2016 15″ MacBook Pro Review

Rating:

In September 2016, Apple unveiled their newest MacBook Pro lineup: faster and more powerful, lighter and thinner, and an even better display. However, two key changes happened that received quite a mixed reception: the introduction of the Touch Bar, a thin strip of glass replacing the row of function keys traditionally found on keyboards, and the full switch to USB Type-C ports.

In this review, I take a close look at the 2016 15″ MacBook Pro and understand how these changes translate into usability and performance, for both personal and professional uses.

Aesthetics & Design

2016 15" MacBook Pro Review

Apple has really outdone themselves with the 2016 MacBook Pro lineup. In 2015, they released models that were already thinner and lighter than ever, and the 2016 versions take it a step further.

The 13″ MacBook Pros come in at 1.49cm in thickness, and the 15″ models are 1.55cm thick. For reference, the 2015 15″ MacBook Pro Retina clocked in at 1.80cm, which is probably negligible for most people, but that much of a reduction in thickness without losing much in terms of processing power is one hell of a design and engineering feat.

Along with its slimmer and lighter body, the new MacBook Pros also come with a new colour: Space Grey. Matching the dark grey colour scheme available for many other Apple products like the iPhone, iPad, and the 12″ MacBook, it brings a great bit of extra colour to the mix.

2016 15" MacBook Pro Review

With its slim profile, the MacBook Pro’s keyboard is much thinner than previous Apple laptop keyboards. Touting the second generation butterfly mechanism under each key, the keys look (and feel) incredibly thin, having very little travel for keystrokes. Right below the keyboard is the much larger trackpad, which allows for more room for gestures and taps, but can look slightly out of proportion at first.

Now, one of the bigger changes with the newer MacBook Pros is the Touch Bar. A thin, black, glass plate that spans the width of the keyboard, taking the place of the Function key row of traditional keyboards. There are no tactile markers aside from the portion that acts as both a power button and Touch ID sensor, so it becomes a very visual interaction as different buttons are displayed depending on context and/or function required.

Aesthetically, the Touch Bar is beautifully implemented, and the display is crisp and very easy to see even in daylight. It provides a sleek new look for keyboards that have not changed much in appearance and functionality in decades.

Usability

With its smaller form factor, there are some relatively obvious changes to usability: the keyboard feels very different under your fingertips, the trackpad’s size reduces travel distance for your hand but its palm rejection is not perfect, the complete switch to USB Type-C ports requires a bit of extra preparation, and the Touch Bar is a very different experience than a physical Function key row.

The new keyboard on the 2016 MacBook Pro laptops is an evolution of the keyboard they introduced with the 12″ MacBook: keys are much thinner and require much less force to register a keystroke, and the travel distance on the keystroke is reduced as well. Typing feels very different if you’re coming from a 2015 MacBook Pro, and even more so if you’re like me and regularly use external mechanical keyboards. It does take a bit of time to adjust, but I will admit that it does feel quite nice to type with after the initial adjustment period.

In addition, the larger trackpad mostly feels like an improvement with its larger size. If you’re accustomed to using a Magic Trackpad, this feels like one is permanently affixed to your MacBook Pro. With its increased size, your travel distance from the keyboard is reduced, while also allowing for more room for gestures and taps. The only drawback I’ve seen is that palm rejection is not perfect, but it is lightyears ahead of any other implementation I have personally seen.

2016 15" MacBook Pro Review

One of the more controversial design decisions for the 2016 MacBook Pro line was the complete change to USB Type-C ports, which caused quite a furor with the online community. However, like decisions that Apple has taken in the past, this too shall pass. There are 4 USB Type-C ports on the 2016 15″ MacBook Pro, and they’re used for everything like the power cord (no more MagSafe!), external displays, and external peripherals like keyboard and mice. Eventually, all devices will support USB Type-C, as it is definitely the future, but for now, you might have to spend a little extra money on dongles or hubs for devices that use USB Type-A, or even your displays.

2016 15" MacBook Pro Review

Most important of all: the shiny and all new Touch Bar, exclusive (for now) to the 2016 MacBook Pro. As mentioned earlier, it’s an aesthetically pleasing and well-implemented touch screen that replaces the normal top row of a keyboard, which includes the Escape key, the Function keys, and the power button on many Apple laptops. With its digital display, all of the keys that its replaced can be displayed at will, while also showing context-specific options and functionality.

