Apple MacBook Pro Review 15″ (2016)

For years, Apple was in a class of its own when it came to premium personal notebooks. They reset the industry with the initial MacBook Pro and then did it again with the MacBook Air, and in their own way, they reset the design center with the 12” MacBook Air. The Windows PC ecosystem engaged in the premium space, retreated, then re-engaged a few years ago with some success.

I’ve been closely researching the premium computing device space the past five years as it is just so important to the overall positioning of the larger category. I have always said, you have to have a “best” to support a “good”, “better”, “best”, one of the keys to a healthy product stack. I personally use multiple premium products from all the important tech ecosystems as I believe it is an important analysis vector, particularly given my product background. With that said, I had the chance to spend a few days with the new and very premium 15” MacBook Pro and I wanted to tell you a bit about it.

Introduction

With the new MacBook Pro 15”, Apple did exactly what you may expect from them- they went thinner, lighter, more powerful, more secure, and added additional physical UI features. Ironically, this sounds exactly like what they do with an iPhone refresh. Before launch, as I was formulating what Apple would do with the new MacBook Pro 15”, I had figured they would reset the industry once again by being super-aggressive and taking a bunch of risks. I expressed much of that here. After having used the new MacBook Pro for a few days I believe Apple moved the industry forward on design center but didn’t shut the door on the competition like they did with the first MacBook Air.

Design

The new MacBook Pro is made from all CNC’d aluminum, not a stamped or plastic chassis that absolutely looks and feels premium and high-end. You will be proud to show this off at the coffee shop or the boardroom as executive jewelry. For a 15” notebook with discrete graphics and high-end, 35-watt processor, with very long battery life, it is very thin at 15.5 mm, very narrow at 34.93 cm and light at 4 lbs. It’s the thinnest and narrowest 15” performance laptop I’m aware of.

The new MacBook Pro isn’t intended to compete with workstation with the biggest and baddest discrete graphics. This is all about increased MacBook Pro performance in the size of a MacBook Air. I didn’t do any hard-core benchmarks, so I can’t tell you if it throttles and I doubt it does, but I can tell you that Apple re-engineered its cooling delivery system to accomplish this. Also of note, I got monster battery life out of it, so it’s not like they removed too much battery to get thin.

Retina Display

Apple improved brightness, contrast, and added “wide color” on the new MacBook Pro and the company says it is 30 percent more power efficient than the previous generation using TFT-oxide technology. It isn’t an OLED display, but then again, I don’t think it has to be as long as it hits the right brightness and clarity characteristics at the right power draw.

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Retina Display (Image: Apple)

Well, the display is really bright, 500 nits bright, increased contrast 67% and now supports a new P3 color space, which the company says offers a 25% wider color gamut. I don’t have the equipment to test all these, but I can attest that photos look absolutely amazing. The Retina Display displays content at 2,880 x 1,800 for 5M pixels at 220 PPI. Having a 4K, 3,840 x 2,160, 8M pixel display seems like something professionals would want, but it does drain a lot of battery. I believe the rationale is that if they are photo professionals, they will have an external, 4K or 5K display, such as those from LG which Apple does sell.

Keyboard and Trackpad

Apple dramatically changed the physical user interface. They updated the same keyboard technology Apple pioneered with the 12” MacBook and I like it a lot. Some have said the keys don’t go down far enough but I disagree and I feel a sense of improved accuracy with this keyboard. I absolutely love the zero light leakage illuminated keys and wished everyone did this. It’s really the pinnacle of keyboards.

Apple also pulled over the Force Touch trackpad from the 12” MacBook I wrote about here. Apple removed the hinge, widened the trackpad to where it’s absolutely gigantic now, and added the sensation that you are actually clicking on something. This is enabled by Apple’s Taptic Engine. It’s so realistic that you really can’t believe you aren’t clicking on something. Apple also added a third dimension, depth, to the MacBook’s trackpad. This does take some practice as it’s not something we normally do, but after using the 12” MacBook, I quickly got the hang of it. What I really liked was that when you pressed harder, you got a second haptic “click” indicating that you were doing it right.

Touch Bar and Touch ID

The new Touch bar was the biggest new thing Apple brought to the table with the new MacBook. Any time Apple brings something new to the UI table, it’s only after huge deliberation, debate and testing. I mean this is the company that first popularized the mouse and trackpad and brought high quality, capacitive touch with the iPhone. The industry was looking hard for the “what’s next” after the Windows world went touch displays, which added huge scrutiny to any decision Apple made.

The Touch Bar is a display strip with multi-touch capabilities that replaces the function row keys. Its dynamic, customizable and changes based on the context of what the user is trying to do. The Touch Bar capability is integrated all through macOS and in Pages, Numbers, Keynote, Final Cut Pro X, and even Office 365 in the future. APIs are available for developers to add Touch Bar functions to their apps and I am expecting many of them.

I need to spend months with Touch Bar to provide anything definitive on the question of, “is this better than a touch display or faster than a two-button mouse”. What I can say is that after a few days, I used it extensively for brightness, volume control, Siri, iMessage, Mail, Photos and Calendar. I see that as a really good sign for Touch Bar and look forward to spending more time on it. I’ll admit, after using Touch Bar, I found myself reaching up to touch the display. I can’t say if that’s because I split time between Windows touch notebooks and Macs or because I use touch on phones and tablets, but I can‘t wait to see where this goes.

Apple also integrated a Touch ID sensor to login and buy things with. I have thoroughly enjoyed Touch ID on the iPhone and iPad and it’s really about time they brought it to the MacBook.

