Review: MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (2016)

Apple’s newest MacBook Pro is finally arriving at customers who waited for a very long time to upgrade their older devices. As we noted in our review of the 13” MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar, the company’s lineup of notebooks suffered from a lack of attention. Up to 2012, Apple made sure to refresh their notebook and desktops with the latest processors and GPUs. However, some Macs were left without a refresh for up to three years, which was making it clear that Apple’s competition was in the lead.

The newest MacBook Pros come as an answer to those Mac users who have been waiting to buy a brand-new notebook. In part, the company responded to their requests by updating MacBook Pros with sixth-gen Intel Skylake processors, a slim new design, and a customizable Touch Bar. Still, some trade-offs had to be made, which is one of the things we’ll talk about in this review.
If you’re interested in reading about other Apple’s notebooks, you can find JustGoodBites’ review of the 13” MacBook Pro (which doesn’t have the Touch Bar), and you can also find a review of the 2015 MacBook.

 

Design & Build Quality

The new MacBook Pros are both thinner and lighter than the previous generation, which is a big success for Apple since the company managed to produce notebooks with great performance. The 13-inch model is only 0.59 inches thick, while the 15-inch model is 0.61 inches thick. In addition, they weigh 3.02 and 4.02 pounds. In comparison to the previous generation, Apple has achieved reduction of 17 and 14 percent respectively in thickness, and 13 and 10 percent in terms of weight. These are not small numbers since the previous MacBook Pro generation was unbelievably thin and light to start with.

When it comes to the design, it is very similar to last year’s, at least on the outside. There are numerous physical changes under the lid, which we’ll be telling you about later in this review. As you can imagine, the most obvious change is a touchscreen bar above the keyboard that Apple calls the Touch Bar.

It is also important to be said that Apple has removed the traditional USB ports on the new MacBook Pros, as well as the MagSafe charging port, and replaced these ports with USB-C/Thunderbolt ports. There are four of them on the notebooks that come with the Touch Bar, and only two on the 13-inch model that doesn’t have the Touch Bar. As we noted in our review of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, if connectivity is important for you, it is clear that you’ll have a hard time connecting your peripherals (at least without using an adapter).

 

The Touch Bar

The flagship feature of the 2016 MacBook Pro is a long and slender touchscreen that sits above the keyboard, in place of the old function keys. The Touch Bar shows a row of virtual buttons and controls depending on the application you’re currently using. In Safari, for example, you will get to see tab thumbnails, as well as buttons like back and forward. In Apple’s Mail app, it shows Quick Type and an emoji button. As you can imagine by this point, Apple has made sure to implement the Touch Bar functionality across macOS and its built-in apps.

It is also worth noting that the Touch Bar supports multitouch with applications that use this functionality. For example, there’s an app for creating DJ playlists, where you can swipe and tap using two fingers at once.

Now, let’s take a bit deeper look at some of the functionalities of the Touch Bar.

 

Touch Bar: Touch ID

Interestingly enough, the new Touch Bar comes with a little Touch ID sensor on the right-hand edge. This sensor can be used for authenticating online purchases using Safari and Apple Pay, but more importantly – this feature means that you can easily unlock your new MacBook Pro.

Thanks to the Touch ID, once you open the lid and the screen lights up, you will see a bounding arrow on the Touch Bar pointing to the fingerprint sensor with an instruction: ‘Unlock with Touch ID’. Place your fingertip over the sensor and the MacBook Pro will instantly unlock. You will have to wait one or two seconds, but the process seems to be rather quick and effortless. This is important to be said become many iPhone 6 owners are still disheartened with the first-gen Touch ID that came with their phones.

This kind of fingerprint login isn’t anything new when it comes to notebooks, but it is new when it comes to Macs. It even becomes more convenient when you factor in multiple user accounts. Let’s say that you’re on the login screen with multiple accounts available. Touching your finger to the scanner will automatically select and unlock your account and ignore the others. This means that this kind of process is reducing what would ordinarily be a multi-step job.

It is also interesting to mention that if you own an Apple Watch, you can use the new proximity unlock feature that is compatible with macOS Sierra.

 

Touch Bar: QuickType

Another important feature that Apple is heavily advertising is Touch Bar’s QuickType. In case you own an iOS device, you are probably already familiar with this feature, which brings the predictive typing suggestions. Now, QuickType is also available on your MacBook Pro.

