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Apple MacBook Pro (2016) review: Rock the Touch Bar

Price when reviewed 
1,249
inc VAT

Apple propels the MacBook Pro into the future with its new Touch Bar design and Kaby Lake processors, but is it worth the upgrade?

Pros 
Good performance
Blazingly fast SSD
Brilliant wide-gamut display
Superb touchpad
Cons 
Only USB Type C
Very, very expensive
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Apple hardware inspires a peculiar brand of loyalty among its customers, but Apple has been stretching that to its limits with the MacBook Pro. Lighter, sleeker, and packed with a whole slew of tweaks and upgrades – not to mention a hefty price bump – the MacBook Pro sent ripples of disquiet across social media at launch.

In denuding its professional laptop, ironically, of its pro-grade ports and sockets, and whacking up prices across the board, Apple has prompted many to look at the new range askance, wondering if it’s the right thing for them, or their IT departments.

READ NEXT: The best laptops you can buy today 

Apple MacBook Pro review: What you need to know

Apple’s no holds barred approach to laptop design, the MacBook Pro’s dominance has remained uncontested since launch. Equipped with all the bells and whistles you’d expect from any modern laptop, and then some, the MacBook Pro has been completely redesigned from the ground up, and it costs a pretty penny as a result.

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Apple MacBook Pro review: Price and competition

The MacBook Pro’s starting configurations are rather confusing. The table below this section goes into more depth, but expect to pay at least £1,249 for the entry-level 13in MacBook Pro. If you’re after a model equipped with the fancy new Touch Bar, you’re looking at paying a further £500 for the luxury.

The 15in model represents a bigger jump in power and starts at £1,899 for the non-Touch bar variant. I was sent the 13in MacBook Pro with Touch Bar to review, which has since been discontinued, equipped with a dual-core Intel Core i5 processor, clocked at 3.1GHz – which is capable of boosted clock speeds of up to 3.5GHz – with 8GB of LPDDR3 RAM and a 512GB SSD. This will set you back £1,949.

As for competition, no other Apple laptop costs as much, or is as well-equipped, with the bog-standard MacBook costing £1,549 for the top-end configuration. Microsoft’s similarly kitted-out Surface Book 2 costs £1,499.

Apple MacBook Pro review: Base configurations

MacBook Pro 13in non-Touch Bar

MacBook Pro 13in Touch Bar

Dual-core 2.3GHz Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 128GB SSD – £1,249

Dual-core 2.3GHz Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD – £1,749

Dual-core 2.3GHz Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 256GB SSD – £1,449

Dual-core 2.3GHz Intel Core i5, 8GB RAM, 512GB SSD – £1,949

MacBook Pro 15in Touch Bar

Hexa=core 2.2GHz Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM, 256GB SSD – £2,349

Hexa-core 2.6GHz Intel Core i7, 16GB RAM, 512GB SSD – £2,699

One thing that should be abundantly clear from this table before we move on is that, notwithstanding the price premium for the Touch Bar-equipped models, the prices are eye-wateringly high across the range, particularly as you reach the higher regions of specification. Well over six grand for the top-end configuration – the 15in Touch Bar model with a 2.9GHz Intel Core i9 and 4TB SSD – is unreachable for practically every single wallet on the planet.

Apple MacBook Pro review: Touch Bar and Touch ID

I’ll go into the rights and wrongs of Apple’s decision to bump up the price in due course, but first let me address the MacBook’s most interesting feature: the touchy-feely Touch Bar.

If you haven’t a clue what I’m wittering about, then here’s a quick recap. The Touch Bar is a narrow strip of OLED touchscreen that, on the pricier MacBook Pro models, replaces the function key row above the keyboard. It’s responsive to multi-touch, gesture and taps, and presents a context-sensitive range of buttons, sliders and shortcuts for any supported application. This allows you to personalise the Touch Bar to present the quick actions you use the most.

Using Final Cut Pro? Then you’ll get a full overview of your current timeline that you can skip through with a flick of a finger. Tap and you can zoom into a specific section. Select a clip and the Touch Bar will present a range of relevant functions, each assigned to a button or a slider instead, allowing you to quickly cut, fade or adjust the volume.

Fire up Safari, and you’ll see your open tabs represented as a sideways scrolling carousel of touch-sensitive buttons, allowing you to flick between open tabs at the touch of a button. In the Photos app you can use the Touch Bar to edit your photos full screen, in Pages apply formatting to your lovingly crafted words and — my favourite, this one — launch the manual page for the Terminal command you’ve just typed.

Perhaps the Touch Bar’s most impressive aspect, however, is its customisability. This facility is currently showcased best in the MacOS Finder where, using the touchpad you can drag shortcut buttons onto the bar from a box on the screen, then rearrange them at will by dragging with your finger.

The other major new addition is Touch ID. Nestled on the right-hand side of the Touch Bar, you can now log in to your MacBook just as quickly and easily as you can your iPhone. Simply press your finger against the Touch ID sensor, and macOS Sierra instantly switches to your desktop and applications. It’s quite brilliant.

