Over the past year I’ve lost count of the number of times friends have asked if they should invest in a new MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. No, I always said, there are new models in the offing. They were certainly due: The MacBook Pros are so long in the tooth that it’s said that Steve Jobs himself had a hand in their design. Yet we waited and waited but nothing came.
At last, at long last, we have a new MacBook Pro. And it has been been well worth waiting for. Mac sales have been in the doldrums for nearly two years, almost entirely because of the lack of a substantial upgrade; but now the wind is freshening and the market is certain to notch up more than a few more knots before Christmas.
Thinner, lighter and much, much faster, the new MacBooks, 13in and 15in, address most of the criticisms of the old models. They also come with a unique feature that no one thought they needed but will soon not be able to manage without. It’s the Touch Bar, the soft OLED control row at the top of the keyboard, powered by its own processor based on the Apple Watch design.
This magic bar changes its functions according to what you are doing. No longer is it the fixed array, including screen brightness, audio and speaker controls that you can probably manage without (until needed, that is, when they reappear on cue). Instead, software developers will be free to populate this OLED ribbon with useful commands that will improve productivity while working in their applications.
The new models will have important implications for the road warrior. Many, including me, forsook the out-dated and rather hefty MacBook Pro in favour of the ultra-light and slick MacBook. It makes the ideal travel companion but it does fall down ultimately in performance. It is undoubtedly a compromise. I process a lot of photographs when on the road and the MacBook struggles. During September’s visit to Photokina I spent far too much time in the hotel room watching Lightroom do its import routine.
Now the 13in MacBook Pro is so much more compact, yet more powerful than any previous Apple professional laptop, it is again a contender for the traveller’s affections. Currently I use a two-year-old 27in iMac at the office and a first-generation 12in MacBook when travelling. While it is becoming easier to manage two or more computers and to keep them synchronised, there are always some trade-offs involved. To have just one machine, married to a substantial monitor and, perhaps, external keyboard while at the office or at home, now makes a lot of sense. The new 13in MacBook Pro, with (for example), the 3.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i7 processor, one terabyte of SSD storage and 16GB of RAM will be faster than my current iMac and light years ahead of the 12in MacBook. It’s a tempting prospect and the only thing that worries me is going back to a desk cluttered with wires.
Yet this is less of a problem with the new MacBook Pros because they are equipped with the Thunderbolt 3 interface and nothing but. This latest iteration of the 2011 speedster now uses the same ambidextrous connector as USB-C (as already seen on the MacBook). Everything you connect to the new MacBook Pro will be via Thunderbolt 3 which means you will need cables and hubs. But in return you will gain almost limitless versatility. I am not one of those people who tut-tut about backward compatibility and support calls for retention of out-dated interfaces. USB-3, HDMI, even the SD card as seen on previous MacBook Pros, are out. We may not like it now but we will thank Apple for its foresight in twelve months’ time.
The great opportunity provided by the new Thunderbolt 3 standard is that it allows a one-cable connection to a desktop hub which could be a monitor. Because another significant bit of news to come out of the MacBook Pro launch was the admission that Apple is no longer in the monitor business. Following last year’s discontinuation of the Thunderbolt Cinema Display, there was speculation that there would be no replacement. Now we know that Apple is cooperating with LG on a range of customised 21.5 and 27in monitors which double as a super hub for all peripherals — an improvement in connectivity over even the old Thunderbolt Cinema Display. One Thunderbolt 3 cable will handle data, video and power for the MacBook Pro. It’s something I’ve dreamed of for a long time and it now makes the prospect of using a laptop as a replacement desktop computer considerably more appealing.
The Touch Bar is such a good idea that I expect to see it appearing on a new version of the Magic Keyboard before much longer. This would potentially bring the newer features to existing Macs but it would also fully complement the new MacBook Pro when used in lieu of a desktop computer.
I definitely like the new MacBook Pros and I am seriously considering replacing both the iMac the 12in MacBook with a new top-spec 13in MBP with Touch Bar and Touch ID.
My sole disappointment is the 16GB limit on internal memory. On my current iMac I included 32GB and I’m used to having such a large RAM. While 16GB is probably perfectly adequate, I’d have been tempted to spring for 32GB if it had been available. The supposition is that RAM was restricted to 16GB in order to conserve battery power. One consolation is that the much faster SSD will help compensate for the lower memory. On the iMac I chose the fusion drive in order to save, as I remember, £600. This was a mistake which I soon regretted. Fast SSDs are one of the major ways of speeding up a computer.
The bad news is that Apple’s prices in the UK — even on older models — have jumped by over 20 percent because currency fluctuations. The new Touch Bar models start at £1,749 and top out at £2,759 with the speediest processor and larger memory configuration. And you’ll need to add around £250 for cables and hubs if you are to make best use of the new machine. That’s a £3,000 investment, a lot of dosh for a laptop.
On the other hand, this top-line MacBook Pro is road warrior and desktop champion combined. When looked at in this way — one computer instead of two — cost seems more reasonable.
For more information on the new models I recommend the Complete Overview at Macstories.