MacBook Pro review: the Air apparent
If you’re a fan of Apple laptops, I’ve got some good news and some bad news. The good news: Apple has finally updated its Pro laptop line with some genuinely new and powerful options. Even better, the new MacBook Pro has been shrunken down to the degree of serving as the MacBook Air’s spiritual successor, which is what many of us had been hoping for all along. The bad news? Apple isn’t just giving, it’s also taking away.
At first blush, the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, sans fancy Touch Bar, looks like the perfect replacement for my aged MacBook Air from 2013. It’s the thinnest and lightest Pro ever, and it provides the display and performance upgrades my three-year-old laptop has been in desperate need of. Costing $1,499, it sits right in the middle between Apple’s $1,299 MacBook and the new $1,799 MacBook Pro with a Touch Bar and four Thunderbolt ports. It’s like the Air, in that it bridges the gap between Apple’s most portable and most powerful mobile computers, but it does so in an interesting new way.
Without the much-ballyhooed additions of Touch Bar interactions and Touch ID on the pricier new MacBook Pro models — which won’t be shipping for weeks — this more basic MBP is essentially the professionalization of the 12-inch MacBook. It’s a bigger and significantly more powerful version of that super-thin machine. More of a pro MacBook than a MacBook Pro.
If you wanted a bigger and more powerful MacBook, this is it
Why does it feel more like a MacBook? Well, just look at it. The familiar MagSafe charger is gone, retired along with Apple’s SD card reader, HDMI output, and old-school USB ports. This $1,499 MacBook Pro strips connectivity down to just a headphone jack on its right side and two USB-C ports with Thunderbolt 3 on the left. That’s it. You also get the new option to style it out in a handsome space gray and an upgraded version of the MacBook’s super flat butterfly-mechanism keyboard. All of this, along with the solid-state Force Touch trackpad, expresses Apple’s modernized laptop design, whose signature change is the frenzied push of USB-C as the unitary replacement for all the world’s ports. Apple is determined to force the future into existence, and this laptop is just the next logical step.
Logical though it may be for Apple, this MacBook Pro presents a dichotomy. Professional video editors and photographers have been waiting for a new Pro laptop — but this midrange MacBook Pro probably isn’t that. Instead, the world’s coffee shops are filled with nomadic professionals seeking an Apple computer to replace the much more ubiquitous, but now dated, MacBook Air. So while Apple has been busy crafting the Pro MacBook, the way it will be received by most people is the way that I’m addressing it today: as a Pro MacBook Air.
The MacBook Air kicked off the ultrabook trend among laptops before Intel even coined that term. Its familiar wedge shape has been copied by almost everyone, and it has served as a benchmark for thinness, battery life, and industrial design in its category. But the Air design hasn’t changed in six long years. In the meantime, Lenovo’s Yoga laptops reinvented the hinge, Dell’s XPS 13 reinvented the display, Razer reinvented the keyboard, and Microsoft reconfigured our entire idea of a laptop. The Air once stood alone as an ultra-portable with negligible compromises, but now there’s competition, and the Air has fallen dramatically behind with its anachronistic, washed-out screen.
So Apple’s first task is to simply get its slimmest 13-inch laptop back on par with its Windows rivals. And it all starts with the industrial design.
Apple’s industrial design remains best-in-class
The new MacBook Pro is precision engineering at its absolute finest. Run your finger along the spartan, portless side of this laptop and you won’t detect even a millimeter’s discrepancy between the bottom chassis and the top lid. They are two separate parts, but when the MacBook Pro is closed, they feel like one cohesive, solid slab of aluminum. The final vestiges of plastic on the exterior have been shorn off, replaced by a metal bottom to the display and a sapphire glass Apple logo that no longer lights up. Yes, this is very much the MacBook design scaled up.
(One advantage to the new Apple logo is that you’ll no longer see its ghostly presence on your screen when there’s a strong light behind your laptop. That used to frustrate me on sunny days with the Air, and it felt like a distinctly un-Apple-like oversight in the overall design.)
