After going hands-on with the Late-2016 13-inch MacBook Pro sans Touch Bar, I was finally able to spend some significant hands-on time with the real MacBook Pro for this generation, the Touch Bar-equipped version.
Outside of a few obvious differences, the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar shares the same form factor and design as the version without Apple’s fancy new input method. Therefore, I’m going to avoid rehashing topics that I’ve already covered, such as in-depth impressions of the keyboard, trackpad, display, build quality, etc. If you want a hands-on synopsis of the overall design of the Late-2016 MacBook Pro, then be sure to read our original hands-on post.
These impressions will focus on the areas that differentiate the Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro from the entry-level model. It is here where you’ll find my hands-on impressions of the Touch Bar, Touch ID, faster processors, additional USB-C ports, and more. Have a look at our full video walkthrough for all of the details.
The baseline TouchBar-equipped MacBook Pro starts at $1799 and can quickly escalate in price depending on how you configure it. For $1799 you get a 2.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 that can Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz, 256GB PCIe SSD, Intel Iris Graphics 550 integrated GPU, and 8GB of 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM.
I decided to upgrade the processor to the fastest available in the 13-inch form factor, a 3.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor, with Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz. I also opted to go with 16GB of RAM and 512GB of storage.
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The final cost of that configuration ends up being $2,499. It’s the fastest 13-inch MacBook Pro that you can buy, although I skipped out on the extra 512GB of storage. Apple’s storage prices are still quite ridiculous as far as space goes, and opting for a 1TB SSD would have moved the price needle well past three grand with taxes.
As someone who edits 4K video on an almost daily basis using Final Cut Pro X, I was really debating on going up to the 15-inch MacBook Pro featuring a quad-core processor and a discrete AMD GPU. Final Cut Pro X is a multithreaded application, and it benefits heavily from the extra two cores. It’s also able to take advantage of the discrete GPU, which makes the 15-inch MacBook Pro, with its extra large screen, especially nice for video editing.
That said, I wanted this MacBook to be as portable as possible, so I decided to go with the smaller 13-inch version. After watching the non-Touch Bar model struggle a bit with 4K videos in Final Cut Pro X, I was somewhat concerned about the performance prospects of this machine.
Benchmarks & Performance
The Geekbench 4 and GFX Metal benchmarks don’t show performance increases that outright blow away the entry-level $1499 MacBook Pro, but it’s a big enough increase to make a difference in my 4K editing workflow.
This machine is noticeably faster than the entry-level MacBook Pro without Touch Bar, as it should be considering it comes at a $1000 premium. I can edit 4K videos in Final Cut Pro X in full resolution fairly smoothly. On the entry-level MacBook Pro, I was forced to use proxy files in order to edit and playback 4K video without hiccups. This is nice, because proxy media takes up storage space, and storage space comes at a premium in Apple world.
The MacBook Pro with TouchBar features a 28W TDP, which is higher than the entry-level model’s 15W profile. Because of the increased thermal threshold, the higher-spec’d machine should be able to take advantage of higher clock speeds for an extended period of time. In my hands-on experience with both machines, I found that it’s not going to have game-changing performance implications, but every little bit helps.
As a result of the higher TDP, the Touch Bar-enabled unit requires more cooling that the entry-level MacBook Pro. It’s why you’ll find two air intake ports on the bottom of the machine, which is a feature not found on the entry-level model. The 28W model also features an extra fan, which helps keep the machine cool, but it comes at the price of slightly more noise.
Because of the extra fan, intakes, Touch Bar, and other subtle design differences, the higher-end MacBook Pro, ironically enough, has less room for battery. You’ll find a slightly smaller battery inside of this MacBook Pro—49.2-watt-hour—when compared to the entry-level model’s 54.5-watt-hour battery. Thus, the entry-level model will likely produce slightly longer battery life than the more expensive MacBook Pro.
Four USB-C Ports
One of the big physical differentiators between this machine and the $1499 MacBook Pro without Touch Bar is the presence of two additional Thunderbolt 3-enabled USB-C ports. As you might expect, a 100% increase in available ports means a lot on a machine with limited I/O options.
On the low-end 13″ MacBook Pro, there are only two USB-C ports, and both reside on the left side of the machine. With the higher-end MacBook Pro, you get four USB-C ports — two on both sides — which makes a huge difference in usability.
A major benefit of USB-C is that it can be used to facilitate charging the notebook’s battery. That means that the MacBook Pro can be charged using any of the four available USB-C ports. It means that you can charge your MacBook Pro from either side, depending on where your charger is located.
Of course, I do miss the utility of MagSafe, as it truly was one of the best inventions to come out of Apple, but being able to charge this machine using any of the available four ports helps ease the sting of MagSafe’s removal.
Thunderbolt 3 options are quite limited right now, but there’s a whole host of USB-enabled USB-C devices that you can take advantage of, and we’ve covered quite a few of them.
