Hands on: MacBook Pro review

Apple's leading laptop finally catches up – and then some

What is a hands on review?
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Our Early Verdict

To say the new MacBook Pro is a massive improvement over the previous model would be an understatement. It's more portable and more powerful, not to mention more enjoyable to use. But it's tough to justify the premium for that Touch Bar, no matter how cool it is.

For

  • Super-thin and light
  • Touch Bar smartly designed
  • Loads of USB-C ports
  • Huge trackpad

Against

  • Touch Bar needs more app support
  • Direct light washes out Touch Bar display

Update: This year, Cyber Monday lasts all week! Check out our Cyber Monday deals page for all the latest discounts including those on MacBook Pros.

It's finally here: the new-and-improved MacBook Pro, and it seems to have closed the gap between the Pro line and the competition – and them some. 

But the MacBook Pro has done so in ways that matter perhaps even more than gigahertz and pixels. This is now Apple's most usable laptop yet. Sure, it's thinner, lighter and more powerful, but the improved keyboard and trackpad set Apple apart in an even bigger way.

And that's before we even get to the Touch Bar (though its mileage may vary).

MacBook Pro price and release date

The spankin' new MacBook Pro is available for pre-order right now. As for when you'll get it should you pre-order, that's another story.

The 13-inch version, with standard function keys and two fewer USB-C ports, will ship the day you pre-order it. 

However, if you want one of the fancy Touch Bar versions, that won't begin shipping until two to three weeks from now.

Here's how much the MacBook Pro costs to start, broken down by version:

Now, let's get into what's new about the refreshed MacBook Pro, and what it feels like to use. Spoiler: it's better – way better.

Latest developments

With yet another product launch behind us, we've already begun to consider the next iteration of MacBook Pro. Despite having just reviewed the most recent model (sans the Touch Bar) there’s admittedly still room for improvement – namely in the graphics department, where a handful of laptop owners have encountered screen flickering.

Reports have already emerged that a 2017 MacBook Pro refresh is in the works with configurations supporting up to 32GB of RAM, twice of what is offered now. Moreover, Korean tech source ET News believes the next MacBook Pro could even house a full-fledged OLED display in lieu of its current LCD panels.

In the meantime, Apple is supporting the current MacBook Pro quite nicely, even treating it to its own front-page App Store section spotlighting Touch Bar-centric apps. Just don't expect, however, for Apple to have made it easy to swap out SSDs on the current model. 

Design and feel

At first glance, not much has changed about the MacBook Pro's design. The profile or silhouette generally remains unchanged, save for finally (sadly) losing the illuminated Apple logo on its lid in favor of chrome.

Take a closer look though and you'll see that nearly everything has changed. The 13-inch and 15-inch versions of the new MacBook Pro are 17% and 14% thinner than their predecessors, respectively – to the tune of a 14.9mm-thin 13-incher and a 15.5mm-thin 15-incher.

Naturally, with a thinner chassis comes lighter weight. The 13-inch version weighs just three pounds (1.37kg), nearly half a pound lighter than the previous version, while the 15-inch model hits the scale at four pounds (1.83kg), also shaving off nearly half a pound). 

While Apple wouldn't let you forget it, that makes the 13-inch MacBook Pro now thinner and lighter than the latest (and likely last) MacBook Air – and picking up the device, you can definitely tell.

As for the keyboard, Apple claims its second-generation butterfly hinges vastly improve the typing experience from that on the 12-inch MacBook. Having recently taken the latest 12-inch MacBook for a test drive, we can attest to these improvements.

Travel is deeper, and feedback upon releasing your fingers from a key is punchier. Frankly, this is what the first iteration of the new MacBook keyboard should have been – of course, that's easy to say.

The Force Touch trackpad has also been hugely improved. For one, the thing is damn enormous – twice as spacious as that on the previous model. This is the kind of trackpad we've wanted for a long time on MacBooks, and we finally have it. Plus, activating Force Touch functions, like word lookups, requires much less, well, force than before.

The Touch Bar, and how it works

Now, talking about how the new MacBook Pro feels to use brings us to the tiny elephant in the room: the Touch Bar with Touch ID. It's a Retina (read: OLED) touch display underneath a matte surface, and that's key: it means way less smudging on a screen you're supposed to be touching all the time.

And if you're wondering how this little screen performs under direct light, the answer is – like any matte screen – not very well. But it's not as if the screen's content is indiscernible under such conditions – there's just a blatant difference between its look under direct and indirect light.

