that would pop out of the MagSafe adapters so you could wrap the cord around them have also been removed. It’s less of a MacBook charger and more of a gigantic iPad charger.

Finally, the new Pros are missing a couple of shibboleths that don’t really make a functional difference but do have some sentimental value for longtime Mac buyers. Obviously, the glowing Apple logo on the back of the laptop has been removed, replaced by a shiny iPhone/iPad/MacBook-style inset metal logo. And less obviously, the classic Mac startup chime that has been around in some capacity since the first Mac was released in 1984 is gone. The laptops now start up silently just like the iPhones and iPads. At least they’ll be reunited with the Happy Mac up there in Branding Heaven. The iPad-and-iPhone-and-MacBook style “ding” you hear when the device is charging has been added, for what that’s worth.

Apple tells us that the chime is missing because the laptop now automatically boots when it’s opened—your laptop acts like it’s waking up from sleep even if you completely shut it down or ran out of battery. There’s still a power button at the top-right of the keyboard that you can use for sleep or to turn the laptop on if you never closed the lid, but it’s increasingly vestigial (and most people aren’t cold-booting their laptops often these days anyway).

CPU, GPU, SSD, and more performance details

The $1,499 MacBook Pros include 15W dual-core processors based on Intel’s Skylake architecture—the base model we’ve reviewed uses a 2.0GHz (3.1GHz Turbo) Core i5-6360U, but a 2.4GHz (3.4GHz Turbo) Core i7-6660U is available as an upgrade option. Both CPUs include integrated Intel Iris 540 GPUs. The Pros can be configured with either 8GB or 16GB of LPDDR3, and the starting SSD capacity of 256GB can be increased to either 512GB or 1TB. When fully tricked-out, the $1,499 MacBook Pro can cost as much as $2,599.

One sticking point for particularly demanding users is the 16GB RAM limit, which is the same ceiling that the Pros have had for years. The problem, allegedly, is battery life—Apple opted to continue using LPDDR3 RAM instead of DDR4 because of concerns about power usage and battery life, and Skylake doesn’t support the LPDDR4 RAM that could ameliorate those concerns (the iPhone 7, on the other hand, does use LPDDR4).

Rounding out the spec sheet are Bluetooth 4.2—an upgrade from Bluetooth 4.0, the version you’ll find in all other current Macs—and 867Mbps 802.11ac Wi-Fi. This is the same speed as the MacBook and the 2015 MacBook Air, and it’s a downgrade from the 1.3Gbps Wi-Fi in 2015’s 13-inch MacBook Pro. It’s not clear whether the Touch Bar version jumps back up to the faster wireless.

Why is Apple using Skylake instead of the new Kaby Lake chips we’re beginning to see in some PC laptops? Blame Intel’s staggered rollout—Apple uses the ultra-low-voltage Y-series CPUs for the Retina MacBook, but every other chip that Apple prefers to use in its products won’t launch until 2017 at the earliest. That includes higher-end dual-core chips with Iris GPUs (used in the MacBook Airs and Pros, the Mac Mini, and some 21.5-inch iMacs), socketed quad-core desktop CPUs (used in the 27-inch iMacs), and soldered-down quad-core CPUs with Iris Pro (used in other 21.5-inch iMacs and 15-inch Pros). It can be hard to know when to blame Apple and when to blame Intel when products are refreshed later or erratically or not at all, but in this case Intel’s haphazard product introductions are definitely the problem.

Skylake is a thoroughly known quantity at this late date, but it’s new to the MacBook Pros, and we haven’t seen the versions with Iris GPUs as often as we’ve seen some of the others. Processor performance in the base model $1,499 Pro is on roughly the same level as the base model 2015 MacBook Pro, which is disappointing if you’re looking at pure performance but more impressive if you consider that the new Pro’s CPU has a 15W TDP instead of a 28W TDP.

Luckily, Intel compensates for its ho-hum CPU performance by delivering much-improved GPU performance. We’ve discussed why Skylake’s Iris GPU is so much better than older Iris GPUs before, but let’s recap just in case.