The interior of the new MacBook Pro is another spot that will be familiar to MacBook users, but largely foreign to everyone else. The keyboard’s keys seem to have been melted down into millimeter-thick slabs: they’re wider and a little more densely packed than on an Air or earlier Pro models. I found them alien at first, but once I stopped “testing the keyboard” and just started typing naturally, I found my rhythm and was quickly up to full speed — after a while, these larger keys start to feel like big input islands that are hard to miss. Their key travel is a shallow 0.55mm, which won’t be to everyone’s taste, but this updated MBP keyboard definitely has a better feel than the practically flat one on the MacBook.
The Rolls-Royce of touchpads, offering outsized luxury and unerring operation
Apple’s touchpad on this year’s MacBook Pro is something special. It spans the entire height of the wrist rest and half the width. It’s enormous, limousine-sized, and seemingly excessive, but I love it. The vastness of this thing means it’s always within easy reach, and because it’s built using Force Touch — simulating the tactile response of a click without ever moving — I can click the top of it in a way that I can’t do with the mechanical switch of my MacBook Air. I also like this new touchpad for the sheer visual appeal: compared to older versions, it looks like a display that’s had its bezels removed; like cutting-edge, space-maximizing technology. Not being mechanical also means it’ll stay this way for years, whereas my Air’s more conventional trackpad has developed a slight creaking habit.
Compared to my MacBook Air, the new Pro has a much smaller footprint, yet feels larger and more accommodating in use. That’s mostly thanks to the touchpad, but the larger keys on the keyboard also help. The display’s bezels are vastly thinner and with the stereo speakers sitting either side of the keyboard, Apple has basically left no wasted space on the 13-inch MacBook Pro. There’s even a double-wide Escape key, perhaps to make up for its loss on the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.
I’m writing this entire review on the 2016 MacBook Pro and I frankly don’t want to go back to typing on my Air. It’s a universally better experience. If you were still harboring reservations about either the flatter keyboard or artificially clicking touchpad of the MacBook, this new MBP is sure to allay them in a hurry.
The absolute biggest upgrade for any Air user will be the display. The new Pro’s 2560 x 1600 display is gorgeous, from literally any angle, and it matches the wider color gamut of the latest iPhone 7 models and Apple’s 5K iMac. Even for existing MacBook Pro users, this is a nice step up in contrast and brightness (now 500 nits versus the prior model’s 300), both of which are 67 percent higher. Apple may be killing us softly with all these incremental upgrades, but they really do add up to a supremely well-designed machine.
The same wide color gamut as on the 5K iMac and iPhone 7, now on a laptop
Beside its great build quality and fantastic display, the new MacBook Pro also performs superbly. I am swiping between desktops and darting in and out of heavy-duty apps like Adobe’s Lightroom and Photoshop with perfect ease and fluidity. The external polish is very much matched by the internal performance, and I struggle to imagine scenarios where anyone would feel constrained by this, the so-called entry-level, Pro laptop. It’s not a cheap computer by any means, so you should expect nothing less, of course.
I would go further and say that if you’re not involved in high-volume, high-resolution photo or video processing, you should just stick with the basic 2GHz Core i5 CPU and 8GB of RAM. Anything else would be overkill for most people.
Any doubts about why this new MacBook Pro exists while being so similar to the MacBook should really be extinguished by its performance. The Pro has a much more powerful processor and smoother graphics to go along with a significantly improved keyboard and a titanic trackpad. The MacBook is still the better computer to take on a flight with you, but the MacBook Pro approaches its level of portability while offering vastly more power and a longer-lasting battery.
Like an artfully carved chess set without a queen, this laptop is lovely but is missing vital pieces
It’s at this point that I would have expected to be able to say to Air users that they can stop reading and should just go buy the new MacBook Pro. But Apple’s futurism has expressed itself in less advantageous ways, too. The Cupertino company has both given and taken away.
For starters, the SD card slot is gone from the new MacBook Pro. A company that built up its entire product line on the adulation and money of professional photographers is now turning its back on them and blowing up the best bridge between the tools of their trade: camera and laptop. Without an SD card slot in the computer, we’re left having to tote an adapter everywhere ($50 when bought from Apple), or buying a USB-C cable for our cameras ($30), or relying on entirely unreliable wireless transfer apps. Maybe that’s fine on the MacBook, but it’s not okay on the MacBook Pro.
