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Review: MacBook Pro 2016 with Touch Bar

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It’s been a while since the MacBook Pro was redesigned, and if you only buy a new laptop every few years, ideally each new laptop should offer something new, and be a lot faster too. In late October, the new MacBook Pro was finally announced, with its new Touch Bar as the centerpiece. It took about five minutes for the internet to erupt in an echo-chamber of ill-considered rants, but what’s the real story? Were the outcries justified?

Here’s another five word review to help the decision along: Touch, Vivid, Controversial, Pricey, Forward-thinking. 

Touch 

This new touch-sensitive screen at the top of the keyboard is more versatile than you’d think, and the keyboard is great too

This new touch-sensitive screen at the top of the keyboard is more versatile than you’d think, and the keyboard is great too

The Touch Bar is Apple’s answer to “why don’t you make a touchscreen Mac?”, and it’s actually a pretty good one. Yes, adding a touchscreen to a regular Mac seems like an obvious choice, but Apple have apparently tried it, and it doesn’t work.

As an aside, I have tried Microsoft’s new folding Surface PC, and it’s nice enough, but definitely a niche product. While drafting or animation professionals would probably love it, the dial is not great, the pen has issues, and the UI is compromised due to being neither truly touch nor truly pointer-driven. The Windows way, including touch as part of the regular Windows experience, means that few apps have actually been adapted for touch, and it shows.

For Apple, the two worlds will remain separate for at least the foreseeable future. The Touch Bar, as a bridge between the direct world of touch on iOS and the indirect pointer-driven world of macOS, provides something unique that complements the pointer pretty well. It’s direct and predictable, letting you use your finger to tap a button that says what it’s going to do. It’s context-driven, meaning that you’re offered different controls in different contexts. It’s flexible, so you can drag on sliders as well as push on buttons—and that’s something really new.

Yep, that’s a whole timeline in the touch bar!

Yep, that’s a whole timeline in the touch bar!

FCP X provides some great examples of how you can use the touch bar well—you can tap a single key to perform a useful trim operation that normally needs a two-finger operation. You can see a view of your whole timeline, even in full-screen mode. You can use a slider to control audio levels by dragging, and even drag on the trackpad while you drag on the touch bar to get mixer-style keyframe controls.

Other apps aren’t as advanced just yet, but some apps let you customize the touch bar, and the system-wide Control Strip is configurable and removable too. F-keys can still be shown, by holding Fn or on a per-app basis. We haven’t seen everything that the Touch Bar can do just yet, and once we see more third-party developers really get into it, we’ll see it put to much wider use. It’s good, but this is version 1. 

Regarding the other main thing you touch—the keyboard is great. I use an Apple Extended Keyboard on my iMac, and I like this keyboard just as much. To my fingers, it feels much nicer than the MacBook’s similar-looking keyboard, and typing is as fast and error-free as ever. For hardcore Escape key users, though the F-keys have been demoted, you can turn caps lock into a hardware Escape key if you really need it.

Here’s a photo with the saturation cranked way up, in wide gamut.

Here’s a photo with the saturation cranked way up, in wide gamut.

 

The same photo in standard gamut, though they’ll only look different on a wide gamut screen.

The same photo in standard gamut, though they’ll only look different on a wide gamut screen.

 

Vivid

The new P3-capable screen is great. It’s sharp, and can display wide-gamut colors like 2015’s Retina iMac. If you don’t have a wide-gamut screen, it’s impossible to show you the difference, but it’s like the difference between CMYK and RGB, or between a regular process color and a neon spot color. You can crank up the vibrancy and saturation all the way to 11, and it still looks great. Like taking blinkers off.

There’s system-wide support for wide-gamut images from the iPhone 7, and of course you can use an image editor to push a standard image beyond the sRGB color space. FCP X 10.3 supports wide gamut color for video, and third parties are on board in the video space too. True, many viewers of your work won’t able to see those vibrant colors, but that’s the nature of progressive enhancement—it leaves users of older devices no worse off, while enhancing the experience on newer devices.

Oh, and speaking of vivid—the sound is loud and clear. The speakers in this Mac are the first I’ve actually wanted to listen to music on.

A few dongles, sure—but nothing really pricey, heavy or difficult.

A few dongles, sure—but nothing really pricey, heavy or difficult.

Controversial 

Though we’d heard rumors that the Touch Bar was coming, and that TB3 and/or USB-C was likely to be the only port type, I don’t think a prolonged burst of negative feedback was quite what Apple had expected. Was all that ranty noise justified? Mostly, at least to me, no.

Firstly: the demand for 32 GB of RAM. Since no Apple laptop has ever let you install 32 GB of RAM, and Intel’s current lower-power chipset doesn’t support that much low-power RAM, this one’s just not possible yet. Next time?