In previous generations of chips, the major difference between “Iris” and “Iris Pro” was primarily the presence of 128MB of eDRAM, a (relatively) large and fast cache of memory built into the processor package that the GPU could use instead of always using the system’s RAM as integrated GPUs usually do. Memory bandwidth is the single biggest limiting factor for integrated graphics, and while that 128MB of eDRAM could never measure up to the multi-gigabyte pool of fast GDDR graphics memory that dedicated GPUs include, every little bit helps.

For Skylake, Intel also gave non-Pro Iris GPUs an eDRAM cache—a smaller 64MB pool of it, yes, but any cache at all is better than none. The result is a 13-inch MacBook Pro with an integrated GPU that’s a little bit faster than the integrated GPU in the 2014/2015 15-inch MacBook Pro. It’s not a replacement for a dedicated graphics chip, but it’s a much faster GPU than any 13-inch MacBook has ever offered.

The Touch Bar model’s GPU is clocked 50MHz faster and the chip has a higher TDP, so it will be faster than this but not dramatically so. The Skylake Iris Pro GPUs boost performance further by including the full 128MB of eDRAM and 50 percent more GPU execution units (EUs, a jump from 48 to 72). Apple doesn’t use these GPUs in MacBook Pros anymore, though; the 15-inch models that used to use them now use Intel HD 530 GPUs without any eDRAM, leaving the heavy lifting to the AMD Polaris dedicated GPUs.

A couple of takeaways: Apple’s neglect of OpenGL in macOS means that the GPU’s performance boost doesn’t matter as much in OpenGL benchmarks like Cinebench as it does in Metal benchmarks. And much of the time. the new Iris GPU really does provide nearly double the performance of the old one.

Will you be able to game on this thing? Some, as long as your games are older or you’re willing to turn the detail and resolution down. It’s better for light gaming than the vast majority of 13-inch laptops. But no 13-inch MacBook has ever been a “gaming laptop,” and this one definitely isn’t either. Iris’s graphics boost is a bigger deal for people doing drafting or CAD work or for GPU-accelerated apps like Photoshop. It will also help the laptop struggle less when it’s pushing a 4K or 5K display along with the internal monitor.

To that end, I plugged the Pro into the DisplayPort of a 4K Dell monitor I’ve got for this sort of testing. The 2015 Pro and Air could both drive 4K displays at 60Hz over a single cable, but they weren’t great at it—even for basic desktop use, that’s a lot of pixels for one integrated GPU to push. The new Pro still isn’t perfect, but it’s much better. I set both the Pro’s internal display and the Dell display to their default scaling modes and opened up 10 windows on each screen, and then I used the macOS trackpad gestures to do things like switching between different full-screen apps and using Mission Control. The GPU definitely starts dropping frames when it’s working this hard, but everything is more than fluid enough to be usable (this was also true with the 4K display set to 5K mode, something I wanted to test because the new Pros can drive 5K displays over a single Thunderbolt cable. Obviously, the higher the resolution and the more windows you have open the jerkier things get).

Finally, Apple remains at the forefront of SSD performance, both in the amount of bandwidth it’s willing to give to drives and in the speed of those drives. The new 13-inch Pros give the SSD four lanes of PCI Express 3.0 bandwidth, something that’s now possible because Skylake builds PCI Express 3.0 lanes directly into the chipset. Last year’s 13-inch Pros were limited to PCI Express 2.0. Last year’s 15-inch Pros provided four lanes of PCI Express 3.0 bandwidth, but it could do this only because Intel’s quad-core processors have their own embedded PCI Express 3.0 lanes, typically provided for use by external GPUs.

Write performance in this year’s 13-inch model is roughly even with last year’s 15-inch model and slightly ahead of last year’s 13-inch model. But read performance is dramatically increased in both cases—it nearly doubles the read speed of last year’s 13-inch Pro, and it’s about 40 percent faster than the read speed of last year’s 15-inch Pro. An embarrassing number of PC laptops still ship with SATA III SSDs, represented here for reference by the 1TB Mercury Electra SSD I’ve installed in my 2012 iMac. Apple’s upgrade prices for storage are steep, but at least you get a lot of performance.

