Apple MacBook Pro (2016) review: Faster, thinner, lighter – but more expensive


The Apple MacBook Pro (2016) has arrived in the office, but for once I’m feeling a little deflated. Not because it’s a disappointing laptop, or that it’s considerably more expensive than last year’s model, or even because it lacks certain slots and ports (more of which later), but because Apple has sent us the standard MacBook Pro. You know, the one without the Touch Bar – the most interesting new feature.

Sigh.

For now, then, you’ll have to make do with my first impressions from the launch, which were largely positive.

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To recap, the Touch Bar is a thin strip of OLED touchscreen that sits directly above the keyboard, replacing the function key row. What appears on the Touch Bar is programmable and – importantly – context sensitive, so different applications can have different “keys” appear. For example, in Safari see a set of “keys” representing your open tabs, allowing you quickly flip between them with a quick dab of the finger.

In the Photos app, you can not only navigate quickly between image thumbnails by swiping left and right, but also, once images are opened, carry out basic editing tasks in full-screen view without having to go near the touchpad. In Messages, you’ll see Quick Text suggestions, including emoji, in Mail, there are shortcut keys that let you send and reply among others, while Final Cut Pro displays a timeline track allowing you to scroll quickly through your project while previewing the video fullscreen.

And anyone worried about losing the escape key and function keys of the old MacBook should set their minds at rest. You can get to these keys quickly and easily by holding down the Fn key, at which point the keys appear instantly along the top row.

Alternatively, if there’s an application that you always use Function keys in, it’s possible to add that to a whitelist in the MacBook’s settings so that they always appear when that application is open and in the foreground.

It doesn’t sound like such an essential feature, but even in the short time I used it I could see how good it was, and how quickly I would miss it. Going back to my older MacBook Pro, I found myself thinking, “I’d love to use the Touch Bar for this”, and that was after just a short time with the new model. I’m really looking forward to seeing what 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.

Apple MacBook Pro (2016) review: The basics

Still, there are plenty of folk for whom the “function keys” version I have in front of me will suffice. In fact, for some developers, who work function keys more than most, the version with physical keys may well be preferable.

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 than a MacBook Air, 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.

And this doesn’t mean sacrificing on speed. The review machine we were supplied with was the base model, containing a dual-core, 2GHz Intel Core i5-6360U processor that Turbo Boosts up to 3.1GHz with Iris Graphics 540 for company and 8GB of RAM for company, plus a 256GB PCIe-based SSD, and it feels every bit as nippy in operation as the 2015 vintage MacBook Pro I use every day for work.

It can be upgraded at the point of purchase to a 2.4GHz Core i7 model, the SSD boosted to 512GB or 1TB 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.

Even in this guise, though, performance is just dandy. In fact, it’s just as you’d expect from this type of specification, although in our benchmarks it’s barely quicker than the previous generation, with the new MacBook Pro scoring 51 overall to the 2015 version’s 48. You can see how it compares with the equivalent 2015 MacBook Pro in the graph below; that MacBook had a dual-core Core i5-5257U running at 2.7GHz, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD.

The MacBook Pro’s legendary battery life doesn’t suffer, either, and in our video-playback test it lasted a highly creditable 9hrs 50mins with the screen set to a comparatively bright 170cd/m2.

It’s the SSD that shows the biggest improvement, however. By using four PCI Express 3 lanes, the drive in the new MacBook offers potentially double the bandwidth of the previous generation, and in testing, Apple’s new laptop produced a fiery performance. In fact, it proved to be MacBook’s most impressive upgrade, with sequential read rates of up to 3.1GB/sec and write speeds of up to 1.4GB/sec.

That’s just insane and it 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.

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, which is nice.

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.

Apple MacBook Pro (2016) review: Keyboard, trackpad, connections

The MacBook Pro’s Marmite moment is its butterfly-switch keyboard, seemingly borrowed in all its shallow-keyed glory from the diminutive 12in MacBook. I’m well aware this won’t be to everyone’s tastes, but if you’re sceptical, I’d urge you to give it a try. Personally, I don’t mind the shorter travel at all, and found it rather easy to get used to here. Indeed, the travel on the MacBook Pro feels somewhat more positive than on the MacBook, which helps keep typos to a minimum.

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