Refreshed MacBook Pro: Stunningly fast storage, spooky touchpad, delightful display

David Gewirtz shares first impressions from his brand new, recently refreshed MacBook Pro. His primary take-away thought: "Holy Mother of God, storage is fast!"
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor
My new MacBook Pro
Image: David Gewirtz
I'm writing this on my new MacBook Pro. If you'll recall, a week or so ago I took you through my thinking process in determining which Mac notebook to buy.

I wound up deciding to buy the middle-of-the-road 13-inch MacBook, which is powered with a 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5, 16GB 1866MHz LPDDR3 memory, 256GB PCIe-based flash storage and Intel Iris Graphics 6100. Of particular note is the Retina display, which makes working on a relatively small 13-inch display a pleasure.

I'll give you a quick survey of my experiences, but I'm not going to bury the lead: this machine has completely unexpected, insanely fast storage performance. More on that near the bottom of the article when I talk about benchmarks.

Delivery almost-snafu

Oddly enough, my first-first impression of the machine was annoyance. While I wanted the machine quickly to begin a new project, Apple informed me that delivery would take until Tuesday (about a week). Given that I was ordering a non-standard configuration (maxing out RAM), I accepted that.

But here's where it got annoying. On Thursday, the Apple site said my order would arrive on Tuesday and require a signature. On Friday, the order arrived, and required a signature. I was not planning on being home on Friday and it was just blind luck that the delivery truck showed up during the short window of time I was home.

I appreciate delivering more than you promise, but when something like delivery-with-signature requires planning, it would have been nice to have gotten something resembling an accurate delivery estimate -- especially when I checked just the previous evening.

The display

PowerBook 150, circa 1994 -
Image: Dana Sibera CC BY-SA 2.5
Here's an admission: this is the first Mac laptop I've had since my 1994 PowerBook 150. We were a heavy Mac shop from about then through 2001 or so, but we ran off of a succession of desktop machines. After that, I went all Windows (with a smattering of Linux) until around 2007 or so, when I moved back into the Apple space with an iMac for iPhone development.

Since then, I've been adding more and more Macs, some of them running Windows and many of them hybrid machines, but I haven't had a portable Mac since the early days of the Bill Clinton presidency.

This is not a Bill Clinton-era display. The Retina display on the MacBook Pro is clean and crisp, and well worth the added costs over a non-Retina MacBook Air screen. It's clear (pun not intended) that Retina in terms of how it feels to my eyes was the right choice.

It is also far more comfortable to read this screen (and write on it) than my trusty (and by comparison crusty and rusty) HP Chromebook. Night and day.

Keyboard and touchpad

I bought a $69 Magic Mouse with the MacBook because I am not a fan of touchpads. That said, there are some very noticeable observations about the MacBook Pro touchpad.

First, this is the first laptop/notebook I've ever used with a touchpad where my normal typing on the keyboard wasn't always interrupted by misinterpreted touchpad actions. The MacBook Pro touchpad stays completely out of the way. It's the first touchpad-equipped notebook where I haven't had to go in, the very first thing, and turn off the blasted touchpad.

Second, the haptic feedback in the touchpad is spooky. If I didn't know better, I'd think that I was clicking and moving the touchpad surface, when the reality is that it's rock-stable and not moving at all. The haptic in the touchpad give a feeling completely and totally indistinguishable from an actual press and click.

I validated this with a laser level. The touchpad isn't moving. But it sure feels like it is. That's amazing and makes me wonder what other areas will benefit from limited and directed haptic feedback. Very cool.

Still, I'll use my mouse.

As for the keyboard, typing on it is fine. The key travel is reasonable and has required no special getting used to. My only complaint is the keyboard layout itself. I use the PC version of the Logitech K810 keyboard on all my computers (I'm a big fan of the three Bluetooth connection buttons), and so my keyboard layout is a little bit more PC and a little less Mac-oriented.

I'll need to go into Settings on the MacBook Pro and tweak my keyboard keys. That said, one thing that truly annoys me is that the Delete key in the upper right of the keyboard is a backspace key, rather than a true Delete key. Once again, I'll go into either settings or fire up Keyboard Maestro to change things around, so it's no big deal.

