So, the wait is over and the new MacBook Pro is official. I said yesterday that what we knew then didn’t seem quite enough to justify the ‘hello again’ hype, and I hoped there might be a ‘one more thing’ feature we hadn’t heard about. Alas, there wasn’t.
I also held out just a tiny hope that perhaps the leaked image was a placeholder, and the bezels would be thinner in the real thing. That too wasn’t to be.
However, my late-2011 17-inch MacBook Pro was looking a little long in the tooth despite all its upgrades. The lack of Bluetooth LE, for example, meant no AirDrop and no Apple Watch unlock. Nothing major, and if I didn’t write about Apple stuff for a living I might have held out another year, but I decided I really ought to have the latest and greatest machine even if if didn’t wow me.
And, to be honest, the new MacBook Pro doesn’t …
Don’t misunderstand me: it looks like a very nice machine. I’m fully expecting to enjoy the smaller form factor and the new features – even if I will really miss the larger screen – but I’m not expecting to love it. It doesn’t excite me the way I feel that a new generation ought to after four years of more-or-less stagnation.
Let’s start with the form-factor. It’s a little lighter, but – in the case of the 15-inch – only down from 4.5 pounds to 4 pounds. It’s 14% thinner with 20% less volume. I get Apple’s excitement at the technical achievement these things represent, but I don’t think it’s a big deal from a user perspective. It’s nothing that I expect to have any great impact either while carrying it or using it. At best, it’s marginally more convenient to use on the seat-back table on a plane.
Then there are the two new headline features: Touch ID and the Touch Bar. Whenever Apple announces features we already knew were coming, I try to imagine how impressed I would have been if they had been a surprise. In this case, I don’t think my reaction would have been too different.
I really welcome Touch ID. It’s one of those small things that actually makes quite a big difference, as anyone who has switched to an iPhone or iPad with Touch ID will fully appreciate. Especially if you need to login multiple times a day, it really is a relief to just touch your finger to the pad rather than having to enter a passcode. But by this stage, I would have been utterly astonished had Apple not added it to the latest Macs, so it was more of a tickbox item than a wow.
Which brings us to the Touch Bar. We already knew this would replace the function keys, and we were fairly sure it would be customizable by apps, but what Apple showed off did go a little further than I expected. Things like swiping through content and – especially – multi-touch in conjunction with the trackpad went above and beyond what I was expecting. From a gadget perspective, it’s impressive.
However, some of the demos Apple gave seemed to be rather silly. Why on earth would I want to swipe through microscopic photo thumbnails on a tiny strip that I’m covering with my fingers when I could be doing the same thing in a decent size on that lovely display without obscuring anything? The video timeline example struck me as even more ridiculous.
I’m also not terribly convinced about the idea of using them for toolbars. Again, the screen and trackpad seem a more natural way to do things than to be moving my hand back-and-forth between two different touch surfaces and my eyes up-and-down between the Touch Bar and the screen.
But I’ve been wrong before, and I’m quite prepared to be proven wrong again. Perhaps, like the Apple Watch, it will demonstrate its value when I actually use it.
In the meantime, before I get my hands on one, here are the things I do like about the Touch Bar …
First, user-customizable function keys. I like that idea a lot, especially for system functions. I never use the Mission Control or Launchpad function keys, finding it far more convenient to use trackpad gestures for the rare occasions that I use either feature, so I have two completely wasted function keys. Being able to assign more useful functions to those keys will be very handy.
Second, I like the idea of swiping for brightness and volume adjustments – that seems to me a much smoother and more intuitive UI than repeatedly pressing a button.
Third, the idea of two-handed multi-touch gestures using both trackpad and Touch Bar struck me as having a lot of potential in pro apps especially. I’m not sure how many applications there will be for that concept, but I do consider it an interesting innovation.
Think of trackpad gestures. Those could have been a gimmick, but in fact they are phenomenally useful. I use them all the time, and they massively speed up a whole range of tasks. My guess is that two-handed gestures could be just as revolutionary in time.
I was very happy to see a 2TB SSD option – albeit at a completely eye-watering price! More on that topic shortly …
As someone who comes from a background of frequent travel, I’ve always liked to have all my documents and photos with me wherever I go, which means a decent amount of on-board storage. Sure, I could use external drives, but those are a clunky solution.
I don’t travel very much these days, but I’m very used to the convenience of knowing that everything I might need is always on-board my 2TB Mac. I wasn’t too confident that Apple would offer a 2TB option, so I’ve been offloading files in readiness, and managed to get things down to 800GB. But I typically keep a Mac for four years, so I want plenty of breathing-room – and in the age of 4K video, 1TB seemed to be far too tight for comfort.
The super-large trackpad looks great! I’ve always been a trackpad rather than a mouse guy, right from the very first time I used one, so the ability to drag across a much wider area will be lovely.
