MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, Mid-2017) review

A faster, but still divisive, MacBook Pro

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Our Verdict

The new MacBook Pro is a marked improvement, but clinging onto previously divisive design decisions only continue to hurt it in straight comparisons. While this update certainly doesn’t disappoint, apply due diligence before clicking the ‘buy’ button.

For

  • Stronger processor
  • Faster RAM
  • Same excellent design

Against

  • Subpar battery life
  • Keyboard learning curve
  • Awfully pricey for the parts

Replete with all the bells and whistles expected from Apple’s flagship laptop, the MacBook Pro has arrived, and it may look a little different than you remember. Nearly two years ago, Apple launched a redesign of its flagship laptop that would change Apple’s image forever.

Coming in at just over half an inch thick, the MacBook Pro harnesses the power of Thunderbolt 3, a single port that supports everything under the sun. Still, it’s not without controversy – some of the advancements bring compromise to the MacBook Pro. Instead of being able to use your old HDMI, USB and SD accessories out of the box, you’ll have to shell out more cash on adapters.

Depending on the version of the MacBook Pro you go with, you might be in for a narrow OLED display where the function keys used to be. This ‘Touch Bar,’ the main attraction of the MacBook Pro since 2016, remains both a selling point and a point of contention. And, if you’re not into it, because we could see Apple extending this Touch Bar to the entire lower segment of the next MacBook Pro, as Apple is playing around with the idea of an OLED touch-screen keyboard.

Luxurious, but by no means garish, the MacBook Pro comes at a premium. Similar to the rest of Apple’s catalog, it’s built to impress when it comes to looks. It may not do anything especially groundbreaking, in the same way that Apple’s recent patents suggest of its future spill-proof and crumb-resistant MacBooks. Unfortunately, with no new MacBook Pro announced at WWDC 2018, the 2017 MacBook Pro is here to stay. 

However, the MacBook Pro of today is a laptop largely successfully geared toward professionals, which is far more than can be said for the other members of Apple’s MacBook family.

Spec Sheet

Here is the 13-inch MacBook Pro configuration sent to TechRadar for review:

CPU: 3.1GHz Intel Core i5-7267U (dual-core, 4MB cache, up to 3.5GHz)
Graphics: Intel Iris Plus Graphics 650
RAM: 8GB (2,133MHz LPDDR3)
Screen: 13.3-inch, 2,560 x 1,600 Retina LED display (IPS, 500 nits brightness, wide color P3 gamut)
Storage: 256GB SSD (PCIe 3.0)
Ports: 4 x Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C), headphone/mic jack
Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.2
Camera: 720p FaceTime HD webcam
Weight: 3.02 pounds (1.37kg)
Size: 11.97 x 8.36 x 0.59 inches (30.41 x 21.24 x 1.49cm; W x D x H)

Price and availability

At $1,299 (£1,249, AU$1,899), you can fetch yourself a MacBook Pro minus the Touch Bar you would otherwise find in the configuration we were sent for review. Bear in mind that, as enticing as the cheapest MacBook Pro might seem, it has only 128GB of solid-state storage inside, making it tough to recommend for users who plan on using it as their main computer.

Of course, that base MacBook Pro lacks another key element – the OLED Touch Bar that replaces the function keys. If the Touch Bar, along with Touch ID verification, is a must-have feature for you, you can expect to shell out no less than $1,799 (£1,749, AU$2,699). That’s a lot more than the presumably forthcoming entry-level MacBook is going to be.

Now, while you could simply fetch more storage than the base configuration for another couple hundred bills, the unit we reviewed is a supercharged beast. That’s due in part to the fact that it sports four Thunderbolt 3 ports, double that of the non-Touch Bar models, all of which can be used to charge the device. Moreover, the processor speed has been bumped from 2.3GHz to 3.1Ghz as well. 

For $100 less in the US, however, you can get a Dell XPS 13 with double the RAM and storage of the $1,799 MacBook Pro we’ve reviewed here and with a more capable Intel Core i7 CPU at that – not to mention a sharper 3,100 x 1,800 touchscreen as well as both Thunderbolt 3 and an SD card reader.

Similarly, you can pick up the Surface Laptop, which can be configured with a stronger Core i7 CPU and equally capacious storage and RAM for a full 200 clams less, albeit with a slightly lower-resolution 2,256 x 1,504 touchscreen and only two legacy ports.

Bearing all this in mind, it doesn’t take a genius to see that you’re paying for the logo etched opposite your display, paired with a fantastic trackpad and a familiar operating system to boot. Nevertheless, you can save a wad of cash by trading in your old MacBook Pro to Apple itself for up to $2,500, if you’re residing in the states.

If you’re looking to soften the blow of buying the 2017 MacBook Pro, you can find it at B&H Photo & Video in the US for just $1,099 (about £834, AU$1,489). This price will net you the baseline model with a Core i5, 8GB of RAM and a 128GB SSD.  

Design

Luckily, Apple’s pedigree does wonders for maintaining the MacBook Pro’s shining reputation as an absolutely beautiful and sensible computing device. That said, not much – if anything – has changed about the MacBook Pro design year over year, and that’s A-OK.

