Date: Thursday, December 29th, 2016, 15:41
Category: Hardware, MacBook Pro, Review, Uncategorized
I can’t think of the last time I returned a new Mac. I’m a textbook early adopter and have always purchased new Macs (especially notebooks) day and date when they come out.
Like most Mac users on the planet, I eagerly awaited Apple’s 2016 MacBook Pro refresh – 500 days in the making. I chose the 13-inch MacBook Pro (over the larger, 15-inch) to replace an aging MacBook Air 13-inch in my fleet.
I ordered mine (MBP 13.3 Space Gray, 256GB, S3136LL/A) on October 27, 2016 and it arrived on November 18, 2016.
My use case
Laptops, like mobile phones, are extremely personal devices. Your mileage will vary.
My 13-inch MBP is primarily for use on my lap. I have a large monitor/keyboard/mouse setup (when I need it) at home and work, so I don’t need the largest screen possible on my laptop.
I also use it on the couch, in my recliner, at the kitchen table, coffee shop, shuttle bus, airplane, train, and Uber. I value light weight over tons of ports. I prefer the 13-inch model over the 15-inch because I commute by bicycle and the 13-inch weighs a pound less:
- MacBook Pro 13-inch – 3.02 pounds (1.37 kg)
- MacBook Pro 15-inch – 4.02 pounds (1.83 kg)
While not quite my “weekend/vacation” laptop (the minimalist MacBook 12-inch would be better there), my MBP13 isn’t my workhorse/power user Mac either (I need discrete graphics for that), so it’s somewhere in between. I’m looking for a MacBook with a better screen to replace my MacBook Air 13-inch.
I type for a living and I type a lot for pleasure too, so keyboards are important to me. The switch from the previous MBP keyboard to the new keyboard is dramatic. Especially if you’re not used to it. Before buying the new MacBook Pro: go into an Apple Store, find a 2016 MacBook Pro, open the Notes app, and type into it for a while. While you’re there, type on all of them.
For my test I went into the Apple Store (in Palo Alto, CA), found the new MBP (non-Touch Bar model), and I typed into the Notes app for about 20 minutes. There was a MB12 right next to it, so I opened Notes on it and typed away. I bounced back and forth between both of them for a while.
I’ve been using Apple’s new flat-style, low-travel keyboard since the MacBook 12-inch debuted in April 2015, so I’m used to it. I’m not saying that I love the new thin keyboard or anything, but I adapt quickly and I’m now used to it.
I like my keyboards to be the same, so I also bought new Magic Keyboards for my work and home desk setups, so my keyboard is the same when I bounce between computers. I generally like Apple’s 2015, flat-style keyboard and I can type on it at my highest typing speed and accuracy.
Is the MBP 2016 keyboard “better” than the keyboard in the MP12? That’s debatable. I’ve heard people say that the new “second generation” flat keyboard is better than the keyboard in the MP12 but it’s only marginally better. Maybe 10 percent better.
Switching back and forth, the new keyboard feels slightly firmer with a little more “click” (to my fingers, anyway). But it could also be that the 2016 MBP on display in the Apple Store was brand new and just out of the box and the MB12 might have been on the display table for months.
Keyboards are super-subjective and you need to type on it in person, for a while. Keep in mind that there is a learning curve to the new keyboard. I’m ok with it because I’ve been training on the new keyboard for 18 months.
The Touch bar
Much has been made about the Touch Bar and I admit to be seduced by early demos and the slick “design film.” Adaptable keyboard shortcuts that are contextually aware to your current app? Yes please! In practice the Touch Bar is much less useful than I thought. I love swiping through emojis (the best demo) but that only works in Messages. I don’t do much editing in iMovie or Final Cut Pro, so no fancy timeline scrubbing for me. Touch Bar is moderately useful with the Photos app and in Safari, but I don’t use Safari because it doesn’t support favicons in tabs and favorites.
After the novelty wore off, the Touch Bar became more of a distraction for me. Not visually, but in the form of the random context switches that occur when my fingers overreach the top row of keys. I’d be typing away, accidentally touch the Touch Bar, and I’d be switched into another app – or worse – I’d accidentally touch it and auto-complete some random word, insert random text or even send a half-written email or text message. After I did that a couple of times, I switched the Touch Bar back to ‘Expanded Control Strip,’ which helped a bit.
