MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) Laptop Review
Why is it so hard to pick a MacBook?
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It wasn't too long ago that Windows PCs just couldn't keep up with the Mac. Especially at the high-end, Apple's laptops were the best option for professionals. Whether you were looking for impeccable style, great build quality, the best keyboards, gorgeous displays, or top-shelf battery life, the MacBook Pro was where you started—and often finished your search.
Apple's latest 13-inch MacBook Pro (MSRP $1,499-$1,799 depending on options) is a strange development given this long-running narrative. Sure, it has a stunningly engineered chassis and an unbelievably gorgeous screen, but the price is well above par for the market. Even with options like the nifty new Touch Bar and TouchID, the new 13-inchers just aren't the slam-dunk they used to be.
And with premium PCs like the HP Spectre X360, Dell XPS 13, and Razer Blade Stealth, Apple really doesn't have much room for error. It's probably the best MacBook Pro for most normal folks, but steep pricing, limiting ports, and a couple other drawbacks mean you need to think about what you need from a Mac. As it stands, the latest MacBook Pro gets a soft pass, and it's worth buying from a store with a lenient return policy just in case it doesn't meet with your approval.
About the MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016)
The 13-inch 2016 MacBook Pros come in two sizes and three main flavors. The model we tested for this review is the base model, without the snazzy new Touch Bar and sporting only two Thunderbolt 3 ports. Here's what you get for your $1,500:
•Intel Core i5-6360U dual-core processor
•8 GB LPDDR3 RAM 1866 MHz
•256 GB NVMe PCIe solid state drive
•Intel Iris 540 Graphics
•13.3-inch Retina display (2560 x 1600) with DCI-P3 color gamut
•Force Touch trackpad
•WiFi AC/Bluetooth 4.1
•54.5 Whr internal Li-Ion battery
It's worth knowing that this 13-inch is actually a little less powerful than previous Retina Display 13-inch models due to Apple switching to a 15-watt Intel chip. If you were hoping for better performance, the more expensive MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar has a beefier 28-watt chip inside. It has the same display, four Thunderbolt ports, 256 GB SSD, and 8 GB of RAM but costs a whopping $1,800.
Like most modern Macs, it's not upgradable, so what you buy is what you'll have for the lifetime of the computer. If you require a bigger SSD or more RAM, you'll have to pay upfront.
What We Like
Gorgeous design and an awe-inspiring metal exterior
There's no two ways about it: Apple still knows how to design an attractive laptop. This latest MacBook Pro is svelte and built with the finest materials around. Especially in the new, dark Space Gray finish, the MacBook Pro continues to evoke lust. I'm somebody who's tested a lot of laptops, and I still can't get over how nice this product feels. From its silky-smooth, perfect hinge to the precise pin-prick speaker grilles along the sides of the keyboard, this is a marvel of modern engineering.
Perhaps my favorite design feature of the new MacBook is something it strips away—the iconic, light-up Apple logo on the lid. Instead, Apple's placed a shiny, color-matched fruit in its place. I never cared much for the shouty, illuminated logo and the stealthy Apple makes this notebook feel stylish and sophisticated.
The vivid screen of your dreams
This screen is so, so, so good. It's bright, it's sharp, it's super colorful, and I enjoyed every moment I got with it. Every other display in my life pales in comparison to the Retina, DCI-P3 wide color gamut goodness of the MacBook Pro. Even though this laptop has a lot of things I found I could gripe about, the display deserves all the plaudits it earns.
A good, albeit awkwardly ginormous trackpad
Apple's trackpads continue to lead the way for the rest of the industry, and the one on the new MacBook Pro is more or less as good as any other Apple trackpad. This is another Force Touch unit that uses a small motor to simulate clicking without actually moving. It feels natural though, and gestures are accurate on the large, silky-smooth glass surface.
If there's one weird change with this trackpad that I don't like it's the fact that it's supersized compared to older Macs. Granted its palm rejection works well most of the time, but it's still weird to naturally find my hands resting on its expansive surface while I type. I'm sure that you can get used to it, but the years of conditioning are hard to break, no matter how reliably the palm rejection works.
Touch Bar and TouchID are promising additions
Even though Apple didn't go full touch like on some of our favorite Windows laptops, they made a very interesting concession. By adding a Touch Bar to the more expensive 13-inch, Apple's trying to bridge the gap between a tablet and a laptop. Having used the Touch Bar, I think it's intriguing, but the jury's out on whether or not it's a functional upgrade. The success of the Touch Bar will depend on support from app developers over the next couple of years.
What I think might be worth the $300 difference between the non-Touch Bar entry-level MacBook Pro and the pricier version with it is TouchID. Apple's fingerprint readers are among the best in the business, and the Mac has been crying out for one for years. Now that it's here, it's a feature that makes things that much better and faster. You'll never want to use a password on your laptop ever again after using biometric login, I promise.
What We Don't Like
The keyboard is thin, loud, and objectively worse
Last year, I tried out Apple's MacBook which featured a super-flat keyboard designed to take up next-to-no space. That computer had one design objective in mind: portability. It was a tradeoff that I didn't like, as it was a weird, uncomfortable keyboard, but I understood: Apple wanted to make a light and thin computer at the expense of other qualities. I never in a million years thought that the versatile, flexible flagship of the Mac laptop line would be saddled with that keyboard design.