Battery life

The $1,499 Pro’s battery life really shines in light-to-medium use, where it easily shoots to the top of our battery charts. It lasts way over Apple’s 10-hour estimate in our Wi-Fi Web browsing test, which continually refreshes cached pages once every 15 seconds in the computer’s default browser (Safari for Macs, Edge for PCs) with the screen’s brightness set to 200 nits (this test is probably actually too light at this point, and it’s something we’ll be revisiting when we update our benchmarking suite in the next few months). It also outlasts last year’s 13-inch Pro despite that model’s larger battery.

Though Apple rates both the $1,499 Pro and the Touch Bar model at 10 hours of battery life, the $1,499 version will almost definitely end up running for longer than the Touch Bar version. The $1,499 Pro has a larger battery, a lower-power processor, and doesn’t have to drive the SoC and screen of the Touch Bar. But we won’t know how much better the $1,499 Pros will be until we can run these tests on the Touch Bar models, which won’t be for another week or two.

If there’s one disappointment here, it’s that battery life under load drops dramatically. It’s at about the same level as the old Pros, which is impressive given that the battery in the new models is around one-third smaller. But it suggests that people who are really pushing the CPU and GPU won’t see as much improvement as people whose usage model is defined by Web browsing and writing.

Position in Apple’s lineup

The $1,499 Pro is in an awkward place, straddling the line between the entry-level 2015 model Apple is still selling for $1,299 and the $1,799 Pro that actually has all the cool features the company is advertising so heavily. Apple has always sold a lot of different configurations for a lot of different prices, but usually those laptops are differentiated using things like CPU speed and RAM and SSD capacity. Now they’re also separated by fundamental building blocks like their input devices, their port configurations, and their designs.

Somewhere, there is an audience for this machine. Not everyone is sold on the Touch Bar, and you still get a much-improved integrated GPU and SSD, a smaller and lighter design, and a great wide-color screen. It’s just that this thing feels like it would fit better in the entry-level $1,299 slot. At $1,499, it feels more like a compromise meant to push people in the direction of the $1,799 model.

More confusingly, Apple positions this laptop as a MacBook Pro that would “be really exciting for our customers who would traditionally pick a MacBook Air.” Those are Phil Schiller’s own words, but one of the reasons why the Air was so popular was its price. From 2010 to 2013 or 2014, when the Air’s design was more competitive, the $899 and $999 starting prices for the 11- and 13-inch models made them particularly appealing. Not only were they better than the old white plastic MacBooks that came before, but they were also cheaper and dramatically faster in most cases.

The new Pro may be a good replacement for the Air if you’re talking strictly about its size and weight, but an Air replacement that costs $500 or $600 more than the Air is no Air replacement at all. Apple’s “consumer” laptop offerings are now:

  • A $999 13-inch MacBook Air with last year’s specs, a mediocre screen, and an ancient design.
  • A $1,299 MacBook that’s beautifully designed and built but has compromised performance and expandability.
  • iPads with keyboard covers.

I don’t see the value you could get from an Air in 2012 or 2013 anywhere on that list. iPads are rapidly improving as productivity devices, but when you try to use them as laptop replacements you still spend too much time forcing square pegs into round holes. And given the proliferation of high-quality Windows laptops at and above $700 or $800, the MacBook Air’s size, screen, and speed are no longer acceptable compromises. The old 13-inch MacBook Pro, which can be bought new for $1,299 (or refurbished for $1,099 when they’re available), is probably the best option at the moment. It’s got a solid screen and a more conventional keyboard and selection of ports, though you still have to accept specs that are over a year old. None of these are outstanding options.

