Apple's new 15-inch MacBook Pro is a gorgeous piece of technology that will change the way you work. At least that's the promise of the new Touch Bar, a nifty touch strip located above the keyboard that lets you edit documents and fly through options menus without lifting your fingers from the home row on the keyboard. But while the Touch Bar might get you to tweak your workflow, I'm not convinced that it will actually make you more productive in the end.
Workers will also be disappointed to find that the MacBook Pro's slim design accommodates just a few ports, without a single full-size USB port in sight. But for business users who want a work companion that's as sleek and portable as it is powerful, the 15-inch MacBook Pro ($2,799 as reviewed, starting at $2,399) could be just the ticket.
The MacBook Pro has never been so commuter-friendly. The system is thinner and lighter than most rival systems, weighing in at 4 lbs. and measuring 0.61 inches thick. That makes it easier to slide into your work bag than Dell's XPS 14 (4.4 lbs., 0.66 inches) or Microsoft's Surface Book with Performance Base (3.7 lbs., 0.9 inches).
Of course, it's no surprise that the MacBook Pro is a stunner, with a handsome aluminum design and gently rounded edges. Build quality is predictably excellent; I particularly enjoyed the silky smooth hinge, which allowed me to open up the MacBook Pro's lid without shifting the system. It comes in space gray or silver.
Ports & connectivity
Hoping to pull some files from your USB thumb drive to show a client? You'd better hope you remembered to bring the right adapter, because the MacBook Pro lacks even a single full-size USB port. Instead, you get four Thunderbolt 3 ports, with two on either side of the system. That means that connecting peripherals such as flash drives, monitors and Ethernet cables is a matter of having the right dongle handy.
Oh, you want to expand the system's 256GB of internal storage? Too bad – this is the first MacBook Pro that lacks an SD card slot.
In some ways, it's hard to blame Apple for paring down the MacBook Pro's ports. The system's lightning ports offer fast data transfer (up to 40Gbps), and since they offer full USB-C support, you can plug in most newer accessories. That includes up to two 5K displays side by side for serious multitasking. And, of course, getting rid of the larger ports allowed Apple to make a slimmer, sleeker laptop.
On the other hand, this is the MacBook Pro, and I think most professionals will find the lack of ports a real inconvenience, if not an all-out deal breaker.
It's the new Touch Bar that really steals the show here. The slim touch display sits right above the standard QWERTY layout, right where you'd usually find the function keys on other keyboards. In a nutshell, the Touch Bar promises to replace your rarely used function keys with a set of dynamic controls that change depending on what you need at any given time. (This would be a good time to point out that you can always bring back the traditional function keys on the bar by holding the Fn keys on the bottom-left corner of the keyboard.
There's no quick way to describe how you use the Touch Bar, because it offers new controls every time you bring up a new app. For example, it gives you quick access to your favorite contacts while writing an email, and it suggests commonly used words while you're typing, which can be inserted with a tap (just like the auto-fill feature on most smartphones). If you're editing photos in Photoshop and need to change colors or layer mode, you can tap the corresponding icon on the touch bar.
System functions are also baked into the bar. For example, you can easily tweak your MacBook Pro's display brightness or volume with a few taps and swipes.
The Touch Bar works as advertised, responding quickly and accurately to taps. Icons look crisp and colorful, and most Touch Bar menus feature clever animations. On top of all that, there's a level of novelty to the whole thing that made me want to fiddle with the touch menus to see what I could uncover.
But once the novelty wore off, I started to notice that the Touch Bar could actually be pretty confusing. The icons on display are constantly shifting and changing, and menu items are usually hidden behind several layers of unlabeled icons, so they can be tough to find. To make matters worse, the Touch Bar menus are different for every app, so using it has a real learning curve.
On top of that, I'm skeptical that professionals will want to use it much, either. When I'm editing in Photoshop and want to adjust my color balance, it's a whole lot easier to hit Ctrl+B on the keyboard than trying to unearth the option on the Touch Bar.
I see the Touch Bar as something that will only get better with time, as developers think of new and clever ways to make use of it. Still, I doubt you'll ever convince me that the Touch Bar is more useful than a full touchscreen display, which is what you get on Windows laptops such as the Surface Book.
While most users won't miss the old function keys on their keyboard, you might lament the removal of the physical Escape key from the MacBook Pro's top keyboard row. It's now a touch key, and that makes it really easy to miss when you reach for it.
That was especially painful when working in Photoshop, where I constantly use the Escape key to dismiss windows and cancel various editing tasks. Without a physical Escape key to feel for, I often miscalculated and missed. The touch-based key that you do get is smaller than average, and you don't even get haptic feedback to let you know when you successfully tapped it.
Despite my qualms, I could get used to using the Touch Bar. I'm not sure that I could get used to using the MacBook's Pro's super-flat new keyboard, though. To be fair, I'm particularly picky about the feel of my keyboards. I prefer extra depth, which is more comfortable for marathon typing sessions. It's not just about comfort, though – I actually commit an unusual number of typos while working on the MacBook Pro.