Well, here we are. The 2016 MacBook Pros feature a slightly rejiggered version of the same flat keyboard that debuted in the MacBook. It's not great, if I'm quite honest. It stings even more since Apple's previous MacBook Pro had a very, very good keyboard. This keyboard is usable, and it might even be a slight improvement over the MacBook (although, I saw what you did there, Apple, by saying that this keyboard had a better "sense" of travel...that means it doesn't actually travel more).
It's also weirdly loud, sounding a bit like popcorn or potato chips crunching inside a plastic bag. Onomatopoetically speaking, if the old-style Mac keyboard went "chicka-chicka," the new keyboard sounds like "POCKA-POCKA-POCKA!" I had people at a café give me dirty looks while I was writing this review. Yeah, it's that noisy.
The fact of the matter is that you're paying your hard-earned cash for a premium laptop with a keyboard that feels like it barely moves. You wouldn't buy a car with uncomfortable seats, right? The same applies for laptops. Try this keyboard for a stretch in person before spending your hard-earned cash.
The ports make today awkward by banking too heavily on tomorrow
In 2015, Apple courageously released a 12-inch MacBook with only one USB-C port. While this might not be a shortcoming for a lot of novice users, it essentially rendered the MacBook a non-starter to others. This MacBook Pro gives you at least double the ports, but it's still a big downgrade from previous Pros, and especially from the MacBook Air. The Air, which is the closest laptop to this Pro conceptually, still managed to cram in two full-sized USB 3 ports, a Thunderbolt/video out, an SD card slot, and a MagSafe charging socket into a space only a little thicker than this MacBook Pro.
Apple limited the entry-level model to two ports, which is half of what you get with the pricier, Touch Bar-enabled Pro. That means when it comes time to charge, you have one of your ports taken away from you. It's less of an issue with the Touch Bar variant, but on the entry-level version, you have to sacrifice half your ports. Apple also refuses to help ease the transition to USB-C by throwing in an adapter for free.
Way too expensive, and what's standard elsewhere costs extra
Apple's put its MacBook Pros between a rock and a hard place. By leaving out accessories like the power adapter's extension cable, any USB adapters, and even ditching the cleaning cloth for the display that previous Macs packed, the new MacBook Pro feels so much less special, and Apple's charging substantially more than ever before.
Where that really starts to hurt the product is if you want Apple's latest features. Obviously, the entry-level MacBook doesn't have the Touch Bar, which in theory makes it cost less. But why diminish the Mac experience by leaving TouchID out of the picture. When you can get an IR biometric camera or fingerprint scanner on any number of cheaper Windows PCs, this just makes Apple seem super stingy.
This might not seem so egregious if prices didn't go up so substantially. Competing laptops of near-identical quality running Windows give you way more for the money. Take, for instance, the gorgeous HP Spectre X360: you can grab this fast 2-in-1 for less than the Mac with very similar specs (i7, 256 GB SSD, 8 GB RAM). It comes with Windows Hello facial login standard and has a full touchscreen. It's $350 less than the base MacBook Pro, and $650 less than the Touch Bar/TouchID version. I don't care if you're a penny pincher or a 1%er—$650 is a real chunk of change.
Should You Buy It?
Maybe, but it's only a sure thing if you're a devoted Mac fan
If you're looking for the best all-around MacBook in the 2016 lineup, you should definitely get the one that has an updated Retina screen, fast Intel Core i chip, plenty of ports, and a great keyboard. The problem? This laptop doesn't exist. While it's not too late to pick up a 2015 MacBook Air that comes close, our ideal MacBook continues to be imaginary.
I think the new MacBook Pros will appeal to fewer people than the previous models. They no longer have class-leading features across the board, which is a downright shame. Instead, you'll have to weigh your options carefully, even if you're just choosing from among Apple's own laptops.
For my money, the entry-level, non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro is the least frustrating of the new guard. You get perfectly acceptable performance, and although having only two ports might be an inconvenience (and the keyboard is still not awesome, to be frank), at least you'll leave the Apple Store having spent less than $2K. This MacBook has an unbelievable screen that'll be great for editing photos on, and a metal chassis that feels and looks so, so nice.
The pricier 13-inch with Touch Bar is another story. I'd say that it's worth investigating if you want the TouchID sensor. The trouble there is that if you're open to buying a Windows PC instead, you can snag a computer with some form of Windows Hello logon for half the money. Seeing how you're already in the door for $1,500, the extra $300 might be a bridge too far. At least with this $1,700 Pro you get the Touch Bar/TouchID combo, double the Thunderbolt ports, and a faster Intel i5 processor (with better Iris graphics to boot) so you'll know where your cash went.
Either way, Apple still knows now to make a fine laptop. Whether or not it's going to work for you is another story. Now that PC makers like Dell, HP, and Razer are offering modern laptops that are just about as good, the latest MacBook Pro has awesome competition with fewer drawbacks—something that even die-hard Mac fans should chew on before re-upping their commitment to the MacBook Pro.
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