MacBook Pro review: Sleek and speedy laptop, frustrating workstation

"A touch of genius" is what Apple have labelled their new MacBook Pro laptop. What do you think?

If you use your laptop as just a laptop there's a lot to love in the new MacBook Pro, including a nifty new touchbar and a stunning screen. But if your laptop is the core of a desktop workstation, you might run into frustration.

REVIEW: The last version of the MacBook Pro, introduced in 2012 and basically unchanged until now, was something close to an ideal laptop.

It was a powerhouse. It had excellent battery life. It was almost as thin and light as the MacBook Air, but had all the stuff that the Air didn't, like a retina display and HDMI port. It also cost about twice as much.

The new MacBook Pro in space grey.
Apple

The new MacBook Pro in space grey.

But the problem with building something close to ideal is where to go next.

Apple's competitors have gone a few different ways. There's the laptops that are also tablets, the transformable ultrabooks, and the giant beasts where power is clearly considered more important than comfort. Some of these laptops are very good, some are not.

Apple hasn't done any of these things. Instead, it has basically followed the template of their iPhone upgrades - it has made them thinner and faster.

The new Macbook Pro is dramatically faster and thinner than its predecessor. It's screen performs much better in full sunlight - better than any other laptop screen I've seen. It's got an interesting new touch bar that is much more fun to use than I expected, but is currently underutilised. It also has no regular USB ports, no HDMI port, no MagSafe charging port, and no traditional thunderbolt bolts.


The 13-inch and 15-inch models side by side. Note the lack of traditional ports.

THE BAD - THE PORTS SITUATION

Instead, the MacBook Pro uses four USB-C ports (in one model just two), which double as Thunderbolt ports with the right cable. Don't be fooled by the "USB" - this is a small reversible port that will not fit that thumb stick you have in your pocket. 

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You use these for charging, for connecting to peripherals and other screens - for everything other than audio (there's still a 3.5mm audio jack.) This means connecting your device to 99 per cent of hard drives, thumb sticks, monitors, and even your iPhone or iPad will require an adapter or a new cord. 

If you basically use your laptop as a laptop - plugging it in only to charge and occasionally dump stuff on an external hard drive - this shouldn't be much of an issue. The USB-C port to USB-A (regular!) adapter costs just $15 (the laptops start at $2449) and will get you over the hump when you need it.

But if you use your laptop as the core of a workstation it can be a real nightmare. Here's one I had: the Dell high-resolution monitors we use at my office have HDMI and mini-DP input cords. The mini-DP already slots into my aging work-provided MacBook Air perfectly, delivering 1440p resolution with no issues, but I'll clearly need an adapter dongle.

First I tried this $85 Apple USB-C to HDMI/USB A adapter. It worked, but only delivered a lower resolution to my screen over HDMI, a limitation of the screen not the port. No biggie - next up I tried this $49 Thunderbolt 2 - USB C adapter, reasoning that the as Thunderbolt 2 port also fits mini-DP on older MacBook Pros it should still be fine here (I don't blame you if you are confused.) But this one didn't work at all - turns out I need to buy a whole new DP cord (not mini DP cord) (I think) to get the proper resolution on this monitor.

Yes, this nightmare of a situation is partially the fault of the monitor, but on the user end it is still a complicated mess. A setup that worked fine with MacBook Airs and older MacBook Pros is now broken and requires lots of troubleshooting and money to fix.

To be fair to the MacBook Pro, USB-C is supposed to be the next global standard. In a few years every peripheral should connect to it easily, and we will all throw away our adapters. For now, the fact that an out-of-the-box iPhone can't connect to an out-of-the-box MacBook Pro is absurd.

THE GOOD - DESIGN AND GUTS

So what does Apple get in exchange for removing all those ports? An incredibly thin laptop (1.49cm for the 13-inch, 1.55cm for the 15-inch) that weighs just 1.37kg on its 13-inch model - that's just 30 grams heavier than the 13 inch MacBook Air, and 210g lighter than the older Macbook Pro. This is a notable difference, and makes the Pro the kind of thing you can forget is in your shoulder bag, like an iPad or, well, a MacBook Air. 

But it isn't just thinner. The trackpad is dramatically larger (50 per cent larger on the 13 inch and twice as large on the 15 inch) giving you very fine control of your cursor. It's one of those solid state touchpads, inherited from the Macbook, that doesn't technically click in anywhere, instead vibrating to give you the simulation of a click. This sounds like a pain, but you actually get used to it fast, and it means that the trackpad is far less likely to fail.

There's also the screen, which is simply stunning. As well as the usual retina high resolution you expect from a Pro laptop it's also much brighter - 500 nits, or over two-thirds brighter than the older Pro, and significantly brighter than any other laptop screen I've seen in the wild. That means you can actually get away with using it in full sunlight - it's not the best experience, sure, but it is possible. 