The main role of QuickType is to save you some time. On the iPhone, this works without a problem and I think that many of us find this feature to be highly usable and helpful. However, things don’t work the same way on a notebook. The MacBook Pro has a full-size keyboard and places QuickType within the Touch Bar, which is well below your eye line. This means that Touch Bar’s QuickType doesn’t save you anytime, but can be a big obstacle. It seems like Apple didn’t really figure this one out, but instead just forced QuickType into the Touch Bar.

On the other hand, there’s one thing that works great on the Touch Bar and that’s formatting. Having Notes’ basic formatting toolbar is a small but important convenience. This also goes for any other text-editing applications.

 

Touch Bar: Other Features

In general, Apple has done a good job when it comes to connectivity between the Touch Bar and the operating system. This feature works great when it comes to certain applications, but it doesn’t feel as helpful all the way. This is why it’s important to take some time and see what the software developer community will do with the Touch Bar.

At this moment, Touch is ‘cool’. It seems flashy and original enough, but this doesn’t seem like the feature that will persuade a lot of people buying the new MacBook Pro. We will have to wait and see to see how useful the Touch Bar will prove to be.

 

The new MacBook Pro’s Trackpad & Keyboard

First, let’s talk about the new trackpad which really deserves a few paragraphs of its own.

This is the largest trackpad Apple has ever produced. The one on the 15-inch model measures an astonishing 159mm by 99mm. They are approximate twice the size of the ones on the previous MacBook Pro generation. However, these are not just numbers and stats, but something that you’ll notice the first time you get to use the new notebook. It’s easy to swipe clear across the screen with one trackpad gesture without having to increase the sensitivity to a point that it’s impossible to be accurate.

Additionally, this is a Force Trackpad. Differently, from the traditional trackpad, its mechanism doesn’t actually move but instead simulates the feel of a click with a small haptic buzz. It is also sensitive to two different degrees of touch pressure, which means that you can click normally, but also force-click to activate secondary controls that are application-sensitive. This also means that the new trackpad is less prone to part failure since there are no moving parts. Since it’s simulated, this means that you can go to System Preferences and fine-tune the magnitude of that ‘click’ effect, which is a nice touch.

When it comes to the keyboard, this part of the new MacBook Pro also went through some important changes. These changes were mostly influenced by the Touch Bar, which is why the keys are a bit smaller. Still, this isn’t really noticeable for most keys, except for the arrow keys that are now squeezed into a small rectangle of space. Furthermore, the keys are a bit shallower in comparison to the last year’s model. The new notebooks feature a low-travel keyboard using one of Apple’s ‘butterfly’ key mechanisms. In my case, this has resulted in a slight loss of typing speed and accuracy. Maybe this is why Apple is advertising the QuickType in addition to the more pervasive text corrections that arrived with macOS Sierra.

 

Speed Testing & Benchmarks

We tested one of the new MacBook Pros that comes with a 2.9Ghz i7 processor and 16GB of RAM. This is a 15-inch model that we tested using the GeekBench 4.0.3 benchmarking tool. This particular model recorded overall speed scores of 4,232 in single core and 13,211 in multi-core. These are great numbers, but in order to truly see if Apple managed to push their notebook line a bit further, we have to compare these number with the previous generation.

The MacBook Pro that we tested earlier was the last year’s model that features a 2.8GHz processor and 16GB of RAM. This model produced scores of 4,060 and 12,033 respectively. What this means is that the newest MBP comes with a small boost over the last year’s model.

When it comes to the new model’s graphics capabilities, we used the GeekBench OpenCL and Cinebench OpenGL benchmarking tools. In GeekBench, the reviewed 15-inch model (that comes with AMD Radeon Pro 450 graphics and 2GB of dedicated memory) scored 42,827, which is 38.7 percent better than the last year’s model. In Cinebench, the 15-inch 2016 model scores a stunning 70.5fps which is an increase of 13.7 percent over the last year’s model.

