TIME Reviews

Review: Apple Finally Brings Touch to the MacBook Pro

But not in the way anybody expected

The good: Helpful Touch Bar, Beautiful screen, Improved keyboard, Includes Touch ID
The bad: Expensive, Needs dongles for some connectivity, Touchpad sometimes feels too large
Who should buy: Professionals seeking a high-performance laptop, especially for editing media

Using Apple’s new MacBook Pro is a little bit like test driving a BMW for the first time. Everything about it feels more refined, sharper, and faster than your old laptop. But it’s probably out of your budget, and even though everything about it is better than what you’re used to, you can’t name one particular thing you miss when it’s gone.

I’ve been using Apple’s MacBook Pro with Touch Bar, for the past week. It begins shipping this month starting at $1,799 for the entry level 13-inch version. Apple also offers a 15-inch model starting at $2,399 that includes a faster processor, boosted graphics, more memory, and a larger trackpad.

As the laptop’s name implies, the most significant upgrade is the addition of a thin horizontal touchscreen called the Touch Bar, which sits just above the keyboard, where the function keys once resided. The Touch Bar’s big trick is its ability to change functionality based on the software you’re using — it will show media controls in iTunes and editing buttons in Photoshop, for instance. It’s a welcome upgrade along with the new Pro’s upgraded keyboard, snappier performance and other enhancements. But it’s not as radical a change as including a full-blown touchscreen, which Apple has yet to do despite the prevalence of touchscreen laptops on the market.

The new MacBook Pros’ high price make them tough to recommend unless you’re a professional who might view a new computer as an investment. There are well-built Windows laptops out there with just as much power — and full-blown touchscreens — that cost considerably less. The Touch Bar is a nice addition, but it’s not enough to warrant upgrading if your current laptop is only a couple of years old or newer.

Here’s a closer look at what it’s been like to use Apple’s new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.

Touch Bar

The Touch Bar, the standout feature on the new MacBook Pro, is a classic Apple flourish: It’s not, strickly speaking, a must-have, but it’s pleasant to use nontheless. Put simply, it’s a tiny touchscreen whose buttons change as you hop around different apps. When browsing in Safari, for example, the center portion of the strip will display your currently open tabs, making it easy to jump between them. In Apple’s mail app, a trash can icon helps speedily delete unwated emails, while the “Move to” key helps you quickly sort messages into various folders.

Most of Apple’s default apps already make good use of the Touch Bar, including Messages, Calendar, iTunes and more. Outside developers can incorporate the Touch Bar into their apps as well; you’ll find it used by Photoshop, Microsoft Office, 1Password and Pixelmator to start. I found the strip most helpful when it came to editing photos and videos, as it makes it easier to compare edited and unedited versions of photos as well as scrub through footage.

Should you find yourself unhappy with the commands the Touch Bar offers by default, you can customize them to your liking. The Touch Bar also includes Apple’s Touch ID fingerprint reader, enabling faster switching between accounts as well as digital payments via Apple Pay.

 

MacBook Pro Touch Bar
AppleMacBook Pro Touch Bar

While I like the Touch Bar, there are plenty of ways Apple could improve it. Not every shortcut implementation is perfect just yet — it’s nice to be able to switch tabs more quickly in Safari, for instance, but it’s tough to distinguish between different sites on the tiny screen. Nor does the Touch Bar accelerate the process of switching between apps. (Accessing the standard function keys, including the button to open Apple’s app-switching Mission Control interface, requires an extra tap when within an app.)

That said, the Touch Bar is a welcome step forward in creating a computer that’s better able to adapt to users’ needs at a given time. But it’s not a necessity. Computer buyers who only need a laptop for light document editing and web surfing can steer clear of paying the extra $300 for the Touch Bar. (A non-Touch Bar version of the new MacBook Pro can be had starting at $1,499, while the company’s cheaper laptops and iPad Pros are also good options if you need an Apple machine.) Creative professionals, however, should give it serious consideration.

