That Controversial New MacBook Pro (Touch Bar): A pretty good review

I bought a new MacBook Pro to replace my 2011 model, which did not need replacement: it’s the finest notebook computer I’ve ever owned, and it’s still going strong. The new one is awesome but expensive, limited in some surprising ways, and even lacks some of the great features of its predecessors, like MagSafe, a range of common ports, and an esc key.

It is an odd beast, and much more interesting to review than the last one.1

This product was met with howls of concern-rage from Mac dorks, “as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror.” Almost every Apple product launch has this effect, because even Apple’s own customers inevitably seem to forget what kinds of gadgets Apple makes for them. However, this launch caused more butthurt than most “because reasons” 2 — but mainly just because Apple prioritized thinness over performance and the bleeding edge over legacy tech. Again! Who could possibly have predicted this behaviour?3

Glamour shot. Sayonara, glowing Apple logo: I never really liked you anyway. (MagSafe, on the other hand…)

The hand-wringing has been long and loud

Customers have loudly, crankly been wondering things like:

None of this really bothers me all that much. Apple’s envelope-pushing never does, because I have a natural loathing for old tech standards (I usually never liked them to begin with). As good as my last MacBook Pro was, this new one — I got a 15" model with no CPU or GPU upgrades, but an ample 500GB SSD — is a lot better.

Let me count the ways the Touch Bar MacBook Pro is better

  1. Significantly thinner and lighter.
  2. Dramatically faster SSD storage (too fast for my disk speed measuring tool).
  3. Much faster GPU (but not really the CPU).
  4. Ports that can do practically anything (power or big data to/from any of them).
  5. A trackpad that’s more solid, responsive, capable, and frickin’ huge
  6. Much brighter screen, literally more colourful (“wide colour” has arrived).
  7. The TouchBar is beautifully made and integrated (and, although its potential is unknown, it’s obviously better than the function keys it replaces).
  8. Hallelujah, finally, Touch ID on a Mac! So great.
  9. Obviously bolder speakers, which I am rocking as I type this.
  10. Even better fit and finish, particularly the hinge—so smooth! This thing is build like a svelte aluminum tank.
  11. Sturdier keys, an amazing feel, and — so great — no backlight leaking around the edges.
  12. “Space grey” finish is just dead sexy.

That’s a lot of improvements for an upgrade I didn’t actually need. I do also have some quibbles, which I’ll get to.

Old on the left, new on the right: not crazy thinner, but try fitting the gaping maw of USB-A port on the thin edge of the new one. It barely fits on the old. (What really gets me is that it’s also thinner than the back of MacBook Air, which for a long time seemed like the thinnest laptop there would ever be.)

The TouchBar is like an art film

I’m not sure if it’s any good, but it’s certainly an impressive achievement, better than it sounds on paper, which is “a little strip of touchscreen that extends the keyboard with a row of buttons that transmogrify.” It’s like a display/keyboard hybrid, a bridge between the two. None of that means a damn thing if it doesn’t feel and work right.

Mostly it does, but not entirely.

I was going to start by saying that at least it’s obviously superior to what it replaces, but that’s not completely clear to me yet. Although I never used the function keys as function keys, I’ve used most of them as labelled on Macs for a long, long time. I’m still not entirely surely how I feel about several of those functions being hidden most of the time. Will I ever use the Mission Control or show-me-all-the-apps buttons ever again if I have to tap to expose them first? The jury is still out.

But I want to touch the TouchBar, and that’s a good thing. Hell, it’s texture is so appealing they could have called it the LickBar. The integration is flawless: it’s unerringly responsive and displays options instantly. Many of them are purty, and the TouchBar literally shines when the options are colourful or artistic. Choosing emoji with the TouchBar makes me want to use more emoji. 😜

Keyboard and Touch Bar. And get a load of all that trackpad: sometimes it makes the Mac look small, but no, it’s just the hugeness of the trackpad.