This is a good time to take a closer look at the reviewed 15-inch model’s specs:

– 2.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.5GHz, with 6MB shared L3 cache or 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz, with 8MB shared L3 cache (Configurable to 2.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz, with 8MB, shared L3 cache)
– 16GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 onboard RAM
– Radeon Pro 450 with 2GB of GDDR5 memory and automatic graphics switching, or Radeon Pro 455 with 2GB of GDDR5 memory and automatic graphics switching (Configurable to Radeon Pro 460 with 4GB of GDDR5 memory and automatic graphics switching); Intel HD Graphics 530
– 256GB PCIe-based onboard SSD, or 512GB PCIe-based onboard SSD (Configurable to 1TB or 2TB SSD)
– 15.4-inch (diagonal) LED-backlit display with IPS technology; 2880 x 1800 native resolution at 220 pixels per inch; 500 nits brightness; Wide color (P3)
– Built-in 76.0-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery; estimated battery life up to 10 hours wireless web use
– 802.11ac WiFi; IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n compatible; Bluetooth 4.2
– Full-size backlit keyboard with 64 (US) or 65 (ISO) keys including 4 arrow keys; Touch Bar with integrated Touch ID sensor; Force Touch trackpad
– 4 x Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports; 3.5mm headphone port
– 720p FaceTime HD camera
– 34.93cm x 24.07cm x 1.55cm; 1.83kg

In addition, there are the specs for a smaller, 13-inch model that also comes with the Touch Bar.

– 2.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz, with 4MB shared L3 cache (Configurable to 3.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, Turbo Boost up to 3.5GHz, with 4MB, shared L3 cache; or 3.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i7, Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz, with 4MB shared L3 cache)
– 8GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 onboard RAM (Configurable to 16GB)
– Intel Iris Graphics 550
– 256GB PCIe-based onboard SSD, or 512GB PCIe-based onboard SSD (Configurable to 1TB SSD)
– 13.3-inch LED-backlit display with IPS technology; 2560 x 1600 native resolution at 227 pixels per inch; 500 nits brightness; Wide color (P3)
– Built-in 49.2-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery; estimated battery life up to 10 hours wireless web use
– 802.11ac WiFi; IEEE 802.11a/b/g/n compatible; Bluetooth 4.2
– Full-size backlit keyboard with 64 (US) or 65 (ISO) keys including 4 arrow keys; Touch Bar with integrated Touch ID sensor; Force Touch trackpad
– 4 x Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports; 3.5mm headphone port
– 720p FaceTime HD camera
– 30.41cm x 21.24cm x 1.49cm; 1.37kg

 

Connectivity

The new MacBook Pro is different from the previous generations when it comes to ports as well. Even though you still get to use the headphone jack, that is where any similarity to the previous generation ends. The Cupertino-based company has decided that USB Type-C and Thunderbolt 3 ports are the future, and thus ditched any other port.

The MacBook Pro that we reviewed has four USB Type-C ports, two on each side. If you decide to buy the 13-inch notebook that comes without the Touch Bar, you’ll only two of these. Even though this might sound shocking, this decision has its benefits. First of all, this made the new MacBook Pro very light and unbelievably thin, and the simplicity of the port selection is also very convenient. With the USB-C, every port becomes a charging port, which means that you can plug the wall adapter into whichever is more convenient. Additionally, these ports are unbelievably powerful and quick, which means that you can connect multiple adapters or use very fast external SSD without every worrying about connectivity bandwidth.

The biggest tradeoff here is that you’ll need to use adapters. If you want to use an external display, or an external hard drive to backup your computer, or even an SD card – this means that you’ll need a compatible adapter. If you plan on hooking up a number of different devices, the best bet is a docking solution, which can easily add $100 to $200 to the price. What’s interesting to mention here is that you need an adapter even if you want to connect Apple’s own iPhone.

On the other hand, you can count on wireless connectivity. The new MBP has the usual 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter, in addition to Bluetooth 4.2.

 

Hard Drive

Even though not many people actually try to learn all they could about hard drive prior to buying a new computer, this is a mistake. Drive performance is important to a system’s overall capability. Apple is well aware of this and has been a leader in storage performance for many years now.

The new MacBook Pro reads speeds of 3.1 gigabytes per second, and write speeds of 2.2 gigabytes per second. To test these claims, we tested the hard drive.

The first tool we used to benchmark the hard drive was Blackmagic, which is a test designed to tell professionals if a drive is up to the task of handling content as specific framerates and resolutions. This test produced a write speed of 1,348 megabytes per second, and a read result of 2.0 gigabytes per second. This is a clear improvement over the last year’s generation, which hits a write speed of 647 MB/s, and a read speed of 1,056 MB/s.

We also used DiskMark, which produced a read performance of 1,826 MB/s, and a write performance of 1,289 MB/s.
What these numbers of telling you are that the MBP with Touch Bar has outstanding drive performance, and can easily handle any kind of workload you ask of it.