Still available in Apple’s standard space gray or silver colors (no rose gold yet), the MacBook Pro’s unibody aluminum shell is as gorgeous as ever, giving off a subdued shine through the anodization.

In terms of form factor, Apple maintains its achievement of cramming a 13-inch screen into an 11-inch frame a la the Dell XPS 13, but this laptop’s bezels are still a bit larger. Speaking of screens, Apple’s Retina display is as sharp and color-rich as ever, even more so with its new, professional-grade P3 color gamut.

However, it’s far from the sharpest out there, even among its strongest rivals, making its “Retina” claims tougher than ever to swallow. For instance, the XPS 13 can be configured with a 3,200 x 1,800 QHD touchscreen, easily outclassing the MacBook Pro in terms of pure sharpness.

This is a hugely important point for creative professionals working with media files that are high-resolution or require such a resolution to resolve minute details upon zooming in on a media file.

At any rate, the MacBook Pro is uniformly thinner than the XPS 13 by a hair, which starts from 0.6 inches and tapers off at 0.33 inches. The Surface Laptop, meanwhile, is marginally thinner than both at just 0.57 inches.

This is the thinnest and lightest MacBook Pro yet, and for that it feels right at home in our backpack – that is, assuming we don’t forget it’s even there. (Trust us, it has happened during this review, and it was horrifying.)

That Apple managed to craft a laptop this thin and still maintain top-firing stereo speakers, with deep and rich sound no less, should be commended when most other laptop makers just go for down-firing speakers. Instead, where speakers would normally go on an Ultrabook, Apple has placed intake fans that draw cool air in and spit it out the back just beneath the hinge.

Sure, the laptop heats up still right around that area, but said heat is far away from the more sensitive parts of your lap and far less dramatic than with previous models.

As for how Apple managed to make the MacBook Pro this thin, a key culprit is the laptop’s new keyboard with Apple’s 2nd generation butterfly mechanism, introduced in last year’s model. The improved actuation device doesn’t make the keys sit any more flush with the keyboard deck than they already were last year, but rather vastly improves the tactile feel of typing.

Feedback is much more forceful this time around, though the key travel doesn’t feel as if it’s changed much, which is the point ultimately. The keys are large enough so as not to miss given the lack of travel, though we’re not fans of the Escape key being relegated to the Touch Bar – something we’ve accidentally pressed more than once – and the tight positioning of the up and down arrow keys.

Also, we find typing on this keyboard to be louder than on Apple’s older MacBook keyboards, but perhaps that’s due to adjusting to the learning curve.

A mixed takeaway from the keyboard aside, the new-and-enlarged Force Touch trackpad was a welcome improvement last year and we’re just as happy to have it this time around. Its large size and strong palm rejection help immensely with multi-touch gestures and, more importantly, navigating the operating system the easier way, i.e. with your index finger moving the cursor and your thumb clicking the buttons.

Speaking of which, Force Touch returns to the trackpad, naturally, and it’s frankly remarkable. The vibration motors beneath the glass tracking surface vibrate so as to recreate the feeling of a mouse click, and, if Apple didn’t make such a stink about, it we’d be none the wiser. This is Apple’s “it just works” philosophy realized once again.

Touch Bar and Touch ID

While many have been quick to dismiss the Touch Bar since its introduction in last year’s MacBook Pro model, we’ve come down on it with a bit more understanding. You see, while we admittedly didn’t naturally come to use the Touch Bar much at all during the course of this review, its presence and potential are nevertheless noted.

While still relegated to supporting core macOS functions and a few, major third party apps (like Adobe Suite), the Touch Bar is incredibly fast at adapting to the task at hand. The strongest example of this is simply the Touch Bar’s built-in spell checker, which is constantly suggesting words no matter how fast of a typist you are. 

It’s almost like having the iPhone’s autocorrect function on your MacBook.

We’ve seen tech like this attempted before, but in no way this robust and quick. The OLED touch display is incredibly responsive, and its matte coating does well to shrug off glare from strong light sources – just don’t expect much in direct sunlight. All said, we’re impressed by the technological achievement that the Touch Bar is, but still believe it requires wider third party support to become a must-have feature.

Though, having Siri as a button for easy, constant access is a major plus, given the wide control it has over macOS in comparison to other digital assistants.

The second piece of the Touch Bar offering is, of course, Touch ID. While this is the second go around for the technology, we’re nevertheless happy that biometric login is finally available on an Apple laptop. The tool works just like it does on iPhone, and it’s just as quick.

That said, we’ve found Windows 10’s iris-scanning Windows Hello tech to be faster and require nearly zero effort. (To achieve this level of immediacy with a Mac, you’d need an Apple Watch with the Auto Unlock feature activated.) Regardless, being able to securely log into the laptop, and pay for things through Safari via Apple Pay, are both features we’d be clamoring for if they weren’t there.

First reviewed August 2017

  • The mid-2017 MacBook Pro is just one of the best Macs you can buy

Gabe Carey has also contributed to this review