By default, the functionality of the original Function keys, like volume and brightness control, are accessed by tapping the correct menus to bring up sliders or playback controls. However, if you bring up a supported application, like iMovie, then different actions are shown, like playback controls, or clip splitting. In others, like QuickTime Movie Player, you can scrub through video to start play on the exact frame or time that you’re looking for. Unfortunately, it looks like apps will have to be updated to fully support it. Playing a video on VLC Player seems to not present the same options on the Touch Bar as QuickTime, which means it’s only a matter of time before it does.

2016 15" MacBook Pro Review

At the end of the day, this is an early adopter commenting on the very early implementation of tech: the Touch Bar seems to have limited capabilities out of the box, but can at least perform all of the functionality of the physical keys that it replaced, and provides many capabilities that weren’t easily available or easily displayed before. As a programmer, the loss of my physical escape key is a bit of a hindrance, but this too just took some time to get used to. I think the Touch Bar is a nice luxury item to have, and doesn’t necessarily make my life easier, but it doesn’t make it worse either, from both a personal and professional perspective.

Performance

The 2016 15″ MacBook Pro is one hell of a machine. Remember: this version of the 2016 MacBook Pro is the highest end model, coming with a 2.7GHz quad-core Intel Core i7 CPU, a Radeon Pro 455 discrete video card, and 16GB LPDDR3 RAM out of the box. It is a serious work machine, and it is capable of performing at an incredibly high level.

Perhaps compared to previous models, it’s not as serious of a performance boost, but it is still an incredibly performant machine. Running it through Geekbench and Cinebench to gauge its CPU, Compute, and GPU capabilities, it scored above average and near the top of the list for all macOS machines.

I haven’t run it through the full gamut of video editing beyond simple clip splitting and real-time renders in Final Cut Pro X, but rendering both imported clips as well as the current timeline is ridiculously fast, and seems to outperform my previous machine by a significant factor. I wish I had more than one external monitor to really test out how many external displays it could drive will still performing at a high level, but it seems to remain relatively smooth, with regards to performance and stability, while performing several activities at once, including video editing.

2016 15" MacBook Pro Review

A significant improvement over the previous model of MacBook Pros is SSD performance. With solid state drives, read/write speeds are already significantly above plate-based drives, and for Apple to continue to improve in this arena is mighty impressive. Measured using the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, we can see that read/write speeds are ludicrously high (at least 450 MB/s faster than the 2015 13″ MacBook Pro), which is a great boon for activities that rely on quick reads and writes, like booting up, editing videos, and even gaming.

2016 15" MacBook Pro Review

Unfortunately, the one place that I had trouble with, in both tests and day-to-day usage, is the battery. During tests, I was unable to observe battery life beyond the 7 hour mark, trying to use a test with as close to my day-to-day setup as possible (WiFi on, Bluetooth on, screen brightness at 30%). However, during actual usage, I could observe anything between 3 hours with development work or video editing and 9 hours with casual web surfing and writing. It also should be noted that the automatic graphics switching between the discrete and integrated video card can also cause battery life to dwindle at a much faster rate, which is less of a problem for other 2016 MacBook Pro models.

Overall, I found the 2016 15″ MacBook Pro to be one hell of a performant machine. With a bevy of different activities that are all resource-intensive, it didn’t seem to flinch at all. It remained stable and quick, and that’s all I ever ask for from my machines.

The Bottom Line

2016 15" MacBook Pro Review

The 2016 15″ MacBook Pro is a great machine. Its design and aesthetics are better than ever, coming in lighter and thinner than almost any other laptop on the market. The Touch Bar is a novel new feature, and the complete jump to USB Type-C will take some time for everyone to get on board with, but now it’s just a function of time. And as always, it performs at a high level required to perform any task, whether personal or professional.

This product is perfect for: anyone who needs a high performing machine that also utilizes bleeding edge technology.

Key things to be aware of: the cost of the 2016 MacBook Pro might be greater than just the list price, with having to buy dongles or hubs to work with the USB Type-C ports.

Final review score: 4.5. The 2016 MacBook Pro is a great laptop: it looks and feels great, has great usability, and performs at high levels. Exactly what you need for a personal or work laptop, but can be a tad steep in price, and that’s before the dongles or hubs for USB Type-C.

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Jon Lim

Jon Lim is a professional developer, writer, and an avid technologist. He has written creatively for the past 16 years, and professionally for 4 years.

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