Tech review: Apple adds a touch of class to new top-of-the-range MacBook Pro which raises bar for high-end PCs
MacBook Pro 13 Touch Bar, from €2,099
Apple MacBooks have bucked the trend among PCs for years, steadily increasing market share compared to other brands. This is because they are, by and large, premium machines that are easy to use and have more than enough power to do what the vast majority of professional users ask of them.
They are also more pleasingly designed, aesthetically. One proof of this is that most Windows PCs now have several models that look like MacBooks in some way.
That being the case, what can Apple do to keep its advantage?
Aside from its operating system and software, Apple believes it has a new attraction for high-end MacBook Pro models. This comes in the form of its 'Touch Bar' - a touch-sensitive Oled strip at the top of the computer's keyboard that has a number of shortcuts depending on what program you're using. When using the computer in a general way, it has useful controls such as screen brightness, volume and a shortcut to Siri. When you're using specific applications, such as Safari, it lets you change window or immediately conduct a new search. In the App Store, it switches to buttons offering 'top charts', 'featured', search and so on. The idea is that the Touch Bar can be programmable for bespoke applications. I haven't had long enough to figure out whether it would establish itself as a long-term workflow process habit, but I find myself using it a little more than I thought I would. That said, it sometimes has me reaching to touch the screen as I forget that it's only the Touch Bar that can be tapped to control functionality.
One unfettered touch-based gain that the new model has is its Touch ID security. Like an iPhone or iPad, this uses your fingerprint to unlock the machine and speeds up access considerably.
There are probably two distinct markets for this higher-end MacBook Pro Retina with Touch Bar. One is an existing MacBook user looking to upgrade, while the other is someone looking to switch in to a high-end system from another platform. I live mainly in the first camp and own a 2015 MacBook Pro. As such, I was interested in whether the differences would prove substantial.
The model I had for review was the top-of-the-range 13-inch Touch Bar and Touch ID model. It had 512GB of storage, 8GB of Ram and a 3.1Ghz Core i5 processor. From a power and speed perspective, I couldn't ask for more for my tasks - writing, editing photos, running some video and using multiple web applications simultaneously. This can haul quite a load.
From a workflow perspective, there are some noticeable variations other than the Touch Bar and Touch ID access.
The main ones are the ports and keyboard. The 2017 top-end model I had has four Thunderbolt 3 (USB C) ports. The advantage is that these help the laptop charge astonishingly quickly. The disadvantage is that some legacy external devices, including storage drives, now need an adapter.
The other thing missing compared to my 2015 MacBook Pro is a memory card port. I take quite a lot of photos with standalone cameras (as well as the odd bit of drone video) so it's a pity for me. However, it's not a deal-breaker. I use a memory card adapter for my iPad Pro without fuss. It wouldn't bother me unduly to bring an adapter around with this laptop.
The keyboard is a little different. It's keys are shallower without quite as much feedback. It's not an advantage over the old one, but I didn't notice much difference. One definite advantage is that the new MacBook Pro is slimmer and slightly lighter. This matters a great deal to me, especially in an era when the (even lighter) iPad Pro is starting to rival to any laptop for portable working.
Other motivations to upgrade include an excellent, expanded touchpad, improved speakers and a superb HD screen.
Apple's new top-end 13-inch laptop is probably competing with its own sister devices, primarily the new beefed-up MacBook and the MacBook Air. But if you have the extra cash, this is a hell of a laptop.