The keys really are shockingly flat, with just 0.5 millimeters of key travel on each stroke. That's about a third of what you got on the previous MacBook Pro model, which offered one of the comfiest keyboards on the market. I feel confident saying that you've probably never typed on a keyboard this flat before, unless you happen to own the 12-inch MacBook.
The result is that you can feel the keys "bottom out" when you strike them, which makes my fingers tired and strained after just an hour of typing. I tried typing with a very light touch to lessen the strain, but that caused me to miss keys altogether, resulting in a slew of typos.
For what it's worth, colleagues of mine say the MacBook Pro's keyboard just takes some getting used to, and some even love it. After four or five hours spent typing on the system while working on this review, I'm not convinced, so I'd suggest you visit an Apple store to go hands on with the keyboard before you invest in a new MacBook Pro.
I can't complain about the scaled-up touchpad, though. It's positively huge, measuring 5.3 x 3.2 inches. That's about 50 percent bigger than the pad on the previous MacBook Pro model, which gives you a lot of room to maneuver the mouse. Cursor control felt as smooth and responsive as ever, and gestures like two-finger scrolling were just as snappy.
The MacBook Pro's 15.4-inch, 2,880 x 1,800-pixel retina display is big, bright and beautiful. Text looks crisper and more readable than ever, thanks to improved contrast over previous models. Colors popped, too; when I watched the HD trailer for "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2," blue and green laser charges blasting from a spaceship's cannons seemed to leap off the screen.
Our testing backed up those impressions, showing that the Pro's display could reproduce 116 percent of the sRGB color gamut, which beats Dell's XPS 15 and is about on par with the Surface Book. And it's nice and bright, too, topping out at 440 nits of brightness. That outshines the XPS 15 (285 nits) and Surface Book (376 nits), making the MacBook Pro easier to use outdoors or in direct sunlight.
While the 13-inch MacBook Pro suffered from disappointing battery life, the 15-inch model is a more reliable travel companion. It ran for a very solid 10 hours and 32 minutes on our battery test, which involves continuous web browsing over Wi-Fi. It outlasted the 13-inch model by about two hours, and edged out the XPS 15 (10:26) and Surface Book (9:10). The laptop average is a little longer than eight hours.
The Touch Bar has one extra trick that I didn't mention before: It lets you log into your MacBook Pro using your fingerprint, thanks to a built-in TouchID fingerprint reader at the far right end of the bar. It's the first time a MacBook has offered biometric authentication, and that's a big perk for workers who are tired of fussing with password logins. The one-touch fingerprint reader worked reliably during my testing period, quickly whisking me to the desktop every time I tried it. TouchID can also be used to log in to websites and to pay for stuff online.
On top of that, the 15-inch MacBook Pro comes with a Trusted Platform Module for full hardware encryption of your system.
The MacBook Pro runs on MacOS Sierra, the newest version of Apple's desktop operating system. It's packed with a bunch of new features that might make you more productive. That includes full integration with voice assistant Siri, which can be summoned with a voice command on the 15-inch MacBook Pro. Siri is handy for quickly adding events to your calendar, setting reminders or performing quick web searches. It can even sift through your documents and emails to help you find exactly what you're looking for.
Other worker-friendly features include a bunch of new Continuity features, which let you pair your iPhone and iPad to your MacBook, making it easy to view and access your desktop files on the go.
The 15-inch MacBook Pro will blaze through your most demanding work sessions without a hitch. The system comes equipped with a 2.7-GHz Intel Core i7 processor and a whopping 16GB of RAM, which makes it fit for serious multitasking. I didn't notice a single hiccup while editing images in Photoshop with more than 20 tabs open in the Chrome browser, including one streaming HD video.
The system dominated the competition on the Geekbench 4 test (which measures overall performance), racking up an impressive score of 13,215. That blows away the Surface Book's score of 7,559 as well as the laptop average of 6,518.
Graphically demanding tasks such as CAD modeling or video editing should be no sweat for the 15-inch MacBook Pro, which comes equipped with discrete AMD Radeon Pro 455 graphics. That allowed the system to reach a smooth 79.84 frames per second on the Cinebench OpenGL graphics test, which renders a virtual car chase scene. That's on a par with the Surface Book with Performance Base (78.5), and leagues ahead of laptops with integrated graphics such as the 13-inch MacBook Pro (36.4) and Dell's 13-inch XPS 13 (42.62).
The Touch Bar isn't perfect – it can seem gimmicky and even be downright confusing at times. Still, I think it has plenty of potential, especially once you get past the initial learning curve. It won't revolutionize your workflow, but it could save you from hunting through menus while you work.
But it's not the presence of the Touch Bar that workers need to seriously consider before buying the new MacBook Pro (which will run you $2,799 as reviewed). Instead, they should be thinking about the super-flat keyboard – which isn't too comfortable, in my opinion – and the lack of legacy ports, which will force you to buy a bunch of dongles to attach basic accessories.
Those issues aside, this laptop has a lot going for it. It's the sleekest 15-inch MacBook Pro ever, and it boasts impressive performance, long battery life and a stunning 15.4-inch display. Plus, commuters will adore its super-portable design. Dell's XPS 15 offers an even sharper display and similar specs for just $2,100, but for Mac devotees, the new Touch Bar-equipped model is worth a serious look.