Review: Two weeks with a 16-in. MacBook Pro

Apple's newest laptop is absolutely the most capable Apple notebook I’ve ever used.

Apple, Mac, Mac OS, macOS, OS X, MacBook Pro, Butterfly keyboard, Mac, Apple

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks using one of Apple’s new 16-inch MacBook Pros, and I have a few thoughts to share on the new high-end notebook.

For the record: I've been using the pricier $2,799 model, which comes with a 2.3GHz, 8-core Intel Core i9 chip, an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with 4GB of GDDR6 memory, 16GB of 2666MHz DDR4 memory and a 1TB SSD. The laptop was supplied for review purposes by Apple.

Skin deep?

On first glance, the new Mac maintains the svelte and modern appearance of all the company’s high-end Macs, a style inheritance that can be traced all the way back to the Titanium PowerBook G4.

This is an appearance that is often imitated (and hardly ever matched) and it means that anyone using one of these laptops is going to have the visceral feeling that they are using a high quality and professional solution. That is exactly the feeling you want when you’re asked to spend $2,399 or more on a computer system. (Though Apple is now offering 6% Daily Cash if you buy one of these with an Apple Card).

It’s all a display

You will also be impressed by the incredibly high-quality Retina Display. With a  resolution of 3,072-x-1,920 pixels, it drives 5.9 million pixels at a density of 226ppi. The 500nits display is bright, with a P3 Color gamut and support for millions of colors.

You also get slimmer bezels around the display, which means you’ll look at what’s on the display, not the frame. That’s nice if you happen to watch TV on your Mac, but media consumption isn’t precisely what this is for – these systems are more for media creation.

This is why video editors will get so much from this system, and also why they will welcome Apple’s decision to give them controls over the screen refresh rate to match the frame rate of the content they're working on.

You get rich and lustrous blacks, beautiful color, amazing contrast and the sheer quantity of pixels means you’ll pick up plenty of detail.  These Macs are very much solid enough for professional users.

Apple certainly thinks so. It claims 70% faster processing of well-threaded Photoshop features than you’ll get in a quad-core 15-inch MacBook Pro, and huge improvements in using popular pro apps such as DaVinci Resolve, Logic Pro X, AutoDesk Maya and/or powerful scientific applications such as MatLab.

In the absence of a reference machine, I couldn’t test those claims. But the new MacBook Pro did yield CineBench performance scores that stood consistently around an impressive 3,487 points. And yes, the new Mac Pro will far exceed those numbers – but also runs on 300 watts of power.

In part, this performance can be attributed to improvements Apple made in the laptop's thermal architecture. Not only do these mean the processor can run at its highest speeds for longer (thanks also to Turbo Boost), but it can handle the heat signature of the 100-watt battery inside. (That’s the biggest lithium-ion battery you can carry with you on a flight, by the way.)

I’ve noticed that the MacBook Pro can become comfortably warm while it crunches  through tough tasks fast and efficiently.

I tested this machine using Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, which returned write speeds around 2,536MB/s and read speeds around 2,740MB/s.

I also ran the Unigine Valley benchmarking test. As you might expect, the Mac performed really well on this. But what struck me most was how easily the machine rendered all that test’s particle effects. I found myself sinking into watching the test, which I shouldn’t have done, really.

And, the result? It delivered a score of 3,632 at an average 86.8fps, which is around 10% better than the 15-inch MacBook Pro (likely due to the improved heat sync).

BTO options

Although the standard configurations cost $2,399 and $2,799, there are a number of build-to-order options available:

  • For an extra $200 you can opt for a 2.4GHz i9 chip, which I suspect will be what high-end video editors choose.
  • If you need to pack more power, you can for the first time install up to 64GB DDR4 memory, though doing so adds another $800 to the cost.
  • You can also purchase systems equipped with 8TB of SSD storage (at an additional cost of $2,200), which is the largest solid-state storage in a notebook you’ll find at present.
  • Finally, you can spend an additional $100 to install an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M series graphics card with 8GB of memory.

The highest end BTO model costs $6,099 with all the upgrades.

What about the audio?

You’ll find a 6-speaker sound system and studio quality microphone inside these Macs. The speaker system includes force-cancelling woofers.

These are situated back-to-back and are designed in such a way that they will cancel out each other’s physical force when they make a sound. The idea is that this reduces unwanted sound distortions.

The result?

I’ve been using the Mac to provide background music while I work, and am rather impressed at the sound separation, audio clarity and accuracy – you get a real sense of spatial audio.

Try playing music on one of the systems on display at your local Apple Store and move around a little, you’ll soon see what I mean.

