A Real Review

A few days ago, I addressed all the negative propaganda in regards to the new MacBook Pro. If you're dumb, I'll assume you were offended. If you were on the fence about upgrading, hopefully I gave you some points to help you make a decision. So with the ranting out of the way, it's time to talk about why I think this is an incredible laptop.

The Dark Mac

To remark on the thin and light qualities of this Mac seems like a trite understatement. We all know that Apple's goal is to make everything thinner and lighter. And at a difference of half a pound, there's nothing mind-blowing here in terms of weight. A 4lb laptop feels like a 4.5lb laptop.

The exterior of this MacBook is the best they've ever created. Apple offers it in a silver and space gray finish, but the space gray is an absolute must. Silver looks exactly like all the other Macs before it. It's obvious that space gray has become a new Apple signature. It's not a dark black; it's subtle. It's different than the space gray 12" MacBook or the iPad Pro. Having this finish on a 15" pro machine emphasizes that this is both sleek and powerful. When the lid is closed, it reminds me of a beautiful, slumbering beast.

The reduction in thickness can be attributed to the newer retina display that was first used on the 12" MacBook. It's the thinnest possible on a notebook and constructed right into the housing. This also means the glowing Apple on the back is gone, along with the black, plastic hinge component- there's only space gray aluminum here, through and through. The result is a compact notebook with a much smaller footprint.

Places you touch

All interactions with the MacBook Pro occur on new or redesigned elements. Starting with the keyboard, Apple implemented similar butterfly mechanism dome switches from the 12" MacBook, but these are the 2nd generation. And that's a good thing. A lot of users despised the MacBook keyboard, criticizing it for being too shallow and not having enough travel. I never had a problem with it. In fact, I rather enjoy the mechanical feel it has. So is this 2nd generation a lot different from the original? No, but it's not exactly the same either. I would describe it as feeling better than the MacBook keyboard but not as good as the external Magic Keyboard.

I'm in love with the larger force-touch trackpad. Pictures don't do it justice; you need to get yourself to a store and check this fucking monster out in person. Apple claims it's 2x the size of the previous trackpad. I would say it's about 95% close to the size of the external Magic Trackpad. It's enormous, and that's fine with me. It doesn't hinder my typing at all and makes all the OS gestures feel more fluid and responsive.

Ah yes... let's talk about that special area where the dumbass function keys used to sit- the Touch Bar (I like Touch Strip better; anyone else?) Now as of lately, I haven't been okay with the way Apple explains it's motivations behind it's product decisions (I.E. the headphone jack). However, I'll admit that this time they got it right. We don't use the function row of keys. At least not for their original purpose. We see them as controls for areas of the system like volume levels, display brightness, media playback, etc. And if Apple has shown us anything, it's that there has to be something better than a static set of controls that have a single use. What if they used a touch surface that could be anything based on the context of the application? Oh wait...that's an iPhone. Perfect...let's go with that.

So far, I like everything about the Touch Bar- the underlying tech, the execution of it on the machine, the way it's software integrates in context... like i said, everything. The matte feel to the OLED dispaly helps with Apple's intention that this isn't second viewing area; it's another method of input. When I reach up to touch the area that was once a physical ESCAPE key, I often don't notice the difference. All of my system functions are still right where they need to be, except now I have an expansive area for additional controls and tools. And yes; some of them feel gimmicky and tacked on.

I've found three apps that make the most effective use of the touch bar. The first is Safari; the fact that I can view and swipe between my open tabs is brilliant. While most elements of the touch bar are still foreign to me, this already feels natural. Not only can I switch tabs, but I can start a new one and launch any of my favorite sites without taking my hands off the keyboard.

Messages would be my next favorite. Like the rest of the world, I use emojis fairly often when I text. Not only is it convenient to have all of them available right in front of you, but scrolling through them is a perfect example of how fluid and accurate the Touch Bar can be. Messages is also a great example of the quick type feature that's found throughout the system now. When you start typing, the touch bar offers word suggestions, spelling fixes and emoji replacements.

