On 27th October 2016, Apple announced the next generation MacBook Pro.
I purchased my first Apple notebook in 2003, the legendary PowerBook G4, which served as my primary computer throughout university.
As a long-time Windows user, I remember being initially skeptical about the switch to the Apple eco-system, but the rock-solid experience offered by OS X (AKA macOS) and the refined hardware won me over. Since that day I have always used an Apple notebook as my daily driver.
I (like many) had been eagerly anticipating the launch of a new MacBook Pro, ready to place my order the second the Apple Store re-opened. Below was my chosen specification:
- 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display (Late 2016)
- 2.9GHz Quad-Core Intel i7 (Turbo Boost up to 3.8GHz)
- 16GB 2133MHz LPDDR3 RAM
- 512GB PCIe SSD
- Intel HD Graphics 530 and AMD Radeon Pro 460 4GB GDDR5
Due to the “build to order” components, the delivery lead time was quite long, meaning the notebook did not arrive until 28th November. Now that I have had a few weeks of usage, I thought I would share some of my initial thoughts.
I’ve split the article into six sections (Build Quality, USB-C, Performance, Keyboard and Trackpad, Touch Bar and Battery Life) with a conclusion at the end.
Before proceeding, let me highlight my computing workflow. On average my Mac is in use twelve hours per day, primarily focused on productivity tasks (e-mail, calendaring, document creation), software development (Force.com, Node, Ruby), administrative tasks (cloud, virtual machines) and some video creation (Final Cut Pro, Adobe After Effects).
Apple build quality remains the best in the business. The new MacBook Pro essentially merges the form factor of the previous generation MacBook Pro, with the looks of the newer 12-inch MacBook. The chassis is both rigid and dense, whist at the same time feeling incredibly refined. I honestly believe this is the best manufactured notebook ever, delivering an unparalleled level of precision.
In short, although Windows laptops have come a long way in recent years, Apple continue to lead when it comes to build quality.
One of the most controversial topics of the new MacBook Pro was the transition to USB-C. It was a bold choice, as it required Apple to remove the well-established USB-A port and the much loved MagSafe connector (a previous unique selling point of the MacBook).
However, once purchased, day-to-day usage is not that much different from the previous generation MacBook Pro. For example, I used to connect four cables to “dock my Mac”, but now I only have to connect three (2x Display Port and the USB-C Hub, which connects to power, my external headset and webcam).
Personally, I believe the advantages of USB-C far outweigh the disadvantages, as Thunderbolt 3 is a highly versatile interface, thanks to the incredible bandwidth (40 Gbit/s) available. I am confident that we will see USB-C become the new standard in 2017.
I will however miss MagSafe, which has saved my Mac on more than one occasion. Maybe in a future release, Apple can look to find a way to reintroduce it.
When the MacBook Pro was first announced, a lot of people were disappointed that Apple were using Intel Skylake, instead of Kaby Lake. It is fair to say that Skylake is an older architecture, first launched in August 2015. However, the Kaby Lake architecture is considered an “optimize step”, as it was the first to break from Intel’s previous “tick-tock” manufacturing and design model, instead shifting to “process-architecture-optimization”. As a result, the Kaby Lake architecture does not offer significant performance improvements over Skylake. It should also be noted that the required Kaby Lake parts of the 15-inch MacBook Pro were not available in October 2016 (although we have seen Apple receive early access to Intel parts in the past).
Looking at the memory, Apple decided to stick with LPDDR3, with a maximum capacity of 16GB. I believe LPDDR3 was the right choice, as an equivalent energy efficient offering is not yet available for DDR4. It is also unlikely that memory bandwidth will be a bottleneck, meaning DDR4 would have likely resulted in lower battery life, with minimal performance gains. I very rarely require more than 16GB for my workload, but would still have liked a 32GB option, even if this resulted in reduced battery life.
Regarding storage, in short, the performance is insane! Storage in an area where Apple have really excelled over the past few years and this MacBook Pro is no exception. The read (3.1Gb/s) and write (2.2Gb/s) speeds are so fast that they actually break most benchmarks. Needless to say, you will struggle to find faster storage in a consumer device without a RAID-0 setup.
