Apple's first major refresh of the MacBook Pro line since 2012 is a controversial one. The company has never been afraid of removing "legacy" technology before it's quite reached the legacy stage. At various times, they've removed the floppy drive, then later the optical drive and removable battery. Mind you, they didn't do all those things at once--generally one feature gets the axe in a release. This time around, they've pared away several features that are hallmarks of pro laptops, and even non-pro laptops. Call it the 12" MacBook-ification of the MacBook Pro line. At the same time, prices for the 13" model have risen significantly: the $1,799 13" MacBook Pro that's the true specs successor to the outgoing model is $500 more than the $1,299 model it replaces. 15" MacBook Pro prices are similar to the last generation, which lessens the sting, give or take some feature swapping (we'll cover the 15" MacBook Pro in a separate review).
We have the base 13" MacBook Pro in for review. It's $1,499, which is $200 more than the starting price of the previous generation model, but the new model has a slower CPU tier (15 watt vs the usual 28 watt faster CPU used in 13" Pro models). Unlike the step up $1,799 13" MacBook Pro and the new 15", it has a traditional Fn key row rather than Apple's new OLED Touch Bar strip that dynamically changes context and functions depending on the program you're in. Lenovo tried something similar but using an e-ink touch strip on a previous generation ThinkPad X1 Carbon but it failed miserably so Lenovo removed the feature from following generations. It's likely that Apple's more colorful and functional take on the idea will be more successful, but it's still a Band Aid for the lack of a touch screen, as is the now absurdly huge Force Touch trackpad that's big enough to serve as a resting place for an iPhone 7 Plus in a bulky case. In the Steve Jobs era, Steve said that PC touch screens were bad because they caused you to strain your arm as you reached for the display--that Touch Bar is almost equally far away and requires that you take your eyes off the screen (where all the action is) to look at the Bar.
A New Generation CPU, but Not the Newest Available
The base 13" MacBook Pro moves up to Intel 6th generation Skylake dual core 15 watt CPUs, though Dell and HP are shipping competing 13" Ultrabooks with Intel 7th generation 15 watt dual core CPUs. For reference, the previous gen MacBook Pro 13" has a 5th generation 28 watt dual core CPU. Intel just started shipping 7th generation CPUs in September 2016, and only the 15 watt dual core CPUs are available, so we can forgive Apple for shipping 6th gen in the higher end 13" and the 15" model--the 28 watt dual core and 45 watt quad core CPUs aren't out yet.
Apple says the base model is the replacement for the MacBook Air they're discontinuing--and in that light, the base model's 2.0 GHz Intel Core i5-6360U CPU with Intel Iris 540 graphics is a step up. The price jump from the $1,000 Air to $1,500 for a Pro is another matter. The base model isn't meaningfully faster for than the outgoing base 13" Retina MacBook Pro, but the $1,799 model with 28 watt Intel CPUs and Intel Iris 550 integrated graphics will be faster (graphics should be 7% - 15% faster while the CPU is just 2-3% faster based on our review of PC laptops running the same CPU/GPU family). All late 2016 MacBook Pro models are available with 8 or 16 gigs of DDR3LP RAM, soldered on board. They have Apple's usual very fast PCIe NVMe SSDs, and the smallest capacity is a reasonable 256 gigs. As per usual with Apple, pricing for higher capacity SSDs is expensive, and they don't use the standard M.2 connector used in PC laptops, so you won't easily find an aftermarket upgrade.
Geekbench 3 Benchmark 2015 and 2016 Base Model:
2015 13" MacBook Pro entry model with 2.7 GHz Core i5, 8 gigs RAM: 3325/7042
2016 13" MacBook Pro entry model with 2.0 GHz Core i5, 8 gigs RAM: 3536 / 7192
Unigine Heaven 4.0:
29.9 fps, 80C CPU/iGPU temperature. Settings: 1440 x 900 resolution, no AA, medium quality.