Second: that professionals need ports. Yes, we do, but we don’t all need the same ones, and these new ports support just about all our old gear with cheap adapters. It turns out that a fast SD card reader can be had for under $10, an HDMI or VGA adapter for under $20, and tiny USB-3.0/USB-C adapters for just a few dollars, easy to leave permanently attached to older cables. There’s huge variability in price—I’ve seen the same products at double or triple those prices—but even Apple have dropped the prices of their USB dongles until at least the end of the year.

Third: they aren’t fast enough. Sadly, Moore’s Law seems to have broken down, and CPU speed isn’t accelerating the way it used to—these Macs use the fastest chips Intel makes in this category. Apple have been making thinner and lighter laptops for years now, so I’m not sure why some people suddenly expect Apple to make a larger, heavier one so they can use slightly faster chips. Plus, the hard drive is insanely fast. The 512 GB SSD in mine reads and writes at over 2000 MB/s (two gigabytes a second!) or twenty times the speed of a typical portable spinning hard drive.

Fourth: the Touch Bar is a gimmick. To write off a new interface concept that you’ve never even used would be a mistake. It’s useful already and getting better.

Fifth: MagSafe was awesome, and it’s gone? Yeah, that’s a bit of a shame, though Griffin offer a replacement magnetic cable if it’s a big deal for you.

Sixth: too expensive. Well, I’ve got a whole section about price.

Really, only a duckhead plug in the box? Well, I have plenty of old figure-8 cables that work just as well.

Really, only a duckhead plug in the box? Well, I have plenty of old figure-8 cables that work just as well.

Pricey

These Macs are, indeed, more expensive than the previous generation, and that’s a shame too. Apple are on record as “not designing to a price point” and it would seem that the Touch Bar and other new tech in these laptops didn’t come cheap. As a working professional, I’m spreading the cost of this Mac out over 4–5 years, but the sticker shock is real.

This is especially true in many foreign markets. Just a few years ago, the Australian dollar was at parity with the US dollar, but it’s now worth around 73¢. Because Apple price their Macs based on US$, Macs are now 30% more expensive here than they were just a few years back. The added expense of this generation will push the cost of the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar just too high for many price-conscious customers. That could be a problem for the Mac in the long run, but it’s a decision for Apple.

These ports are more flexible than anything we’ve seen before, and they’re definitely here to stay.

These ports are more flexible than anything we’ve seen before, and they’re definitely here to stay.

Forward-thinking

The port change to the new Thunderbolt 3/USB-C combo ports means that not only can we use the fastest port available (TB3) for fancy new boxes like external GPUs, we can also use generic USB devices made for a wider PC audience. There’s no need to worry about which port to plug into, or even which way is up. Sure, devices using the new standard are not widely available yet, but this is a classic chicken-and-egg problem. Stores won’t carry new devices until there’s demand, and there need to be machines out there for the demand to exist. As the first iMac made USB popular, this Mac will make USB-C popular—and it’s a great port.

USB-C is reversible, fast, and can do everything from display adapters to card readers to power. There’s no need to buy an Apple power adapter, HDMI adapter, or anything else; a no-name eBay special does the job just fine. As all ports are now equal, you can power the device through any port, or from an external USB-friendly battery, or from a connected monitor. There are definite benefits to this transition, and I’m interested in seeing what an external GPU can do for these new Macs too.

Yep, I went for Silver, because the Slate Grey wasn’t dark enough nor available enough.

Yep, I went for Silver, because the Slate Grey wasn’t dark enough nor available enough.

Conclusion

This MacBook Pro continues exactly what Apple have been doing for years—making fast, thin, beautiful laptops for a wide audience. They aren’t for everyone, and never have been, but they’re extremely useful machines for many professionals and amateurs, with very fast storage, fast performance, and plenty of versatile ports. By moving wholeheartedly to USB-C, we’ll see more USB-C devices more quickly; by including the Touch Bar, we’ll be able to work with our apps in new ways. But it’s all new, and while it’s good now, it will improve with time.

If you’re in the market for a new MacBook Pro, go for it. If your Mac is only a year or two old, wait out the USB-C transition and enjoy your current Mac in the meantime.

Price: MacBook Pro with Touch Bar: 13” with 512 GB SSD, AU$2999 / USD$1,999

Web: http://www.apple.com/macbook-pro/

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Iain Anderson

Iain Anderson | Articles by this author

Iain Anderson is an editor, animator, designer, developer and Apple Certified Trainer based in Brisbane, Australia. He has taught privately and in tertiary institutions, and has freelanced for Microsoft and the Queensland Government. Comfortable with anything from Quartz Composer to Second Life and Final Cut Pro to Adobe Creative Suite, he has laid out books, booklets, brochures and business cards; retouched magazine covers and product packaging, shot and edited short films and animated for HD broadcast TV, film festivals and for the web.

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