In this 16-inch MacBook Pro review, we discuss Apple’s new top-of-the-line successor to the now discontinued 15-inch model, headlined by its transition away from the maligned butterfly keyboard.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro bears a resemblance to the outgoing version, but along with the keyboard update, there are changes that make this year’s high-end MacBook Pro the most compelling portable Mac computer that Apple has released in years.
We already published our first-look video discussing the new 16-inch MacBook Pro’s top features. Today, after a solid few weeks of usage, we’re publishing our hands-on video review. Be sure to subscribe to 9to5Mac on YouTube for more videos, and read on for the details.
16-inch MacBook Pro review — key specifications
- 16‑inch display
- 3072‑by‑1920 native resolution at 226 pixels per inch
- Refresh rates: 47.95 Hz, 48.00 Hz, 50.00 Hz, 59.94 Hz, 60.00 Hz
- Configurable to 2.4 GHz 8‑core Intel Core i9, Turbo Boost up to 5.0 GHz, with 16 MB shared L3 cache
- Improved cooling system for better performance.
- Up to 8 TB SSD
- Up to 64 GB RAM
- Configurable up to AMD Radeon Pro 5500 M with 8 GB of GDDR6 memory
- High‑fidelity six‑speaker system with force‑canceling woofers
- Improved Magic Keyboard
- Inverted T arrow keys
- Hardware ESC key
- Repositioned Touch Bar
- Built‑in 100‑watt‑hour lithium‑polymer battery
- 11 hours battery life
- Height: 0.64 inch
- Width: 14.09 inches
- Depth: 9.68 inches
- Weight: 4.3 pounds
- Available from Amazon
Video: 16-inch MacBook Pro review
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It is admittedly odd to start off a MacBook Pro review talking about the keyboard, but it’s by far the most anticipated and most needed change in this refresh.
If nothing else about the new MacBook Pro changed besides the keyboard, this would still be a noteworthy update. In a misguided effort to make the previous MacBook Pro as thin as possible, Apple insisted on using an obviously flawed butterfly key switch design.
The problem with the butterfly keyboard is that it clearly demonstrated, in the most damning manner, that Apple sometimes places form above function. There’s no greater example of this flawed mentality than the butterfly keyboard, because Apple willingly made the primary input function on its most popular Mac worse, primarily because of looks.
The terrible butterfly keyboard
The butterfly keyboard was a chore to type on because it felt like your fingertips were crashing into the keys instead of pressing the keys. The sheer lack of discernible key travel was a problem for typists like me from the get-go, and I honestly dreaded having to type on it for long periods of time.
But it was the unreliability of the butterfly keyboard that will slowly lead to its demise across the MacBook product line. It begins with the 16-inch MacBook Pro, and it can’t come to the rest of the lineup fast enough.
Keyboard failure after keyboard failure led to this PR nightmare because of course people are going to be angry and vocal when they spend thousands on a computer and the primary input method doesn’t work properly.
As good as this 16-inch MacBook Pro is, the past three years shouldn’t quickly be forgotten by customers or by Apple internally. There’s no reason why I should be talking about the keyboard on this great laptop. It should always be a foregone conclusion that the MacBook Pro is great to type on. Period.
Related video: 16-inch MacBook Pro top features
With all of that being said, it is good that Apple has addressed the keyboard issue, and I can say with full confidence that it has really fixed the problem this time. It’s completely ditched the butterfly switch mechanism in exchange for tried-and-true scissor switches.
While you won’t confuse the scissor switches on the Magic Keyboard for a mechanical keyboard in terms of key travel and tactile response, compared to the butterfly keyboard, it is a sheer joy to type on.
There is real discernible key travel and depth that makes the 16-inch MacBook Pro easier to type on, which in turn leads to less finger fatigue. And because Apple has pivoted away from the butterfly switch mechanism, the keyboards should be much more reliable, which means less downtime due to repairs.
The new keyboard also heavily benefits from its keys being spaced slightly further apart. Of course, the difference is small, but it makes typing easier with fewer typos along the way.
Not only that, but Apple has reinstated two key features on the 16-inch MacBook Pro that were removed in the 2016 refresh year: a physical ESC key, and the inverted-T arrow keys. Apple could have easily retained the same keyboard layout from the previous MacBook Pro, but I see this change as a way of saying thank you to its customers for having to put up with the ridiculousness of the past three years.
Both of these changes make the MacBook Pro keyboard easier to type on and navigate with. The ESC key is especially handy for programmers, and the inverted-T arrow keys are useful for everyone because it makes the keys much easier to identify without having to look down at the keyboard.
Even the Touch Bar, which I’ve been a vocal critic about, is much less offensive on this keyboard, as it’s been slightly moved up to prevent accidental touches. That, coupled with the presence of a physical ESC key, means that the Touch Bar is no longer caught in the crossfire primarily aimed at our dislike of the keyboard as a whole.
