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Grow Your Business Technology

MacBook Pro 13-inch (Touch Bar) Review: Is It Good for Business?

MacBook Pro 13-inch (Touch Bar) Review: Is It Good for Business?

The Apple MacBook Pro's novel Touch Bar is neat, but it won't speed up your workflow much. That's not to say it isn't potentially useful; the narrow, touch-screen strip — located just above the standard keyboard layout — offers quick shortcuts for menu items and system settings. Plus, commuters will love the new MacBook Pro's slim and light design, bright display and speedy performance.

But in cranking out a sleek machine, Apple has abandoned some aspects that made previous models good for professionals. The keyboard is too flat to be very comfortable, and the system ditches many standard ports that workers rely on. Plus, it's really pricey; the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar starts at a very steep $1,799.

The new MacBook Pro actually comes in three different varieties. To avoid any confusion, here's a brief breakdown:

  • MacBook Pro 13-inch, thin: This model starts at $1,499 and lacks the new Touch Bar. It's thinner than the other models.
  • MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar: This model is the one featured in this review. It starts at $1,799. It's a bit thicker than the less-expensive model, and comes with the Touch Bar, a Touch ID fingerprint reader and a slightly faster processor and graphics compared to the baseline model. 
  • MacBook Pro 15-inch: The largest model starts at $2,399, and comes with the Touch Bar and Touch ID. This model isn't addressed in this review.

It's no surprise that the all-metal MacBook Pro is a gorgeous piece of hardware. The system's matte, aluminum design is as iconic as ever, and it feels as sturdy and well crafted as you'd expect from a laptop that costs this much. I was particularly impressed by the incredibly smooth hinge, which opens effortlessly but keeps the screen stable, without a hint of wobble. 

Commuters will be happy to know that it's the thinnest and lightest Pro model yet, by far. It measures just 0.59 inches thick, making it 13 percent slimmer than the MacBook Air. And it's light for a MacBook, weighing in at 3.02 lbs. — about half a pound lighter than the previous 13-inch MacBook Pro and on a par with the current MacBook Air. Rival Windows laptops are even thinner and lighter, though, including the HP Spectre x360 (0.54 inches, 2.8 lbs.) and the Dell XPS 13 (0.33-0.66 inches, 2.7 lbs.)

Imagine this scenario: You've gathered a group of clients to view a slideshow. All you need to do is pop your USB flash drive, which contains the presentation, into your new MacBook Pro. Well, you'd better hope you remembered to bring the right adapter, because the new MacBook Pro doesn't have even a single USB 3.0 port. Instead, the system includes four Thunderbolt 3 ports (two on each side of the system). You'll have to rely on dongles to connect most peripherals, including flash drives, monitors and Ethernet cables.

In some ways, it's a forward-thinking move from Apple. The Lightning ports (which have a USB Type-C connector) are fast and versatile. They can power up to two 5K displays side by side, and allow for blazing-fast data-transfer speed (up to 40 Gbps). The ports are also smaller, which undoubtedly helped Apple craft a thinner laptop. 

But the lack of even a full-size USB or HDMI port is going to be a big headache for the average worker who just wants to connect his or her older hardware to the laptop. There's no SD card slot, either, so there's no way to expand the system's 256GB of internal storage.

By the way, the baseline 13-inch MacBook Pro (the one without the Touch Bar) has just two Lightning ports.

Though the MacBook Pro has never looked sleeker, it's that Touch Bar that really stands out. It sits above the standard QWERTY layout, in place of the function keys you see on other keyboards. Here's the promise of the Touch Bar: Instead of leaving you with a rarely used row of function keys at the top of your keyboard, the row can change dynamically to offer exactly the controls you need at any given time. (Note that holding the Fn key on the bottom-left corner of the keyboard will still bring up the traditional function keys on the bar.)

There are as many ways to use the Touch Bar as there are applications that support it, and most apps that come installed on the MacBook Pro do, to some degree. While you're drafting an email, it provides quick access to your favorite contacts. While you're writing, it suggests commonly used words (or emoji) that can be inserted with a tap. In Photoshop, you can swipe and tap to switch colors or change layer modes. Plus, you can tweak the display brightness or volume using the Touch Bar. And on and on.

From a technical standpoint, the Touch Bar works brilliantly. It responded quickly and accurately to my taps and swipes. Touch Bar menus are cleverly animated, and icons look crisp and colorful. And I can't deny that there's a level of gee-whiz novelty to the whole thing.

