Cory House

@housecor

A Week with the new Macbook Pro with Touch Bar

A developer’s take on the new 2016 Macbook Pro vs the 2015 Macbook Pro

I purchased the new Macbook Pro (MBP for short, below) with Touch Bar one week ago. I chose the maxed out “standard” model for $2,799 at the local Apple store: 15" i7/2.7/16gb/512gb. I also own an early 2015 13" Macbook Pro with i5/2.9/16gb/512gb, so I’ll compare the two below.

As a side note, there are many excellent Windows machines out there too, but for a variety of reasons, many developers are loyal to Macs.

The Good:

Superb screen. It’s notably brighter, which is wonderful for outdoor work. The reduced bezel size is also a nice touch. While other specs may trump it, the rich colors and brightness combined with it’s low glare make it one of the best displays out there for real world use.

It’s seriously fast. As expected, the i7 combined with the much faster SSD makes this machine very responsive. I was happy with my 13" i5, but the new MBP is notably faster. Nearly every interaction is smooth and immediate. This is a really luxurious way to interact with a device.

One extreme example: An npm install that took 2 minutes on the 13" i5 required only 1:05 on the new 15" i7.

TouchID is mostly great. It’s fast and luxurious. I open the lid, tap it, and start immediately. Just like an iPhone…except when it doesn’t work. See below.

The size and weight is wow. The 15" feels the same weight as my 2015 13". And due to packaging improvements, its footprint is quite reasonable. I’ve had no issues using the 15" in coach on flights this week. I use this on my lap and it feels as natural as my 13". I‘m a fan of 13" laptops, but this 15" is compact and light enough to change my mind. And in benchmarks, it’s returning better battery life than comparable new 13" models due to the much larger battery.

Early 2015 13" on top of new 15"

Cool and silent under light loads. Despite running an i7, its typical running temp is comparable to my i5 13". Like my 13", the fan virtually never runs during normal work. The temperature varies between cool and barely warm under my normal browsing and coding work. See below for the story on heavy loads.

Impressive speakers. I didn’t care about laptop speakers until now. These are actually good enough to use! Who knew that was possible? I’m reaching for my headphones less because the sound is sufficient for casual listening. Given, my beloved QC35 headphones sound much better, but shows and casual background music on the new MBP are quite enjoyable. The improvement over my 2015 13" is almost like moving to a bluetooth speaker. Bravo Apple!

The Bad:

The trackpad is too big. This sounds odd, but it’s unnecessarily large. The size leads occasional palm rejection issues, which means the mouse occasionally jumps around and even accidental clicks from my palm occasionally occur. I never once had this issue on my 2015 model. Nor did I ever wish for a larger trackpad — I’m only using a small portion of this thing. Hopefully software updates can iron out these rare, but annoying issues. Edit: A recent software update has resolved this. As a side note, the finish is also noticably less slick than my 2015. I can hear my fingers glides across it. Edit: The surface has gotten slicker with continued use and I no longer notice this issue much. But my 2015s Trackpad was still a bit smoother.

The trackpad on the old 13" was big enough.

Battery life is okay, but short of expectations. The machine reports 9 hours of battery remaining immediately after I’ve started up, yet consistently falls short of that number. I get 4–8 hours per charge. My typical use this week has been web browsing, coding in VSCode, occasional music streaming, bluetooth headphones and trackpad, and medium brightness. That is respectable for a 15" laptop with these specs, but notably short of Apple’s “Up to 10 hours” claim. Edit: After 3 months, I’m getting around 6 hours when browsing, coding, and working in office. Life is highly dependent on screen brightness. I’d get around 7 hours on my old 13.

Hot under heavy loads. When I first purchased, I was multi-tasking by installing multiple apps, downloading many GB of data on Dropbox, and so on. This taxed the system hard and it was very hot, with fans running (albeit quietly). During this period I had multiple wifi connectivity issues, (though these admittedly could have been from my router since I’ve had no issues while traveling). I was concerned about the temperature, but after the initial set up, it has been a cool operator. Edit: It’s virtually always cool now. Only exception is when I render video.