Apple’s solution for everything cabled is now a combined Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C port, of which the company provides two on the Touch Bar-deprived MacBook Pro I am reviewing. Is there any technical reason why this computer couldn’t have four, like the $1,799 model with a Touch Bar? Nope, it all comes down to price. Two USB-C ports are still double the number I’d get on a MacBook, but they’re both on the left side of the MBP and are compatible with nothing I own other than, amusingly, my Android phones.
The future may be wireless, but the present is full of dongles
The cool thing about the pricier MacBook Pros is that they split their USB-C ports evenly, two on each side, and since you can use any one of them to charge, that lets you pick which side to plug the charger into. I’ve always thought that an underrated advantage of Google’s Chromebook Pixel, but in Apple’s world, $1,499 is apparently not enough to unlock ambidextrous convenience. The MacBook Pro does have a headphone jack, unlike the new iPhone 7, but that’s hardly a consolation since buying the two devices together would mean either carrying around two sets of headphones or always having yet another dongle with you.
Apple has chosen one unifying port for everything that plugs into the Mac, and it has one unifying port for everything connecting to the iPhone. But the problem is that they’re not the same port. If I want to plug an iPhone into my MacBook Pro, I’ll need a dongle or a new cable ($25 from Apple), and neither is provided with either Macs or iPhones. And there’s no interchanging iPad peripherals with MacBook Pro ones, even as the two devices continue along a path toward converging into one.
If I want to connect an external hard drive to back up my MacBook Pro data, I’ll need a USB adapter ($19).
If I want to plug into Ethernet because the Wi-Fi around me sucks, I’ll need a new dongle ($35), different from those already in existence for prior MacBooks.
If I want to connect to an external display or projector to do a work presentation, I’ll have to choose between the VGA dongle ($40) or the AV multiport dongle that includes HDMI ($69).
If I bought into Apple’s previous Thunderbolt promotions and have any Thunderbolt accessories, those will need an adapter, too ($49).
You can find most — if not all — of these adapters for less money than what Apple is charging. But many people won’t bother. And for those who do, the quality and consistency of USB-C hubs leaves a lot to be desired right now.
Stare long enough into the immaculate, minimalist symmetry of that pair of USB-C ports, and you too might perceive the alluring future of personal computers. The future. But we live in a present where Windows XP is still widely used by businesses resistant to change. A world where the aforementioned VGA port is still the likeliest way to get visuals off your laptop in a boardroom meeting. And that thing’s almost as old as I am!
Apple is making users adapt to it when it should be adapting to users
Apple is forcing me to accept the loss of compatibility with USB sticks, USB drives, USB Ethernet adapters, HDMI cables, and, most painfully, MagSafe chargers, all because it’s decided to be impatient about the future. I’m not disputing the advantages of standardizing around USB-C, but I question how fast others will follow Apple’s lead here — MacBooks don’t have quite the same industry-wide influence as iPhones — and in turn how quickly this inconvenience will disappear for people like me. Apple could have at least kept the SD card slot alive, as a gesture to some of its most loyal fans and to ease the transition.
The MagSafe charger has been another mainstay of Apple laptops for years, latching magnetically into place with ease and disconnecting just as easily should the power cable get yanked away. Its plug has an LED light that indicates charging status. It gently decouples from the laptop without needing your intervention. It’s kind of perfect.
In its place, Apple’s new USB-C connector is hard to pull out and requires actual attention while doing so. There’s no charging indicator, either — though there is a little jingle, just as with your phone, when the charger is successfully connected. This change is good in that it moves Apple to a broader industry standard, but bad in that it downgrades the convenience and ease of use of the entire laptop.