I am puzzled by some of the other options, some for their absence, others for their foolishness. For instance, typing suggestions are useless, albeit obligatory — how could they not include them? I am a zippy typist, and I will never use them, except for the odd bit of help with tricky-to-spell words like “diarrhea” and “embarrass.” 5

I’d like to say that the TouchBar software will surely improve, and it probably will, mostly thanks to 3rd party developers. Apple itself is not exactly known for speedy software refinements. I have a long list of gripes about macOS and Apple apps (not even counting the train wreck of iTunes), some of which have been around for as long as there has been a macOS to have gripes about. I will hope for the best, but I expect to be exasperated by stagnation.6

The most recent Sierra update (10.12.3) would have been an obvious place for a few high priority refinements, but I’m not aware of any.

Bar none, the best thing on the touch bar is the Touch ID button. I rarely type passwords anymore.

Other random notes about the TouchBar

On the keyboard, its depth (or lack thereof), and that worrisome ESC “key”

My qualifications to judge keyboards are as good as they get.7 But I’m not precious about it, and I have no patience with all the princess-and-the-pea griping about this keyboard being “terrible” or “unusable.”

One major point of a laptop computer is to make design compromises that favour portability. Laptops or “notebooks” have always had keyboards that were smaller and thinner than their desktop cousins, and the new MacBook Pro keyboards just take another step in that direction. And they aren’t just “fine”: I think they’ve done a remarkable job making the best possible super-thin keyboard.

On a laptop, I literally don’t want “the best keyboard,” I want the best keyboard for the size. And this keyboard makes some beautiful compromises — amazing even — between depth and feel.

Travel, schmavel: these keys move enough. It’s not how far keys move that actually matters, it’s whether I can feel the movement — and these ones snap nicely, with a just-right amount of resistance and a satisfying clickiness that is remarkable considering that they just barely actually move.

They also have almost no wobble, which contributes to a strong overall impression of durability that I love.

It is a noisier keyboard (as many reviewers have commented), but I'm not sure if it’s actually louder or just clickier. If the clickiness was necessary to preserve the feeling of engagement with the keyboard despite the lack of clickiness, I’m all for it.

Backlighting on laptop keyboards has become such a valuable feature that I’ve started to get irritated by its absence from my desktop keyboards. But as nice as it is, it’s always bothered me that so much light leaks out from around the edges of the keys and competes with the label. These new keys do not leak light, and it’s a real improvement: the view is much less cluttered. It also contributes to that high-quality feel.

This shot shows off the colour difference between the old silver and the new space grey. In bright light they can look quite similar, but at other times it’s obvious which one is more badass.

Two keyboard gripes about groping

I have two keyboard complaints only, both about groping around for heavily used keys:

  1. The arrow key cluster is greatly harmed by collapsing the up/down keys into the space of a single key. There’s not much to say. It was a poor choice.
  2. The loss of a physical ESC key, which calls for much more detailed complaining.

The first thing I learned about this new MacBook Pro was a rumour about the TouchBar, and so the first thing I thought was, “But what about the esc key? The rest of the top row of keys can be virtual, but not esc.” I probably use the esc key about as often as the delete keys. It’s the undo/cancel/back key for a thousand things, the get-me-outta-here key. My left middle finger rests on it habitually during many operations, and I’ve been doing this for decades. Making it virtual is an obviously bad idea.

But Apple did it and worse, a double whammy: they changed its position as well, indenting in by almost a centimetre. So it went from being a critical physical key in a premium corner position…to a splash of pixels in a weird new not-quite-the-corner position. Bad Apple, bad.