Cross the 12" MacBook with the 13" Retina MacBook Pro
The new MacBook Pro doesn't look wildly different from the outgoing model. That's not a bad thing since the design is still one of the best looking and seemingly timeless on the market. The 13" model has gotten even thinner at 14.9mm and it has lost a half pound. It now weighs 3 lbs. just like the 13" MacBook Air. The slimmer look and curves at the edge of the lid are reminiscent of the very good looking 12" MacBook ultra-ultraportable. Gone is the backlit Apple lid logo, replaced by the same high polish stainless steel looking logo found on the back of the iPad and 12" MacBook. The new MacBook Pros are available in the usual silver and now Space Gray (sorry no gold or rose gold... yet).
Build quality, fit and finish are Rolex good. There's no flex and it feels immensely solid. At 3 lbs., the Mac is a little heavier than the Windows PC competition in the 13.3" high end space, but the divide has closed--the Dell XPS 13 weighs 2.6 to 2.8 lbs. and the updated HP Spectre x360 (a convertible, and those tend to be heavier) is 2.8 pounds. The insanely slim and light HP Spectre weighs 2.45 lbs and the updated 15" MacBook Pro is 4 pounds.
The 12" MacBook has surprisingly loud and full speakers for a tiny laptop, and larger Macs often set the benchmark for good audio on a portable. The 13" MacBook Pro's up-facing speakers flank the keyboard like the 15" model. Apple uses two drivers per side and audio quality is excellent for a 13" laptop, though max volume isn't as high as the also quad speaker HP Spectre x360. We heard virtually no distortion at max volume on the Mac, while the HP starts breaking up above 75% volume.
Here's where Apple, often wrongly accused of making boutique laptops meant to be fashion statements at Starbucks rather than serious machines for getting work done, has embodied that once wrong-headed trope. Pro laptops have a few key qualities:
1. Plenty of ports to connect all manner of displays, drives, networking and other accessories that a heavier computer user needs for business and content creation.
2. A very good keyboard for content creation--be it the written word or writing code with confident precision (Apple used to be the paragon of the very good keyboard).
3. An excellent display that's suitable for pro photo and video work.
4. Better than average build quality--a machine that can handle travel and years of use.
Apple hit 3 and 4 with an A grade. This is one of the best laptop displays they've made in years--better than the outgoing generation and reminiscent of years ago when they had the displays that graphics designers and photographers coveted. But Apple has fallen flat on 1 and 2. They've removed all (not really legacy yet) legacy ports except the headphone jack. No display ports, no standard USB A ports and no SD card slot. You'll need to buy an adapter simply to plug your iPhone into this Mac since Apple doesn't include any adapters in the box--not even USB-C to USB A, which even Google includes even with a smartphone (the Nexus 6P, Pixel and Pixel XL) and HP includes with the Spectre. Photographers and video producers are a big part of the pro Mac demographic, so that missing SD card slot hurts. Sure, you can buy an SD card reader--remember those, they're so last decade... and you will have to carry that, along with all sorts of dongles and hubs to connect your external monitor, drives and Ethernet.
The base 13" MacBook Pro has two USB-C gen.2/Thunderbolt 3 ports. We're glad they're here--they are the wave of the future, though still not the wave of the present. To be fair, we've seen some PC laptop makers reduce (though generally not eradicate) the number of older ports in 2016, but those have been more consumer oriented rather than pro machines. The $1,799 model has a roomier 4 USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports-- though keep in mind that one is used for charging on all new Mac laptops (you can use any of the ports for charging). On that upscale model, the 2 ports on the left run at full 40 Gbps speed while the two on the right don't get full PCIe bandwidth. I can't tell you why Apple did this, but I suspect there wasn't room for a needed additional chip or controller. The 15" has 4 full speed Thunderbolt 3 ports and a headphone jack. The 12" MacBook-ification means that we're seeing concessions made for thinness and weight at the expense of ports. That's fine, but not on a Pro line in 2016.
