Apple MacBook Pro Review (2016): Touch of Class and Not Much Else

by Reads (9,324)
  • Editor's Rating

    Ratings Breakdown (1-10)

      • Software & Support
      • 9
      • Upgrade Capabilities
      • 4
      • Usability
      • 7
      • Design
      • 7
      • Performance
      • 6
      • Features
      • 7
      • Price/Value Rating
      • 4
      • Total Score:
      • 6.29
      • Rating 1 to 10, top score 10
  • Pros

    • Beautiful Retina screen
    • Large touchpad and Touch ID are convenient
    • Thinner and lighter
    • Good built-in speakers
    • Reasonably speedy performance for normal tasks
  • Cons

    • Poor battery life
    • Touch Bar gets in the way (Function keys are better)
    • Limited ports (USB Type-C only)
    • No built-in SD card reader

Quick Take

The new MacBook Pro has gone from a high-end notebook for working professionals to an overpriced family PC.


The new Apple MacBook Pro adds the all new Touch Bar with Touch ID while also giving us an overall thinner and lighter design than the previous MacBook Pro. Unfortunately, the latest MacBook Pro suffers from comparatively weak battery life, poor keyboard layout, and a lack of ports.

Although Apple updates the MacBook Pro on a pretty regular schedule those refreshes tend to be moderate spec bumps as newer processors become available. The last time Apple made a “significant” redesign to the MacBook Pro was back in 2012 with the introduction of the first generation Retina Display. Over the last four years we’ve seen a wide range of notebooks with ultra HD and 4K displays, so it was time for Apple to offer customers something new.

Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar

Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar

Apple MacBook Pro Build and Design

At first glance the new MacBook Pro doesn’t seem to have changed that much, but you quickly start to pick up the differences in the design as you look closer. The new MacBook Pro has a redesigned unibody aluminum chassis that is considerably thinner and lighter than the previous generation. The 13-inch model that we’re reviewing here weighs in at just 3.02 pounds and it’s just 14.9mm thick. This is also the first MacBook Pro available space gray. If you’re curious about the 15-inch MacBook Pro, that measures 15.5mm thick and is 14 percent thinner than the old 15-inch MacBook Pro.

Open the screen lid and you’ll start to really notice the changes. The trackpad has grown considerably and now takes up a massive proportion of what used to be the palm rest or wrist rest area under the keyboard. The touchpad is so massive that you’ll almost certainly touch it every time you type. Thankfully, Apple’s touch rejection software works almost perfectly and we never had a significant problem with cursor movement or clicks as we typed.

A closer look at the Touch Bar and Touch ID sensor

A closer look at the Touch Bar and Touch ID sensor

Of course, the design change that has grabbed the most headlines is the new Touch Bar located just above the keyboard. This is essentially a narrow capacitive touch screen that displays a variety of different controls based on the app that you’re using or the custom preset that you’ve selected. The Touch Bar also has an integrated Touch ID fingerprint scanner that not only works to replace your passwords but also works with Apple Pay to simplify online purchases. We’ll talk more about the Touch Bar later in this review.

Still, if you set aside the novelty of having a thin touchscreen above the keyboard then Apple largely appears to be standing still in terms of the design while alternatives like the Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre X360 and Lenovo Yoga 710 are making significant improvements to their designs with every new generation.

Apple MacBook Pro Ports and Features

The MacBook Pro has traditionally delivered a better selection of ports and features than a regular MacBook. This time the new MacBook Pro has more ports … but not a better selection of ports. Apple clearly believes that USB Type-C (USB-C) and Thunderbolt 3 are all the ports that you’ll need apart from a single combination headphone/mic/headset audio jack. There’s no built-in memory card reader for photographers or film makers, no full-size USB ports, no Ethernet port, no HDMI and not even a mini DisplayPort. USB-C is even used for power, which means any of the four ports can be used to charge the MacBook Pro.  One unintentionally humorous design choice is that iPhones do not ship with USB-C to Lighting cables … so there is no way to connect an Apple iPhone to the Apple MacBook Pro unless you by an adapter dongle.

