By Jason Snell
October 28, 2016 11:12 AM PT
Some more hands-on experience with the new MacBook Pros
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
Since nobody’s getting the new Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pros until mid November, and I was fortunate enough to spend some hands-on time with them Thursday, let me do a little bit of a brain dump about what I saw and touched.
There’s no brightness control for the Touch Bar. My first impression of the Touch Bar is that the “keys” looked… like keys. It didn’t feel like I was looking at a screen, but at an extension of the keyboard. That was an intentional choice on Apple’s part. Unlike the display and the keyboard, the Touch Bar’s brightness is not manually adjustable.
Instead, the Touch Bar’s brightness varies based on lighting conditions, using the light sensor. I wasn’t able to try and trick it or confuse it, but the entire time I was using it—in a dark room and in a much more brightly lit one—it seemed to match the keyboard well. This is not a bright, glowing screen above a dark keyboard—it’s an extension of the keyboard.
Oh, and if you’re scoring at home, the Touch Bar is a 2170 x 60 OLED display. To the right side is a power button with embedded Touch ID sensor, and to the left side is a blank gap, presumably to force some sort of symmetry on the design? Ironically, it makes the Touch Bar feel a bit asymmetric because it doesn’t extend to the left edge of the keyboard, so the virtual Escape key, when it appears, is shifted over from the tilde key right below it. It’s a bit weird.
Touch Bar is designed for angled viewing. The Touch Bar itself isn’t angled, but Apple designed it knowing that its primary viewing angle isn’t straight on—it’s at an angle, down on a laptop keyboard. This went into some of the aspects of its design, including changes to the structure of the glass and a special coating. The goal was to make it feel like an input device, not a display—and in fact, make it feel similar to the trackpad.
The display is an energy saver. According to Apple, the retina display on these models is brighter—rated at 500 nits—and incorporates the same larger pixel aperture and variable refresh rate as the MacBook’s display. Despite all that, the display uses 30 percent less energy than the previous model. That’s one of the ways Apple was able to shave weight off of these laptops—by reducing battery due to the decreased power consumption of the screen.
That’s a big trackpad. The trackpad on the 13-inch model is more than half again as big as on its predecessor, and on the 15-inch model it’s doubled in size. As Phil Schiller said on stage Thursday, Apple can make the Trackpad bigger now that it’s a Magic Trackpad rather than an older hinged model because even at large sizes the entire surface is clickable. (The previous generation of MacBook Pros finished life with Magic Trackpads, but they were tucked into the space designed for older, hinged models.)
The trackpads are large enough that Apple has had to build in more palm-rejection intelligence, because when you’re typing on these things, you’re going to inevitably slide your palms across them. In my experience writing this article on a 13-inch MacBook Pro, the palm rejection worked well—I never felt that I had to change my typing approach just to avoid weird mouse movements.
So about that keyboard. When the MacBook was released with its low key-travel keyboard, the intense debate among Apple kremlinologists was if Apple would bring that keyboard to the MacBook Pro line as well. The introduction of the Magic Keyboard—which didn’t ape the MacBook keyboard and offered a lot more key travel—muddied the waters.
On stage Thursday, Schiller said that the MacBook Pro’s keyboard was a second-generation version of the MacBook keyboard and featured design changes to give it more movement feel. As someone who is not a fan of the very small amount of keyboard travel on the MacBook keyboard, I noted the phrasing. He didn’t say the keys moved more, just that they felt better.
Well, it’s my sad duty to report that the MacBook Pro keyboard has the same key travel as the MacBook. Apple says the stainless steel dome switch beneath each key has been honed to give you a more responsive feel, but to me it feels just like the MacBook’s keyboard. (To be fair, I don’t have a MacBook available to test directly. It’s possible that this keyboard does indeed feel more responsive than the MacBook, but I would never mistake it for the old MacBook Pro or MacBook Air keyboards or even the Magic Keyboard.)
If you like the MacBook’s keyboard, good news! You’re gonna get it. If you don’t like it—well, I don’t know what to tell you. It seems like this is the keyboard style Apple’s going to give us on laptops until the day comes when it does away with physical keys altogether.
More than one port is nice. I’ve only got the Touch-Bar-lacking 13-inch MacBook Pro, but I was still able to pull off a trick that I wasn’t able to do with the MacBook: attach a peripheral while also charging. The low-end 13-inch MacBook Pro has two Thunderbolt 3 ports on its left side, and a headphone jack on the right. Because it’s Thunderbolt 3 and not just USB-C, I was also able to use Apple’s new Thunderbolt 3 to Thunderbolt adapter, put my MacBook Air in Target Mode, and connect the two machines together to transfer files—all while the MacBook Pro kept charging. Imagine that.
(That Thunderbolt adapter is quite chunky, by the way. It’s not just an adapter cable, there’s a whole big cylinder connected to the Thunderbolt port.)
Having USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 with me on the trip I’m taking right now means that I could actually bring a single charger cable for the MacBook Pro and my iPad; instead of a single-purpose MagSafe charger, the Macbook Pro comes with a USB-C charger. Swap the USB-C cable for a USB-C to Lightning cable and you can use it to charge iOS devices.
Oh, and according to Apple, you can charge the MacBook Pro from any port. The higher-end models have two Thunderbolt 3 controllers, so the only real limitation across the ports is that if you want to connect two 5K monitors, you’ll need to connect them on opposite sides of the laptop.
What makes that LG Display special. Instead of announcing a new Apple-branded Thunderbolt 3 Retina Display, Apple announced that it worked with LG to create a new 27-inch 5K display that supports the wide color gamut now present on MacBook Pros, iMacs, iPhones, and the 9.7-inch iPad Pro. (This collaboration convinces me that Apple’s not going to make a display of its own.)
What makes the LG display different from any other 5K display that might offer DisplayPort 1.2 and Thunderbolt 3 support? According to Apple, there’s more hardware integration: You can adjust the brightness and settings of the LG display from your Mac, rather than pressing buttons on the display to bring up on-screen menus.
By the way, LG is also offering a smaller 4K display, but that one’s not Thunderbolt 3—it uses USB-C and doesn’t offer all the ports and the webcam that the 5K display does.
Just a reminder: USB-C isn’t Thunderbolt 3, really. Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C use the same ports, but there are compatibility issues. a Thunderbolt 3-equipped computer can use USB-C adapters and devices without a problem, but a USB-C-equipped computer—namely, the MacBook—can’t use Thunderbolt 3 stuff. I’d imagine that in practice this won’t be a huge deal, because unless a device really needs features only offered by Thunderbolt 3, it’ll opt for USB-C compatibility instead. But if you’re a MacBook user, you should be careful—that Thunderbolt 3 docking station isn’t going to work.
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