For those who are new to USB-C and Thunderbolt 3, you'll find more USB-C than Thunderbolt 3 adapters and peripherals on the market. It often doesn't matter whether you use USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 adapter, unless you're connecting a multifunction high resolution monitor like the new LG 5K display made for the new Macs. There are Apple and third party USB-C hubs, USB A 3.0, HDMI and DisplayPort adapters on the market, and Apple sells a $49 Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt 2 adapter. You can connect one 5K monitor or two 4K monitors at 60Hz on all 13" models while also using the internal display (though you'll either need to use a hub with pass-through charging or daisy chain the displays via DisplayPort) if you need AC power. You can connect external hard drives, Ethernet and printers via USB-C to USB A dongles and hubs.
Deals and Shopping:
Late 2016 13" MacBook Pro Video Review
13" MacBook Pro vs. HP Spectre x360 (Late 2016) Comparison
13" MacBook Pro vs. Dell XPS 13 Comparison (both late 2016)
Butterfly Keyboard Redux
The 13 and 15 inch MacBook Pro models now sport the same ultra-low travel butterfly keyboard with domed switches as the polarizing 12" MacBook keyboard. Though I never did come to like the 12" MacBook keyboard (I tried for months), it was an understandable concession necessary to make a crazy slim, 2 lb. 12 inch laptop. Pro laptops shouldn't fall prey to fashion and thinness compromises to the same extent as one of the smallest laptops on the planet. If you get along with the 12" MacBook keyboard, you'll be fine with this keyboard. If you're not loving that 0.5mm of key travel (the outgoing MBP models have 1.6mm) and the hard feel when the keys bottom out, you probably won't love the new Pro keyboards. If you learn to lighten your touch, then the keyboard does become less literally jarring on the finger tips and joints, and Apple did improve the dome switches' clicky feel so the click is more pronounced and tactile. I've used the 13" MacBook Pro to type this review, and though I've not felt comfortable or confident, my error rate wasn't as bad as expected--about 10% vs. my usual 4% (OK, that's not great, but a week later it did improve to a 7% error rate). If typing isn't a big part of your day, then you'll probably be fine with the keyboard after an initial adjustment period.
The keys are very evenly backlit in white, and each key has its own LED. There are as ever quite a few gradations in brightness (controlled via an Fn key on our model without the Touch Bar) and auto-brightness to help. The keys have excellent contrast and a nice matte feel.
Wow! What a gorgeous and bright display. Apple says it's 67% brighter and 23% higher in color gamut compared to the outgoing models, and that's the truth. The 2560 x 1600, 16:10 aspect ratio IPS display is the same resolution as the outgoing model (I feel no need for higher resolution) and it's an insanely bright 516 nits per our Spyder4 Pro colorimeter. Anything in the low to mid 300's is considered a bright laptop display, and over 500 nits is virtually unheard of in a laptop. Gamut is indeed very wide at 91% of Adobe RGB and 87% of NTSC (it covers more than full sRGB). Most premium laptops, including the outgoing MacBook Pro models, cover 99% of sRGB and 75% of Adobe RGB, and just a handful score higher than this Mac (the 15" Dell XPS 15 with the 4K IGZO display and the Vaio Z Canvas hit 95%, as does the optional OLED panel in the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga).
Colors look very natural, a bit more so than on consumer level OLED displays on the few Windows laptops we've seen with OLED. Even at max brightness, the panel manages a low 0.45 black level which works out to a strong contrast ratio of 1140:1. If you're a photographer, this display should be more than adequate, even if you shoot in Adobe RGB instead of the more common sRGB. Those who create content for print (the web works on sRGB and print uses Adobe RGB) will adore this display. Apple usually ships their laptops with very close to perfect calibration, and in this case, we were surprised that the display was noticeably too blue-green out of the box. Calibration achieved near perfection, even though native gamma is a little high at 2.3 and the hardware white point too high at 7000K.
Battery Life and the Lid Lift Replaces the Power Button
Apple claims 10 hours of battery life, and unlike most PC manufacturers, their claims are generally accurate if not conservative. In a mix of productivity work, photo editing using Adobe Photoshop CC and streaming video with brightness set to 150 nits and WiFi on, we indeed got 10.5 hours. That might disappoint MacBook Air owners, but it's still ahead of most Windows laptops on the market and good enough for a full day of work away from the charger. If you do heavier work--say video editing in Final Cut Pro, hours of RAW photo editing or gaming, runtimes will of course be shorter. That 10+ hours is particularly impressive since Apple reduced battery capacity (to reduce weight). The base model has a 54.5 Whr battery and the Touch Bar model has a 49.2 Whr battery.