Speakers

The new MacBook Pro 15” speakers are surprisingly loud and when you factor in the small chassis, there is some art going on here. I didn’t expect this at all. There are separate stereo tweeters to the left and right of the keyboard for highs and subwoofers on the bottom for lows. You can see the holes on the bottom where the sub comes from.

Apple says they project sound at twice the dynamic range and I’ll take their word for it. I played a lot of music on them and my admin commented that it sounded like huge speakers. I wish they had a bit more bass, but then again, there’s rarely enough for me as I’m into deeper bass. I now wish Siri on the MacBook responded to “Hey Siri” commands so I could play music like I do on the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

Performance features

Performance-wise, my MacBook Pro 15” starts with a Skylake-based, Intel Core i7-6820HQ processor operating at 2.7 Ghz. with 8MB cache and a max Turbo of 3.6 GHz. You can go up one more bin to a heaftier 2.9 Ghz. That’s some pretty heavy iron, and while I would have preferred to use Intel’s latest Kaby Lake platform as it added some very important 4K transcoding capabilities, but the higher-end models for a MacBook Pro are just not available.

Apple used industrial-strength discrete graphics, the AMD Radeon Pro 455 from Advanced Micro Devices, which works alongside the Intel HD 530 graphics chip integrated into the Core i7 processor. These aren’t workstation-level graphics, but a nice, mid-range discrete graphics solution. You’ll only likely need more graphics performance if you want to play the highest-end games at the highest resolution and settings on an external display or are into heavy-duty 3D renderings.

Apple is a leader in storage capabilities and differentiating capabilities in the iPhone and if you remember, were the first company to go all SSD in notebooks. The new MacBook has PCIe flash at 256GB, 512GB, 1TB and 2TB capacities. Wow. The company says the new SSDs provide a 50 percent performance boost. I never experienced a perceptible slowdown, period, that I could attribute to storage.

New Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C

I was a bit concerned that after Microsoft Surface didn’t upgrade to Thunderbolt 3, Apple wouldn’t, even though every other major Windows PC manufacturer has moved here. Thunderbolt 3 is just so incredibly awesome that you really do need it but may not know it yet. Thunderbolt 3 delivers up to 40 Gbps per second of data over a thin cable that can be daisy-chained. That speed is 2X Thunderbolt 2, 4X USB 3.1 and 8X faster than USB 3.0 Yes, really fast. This not only helps speed everything up, but helps simplify external I/O and make the notebook thinner, and Apple made it even more simple by adding 4 ports, any of which can be powered. This is great for left and right-handed users who use a mouse and gives flexibility around where you place your peripherals.

If you want to use your current peripherals like an external display over HDMI or DVI, USB printer, USB mouse, or anything not USB-C, you’ll need a separate dongle. Not all of my Thunderbolt 3 over USB-C peripherals worked with my MacBook Pro, and I highly recommend getting them from Apple as you know they were tested. Apple just recently cut prices on them significantly.

Battery Life

Apple is the most accurate and detailed manufacturer when it comes to battery life and I can typically take their claims to the bank. Apple isn’t as detailed with battery life claims on MacBooks as they are with iPhones and iPads, but still really good. I did not run sophisticated battery life tests primarily because when something lasts 8-10 hours, you only have so much time over a weekend.

Apple says you will get up to 10 hours of web over Wi-Fi or up to 10 hours watching a movie from iTunes. Again, I didn’t do detailed tests, but I did get 8 hours on the web at 75% brightness. This is really, really good, and when you consider how thin and narrow they made the new MacBook, it is a real feat. This is also where the new, low-power display comes into use as well as having ownership of the operating systems and drivers.

Wish list

There are no perfect products, they will always improve, and I wanted to put a few logs on the fire here. I would have loved to have Intel Kaby Lake to take advantage of the completely hardware-accelerated 4K pipeline. Wi-Fi AD could enable an 8 Gbps wireless AirDrop and wireless display would have been great, too. A high-end, Thunderbolt 3-based external GPU would have been nice for the workstation and high-end gamer crowd. An LTE option would have been amazing, as well. A 4K or 5K option for the integrated display would be appreciated by photographers and videographers. Finally, I think we’re ready for a 1080P camera, right? Yes, I want it all for $2,799, but the reality is, you can’t have it all.

Summary

I thoroughly enjoyed my few days with the new MacBook Pro. It felt extremely fast and responsive, and also has the trim beauty to go along with it. It is hard to believe Apple fit this much into this small of a chassis. It’s the thinnest and narrowest 15” performance laptop I’ve ever used or seen. It’s all that, but also gets 8 hours of true-use battery life with giant sound. That’s really very hard to do and the first time I’ve seen this entire combination.

The new keyboard and Force Touch Trackpad are the best, and when combined with the new Touch Bar, you have a very compelling physical UI system. I need more time on the Touch Bar to give it a complete assessment and comparison to touch display alternatives, but that will come over time and will be more valuable to readers. I personally found Touch Bar useful with basic settings, iMessage, Photos and Mail.

My 15” configuration was priced at $2,799, the entry-level is at $2,399, and if you want the biggest, baddest machine, you can configure it to $4,299 and you get an Intel Core i7 boosted to 3.8 GHz., 2TB PCIe SSD, and a Radeon Pro 460 with 4GB memory. In case you missed it, the new MacBook Pro is a very premium notebook.

The new MacBook Pro is an incredible laptop. Apple didn’t shut the door on the competitors like they did when they introduced the first MacBook Air, but I don’t think they needed to, either, to keep at least the big-budget MacBook Pro audience happy.