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Pros and cons of the MacBook Pro 2016 with Touch Bar

Written by  Mar 05, 2017
Apple's latest releases in its much beloved MacBook Pro lineup has received a lot of attention and mixed reviews.

Some people have praised the MacBook Pro 2016 with Touch Bar's lightweight form factor and brilliant screen. Other users have cursed its adoption of USB-C ports as the device's sole means of connectivity and bemoaned the "dongle purgatory" that has resulted in users carrying adapters for their favorite cables in order to continue to use those cables with the new machine.

So, is the device a worthy successor to the established MacBook Pro line, or is it a case of style over substance?

I could not get a conclusive answer, and since I was in severe need of an upgrade from my trusty 2009 MacBook Pro 15", I decided to put my money where my mouth is and purchase and use a new MacBook Pro 13" with Touch Bar and determine whether the device is worthy of the hype.

I bought the device for real-world use and not in a controlled lab environment. I used the MacBook Pro to complete network administrator tasks on multiple networks (wired and wireless), send/receive emails, navigate the internet, work on web development projects, write this article, watch movies, and manage my audio collection

Now, let's find out how it fared.

macbook-pro-with-touch-bar-13-inch-2016-17

Hardware

What's not to love with this or any of Apple's computing devices? With a mix of glass and metal paired with a gorgeous screen all packed together in a very sturdy, lightweight frame, this is Apple's finest looking laptop and arguably among the finer looking mobile computers currently available.

The device's size and weight are spot-on. The device is light enough at 3 lbs. to be carried anywhere, but it's not so small that Apple skimped on the size of the keyboard or screen, delivering a superbly light yet agile piece of hardware.

The screen is vibrant and the colors pop, making anything you're doing on this device a pleasure to view. After using a non-Retina model machine, the screen was doubly impressive—it is breathtaking seeing the images onscreen with its high-res and incredible PPI.

The revised keyboard featuring the 2nd-generation butterfly mechanism design brings a hearty clickety-clack feedback when typing. The keys provide just the right amount of response, making it a dream for touch typers such as myself. Apple increased the size of the keys by making them less chiclet style, and I'm still adjusting to that change—once in a while I bang on the wrong key.

There's one word to describe the new, larger touchpad: awesome! I'm a huge fan of the touchpad, as there is a lot functionality that can be implemented into it. At the very least, those of us with larger hands can benefit from the increased real estate with which we can work.

Even though Force Touch was introduced in the previous model, it is new to me on a laptop and, frankly, I'm not sold. Although it functions when I want it to, it is often triggered even when I don't want it to, leading to a function being performed other than the input I am requesting. It's annoying at times, and I will probably turn it off.

Apple MacBook Pro 13-inch Laptop with Touch Bar (Intel Core i5, 8 GB RAM, 256 GB SSD, Intel Iris Graphics 550, OS X 10.12 Sierra) - Space Grey - 2016 - MLH12B/A - UK Keyboard

Performance

The new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar uses Intel's 6th-generation Core i5 and i7 processors. These new CPUs come with support for DDR3 and DDR4 RAM (except in low-power CPUs like the energy-efficient ones Apple uses), Thunderbolt 3.0, and Iris graphics, to name a few of the new technologies.

In terms of clock speed, the new processors blow away my previous Core 2 Duo and pretty much obliterate the MacBook Retina and MacBook Air offerings. When compared to my wife's 2014 MacBook Pro 13" Retina, there's minimal speed difference.

The RAM offerings this time around are just like the recent models; memory is soldered on the logic board, so buy the max that you'll need because there's no way to upgrade. The tight integration of components makes for a much faster system when compared to other laptops. Even newer releases, such as the entry-level model Microsoft Surface Pro 4, can't keep up with the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar in benchmarks.

Apple dropped the ball by keeping the maximum supported RAM capped at 16 GB and opting to stick with DDR3-LP memory instead of choosing DDR4; the latter would've allowed it to scale the max. RAM supported to 32 GB, edging out the competition while fundamentally extending the longevity of the new MacBook Pros.

Battery life

Battery life is one of the three major points of contention amongst fans and critics. The battery life appears to have remained the same according to the technical specifications, boasting 10 hours of usage, and yet concerns have run rampant about battery life issues preventing it from ever reaching its theoretical estimate.

So which is it: erratic behavior on the part of the hardware, or end users trusting the estimated battery life information from macOS? In my experience, it seems to be a bit of both. Let me explain.

I have noticed odd behavior when doing something as benign as surfing the internet. I may start off with 85% battery life and, about 45 minutes later, it's down to 67% or so. I do not have the brightness cranked to 100%, nor am I using Chrome or Firefox, or have the Adobe Flash plug-in installed, all of which are energy hogs. However, at other times, I may be running multiple multitasking applications, transferring large files over the wireless network, and watching HD videos on YouTube, and the battery life may only go down 10%, if that.