Bugs. On day one, the wifi disconnected five times in four hours. Thankfully, since then, Wifi has been rock solid while traveling, despite that concerning first day. Bluetooth failed to pair many devices at first. After pairing, Bluetooth continues to drop connections occasionally. Edit: I isolated the issue to a single old bluetooth keyboard that also has connectivity issues with my 2015 Mac, so likely not the new Mac to blame.

Touch ID often isn’t provided as an option when I open the lid. When I am prompted, it occasionally doesn’t respond at all. When connected to an external monitor, I am typically forced to open the lid and login via touch ID — the password field literally isn’t provided as an option. Edit: Turns out the password field isn’t displayed, but if I start typing it shows up. Spotlight has frozen more than once, requiring a reboot. Activity monitor was regularly crashing, but has recently stopped doing so. And the aforementioned palm rejection issues mean the cursor occasionally jumps to another part of the screen.

Needless to say, for a nearly $3,000 machine, this list is hard to accept. So much so that I’m seriously considering returning the machine. The bright side is everything above can potentially be resolved by future software updates.

The Maybe:

The touch bar shows promise. I did not buy this device for the touch bar. I was completely indifferent to the feature. But fear not developers, you can set the traditional F keys to always show for any app. The provided functions work well. Changing brightness and volume via the bar is slick. It’s a single touch motion that feels natural. Thoughtful shortcuts when doing screenshots are appreciated. Man page shortcuts display when in the terminal. And try working with photos in the Photos app. That’s when the power really clicked for me.

Nice touch: Playback controls with scrubbing when you load youtube.com

I appreciate the ability to customize a row of keys to my tastes. For now, I believe most pro users who know keyboard shortcuts are unlikely to reach for the touch bar much, but the story here is only going to get better as software developers find new ways to harness its power for macros and complex interactions.

I find the keys as easy to use as physical buttons. I could never hit the F keys without looking anyway, and the escape key remains easy to hit without looking. You can even tap the blank touch bar area to the left of the escape key and it will register. Despite all the drama, I’m happily working in vim. No complaints.

As an owner of a touch screen Windows PC, I understand why Apple isn’t embracing touch screen PCs. I virtually never reach for the screen on my Yoga laptop. The click targets are too small and it’s faster to use the keyboard. Apple is right — you can’t simply add touch to a UI designed for a mouse. In contrast, the touchbar is a customizable keyboard. Despite its currently limited use cases, touch bar is likely to be a big win in the future.

The keyboard is good, if not great. I may grow to enjoy it. It’s certainly better than the Macbook’s with a bit more travel and a more sturdy feel. But I currently prefer the 2015 keyboard. The new keyboard feels too shallow for my taste, and I prefer the “softer” feel of the 2015 keyboard when bottoming out the keys. I’m learning to simply type lighter on this new keyboard, but I currently prefer keyboards that I can mash without feeling punished. Make sure to try this out at length in the store.

Dongle life. I purchased Apple’s multimedia adapter and it works flawlessly. I’m running a 4K display over HDMI and it looks wonderful. However, I’ve already reached for multiple USB devices only to realize I need to plug in an adapter. This is an ongoing annoyance, so I’ve purchased a few USB-C to USB-A adapters. There are some compelling USB-C docks available as well.

Finally, there is an advantage to going USB-C: I enjoy being able to plug in power from either side. It effectively makes the cord longer and avoids awkward and ugly cord routing issues. I miss magsafe, but there are already aftermarket solutions available.

Bottom line

The next year or two will be a more compelling time to upgrade. I expect to see 32GB of RAM, more efficient modern processors, improved battery life, broad industry-wide USB-C support and docks, an OLED screen, and richer support for touch bar in MacOS apps. Until then, if you have a recent MBP, I’d hold on to it for another year.

Comments? Chime in below or on the Hacker News thread.

Cory House is the author of many courses on Pluralsight, and principal consultant at reactjsconsulting.com. He is a Software Architect at VinSolutions, Microsoft MVP, and trains software developers internationally on software practices like front-end development and clean coding. Catch Cory on Twitter as @housecor.

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