Having got my maxed-out 15-inch 2016 MacBook Pro set up yesterday, I’ve now been using it for a total of around 12 hours – so I’m calling this one my first real-life usage impressions.
Impressions of the form factor will obviously vary depending on whether you’re coming from a pre-Retina machine – as I was – or a later one. The new machine is smaller, slimmer and sleeker either way, but the difference is of course much more dramatic from a pre-2012 model. And in my case, I’m also moving from a 17-inch machine to a 15-inch one.
For me, then, the form factor is in a completely different league. The base unit is much thinner, and the lid is almost unbelievably so. It’s also significantly lighter. I said before that I think I may be able to switch from two Macs to just one. This one feels portable enough that having a separate MacBook Air now feels like overkill …
But for all its slimness, it doesn’t feel remotely flimsy: the build quality feels absolutely rock solid. It’s so beautiful, I may baby it a little more than I generally do with my machines, but I don’t have any concerns about its delicacy.
The shiny new toys
It’s fantastic having Touch ID on a Mac. I’ve wanted that ever since having it on an iPhone, and as soon as I had it on the iPad too, it had felt clunky not having it on the Mac also. Logging-in just by touching the power button is great, and likewise being able to do things like unlock notes by fingerprint – just as you do on iOS devices – feels long overdue.
One oddity: sometimes you can use Touch ID to install an app, sometimes you can’t. This appears to be on an app-by-app basis, rather than system-wide, which seems odd.
At present, not many apps support it – including some Apple ones (you can’t use Touch ID to permit viewing a password in Keychain, for example) – but I’m sure that support will very rapidly expand. A few months down the road, this is going to be a really appealing feature just on its own.
The second new toy is, of course, the Touch Bar.
Photos really don’t do this justice: it has to be seen, and up close, to really be appreciated. It really looks like printed, backlit symbols rather than a display screen.
I love the brightness and volume sliders. Just touch the key and immediately slide your finger right or left. It’s really slick, and totally intuitive. After this, repeatedly pressing a function key feels like something out of the Stone Age.
I was surprised to find that having the Siri button on the Touch Bar was actually quite a lot more convenient than clicking in the Dock. I didn’t expect it to be any quicker, but it is.
One of the very first things I did on the new machine was head straight into System Preferences > Keyboard to customize the Touch Bar buttons. Since I already had a Siri button, it seemed logical to add dictation as well. It also seemed silly to have both up & down buttons for volume and brightness when the slider works so much better, so I removed those and inserted the single-button versions. However, instant mute is handy, so I added this in too.
My Touch Bar so far, then, looks like this:
One thing you’ll notice right away is that I’m not using all of the available button slots. The Touch Bar definitely looks lopsided with all that empty space to the right, so I’d add spacers if I were using it in that mode – displaying system functions full-time – but I’m not, so mostly there are just four buttons visible on the right, plus Esc on the left.
Touching the left chevron opens up the full set of system buttons.
Customizing the Touch Bar is really easy, and I love the way the UI blends real and virtual worlds as you drag buttons between the screen and the bar. I did, though, find this a bit flakey: sometimes you can successfully drag buttons into the bar but they don’t actually show up there until you click Done.
One downside of soft buttons is that the Touch Bar switches off when the machine is not being actively used. This makes sense to preserve battery power and protect the display from burn-in (a weakness of OLED), but it does mean that when I was just using the Mac to listen to music, skipping a track was two touches not one: the first one to switch the Touch Bar back on.
I also miss having the music controls permanently available. You can set the system-wide keys to remain there permanently, but then you miss out on the app-specific keys, so it’s a trade-off. Right now, I’m going with the app-specific keys. Check out our explanation of all the ways third-party apps will be able to use it.
Quite a few apps already support the Touch Bar, so you see the content changing as you switch apps. To be honest, much of the Touch Bar content struck me as completely pointless, merely duplicating on-screen controls, but I’m aware that’s just a first impression. I’m keeping an open mind, and will update once I’ve been using the machine for a few days.
However, I don’t think there’s any danger at all of me changing my mind about Safari tab thumbnails being the most stupid use of the Touch Bar yet conceived.
There’s obviously no way to illustrate the screen quality, so you’ll just have to take my word for it: it is absolutely stunning.
The brightness is amazing. I’ve always used Macs on maximum brightness, but with this one I’m actually using it two notches down.
The colors look incredible. Really vivid and yet somehow not over-saturated. I was a little concerned that the really bright colors might be unrealistic, and make photo editing challenging, but no: they are totally accurate. That’s a really impressive trick to pull off – at once wowing you with the colors while at the same time keeping them true to life – and I have absolutely no idea how Apple has achieved it.