Using It

Apple’s new MacBook Pro offers other improvements, too. While it’s slightly heavier than the MacBook Air (2.96 pounds versus 3.02 pounds), its overall size remains impressively compact. The new Pro is both shorter and narrower than the Air.

The refreshed MacBook Pro also features an updated version of Apple’s butterfly-style keyboard, which the company introduced with the 12-inch MacBook. Although I was reluctant to embrace that keyboard when it first appeared — it always felt too shallow to me — I enjoy typing on Apple’s latest effort. The keys feel deeper and less stiff, making it easier to type quickly when compared to previous Apple laptops.

The new laptop’s trackpad is significantly larger than that of Apple’s previous efforts, which provides more room for gestures like pinch-to-zoom. Still, I found the bigger trackpad to be more of a hinderance than a benefit. I keep right-click enabled on my Mac as my secondary click mechanism, so I often found myself accidentally right-clicking when I meant to single-click.

The Retina display on the new Pro is exceptionally beautiful, and will be one of the most noticible upgrades for anybody upgrading from a MacBook Air. The 2,560×1,600 display makes colors and text pop in a way that the MacBook Air’s 1440×900 screen simply can’t match.

Performance, Battery Life, and Connectivity

The MacBook Pro’s battery life seemed to fall in line with Apple’s claims of a 10-hour lifespan. I was able to get through a workday with a little power to spare before the laptop shut down, which is satisfactory but outpaced by the 13-inch MacBook Air.

The MacBook Pro, as its name might imply, is capable of handling far more than just casual computing. Whether I was running video games on their highest graphics settings, opening and editing high resolution photos, or browsing Safari with 10 or more tabs open, I never saw any performance hiccups.

Before buying the MacBook Pro, you ought to consider the port situation. The new laptop includes four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, with nary a standard USB or SD card slot to be found. USB-C offers plenty of benefits over older ports (like faster file transfer speeds), but we’re still in the middle of a transition period, meaning you’ll probably need to buy some adapters for connecting your MacBook Pro to external displays, a camera memory card, or even, yes, an iPhone. That’s going to be a headache for many potential buyers, especially professional users who rely on lots of peripherals to get their job done.

Apple has long been known to make controversial connectivity decisions. The MacBook Air was initially derided for its lack of an optical drive, while the more recent omission of a headphone jack on the iPhone 7 invited similar complaints. For its part, Apple says wireless connectivity and USB-C are the future. That’s likely true, but it’s not particularly helpful to those who’ll need to spend extra money on dongles. (Apple responded to an outcry over the MacBook Pro’s port situation by reducing the price of adapters through the end of the year.)

Conclusion

Windows PCs have undergone huge transformations over the past several years: they’ve gained touchscreens, the ability to bend and twist, and many can pull double duty as tablets. Apple’s MacBooks haven’t changed nearly as dramatically — using an Apple laptop built in 2015 is largely the same as using one from 2010.

Apple’s new MacBook Pro changes all that, finally revealing what Apple believes is the next step for its laptops. Unlike many Windows manufacturers, Apple isn’t trying to compeletely reinvent the laptop. Rather, it’s thinking about how laptops can get smarter, with features like the Touch Bar that adapt to meet users’ needs at a given time. Early reports indicate Apple may double down on this concept with an entire keyboard of context-aware buttons, rather than just a single row.

Still, the new Macbook Pro isn’t for everybody. As helpful as it may be for digging through your inbox or inserting emojis into your chats, its steep price means it’s a better buy for media professionals rather than everyday users. (And even they will have to deal with the port situation.) For the rest of us, there are plenty of cheaper options, including Apple’s lower-end laptops, its iPad lineup, and excellent-yet-affordable Windows laptops like Dell’s XPS 13.

4 out of 5 stars

Pre-order now: 15-inch model starting at $2,399 here, 13-inch starting at $1,799 here

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