As I alluded to in my hands-on with the entry-level model, it’s going to be a while before Thunderbolt 3 peripherals become widely available, but the future seems bright for this technology. In the meantime, you’re going to need to take advantage of annoying dongles to connect to legacy devices.
Touch ID support on the MacBook Pro is based on the same technology as the Touch ID sensor that was first introduced on the iPhone 5s. It’s a fingerprint sensor that allows you to unlock your device, make App Store or iTunes purchases, verify authentication credentials like passwords, and make online payments with Apple pay, all with the touch of a finger.
If you have multiple user accounts on your macOS installation, you can setup Touch ID for each user account and use your fingerprint to quickly switch between accounts. Touch ID on the Mac supports up to five fingerprints across all accounts, and up to three fingerprints per account.
The great thing about Touch ID on the Mac is that, like iOS, third-party developers can join in on the fun. The potential is significant, as demonstrated by AgileBits, developer of one of my favorite apps, 1Password.
1Password is a multi-platform password management app that’s available on iOS and Mac. It allows you to save passwords in a vault and use those saved passwords to quickly log in to your favorite websites. AgileBits was proactive and updated its flagship app with Touch ID support a few days before the new MacBook Pro began to land in customer’s hands, and it works wonderfully.
As a long time iPhone and iPad user, Touch ID isn’t as magical as it was when it first debuted on iOS, but it’s still really good. As someone who normally types passwords countless times each day, Touch ID is a great co-headlining feature for the new MacBook Pro, and arguably the most useful of all its new features.
Setting up Touch ID and Apple Pay
When you go through the initial setup of your Mac, you’ll encounter a section for setting up Touch ID. Just like on iOS, the setup process involves repeatedly tapping the Touch ID sensor in order to register a fingerprint.
You’ll also be prompted to setup Apple Pay for making online purchases using Touch ID. Both Touch ID and Apple Pay settings can be found in System Preferences, and you can always venture there after the Mac’s initial setup process to further customize either feature.
Lots of changes have come to the new MacBook Pro, but almost all of the marketing has been laser-focused on the new Touch Bar. The Touch Bar is a brand new input method that rests above the number keys on the MacBook’s keyboard. It outright replaces the old function keys with a matte 2170-by-60 touch-enabled screen that runs the length of the keyboard.
The Touch Bar is designed in such a way that it’s best viewed at a 45 degree angle, which just happens to be the angle that most users will use when typing. Another nice thing about the Touch Bar is that its matte surface avoids reflections and keeps fingerprints at bay. You’re going to be touching this little area quite a bit, so its good news that Apple got the look and feel just right.
So what’s significant about the new Touch Bar? Well for starters, it changes dynamically based on the app that you’re using. The Touch Bar immediately responds to changing apps, with zero lag 99% of the time. It’s impressive to watch the area dynamically change on the fly as you cruise between the various apps on your Mac. It’s evident that Apple put a lot of effort into tuning the Touch Bar so that it would be as responsive as possible.
If you don’t touch your Mac for 60 seconds the Touch Bar surface will dim, and 15 seconds later it’ll go completely dark. A simple tap of the Touch Bar, trackpad or keyboard will immediate wake it up. Apple doesn’t allow users to configure the Touch Bar’s brightness, which is a little odd considering that you can adjust the backlight brightness of the physical hardware keys on the keyboard.
To be completely honest, I wasn’t a big fan of the Touch Bar during my first few hours of using it. I’m still not exactly sure where I stand with it, but it does take some time to get used to. I found myself accidentally touching the Touch Bar while the MacBook Pro was resting on my lap. This caused undesired input, which greatly annoyed me. I have a habit of resting my left hand where the physical escape key used to reside, so I’ll need to train myself not to do this going forward.
Dissecting the Touch Bar
The entire Touch Bar strip is broken up into three sections. The right-most section is called the Control Strip, and the buttons in this area can be customized via System Preferences → Keyboard → Customize Control Strip.
The Control Strip may contain up to four always-available buttons at any time, and it can be expanded by tapping the left arrow next to its left-most button to reveal an expanded region. The Control Strip houses media controls, brightness controls, volume controls and the like. But the beauty of the dynamic surface is that it can accommodate much more than that. By default, you’ll find Brightness, Volume, Mute, and Siri, but you can customize it with all sorts of functions — things like Screenshot Capture, Do Not Disturb, Show Desktop, Screen Lock, etc.
An additional bonus button will appear inside the Control Strip when media is being played. This button allows you to quickly access a scrubber and transport controls for media playback. It appears when playing music via iTunes, movies via QuickTime, videos via Safari, etc. And it’s persistent, lending you quick access to media controls from anywhere within macOS.
