By Jason Snell
November 13, 2019 5:30 AM PT
Key upgrade: A first look at the 16-inch MacBook Pro
Here it is, the new generation of Mac laptop.
On Wednesday Apple announced a new 16-inch MacBook Pro, with a completely redesigned keyboard, bigger display, increased battery life, ninth-generation Intel processors, upgraded graphics processors, expanded storage, and improved audio input and output. And despite the rumors that Apple’s newest laptop would be a super-premium product at the top of the price list, in fact that 16-inch MacBook Pro is replacing the 15-inch model at the same base prices of $2399 and $2799.
I got to spend most of Tuesday with one of these new laptops, and the words you’re reading now were typed on the new keyboard. It’s strange that in a product update packed with a bunch of eye-watering specs, what most people want to hear about is the keyboard—but we live in a strange world, don’t we?
(Hear more about this, including an exclusive interview with the MacBook Pro product manager, on this episode of Upgrade.)
A Magic Keyboard for MacBooks
Back in 2015, the same year that Apple introduced the “butterfly” keyboard design that was standard on all current MacBook models until today, Apple introduced another keyboard—the Bluetooth Magic Keyboard. At the time, I took the design of the Magic Keyboard as a sign that Apple might not transfer the MacBook’s keyboard to the rest of the laptop line, creating a “keyboard dystopia.” Welp.
Four years later, Apple has finally embraced the Magic Keyboard design for laptops. The 16-inch MacBook Pro’s keyboard is a Magic Keyboard, with a scissor-switch design that Apple says is “inspired” by the design of the Magic Keyboard, but adapted for a laptop. It’s got more key travel—about a millimeter of key travel—and Apple says it’s designed the top of the mechanism to lock into the keycap at the top of travel in order to increase key stability.
Apple doesn’t like to admit that it’s wrong, but will be the first to let you know when it’s made an improvement. In this case, the Apple representatives I talked to admitted that while many people liked the butterfly keyboard, “some didn’t.” (That feels like a bit of an understatement.) Regardless, Apple spent time reconsidering what users wanted out of their keyboards, including doing a lot of internal research—and the result is that this new MacBook Pro has a keyboard based on the other 2015 Apple keyboard design, in the hope that this keyboard will be more broadly appealing to laptop users.
The introduction of the butterfly keyboard to the MacBook Pro line in 2016 coincided with the addition of the Touch Bar, a single touchscreen strip that replaced the entire function row. It quickly became apparent that one key on the function row, the Escape key, was missed far more than F1 through F12—and people who relied on the Escape key were unhappy with losing it as a physical key. The 16-inch MacBook Pro still has a Touch Bar—it’s just a little narrower. To its left is a physical Escape key, and to the right, a discrete power button with Touch ID, just like the one found on the MacBook Air.
The good keyboard news continues. In the bottom right corner of the keyboard is a “new” arrow layout that will be familiar to users of previous generations of Apple laptops: Four half-height arrows oriented in an “inverted T”, a shape that also provides some empty space that’s helpful for orienting your fingers on the keyboard without looking. My fingers salute you.
Apple clearly took the wrong road with its keyboard designs in 2015. The Magic Keyboard design was the right approach then, it’s the right approach now, and I’m glad to see it appear on a MacBook at last. I’ll be disappointed (and, quite frankly, shocked) if we don’t see this same keyboard on all Apple laptop upgrades over the next year. Out with the butterfly, in with the scissors.
16 is the new 15
The display of the 16-inch MacBook Pro—well, it’s right in the name, isn’t it? This laptop has a 16-inch diagonal screen that’s 3072 by 1920 pixels, up from 2880 by 1800 on the 15-inch model. Pixel density has increased from 220 pixels per inch to 226 ppi, so this is a higher resolution screen, not just a bigger one. Still, Apple has set this laptop to default to a scaled size that’s the retina equivalent of 1792 by 1120. I don’t mind the scaling and think the display looks fantastic, complete with the same P3 wide color gamut and 500 nits of brightness found on the previous 15-inch model. But I can see people who desire pixel-perfect accuracy being disappointed that this isn’t a “true 2x” display at 3584 by 2240.
The 16-inch display can also alter its refresh rate, which is especially helpful for video editors. You can choose from 47.95, 48, 50, 59.94, and 60 Hertz refresh rates. (The MacBook Pro can also drive up to two of Apple’s high-end Pro XDR displays, once they arrive—presumably alongside the Mac Pro, which is officially shipping in December.)
To help fit the larger display into the MacBook’s case, Apple reduced the bezels around the display. The top bezel is 25 percent smaller, and the side bezels are 34 percent smaller. Still, nobody could declare this a bezel-less display. And in fact, despite the reduction in bezel size, this is a larger laptop than the 15-inch MacBook Pro—14.09 inches wide (up .34 inches or about 9 millimeters) and 9.48 inches deep (up .2 inches or about 5.2 millimeters). The 16-inch MacBook Pro is also thicker, by less than a millimeter, at 0.64 inches (1.62cm) thick.
