MacBook Pro 15” 2016 review
The new generation of the MacBook Pro 13” and 15” models which Apple unveiled last October mark the first redesign of the popular laptops in four years. The new MacBook Pros feature an overhauled architecture with new hardware and a thinner, lighter body. The keyboard has been replaced with an improved super flat model and some MacBook Pro 13” versions and all MacBook Pro 15” feature the Touch Bar which replaces the F-key row with an OLED touch screen. The screen in all models still shows the excellent ‘retina’ resolution, but it’s now brighter and has improved color reproduction. Finally, all ports except for the headphone jack have been replaced by two or four USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports. Are these changes and improvements enough to make for a compelling device?
The new external design
The MacBook Pro 15” 2016 is about as wide and deep as its predecessor (MP Pro 15” mid 2012 to mid 2015), but it’s a quarter of a centimeter thinner. Even more noticeable is the fact that the new version is about 200g lighter, which is great if you carry your laptop around a lot. The build quality is still top-notch with an improved unibody aluminum chassis and perfect screen hinges that allow you to easily open the laptop with one finger without lifting the base with it. Although it’s very small for a 15” laptop, it still takes up more space than would be convenient on small lecture hall desks.
There are two Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports on the left-hand side and another two plus a headphone jack on the right. In its typical uncompromising manner, Apple has removed all other ports including MagSafe, the SD card reader, and all USB-A ports. However, thanks to the universal nature of USB-C, it can replace all other data and power cables directly, or at least with an adapter. All the ports (max. 2 concurrently) support high-speed Thunderbolt 3 connectivity which has enough bandwidth for high-end RAID arrays, or LG’s new 5K external display for MacBooks. The new USB-C charger can be connected to any port on both sides of the laptop, which somewhat alleviates the lack of MagSafe, but there’s still a good chance to send your laptop flying if you stumble over the cable.
Opening the MacBook, you’ll find the new keyboard, a very large Force Touch trackpad, the Touch Bar, and the fingerprint reader. Despite my initial reservations to a keyboard with such low key travel, I got used to it very quickly. Indeed, the new design allows for a fast and tactile typing experience, but you may want to give it a try before you buy a new MacBook. The large trackpad on the other hand is excellent. Its size allows for easy drag and drop over the whole screen and the gestures work perfectly. Due to its large size, your palms will rest on the trackpad when you’re typing, but the system detects this and reliably rejects the unwanted input.
The new Touch Bar right above the numbers row is replacing the F-keys and the function keys. It’s a 2170 by 60 pixel OLED display that’s optimized to be viewed at an angle. It enables you to interactively change brightness, volume, Siri, and other basic functions of the Mac and it can show special controls for applications that support the Touch Bar. These applications currently mostly include Apple’s own, but more are sure to follow (Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office are already supported). The Touch Bar allows you to access bookmarks and control YouTube in Safari, choose emojis, or use autocomplete or format text in Pages or MS Word. Each supported application will display its own functions contextually on the Touch Bar when it’s in the foreground on the desktop. However, apart from looking pretty and allowing for smooth control of the laptop’s volume, the Touch Bar really adds little value to the MacBook since it mostly replaces keyboard shortcuts. Again, you may want to try before you buy. The fingerprint reader next to the Touch Bar, however, is an extremely useful addition to the MacBook. It not only allows for very quick startup without requiring a password as it doubles as the start button, but it also works in the App Store where you can authenticate your purchases. It actually offers largely the same functionality as TouchID does on the iPhone.
The Screen, speakers, and connectivity
The MacBook Pro 15” still features a 15.4” IPS ‘retina’ Display with a resolution of 2880 x 1800 pixels at 220 PPI. However, the new display is very bright and it can show quite a large color gamut, fully covering the DCI-P3 color spectrum. The vibrant, accurate colors make media content look great and allow to do some serious media creation work. Thanks to the high resolution, working with text for extended periods of time is a breeze. Apple still only sells the MacBooks with a glossy display and reflections are sometimes quite noticeable. You can offset these reflections by turning up the display brightness, but this will of course affect your battery life.
The speakers are still situated left and right of the keyboard and they’re among the best in any current laptop. They get loud enough to entertain during a small house party and they’re clear enough to give you a good experience when watching movies. They even have pretty good bass compared to other laptops.
The MacBook supports wireless connectivity by Bluetooth (version 4.2) and by Wi-Fi 802.11a/b/g/n/ac. At close range to the router, it easily managed to consistently stay above 500 Mbit/s and theoretical speeds are even higher. In places with bad coverage it still connects pretty reliably.