The keyboard is about a halfway house between the 12-inch MacBook and the current-generation Magic Keyboard. In my extremely limited use of the MacBook keyboard, I hated it. I may now have adapted by using the Magic Keyboard, but the MacBook Pro keyboard immediately felt good.
It has a really positive feel, despite the shallow travel. The clickiness is almost reminiscent of a mechanical keyboard, though obviously with far less movement.
That said, I found my accuracy had decreased, so there is definitely an adjustment period, but right now my expectation is that I’m going to quickly adapt.
Some have complained that the keyboard is noisy. Compared to previous MacBook Pro keyboards, it’s definitely noisier – but it’s not as noisy as the current-gen Magic Keyboard. Really, this is much ado about nothing.
The huge trackpad is fantastic! In its default settings, it is almost a 1:1 mapping with the 15-inch screen. Put the pointer in the bottom-left of the screen and then slide your finger from bottom-left to top-right of the trackpad, and you’ll move the pointer almost to top-right on the screen. There’s your sensible version of a touchscreen Mac …
Dragging to grab a whole bunch of files, or performing large crops in photos, is a joy. This may not have gotten as much attention as some of the shiner new features, but it makes a huge difference to usability.
Of course, with the trackpad occupying such a vast part of the area where you rest the heels of your hands as you type, it’s natural to wonder how often you’ll accidentally use the trackpad while typing. So far, I can report that the answer is ‘never.’ Apple has a reputation for superb palm-rejection across its devices, and it does the job absolutely perfectly here.
You only have to delve into the comments on any of the pieces written about the MacBook Pro to see what a hugely controversial topic this is. I’ve made my own views known, so won’t repeat them here, but will instead address just the practicalities of ports when it comes to my own use of the machine.
In the living-room, I generally only have one thing connected: USB speakers. Although I have an AirPlay connection to the hifi, I also have some small speakers on the back of the sofa for use late at night, when I don’t want to disturb the neighbours. So right now I’m using a USB 3.0 to USB-C adapter. This is slightly messy, so I’ll probably switch this to a USB-A to USB-C cable.
In the office, little has changed.
With my old Mac, I had two connectors, both coming from my Apple Thunderbolt Display: one Thunderbolt connection and one power. Other USB devices were connected to the monitor, either directly or via a USB hub.
Right now, I still have two connectors: the power brick, and the Thunderbolt lead from the monitor, just with the addition of an Apple Thunderbolt 2 to Thunderbolt 3 adapter. Other USB devices remain connected through the monitor.
Eventually, when I settle on a new monitor, I’ll have a single-port solution: a Thunderbolt 3 lead that will both drive the display and power the Mac. So that will be even neater than my old setup.
I’m expecting my new monitor to have USB-C ports only, so one of them will be to a USB hub, and all my legacy devices will connect through that. For me, then, the switch should be fairly fuss-free.
On the move, I sometimes use an external drive and connect cameras. To avoid messing around with dongles, I’ll just buy some replacement cables. This is an additional expense, but a pretty trivial one. In the meantime, though, I’m carrying this $45 Satechi pass-thru hub.
As the name suggests, you can hook up your power brick (or other USB-C device) and power is passed through to the laptop, then you get two USB 3.0 ports and two card slots, one each for SD and microSD. It measures a little over 3 x 1 x 0.25 inches.
So I don’t think ports are going to be a big deal for me personally.
The only thing I do definitely miss is MagSafe. I do feel conscious of no longer having the protection that provided against either me or anyone else tripping over a cable. But I’ve been expecting the loss of MagSafe for 18 months now, so no surprises.
My first battery-life test will be this evening, when I take it to a writing group I run, where it will be used for around 2.5-3 hours. If Apple’s claimed 10-hour battery-life is correct, then I should see about 70% remaining by the end of the evening – we’ll see!
Conclusions so far
I love it. When you think that this slim, sleek casing encloses a 2.9GHz Core i7 CPU, Radeon Pro 460 GPU and 2TB of the fastest SSD on the planet, it’s truly an incredible achievement. I’m looking forward to putting that power to good use as I start dragging myself into the video age.
The quality of the screen is certainly helping me overcome the reduction in screen size from 17 inches to 15. The keyboard I think I’m going to love; the trackpad I already do. Touch ID is great to have. The Touch Bar, we’ll see, but if nothing else I really like sliding to control the volume. Ports, once the migration was complete, are not going to be an issue, I think – and I love the fact that I’m all set for the USB-C future.
So, all in all, I’m very happy with my purchase. Maxing-out the specs made it an extremely expensive one, but I have no regrets at all. If I keep it for say four years and sell for a third of the purchase price, as I generally do, then it’ll end up costing me the equivalent of $69 a month. For the single most important gadget I own, I think that’s a worthwhile sum.
How are you guys getting on with yours? Do share your own experiences in the comments.