Apple even adopted the only two good qualities of the butterfly keyboard and integrated them into the new keyboard.
There’s the evenly lit backlight, which is the result of having a dedicated LED under each key. It makes the keyboard look more premium in low light settings, as it eliminates the backlight bleed that lesser keyboards are subjected to.
Then there’s the increased key stability, which means that you can press a key off-axis, and still have the key fire as if you pressed it dead in the center.
Those two features are things that I liked about the butterfly keyboard, so it’s nice to see that Apple didn’t get rid of them as it distances itself from past mistakes.
Outside of the keyboard, the next biggest visual difference between the previous MacBook Pro and this latest model is the screen size. The 16-inch display on the new MacBook Pro, while not a huge difference in size compared with its 15.4-inch predecessor, comes with a slightly higher native resolution. The new MacBook Pro features a native resolution of 3072‑by‑1920 at 226 pixels per inch, while the previous 15.4-inch MacBook Pro comes with a 2880-by-1880 at 220 pixel-per-inch native resolution.
The updates result in a 1792-by-1120 effective resolution when running in default retina mode, affording users with a bit more screen real estate than the 1680-by-1050 default resolution on the previous 15-inch MacBook Pro.
The thing about the default non-native retina resolutions on Apple’s MacBook lineup is that they aren’t true 2:1 ratios, which means that text isn’t as crisp as it could be at a legitimate pixel-doubled resolution. Users have the ability to venture into System Preferences > Displays and change from the default resolution to the real pixel-doubled 1536-by-960 resolution for crisper on-screen assets, but you’ll lose real estate in the process.
The solution to this issue would be for Apple to produce a 3584-by-2240 native resolution display, which would result in the current 1792-by-1120 default resolution being a true 2:1 native retina resolution.
Support for different refresh rates
For the first time, the internal display on the MacBook Pro supports several non-integer frame rates. These rates can be adjusted directly from System Preferences > Display. The available refresh rates are as follows: 47.95 Hz, 48.00 Hz, 50.00 Hz, 59.94 Hz, and the standard 60.00 Hz.
These new refresh rates allow the MacBook Pro to match standard production frame rates found on external displays when halved. For example, 47.95 Hz/2 = 23.97, 48 Hz/2 = 24, 50 Hz/2 = 25 and 59.94 Hz/2 = 29.97. Why is this useful? Allan Tépper over at ProVideo Coalition explains it better than I ever could:
Before adding this non-integer framerate capability, macOS video editors who had non-integer projects who owned and desired to connect a multi-standard HDTV set, DreamColor or other high-end evaluation display were forced to purchase an interface from a company like AJA, Blackmagic, Matrox. Those interfaces exist both as PCI (PCIe) cards as well as boxes which have their own video clock, independent of the computer’s video clock.
To be clear, these refresh rates aren’t dynamic, as they must be adjusted by the user where desired. The MacBook Pro also doesn’t support refresh rates higher than 60 Hz like the ProMotion display on the iPad Pro. But the fact that Apple is even giving users options to change the refresh rate might signify that it’s looking to make more changes in that direction in the future.
Design and build
Design-wise, the 16-inch MacBook Pro looks virtually indistinguishable from the outgoing 15-inch model. The same two space gray and silver finishes are available, along with the same chassis design, trackpad, and I/O ports.
You’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two machines just from a brief glance, but there are differences when it comes to weight and size.
|15-inch MacBook Pro||16-inch MacBook Pro|
|Height||0.61 inch||0.64 inch|
|Width||13.75 inches||14.09 inches|
|Depth||9.48 inches||9.68 inches|
|Weight||4.02 pounds||4.3 pounds|
As you can see, the new MacBook Pro is just barely thicker by 0.03 inches, and 0.28 pounds heavier. The larger screen size also means that the 16-inch MacBook Pro is 0.34 inches wider, and 0.20 inches longer.
Those aren’t very substantial numbers on paper, but it may be noticeable when carrying the device for an extended period of time, or when fitting it in a bag. It also means that enclosures that worked with the 15.4-inch model may not work with the 16-inch model.
Unlike most MacBook Pro refreshes, the CPU did not receive a spec bump when compared to the MacBook Pro models issued earlier this summer. The top of the line CPU configuration, a 2.4 GHz 8-core Intel Core i9 that turbos up to 5.0 GHz, is the same high-end configuration previously available on the 15-inch MacBook Pro that we reviewed earlier this year.
At first glance, that may sound like a disappointment, but it’s what you won’t see on a spec sheet that plays a role in this machine performing better than its predecessors. Apple spent a great deal of time improving the thermal architecture of this machine, ensuring that the airflow and cooling are good enough to reduce CPU throttling.
