New Apple MacBook Pro 2017 review: Kaby Lake makes this the upgrade you’ve waited for
Every few years Apple gives its MacBook Pro model a complete redesign – with some designs more conservative than others. The new 2017 MacBook Pro represents one of the biggest changes ever to Apple’s flagship laptop, and you’ll either love it or hate it. First, Apple came for your serial port, then your parallel port, and in 2016 it took your phone’s headphone socket. Now, the new MacBook Pro family has come for pretty much everything else – the function keys, HDMI and display ports, memory card reader and pretty much everything else has gone.
For all the design tweaks, all those alluring nips and tucks, it’s the arrival of the Touch Bar – and more to the point the departure of physical function keys – that’s caused the biggest waves. If you want old-school function keys, then it’s worth saying it upfront: you can still get your fix with the “entry-level” 13in MacBook Pro (which has been reduced in price from £1,449 to £1,249). If you want a MacBook Pro with the all-new Touch Bar, however, you’ll need to find at least another £500. That’s another change from the launch when the price difference between Touch Bar and non-Touch Bar models was just £300.
And if you’ve also got your heart set on upgraded SSDs and top-flight processors, then trust me, the new MacBook Pro family are going to cost you big time. Want a 3.1GHz i5 with 8Gb of RAM and a 512GB SSD? That will be £1,949. And if you want an i7 with 16GB of RAM you’re going to pay £2,399. These are not, in any way, cheap machines.
New MacBook Pro review: Design
But they are undoubtedly beautiful to look at. There are three areas that define the new MacBook Pro family: the thinness, the keyboard and trackpad, and the screen.
These are the thinnest and lightest MacBook Pros ever, with the 13in version coming in at a mere 1.4kg – the same as a 13in MacBook Air. If you think that’s impressive, then consider that it’s also thinner than a MacBook Air, at least at the thick end. Of course, it doesn’t taper like a MacBook Air to a razor-thin edge, but it’s still a very slender machine.
The 15in model has also emerged transformed. Weight has fallen from a whisker over 2kg to 1.83kg, and Apple has trimmed down the girth from 18mm to an impressively slender 15mm. As 15.4in laptops go, this is pretty much as thin and light as you could ask for.
New MacBook Pro review: The Touch Bar
The Touch Bar is a thin strip of OLED touchscreen that sits directly above the keyboard, replacing the function-key row. What appears on the Touch Bar is programmable and – importantly – context-sensitive, so different applications can have different “keys” appear. For example, in Safari you see a set of “keys” representing your open tabs, allowing you to quickly flip between them with a quick dab of the finger. Play a YouTube video, and a progress bar pops up, allowing you to quickly jump back and forth with a tap or drag of a finger. It’s quite ingenious.
In the Photos app, you can not only navigate quickly between image thumbnails by swiping left and right but also, once images are opened, carry out basic editing tasks in full-screen view without having to go near the touchpad. In Messages, you’ll see Quick Text suggestions, including emoji; in Mail, there are shortcut keys that let you send and reply, among others; while Final Cut Pro displays a timeline track allowing you to scroll quickly through your project while previewing the video in full-screen.
And anyone worried about losing the escape key and function keys of the old MacBook shouldn’t worry unduly. If there’s an application that you always use function keys in, it’s possible to add that to a whitelist in the MacBook’s settings so that they always appear when that application is open and in the foreground. And regardless, you can get to these keys quickly and easily by holding down the Fn key, at which point the keys appear instantly along the top row.
Third party Touch Bar support is also on the horizon. Adobe has said its new version of Photoshop, which can work with Apple’s Touch Bar should be available by the end of the year.
The other big news is the inclusion of a Touch ID sensor at the right-hand side of the Touch Bar. The Touch ID sensor isn’t quite flush with the rest of the bar, which, while not the most aesthetically pleasing, does make it easier to find by touch alone. As with the iPhone and iPad, you simply place your finger on it to unlock the Mac. What’s more, you can set it up, so different users’ fingerprints will log them into their account without having first to log out.
New MacBook Pro review: Performance
Regarding performance, the base 13in model is, understandably, the slowest of the bunch. The MacBook Pro lineup has recently seen a Kaby Lake upgrade across the board, and the performance bump shows, as you can see below.
Apple has upgraded the SSD inside the new MacBooks, and as a result, the new generation is a claimed 50% faster. The SSDs inside the 2015 MacBook Pros were darn fast already, but Apple’s custom-built drives in the new models blow them into the weeds. By using four PCI-Express 3 lanes, the drive in the new MacBook offers potentially double the bandwidth of the previous generation, and in testing, the new models produced a fiery performance. In fact, it proved to be the most impressive upgrade, with sequential read rates of up to 3.1GB/sec and write speeds of up to 1.4GB/sec.
The result of all Apple’s work is that even the low-end MacBook Pro is now easily faster than any of the 2015 models. In my time with the three new models, it was striking that even the lowest-cost model breezed past the now-portly looking 13in MacBook Pro sitting on my desk. I suspect that the super-quick SSD was making the biggest difference, though.
All this power, however, comes at a price. Kaby Lake longevity suffers, demonstrably, with these newer chips appearing to be not so power efficient as first thought. As the below chart indicates, this updated MacBook Pro last 2 hours less sans wall socket compared to its Skylake based elder. Not surprisingly, this isn’t far behind Dell’s XPS 13, which also relies on Intel latest architecture.
New MacBook Pro: The speakers
Elsewhere, the speakers have had an update, and now flank each side of the keyboard. Apple claims they produce twice the dynamic range of the previous model, which is tricky to test, but audio quality is better, with more solidity, clarity and body all round.
There are differences between the models here, though. Surprisingly, the 13in non-Touch Bar model is noticeably quieter than the pricier Touch Bar model, but it’s also noticeably fuller-sounding and bassier. I suspect there’s good reason for this, though, as the faster processors in the 13in Touch Bar models required Apple to fit a secondary fan and adopt a different internal design – this has had a knock-on effect on sound quality. Step up to the 15in model, though, and there’s another improvement thanks to greater clarity, and basslines that are inaudible on the smaller models suddenly reappear.
Continues on page 2: The display, keyboard and trackpad, connectivity and verdict