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One other item of note here is that since USB Type-C is now used to supply power there is no more iconic “MagSafe” power adapter. Depending on who you are that might be a good thing or a bad thing. Frequent travelers are often reminded of the benefit of the MagSafe every time someone trips over your power cord in a crowded airport or coffee shop and the power adapter is safely unplugged instead of being violently ripped out of your MacBook. On the flip side, you won’t have to worry about a minor pull on your power cord preventing your battery from charging. Personally, I would rather have a MagSafe power adapter and know that my laptop and/or power adapter cable won’t be damaged if someone trips over my power cord.

Apple MacBook Pro Screen and Speakers

The 13.3-inch Retina Display in our review unit of the MacBook Pro features a screen resolution of 2500 x 1600 pixels (227 ppi), meaning it’s the same resolution as last year’s MacBook Pro. The big change comes in terms of the screen backlight; this Retina Display has a maximum brightness of 500 nits, making it an impressive 67 percent brighter than the previous generation MacBook Pro.

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DSC04407 DSC04406

In addition, Apple claims that this screen delivers a 25 percent wider color gamut that now includes the P3 color space; that won’t matter for casual users but it matters if color management is important to your work (photographers, videographers, print managers, etc.). Average consumers might not notice the subtle difference between two different colors of orange, but subtle differences in colors are extremely important if you’re editing hundreds of wedding photos for a client’s album or you need to color match a new baseball team logo with the team uniforms.

A better look at one of the stereo speakers

A better look at one of the stereo speakers

If the visuals aren’t enough to impress you then the audio just might seal the deal. Apple completely reworked the stereo speakers resting under the thin speaker grilles on either side of the keyboard. These speakers are not only perfectly positioned to direct sound up and toward the user, but they  deliver twice the dynamic range and 58 percent more volume. In short, the built-in speakers produce sounds that are exceptionally loud and clear. We heard no obvious distortion or crackling in music tracks or in the audio from streaming video services like Netflix and Amazon Prime. We usually suggest that Audiophiles use a good set of headphones or external speakers, but we feel safe in saying that most people will be very happy with the sound coming from these built-in stereo speakers.

DSC04398Apple MacBook Pro Keyboard, Touch Bar and Touchpad

Apple keyboards have become something of a technological icon over the last 20 years, and the latest keyboards are quite unique thanks to their extremely shallow key action with almost zero physical travel in the keys as you press down. Whether or not the keyboard on the MacBook Pro feel good to you depends on how you type. Touch typists who type with a light press will feel enough feedback for accurate typing, but but if you’re someone used to more traditional mechanical switches on desktop or gaming keyboards then you’ll find the shallow key movement very frustrating. Despite the limited key travel the individual keys make more noise than what we typically hear from Windows PCs with flat keyboards. We wouldn’t say the MacBook Pro keyboard is “loud” but the key action is more noticeable than the keys on the Dell XPS 13.

DSC04399The new Touch Bar located directly above the keyboard looks impressive, but Apple engineers clearly didn’t pay attention to the multiple Windows notebooks that have used similar touch strips in previous years … because those same mistakes are repeated here. For starters, the Touch Bar is too close the top row of keys and it’s far too easy to press the Touch Bar when you’re just trying to press a number key or the backspace key. Not only that, but replacing the traditional row of function keys with the Touch Bar means you can’t use traditional keyboard shortcuts. Some of the buttons available in the Touch Bar are more convenient, such as the send mail button, but having regular function keys would still be faster.

Touch Bar customization options

Touch Bar customization options

Thankfully, you have the option of customizing the Touch Bar shortcuts so you can change the order, add, or remove any shortcut in the Touch Bar via the View menu on the desktop. That also means you can customize the way you change settings that would normally be part of the traditional row of function keys. You can change volume by pressing the volume icon and swiping left or right on the volume slider or you can set the volume by pressing the arrow key and the volume button. In short, you have custom controls but not necessarily “better” controls. Having dedicated volume buttons in the function row is easier and faster.