You can customize the Touch Bar to your needs in System Preferences > Keyboard > Touch Bar Shows. There are several promising utilities and hack for Touch Bar (including Rocket and Touch Switcher) and I look forward to see what developers dream up next. I recommend that your read the excellent reporting at iMore.com if you own a MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.
The Force Touch trackpad on the 2016 MacBook Pro is significantly (up to 2x) larger than its predecessor, which Apple touts as “giving your fingers more room to gesture and click.”
Bollocks. The bigger trackpad in the MacBook Pro is too much of a good thing. I’ve never found myself wanting a larger trackpad (nor more room to gesture and click), but that’s me. Maybe Apple got tons of feedback asking for a larger trackpad? Dunno. But the implementation stinks.
I’m about 6’3” with proportionally-sized hands, so they’re not small, but they’re not massive either. I’ve never had a problem accidentally clicking/touching the trackpads on my 13-inch MacBook Air or MacBook 12 – both were daily drivers with “Tap to click” enabled since day one. It’s positively maddening when my palm inevitably grazed the bigger trackpad on the 2016 MacBook Pro and clicked somewhere unexpected. It grinds my progress to a halt and is a deal breaker for me.
Here’s a look at the difference between the 13 and 15-inch trackpads:
Much has been written about the MBP battery, most notably from Consumer Reports, which for the first time failed to recommend the 2016 MacBook Pro because of the battery, which it called it “highly inconsistent from one trial to the next,” and “running 16 hours in one test and less than four hours in another.”
Apple Vice President of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller responded on December 23 that the “results do not match our extensive lab tests or field data,” and that the company was “working with CR to understand their battery tests.”
UPDATE 2017-0110: CR now recommends the 2016 MacBook Pro after Apple fixed a bug that caused abnormal battery behavior.
I didn’t experience battery issues during my testing but I didn’t really use the 2016 MacBook Pro long enough to thoroughly test the performance of the battery. I decided to return mine before the battery issues surfaced. However, I find it telling that Apple removed the time remaining indicator from the battery status menu bar item in macOS 10.12.2.
It’s still early days so we’ll have to wait and see how the battery issues play out.
Touch ID is amazing on the Touch Bar. I used it daily for logging into my Mac and it allowed me to set my MBP to “Require password immediately” – which is more secure. I also love Touch ID for 1Password, my second most common use case.
Touch ID via Touch Bar sounds appealing for Apple Pay on the web, but it only supports Safari and a limited group of websites (including Apple.com, natch) right now.
Touch ID is an even faster (and contactless) way to to unlock your Mac with an Apple Watch, so that’s my preference at the moment.
My major problems with the 2016 MacBook Pro are the over-sensitive trackpad and Touch Bar. I constantly graze/touch them while typing with fantastic consequences: like sending unfinished emails and messages to their recipients. Not good.
I thought that I’d be able to adapt to it, learn it, or somehow build better muscle memory or something, but after a couple weeks of regular (albeit frustrating) use, I found the random and unexpected jumping around (due to errant touches) insurmountable.
I simply couldn’t type accurately on the 13 MBP because of the over-sensitive trackpad and Touch Bar – which I constantly engaged with an errant palm graze or finger overshooting the keyboard. It’s distracting as hell to be typing away into a note, doc or email and suddenly “click” on the window of a background app and switching contexts. Then I’d have to figure out what I was doing, where my window went, switch back to it, and try to pick up where I left off.
Accidental and sudden context switches are productivity killers and at the end of the day, I need my MacBook to be a productivity machine, not a productivity killer.
The good news is that most of my issues with the MacBook Pro can be addressed in software. Apple could add a setting to adjust the sensitivity of the Touch Bar (perhaps requiring a longer or more deliberate touch?) for example. Better palm/thumb rejection is also essential, or you’ll probably end up disabling ‘Tap to click’ and most of the other gestures in the Trackpad System Preferences – which is no way to live.
On balance, I tested the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which is smaller than the 15-inch model (duh). I suspect that errant Trackpad touches might be less likely on the more spacious 15-incher, but I prefer the smaller ‘book. It’s worth noting that the trackpad on the MBP 15 is even larger, and bigger isn’t always better.
I’ll take another look at the 2016 MacBooks when the trackpad and Touch Bar software gets improved, but for now I’m sticking with my MacBook 12.