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MacBook Pro with Touch Bar REVIEW: Part gimmick, part future

by Brandon Russell | November 23, 2016November 23, 2016 4:30 pm PST

I ran into my first issue almost immediately. After switching over to the new 15-inch MacBook Pro, I wanted to see how well the Touch Bar worked with Apple’s built-in Photos app. But I was quickly reminded the company ditched the SD card slot, and I hadn’t yet purchased an adapter.

Later that same day, I wanted the precision of a mouse, so I unpacked the Logitech Anywhere MX I carry in my backpack. Sorry, that won’t work either.

The Anywhere MX doesn’t support Bluetooth, instead relying solely on the unifying receiver. But I couldn’t plug in the receiver because the new MacBook Pro doesn’t have a compatible USB port.

A few hours later, I was working on the couch while plugged in to a nearby outlet. Unaware of the cable laying on the floor, my girlfriend tripped and nearly broke her neck. In the process, the laptop almost went with her. That wouldn’t have happened if Apple kept the MagSafe.

I hadn’t even had the MacBook Pro for a full day and I was experiencing productivity-halting issues. If a photographer is stuck in the field without an SD card adapter, what are they supposed to do? These aren’t issues I experience with the 11-inch MacBook Air, a computer from mid-2013.

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Getting accustomed to the new MacBook Pro can be a frustrating, tiring exercise in patience. Even if you do buy the necessary dongles, there’s a good chance you’ll forget one at home that’s crucial to your work flow. And, yet, Apple’s laptop is so remarkably assured that you almost forgive its shortcomings. Almost.

Like other Apple computers before it, the new MacBook Pro’s design is the best on the market, an immaculate, premium mix of engineering and style. Apple computers have always looked good and the company’s new machines raise the bar even higher. Set next to Microsoft’s new Surface Book, there’s a clear difference in quality.

And the screen—wow. The Touch Bar, meanwhile, is an exciting idea with a lot of potential.

Too bad the MacBook Pro is so expensive.

There are two new MacBook Pro models (well, three if you count the 13-inch model without the Touch Bar). Like previous Apple laptops, they’re carved from aluminum, beautifully and impressively engineered into a sturdy, durable machine. The tack sharp screens have also been improved; Apple says it’s the brightest, most colorful Mac notebook display ever.

It does indeed look good, featuring brighter LED backlighting and an increased contrast ratio. That means deeper blacks and brighter whites, providing photo and video editors with a more true-to-life experience when creating content. “Essential for graphic design, color grading, and editing,” Apple says on its website.

It’s not just the screen that’s improved. The MacBook Pro’s trackpad is now much larger—about the size of a standalone Magic Trackpad 2, or 2x larger than the trackpad found in previous Apple laptops. The extra space—enough to fit your iPhone in—gives users more room to click, gesture, and tap.

When Apple first unveiled the larger trackpad, there were concerns it would accidentally register touches due to its size. But I ran into no such issue, finding the expanded space made it easier to perform the actions and gestures necessary to breeze through macOS. So, rest your palm on the trackpad all you want, as Apple’s rejection technology is top-of-the-line.

Sitting directly above the trackpad is Apple’s redesigned keyboard, which improves upon the design we saw in the 12-inch MacBook. Apple says the second-generation butterfly mechanism has been refined for greater comfort and responsiveness.

I never had the chance to type on the MacBook’s keyboard, so I’m not sure if it was easy or hard to use. I will say, however, that the second-generation butterfly mechanism found in the MacBook Pro’s keyboard is pretty great; no more difficult than the Magic Keyboard I typically rely on.

The keys don’t have that much travel, so it takes some getting used to in the beginning. But once you become accustomed to the butterfly keys you’ll find that they’re accurate and easy to use. (As an aside, people have complained that the second-gen butterfly keys are loud, which, ok, I guess they are. It’s more of a thud and less of a click.)

Next to the redesigned keyboard sit redesigned speakers, which Apple claims provides twice as much dynamic range and up to 58 percent more volume. “They’re connected directly to system power, enabling up to three times more peak power,” Apple says.

I’m no DJ and don’t have much of an ear for the minutiae of sound mixing. But I can tell you this: The speakers can get very loud, producing a crisp, clean sound that pumps out bass (Apple says 2.5x louder) that you’ll feel coursing through your body.

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The Touch Bar with Apple Maps open.

And, now, we find ourselves faced by Apple’s new Touch Bar, the most significant update to the MacBook Pro in years. Apple believes it will change how people, especially pro users, interact with their computer. It’s the company’s alternative—and, in Apple’s eyes, superior solution—to a full touch screen experience. And, after a longer than expected period of acclimation, I love it. Mostly.

Here’s the thing: Customizing the Touch Bar to fit your needs is a must. When I first started using it, I kept everything in its default setting—and I hated it. I constantly pause and unpause my music throughout the day and, by default, the pause/play button is hidden away when using Spotify. That means you have to expand the default set of icons that shows up in the Touch Bar and then find the play/pause key.

I was doing that over and over and over, and it became really annoying. Luckily, Apple allows users to customize the Touch Bar, which means you can have your choice of shortcuts that show up at all times. I went with mute, play/pause, volume slider, and Mission Control.

The beauty is that no Touch Bar is the same. And if you don’t like the changes you made, you can continue to tweak it to your liking. But that’s also the problem. Having to constantly expand the bar so the function keys appear can get very old, very fast.