The inner values
Apple finally upgraded to the Intel Skylake platform with the new MacBooks. The 15” models feature high-end quad-core Core i7 processors which are among the fastest currently available. AMD’s mid-range Radeon Pro 450 (the 455 and 460 are also available) is enough to power Photoshop and other professional graphics or CAD applications. When applications don’t require a lots of graphics power, the MacBook will switch to the integrated Intel graphics to extend battery life. Data is delivered by Apple’s blazingly fast SSD storage reading at up to 3.1 Gb/s and writing at up to 2.2 Gb/s. The 15” version always comes with 16 Gb of RAM which can’t be configured any higher or upgraded later on. For most applications, this is currently enough, but it’s not very future-proof and well below what you can get in other similarly priced workstations. All things considered, the MacBook Pro 15” 2016 is significantly faster than its predecessors and will be fast enough for most tasks for quite some time.
If you’re careful and you’re not pushing the MacBook much with demanding applications, you can get up to the 10 hours of battery life that Apple promises. In more realistic cases, however, you will have to grab the charger again quite a bit earlier. The power adapter comes in the same design as with previous generations, but in now sports a USB-C port with a 2m detachable cable. This is good news since the old power cable broke quite easily and wasn’t replaceable. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t put the extension cable that plugs into the wall in the box anymore, so you will have buy one if the one directly connected to the power adapter isn’t giving you enough range.
Due to the highly integrated design of the new MacBooks, they can’t be upgraded at all anymore. The SSD that was replaceable in the previous design is now also soldered onto the motherboard, so you’ll have to buy an entirely new computer every time you need more capacity. This means you’ll have to carefully choose your configuration to get a model that fits your needs for the foreseeable future. You should also consider getting a warranty that covers the expected life time of the device, since only Apple can repair or replace the laptop (Apple Care covers you up to 3 years, DataQuest Careplan is available with up to 4 years). Additionally, backups are now even more important since your data will be stuck in the laptop if anything breaks, even if the SSD itself is still fine. Fortunately, Apple has two elegant solutions for this problem: You can use the excellent Time Machine backup to send your data to an external storage solution or you can use iCloud, which is tightly integrated into macOS, to create redundant copies of your files.
Living with the MacBook Pro 15”
Thanks to the seamless integration of software and hardware in Apple’s ecosystem, everything works as it should. The system always reacts quickly and it’s usually completely silent. When running demanding applications, the noise and heat levels that are coming from the laptop are acceptable and quickly return to normal when the system is idling again. In the standard configuration, the system goes into sleep mode very quickly to save battery in which case the fingerprint reader really comes in handy. Waking up the system is done in seconds by simply touching the fingerprint reader and no password input is necessary.
The lack of inputs other than USB-C forces you to use an adapter for almost all devices that are currently on the market. Apple and third-party manufacturers sell a wide variety of adapters, so you’re still able to connect projectors, USB sticks, external hard drives, network cables, and anything else you might need, but until the tech world has completely shifted to the new port, it’ll still be a bit of a hassle. If you need a lot of adapters, this will also drive up the price of your MacBook. However, thanks to the large bandwidth of Thunderbolt 3, you can plug in docking stations which have lots of different ports and some can even recharge the Mac with only a single cable.
If you want to run Windows 10 instead of macOS, Apple still delivers all the drivers you need through Bootcamp. All the hardware runs flawlessly and with great performance on Windows, but don’t expect the Touch Bar to do more than show basic controls. Gaming is possible on the new MacBook, but the Radeon GPU is by no means a high-end powerhouse.
The new MacBook Pro 15” 2016 is a well-built, fast machine with an uncompromising design. Although it’s an expensive computer, you really do get your money’s worth with a sleek design, great hardware, and excellent software integration. If you don’t have any special needs in terms of performance and if you’re looking for a laptop that will effortlessly do its job from your bachelor’s to you master’s, the MacBook Pro is a great choice. It’ll be easily fast enough to handle any office work or midrange media creation even five years down the line and its great build quality will not let you down. For professionals with high-end requirements, however, the MacBook is a bit of an awkward device. If you can live with the port selection, the 16 GB of Ram, and the lack of upgradeability, this laptop might be for you. Based on previous experiences there is only a slight chance that develops other devices requiring fewer compromises so if it doesn’t fit to your expectations you could see if other manufacturers have products that suit your needs.