To be clear, this MacBook Pro, like most laptops, is still susceptible to throttling, but it is less of a hindrance this time around, thanks to a 35% larger heatsink and 28% increased airflow. Apple says that as a result of the gains in cooling capacity, the 16-inch MacBook Pro should be able to deliver up to 12 watts more maximum sustained power. In the end, that means higher sustained performance over a longer period of time, which leads to real-world improvements in CPU-intensive operations.
But it doesn’t just stop with thermal architecture. The GPU has been updated with the AMD 5000M Series, the fastest GPU to ever ship inside an Apple laptop. Even the base model 5300M is over two times faster than the Radeon Pro 560X inside the 15-inch MacBook Pro. In addition, the top-end GPU in the 16-inch MacBook Pro, the AMD 5500M, can be configured with up to 8 GB of GDDR6 memory.
Ungine Heaven benchmarks
The extra video memory affords the ability to execute more complex color grading workflows, for example, which is especially useful for a GPU-intensive application like DaVinci Resolve. The GPU improvements also translate to better gaming performance. You may be able to bypass the need for an external GPU altogether, depending on your particular needs, but for heavy workloads like DaVinci Resolve, an external GPU will still yield noticeable benefits.
For the first time ever, it’s now possible to configure up to 64 GB of RAM in a MacBook Pro. It means more memory for video editing in Final Cut Pro X and music creation in Logic Pro X, more resources for virtual machines, and more memory for running multiple applications simultaneously.
As usual, you’ll have to pay an arm and a leg for the privilege of configuring more memory during Apple’s build-to-order process. 32 GB, which is my recommended sweet spot, will set you back an extra $400, while 64 GB costs $800. When you look at the current price of SODIMM 2666 MHz DDR4 memory modules on Amazon, you can see that Apple’s memory is unsurprisingly overpriced, but there’s little choice in the matter, since Apple solders it down to the logic board.
That all being said, it wasn’t that long ago when 16 GB of memory was the absolute max amount of memory that you could configure in the highest-end MacBooks. Having the ability to configure 64 GB is a win for creative professionals who need the headroom.
8 TB of SSD storage
Apple did right by its 16-inch MacBook Pro customers, and now includes 512 GB of storage in the base model instead of the paltry 256 GB found on the previous entry-level 15-inch model. While the base model now provides enough storage for the average user, the ability to configure up to 8 TB of flash storage is one of the best upgrades found on this machine.
8 TB of flash storage may sound ridiculous, and when looking at the $2,400 upgrade price, it seems even more outlandish, but unlike its memory prices, Apple’s flash storage is actually quite competitive. If you’re a photo or video editor, or anyone who deals with lots of very large files on a regular basis, the 8 TB upgrade may be worth considering.
As someone who works with tons of ultra-high-resolution media on a day-in and day-out basis, having an 8 TB MacBook Pro would provide a big productivity boost to my workflow. No longer would I have to worry about connecting external SSDs to cycle in or cycle out media. This means that I could easily use a single machine for all of my editing needs, and just connect to an external display when in need of extra screen real estate.
Speakers and microphone
This MacBook Pro is hands-down the best sounding laptop I’ve ever heard, although the bar wasn’t all that high to begin with. Laptops don’t have room for large speaker drivers that can move a lot of air, so they generally end up sounding like an afterthought, especially on the low end of the sound spectrum.
The wide stereo six-speaker sound system on the MacBook Pro, with dual force-canceling woofers, sounds richer than any laptop speakers I’ve ever heard, but in the end they are still just laptop speakers, so set your expectations accordingly. That means that low-end frequencies have a hard time making their presence felt, which is no fault of the MacBook Pro, it’s just physics.
That being said, the mid-range and highs are impressive and clear and there’s little distortion, even at higher sound levels. It’s a very impressive speaker system for what it is. It even features Dolby Atmos playback for iTunes movies that support it, and while I wouldn’t describe it as immersive, there’s definitely a wider stereo sound stage than is present on previous 15-inch MacBook models.
The new studio-quality three-mic array, like the speakers, brings noticeable improvements to sound quality. In its marketing materials, Apple notes that the microphone array rivals professional third-party microphones, making it ideal for podcasting or music recordings.
While the microphone definitely produces cleaner sound than any laptop microphone I’ve ever used, with an impressively low noise floor, it’s still a built-in laptop microphone array. As someone who really cares about voice quality in narration and voiceover recordings, there remain definite downsides to using a built-in microphone over a dedicated microphone.
No matter how good Apple makes its built-in microphone, distance is always the enemy when recording a voice, and the gulf between the built-in microphone array in the left side of the MacBook Pro speaker cavity, and the typical speaking distance, is still too much to compete with a dedicated microphone that’s right in front of your face.
