Apple’s MacBook Pro is the company’s flagship portable computer, providing a nearly desktop-level of computing in a small, metallic enclosure that’s easy to slip into a backpack.
Sure, the new 15-inch MacBook Pro (2016) is faster and lighter than the previous model (the two things most users want in an upgrade), but it’s two design choices that seem to be drawing the most attention and sparking the most controversy. Apple’s new use of USB-C ports and the touch-sensitive OLED bar called Touch Bar seem to have derailed any rational conversation about the most recent and most powerful Mac laptop.
Truth be told, in an era where each generation of computer is supposed to be faster and lighter, the new MacBook Pro is a complicated story to tell. To shave weight off of the MacBook Pro, the new models shave off a bit of the performance of a similarly equipped MacBook Pro 2015. The new Intel processors inside the MacBook Pro are smaller, and much more energy efficient than previous processors, but they’re not as brawny. That means while the new MacBook Pro gets much longer battery life (up to 10 hours), it does so with slightly lower processor benchmark scores.
However, the main processor in a computer isn’t the only workhorse; in fact, for photographers and video editors, the graphics card is as important as the processor, if not more important. Many imaging tasks in the Mac OS are handed off to the Graphics Processing Unit (GPU), and so a faster GPU means better performance using things like Photoshop or Final Cut Pro.
The GPU in the MacBook Pro is much improved over the 2015 model, though it’s not the top-end portable graphics card on the market, but instead the largest, fastest model that Apple could squeeze under the hood.
Performance-wise, we found the 15-inch maxed-out MacBook Pro 2016 to be faster than its predecessor, though not so much as to knock your socks off. That said, I reached a point a few years ago where my computer is more powerful than the applications it runs. If I need to do high-end video editing on a regular basis, I’d turn to a desktop system like the Mac Pro (which also needs a good upgrade), as the multiple core processors make short work out of things like rendering video. When doing my daily work in Lightroom, Final Cut, Capture One Pro or Photoshop, I rarely find myself thinking “I wish I had more power.”
More often I wish that I had more battery power, and the more efficient processor in the MacBook Pro might not be faster than the last generation, but it’s less battery-draining. The MacBook Pro has a claimed run time of around 10 hours performing general browsing tasks, though we have yet to see anything close to that The most runtime we’ve seen on our MacBook Pro when doing basic tasks like writing articles and surfing the web is around six hours. After about an hour and a half of basic surfing and word processing today, for example, the battery has dropped to 66%. At that rate the battery will be fully exhausted in three more hours for a total of less than five hours. The battery menu bar item indicates that Safari is using a lot of battery power, but there are currently only four windows open in Safari and a handful of other non-graphics apps.
In fact, the battery has dropped two percent since I began writing the second paragraph above about performance. I suspect that the culprit here is not the battery but the apps and the OS, both of which will likely be tweaked for efficiency but as of this writing the MacBook Pro does not even come close to the claimed runtime.
Like its predecessor, the MacBook Pro is limited to 16 GB of RAM, which is non-upgradable. It would have been very nice to have seen a bump in the upper RAM limit. Thanks to the efficiency of the recent version of OS X, there really aren’t any apps that run poorly with that amount of RAM—I edit videos all the time in Final Cut Pro without any issues—but creatives tend to have numerous applications open at once and tend to switch between them regularly, and more RAM would keep things humming along without any pause between applications.
Turning Hard To Port
Traditionally, the MacBook Pro has had a kitchen-sink assortment of ports and connectivity, designed to make the portable Macintosh able to handle anything it might encounter, regardless of the environment. The previous 2015 model of the MacBook Pro had USB 3, Thunderbolt 2/Mini Display, Ethernet, HDMI and a MagSafe power cord.
With the new MacBook Pro, the company flips this idea on its head, focusing instead on a single physical connection standard—USB-C—to act as the gateway to interacting with the outside world. While the MacBook Pro has WiFi and Bluetooth for wireless connections, for wired connections the new MacBook Pro is the USB-C way or the highway.
The USB-C standard is an electrical engineering marvel, packing video, audio, connectivity and, importantly, power into a single, small connector that can be inserted face up or face down, but they’re the only connector to be found on the MacBook Pro, aside from a small audio port. The Swiss Army Knife versatility of last year’s MacBook Pro has been replaced with a machine that needs adapters or new cables to talk to just about anything. In a few years, the whole computer market will get on the USB-C train, so it will be easy to connect devices with USB-C ports, but today it requires some workarounds.
Online forums were so full of angry comments about the need to purchase adapters to connect the MacBook Pro to everything from hard drives to, well, anything that Apple even reduced the price of its adapters to appease customers.
As with many things, the reality of this change is both easier and harder to deal with than you might think. Sure, you’ll need to buy an adapter to go from USB-C to Thunderbolt or FireWire, but USB-C cables to many other connection types abound. That means that you can go directly from your USB-C port to your existing USB hubs with a simple, cheap cable or go from USB-C to your iPhone’s Lightning port without an adapter.