It’s all rather more special than I had initially expected it to be. With clear thought given to each and every aspect of the Touch Bar, including its surprisingly tactile, silky surface it’s already a useful addition to the MacBook Pro’s arsenal of tools, and as third-party developers get their heads around it will only become more useful.

It caters even to those who use Function keys obsessively: hold down FN and the entire Touch Bar reverts to the old-style function key row, running from Esc on the left across to the F12 on the far right.

The Touch Bar isn’t the only reason you might want to consider buying the Touch Bar version, though. This MacBook is also available with more powerful processor options than the non-Touch Bar MacBook, and if you want a 15in MacBook Pro there’s no alternative.

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Apple MacBook Pro review: Design and performance

If you haven’t already flounced off in a huff at that news, then there are many reasons to fall in love with the new MacBook Pro. The 13in version now weighs a mere 1.4kg – the same as a 13in MacBook Air – and it’s 17% thinner than the previous model, measuring a dainty 15mm thick.

In terms of performance, the base 13in model is, understandably, the slowest of the bunch. If it’s pure grunt you’re after, you’ll be wanting the 15in version. Here, you get to choose between three 45W TDP quad-core Intel processors and discrete ATI Radeon Pro640 or 655 graphics chips.

As for storage, that ranges from a base 256GB SSD right up to 4TB in the priciest 15in MacBook Pro. That’s a big chunk of storage space, but it’s the speed of the new SSDs that truly impresses with Apple’s custom-built SSDs improving on the 2015 range by a significant margin.

By using four PCI Express 3 lanes, the SSD in the new Pro delivers superbly quick performance, hitting sequential read speeds of up to 3.1GB/sec and write speeds of up to 1.4GB/sec.

All this power, however, comes at a price. The Kaby Lake upgrade, as we’ve seen from other laptops, has demonstrably taken a hit to the laptop’s overall battery life. The MacBook Pro lasts two hours less away from the wall socket when compared with its Skylake-based elder.

Apple MacBook Pro review: Display

Keeping pace with Apple’s iPhones, the MacBook Pro’s 2,560 x 1,600 resolution IPS panel can produce an even wider range of colour than before. It’s moved from sRGB to the wider DCI P3 colour gamut, and the extra oomph to onscreen colours is obvious from the moment you hit the OS X Sierra desktop.

All the necessary figures are spot on, too. My Touch Bar 13in model reached a retina-searing brightness of 591cd/m2, covered 99.3% of the DCI-P3 colour space with contrast nudging over 1,400:1. Rest assured, you’ll be guaranteed a display of the very highest class.

Apple MacBook Pro review: Keyboard and touchpad

The new keyboard will not make everyone a happy bunny. Apple has prised the butterfly-switch technology from the little 12in MacBook, which results in dramatically less key travel and a very, very different typing feel. This won’t be to everyone’s tastes, so if you’re unsure get yourself over to the nearest Apple Store and give it a try – it may be a deal-breaker.

I doubt anyone will have any issues with the touchpad, however. Twice as large as before (46% larger in the case of the 13in), it remains one of the MacBook’s greatest assets. It’s slick, responsive and practically perfect in every way.

The MacBook Pro’s newly minimal selection of ports is harder to forgive. My old MacBook allowed me to connect an HDMI monitor, two USB 3 devices and a pair of Thunderbolt peripherals to my current MacBook without rummaging around in a pocket full of adapters.

The new MacBook Pro laughs in the face of such convenience, however. The 13in MacBook has a pair of USB-Type C, Thunderbolt 3-enabled sockets on its left-hand edge, accompanied by a single 3.5mm headphone socket, while the Touch Bar models add an extra pair of Thunderbolt 3 ports on the right-hand edge.

Any of these USB Type C ports can be used to recharge the internal battery, but that’s not much consolation – if you want to make the MacBook Pro your one, go-anywhere computer, then you’ll simply have to shell out on a Thunderbolt 3 docking station. Especially since the ports are so laughably close to one another, that you often can't use both at the same time.

Apple MacBook Pro review: Verdict

For all its quirks and oddities, the new MacBook Pro is a highly desirable laptop. The weight and size has dropped to more manageable levels, without compromising performance, and the new display is a dramatic improvement. There’s no getting away from the price: at £1,249, the cheapest MacBook Pro isn’t so cheap after all.

Buy MacBook Pro from John Lewis

If you can’t bear the thought of buying the entry-level MacBook Pro, then you’ll need another £500 spare — that Touch Bar model comes in at £1,549. Need that 15in version? Then wave goodbye to at least £2,349. Start looking at upgrades, and the price soars ever closer — and eventually past — the £3,000 mark.

Personally, I’m still quietly impressed. I loved the 12-inch MacBook, and as this delivers a dramatic improvement in the areas that matter – namely performance and display quality – the MacBook Pro would make a much better choice than the £1,249 MacBook. Are there better value Windows machines that would tempt me away? Yes, several. Would I be tempted to throw caution to the wind and buy the MacBook Pro anyway? Almost certainly.

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