The Touch Bar is at its best when you use it with apps that support it. It’s a pretty small list right now, and mostly includes apps built by Apple (Pages, Photos, Mail, Calendar, etc.). But developers are quickly rolling out support. Pixelmator, for example, along with Airmail 3 and djay Pro.

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The app I found most useful, however, was 1Password, which has been enhanced for the MacBook Pro’s addition of Touch ID. Opening the app with just your fingerprint will never get old; it’s the exact experience you get on mobile. Click to open the app, place your finger on Touch ID, and that’s it.

Touch ID as a whole is a fantastic addition to the Mac line, and makes signing in to your computer a breeze. It also supports Apple Pay on the web, which is both awesome and frightening. If you thought one-click purchasing on Amazon was easy, just wait until you’re buying stuff using Touch ID. It’s almost too easy.

The fingerprint reader is just one of many improvements but it’s easily one of the best. It’s a shame Touch ID isn’t included in any other Mac products. The non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro would be a dream machine if it included Touch ID. Of course, that’s not the point. The point is the Touch Bar. It’s an idea that comes in place of a full touch screen Mac experience—something Apple continues to vociferously oppose.

I’ve underlined a few instances when I found the Touch Bar to be a nuisance, but it’s often helpful. When you use it with an app enhanced with support, that’s when the Touch Bar really comes to life. In an app such as Calendar, the bar will show a row of months, making it incredibly simple to see what’s ahead. In Mail, the bar will show buttons for Archive, Delete, Compose, and more.

When you’re creating documents—I’m writing in Ulysses right now—the Touch Bar will display word suggestions, just as iOS does above the keyboard. I mostly ignored this feature, but it does make life easier. There’s also a smiley button that brings up a row of emoji.

In Pixelmator, a popular Photoshop alternative, the Touch Bar adds shortcuts to tools, which you can then interact with without touching your mouse or keyboard. Creative apps display the Touch Bar at its most useful, and Pixelmator is is a perfect example.

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The point isn’t for the Touch Bar to completely alter your workflow, but complement it. If it saves you an extra click, then it’s done its job. And the fact that it dynamically changes means it’s always suiting your needs, whether you’re sending email or using Pixelmator to enhance a photo.

For Apple’s first attempt, the company has done an admirable job demonstrating why the Touch Bar exists. But, so early on, it’s still straddling that line between unnecessary and useful. More and more people are growing up with touch as their main tool of interaction. The Touch Bar is a clever compromise between a non-touch MacBook Pro and Microsoft’s Surface Book.

The thing about it, though, is it’s only useful when your computer is open. That’s obvious. But if, like me, you keep your laptop closed all day while hooked up to an external monitor, the Touch Bar becomes completely moot. At the moment, the Touch Bar isn’t crucial enough to make people change their entire work setup.

While the jury’s still out on the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar, getting over the laptop’s sheer lack of ports is another matter entirely. Going from an older Apple laptop to the MacBook Pro is jarring, especially if you’re not prepared with the requisite dongles.

Whether people can adapt to Dongle Life remains to be seen. I haven’t had any issues with the iPhone 7’s lack of a headphone jack. But, as I experienced early on with the MacBook Pro, not having the right cables, dongles, and ports can be a real problem.

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The nice thing about having four USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 is you can charge your computer from any port. These ports allow for data transfer, charging, and video output in a single connector, “delivering up to 40 Gbps of throughput for twice the bandwidth of Thunderbolt 2,” Apple says.

I used the base 15-inch model (silver, very pretty), which starts at $2,399 and comes with a 2.6GHz Intel Core i7, 16GB of RAM, and 256GB of internal storage. Performance has been pretty phenomenal so far, but computers typically run well when they’re fresh. The real test will be to see how it holds up over months of use. (You can see my GeekBench 4 score if you’re interested.)

At any given time, I typically have Spotify, Mail, Ulysses, TweetDeck, Calendar, Safari, and Slack open at once, sometimes opening Lightroom when I need to edit photos. All said, I’ve been able to push through about 8 hours before the battery sputters out, give or take. And that’s with the screen brightness at about 85 percent. Not quite Apple’s estimated 10 hours of battery, but pretty close.

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Rating: Wait

Having used a MacBook Air for the past three years, upgrading to the new Pro has been a mostly enjoyable experience. But it’s weird when the Air can do things the Pro can’t. I can connect an SD card without a dongle, and I don’t have to worry about the Air crashing to the floor if the power cord is accidentally kicked.

And I’m not so sure the Touch Bar is the right answer to Microsoft’s Surface Book—yet. It’s useful in certain situations, but a lot of the time it simply provides shortcuts for things that are already on screen. The Touch Bar is an addition that will take a lot of time before it proves its worth. After all, something like 3D Touch, which is available in the iPhone, is still finding its footing.

If I were in the market for a laptop—as someone who writes and lightly edits photos—I’d go with the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro. And that’s if you absolutely wanted the latest from Apple. Your best bet might be to go with the MacBook Pro from 2015, which needs no extra dongles right out of the box.

That’s not to say Apple’s new MacBook Pro isn’t good, because it is. You just have to be prepared for Apple’s future of computing, which is very much in its infancy. Even if you don’t jump on the new Pro, you should start preparing now, because a dongle-filled future is coming whether you like it or not.


Brandon Russell

Brandon Russell enjoys writing about technology and entertainment. When he's not watching Back to the Future, you can find him on a hike or watching...

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