Even a year from now the market will be flooded with drives sporting USB-C connectors, just as USB 3.x connectors are ubiquitous now. The primary user who will have to turn to adapters is one with an array of drives and peripherals with either Thunderbolt 2 or FireWire, and for them, plugging in a dongle isn’t a big deal.
A better solution might be to use a USB-C hub, like those sold by Kensington and OWC. These devices connect a single USB-C cable to a box about the size of a power strip that has conventional ports like HDMI, Ethernet, USB 3 and more. This single connection is also enough to provide power for the MacBook Pro. USB-C has so much bandwidth that it can handle these multiple connection types across a single USB-C cable, with room to spare.
As of this writing, though, there are still some gotchas with these hubs. The OWC hub we received didn’t work with the new MacBook Pro; external monitors refused to sync no matter what we did. OWC has a new USB-C hub coming out in February 2017, and we assume it will work as well as our previous Thunderbolt 2 hub did.
We also tested the Kensington USB-C hub and that works much better, though we tried, and failed, to connect a Thunderbolt 2 drive to the hub’s additional USB-C port via a Thunderbolt adapter. The hub doesn’t seem to able to maintain all the multiple other connections and also work with an adapter. This issue may be addressed by firmware or by future models, however.
The workaround is to connect the Thunderbolt 2 drives to one USB-C port and the hub to another—with all the connections spanning from that, but instead of the promise of a single cable to serve all our needs, now we have two.
Further complicating things, it’s not possible (at least in our tests) to put an adapter further down the chain. In other words, you can’t go from USB-C to Thunderbolt 2 via an adapter and then from Thunderbolt 2 to FireWire 800 via an adapter; it just won’t work. You can connect the FireWire to a USB-C adapter to another USB-C port, but then you have three cables instead of the promised single-cable solution.
So, yes, you’ll need new cables or adapters to use the new Mac right now, and you’re going to run into headaches until the hubs and peripheral makers of the world get the kinks worked out of this new standard. I’m old enough to remember the switch from SCSI connectors, so I’ve been down the disrupted workflow road before, and I’m willing to wait until this works out. For people who have to connect a wide variety of devices, the previous-generation MacBook Pro is still a better choice, at least for now.
One of the most promising things about the USB-C standard is that it provides power over the same cable used to connect to devices. Our test MacBook Pro is connected to the hub with a single cable that’s powering the Mac, and also connecting it to a display and a USB hub. Apple “partner” LG released a monitor that has native USB-C input for video, and that display powers the new MacBook Pro over that cable. It will be possible to do things like provide power to a Mac and several drives over the same connector, without any power bricks for the various accessories, and that’s the main reason why I think Apple went all-in on USB-C. The only way to ensure the standard catches on is to make it necessary for peripheral companies to get on board.
I’ve rarely seen such a bashing of a useful technology as I’ve seen with Touch Bar, the new interactive, OLED, touch-sensitive strip that replaces the function keys above the number row on the new MacBook Pro. There are people who seem personally insulted by Apple’s inclusion of this new technology, though it works as advertised. I rarely use my keyboard’s traditional function keys as function keys, using them to control things like brightness and volume (which you can still do), and Touch Bar turns what I’d consider to be dead space into a useful, variable and dynamic tool.
Open Final Cut, and you can scrub through video with it. Open up Apple’s Photos, and you can quickly select images and make adjustments. As software developers embrace the new tool, we’re going to see any number of new functions possible with the Touch Bar. Imaging sliders can be programmed to control exposure or saturation or anything you’d like at the tip of your fingers.
Much of the criticism of Touch Bar seems to come from Apple’s decision to promote it by showing off emoticons in Messages. Perhaps that wasn’t the clearest demonstration of the professional applications it offers.
The main issue I have with Touch Bar is that I largely use my laptop tethered to a monitor and connected via an external keyboard. When the MacBook Pro sits next to the second display, it’s well out of reach, making the Touch Bar inaccessible. In other words, my biggest issue is that I can’t always get to it.
Another criticism is the built-in Siri button, but I’m also finding this to be an indispensable tool. I couldn’t find an Excel spreadsheet I did sometime this month, and I asked Siri to find all the Excel documents made in the last two weeks, and there it was, where I put it, in the wrong folder. As Siri’s power expands, it will make more sense to have that button handy. I’m looking forward to doing a lot of file management with that button.
Keyboard And Trackpad
As someone who has used the current-generation MacBook, I’m used to Apple’s new “butterfly” springs that lie beneath the keys and the different feel the mechanism provides. The butterfly design is flatter than traditional springs, allowing the MacBook and now the MacBook Pro to be not only thinner, but making the keyboard action more precise, as well.