I am pleased to report that the mysterious power drain is the exception and not the rule. I feel like some of it may have to do superficially with how the device and macOS integrate. This isn't too big of a concern, as issues tend to get stamped out in forthcoming updates as the OS matures and the code is optimized to work better with the hardware.

MacBook Pro-16

Touch Bar

The second sticking point and also the most sought after feature is the Touch Bar, which adds an OLED screen atop the keyboard to handle dynamic changes to the function keys, extending capabilities based on the application currently being used.

Prior to owning this laptop, my brief tests of the Touch Bar made me think it was gimmicky, though there was a slight possibility for future implementation. After using the laptop for 30 days, I still think Touch Bar is gimmicky, but I have found quite a few customizations for it that add simplicity to everyday use.

The problem I find is that it is largely reliant on app developers to implement Touch Bar integration in a creative, time-saving manner as opposed to a regurgitation of an existing keyboard shortcut. For example, bringing up a Finder window and clicking once on a file to highlight it, then pressing the Quick Look button on the Touch Bar will zoom into that file in an overlay window to allow for a better look vs. pressing the space bar once, which effectively produces the exact same result without having me lift my hand from the keyboard. While this may seem insignificant to some users, this break in productivity makes me not want to utilize this feature since there's no time savings or real benefit to using it.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, not add to the complication. This is why how Touch Bar support is added is just as important as it being added in the first place. Take, for example, the much touted support included in the Photos app. When running your finger across the strip, scrolling between hundreds of photographs feels as smooth as if you're only scrolling between a dozen apps; this granular support works quickly and efficiently, and it's extremely well thought out.

One very special welcome addition is the Touch ID integrated into the Touch Bar. Words cannot do it justice. It's great to unlock a computer, sign in to a website, or even use Apple Pay just by pressing your finger on the sensor.

Connectivity

The third and most heavily criticized aspect of the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is Apple's decision to go with USB-C ports only, instead of offering a mix of common port types like those found in just about every MacBook Pro since the devices were called PowerBooks.

Included with the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is an Airport Extreme card that provides A/B/G/N/AC-spec. wireless internet access and simultaneously supports Bluetooth 4.2. Also, let's not forget that a 3.5" audio-out headphone jack is included.

Going back to the contentious USB-C ports: At first, I was not too happy that this was the only form of connecting peripherals to the laptop. This presented me (and everyone that purchases this laptop) with only three plausible options:

  1. Buy new equipment that natively supports the USB-C standard.
  2. Buy new cable types that terminate one end as USB-C to continue using existing equipment.
  3. Buy adapters that allow you to continue using your existing cables.

You're probably going to have to spend some extra money to get peripheral devices working with the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar. Buying new equipment is largely a huge waste if the equipment you currently own works well and is supported by macOS. Buying new cables may be overkill, since there are dongles that will change the gender to the correct type, and, sometimes the adapters cost as much if not more so than a new cable. I'm not thrilled by the port changes, but it's not the deal-breaker that it has been painted to be, especially when you consider that all mobile devices are moving to this de facto standard. It's not a question of if but rather when all other manufacturers make the same changes. At least Apple included four of these high-speed ports.

This change has given rise to multi-port devices, such as USB flash drives that sport both a traditional USB 3.0 Type-A connector and a USB 3.1 Type-C connector. Not only is it future proof, but I was able to pick up a major brand 128 GB flash drive on Amazon for less than what many of the traditional USB flash drives would cost me, plus the USB-C adapter.

I decided to buy two USB-C adapters because they were a great deal, and because you never know when you're going to need one or both. Plus, I'm more about performance than anything else, so until I replace cables and external HDDs with new, USB 3.1 Type-C native ones that provide 10Gbps throughout vs. the USB 3.0 Type-A that cap out at 5Gbps speeds, I can continue to get my work done without worrying about running out of connectors.

The bottom line

  • The new MacBook Pro is too similar to the 2014-2015 MacBook Pro Retina in all but weight to recommend it as an upgrade for anyone looking to trade up from a modern MacBook Pro.
  • The Touch Bar is a technological advance, but its potential is directly tied to software developers including proper support.
  • "Dongle hell" is very real—be prepared to buy new cables and/or adapters to convert to the USB-C connector. But, the USB 3.1 speeds are incredible.
  • Integrated SSD speeds are lightning fast and better than most after-market drives commercially available.
  • It offers fast, reliable performance at only 3 lbs.
  • Touch ID is ingenious! Now there's never any reason to not secure your computer, files, and accounts.

Despite a few issues as they pertain to my needs, I liked the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar a lot more than I anticipated. I'm sure upgrading from a 2009 MacBook Pro had something to do with it, but I come across all sorts of powerful and not-so-powerful machines everyday because of my work as a systems admin, not to mention that I own a few other modern Macs, including the aforementioned 2014 MacBook Pro and 2011 iMac that is maxed out hardware-wise.

I love my new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar and don't regret for a minute my upgrade purchase.

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