As you'd expect from Apple, the way the Touch Bar works is stupid simple. For one, in general use, the Touch Bar just replicates the media-first functions you're used to from previous MacBooks.

But, when you enter an app supported by the Touch Bar directly – like most Apple-made apps and some third parties, like Adobe Photoshop – you're presented with an app-specific icon toward the left of the Touch Bar. Pressing this summons a series of app-specific functions.

For instance, when using Messages, this icon renders as a smiley face, offering you the breadth of emojis you're familiar with on your iPhone. It even remembers your most-used emojis if you're using Messages on connected iOS devices via the same Apple ID.

Opening the Maps app introduces a directional arrow icon, which when pressed presents a series of specific commands, like walking, public transit and driving directions, or specific types of locations of interest to home in on.

The Touch Bar supports 10-point multitouch as well as gestures, though we doubt there will be any applications of the tool requiring all 10 of your digits – assuming you could fit them all on there.

All told, the Touch Bar works as seamlessly as you'd expect from the company: Apple wrote the playbook on touch devices, practically. 

Regardless, that still doesn't make the Touch Bar hugely useful – we're having a hard time seeing anything that the Touch Bar can do vastly better or more easily than the MacBook Pro's much-improved keyboard and trackpad. Even before the improvements, weren't they just fine? (Well, except for DJing: this thing is going to be a record-scratcher's dream.)

What's inside

Powering the entire range of MacBook Pro models, including the one sans Touch Bar and with just two USB-C ports, are 6th-generation (or Skylake) Intel processors – not the brand new Kaby Lake chips. (The 13-inch models offer dual-core i5 or i7, while the 15-inch model offers quad-core versions of those chips.)

You may be wondering why Apple hasn't equipped its larger MacBook Pro with Kaby Lake. The short answer, which was confirmed by an Apple employee who spoke to Gizmodo, is that no quad-core Kaby Lake processor is currently available. The Skylake chip that features may not be latest-gen, but it's the fastest quad-core chip available.

Backing that up is Intel integrated graphics on the 13-inch models. Meanwhile the 15-inch version offers AMD Radeon Pro 450 graphics with 2GB of video RAM to start (you can also upgrade to the Radeon Pro 460 chip with double the video RAM).

As for storage, all models start with 256GB of solid-state storage, upgradeable to 1TB in the 13-inch versions and up to a massive 2TB in the 15-inch version. Apple claims all of these drives are markedly faster than those in previous MacBook Pros – we'll have to test that claim in our full review. 

One the memory front, the 13-inch models start with 8GB of RAM, upgradeable to 16GB. The 15-incher comes with a maximum of 16GB, a decision that was explained by Apple's marketing chief Phil Schiller in an emailed response to a MacRumors reader who queried the absence of a 32GB option.

"To put more than 16GB of fast RAM into a notebook design at this time would require a memory system that consumes much more power and wouldn't be efficient enough for a notebook," Schiller noted.

All of this sits behind Apple's Retina display that, save for a 67% increase in brightness and the same boost in contrast, remains the same resolution. So, that's 2560 x 1600 on the 13-incher, and 2800 x 1800 on the 15-inch model. Regardless, the screen looks as gorgeous as ever, and media professionals will appreciate the wider color gamut.

The connectivity on offer amounts to four USB-C ports with Thunderbolt and charging, while 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.2 round out the package. Of course, none of this saves you from having to buy at least one adapter – especially if you're an iPhone user who likes to hard-wire.

Early verdict

There's no doubt that this is the best MacBook Pro ever made. It's thinner, lighter and more powerful, and has improved inputs on top of a brand new one, the Touch Bar. If you're in the market for a laptop upgrade, you just found one of the most worthy options around.

But we're having trouble reconciling the Touch Bar with the premium it commands over the version with standard function keys and half the USB-C ports. 

It costs another 300 bucks to get an insanely cool feature that, frankly, you might not even use. (Compound that with being asked to pay $400 more for the new entry-level MacBook Pro than before – ouch.)

All told, though, this is the long-overdue MacBook Pro refresh we've been waiting for. The MacBook Pro was lagging behind the competition for a while there, but now it's caught up, and in some respects – beyond simply 'more power' – it's surpassed its rivals. To find out by how much, you'll have to wait for our full review.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Joe has worked in games and technology media for nearly a decade for several publications. His writing has been featured in PC Magazine, AOL's Games.com, Laptop Magazine and Tom's Guide among others. Currently, Joe serves as TechRadar's Senior Editor, leading computing coverage specifically. Yes, that means he uses both macOS and Windows – every day.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view. For more information, see TechRadar's Reviews Guarantee.