Unless you’re okay with literally holding the MacBook Pro up to your mouth, you’re realistically not going to end up with a recording that competes with a dedicated microphone. The microphone is good enough for scratch audio and the like, but I wouldn’t purposely choose to use it over a dedicated microphone unless I had no other recourse.
Battery and 96 W power adapter
Apple came close with previous iterations of the MacBook Pro, but this is the first time we’ve seen a bonafide 100-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery in an Apple laptop. Despite the added screen real estate and battery hungry RAM and GPU improvements, Apple says that this MacBook Pro yields better battery life than its predecessor, which is a big accomplishment.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro is rated at 11 hours of battery life, which is one hour better than the outgoing model. Of course, Apple’s battery testing regimen is a lot different than someone who purchased this machine to edit 8K RAW .r3d video files, but that goes without saying.
As such, battery life largely differs based on how you use your laptop, and I’ve always found such ratings to be quite useless on a machine that can wear as many hats as the MacBook Pro.
Like every high-end MacBook Pro since 2016, the I/O is limited to four Thunderbolt 3 ports (two on each side) and a 3.5 mm headphone input. In 2016 and 2017, this was a big problem, because USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 accessories hadn’t yet saturated the market.
While there is still some ways to go, there is no shortage of great accessories that can plug directly into any one of the four USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports on this MacBook Pro. The point is, the market has slowly but surely moved to adopt USB-C peripherals. Today you can find plenty of hubs, docks, external drives, eGPUs, and other accessories that work with today’s MacBook Pro.
The one area that still stings, however, is the lack of an SD Card slot. It’s still such a prolific storage medium for mirrorless cameras and DSLRs that it’s hard to avoid encountering them in normal day-to-day usage. That being said, we are beginning to see a shift away from traditional SD Cards, as more high-end camera features will begin trickling down to more consumer-grade cameras.
Eventually, there’s going to come a time when it doesn’t make sense to include an SD Card slot at all, but that time has not yet come, and I find the lack of such a port mildly annoying.
But other than that gripe, Apple nailed it with the four-port dual-bus Thunderbolt 3 setup of the MacBook Pro. As we head into 2020, it feels more ready to take on I/O duties than ever before.
Enhanced external display support
Apple says that the new MacBook Pro supports up to two 6K displays with 6016-by-3384 resolution at 60 Hz. That’s Apple’s way of saying that this unit supports up to two of its upcoming Pro Displays XDR monitors simultaneously.
It’s unclear if the new GPU inside the 16-inch MacBook Pro is a prerequisite to connecting to a single Pro Display XDR, let alone a dual setup, but it’s likely. The 15-inch MacBook Pro technical specifications still list support for a max resolution of 5120-by-2880 for external displays.
Although the 16-inch MacBook Pro is downright great, there remain a few head-scratchers. For example, even though the new iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro support the new Wi-Fi 6 standard, this new MacBook Pro is relegated to 802.11ac networking. To be fair, Intel’s chips don’t yet support Wi-Fi 6, so Apple had little choice in the matter.
Wi-Fi 6, aka 802.11ax, features higher data rates, increased capacity, and improved power efficiency among other things. Although it’ll take some time before Wi-Fi 6-enabled routers become as ubiquitous as 802.11ac, it’s disappointing to see such a feature omitted in Apple’s latest and greatest MacBook.
Although the lack of Wi-Fi 6 was presumably outside of Apple’s control, it could control keeping around the crusty old 720p FaceTime HD camera. Apple, you’re about to launch your first 6K display, and every camera on your new iPhones shoot 4K at 60 fps. Why do you continue to put such terrible cameras on your flagship Macs?
The 16-inch MacBook Pro may look similar to its predecessors, but it’s an all-new machine that’s been fundamentally altered for the better. It all starts with the keyboard, which is a huge improvement over the outgoing 15-inch MacBook Pro. No longer do I dread using my MacBook Pro due to a terrible keyboard.
And although this MacBook Pro uses the same CPUs as the previous generation, the enhanced thermal profile ensures that throttling isn’t as bad as it was before. The redesigned cooling system also ensures that this machine tends to stay quieter than its direct predecessor, and the GPU is downright powerful.
This is a workhorse machine, and I think it compares well to the entry-level iMac Pro as far as performance is concerned. If configured properly, you could easily use this as your only workstation, because it has the CPU and GPU power, RAM, and storage capability to handle heavy workloads. Even 8K video editing workflows are not just possible, but completely reasonable for this new MacBook Pro, and that’s before you even consider adding an external GPU.
Apple didn’t create a perfect machine with the new 16-inch MacBook Pro, but this machine is an undeniable blueprint for Apple laptops going forward. Although we shouldn’t be quick to forget the embarrassing butterfly keyboard debacle, this is a good first step toward redemption.
What are your thoughts? Feel free to sound off in the comment section.
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