Battery life on this new MacBook Pro doesn’t rival the Air’s 12 hours, but it does achieve Apple’s claimed 10 hours. I’m a writer, so my typical use may be a bit more forgiving than other professionals, however I keep seeing a perfect match between remaining percentage and hours of battery life left: 56 percent equals five and a half hours, 22 percent will get me two and a quarter hours, and so on. Apple seems to have very deliberately targeted 10 hours as its goal and benchmark. You can expect to get less if you throw some intensive photo or video editing at this MacBook Pro, but I have little to no worries about the battery; it lasts a consistently long time. And don’t forget that you’re getting a more productive machine: editing photos on the Air’s old and faded display was essentially color guesswork, whereas Apple’s new laptop would delight photographers if only it offered them a way to get their photos onto the damn thing.
For the first time in seven years, I’m not sure that my next laptop will be a MacBook
While the display, build quality, and looks of the new MacBook Pro are beyond reproach, they’re no longer beyond the competition. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Yoga has a spectacular OLED display. Dell’s XPS 13 has great battery life and design. HP’s EliteBook Folio has a hinge that folds out to a full 180 degrees, whereas Apple’s laptops have always been limited to opening to a little bit beyond vertical. Razer’s Blade Stealth has a 4K touchscreen, Thunderbolt 3, and the latest seventh-gen Intel processors, whereas Apple is still using sixth-gen chips. Why does any of that matter? It matters because this new MacBook Pro’s compromises are large enough to make me, a loyal and satisfied MacBook user for seven years, look outside the cozy confines of Apple’s ecosystem. Apple has built a beautiful computer with all the upgrades I wanted, but it’s taken away things that I actually need, and now I’m looking elsewhere.
To Apple’s credit, there’s no single Windows laptop that yet matches all of the MacBook line’s key strengths — touchpad ergonomics, battery life, display, and industrial design — but Apple’s changes have now created an opportunity that didn’t exist before. All a Windows vendor needs to do to convince me is to build something as good as a MacBook and then top it off with a simple SD card slot. macOS isn’t as major an advantage as it used to be, especially for someone like me whose professional life revolves around Google and Adobe’s cloud services.
When it launched the MacBook in 2015, Apple wasn’t shy about claiming it had reinvented the laptop. With the benefit of some hindsight, I’d argue Apple only reinvented its own product line. Copycat designs have arisen, as they always do, but the MacBook’s biggest impact so far has been within Apple’s walled-in ecosystem. We can see more of the new MacBook’s DNA in the new MacBook Pro than original MacBook Pro features. This is just the way Apple laptops are made now and we can either learn to like it or go elsewhere.
Apple could have been a USB-C trailblazer even while retaining a classic USB port and SD card slot
And that, frankly, is the problem here. Apple is trying to return to its old habit of dragging us forward into the future like a wild-eyed inventor, but this time it might have cut a little too deep into present-day functionality while trying to promote tomorrow’s technology. Apple could have been a major trailblazer for USB-C even while retaining a classic USB port and a photographer-friendly SD card slot. I don’t think those things would have disrupted the MacBook Pro’s scrupulously perfected proportions or Apple’s bottom line too much.
I don’t know if I’ll be buying this MacBook Pro, in spite of its superb design and performance, and that’s surprising to me.
There’s no doubt that this is the best computer for current MacBook Air owners to upgrade to, should they be unwilling or uninterested in giving Windows or Chrome OS a shot. I’m also confident that this 13-inch MacBook Pro is a better, more versatile, functional, and powerful laptop than the 12-inch MacBook, so I’d recommend spending the extra cash if those are your only choices. Having used Apple’s Touch Bar on the more expensive MacBook Pros, I’d say that’s an intriguing and nicely executed addition, but the price for those models is really quite silly right now.
But think carefully before you decide that you’re irrevocably locked into the Apple ecosystem. If its future is going to be characterized by such hostile decisions as the removal of the headphone jack from the iPhone or the scything off of the beloved MagSafe and SD card slot from laptops, maybe Apple isn’t your best friend anymore. Can this company continue to claim it’s looking out for its users’ best interests while discarding some of their most necessary tools?
The new MacBook Pro is as beautiful and desirable as ever, but using it is alienating to anyone living in the present. I agree with Apple’s vision of the future. I’m just not buying it today.
Photography by Vjeran Pavic