With the PC market deflating like a balloon, no one breathes more hot air back into the mix than Apple. And they delivered on Thursday, announcing a new line of MacBook Pro computers. With an updated design, a simplified port arrangement, a Force Touch trackpad with slicker keyboard, and a slim, interactive Touch Bar, there was plenty of new stuff to be had. But they’re a pretty penny, and there are plenty of laptops that offer similar “new” features out there if you’re one of the few looking for an upgrade. Let’s break down the new computers, upgrade by upgrade.
A Thinner, Lighter Design
If Apple machines excel anywhere, it’s in the design. The new MacBook Pros come in either 13- or 15-inch sizes (that’s screen size), and are thinner and lighter than their past iterations. (It’s hard to imagine Apple highlighting anything that’s added some weight in the past year.) To be precise, the new 13-incher is 14.9 mm thick and the 15-incher is 15.5 mm thick, compared to the previous fat 18 mm. Both drop about half a pound from the old versions.
A Sexier Keyboard and Trackpad
The keyboard on the new MacBook Pros is the same as that on the 12-inch MacBook. It has flat keys and uses Apple’s butterfly key mechanism, meaning you don't have to press too far down on a key for it to register. This might bother some people, as many may find that they’ll be typing a lot slower as they get used to it. Gamers, in particular, would look at the keyboard and laugh. But then again, no one’s ever really used a Mac to game. The trackpad is also borrowed from the MacBook — a large area with Force Touch, which can be used to do more than pinch-and-zoom, but “force touch” to display more information, as with the iPhone 6S and iPhone 7.
That “Touch Bar”
The most visibly prominent change to the new MacBook Pros is the Touch Bar, which is an OLED strip that has replaced the function keys at the top of the keyboard. It’s very neat. It can display functioning function keys, but it can also do much more. Namely, there’s now a space for Touch ID, so you can log in to your computer and buy things online with your fingerprint. (In fairness, Microsoft’s Surface line and several other PCs have had fingerprint functionality for a while.)
The Touch Bar can also adapt to whatever software you’re using, and this is where it goes from “neat” to a little silly: You have quick-type options in email. In Photos, you can swipe through a photo album with previews of your photos on the bar. These short, contextual interactions make a sort of sense, like just another key you have to press on a keyboard. But then you have all the swiping and sliding. In Photoshop, you can adjust color by sliding. In the DJ pro app you can add bumps and bursts and fuzz and feedback with a touch, and slide your finger to amplify it. It’s interesting, but imagine doing all those complex, often delicate interactions with a thin strip of land at the top of your keyboard using only your finger.
It begs the question: Why didn’t Apple make it a touchscreen laptop?
Touchscreen laptops are fairly standard in the industry now. Dell’s excellent XPS 13, the Microsoft Surface Book and Surface Pro tablets, the HP Spectre x360 — they all have touchscreens. Touchscreens let you do touch gestures with a bigger window than a thin strip, and really let you interact more with whatever you’re making. It seems Apple leads the way in meaningful design upgrades, but skimps on the stuff many people would find useful and could compete for a Microsoft lover’s affections.
More Thunderbolt 3 Ports Means More Dongles
You can’t deny the utility of USB-C with Thunderbolt 3 ports. They transfer data incredibly fast, and charge a machine in no time at all. But have four of them on one MacBook Pro and zero USB-A ports for any peripherals will lead to lots of headaches — new users will need to buy adapters and dongles for everything they already have that they’d want to plug in, such as a spare mouse. (This is the same complaint you saw when Apple released its single USB-C ported MacBook.) The USB-C standard is certainly the future for peripherals, but Big Dongle had its best Thursday yet. Apple might be intending to give the industry a little push in an inevitable USB-C direction, but for right now, they made a laptop for 2020 in 2016. There’s still a headphone jack on it, though, for what it’s worth.
Internals Remain (Mostly) Unchanged
One of the things that’s striking about the new MacBook Pro is how it's similar to the old model. The keyboard, Touch Bar, and build are solid design upgrades, but the last time the MacBook Pro had a revamp was four years ago. You’d expect a little more work to be done on the guts.
Yes, there’s a new fan system and boomier speakers (welcome updates, both), but they kept the screen resolution the same, just making it brighter. The internal processors are Skylake-era Intel Core i5 and iCore i7 chips, and those chips have been out for over a year and are somewhat old hat. Plus, you still have an integrated graphics card, so you can’t ramp up your MacBook’s graphics capabilities. Memory is basically the same, coming in at 8GB or 16GB of RAM to run your apps. The only thing that seems to have been meaningfully upgraded is the internal storage, with 256GB onboard storage on an entry-level model, going up to 2TB.
So should you buy one? Well, that depends.
The entry-level price for a 13-inch MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar is $1,499; the Touch Bar will add an extra $300. The starting price for a 15-inch MacBook Pro, Touch Bar included, is $2,399. That’s not petty cash. In fact, it’s about $400 more than the entry-level MacBook Air, which Apple has, as of now, stopped selling. If you don’t mind using Windows, you can get a touchscreen Surface Book for about the same price at entry level, and an HP Spectre x360 for way less — about $900. If you have a MacBook that can run Apple’s latest MacOS competently, you can probably afford to wait another year or two for a drop in price or a more substantial upgrade.
But for those who absolutely must have the latest Apple product that’s thrown into the market, the new MacBook Pro certainly won’t disappoint you — it’s a powerful, slim machine with a few excellent upgrades and a few truly neat gimmicks. Just be prepared to shell out a lot of dough. And then be prepared to shell out more dough for the army of accessories.