The main reason I’ve adopted this Diary format for reviewing Apple kit is that first impressions can be misleading. The iPad, for example, launched to very mixed reviews. I won’t embarrass my fellow tech writers by naming names, but the Guardian did a round-up at the time.
Then there’s my own Apple Watch experience. Going from clear smartwatch skeptic – wondering why anyone would want one – to a complete convert. With the new MacBook Pro, my impressions from the keynote were that I would like it but not love it.
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.
It turns out I was wrong …
Not in a dramatic way. It hasn’t been an ‘oh my god, why didn’t I see this before?’ experience. But, slowly, quietly, I have come to absolutely love this machine.
Given that my verdict on the machine is very much a ‘sum of the parts’ one, rather than a single standout feature, I’ll start by talking through the specifics before summing-up with why the combination of those has turned me into a big fan.
I also won’t repeat comments I made last time, so I’d suggest reading my previous diary piece first if you haven’t yet done so.
I’m coming from a 17-inch ‘classic’ MacBook Pro, so the difference in form-factor for me is dramatic. My 17-inch machine literally travelled around the world with me, but I didn’t generally carry it with me in London – I used an 11-inch MacBook Air as my main mobile writing machine.
But even the 15-inch version of the new model is so compact and light, I decided to try taking this with me instead, and it worked absolutely fine. It is heavier, at 4lb rather than 2.4lb, but that difference is one I can live with. Size-wise, it fits comfortably into my bicycle bag.
I probably won’t actually sell the Air – it’s always good to have a backup machine when you depend on a Mac to earn a living – but I am, for all practical purposes, now a one-Mac person.
As with iOS devices, this is a small feature that makes a big difference. I’ve been doing some side-by-side comparisons with old Mac, and every time I have to enter my password to unlock it, it feels like a chore.
A UBS analyst recently suggested that Apple launched the Watch without a clear idea of the job it was meant to perform. The company initially pushed notifications and communicating with friends, then retrospectively re-invented it as a health & fitness device when that seemed to get more traction.
I did initially wonder whether Apple had done the same thing with the Touch Bar: invented a cool piece of tech and then tried to figure out what it’s for. That impression wasn’t helped by me considering that many of its uses were either gimmicks – like auto-correct (pointless as you’re looking at the screen, not the keyboard, while typing) – or downright silly, like microscopic Safari or photo thumbnails.
However, glitches aside, I haven’t yet found any downside. And there are a few things I like about it. None of them are big deals. In fact, individually, they are all really trivial, but they do add up to a feature which is beginning to make sense to me.
I mentioned the volume slider before. This is a tiny feature, but it is, all the same, a delight to use. It allows you to set the speaker sound both easily and precisely.
The dedicated Siri button is another tiny feature, but as someone who uses Siri a lot, I appreciate the convenience. And some apps also use the Touch Bar in sensible ways. Calculator, for example.
The Touch Bar puts the operations keys directly above the numbers, making it far more convenient than the usual hard keys scattered around the keyboard, plus the need to use the shift key. It’s still not as convenient as a numeric keypad, of course, but it’s a big step in that direction without the need for any additional hardware keys.
There are other cases where I couldn’t initially see any point to the Touch Bar replicating on-screen content, but it has actually turned out to be slightly more convenient.
Ending a FaceTime call, for example. When you’re chatting with someone, the chances are you’re not actively using the Mac at the same time, so just to be able to reach forward to tap a very visible End button afterwards is just a bit quicker and more convenient than using the trackpad. Sure, this is utterly trivial, but when enough of these tiny conveniences add up, it turns into something worthwhile.
It was bugging me that I didn’t have permanent access to music controls, but some experimentation revealed a useful setting. I never use actual function keys as in F1, F2, etc, so I set the fn key to ‘Expand Control Strip’ – now the music controls are always just a keypress away. (System Preferences > Keyboard.)
So now, holding down the fn key reveals the music controls. However, I have noticed that they don’t always work when focus is not on iTunes – hopefully a glitch that will be quickly resolved.
Some have expressed concern about the loss of a hardware Escape key. I’m not a coder (my own programming skills didn’t get any further than Basic and Pascal), so I can’t comment from a developer perspective, but from an everyday usage point of view, I haven’t ever found it an issue.