The sound is even better than it was on the older Pro - loud enough to fill a room without sounding strong bass and clarity across the range, but still not quite a stereo replacement if you really care about music. For me it's good enough as a bedroom stereo.

Then there is the new colour, Space Gray, which I personally prefer over the washed out aluminium silver, but no rose gold or full black, which is disappointing.

The keyboard uses the "butterfly" mechanism found on the MacBook Retina, which means the keys are thinner but click in much less. Thankfully, they seem to have refined the design of this on the Pro, and it basically feels like a regular keyboard, while the older MacBook keys feel weird every now and then.

And as this is an Apple laptop, the overall feel of the laptop - the hinge, the unibody design, the backlighting of the keys - is all best-in-class. You can definitely buy a laptop that can do a lot more than this one, but it's hard to find one that feels this good.

Speaking of feel, the thing feels fast. I couldn't make it chug with Photoshop working on large DSLR files and two or three windows of Chrome open. On the inside, very fast solid state hard drives and lots of optimisation between the OS and the hardware keeps it feeling decidedly "pro".

But if you're into the bleeding edge of performance the MacBook Pro probably isn't for you. It features respectable but not absolute top of the line processors, and the RAM maxes out at 16GB, which is plenty for most of us but not much for a video editor. Apple has said these compromises - particularly the RAM one - are made in the interests of battery efficiency, and that makes sense. The battery life is very good but not MacBook Air good - think about 10 hours of solid indoor web browsing on a full charge.

THE PRETTY COOL - TOUCH BAR

There is more to the new Macbook Pro than a thinner profile with faster insides and fewer ports. The headline feature - which is on all but one of the new MacBook Pro models - is a small OLED touchscreen strip which runs along the top of they keyboard, where you would usually find the function keys.

You can use this "touchbar" to do all the things that those function keys used to do - change the volume, the screen brightness, pause the song - but also a lot else. If you want it to just replicate the old buttons then it can do that. Or it can shrink those system keys to the far right (meaning changing the volume will take more than one tap), and let whatever app you have open take over the middle portion of the bar.

This works best on Apple apps like Safari, where you can tap between different open tabs with full colour previews. It also works great if you want to customise how your system keys work - things like screenshotting become a lot easier when you can you tap a "screenshot" button, then choose to save it to clipboard or desktop right from the touchbar, rather than clawing up your hand to pull off the four-button keyboard shortcut.

Even if the app hasn't built support in yet, any text input field gains a lot from the touchbar, with word suggestions popping up much like they do on your iPhone or iPad. This is all you're really going to get on third parties - for now - but Adobe is set to release a version of Photoshop with touchbar functionality very soon.

Basically, it's some of the best bits of iOS squeezed into a very colourful strip across the top of your laptop keyboard. It's a whole lot of fun.

The touchbar is sandboxed away from the rest of OSX quite well, meaning it generally stays functional and responsive even if your MacBook is not. This is a boon for those worried about letting software handle their "mute" button. 

And there still is one real button - a combined power button and touch ID sensor that lets you unlock your computer and authenticate changes to the system with just a fingerprint. It works great.

Time will tell whether third party developers will really pick up the the touchbar and run with it. For now, while the bar itself works great, rearranging things on it is a bit of a pain - there's no one "touchbar menu" in the system settings, and I constantly forgot the way to go back and change things again, even after Googling it several times.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I think the MacBook Pro will be an unbeatable laptop in two years. I think, two years ago, the older MacBook Pro was unbeatable too. But for the point we are at - where we want the thinness but 99 per cent of our devices won't connect to this laptop without an adapter, it's a bit of an awkward fit.

That isn't saying the MacBook Pro isn't a good purchase right now, for many many people. If you use your laptop primarily as its own self-contained device, and aren't a hound for super-high specs, it provides probably the best build quality and close to the best battery life in the business. The touchbar is an interesting attempt to make a non-touchscreen device get all of the versatility that a touchscreen provides, without compromising on the essential laptopiness that makes a MacBook a MacBook, not an iPad. I think Apple are actually right on the money here - switching from typing on a keyboard to touching a screen is an awkward shift, but running your hand along a little touch screen on top of the keyboard makes perfect sense. But a lot of people want a full tablet laptop, and that's nowhere near what this is.

But the touchbar is probably not many people's idea of a need to have feature. Most people just want something that does what their current laptop does, but faster, for longer, in a thinner body with a nicer screen. The MacBook Pro is probably thinner, faster, and will get better battery life than your current machine does. But if you want it to do what your old one does you're probably going to need to carry a whole tangle of dongles around with you. If that sounds like one compromise too much, you might want to look elsewhere.

This review is based mostly on the 13-inch model but a 15-inch model was also tested.

 - Stuff

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