What people are upset about when they get upset about the new MacBook Pro

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Enlarge / The new 13-inch MacBook Pro. Andrew Cunningham

At this point I’ve probably read dozens of articles griping about some aspect of the Pro’s design, and there are definitely legitimate criticisms to be made. 16GB of RAM is more than enough for my definition of “Pro” usage, but especially in the 15-inch model I can understand why some people are upset that there’s no 32GB option (I would truly hate to contemplate how much Apple would charge for that much RAM; it costs $600 in the 5K iMac, and those are standard sticks of DDR3). These laptops cost a lot more than they used to. The dedicated GPUs in the 15-inch models are far from top-end, though to be fair Apple has literally always shipped decidedly middle-of-the-road dedicated GPUs in its MacBook Pros. And as versatile as Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C are, it is annoying to have to work yet another series of cables and dongles into your digital life.

But when you dig down to find the root cause of most people’s angst, it’s less about the new MacBook Pros individually and more about the way Apple has been treating the Mac lineup in general for the last two or three years. Even if you consider the MacBook and MacBook Pros to be solid computers—and they are, in most respects for most users—these refreshes by themselves don’t really right the Good Ship Macintosh. The Mac Mini is two years old, the Mac Pro is three years old, and the iMac just missed out on a yearly refresh for the first time since the 2012 models came out. The company is serving its entry-level Mac customers by selling them 2015’s laptops virtually unchanged for the same price as it sold them for last year. And Apple being Apple, we never hear about future products before they’re ready, which does nothing to ease the minds of longtime Mac customers who are uncertain about the platform’s future in a time where iOS is clearly (and rightfully, based on Apple’s earnings) the top priority.

If Apple had given some love to the desktop at the event last week, the reaction to the MacBook Pros probably wouldn’t have been so harsh. What many of these users want is more, more processor, more graphics, more memory, and historically the best way to get more has been to get it from a desktop. A desktop-centric presentation next spring, after the appropriate Kaby Lake processors have been released, would reassure worried power users and get rid of a lot of the red in the MacRumors Buyer’s Guide.

Putting aside larger concerns about Apple’s stewardship of the Mac as a hardware and software platform, the new MacBook Pro is a very solid design that should serve Apple well over the next few years. Some pros will claim that it isn’t “pro” enough, but the 13-inch models have always served as more of a bridge between the consumer MacBooks and MacBook Airs on the low end and the 15-inch Pros and the desktop lineup on the high end. They’ve never been particularly “pro.”

Even so, the $1,499 version of the laptop isn’t the one I’d recommend first, not unless the presence of a physical function row is make-or-break and you value it over the other stuff that’s missing. Those two extra ports and the extra speed bump will go a long way, and both the Touch Bar and Touch ID have a lot of potential (they should also only improve over the course of the three-to-five years that you’ll be using the laptop).

This would be a great laptop if it was positioned at the $1,300 starting price of the old MacBook Pros, though the 12-inch MacBook might need to move downmarket a bit to make room for it. At its current price, the $1,499 Pro feels like a laptop with a new design that just happens to be missing a bunch of the features that make the new design worthwhile.

The good

  • Rock-solid design that looks and feels great.
  • Thunderbolt 3 is a tremendously versatile port, and Apple will benefit from increased adoption in the wider PC industry.
  • Low-travel keyboard still isn’t for everyone, but it’s a marked improvement over the first-generation version in the MacBook.
  • Much-improved integrated GPU performance, which will help if you’re trying to drive a 4K or 5K display.
  • Stellar battery life under light-to-medium use, battery life comparable to the 2015 MBPs under heavy use.
  • Impressive speakers for a 13-inch laptop.

The bad

  • Limited number of ports, limited port selection, and need for dongles will be inconvenient, especially at first.
  • Extremely limited repairability and upgradeability.
  • Intel’s CPU speed increases in the last few years have been discouraging.
  • Occasional problems with palm rejection in the new, larger trackpad.
  • Missing just enough features to be frustrating, most noticeably the Touch Bar, Touch ID, and the extra pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports.
  • 867Mbps 802.11ac Wi-Fi is a downgrade from last year’s 1.3Gbps.

The ugly

  • Really expensive, even in the context of past MacBook Pros.

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