Finally, a special call out goes to Final Cut Pro. It does a beautiful job of making tools that were once out of the way completely accessible. Also, the ability to scrub through a project timeline while viewing my playback in full screen is a game changer.

I expect the rest of the applications along with the third party programs to catch up rather quickly. This is all new and will take time before both Apple and it's users understand the best way to utilize this. I have no doubt this will be a staple on all Mac keyboards in the near future, and if iOS eventually does cross over to the Mac, this is a great way to start.

A finely tuned machine

After having a few days to put this thing through it's paces, I'm satisfied with it's performance. The faster SSD and power of the Skylake chip are noticeable during all aspects of use, but not in an "oh wow look how fast everything is" kind of way. Here's my usual workload:

  • VMware Fusion running 2-3 virtual machines at a time
  • Office apps running: Word, Outlook and Powerpoint
  • Chat programs running: iMessage, Google Hangouts and Skype for Business
  • Quicktime Player for screen captures
  • Both Safari (for browsing) and Chrome (for web apps)
  • Misc core apps: Calendar, Notes, Calculator, etc.

You get the point; I have a lot of shit running all the time. Where I'm seeing the speed increase is not in a specific application, but more when I'm bouncing between them. I've rarely seen the spinning wheel while rendering in Final Cut Pro and switching back to Outlook or Safari. Launching multiple Powerpoint presentations is noticebly quicker, especially once I get to the fourth or fifth open deck. And remember, the machine is doing all this while talking to the context sensitive touch bar, which is running a separate chip and OS. To me, that feels pretty powerful.

So why didn't Apple offer a 32 GB memory option? Well, I hate to ruin the conspiracy party, but the answer is simple. The use of 32 GB of RAM in a machine this slim would require LPDDR4 memory- note the LP which stands for low power. Apple has been using LPDDR3 RAM in it's notebooks since 2012 for efficiency.

Unfortunately, Intel's Skylake CPU does not support LPDDR4; these new machines are still on '3'. So if the problem is Skylake, which is almost a year old anyway, why is Apple holding back on implementing the 7th gen Kaby Lake chips? Again, it's not a mystery folks. They aren't available yet- at least the kind that would fit into a MacBook Pro. So there you have it; at the moment, we're stuck with 16 GB of RAM. I think we'll live.

The real Thunderbolt

Since it's release in 2011, I've never felt like Thunderbolt became what it was intended to be- a space saving port that has enough bandwidth and power to take the place of protocols that deliver data, power and video. The Apple Thunderbolt display was probably the best realization of the technology, but let's be honest- it was priced out of most people's thoughts. With Thunderbolt 3 and it's USB-C form, it feels like this is the real Thunderbolt.

 The dream

The dream

The pain in the ass here is that there's no way around this transitional period of dongles. At the very least, the average Mac owner uses a standard USB flash drive, some kind of video out connection and an SD card- all on a regular basis. So that user will have to purchase three adapters. Some of us will need a lot more than that. But the end game here is to not worry about any of this. All devices we connect will employ a USB-C / Thunderbolt 3 cable or port. And once a proper docking station is released, one cable will allow for a vast array of I/O including multiple displays, USB-A and gigabit ethernet- all while supplying power back to the Mac. Hopefully, the wait won't be too long as I'm already eyeing this guy from Belkin. If you have the problem of too much cash, you can also check out the LG UltraFine 5k Display. It was designed by Apple for LG and for all intents and purposes, takes the place of the discontinued Thunderbolt display.

Are we done here?

There's still a lot to go over here. I don't have a good sesne of battery life yet since most of the time it's connected to power at my desk. From what I can tell, it's on par with my previous gen 15". I also can't tell you much about the new AMD Polaris GPU architecture. When I briefly fired up World of Warcraft, it defaulted to the native resolution of 2880x1800 on high settings, which delivered a respectable 60 fps. We'll see how it handles other graphics intensive work as time goes on. But so far, I love using this machine. It's an amazingly power device packed into something that seems way too thin. It's exciting to discover new ways to use the touch bar. And I can't help but smile everytime I use this delightfully oversized track pad.

By the way, Touch ID on the Mac is great. And long overdue.