Apple's new flagship notebook is lighter, sleeker and offers several improvements, but is it worth the extra price? We put the 13in MacBook Pro 2016 to the test.
Following our early hands-on look at the new MacBook Pro, we’ve spent some more time with Apple’s latest flagship notebook – and, in particular, we’ve been able to run it through our benchmark tests.
And overall, our early impressions remain: it’s an amazing machine, but you’ll pay a steep price for it.
Unfortunately, Apple provided us with an entry-level MacBook Pro for testing, so we couldn’t spend any more time with the Touch Bar – the laptop’s most interesting new feature.
Fortunately, however, we were already sold on the new feature from our early hands-on look.
To recap, the Touch Bar is an OLED touchscreen that sits directly above the keyboard, replacing the function key row. What appears on the Touch Bar is programmable, so different applications can have different “keys” appear. For example, Safari can display a set of “keys” for your open tabs, letting you quickly flip between them with a quick dab of the finger.
It doesn’t sound like such an essential feature, but even in the short time we used it we could see how good it was. Going back to an older MacBook Pro, we instantly missed the Touch Bar, and we’re really looking forward to seeing what software developers do with it.
One thing that was immediately useful was the inclusion of a Touch ID sensor at the right-hand side of the Touch Bar. As with the iPhone and iPad, you simply place your finger on it to unlock the Mac. What's more, you can set it up so different users’ fingerprints will log them in to their account without having to first log out.
The Touch ID sensor isn't quite flush with the rest of the bar, which makes it easier to find just by touch, but it feels a little un-Appleish in its design.
Still, there are plenty of folk for whom the standard version (with function keys) will suffice – which makes it galling to discover that the non-Touch Bar model is only available with the slowest Intel processor in the MacBook Pro lineup.
But the internals aren’t what really makes the MacBook Pro new, even without the presence of Touch Bar. Instead, there are three areas that define it: the thinness, the keyboard and trackpad, and the screen.
This is the thinnest and lightest MacBook Pro ever, with the 13in version coming in at a mere 1.4kg – the same as a 13in MacBook Air. If you think that’s impressive, then consider that it’s also thinner, at least at the thick end. Of course, it doesn't taper like a MacBook Air to a razor-thin edge, but it's still a very slender machine.
Specs and performance
And the thin design doesn’t mean sacrificing on speed. Our review machine was the base model, containing a dual-core, 2GHz Intel Core i5-6360U processor with integrated Iris Graphics 540, along with 8GB of RAM and 256GB PCIe-based solid state drive – and it felt very nippy in everyday use.
You have to choose the Touch Bar model if you want a faster processor (a 2.9 GHz dual-core Core i5-6267U), but the base MacBook Pro can be upgraded at the point of purchase with a 512GB or 1TB SSD and the RAM bumped up to 16GB.
If you want faster, discrete graphics, you'll need to move up in size to the 15in MacBook Pro, which has turbo-powered ATI Radeon Pro graphics, and up to 2TB of SSD capacity. The 15in model comes with 16GB of RAM as standard, along with a choice of two quad-core chips: the 2.6GHz Core i7-6700HQ or 2.7GHz Core i7-6820HQ.
In our benchmark tests, our review unit performed just as you’d expect from a notebook with these specifications. However, in this guise, it’s barely quicker than the previous generation, coming in just ahead of a 2015 MacBook Pro across our image, video and multitasking tests – although the older unit included a higher clockspeed (but previous generation) 2.7GHz Intel Core i5-5257U chip, along with 8GB of RAM and 256GB SSD.
The MacBook Pro’s legendary battery life doesn’t suffer, either, and in our video-playback test it lasted a highly creditable 9 hours 50 minutes with the screen set to a comparatively bright 170cd/m2.