Add in a 100wH battery 1 (for about 11 hours of estimated battery life) and you’ve got the recipe for a chunkier laptop all around, and in fact, the 16-inch MacBook Pro weighs 4.3 pounds (2kg), compared to the 15-inch model’s 4.02 pounds (1.83kg). Clearly Apple’s design philosophy here was to optimize for performance and battery life and allow the laptop to get a little larger if needed. After many years of Apple seemingly prioritizing thinness and lightness even in its products targeted at professional users, this is a refreshing shift.
And to lend power to this whole thing, the MacBook Pro’s charger has also expanded. It’s not larger than the 15-inch MacBook Pro’s charging brick, but it is more powerful at 96 watts.
Apple has upgraded the sound on the 16-inch MacBook Pro, both for input and output. The new six-speaker sound system includes two speaker drives that are mounted back to back, allowing them to cancel one another out as they vibrate, which Apple says dramatically reduces distorting vibrations in the laptop case. What I can tell you is that the speakers on this laptop sound really, really good. Like, good enough to listen to music on, and I’m someone who has never thought any laptop speakers were good enough to use for music.
Apple has also upgraded the internal microphone on the MacBook Pro, and the company says that it’s of “studio quality.” That’s a somewhat meaningless phrase, but it definitely implies a much higher quality microphone than has previously been in Apple laptops. In my few hours with the MacBook Pro in a hotel room, what I can say is that it’s definitely a major upgrade over past Apple laptops. As someone who has had to salvage many a podcast recorded by someone who either didn’t realize they were using their laptop microphone or didn’t have any other alternative, I thank Apple for improving the base situation. I hope this microphone ends up in every Apple laptop.
Would I recommend that everyone chuck their podcast microphones and switch to a 16-inch MacBook Pro? Mmmmmmm, probably not. The microphones (located to the upper left of the keyboard) will still pick up vibration from typing and mousing around on your laptop, and in at least one placement I tried (on a desk up against the wall in the corner of a room) the recording had a resonance that wasn’t ideal. But still, this is a good microphone, and if you use it, I promise not to come over to your house and chastise you for not using a proper external microphone.
The new studio-quality mic array has a signal-to-noise ratio that is so high, it rivals that of popular professional-grade standalone digital microphones. With 40 percent less hiss than before, recordings sound superclean and capture much more of the quieter detail. So pros on the go can record a podcast or even lay down a voice track, all with the mics built into the 16-inch MacBook Pro. But you don’t have to be a recording artist to benefit from the high-performance mics—whether you’re dialing in for a conference call or catching up with your friends over FaceTime, your friends and colleagues will hear you crystal clear.
With keyboards, microphones, and displays out of the way, perhaps it’s worth recapping the processor and storage upgrades also found on this new MacBook Pro. It’s powered by ninth-generation Intel Core processors, with a six-core i7 in the base model and a 8-core i9 in the higher-end configuration.
Graphics are driven by the new AMD Radeon 5300M and 5500M GPUs, each of which comes standard with 4GB of GDDR6 video RAM (which has double the bandwidth of previous-generation GDDR5 RAM), but there’s a 5500M with 8GB of VRAM as a high-end configurable option.
A big part of the story of the 16-inch MacBook Pro is offering even more to people who need as much of anything as Apple can give them. So these laptops can be loaded with up to 64GB of 2666Mhz DDR4 memory. And you can configure them with up to 8TB of storage, which Apple says is the largest solid-state drive ever in a laptop.
Faster processors and more powerful graphics means more heat being generated by the system, which is why Apple redesigned the cooling system in the MacBook Pro. The heat sink’s surface area increased by 35 percent, and the fans have larger impellers and more blades so they can move 28 percent more air. While setting up my test MacBook Pro, Spotlight and Dropbox were indexing files and Logic Pro X and Final Cut Pro were installing and the fans cranked up all the way.
In what is a recurring theme for the 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple has prioritized professional needs over aesthetics. The fans are not designed to be quiet, and it’s absolutely not—though I found the sound more agreeable than many other laptop fans I’ve experienced over the years. Those fans are there to move a lot of air and keep the MacBook Pro running as fast as possible. I look forward to discovering in the coming days just how well the cooling system performs at that task.
Change, where needed
With the 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple has revealed its priorities for the MacBook Pro. The new keyboard was almost a given, but a larger display with smaller bezels, an emphasis on performance and battery over size and weight, and a redesigned cooling system to provide more thermal room for processor- and graphics-intensive operations. It seems to me that this MacBook Pro is finally fulfilling the promise made by Apple executives in 2017 to take the needs of its professional users more seriously.
If you’re someone who was waiting to throw out the industrial design of the MacBook Pro for something that looks different, or to add back MagSafe and a card slot, this laptop will disappoint you. Apple apparently didn’t have those features high on its priority list, if they were even there at all.
Only time will be able to tell us how well these laptops work over the long term, how people respond to the new keyboard, how well the thermal system works, and the rest. But right now I’m choosing to be optimistic. I just wrote 2,000 words about a new Apple laptop on that laptop’s keyboard, and it went just fine. That’s reason enough to party like it’s 2015.
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