Anticipating the frustration, perhaps, someone at Apple did make sure that we can now re-define other control keys to function as esc key, and **caps lock* is the least bad option.8

Unfortunately, after a few weeks I still haven’t come even close to naturally using the capslock lock key to escape from anything.9 The only better solution I can imagine is to redefine the ` (back tick) key, which is now the highest, leftmost physical key on the keyboard, and needed even less than caps lock.10

So what about that janky battery life? It’s fixed

Yes, there was a bug! Now that the bug has been fixed, there’s nothing more to see here: typical battery life for a Macbook Professional, neither notably better or worse than the last one. Any doubts you have on this topic will be resolved by this very thorough reporting.

So it’s “fine.” I’d like more, but — as with the keyboard — I’m happy to accept the compromises between thin and functional.

The ports

The new MacBook Professional incredibly abandons all legacy ports — the bulky USB-A plug shape that we have all tolerated for many, many years now. This is an extremely Apple-ish move, of course, with many similar precedents, but many people have argued that they are reaching for the future a little too aggressively this time, and would it have killed them to include at least one USB-A port?

Yes, I think it would have “killed” them. Because USB-A is too fucking thick for this Mac. So it’s a compromise made for the sake of a thinner Mac. Another one. Which I embrace as happily as the others.

I have benefitted from the awesomeness of the new USB-C ports almost every day. I have been slightly inconvenienced by the need for USB-A to C to dongles a few times.

There’s plenty else one could review about this Mac, but that’s the end of the especially interesting stuff.

  1. Although, fascinatingly, some people have dug up reviews of the last one, noting that complaints are curiously indistinguishable from the complaints about this one. ↩︎

  2. There is some backstory, especially the bizarre fate of the trashcan Mac Pro. John Gruber writes, “‘What the hell happened with the Mac Pro?’ is the most interesting question about Apple today. Because something clearly went way wrong with this product.” And then there’s the more predictable but sad neglect of the Mac mini. And the widespread fear that maybe Apple is neglecting the Mac and macOS for iOS and iThings. And intel’s slow chip development pace lately, which has created some major dilemmas for Apple. And there’s the battery-life bugs and drama about the new MacBook Pro that amounted to nothing in the end↩︎

  3. Almost anyone who has paid the slightest attention to Apple ever. The homeless guy who drunkenly asks me once a week if he can have my phone because it’s “pretty.” My friend’s sharp 8-year-old. A tech savvy dachshund. ↩︎

  4. I have lost count of the number of times I have seen some delicate flower declare that the keyboard on this mac is "ruined" or "unusable." Hyperbole much? Good grief! ↩︎

  5. It’s a feature for lame typists and/or keyboards. Its dominance of the TouchBar on my new MacBook Pro feels like a waste. 90% of the time I’m typing, and 90% of the time I’d much rather have a selection of system-wide shortcuts. I have several that I use routinely, both standard macOS ones as well as quite a few of my own. It would be dreamy to be able to fully customize it. ↩︎

  6. 😱 ↩︎

  7. I have been a fast typist for decades and a keyboard connoisseur. I’ve used many of the best possible keyboards over the years. ↩︎

  8. The only options that make any sense are the relatively useless caps lock or fn keys…but fn is both too far and too useful for other things, so caps lock it is. I have other easy ways to capitalize chunks of text (a script activated by a system-wide shortcut). ↩︎

  9. Although it’s a large target, it resides in a dead spot in my extremely burned-in mental map of the keyboard, a region I never normally reach for. It feels surprisingly weird and awkward to curl my fingers down to feel for it. I’ll learn it if I keep at it, but it’s going to take quite a while — and, perversely, the only chance I stand of succeeding is if I change my other keyboards to match, not only defining caps lock as esc but actually depriving myself of the esc key to force myself to learn the new way! It’s starting to feel punitive. ↩︎

  10. I think it might actually feel almost fine and normal to make that the new esc key. There’s just one problem: there’s no convenient way to do it! Karabiner will probably do the trick soon-ish, but it’s not ready yet. Keyboard Maestro can probably do it too, but I am loathe to buy yet another clever automation tool (my system is already full of them). ↩︎