Apple MacBook Pro (2016) review: How good is that Touch Bar?


Apple hardware inspires a peculiar brand of loyalty among its customers, but the Apple is stretching that to its limits with the MacBook Pro 2016. Lighter, sleeker, and packed with a whole slew of tweaks and upgrades – not to mention a hefty price bump – the MacBook Pro has sent ripples of disquiet across social media.

In denuding its professional laptop, ironically, of its pro-grade ports and sockets, and whacking up prices across the board, Apple has prompted many to look at the new range askance, wondering if it’s the right thing for them, or their IT departments.

I’ll go into the rights and wrongs of Apple’s decision in due course, but first let me address this year’s MacBook’s most interesting feature: the touchy-feely Touch Bar.

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I want to take you to a Touch Bar

If you haven’t a clue what I’m wittering about, then here’s a quick recap. The Touch Bar is a narrow strip of OLED touchscreen that, on the pricier MacBook Pro models, replaces the function key row. It’s responsive to multi-touch, gesture and taps, and presents a context-sensitive range of buttons, sliders and shortcuts for any supported application. This allows you to personalise the Touch Bar to present the quick actions you use the most, but also means you no longer need to consign hundreds of key combinations to memory for every single possible application. 

If you haven’t a clue what I’m wittering about, then here’s a quick recap. The Touch Bar is a narrow strip of OLED touchscreen that, on the pricier MacBook Pro models, replaces the function key row. It’s responsive to multi-touch, gesture and taps, and presents a context-sensitive range of buttons, sliders and shortcuts for any supported application.

This allows you to personalise the Touch Bar to present the quick actions you use the most, but also means you no longer need to consign hundreds of key combinations to memory for every single possible application.

Using Final Cut Pro? Then you’ll get a full overview of your current timeline that you can skip through with a flick of a finger. Tap and you can zoom into a specific section. Select a clip and the Touch Bar will present a range of relevant functions, each assigned to a button or a slider instead, allowing you to quickly cut, fade or adjust the volume.

Fire up Safari, and you’ll be able to see your open tabs represented as a sideways scrolling carousel of touch-sensitive buttons, allowing you to flick between open tabs at the touch of a button. In the Photos app you can use the Touch Bar to edit your photos full screen, in Pages apply formatting to your lovingly crafted words and — my favourite, this one — launch the manual page for the Terminal command you’ve just typed.

Perhaps the Touch Bar’s most impressive aspect, however, is its customisability. This facility is currently showcased best in the MacOS Finder where, using the touchpad you can drag shortcut buttons onto the bar from a box on the screen, then rearrange them at will by dragging with your finger. 

The other major new addition is Touch ID. Nestled on the right-hand side of the Touch Bar, you can now log in to your MacBook just as quickly and easily as you can your iPhone 7. But so can your other half, or your colleague, or anyone else for that matter – press your finger against the Touch ID sensor, and macOS Sierra instantly switches to your desktop and your applications. It’s quite brilliant. Oh, and thanks to the new Apple T1 chip supporting Secure Enclave, you can now buy things with your fingertip from websites supporting Apple Pay.

It’s all rather more special than I had initially expected it to be. With clear thought given to each and every aspect of the Touch Bar, including its surprisingly tactile, silky surface it’s already a useful addition to the MacBook Pro’s arsenal of tools, and as third-party developers get their heads around it will only become more useful.

It caters even to those who use Function keys obsessively: hold down FN and the entire Touch Bar reverts to the old-style function key row, running from Esc on the left across to the F12 on the far right.

The only disappointment — and it’s a big one, mind — is that to get hold of a MacBook Pro with all the Touch Bar bells and whistles, you’re going to have to fork out a healthy premium. In fact, the cheapest 13in Touch Bar MacBook Pro is a chunky £300 more expensive than the equivalent non Touch Bar model at £1,749. Phew.

The Touch Bar isn’t the only reason you might want to consider buying the Touch Bar version, though. This MacBook is also available with more powerful processor options than the non-Touch Bar MacBook, and if you want a 15in MacBook Pro there’s no alternative. Here’s a table summing up your options, along with the base price of each for that processor variant, just so you’re completely clear.

13in non-Touch Bar

13in Touch Bar

15in Non Touch Bar

Dual-core 2GHz Intel Core i5, £1,449

2.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, £1,749

2.6GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, 256GB SSD, £2,349

2.4GHz dual-core Intel Core i7, £1,719

3.1GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, £1,839

2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, 512GB SSD, £2,699

3.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i7, £2,019

2.9GHz quad-core Intel Core i7, 256GB SSD, £2,609

The other thing that should be abundantly clear from this table is that, notwithstanding the price premium for the Touch Bar-equipped models, the prices are eye-wateringly high across the range, particularly as you reach the higher regions of specification.

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