But there are a couple of problems with the Touch Bar. First, the constantly changing and shifting menu can be confusing for beginners. It behaves differently with every application, asking you to memorize the functions of dozens of unlabeled icons, and hiding much functionality behind several layers of menus on the Touch Bar itself. 

And on the other end of the spectrum, I can't foresee most professionals making much use of it, either; the shortcuts it provides are mostly faster and easier to access using keyboard shortcuts. In Photoshop, there's no way I'd drill down through several layers of menus and carefully tap a tiny icon to make a saturation adjustment when I could just press Command + U on the keyboard.

That's not to say that clever developers won't think of genuinely useful functionality for the Touch Bar. For example, I've heard video and audio editors say they like the ability to easily scrub through projects using the Touch Bar. 

Regardless, I can't help but think that a full touch-screen display would provide the same functionality in a more intuitive manner. In fact, while spending several days testing and toying with the Touch Bar, I found myself inadvertently reaching up to tap the display itself. That's an issue I never ran into while using older MacBooks. It seems that incorporating touch into such a tiny part of the system makes the lack of touch functionality on the main display stand out like a sore thumb.

Apple has long resisted implementing touch displays on its Mac computers; the company says touch functionality would hurt the user experience. But with competing Windows laptops offering premium designs that nearly rival the iconic MacBook — in addition to handy touch displays — the lack of touch-screen capability on the MacBook is getting hard to justify.

 

Here's another issue I have with the Touch Bar: I wish Apple had shortened the strip a bit, leaving room on the left for a physical Esc key. That's the only key I frequently reach for on the top row of the keyboard, and now that it's a touch button, it's far too easy to miss.

To be fair, I could usually hit the Esc key when I tried to; other times, my aim was off. Eventually, I got fed up with missing and resigned myself to peering down at the keyboard every time I needed to touch that key. That interrupted my workflow, especially while I was editing photos in Photoshop, where I constantly use the Esc key to cancel various editing tasks. And the lack of haptic feedback (i.e., a vibration) to let me know when I successfully tapped the key certainly didn't help.

The Touch Bar isn't revolutionary, but it's not a big step backward, either. I'm not so sure the same can be said about the MacBook Pro's extra-flat keyboard. I don't like it at all, and I can sum up why very quickly: I commit a ton of typos while writing on this machine.

That's because the keys themselves lack depth, with just about 0.5 millimeters of key travel on each stroke. That's one-third the travel on the keys of the previous MacBook Pro model. In fact, the keyboard is probably flatter than any keyboard you've ever used, unless you happen to own Apple's 12-inch MacBook, which has a similar setup.

The problem with a flat layout is that the keys bottom out hard against the keyboard deck when you strike them. Because of that, my fingers felt tired and strained after about an hour of typing. That issue can be mitigated by typing with a very light touch. But after I adopted that strategy, I started missing keys altogether; my finger would graze the top of a key, but I wouldn't quite press it. In other words, I made a lot of typos.

I mentioned that the MacBook Pro's keyboard is similar to what you get on the 12-inch MacBook. That's true, but I should add that the Pro model does offer a slightly better typing experience than that model. The keys certainly feel snappier, with good tactile feedback on each keystroke. In comparison, the 12-inch MacBook's keyboard feels somewhat mushy. I wouldn't want to type all day on either of them, though.

To be fair, I have colleagues who say the keyboard just takes some getting used to. But after I spent about 5 hours total working on the MacBook Pro while writing this review, I hadn't warmed up to it at all. 

Workers who do a lot of typing should hit up a nearby Apple store to give the keyboard a whirl before investing in the new MacBook Pro. If you only need to punch in short email replies and the occasional URL, you may not mind at all.

For all the major changes to this year's MacBook Pro, the scaled-up touchpad might be my favorite. The pad is absolutely huge, measuring 5.3 x 3.2 inches — about 50 percent larger than the touchpad on the previous model. Maneuvering the mouse around still feels silky smooth, and gestures (such as the three-finger swipe to access Mission Control) are really responsive. 

Instead of physically clicking down, the touchpad uses vibrations to provide tactile feedback. It vibrates when you press down, and delivers another small vibration when you lift your finger. It actually feels a bit like magic; you'd swear the pad was physically clicking down until you turn the system off and the physical feedback disappears. 