To the left of the Control Strip you’ll find an area dedicated to apps. Apple has updated a lot of its apps to work with the Touch Bar, but third-party developers are welcomed to join in on the fun as well. In fact, several third-party apps are already available with Touch Bar support, and no doubt many more will arrive soon.
The amount of apps that support the Touch Bar on day one is an impressive feat. Apple has obviously worked for a long time to ensure that the majority of its apps support the new input method, showing that it’s taking this new input method seriously.
Both first-party apps and third-party apps that use the Touch Bar have the option of letting users customize the buttons that appear there. Just go to View → Customize Touch Bar, to start customizing the buttons for a specific app.
The final and smallest section of the Touch Bar is dedicated to a system button on its left-most edge. It’s there where you’ll find the escape key, which is dynamically replaced by an ‘x’ key to exit out menus or a “Done” button to confirm when you’re finished with Touch Bar customizations.
But what about the now defunct hardware function keys? Don’t fret, as Apple has provided a simple solution for accessing those keys: just press and hold the function (fn) button to immediately display all 12 function keys.
Using the Touch Bar
If you’ve used an iOS device before, then it’ll be easy to adjust to the Touch Bar. Switching between different apps will dynamically change what’s displayed, and you can easily interact with it to manipulate the app currently on screen.
Take Apple’s own Safari app, for example. When opening Safari you’ll see back and forward buttons, a search section for quickly interfacing with the address bar/search box, and a list of all open browser tabs with corresponding screenshots. Depending on the nature of the interface element used, tapping on a specific item may allow you to navigate deeper within the interface.
For instance, if you open Safari and tap on the search button found on the Touch Bar, you’ll see a list of all of your current Safari bookmarks and folders. You can then tap a folder to dive deeper inside the folder structure until you locate the desired bookmark.
The point is that the Touch Bar isn’t just a 1:1 replacement for the old function keys, but it’s a dynamic area that can take on all sorts of text, shapes and colors. Its purpose is to surface handy shortcuts, or to add different and fun new ways to interact with apps.
System level interactions, such as adjusting brightness or volume, can be accomplished via the traditional method of tapping the button a certain amount of times. However, you’ll likely appreciate the ability to use tap and slide gestures to quickly take advantage of brightness or volume sliders.
The jury is still out
It’s too early for me to fully judge the new Touch Bar because I simply haven’t been able to use it for long enough to form a solid opinion. I initially hated it, but after using it for a few consecutive hours, it’s started to grow on me.
I find that, at least at this early stage, most of the shortcuts don’t save me that much time, if any at all. The Touch Bar lacks any sort of haptic response that would make touch typing feasible, so you’ll find yourself staring down the interface, which can slow down your workflow.
I’m someone that’s really big on remembering and using keyboard shortcuts, even complicated ones. Thus, I can usually perform a keyboard shortcut, no matter how obscure, faster than I can locate and use a button on the Touch Bar.
With that said, there are some features that the Touch Bar provides that are really cool. Having volume and brightness sliders is awesome, and using adjustment sliders inside of third-party apps is an enjoyable experience as well. For example, color pickers inside of Pixelmator, and sliders to adjust the size of various assets, add real benefits that can help speed up workflows.
The Touch Bar, as you might imagine, is especially useful when using apps in full screen mode with hidden tool bars. It allows you to access features that wouldn’t normally be available on screen, and that can prove to be really handy depending on the use case scenario.
But for every few cool experiences, there’s a head-scratcher. For example, why does Apple insist on showing screenshots of your open Safari tabs on the Touch Bar’s tiny screen? It’s way too small to discern anything and it looks like a smushed, pixelated mess.
It’s going to take a while for the newness of the Touch Bar-adorned 13″ MacBook Pro to sink in, but after using this machine for an entire day, it feels like a much bigger upgrade than the entry-level model. I love the presence of the four USB-C ports, which makes connecting USB-C peripherals and chargers super-easy. I also know that I thoroughly enjoy having Touch ID on my Mac. It might not sound like a big deal, but typing passwords gets old, and Touch ID replaces it with a mere tap of a finger.
As far as performance goes, we already know that this machine screams when it comes to PCIe SSD performance. Touch Bar models get to enjoy faster RAM, too. If you opt for the high-end i7-powered model, you’ll enjoy a moderate increase in performance over the entry-level MacBook Pro.
Needless to say, there’s a whole lot to like about this new machine, and I’ve only scratched the surface in this post. Make sure you read our initial hands-on to see the other half of what’s offered with the MacBook Pro’s redesigned body style.
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But the MacBook Pro’s biggest new feature, the Touch Bar, has yet to fully win me over. From a pure technical perspective it’s well executed. But I almost feel like the Touch Bar is there to solve a problem that wasn’t necessarily that big of a problem in the first place, at least for me. Perhaps I’m in the minority due to being a seasoned keyboard shortcut user, but I’m still on the fence about the amount of value added by this new input method. What about you? Share your thoughts and comments down below, and let me know.