The Touch Bar does time-out when you’re not actively using the Mac, such as when watching a movie, but even when it’s not lit it is still functional, so pressing the left-hand edge of the bar will still exit full-screen viewing instantly. You don’t have to touch the bar once to light it and again to press a key, and the Escape key location is a sufficiently large touch target that I’ve been able to reliably hit it.
So, in summary, my view is that – while the Touch Bar is being used in some gimmicky and downright stupid ways – it is a useful feature in some ways, and I think it will become more useful as more apps support it. I don’t love it, but I do like it, and expect to like it more.
I said last time that the second-generation butterfly keyboard immediately felt good, though my accuracy was slightly poorer. I think the reason for this is two-fold.
First, the gaps between the keys are slightly smaller than before. Second, the butterfly mechanism means that a keypress is registered even if you only hit the very edge of the key. This is a positive in some ways, but a negative in others – the older keyboard typically didn’t register a glancing strike.
But my overall verdict is that this is an utterly fantastic keyboard! Back in the day, I used to love mechanical keyboards. This one couldn’t be more different to those: where they had huge key travel, this one has almost none. And yet, what it does have in common with those, is a really positive, clicky feel. You are in no doubt when a key has been pressed.
It seems to me that this provides the best of both worlds: the slim nature of a chicklet keyboard with the positive feel of a deep one. Of all the keyboards I’ve used of late – the ‘classic’ MacBook Pro, the previous MacBook Air and the Magic Keyboard – the 2016 MacBook Pro keyboard is by far my favourite. I really love it.
I said last time that, once I had everything set up, the switch to all-USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports wasn’t likely to prove a big deal to me, and that has indeed proven the case. In the office, I have the power brick and Apple Thunderbolt Display connected (via an adapter), and everything else is plugged into the monitor exactly as before.
In the living-room, I have another power brick and USB speakers (via an adapter). On the move, I carry this tiny $45 Satechi pass-thru hub.
You can put me firmly into the ‘much ado about nothing’ camp.
This, so far, is my one significant complaint about the machine.
In a test with only the apps I was actively using open, and working three notches down from maximum brightness, I got 6h 3m from 100% to 3%. That’s obviously very disappointing in a brand-new machine when compared to Apple’s claimed 10 hours – not just in terms of the machine not being able to make it through a full day’s work on battery, but also because Apple didn’t used to mislead people like that.
My rule of thumb for manufacturer battery-life claims has always been to divide them by two. Manufacturers tend to use highly unrealistic settings – low screen brightness, continuous use, super-strong WiFi signal, one app open and so on. But Apple used to stand out as a company which didn’t play those sorts of games. With the iPad, it still doesn’t – I have always genuinely got 10 hours plus from my iPads.
Six hours isn’t terrible: it’s more than enough for me most of the time. What’s terrible is delivering six hours when you’ve promised ten. Sure, battery-life will vary depending on usage patterns, but looking around, 5-7 hours seems to be entirely typical – though a few reviewers are, somehow, getting closer to ten, and a few are reporting as little as three.
As an aside on battery-life, you could argue I’m wrong about the Touch Bar having no downsides – it does obviously consume some power – but OLED is more power-efficient than LCD, and it switches off when you’re not actively using the machine, so really it’s going to be the equivalent of the screen size being a tiny bit larger. The hit on battery life is probably of the order of 1-2%.
You may have noticed that I haven’t commented on the machine’s performance, and that’s simply because I haven’t yet used it for many demanding tasks. Video editing in Final Cut Pro will be my real test, so I’ll report back on that in a week or two.
There is no single stand-out feature for me in the 2016 MacBook Pro. What there is instead is a whole bunch of features, some smaller, some bigger, that add up to a machine that I have quickly grown to love.
It’s beautiful. It’s extremely compact for the screen size. It’s slim. It’s light. It has Touch ID. The Touch Bar is starting to make its benefits felt. The screen quality is jaw-dropping. The speakers are loud. The vast trackpad is great. The keyboard is utterly fantastic. I’m adapting to the (for me) smaller screen faster than I thought I would.
What makes me love the machine is the way that the complete package adds up. Each individual benefit a nice-to-have, but put them all together and you get a machine which is just a joy to use.
My initial assessment, then, was half-right: the machine still doesn’t wow me – there isn’t any one individual feature that is sufficiently impressive to do that – but I do, in fact, love it.
As always, let us know in the comments how you’re getting on with yours.
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