What more could you want out of a laptop display? The MacBook Pro's 13.3-inch, 2560 x 1600-pixel screen is a stunner, cranking out clear images and vibrant colors. Text looks supercrisp, and a series of glowing blue energy effects really popped off the screen in the HD trailer for Max Steel.

The screen's color output is impressive as well. The system produced 119 percent of the sRGB color gamut during our lab tests, which easily beats the Dell XPS 13, the HP Spectre x360, the Lenovo Yoga 910 and the Microsoft Surface Book.

It's nice and bright, too. The MacBook Pro's panel outshone rival systems, topping out at 452 nits of brightness. In comparison, the XPS 13, Spectre x360 and Yoga 910 barely cracked 300 nits. That makes the MacBook Pro easier to use outdoors or in direct sunlight. 

The Touch Bar isn't just a bit awkward to use; it also apparently saps your laptop's battery life. The MacBook Pro ran for 8 hours and 46 minutes on our battery test, which simulates continuous web browsing over Wi-Fi. 

That's actually pretty good compared to the 8-hour ultraportable average, but it's still a disappointing result compared with the non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro's 9 hours and 50 minutes. And even that falls short of rival systems, including the Yoga 910 (10:36) and the Dell XPS (13:49).

You get a Touch ID fingerprint reader on the Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro, which gives workers a nice security boost. The fingerprint reader, located at the far right edge of the Touch Bar, whisked me away to my desktop quickly and reliably whenever I tested it. You can also use it to log in to websites, and to pay for stuff online. In addition to that, the MacBook Pro comes with a Trusted Platform Module for full hardware encryption of your system.

The 13-inch MacBook Pro is speedy enough to tackle demanding work tasks with ease, but it trails a bit behind competing Windows machines on benchmark tests. The system is equipped with a 6th-generation Intel Core i5 processor with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of internal flash storage.

The system racked up a very good score of 7,587 on the Geekbench 4 test, which measures overall performance. That tops the entry-level MacBook Pro (7,053) but can't match the 7th-gen Core i5-powered XPS 13 (7,287). Both HP's Spectre x360 and Lenovo's Yoga 910 topped 8,000 on the same benchmark test, though they run on 7th-gen Core i7 chips.

Likewise, the MacBook Pro performed admirably on our spreadsheet test, matching 20,000 names to their addresses in 4 minutes and 15 seconds. That's pretty fast, but the Yoga 910, Spectre x360 and XPS 13 all finished the same task in less than 4 minutes.

The MacBook Pro is equipped with Iris 550 graphics, which didn't perform quite as well as rival systems with integrated graphics. It notched 36.4 frames per second on the OpenGL portion of the Cinebench benchmark, which is slightly behind the Dell XPS 13 (42.6 fps) and the HP Spectre x360 (43.8 fps). Microsoft's Surface Book with Performance Base, which is equipped with a dedicated Nvidia graphics card, walloped those challengers on the same test. But it's also heftier than those systems, and costs a steep $2,399.

The Touch Bar-equipped 13-inch MacBook Pro can be purchased with either 256GB of storage for $1,799, or with 512GB of storage for $1,999. Storage aside, the two models are otherwise identical.

It's easy to complain about the Touch Bar's shortcomings, but I'm not ready to write the feature off completely. It can seem a bit confusing and gimmicky at times, but it's bound to get a lot more use than the top row of keys you get on other laptops. And the potential for genuinely useful functionality is certainly there, even if a full touch screen would provide similar functionality in a more intuitive manner.

While I'm neutral on the Touch Bar, there are two issues that workers should seriously consider here. The first is the MacBook Pro's polarizing keyboard, which was a chore for me to type on — even if my colleagues say they warmed up to it. Second, the lack of legacy ports makes it impossible to connect many peripherals without the right dongle.

Those issues aside, there's a lot to love about the new MacBook Pro. You get fast performance, above-average battery life, a brilliant display and a slim design that's great for commuters. But don't buy into the hype: The Touch Bar isn't likely to enhance your workflow.

Brett Nuckles

Brett Nuckles has been a working journalist since 2009. He got his start in local newspapers covering community news, local government, education and more before he joined the Business News Daily staff in 2013. He graduated from Ohio University, where he studied Journalism and English. Follow him on Twitter @BrettNuckles.