Apple ships the laptop with their usual glossy white square charger. This 61 watt charger has also been 12" MacBook-ified. Gone are the fold out ears to wrap the cord and gone is the second cord length that's so useful when the 6 feet of standard cord won't reach an outlet. You can still pop off the charger prongs and use that extender cord, but Apple now charges $19 for the privilege. Really, for a machine that runs $1,500 to well over $2,000, that's off-putting.
Even though the base 13" model still has an Fn row (half height) with the traditional Mac power button at the far right position on the Fn row, it powers up when you open the lid (Acer has done this in the past with their laptops, and it's an option you can change if you like on the Acer but not the Mac). I suspect the Mac does this because it shares a chassis with the Touch Bar model, which lacks a hardware power button and instead uses the lid opening plus Touch ID fingerprint scanner on the Touch Bar to boot up the laptop and then log you in. Should you shut down the machine and wish to boot it back up before shutting the lid, you can use the power button to do so or close the lid and open it again. For those who are nostalgic, the Mac boot up chime that's been around for decades is gone--the new generation boots up in silence.
I've been a Mac user since the late 1980's when they were tall beige boxes with floppy drives. Apple has had their ups and downs, but I've stuck with them because their OS is solid, their build and materials excellent, the hardware and features often above the fray and customer support refreshingly pleasant. There's always been a "Mac tax"--their machines are more expensive, but this time I think they've gone too far. The $1,799 model that replaces the $1,299 model without adding expensive new features or performance--ouch. Apple has generally kept prices the same with new generations, and this is a shock. It's a shame when the new intro 13" model is priced $500 higher than the 13" MacBook Air too. I suspect that the super popular and tolerably priced Air got a lot of people on board with Macs, and they may be priced out of an upgraded model. That $1,500 Mac isn't ahead of the Windows competition in terms of hardware priced at $1,000 either (other than that wonderful display).
As a 13" and 15" MacBook Pro user, I'm disappointed. Pro machines should have plenty of ports for us "pro" users who have external monitors, drives and audio equipment to connect. The keyboard should be effortless, or at least pretty darned good, rather than something we have to get used to (if we ever do). The $1,500 base MacBook Pro 13 inch model without Touch Bar is also a little confusing for the less knowledgeable buyer who might not realize they're also getting a slower CPU class compared to the more expensive configurations with Touch Bar. I honestly wish that Apple's execs would face the trend they started with the iPhone and iPad, and offer a touch screen rather than giant trackpads and OLED touch bars. But those execs still insist that they won't give us a touch screen, and the OS X roadmap for the next 5-10 years doesn't include touch, even though so many iOS elements have already infiltrated OS X (the Mac app launcher is a recreation of the iOS version, for example).
On the upside, even though I don't think anyone thought that the already very slim outgoing Pro models needed to be even skinnier, this is a very good looking and portable machine. Materials, build and aesthetics are top notch. The display is one of the best I've seen on a 13" laptop, and it has low reflectance even when not set to high brightness. Performance is fine, though it's not faster than competing 13" Ultrabooks in the $1,000 tier (though storage is faster than most). Though the lack of currently popular ports is a problem, it's great to have two forward looking Thunderbolt 3 ports (though 1 is occupied by the charger). On the more expensive model, the 4 ports feel just about right.
Price: $1,499 for base model with 15 watt CPU and no Touch Bar. $1,799 and up for model with 28 watt CPU and Touch Bar.
Display:13.3", 2560 x 1600 IPS display (16:10 aspect ratio, 227 PPI). Wide P3 color gamut Intel Iris 540 integrated graphics on base model, Intel Iris 550 graphics on higher end models. HDMI, DisplayPort and VGA available via USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 adapters.
Battery:54.5 Whr (49.2 Whr on Touch Bar models) Lithium
Ion rechargeable, sealed inside (requires bottom cover removal to service).