It’s the SSD that shows the biggest improvement, however. By using PCI Express 3 x 4 internal storage interface, the drive in the new MacBook offers potentially double the bandwidth of the previous generation, and in testing, Apple's new laptop produced outstanding performance. In fact, it proved to be MacBook's most impressive upgrade, with sequential read rates of up to 6.2GB per second and write speeds of up to 1.4GB/sec.
That puts the MacBook Pro way out in front of any of its rivals, ensuring you’ll never have to wait too long for a big application, image or video file to read from disk again.
Audio and screen
Elsewhere, the speakers have had an update, and now flank each side of the keyboard, firing upwards. Apple claims they produce twice the dynamic range of the previous model, which is tricky to test, but audio quality is clearly better, with more solidity, clarity and body all-round.
The screen is delicious, though. As with the new iPhone 7 and 7 Plus, Apple is moving from sRGB to the wider DCI P3 colour gamut with the MacBook Pro, and the result is that everything looks a touch richer and fuller in colour. It's superbly bright at 542cd/m2, contrast is exceptional, hitting the heights at 1,426:1, while the screen delivers 99.3% coverage of the targeted DCI-P3 colour gamut. It's a truly exceptional screen.
Keyboard, trackpad, connections
The MacBook Pro’s ‘love it or hate it’ feature is its butterfly-switch keyboard, seemingly borrowed in all its shallow-keyed glory from the diminutive 12in MacBook. This won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re sceptical, we urge you to give it a try.
We actually don’t mind the shorter travel keys, and indeed, the travel on the MacBook Pro feels somewhat more positive than on the MacBook.
Likely to be less controversial is the bigger trackpad. It’s twice the area on the 15in MacBook Pro, and 46 percent larger on this 13in machine. Given that Apple has always led the way when it comes to making trackpads bigger, this isn’t a surprise, and as always it’s a great-quality trackpad, complete with its haptic, non-mechanical ‘click’ and Apple’s gloriously responsive and intuitive multitouch gestures.
We have to admit were initially worried about brushing over the touchpad by accident and making the cursor jump around. With the touchpad effectively occupying 44 percent of the entire width of the wristrest, and the touchpad a mere 4mm away from the bottom of the keyboard, your thumbs are constantly in close proximity to the top edge of the pad's surface.
Perhaps in acknowledgement of this fact, the MacBook Pro ships with tap-to-click disabled (as it has for some time, now, in fact) but even with this feature enabled we’ve found incidents of the cursor jumping around the screen miraculously low in frequency, and the benefits the large touchpad brings with it are great. It’s far more comfortable to perform those multitouch gestures now, and it just feels more comfortable to use.
Alas, there's no positive spin we can put on the MacBook Pro’s most irritating shortfall, and that’s its lack of ports in the entry-level model. We love the way we can hook up an HDMI monitor, two USB 3 devices and a pair of Thunderbolt peripherals to previous generation MacBooks without the need for extra adapters.
However, the new 13in base model has only a pair of USB-Type C, Thunderbolt 3-enabled sockets on its left-hand edge – meaning that if you want to attach more than one external device while you’re charging it, you’ll have to budget extra for a USB Type-C adapter or docking station. Thankfully, the higher-end 13in Touch Bar and 15in models include four Type-C ports.
Despite that, there's no doubt that the new MacBook Pro is a great laptop. It’s slimmer, lighter, has a slightly nicer display and in general is a more pleasant device to use than its predecessor.
It even sounds better, but there is a price to pay, and it's a big one: our test unit is the cheapest 13in MacBook Pro you can buy, and it’s $2,199.
That’s $100 cheaper than the equivalent (256GB SSD) 2015 model, but if you want the new Touch Bar version, you’ll be paying a lot more – at least $2,699.
Want a 15in version? You’ll pay at least $3,599, which is $500 more than last year’s base 15in model. That’s a heck of a lot of money, and that’s not even for the top of the range machine – the “entry-level” 15in comes with 256GB of SSD storage, which is pretty stingy for the price.
However, while you might have to sell an organ or two to get one, we still highly recommend the new MacBook Pro.