Apple's new MacBook Pro is the first significant upgrade to the creative professional's go-to laptop in years. It adds the first touchscreen that any Mac has had, updates to new(er) Intel processors and AMD graphics, and makes a swathe of behind-the-scenes usability changes. It's the sum total of those small changes, though — not the new processing power or the not-exactly-amazing battery life — that make the new MacBook Pro a worthwhile purchase if you're considering one.
What Is It?
The late-2016-into-2017 Apple MacBook Pro is the first design refresh in four years for the most powerful portable notebook that Apple currently produces. It's thinner and lighter than the now very outdated MacBook Air, aggressively abandons old connection standards in favour of USB Type-C across the board, and upgrades to a brighter and more colourful display and a much, much larger Force Touch trackpad. And, of course, it runs macOS.
You're able to buy a MacBook Pro from a starting price of $2199 in Australia for an entry-level 13-inch model, which you can spec up to $2999 for the top 13-inch or as much as $4249 for the best possible 15-inch variant. That $2199 won't get you the new MacBook Pro's most talked-about feature, though; the cheapest Touch Bar-enabled MBP is $2699 in Oz. 13-inch models get a Core i5 CPU and 256GB or 512GB SSD as default, while the 15-inchers have Core i7s; you can spec any machine up to an i7 and larger SSD, though, although the best processors and 2TB SSDs are restricted to 15-inch only.
The Touch Bar is an interesting compromise between a touchscreen laptop display — as seen on Apple's direct competitor from Microsoft, the Surface Book — and good ol' fashioned keyboard buttons. It replaces the old row of 12 function keys on the previous MacBook Pro with a fully customisable, touch-sensitive OLED panel with TouchID. It's still an interesting move by Apple not to make the Pro laptop touch-enabled across its entire screen, but that's a move that would require significant work on its macOS operating system as well as on the hardware level.
Those USB-C ports are all multipurpose, too — you can use them all for charging, for data, or video, or any other transfer standard that USB-C supports, as long as you have the right cable or a dongle. Apple claims up to 10 hours of battery life from all of the different MacBook Pro 13- and 15-inch models in its regular wireless web browsing tests, but it's worth noting that the new 87-Watt power adapter that connects over USB-C will charge the laptop much faster than its predecessor. I'll go into detail on my varied experiences of the MacBook Pro's off-charger battery life performance later on, but I will say now that when you visit a charger to top up you'll get plenty of battery reserve back very quickly.
What's It Good At?
The biggest and most important updates to the new MacBook Pro, I think, aren't under the hood: they're on the outside. Most obvious is the noticeable improvement in usability that the new MacBook Pro's keyboard and trackpad bring. It's absolutely true that there's a not-exactly-shallow learning curve to using the Pro's incredibly short-travel keyboard, which it has inherited from the 12-inch retina MacBook, but once you're used to the key positioning, it's a joy to use. I can blast through emails and longer articles — like this review — at a greater speed and with greater accuracy on the MacBook Pro's keyboard than on the Logitech mechanical keyboard that I use on my desktop PC daily.
The Touch Bar is an interesting development, and while it definitely feels like a first-generation device — it's not incredibly high resolution, it doesn't have bespoke controls in every app — it's also a very very smart idea. Having a fully customisable panel in front of your fingerprints means keyboard autocomplete and autocorrect is instantly as easy as it is on an iPhone, choosing an emoji from the list that pops up is simple, and apps like Photoshop that have integrated Touch Bar support do it very well. Being able to choose a colour by swiping your finger across the panel is a quantum leap over a keyboard. And the larger trackpad is equally as important. It's massive, and that helps a lot for general navigation around MacOS as well as gestures like pinching and zooming around apps like Maps.
The new screen, too, is much brighter, and that's a godsend whenever you're working anywhere that you can't control the lighting within. It's two thirds brighter than the last generation at 500 nits, and that level also means it's one of the brighter easily-portable laptops out there. If you need a notebook that you can work on while you're out in a cafe, while you're sitting outside, while you're travelling on a train or a bus on the way to work in the morning, the MacBook Pro kicks ass. It supports DCI-P3 wide colour and has two thirds more contrast than the last generation, but what you need to know is that it just looks good.
Being smaller and thinner and lighter means that the MacBook Pro — and remember this is a Pro, with a full-fat Intel processor and fast storage and discrete graphics on the 15-inch model, not the lightweight Core M of the 12-inch MacBook — is actually portable. It's the first iteration of the MacBook Pro that I'd actually carry to work and back with me every day, in the same way that I've been doing currently with the Surface Pro 4. You don't make the usual sacrifices of thin and light laptops, either — for example, the MacBook Pro has speakers that don't sound terrible.
What's It Not Good At?
Over the past couple of weeks of road-testing, the battery life of the MacBook Pro has been... mediocre. Not abysmal, but just not particularly impressive. It's understandable, though: the new MacBook Pro has more going on than the old one ever did. A lot of that comes from the extra power required by that massively bright 500-nit screen and the Touch Bar and the better backlighting of the redesigned keyboard, as well as the more powerful processor and new discrete graphics. With the screen at high brightness and wireless working away actively, I've seen battery life in the region of five hours, half of Apple's testing. For what it's worth, recharging that battery with the fast USB-C charger happens quickly.
Apple's timing for the update of the MacBook Pro means that it uses Intel's sixth-generation Skylake mobile processors, rather than the seventh-generation Kaby Lake chips that are starting to appear in competitor notebooks post-CES. That's a pity, because the new chips are both more powerful and more energy-efficient. That doesn't make the MacBook Pro any less good, but it does mean that there will be competing machines from the likes of Razer and Dell and Lenovo that may have superior battery life or more outright grunt.
The switch to Thunderbolt 3 and USB Type-C is a Good Thing, and I won't hear anyone else say otherwise. I'm not blinkered enough to think that it's not going to be a difficult thing, though, for anyone considering an upgrade that still has a legacy device that they need to plug in regularly. Anything with a standard USB connector will need an adapter, any non Thunderbolt 3-compatible monitor will need a converter on its cable. It's possible to upgrade other components of your setup when you buy a new MacBook, but that's just an extra cost to consider.
And it's one small price to pay for the relentless march of technology, but have you noticed that the new MacBook Pro doesn't have that beautiful glowing Apple logo on the top of its lid any more? I miss it.
Should You Buy It?
The new MacBook Pro is, in so many ways, a huge and quantum improvement over its predecessor. It's smaller and thinner and lighter and has a brighter screen and a better keyboard and a bigger trackpad and more powerful processor and you can unlock it with your fingerprint. If you've used a MacBook Pro from the last generation or two generations ago, every one of these improvements should be useful to you in some way.
But the road to the future is paved with difficulties and failures along the way. You have the potential to use the new MacBook Pro's batter faster than you could on the older models. The Touch Bar still feels like a work in progress, and you'll probably have to wait for your favourite Mac app to make the best possible use of it in the months and years to come. You'll need new cables or bulky dongles, for now at least, to use those Thunderbolt 3 ports. It's worth it, but it's not an entirely painless upgrade.