When Apple unveiled its new MacBook Pro laptops at a media event last month, Adam Leventhal, a software engineer, was eager to learn about them.
Yet by the time he finished watching a live stream of the event, Mr. Leventhal, who has owned only Mac computers for the last 30 years, was turned off. “With this one I was really disappointed,” he said.
For a new laptop, the MacBook Pro has been divisive. That may partly be because the model, which has long been used by creative professionals and coders, has stayed largely the same since 2012. So this time, when Apple introduced some fairly radical changes, emotions among some longtime Mac customers ran high.
Apple wants you to focus on the new Pro’s boldest feature, called the Touch Bar. It’s a touch-operated strip of buttons and sliders displayed on a thin screen at the top of the keyboard that changes functions depending on what you’re doing. It injects a bit of iPhone and iPad feel into the Mac. And it’s well worth noting.
But, the bigger story here to me is that the Pro, once mainly aimed straight at people who do especially taxing work like professional video editing or serious design, is now being stretched to suit a much larger audience. That’s especially true of the 13-inch model (there’s also a 15-inch variety). It’s thinner and lighter, and is the only modern, easily portable Mac laptop with both a high-res Retina display and a relatively recent, first-class processor (the sixth-generation Core i5 or i7).
So, I’ve been testing the 13-inch Touch Bar-equipped Pro for about 10 days, looking at it from the point of view of mainstream users, not pros.
Mainstream Mac lovers must assess whether the Pro, now much thinner and lighter, is a good replacement for the brilliant MacBook Air, which Apple will still sell (starting at $999) but which has apparently been consigned to Cupertino’s special purgatory for products it can’t quite kill yet, but won’t upgrade.
The Air was the best laptop ever built, in my opinion, but it was never given a high-res Retina display and has fallen behind in processor technology. And Apple’s other Mac laptop, the much newer 12-inch MacBook, while beautiful and portable, has a weak processor, a small screen, a single port, and a high base price of $1,299.
The new Pro definitely trounces my three-year-old MacBook Air in power and screen quality. Running the normal set of apps and browser tabs I use every day, my old Air blasts its fans a lot to keep up. The Touch Bar Pro barely notices.
But I have reservations, and you should, too. Many pro users are already vocally complaining about issues particular to them. But, even for mainstream Mac users, there are questions about price, ports, the Touch Bar feature, the keyboard, and — surprisingly, for a Mac — battery life
This new 13-inch Pro comes in two flavors. One, the base model, costs less (it starts at $1,499) but lacks the Touch Bar and Touch ID, the fingerprint scanner which can be used to log into the computer and to make online purchases. Instead, it has a standard, but severely squished, row of function keys. The 13-inch Touch Bar model starts at $1,799 but can be configured to more robust specs that bring it to $2,899. The 15-inch model, which isn’t the focus of this review, starts at $2,399.
A big part of what makes the Pro double as a successor to the Air is that it has been made much thinner and lighter, even at the cost of enraging some pros, whose favorite ports may have been ditched because they took up too much room. The new 13-inch Pro is now 12 percent thinner than the Air, and weighs the same three pounds. It’s as if Apple had shrunk the 13-inch Air, kept the same screen size, added Retina, upgraded the processor, and added the Touch Bar and Touch ID.
The screen is just fabulous, even better than the previous 13-inch Pro’s Retina display. And way better than the display on the Air.
The keyboard isn’t anything like the old Air’s or Pro’s. It’a revised version of the flat, limited-travel keyboard introduced on the MacBook. I hated the first one on the smaller computer, yet I like this second generation just fine. For me, it took no time at all to get used to. It’s clicky and responsive. I suspect you’ll like it. But keyboards are a personal thing, so I urge you to try it in a store before ordering.
The biggest surprise in my tests was just how inconsistent the Touch Bar Pro’s battery life was. I have tested hundreds of laptops over the years and Macs have almost always excelled at meeting or beating their promised battery lives, both in my longtime battery test regime, and in typical daily use. But the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar wasn’t as reliably consistent as previous Macs.
On my rigorous test, which I’ve used for years, the machine actually exceeded Apple’s claim of up to 10 hours of battery life. The test involves setting the screen at 100 percent, keeping it on and undimmed constantly, playing an endless loop of music, and leaving Wi-Fi on to collect email, tweets, and Facebook posts in the background. Result: 11 hours and 38 minutes.
Normally, that battery test is an understatement, because people typically do let the screen go dark periodically and they don’t use it at 100 percent brightness. But, in this case, after hearing that a colleague was seeing much lower results in general use, I ran a second test with all of Apple’s default energy-saving settings on, the screen at 75 percent and a perfectly normal (for me) mix of tasks like web browsing, email, a few short videos, Twitter, Facebook, some light writing, and Slack. The Pro died at 8 hours and 22 minutes.
To make things worse, Apple’s built-in prediction of how much time the battery had left before dying fluctuated a lot and was mostly wrong (Apple says this is a known problem caused by the fact that modern processors can power up and down rapidly over a much wider range than in the past, making estimates much more difficult.)
So, my best advice is that even a mainstream, non-pro user can’t count on this laptop lasting the promised maximum of 10 hours — even in light to moderate use — let alone the 12 hour maximum a new Air can pull off. And you won’t have an accurate estimate to go by.