What about performance?

Subjectively, performance has been smooth. I haven't tried writing code on the new MacBook Pro yet, so I can't tell you how that feels, but basic work is nice and snappy.

However, being somewhat anal about such things, I decided to subject the device to a set of benchmark tests. I used NovaBench for overall performance testing, Cinebench for graphics and a second CPU test, and the BlackMagic Disk Speed Test for storage performance.

As a test set, I compared my main 2013 27-inch maxed-out iMac with my late 2012 Mac mini (where I replaced the hard drive with an SSD) with the new MacBook Pro.

Overall performance: As comes as no real surprise, overall performance of my Core i7 3500 MHz 32GB maxed-out iMac was roughly twice that of the new MacBook Pro. That iMac also cost more than twice that of the MacBook 18 months ago and was truly maxed in capability and capacity.

CPU and RAM: CPU performance according to Novabench was considerably better from both core i7s (the one in the iMac and the one in the Mac mini). Even a Core i7 running at 2300 MHz beats the pants off a Core i5 running at 2700 MHz by a factor of 697 to 447.

RAM speed has something to do with the performance win, but not as much as you'd think. The slowest, the new MacBook Pro benched with a RAM speed of 7112 MB/s, the Mac mini showed 8226 MB/s, and the super-duper iMac showed 9931 MB/s.

Graphics performance: On the other hand, graphics and storage performance was quite interesting. Using Cinebench, I was able to measure graphics performance and the iMac running a GeForce 780M blew everything else away with a benchmark of 87.04 fps. The new MacBook Pro came in second, running the Intel Iris 6100 and showing a workmanlike score of 25.73 fps. Far at the bottom of the barrel was the Mac mini running HD4000 graphics, with a measly score of 16.67 fps

This score makes me wonder just how tolerable the new MacBook might have been. It sports a Retina display, meaning it has to push a lot more pixels, and yet it's running a slower HD5000 graphics adapter, which would give it numbers more in line with the Mac mini's performance than the MacBook Pro. Combine that with the substantially slower CPU in the new MacBook and I'm very glad I didn't choose it for my purchase.

Storage performance: Finally, let's look at storage performance. Both the iMac and the MacBook Pro use flash storage, while the Mac mini uses an aftermarket-upgrade SSD. Flash storage is often much more efficient than even SSDs, so let's see how the benchmarks played out. For that, I turned to the BlackMagic Disk Speed Test. Prepare to be blown away.

My maxed-out iMac showed 708.6 MB/s write speeds and 728.7 MB/s read speeds. At the other end of the spectrum, my upgraded Mac mini registered a measly (but still way better than spinning platter) 174.2 MB/s write speeds and 501.9 MB/s read speeds.


Now, here's where you need to buckle up. The new MacBook Pro? 1098.3 MB/s write, and 1049.8 MB/s read. Holy Mother of God, that's fast. That blows away the specially configured 1TB of flash storage in my maxed out iMac and just leaves it in a puddle. I did not expect this, but I'm thrilled. I'm always about storage performance and yowzah-bowzah, that's fast!

Finally, from the Completely Odd Dept

For some reason, my Applications folder is missing all its applications. I just discovered it this morning, but if I go to my Applications folder in my David folder, there's nothing there. And yet, applications like Evernote and Chrome are able to launch.

I haven't had a chance to figure out what's up, and it's new enough in this machine's life that I may just toss a recovery install its way, but it's odd.

UPDATE: There's no missing apps. I just looked in the wrong place without enough coffee. Oops.

So there you go. I like the machine. I know I haven't touched on battery life, but that's because it's been sitting on my desk in my study all weekend. I also haven't mentioned weight for the same reason. It's nice and small, but does weigh considerably more than the Chromebook. But for what you get with the extra pound, I think it's worth it.

By the way, I'm doing more updates on Twitter and Facebook than ever before. Be sure to follow me on Twitter at @DavidGewirtz and on Facebook at Facebook.com/DavidGewirtz.

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