Deep-dive review: New 13-in. MacBook Pro brings Force Touch to the trackpad

Apple's newest laptop offers a trackpad that delivers new features and abilities, together with improved performance.

The last time I reviewed the 13-in. MacBook Pro, I was quickly won over by its size, portability and performance. The solid build of the aluminum chassis wrapped around the high-resolution Retina display, in concert with great performance and battery life, led me to confidently recommend that computer.

I have now spent some time with the 2015 version of the entry-level 13-in. MacBook Pro, and I'm more impressed than the last time I reviewed this model. This notebook, which starts at $1,299, shares the same weight (just under 3.5 lb.) and dimensions (12.35 x 8.62 x 0.71 in.) as last year's, but offers improvements to the internal architecture, including a faster PCIe-based flash storage system and improvements to battery life.

Force Touch trackpad

But the most notable addition is the inclusion of the new Force Touch trackpad.

Superficially, the new trackpad feels like any other Apple trackpad. It is still coated in a layer of glass (which provides an excellent tracking surface), still takes up a third of the area available for palm rests and still supports multitouch actions and gestures. But longtime users will notice a different feel to the clicks when they're pressing on it.

What makes this new trackpad different is that it has been built around four force sensors that detect how much pressure is applied against it. In addition, Force Touch is contextually sensitive and offers different features depending on the application in use.

For instance, a hard press on an icon's text in the Finder allows you to edit its name, while a hard press on the icon itself brings up a window with a preview of the picture, video, or document, information about the file, and the option to open the file in the appropriate app. Another example: In the QuickTime app, the speed at which a video clip rewinds or fast-forwards depends on how hard you press on the trackpad.

Safari also supports Force Touch: Pressing down on the trackpad while the mouse pointer hovers over a word will display that word's definition and thesaurus entries, while pressing down on a link will display a preview of that page in a pop-up window. You can scroll through the page or add it to your Reading List for later; clicking the preview page will open it in the browser.

Force Touch trackpad in use Michael deAgonia

"Clicking" down harder on the new Force Touch trackpad will open a new browser window when the cursor is positioned over a link in Safari.

The trackpad also supports pressure sensitivity in apps that support it; right now, Mail supports thin or thick strokes, depending on how hard you press when you sign your name.

In addition, the Force Touch trackpad offers haptic feedback. Currently, the only app I was able to test this with was iMovie 10.0.7 -- when you reach the end of a clip, you feel a subtle tap from the trackpad.

This is the third Apple product to feature Force Touch and haptic feedback, the others being the Apple Watch and the upcoming redesigned MacBook. It'll be interesting to see how this tech is implemented moving forward.

Personally, I love the feel of the trackpad; if you're accustomed to Apple trackpads -- which longtime readers know I've advocated over mice and trackballs -- you're going to like Force Touch once you grow accustomed to using it. After experiencing it on the new computer, I've found myself trying to use force presses on my own 15-in. MacBook Pro. The sensitivity of Force Touch can be adjusted in Settings, and for those who don't want it, there is an option to disable the feature -- though I'm not sure why you would want to.

Other new hardware

Besides the trackpad, the internal architecture has been revamped. This year, the 13-in. MacBook Pro features fifth-generation Intel Core i5 (or i7) Broadwell processors. The entry-level laptop -- the one this review is based on -- is equipped with a 2.7GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 (with a Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz), 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 memory and 128GB of PCIe-based flash storage. An integrated Intel Iris Graphics 6100 processor powers the 2560-x-1600 high-resolution Retina display.

There are two other configurations for the 13-in. MacBook Pro: a $1,499 model that has 256GB of storage; and a $1,799 version equipped with a slightly faster 2.9GHz dual core Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 3.3GHz) and 512GB of storage.

You can customize memory and processor configurations for the MacBook Pro on Apple's online store; for example, the entry-level model processor can be upgraded to the 2.9GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 for an additional $100 or a dual-core Intel Core i7 clocked at 3.1GHz (and 3.4GHz Turbo Boost) for $300 more. To upgrade to 16GB of memory costs an additional $200 across the board, and the high end 13-in. MacBook Pro can be upgraded to 1TB of storage for another $500.

This year's MacBook Pros come with two Thunderbolt 2 ports, two USB 3.0 ports, dual microphones (for noise-canceling), an HDMI port, an SDXC card slot, and a headphone jack. Wireless support includes 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 4.0.

The chiclet keyboard is backlit and automatically adjusts to low-light situations, making it easy to type even in dark rooms. The FaceTime camera is hidden in the black border centered just above the display and works well for video conferencing with FaceTime or Skype.

Day-to-day performance

As I used it, I felt that performance on a daily basis was quite good; between the four-channel PCIe flash storage and the Intel architecture -- working in concert with OS X Yosemite -- app launches were speedy and most tasks happened quite fluidly. This is a great computer for those who want a great balance of power/performance, including running multiple operating systems in virtualization apps such as Parallels, and using resource-intensive apps like iMovie and Final Cut Pro.

However, for those looking for the ultimate performance, the 15-in. model with quad-core architecture is still the best bet. While I never experienced any slow-downs during day-to day-work, the 13-in. MacBook Pro is not the fastest Mac available.

13-in. and 15-in. MacBook Pro laptops Michael deAgonia

A 15-in. MacBook Pro (left) next to a new 13-in. version (right).

I transcoded a 43-minute video on both the 13-in. MacBook Pro and a Core i7 quad-core 15-in. MacBook Pro from 2012, and the results were pretty much would you would expect: The three-year-old quad-core MacBook Pro was much faster than the dual-core device. Decoding the video took 32 min. 35 sec. on the 15-in. model compared to 56 min. 05 sec. on the 13-in. model. Exporting a 720p movie in iMovie 10.0.7 took 3 min. 36 sec/ on my 15-in. machine while it took 9 min. 56 sec. on the 13-in. model.

On the other hand, the battery life is amazing. During my first day of use, after six and a half hours of straight use (Wi-Fi on, Bluetooth on, screen at 80% brightness, and using apps like Mail, Safari, Pages and an Activity Monitor Dock icon set to show CPU history), I still had 40% of battery remaining, which gave me nearly four hours of additional use the next day. (Of course, battery life is dependent on what you're using the computer for.)

Bottom line

The 13-in. MacBook Pro is not the lightest on the market -- however, for road warriors, students and anyone who wants a great size/performance notebook, this one is tough to beat. When you factor in its full complement of ports, unmatched build quality, support for the Apple app and hardware ecosystem -- including integration with other Apple products via support for Continuity and Handoff -- the value proposition rises enormously. This computer will not disappoint.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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