 

Battery

As you can see by now, the 2016 MBP takes one step further when it comes to its processor and hard drive, but takes one step back when it comes to its battery. You can see that even by taking a quick look at its specifications. Still, Apple quotes the same battery life as before which means that the company believes that efficiency will make up for the smaller battery. Let’s see if this is the case.

Peacekeeper is a looped web browsing benchmark used to test battery drainage. The test drained a full charge in close to four hours and 48 minutes which isn’t a bad result but isn’t an amazing result either.

We also used iTunes to test the system in a video loop, which drained the battery in ten hours and 24 minutes. That is another solid result, even though there are numerous notebooks out there that can last much longer.

Both of these tests show that you should steer away from demanding applications while your new MacBook Pro isn’t plugged in. If you decide to edit photos, for example, you can expect to see the battery drop with surprising speed.

 

Display

Some of the newer Apple’s notebooks come with amazingly bright and vivid displays. A quick look at the specifications could make you think that the company’s newest notebook has an old display. However, this is not true.

As our tests showed, a maximum brightness of the new MBP (15-inch) is 548 lux. What this means is that the display is unbelievably bright, which is a complete overkill for use indoors. However, since the screen is still very glossy, this means that the notebook’s display is more usable outdoors than the previous generation.

Perhaps the biggest newest addition here is the notebook’s ability to show vivid colors. The display can achieve 100 percent of the sRGB gamut and 91 percent of AdobeRGB. It also delivered an average color error value of 0.72, where anything below that is generally unnoticeable to the human eye. For comparison, the previous record holder was Dell’s XPS 15, which boasted an average error value of 0.78.

During further testing, the new MBP’s display achieved the contrast ratio of 1,200:1, which is excellent. What this means is that the MBP can deliver very dark blacks next to vivid colors without a sign of trouble.

When all of these numbers of tallied, the new Retina display clearly comes away a winner. Numbers aside, the display on the MacBook Pro is excellent and looks excellent in everyday use. You can enjoy in crisp movies and games, while professional photographers can take advantage of its highly accurate color reproduction.

It is also worth saying that Apple is trying to improve the battery life via software update. Both of the recently released macOS Sierra updated brought significant fixed to this problem, so if you decide to wait a bit more, you might benefit from a prolonged battery life on the new MBP.

 

Additional Tidbits

It is worth noting that the new 15-inch MBP gets uncomfortably warm after a certain period of time. Even though you won’t notice this if you keep your notebook on a desk, the ventilation along the back seems to be unfriendly with casual lap use. As we noted in our review of the 12-inch MacBook, which comes without any fans, this wasn’t an issue back then. However, you’ll want to order a lap desk for this one.

Additionally, this is the first MacBook Pro that only comes in silver. Many of us hoped to see the premium-looking matte black once this kind of iPhone 7 was announced, but our hopes were unanswered. Something like this is certainly a personal preference and not a functional one.

Next, the FaceTime camera is the same as the one on the previous generation. I am not sure why Apple decided not to upgrade it from 720p to 1080p. Even the iPhone 7 has a much better front-facing camera, which means that Apple has access to this kind of technology. Perhaps it wasn’t possible to fit a higher resolution in a display as thin as this one.

 

Should You Buy It?

During the first couple of days, I was in love with my new MacBook Pro. However, as I continued to use it, all those little quirks started to annoy me.

The trackpad is huge and wonderful to use, but the tradeoff here is the smaller keyboard. In addition, the keyboard was flattened down to make the laptop slimmer. These factors together mean that typing on the new MBP is a little harder than before. Additionally, those arrow keys are a nightmare.

The Touch Bar is the biggest addition here, it’s fun to use and lovely to look at. Still, this is just a gimmick at the moment, but we are only beginning to grasp its capabilities. It is up to software developers now to fully take advantage of this feature and turn it into something really useful.

Finally, a few words on performance. As you saw in this review, the new MBP comes with a really fast and capable processor and hard drive. However, the maximum amount of RAM is 16GB, which means that you can’t add more. Even though this is more than enough for everyday computing, this kind of setup may hold this machine from a role in genuine pro settings. We’ll have to wait for the next refresh, which may also bring the option of more RAM and Kaby Lake processors.

All in all, this is a nicely designed and highly capable computer, at least for those who can afford it.