Apple 15-inch MacBook Pro (2016) review: Fast, light, innovative, and expensive

mpb-15-2016-header.jpg
  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent
  • $2,399.00

Pros

  • Innovative Touch Bar
  • Mobile workstation levels of performance
  • Very thin and light for a 15-inch laptop
  • Professional-quality Retina display

Cons

  • Extremely expensive
  • No user upgrades or repairs
  • Lifeless keyboard
  • USB-C ports will require expensive adapters

The new 15-inch MacBook Pro is a quintessential Apple product. It's genuinely innovative, and elegantly designed as always, but also frustratingly convinced of its own infallibility, and -- especially for those of us in post-Brexit Britain -- jaw-droppingly expensive.

Above all else, though, this update to the MacBook Pro range is long overdue, with only modest speedbumps in recent years to placate Apple's demanding professional users -- who, let's not forget, kept the company afloat in the lean years before the advent of the all-conquering iPhone. The pent-up demand for new MacBook Pro models seems to have ensured strong pre-orders for Apple, even though the shipping date for this 15-inch model has now stretched to late December, so owners of older MacBook Pro models will obviously want to know whether this new model has been worth the long wait.

Touch, Apple-style

Apple has often been criticised for failing to adopt touchscreen displays in any of its desktop or laptop computers, but the new Touch Bar included in the 2016 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pro ranges (barring only the entry-level 13-inch model) shows that Apple can still "think different" (sic) and come up with its own innovative use of touch technology.

mpb-15-2016-touchbar.jpg

The main innovation in the 2016 MacBook Pro is the context-sensitive Touch Bar, which replaces the Function keys in previous models.

Image: Apple

Replacing the traditional row of Function keys on the keyboard, the Touch Bar is a touch-sensitive glass panel -- with a resolution of 2,170 by 60 pixels -- that provides context-sensitive controls for individual apps, and even for individual tools within apps such as Adobe's Photoshop. By default, the Touch Bar displays controls for standard settings such as brightness, volume, and the new Mac version of Siri. The 'Esc' key is there too -- it's not quite dead yet, as Apple VP Phil Schiller announced during his demo.

But when you switch into an app that supports the Touch Bar you'll see a new set of controls designed for that specific app. In Mail, for example, you'll see predictive text and formatting options, while Messages displays a multitude of emojis. That's unlikely to impress professional users who need to get work done, but Apple does provide an API for the Touch Bar that allows third-party developers to use it within their own apps. Adobe has already demonstrated the use of the Touch Bar in Photoshop, and the ability to quickly step backwards and forwards through a series of complex edits with just a flick of a finger is the sort of thing that will have many designers queuing up to upgrade. Microsoft Office is due for a Touch Bar update as well, although no release date has been announced yet.

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The Touch Bar is also home to the new Touch ID sensor. That's less innovative as there are plenty of existing business laptops with fingerprint sensors - but of course, Apple's laser-cut sapphire crystal sensor is considerably more stylish than its Windows-based rivals.

Pro performance

The Touch Bar could well prove to be a useful time-saver, but the best gift Apple can give its neglected professional user base is a more capable machine that will help them to meet their deadlines. The 15.4-inch Retina Display of the MacBook Pro retains the 2,880 by 1,800 resolution (220ppi) of its predecessors, although it now provides 500-nit brightness -- 67 percent brighter than the 2015 model, according to Apple -- as well as supporting the DCI-P3 colour space used for professional-level video-editing. So, if Apple is aiming at those sorts of high-end applications, then the new MacBook Pro really needs to step up with genuine professional performance.

mpb-15-2016-retina.jpg

The resolution of the 15.4-inch Retina Display is unchanged in the 2016 MacBook Pro, but it now delivers up to 500-nit brightness and supports the DCI-P3 colour space.

Image: Apple

Here in the UK, prices for the new 15-inch MacBook Pro now start at an eye-watering £2,349 inc. VAT (£1,957.50 ex. VAT, or $2,399 in the US) with a 2.6-3.5GHz quad-core Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, a 256GB solid-state drive and a discrete Radeon Pro 450 GPU. There's a second configuration with a 2.7-3.6GHz Core i7 and 512GB of SSD storage for £2,699 inc. VAT (£2,249 ex. VAT, or $2,799 in the US), but we took the plunge and opted for a few build-to-order upgrades, including a 2.9-3.8GHz Core i7-6920HQ processor, a 1TB of SSD, and a Radeon Pro 460 with 4GB of VRAM. That brought the final price of the top-of-the-range 15-inch MacBook Pro to a mind-boggling £3,329 inc. VAT (£2,774.16 ex. VAT, or $3,499 in the US).