That’s not to say everything is perfect. As I write this, Apple is reportedly pulling together a software update to fix a weird audio issue in which some people experience intermittent popping sounds when audio is skipped, stopped or an audio app closed.

Apple says this is a software problem and I imagine it will be resolved soon. But it’s a shame this audio artifact shipped. (Personally, I’ve had no experience of this problem on my system, which I hope means the matter has been overblown.)

Apple is making no bones about its push to promote podcasting and claims these Macs are already good enough to provide the kind of high-quality audio recording you need if you’re making podcasts.

Though if you’re anything like me, even with this astonishing degree of audio quality you’ll still hate the sound of your own voice. I retain a face for radio.

Has the keyboard improved?

Recent generations of the MacBook Pro used Apple’s butterfly keyboard design. There were lots of reported problems with this, which prompted the company to devise a redesign and offer free keyboard replacements to users.

In this MacBook Pro, Apple seems to have bitten the bullet and returned to an improved version of a more standard keyboard technology. The new "Magic Keyboard" boasts a new scissor mechanism and 1mm travel for a more satisfying key feel. The keyboard also provides a physical Escape key and arrow keys.

What’s it like to use?

I found the old butterfly keyboard rather loud to use when typing and eventually found it inflamed the writing-induced Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) I suffer from. In part, this was because the action on the butterfly keyboard felt much stiffer than my (still favorite) 2015 MacBook Air keyboard.

This new keyboard is quieter in use, with a much smoother feeling than the keyboard it replaces. I seem to have been able to use it for extensive periods comfortably and I don’t annoy people near me when I type. I’ve also not experienced any stiff keyboard characters, a problem I did encounter with the previous model.

There’s an old engineering adage that better is not necessarily better than best, and I think this holds true here. Apple’s new keyboard is on par with its pre-butterfly keyboards for comfortable use, but was it ever really necessary to refine keyboard design just to trim a millimetre or two off the size? I’m not certain it was.

All the same, with this new keyboard Apple does seem to have done the right thing, ensuring that its high-end pro users won’t feel they’ve been sold a dud machine.

Apple will need to work for some time before the tarnish of the butterfly keyboard design debacle disappears, but I’m optimistic this new design hits the spot – though we’ll have to wait to see how robust it is in long-term use.

The Touch Bar has also been improved with the addition of a physical Escape button (an invaluable addition), and I’m convinced that users of pro apps will find the bar to be a useful way to reach application controls when working on projects – particularly as they gain app-specific finger-memory for the commands situated there.

But wait, there’s more

Apple’s T2 chip delivers a range of useful features for pro users.

  • Encrypted storage means all your data is kept highly secure, so the rushes of that movie you’re working on won’t slip.
  • Secure boot makes it much harder for hackers and others to slip low-level malware into your Mac.
  • Touch ID: Open your Mac, pay for stuff, and look cool by unlocking your Mac with a finger.
  • And Hey Siri support gives your Mac a second identity as a desktop-based virtual assistant for some tasks. (Here’s a selection of productive uses of Siri on a Mac).

One of the features I like most is the huge Force Trackpad. It helps me achieve really precise cursor control, while its pressure-sensing capabilities mean I can use it to draw (though it’s still easier to use Sidecar and an iPad). The Multi-touch gestures also help me get things done.

Of course, the much larger machine (14.09-x-9.68-x-0.64-inches) and much bigger battery means this Mac is heavier than the 15-in. model (13.75-x-9.48-x-0.61-inches), right?

Actually, not right at all: the 16-in. MacBook Pro weighs just 0.3 pounds more than the 4-pound 15-in. model.

For the sake of comparison, the historically important clamshell iBook weighed 6.6-pounds, and some may recall what Steve Jobs did with that – and that was a consumer laptop schoolchildren lugged around.

Must or miss?

Not every Apple user is going to need a Mac as powerful as this one. I’d argue that in a huge number of scenarios, most users only really need something as powerful as an iPad to get most tasks done.

However, if you are a pro video editor, sound engineer, scientific researcher, architect, product designer or belong to any of the other high-end user groups, you’ll want to take a look at this machine. It promises the horsepower you need to get things done, and if that's not enough, you can switch to a Mac Pro for even more potential.

For myself?

I’ll regret it when this Mac gets returned to its owner.

It’s absolutely the most capable Apple notebook I’ve ever used, and I’ve used a few. Including that orange iBook referenced above.

Would I buy one? If I needed the power and could afford the fare, certainly – but most Apple users won't need quite so much power. Though they may well aspire to it.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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