As for the keyboard, I’ll of course need to reserve judgement until I’ve used it. From the keynote, it sounds like the key travel will be somewhere between the 12-inch MacBook and the Magic Keyboard.
Based on extremely limited use, I’m not a fan of the ultra-short-travel MacBook keyboard, but I’m pretty adaptable where keyboards are concerned. I started out as a fan of really long-travel mechanical keyboards, adapted very quickly to the original Apple chiclet keyboard and have grown to really like the Magic Keyboard. So whatever the travel, I’m sure I’ll soon get used to it.
I’m pretty relaxed about the all-USB-C ports. Leaving older standards behind always involves a certain amount of pain, but I’m a pragmatist and a gadget guy. When a better standard comes along, it makes sense to use it, and as Apple isn’t the only company going all-in on USB-C, there’s no shortage of accessories for the new standard.
You could argue that a mix of ports would be useful, but that would be true for maybe the first year of ownership. After that, we’d be moaning about the fact that we have only two USB-C ports because there’s space taken up with those huge, ugly, old-fashioned USB-A ones. I think Apple made the right call here.
Yes, it will be a bit of a nuisance given the number of USB-A peripherals I have, but in the office I’ll use a dock and at worst I’ll have to use an adapter on the move. Going forward, I’ll be buying USB-C devices.
I am sad to be losing MagSafe, but I’ve been expecting that. I’ll be trying the Griffin Breaksafe which Chance reviewed earlier this year. On the plus side, I’m really happy to be able to choose to connect power on either left or right sides of the machine: there have been times in coffee shops and hotels where I’ve had to route cables awkwardly because the mains socket was on one side and the power input on the other.
Which brings us to the price. Woah! There’s quite a bump in price in the States, but for us Brits the exchange rate – aka the Brexit tax – has kicked in big time. When you factor out the 20% sales tax applied in the UK, our prices are roughly the same as the US ones, but the fall in the value of the pound means we’re paying about 17% more than we would have been prior to the Brexit referendum.
I’ve always had a very simple philosophy when it comes to buying MacBook Pros: max out the machine in every way possible. I have two arguments for that. First, it maximizes the longevity of the machine, ensuring that it is still performing decently for years to come. As someone who typically keeps a Mac for 4-5 years, that really pays dividends.
Second, a maxed-out machine today is still a respectable spec 4-5 years from now, so has a decent resale value when it’s time for the next one. I’ll typically be able to sell it for a third of the purchase price.
But this time, I really hesitated. The base price was already expensive. I really wanted that 2TB SSD, which added a huge amount to the price. By that time I was looking at the minor CPU bump offered as an option to the higher-spec model and wondering whether it was justified. Then I saw there was a GPU upgrade on offer too. Not an expensive one at all (just £80/$100 from the upper-spec model), but it was all adding up to a frightening sum of money. Surprisingly, Apple was leaving money on the table by not offering the option of 32GB RAM. By the time I’d said yes to all the options, the total was coming out at £4,049 ($4,925)!
And that wasn’t quite all. Because the new model is USB-C only, I was going to need USB and Thunderbolt adapters, as well as a USB-C to Lightning cable. So the grand total was £4,124 ($5,016). Five grand on a laptop!
It just seemed too crazy a sum of money. For the first time ever, I was about to abandon my maxing-out policy. The 2TB SSD was non-negotiable, as I knew I’d just get frustrated well within the lifetime of the machine by constantly having to offload things onto external drives. So I deselected the CPU and GPU upgrades.
But it was still a terrifying total. So I sat and thought about it for a few minutes. In the end, I decided that I was going to be laying out a huge chunk of cash either way. I could either do so knowing that I had the absolutely top-spec machine available, or spend what was proportionately only a little less money and then wonder if I was, to use an old English expression, ‘spoiling the ship for a ha’p’orth of tar.’ In other words, whether I’d be kicking myself in a year or two’s time that I’d sacrificed performance and longevity for a relatively small saving.
Plus it’s the machine on which I earn my living, write my books, process photos, edit videos, listen to music … when I think about all the roles it performs, it is far and away the most important possession I own after my home.
I don’t spend large sums of money very often. I buy high-quality things and keep them for a long time. My car is 16 years old, for example, and my hifi even older than that (albeit with a DIY AirPlay upgrade).
So I decided to bite the bullet: I re-selected the upgrades.
Setting aside the shiny new features, and closing my eyes to the price, that’s one heck of a machine!
So now I just have to wait impatiently for it to arrive. I will, in the meantime, go play with one in an Apple Store so that I can see how the keyboard feels and what the Touch Bar is like in use. I’ll post an update on my first impressions once I’ve done so. And if you happen to run into me in the meantime, brother could you spare a dime for a cup of tea?