In the MacBook, this wasn’t necessarily a good thing. The keys on the compact Mac felt stiff and difficult to actuate. Sure, they’re less likely to, as Apple says, “wobble around the edges,” but there wasn’t enough vertical travel. For a longtime typist, the result is a bit of hand fatigue, as it takes a lot of finger force to press the springs. You can’t, as you would on a more traditional keyboard, slide your fingers off the edges as you move from key to key. In other words, the wobble in most keyboards is part of what makes them feel good.
The MacBook Pro uses a second generation of the butterfly springs, and they’re marginally improved, but it’s still a hard keyboard to get used to. On my external keyboard, I can type for hundreds of words before my hands get tired, but on this keyboard, I have to take a break to stretch my fingers every few dozen words.
If you don’t type for a living—perhaps you only press keys to activate shortcuts in Photoshop—or you’re a bad typist, the keys will probably help quite a bit, as the stiffness makes it surer when a key has been pressed, but if you find yourself often typing, the keyboard is likely to disappoint.
I can’t see Apple ever returning to the previous spring design, unfortunately, so I guess it’s time to take my fingers to the gym.
The surface area of the trackpad has been significantly increased on the new MacBook Pro, though I’m not exactly sure why. I almost always use the trackpad in conjunction with the keys, and my thumbs simply don’t have the need or ability to cover an area wider than the space bar or deeper than I can reach when turning my hand slightly to move the mouse.
Thankfully, the trackpad isn’t mechanical—the click feeling is created via haptic feedback, so the trackpad can be clicked anywhere on the surface by pressing down on it, so it’s not necessary to click the front of the trackpad (which is very far from the keyboard) to select something.
Apple’s recently championed a new color model it calls Wide Color (see our “Behind The Tech” article in December’s issue for more information), and the MacBook Pro implements this. It also has a sharp, vibrant display, which means that the monitor on the MacBook Pro is one of the sharpest and most accurate around.
If you’re doing mission-critical photography work, the display on the MacBook Pro won’t let you down, and that’s hard to overlook—though many of the online critics seem to have, in fact, missed the significance of the display.
I calibrated the display on the MacBook Pro, and when it sits beside the BenQ SW2700PT, a monitor designed for graphics professionals that displays 99 percent of Adobe RGB, it’s generally impossible to see any difference unless performing detailed color work.
Another bit of controversy surrounds the removal of the SD card slot on the MacBook Pro. I’d hazard a guess that less than half of computer users used the SD card slot, but I’d also wager that those who used it, used it all…the…time. As a frequent camera tester, I used the SD card reader anytime the MacBook Pro left my house. While more and more cameras have wireless transfer, that’s still not as fast as the integrated SD slot, nor is it as convenient. When moving images or videos from a camera over WiFi, the card is still in the camera so you can’t shoot with one card while another card is in the SD slot transferring.
Naturally, you can bring along a card reader on your shoots, but it’s one more bundle of wires and adapters for users to carry along while Apple talks about the streamlined use of USB-C.
One saving grace for the removal of the SD slot is the upcoming battle between SD and the newer XQD and CFast standards. At some point, pro-level cameras will switch from SD to something else, rendering an SD card slot useless. We are not, however, at that point, and a plethora of cameras use SD cards. It’s sad to see that slot go.
We reviewed the 15-inch MacBook Pro with the fully maxed-out configuration. While the 13-inch model is excellent, we think the majority of photographers will opt for the 15-inch version, so buying recommendations are predicated on that setup. If you need the smaller size of the 13-inch laptop, then you’re going to have to compromise a bit in the upper end of the configuration.
If you’re using a MacBook Air or MacBook, the upgrade to the MacBook Pro will be well worth it. Likewise, if you’re using a 2012 or 2013 MacBook Pro, there’s enough bang in this update to make it worth your buck.
However, if you’re using the 2014 or 2015 MacBook Pro, there isn’t yet a compelling reason to upgrade if you don’t feel your system lagging. It’s a bit thinner. It’s a bit lighter. It has a bit better battery life (well, a lot better battery life). It’s a bit faster. But it’s also less able to connect to the physical world, and it’s a bit expensive, considering the degree of improvement you’d get.
This same thing happened when Apple introduced the first 5K iMac in 2014. To meet its goal of creating a 5K desktop system, it had to create a workaround to send video to the display—the video chips available at the time didn’t handle the resolution of a 5K monitor.
The 2015 iMac increased the specs all around, making it much more suitable for high-end editing and for video work. Many would-be Mac Pro users turned to the updated 5K iMac instead.
I think the same thing will happen with this new MacBook Pro. Clearly, Apple has some goals in mind, and this is the first system to bridge from an older mindset of a Swiss Army Knife design to one that’s more like a Swiss watch. The USB-C port is going to change how we interact with computers, but we all might not be ready for that change.
It’s very likely that in 2017, Apple will update the 15-inch MacBook Pro with the new Intel Kaby Lake processors (that have only recently come to market) and a faster video card. When that update happens, it will make the benefits of upgrading even more appealing.
You can follow David Schloss on Twitter and Instagram @davidjschloss.