The choice of dedicated graphics was another controversial point. Apple decided to stick with AMD and include their new Polaris 11 architecture. I personally selected the Radeon Pro 460, which included 4GB GDDR5 and offers 1.86 teraflops of peak performance. Although the Polaris architecture is a significant step forward for AMD, the 4xx parts are actually a mid-range offering and do not compete with higher-end options from NVIDIA, specifically the 10-Series. I would have personally preferred NVIDIA graphics, but suspect AMD grant Apple greater influence over the architecture. The actual graphics performance is certainly acceptable for my workload and the new MacBook Pro can drive two 5K displays or four 4K displays (which should be enough for most users). One additional point, I believe Apple continue to use a multiplexer for their hybrid graphics (Intel and AMD), which is interesting because this type of architecture is notoriously difficult to implement (increasing the risk of issues), but offers greater energy efficiency. Thankfully I have not yet experienced any issues, but this is something I will keep an eye on.
Finally, it is important to mention the display itself, which retains the 2800x1800 resolution, but now includes the wide colour (P3) gamut. As you would expect, the display looks incredible and noticeably brighter than the previous generation MacBook Pro.
Overall, I am pleased with the performance of the new MacBook Pro. There are certain areas I would have changed (32GB Memory and NVIDIA graphics), but I can understand the architecture trade-offs that Apple have made and don’t anticipate them causing me an issue.
Keyboard and Trackpad
Apple have adopted the butterfly mechanism keyboard, which was first introduced with the 12-inch MacBook. This will likely trigger a love / hate reaction from most users, however thankfully I really like it. The keyboard feels like a logical progression over the 12-inch MacBook, offering the same stability with a little more key travel. My only criticism is the noise levels, which are now noticeably louder than the previous generation MacBook Pro. In most scenarios, this is not a problem, but I often work at night while my wife is asleep. This is no longer a viable option, as the new MacBook Pro can sound like continuous machine-gun fire.
The trackpad remains best in class and a real differentiator when compared with Windows laptops. It is much larger than the previous generation MacBook Pro, which does initially look a little ridiculous, but I quickly adapted and have grown to prefer the greater surface area. I have also not experienced any issues with accidental swipes or clicks, which would have been a deal breaker.
The Touch Bar is the most obvious and widely discussed new feature. In short, it is a small OLED touch screen that adapts based on the specific application in use. I can’t fault the hardware implementation, as the Touch Bar looks and feels great, however with minimal software support it currently feels horribly underutilised. I am confident this will change over time, but even then, I am yet to be convinced that this is a useful new input paradigm. For example, the advantage of a keyboard is that the keys are consistent, meaning that I can interact with them, without ever shifting my focus from the display. This is not the case with the Touch Bar, as it constantly changes depending on the specific application. As a result, to utilise the Touch Bar I must shift my focus from the display to the Touch Bar itself, which can result in a loss of productivity. This is different with an actual touch screen, as you directly interact with the display, therefore retaining focus.
Although far from useful, the developer community has had some fun with the Touch Bar, releasing a number of small standalone applications (Knight Touch Bar 2000 and Touch Bar Piano being my favourites).
Finally, the Touch Bar includes Touch ID, which is arguably the most important new feature. As you would expect, it works exactly like an iOS device and I’m personally pleased to see the technology come to the Mac.
When reviewing the architecture decisions made by Apple, it feels like the new MacBook Pro has been designed with a focus on energy efficiency over raw performance. As a result, I fully expected great battery life!
Unfortunately, I would describe the new MacBook Pro battery life as average. It is not bad, but certainly not as good as the previous generation MacBook Pro. Depending on the specific activity, I have been getting between six and eight hours, but certainly not the advertised ten hours.
It is possible that battery life will be improved through software optimisation (macOS v10.12.2 has just been released), but right now it is disappointing.
Overall I believe the new MacBook Pro is a solid upgrade. It brings a more refined build quality, better performance and a few new tricks (Touch Bar, Touch ID, etc.)
I am not yet sold on the value of the Touch Bar, but maybe this will change over time (especially as more developers start to take advantage of it).
My only real disappointment is battery life, which due to the architecture decisions made by Apple, I would have expected to be better (at least hit the advertised ten hours). I live in hope that this will be improved through software optimisation, otherwise I’ll be sure to always keep my charger handy.
Finally, it is important to mention price. The specification I purchased cost close to £3000, which also required me to buy new cables, etc. This is a lot of money, even for a notebook of this quality. Personally, it feels to much, especially when compared to Windows laptops with a similar specification (you can buy a 15-inch Dell XPS for under £2000). In my opinion the new MacBook Pro is probably £500 overpriced, even when you include the normal “Apple Tax”.