To be fair, the MacBook Pro does provide very impressive performance. Delivering single- and multi-processor scores of 4,550 and 14,050 in Geekbench 4, the MacBook Pro outguns the raw processor performance of Apple's top-of-the-range 5K iMac, and sits only slightly behind HP's Xeon-based Z1 G3 desktop workstation. The solid-state drive flies too, with write and read speeds of 2,057MB/s and 2,505MB/s under Aja System Test Lite. The Radeon GPU is no slouch either, hitting 85.8fps when running the Cinebench R15 video tests. That's about 9fps behind the iMac, but still 2.5x faster than the 31fps achieved by the 2015 edition of the MacBook Pro -- which is still on sale as a token gesture towards people who can't afford £2,000-£3,000 for a laptop.

So, the 2016 version of the 15-inch MacBook Pro is certainly strong enough to handle 4K video-editing and other demanding graphics applications. However, it does have competition from rivals such as Dell's Precision 15 5000 mobile workstation, which offers similar levels of performance for a price that's closer to £2,300 inc. VAT (£1,922 ex. VAT, or $2,540 in the US)

Portability versus performance

In addition to its performance, the 15-inch MacBook Pro does have one or two other tricks up its elegantly tailored sleeve. This new model has lost a fair bit of weight, dropping to 1.83kg (from 2.04kg) and measuring 349.3mm wide by 241mm deep by 15.5mm thick (compared to 359mm x 247.1mm x 18mm). That makes the 2016 MacBook Pro one of the thinnest and lightest 15-inch laptops currently available.

mpb-15-2016-profile.jpg

The 2016 MacBook Pro is 9.7mm narrower, 6.1mm shallower, 2.5mm thinner and 0.21kg lighter than its predecessor.

Image: Apple

Battery life is good too, aided by the ability to automatically switch between the discrete Radeon GPU and the Core i7's integrated Intel HD 530 Graphics (which can be turned off if you need to stick with the Radeon for specific apps). The Retina display's 500-nit maximum brightness allowed us to turn it down to 50 percent, under which setting the MacBook Pro delivered 7.5 hours (450 mins) of streaming video when using the BBC iPlayer. That's not going to win any awards, but it's still good going for a powerful Core i7 system -- it's also virtually identical to last year's MacBook Pro, and almost double the 230 minutes achieved by the Dell Precision 5000.

That's no mean feat, but this laptop's portability does come at a cost. The first thing I noticed is that the 2016 MacBook Pro now uses a slimline keyboard panel, similar to that on the ultraportable MacBook, which feels rather lifeless compared to the more responsive keyboard on my trusty MacBook Air.

mpb-15-2016-sides.jpg

Apart from a 3.5mm headphone jack, connections on the 2016 MacBook Pro are limited to four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports -- two on each side.

Images: Apple

Apple has also jettisoned most of the MacBook Pro's traditional connectivity features, equipping the 2016 model with just four Thunderbolt 3.0 ports, all of which use a USB-C connector. The speed and versatility of Thunderbolt 3.0 is certainly impressive -- up to 40Gb/s on each port, while also allowing you to connect external storage, monitors and other devices. The downside, of course, is that you'll have to spend even more cash on an assortment of cables and adapters in order to connect existing HDMI, or USB 3.0 and other peripherals.

More importantly, the already limited upgrade options of previous models have now been eliminated altogether. The memory and solid-state drive are both soldered onto the motherboard, so user upgrades and repairs are simply out of the question. Apple's expensive build-to-order options do allow you to upgrade the solid-state drive and GPU at the time of purchase, but the memory is fixed at 16GB, which can cramp the style of professional applications such as Photoshop or 4K video-editing in Final Cut Pro. There's always a compromise between performance and portability in laptop computers, but a 'pro' laptop should surely prioritise the former over the latter.

Conclusions

The new Touch Bar proves that Apple hasn't lost its innovative touch, and the 2016 15-inch MacBook Pro is a superb piece of engineering. It provides the performance that professional users need, wrapped up in an attractive, lightweight design that also offers all-day battery life. However, it's extravagantly expensive, and the complete lack of upgradeability is a real weakness in a laptop aimed at professionals -- especially one that will need to justify its high price tag over a period of several years.

