Touch-A, Touch-A, Touch Me: MacBook 2016 Initial Impressions

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The long-awaited refresh of Apple’s MacBook Pro series has finally arrived to a mixed reception by the Mac community.  Much praise has been given to its design: the thinness and lightness compared to the previous generation, and a much brighter and more vibrant display (in which reds are fuller reds, etc.).  But much criticism is given to the keyboard – including the brand new addition: the touch bar.

First of all, the 2016 15″ MacBook Pro is a tiny bit smaller than the predecessor. Not by much, but noticeable nonetheless.  Lifting the screen is much, much easier than the previous generation – it always felt a little awkward. Thanks to re-engineered hinges, the lid is effortless and will now start the MacBook Pro without you ever having to press the power button – regardless of whether you’re cold booting or resuming from sleep.

The only ports available are all USB-C.   Any of them can be used for charging, and you’re given a generous 2m USB-C charging cable and charging brick.  I actually prefer this to the previous MacBook Pro’s charger – it’s much easier to carry around and cable is long enough for most people’s needs.  But I do confess that I miss MagSafe.  In terms of #DongleLife, it’s not been a problem.  So far I’ve had to use my Lightning to USB-C cable to pair up the wireless mouse, and a USB-A to USB-C adapter to connect a WD Passport HD to transfer data from my older computer.  Each of the USB-C ports is sturdy, and when a connector is in, it sits there firmly plugged in.  That said, be careful of placing any drinks nearby – I nearly spilt a cup of something when pulling out the USB-A adapter this morning.

They keyboard. I thought I would hate it having tried out the MacBook earlier this year (when I was waiting to replace my iPad Pro bricked by Apple releasing dodgy firmware), but the keyboard on the MacBook Pro 2016 model is lovely.  I love typing on this thing.  The closest I can describe it is that it feels like a combination of the Apple’s wireless keyboard crossed with the iPad Pro smart keyboard cover.  Trust me when I say it’s better than it sounds.  Speaking of sounds, this keyboard is much noisier than previous generations, but it feels satisfying. Imagine you had a room full of 2016 MacBook Pros, and everything was typing at once – now imagine the olden days of newsrooms and typewriters – that’s probably what it would sound like.

The Touch Bar.  It’s nice and useful.  But I’d like to see Apple’s haptic engine paired up with it to get feedback from key presses.  The surface is smooth and glossy, but you don’t get any touch feedback from it.  I can see Apple extended this to the keyboard in general – I imagine one day we’ll see MacBook Pro’s that use keyboards that are essentially a full-size Touch Bar with haptic feedback.  It’d feel like you were typing on the current 2016 MBP keyboard, but it’d essentially be virtual.  This would mean that ANY key could be remapped or changed to suit particular applications – imagine having a whole keyboard dedicated to Final Cut Pro X functions, etc.  I reckon Apple are preparing us for that very thing.  But in the mean time, the Touch Bar DOES give the user a much more usable set of functions that replace the ancient function key row.

The Escape Key.  As a systems administrator, I use the escape key a lot more than most people.  I find it a very odd experience when editing files in vim having to press something that doesn’t give me touch feedback when pressed.  But it works, and I haven’t made any mistakes using it yet.  It will take a bit of getting used to.

I’d like Apple to produce a wireless keyboard that matches the experience of the MacBook Pro 2016.  Not just key travel, but also the Touch Bar.  How you’d do that on a wireless model without exhausting the batteries is another matter – but once you’ve gone to the MBP 2016 keyboard, you won’t want to go back – unless you absolutely hate it – these things are a deeply personal preference, and I’m a very fussy keyboard user.  Thankfully the current Apple wireless keyboard is close enough that I won’t pine for the MacBook Pro keyboard while I’m working at the desk.

I’ve not given the CPU or GPU much of a workout, but I have discovered a few issues:

  • Graphics glitches.  I can confirm that they do exist (I have the 2Gb Radeon Pro 450 – the lowest end model).  Fortunately for the moment it seems to manifest during the post-boot login screen and soon go away once fully booted into MacOS Sierra.  I’m convinced these are just driver / OS issues rather than the hardware – I’ve seen similar issues with my work MacBook Air over a few versions of OS X and it seems to be something that just happens. As these MacBook Pros now use the Skylake architecture, remember what I said about the Dell XPS and display issues?
  • System Integrity Protection was disabled out the box.  On a Mac, the SIP is an important component that helps protect the system from being abused by all manner of nasties.  All new Macs should ship with it switched on, but there have been many reports that new 2016 MacBook Pros ship with it disabled – but equally many reports with it being enabled.  Why?  Only Apple knows.  But it’s easy to enable it – boot into recovery mode, open up a Terminal and type csrutil enable. Then reboot.  

I should mention the Touch ID fingerprint sensor.  It makes the Mac a little more pleasurable to use when waking from sleep,  accessing my 1Password password manager, or installing new applications.  Works just like it does on an iPhone or iPad.  iOS convergence is here!

Apple Pay is now supported, but don’t do what I do.  Given what I’ve just said about System Integrity Protection – make sure it’s enabled before adding ANY credit or debit cards to your MacBook Pro’s Apple Pay wallet.  Having done this and discovering SIP was disabled, I enabled it, only to discover that wiped out all previous cards added to the system – because it’ll think these were added by another user.  I can’t be bothered adding them back in because it will involve another phone call to the banks.

I did give the MacBook Pro the obligatory graphics and GPU performance test: Team Fortress 2.  It detected a stronger GPU over the previous generation MacBook Pro and gameplay was excellent – with the fans barely kicking in.  When they did, the fans on this unit are spectacularly quiet.  TF2 is not a graphics intensive game, but then again I wouldn’t want to run a super modern, highly graphics intensive game on this thing – it’s not meant as a gaming machine.  This is why I have a games console.  The discreet GPU on this thing is there to help along creative tasks performed with Photoshop, Final Cut Pro, and so on.

Overall, I’m really pleased with the 2016 MacBook Pro.  Once Apple gets around to releasing bug fixes for the graphics and a fix for the SIP (not a lot of people will want to fix it themselves), this will be a perfectly decent workhorse for many years to come (just as well given the cost).

My next MacBook Pro upgrade will come a few Intel CPU generations later – whatever one supports mobile hexacore CPUs (I reckon mid-2019 or thereabouts).  By then we should be able to upgrade RAM above 16Gb without affecting battery performance and see true hardcore mobile performance in the kind of form that Apple users expect.  But for now, this Skylake beauty is perfectly good enough for my current and immediate future needs.