The much-hyped Touch ID fingerprint scanner is built into the power button on the right side of the Touch Bar. While the ability to secure your laptop with your fingerprint is extremely useful, Windows PCs have been using fingerprint scanners for more than a decade. More to the point, the Touch ID sensor is no more accurate than any fingerprint sensor and the location for the Touch ID sensor in the Touch Bar is “inconvenient” to say the least. We found it very easy to press the backspace button accidentally when using Touch ID … and we could usually type a password in less time than it took for Touch ID to recognize our fingerprint and unlock the MacBook Pro. Having Apple Pay integrated into Touch ID makes online shopping easier, but only if you’re using the Safari browser while shopping. We’re also not sure why Apple only allows you to register three fingerprints with Touch ID on the MacBook Pro when the iPhone can register five different fingerprints.

DSC04401Perhaps the biggest change to the new MacBook Pro other than the Touch Bar is the extremely massive touchpad located beneath the keyboard. This touchpad is 46 percent larger than the Force Touch trackpad on the previous 13-inch model. Just like the previous Force Touch models, this Force Touch trackpad is a proprietary “clickpad” style touch surface that makes you feel like you’re clicking a button, when in reality the touchpad surface is a fixed piece of glass with a vibrating haptic engine underneath. This allows Apple to make the notebook thinner and provides more room inside the notebook chassis for a larger battery or other system components. You can use pressure-sensitive Force Touch gestures to preview links in the Safari browser, preview files in Finder or fast-forward movies in iTunes. That said, most people will just be happy to have a massive touchpad for standard multi-touch gestures like “pinch” and “pull” for zooming or two-finger scrolling of pages.

Apple MacBook Pro Performance

DSC04387The 13-inch MacBook Pro is powered by your choice of dual-core versions of Intel sixth-generation Core i5 or i7 processors. In other words, the MacBook Pro is running CPUs that are a full generation behind the latest Windows PCs. Normally when an OEM releases a new product with older hardware that means engineers have invested more time in making sure that the hardware delivers the best performance with the best battery life and the lower cost CPUs translate into less expensive prices for consumers. Unfortunately, neither of these are the case with the MacBook Pro. The $1799 price tag is excessively high given that we’re talking about older processor technology and the battery life is frankly terrible by modern standards; more on that later in the review.

Our review unit comes with a 256GB PCIe-based SSD, 8GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM and a 2.9GHz Core i5-6267U processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz. The Intel Iris Graphics 550 is the integrated graphics unit of the sixth generation Skylake processors and is roughly comparable to older entry-level dedicated graphics like the Nvidia GeForce 930M. When you spend $1799 for a notebook with the word “Pro” in the title you expect a power house. That’s not what you’re getting here. Intel originally released the Core i5-6267U back in late 2015. Sure, this CPU handles word processing, photo editing, and even basic video transcoding with ease, but we’re still talking about a dual-core processor that is more than a year old in a “new” notebook being sold at a premium price point.

Average consumers will no doubt find the system performance is more than impressive, particularly since the PCIe SSD delivers extremely fast data transfer speeds and helps the MacBook Pro feel “snappy” despite the older hardware inside. Still, if you’re a young entrepreneur trying to edit hours of 4K video footage or handle complex financial number crunching for a multi-million-dollar client you will likely find the MacBook Pro struggles to get the job done.

Apple MacBook Pro Benchmarks

wPrime 32M processor performance results listed in seconds (lower scores indicate better performance):
Apple_wPrime32chart

Geekbench 3 (32-bit) Multi-core Performance Benchmark results (higher scores indicate better performance):
Apple_GeekBench3_64multichart

Geekbench 3 (32-bit) Single-core Performance Benchmark results (higher scores indicate better performance):
Apple_GeekBench3_64singlechart

Apple MacBook Pro Battery Life

Apple MacBooks have traditionally offered impressive battery life that consistently exceeds what we typically see from Windows-based PCs thanks to the fact that MacBooks and macOS are built to work together from the start; the team developing macOS knows where they need to make changes to the code to minimize power consumption by the hardware, and the hardware team knows what system resources the OS needs to get work done. The end result has been impressive battery life … until now.