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Specifications

General
Packaged Quantity 1
Operating System Apple OS X 10.12 Sierra
Processor / Chipset
CPU Intel Core i7 (6th Gen) 2.6 GHz
Max Turbo Speed 3.5 GHz
Number of Cores Quad-Core
Cache L3 - 6 MB
64-bit Computing Yes
Features Intel Turbo Boost Technology 2.0
Cache Memory
Type L3 cache
Installed Size 6 MB
Memory
RAM 16 GB (provided memory is soldered)
Technology LPDDR3 SDRAM
Speed 2133 MHz
Storage
Interface PCIe
RAM
Memory Speed 2133 MHz
Configuration Features provided memory is soldered
Technology LPDDR3 SDRAM
Installed Size 16 GB
Display
LCD Backlight Technology LED backlight
Widescreen Display Yes
Monitor Features Wide Color Gamut
Type LED
TFT Technology IPS
Diagonal Size (metric) 39.1 cm
Display Resolution Abbreviation WQXGA+
Environmental Parameters
Humidity Range Operating 0 - 90% (non-condensing)
Hard Drive
Type SSD
SSD Form Factor soldered
Capacity 256 GB
Audio & Video
Multi-GPU Configuration 1 single GPU card / integrated GPU
Graphics Processor AMD Radeon Pro 450 / Intel HD Graphics 530 - 2 GB GDDR5 SDRAM
Integrated Webcam Yes
Sound Stereo speakers, three microphones
Input
Type Force Touch trackpad, Touch Bar, keyboard
Localization & Layout English
Features Multi-Touch Gesture Recognition, Touch ID sensor, ambient light sensor, force click, multi-touch touchpad, pressure sensitivity
Communications
Wireless Protocol 802.11a/b/g/n/ac, Bluetooth 4.2
Optical Storage
Drive Type no optical drive
Type none
Processor
Type Core i7
Generation 6
Manufacturer Intel
Clock Speed 2.6 GHz
Battery
Technology Lithium polymer
Capacity 76 Wh
Technology lithium polymer
Run Time (Up To) 10 sec
AC Adapter
Input AC 120/230 V (50/60 Hz)
Output 87 Watt
Connections & Expansion
Interfaces 4 x USB-C/Thunderbolt 3
Headphone output
Header
Brand Apple
Product Line Apple MacBook Pro
Model with Touch Bar
Localization English
Country Kits United States
Packaged Quantity 1
Networking
Data Link Protocol Bluetooth 4.2, IEEE 802.11a, IEEE 802.11ac, IEEE 802.11b, IEEE 802.11g, IEEE 802.11n
Miscellaneous
Color space gray
Case Material aluminum
Included Accessories power adapter
Monitor
Diagonal Size 15.4 in
System
Notebook Type notebook
Platform Apple Mac OS
Hard Drive Capacity 256 GB
Introduced Late 2016
Dimensions & Weight
Width 13.8 in
Depth 9.5 in
Height 0.6 in
Manufacturer Warranty
Type 1 year warranty
Environmental Standards
ENERGY STAR Certified Yes
Physical Characteristics
Weight 4.03 lbs
Power
Min Operating Temperature 50 °F
Max Operating Temperature 95 °F
Operating System / Software
OS Provided: Type Apple OS X 10.12 Sierra
Type Apple AirDrop, Apple AirPlay, Apple Image Capture, Apple Keynote, Apple Launchpad, Apple Mac App Store, Apple Mac OS X Chess, Apple Mission Control, Apple Numbers, Apple Pages, Apple Preview, Apple Automator, Apple QuickTime, Apple Safari, Apple Stickies, Apple System Preferences, Apple TextEdit, Apple Time Machine, Apple iBooks, Apple iMovie, Apple iTunes, Calendar, Apple Calculator, Contacts, Dictation, Drivers & Utilities, Game Center, Maps, Messages, Notes, Notification Center, Photo Booth, Reminders, Apple DVD Player, Siri, iCloud, Apple Dashboard, Apple Dictionary, Apple FaceTime, Apple Font Book, Apple GarageBand
Video Output
Multi-GPU Configuration 1 single GPU card / integrated GPU
Graphics Processor AMD Radeon Pro 450 / Intel HD Graphics 530
Graphics Processor Series AMD Radeon, Intel HD Graphics
Video Memory
Technology GDDR5 SDRAM
Installed Size 2 GB
Notebook Camera
Integrated Webcam Yes
Input Device
Backlight Yes
Interfaces
USB-C Ports Qty 4
USB-C Features USB Power Delivery

Topics: Laptops, Apple, Hardware, Mobility, Reviews

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Where To Buy

Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, space gray, 2016)

Part Number: MLH32LL/A
Price
$2,399.00

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