Apple officially claims that the new MacBook Pro will deliver “up to 10 hours” of battery life while connected to Wi-Fi, but we couldn’t get more than about six hours of battery life out of this notebook even when we lowered the screen brightness to the minimum setting. The “time remaining” estimate that appears in the Touch Bar after you press the battery icon fluctuates far more wildly than any previous MacBook we’ve reviewed in recent memory. We’re not sure if this is due to the significantly brighter backlight in the new Retina Display or the way that the Intel processors scale power up and down based on current activity requirements … or if there is a much bigger problem with power management inside the latest MacBook Pro series.

As we prepared this review for publication Apple released a new update to macOS Sierra (10.12.2) which actually removes the “time remaining” estimate from the new MacBook Pro. We ran several new battery life tests and there is no clear improvement in battery life. At the time of this writing Apple seems to have fixed the issue with poor battery life and a wildly fluctuating battery life indicator by removing the visual indication of your remaining battery life. That’s not what our editors call a “fix” but that’s the closest thing to a solution that Apple has offered so far.

Apple MacBook Pro Final Thoughts

Apple MacBook Pro

Apple MacBook Pro

At the end of the day we can’t escape the feeling that Apple engineers have forgotten something that used to be fundamental to Apple products; the idea that controls should be intuitive and feel “natural.” While you can argue that the visual symbols on the Touch Bar are more intuitive than the static symbols printed on old-fashioned function keys, they’re almost nothing “natural” about using the Touch Bar. Touch ID and Apple Pay integration is a useful thing, but we feel Touch ID would have felt more intuitive and natural if it was built into the giant touchpad or a dedicated fingerprint scanner next to the touchpad.

Combine our frustrations with the Touch Bar with weak battery life, hardware from 2015, limited ports and no SD card reader and suddenly the Apple MacBook Pro feels less like a “professional” tool and more like an overpriced MacBook. That is perhaps the biggest failing of this notebook; the MacBook Pro line is supposed to be feature-packed and notably superior to the standard MacBook because it’s designed for working professionals. This isn’t supposed to be a glorified family PC … but that is exactly what the MacBook Pro has become.

You can’t connect any of the normal business peripherals to the MacBook Pro until you purchase the necessary USB Type-C adapters, you can’t transfer images or video from memory cards without a compatible external card reader, you can’t use standard keyboard shortcuts for popular apps like Adobe Creative Cloud or Microsoft Office, and to add insult to injury you get less battery life here than what you get in a cheaper MacBook.

The things that make the new MacBook Pro appealing are the things that casual users looking for a family PC might like; a pretty screen, good speakers, snappy overall performance, and a design that’s thinner and lighter than the previous MacBook Pro. In short, Apple made a slightly better MacBook … and a worse MacBook Pro.

Pros:

  • Beautiful Retina screen
  • Large touchpad and Touch ID are convenient
  • Thinner and lighter
  • Good built-in speakers
  • Reasonably speedy performance for normal tasks

Cons:

  • Poor battery life
  • Touch Bar gets in the way (Function keys are better)
  • Limited ports (USB Type-C only)
  • No built-in SD card reader



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4 Comments

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  1. trajan2448

    Nothing Pro a MacBook Pro. Severely under powered. Too little ram, weak gpu, small screen.Many hope Apple will release a real pro model soon.

  2. yborovsky

    Had a chance to check it out last weekend on a shopping outing and found it as described here, except for benchmark tests you can’t run in the store.
    Now feel so glad I bought zBook G3 instead a few weeks earlier.

  3. trajan2448

    Nothing Pro a MacBook Pro. Severely under powered. Too little ram, weak gpu, small screen.Many hope Apple will release a real pro model soon.

  4. TRANSMITTERGUY

    Apple has no ports or sd card reader because they want you to store everything on their web cloud so they make money off of it.