Nearly Two Years Later, Apple’s 15-Inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar Still Rules

Nearly Two Years Later, Apple’s 15-Inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar Still Rules

We’re on the eve of another major Apple announcement. While it’s rumored to be purely software based, now is a good time to look at the polarizing 15-inch MacBook Pro with the all-too-infamous Touch Bar and four lonely Thunderbolt 3 ports.

I’ve had a chance this last year to both experience and review a number of other systems from HP, Dell, and Microsoft. And they’re honestly quite impressive. No, I’m not a PC fan. But I can appreciate a well-designed piece of tech regardless. And Windows PC makers have gotten a lot better about more contemporary design that looks and performs well over the last decade. Apple is now far from the only one designing beautiful machines. Still, like it or not, everyone — everyone — has taken a page from Apple.

A Little History

From the removal of the DVD disc drive to the transition to pricey solid-state-only hard drives, Apple’s decisions have often been polarizing, but few more so than the decision to ditch all other ports for four Thunderbolt 3 ports on its latest MacBook Pro lineup. Invariably, the introduction of the Touch Bar was also infamous because, in a big way, this was the new piece of hardware that was supposed to appease those who missed out on the additional ports.

Sure, both features are completely unrelated. But even Apple couldn’t help the you-lose-your-ports-but-gain-a-touch-bar rhetoric. And when the Touch Bar fell flat in its utility and did, indeed, seem a bit gimmicky, the painful reminder of lacking port flexibility bore its way to the front of the mind.

Fast-forward almost two years, and it’s interesting to see what has happened. Of course, it was a bit too early to switch to full Thunderbolt 3. It takes time for peripherals to catch up. But if you’re a professional buying a $2,000-$4,000 laptop, I would argue it’s good to have the latest and greatest ports for your workflow and to simply upgrade your accessories. Arguably, having access and such broad support for a new interface a bit too early is actually good for lengthening the usefulness of your entire setup. We always look at these things retroactively and regret that we can’t use USB-A for three decades straight. But starting early has the same benefits and also helps solve the issue of premature obsolescence. Many wasted time the first couple years of USB 3.0 while they waited for it to become more prevalent when they could have jumped on and had that much more time with a newer technology. And those in Apple’s target market for high-end mobile computers can afford a few extra accessory upgrades.

Re-Examining the MacBook Pro with Touch Bar

With the main issues addressed, now that we can just look at the Touch-Bar MacBook Pro without getting too angry, it is incredible that it’s already coming up on two years and simultaneously remains something that seems so new. There are now an array of small, fast, extremely portable USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 external SSDs that make traveling with extra storage so much easier. The oversized trackpad is insane when you first see it in person, but quickly becomes the most appreciated aspect to these new machines. The screen is top-of-the-line with superb gamut coverage. And the overall thin (yet hefty) build of these computers keeps them feeling fresh and just as modern in 2018 as they were in 2016.

The keyboard, although the subject of a small chunk of complaints for stuck keys, is strange at first, but easy to get used to. It’s one of those things that you just don’t want to go back from once you get used to it. In fact, most of these changes in tactile experience that feel strange at first are eventually and relatively easily accepted as improvements. The same happened with the switch of the physical Touch ID button in the iPhone 6S to the Taptic Engine version in the iPhone 7 (the same technology debuted and was even more quickly accepted in the MacBook Pro’s trackpad a year earlier). Today, clicking on any of the earlier models with the physical button feels cheap by comparison. The move to more and more subtle (but precise) forms of tactile feedback is something we’ll see more of and that ultimately does provide a more refined, higher-end experience. And the newest MacBook Pros are the greatest example of all of that coming together.

That said, the Touch Bar has yet to live up to the hype. Many of Apple innovations go under-appreciated. Internal SSDs that hit north of 3 GB/s are a perfect example of an incredible, but severely underrated feature of Apple's high-end laptops. But the Touch Bar is one that probably deserves to be overlooked. It looks slick, especially in the ads that show it being used effortlessly. But using it is not something that comes naturally. Its ever-changing key function layout does not lend itself to easy learning as it shifts under your fingers constantly. And sure, you can change to a permanent, traditional function key layout. But then what’s the point in the Touch Bar except for the nice addition of Touch ID?

What I Like

  • Screaming-fast SSD performance at up to 3,000+ MB/s
  • Great overall performance
  • Thinner than ever while offering superb mobile performance
  • Screen quality is best-in-class
  • Keyboard takes getting used to, but great once you're there
  • Oversized trackpad is super nice
  • Touch ID is surprisingly nice to have on a laptop, if not entirely necessary
  • Thunderbolt 3 ports are simply the best (so you get what you pay for); and there are plenty of amazing adapters for the once-in-nearly-never that you actually need something more

What I Don't Like

  • Extremely expensive (expected, but the upgrades are where you really get killed)
  • Touch Bar is fine, but just not all that useful
  • Apple is limited by the technology available to them, which means 32 GB RAM still not an option

The Future

Still, with the Touch Bar not living up to its hype, it’s not like it really detracts from the experience, either. And the rest of the MacBook Pro continues to shine. Today, we could use little else from Apple apart from a touchscreen convertible laptop. That said, I understand why they’re stubborn to release one after reviewing the HP ZBook x2. There are some neat features for those that would actually need touch (designers, artists, and photographers who do heavy retouching). But for everyone else, it’s just not that practical. The mouse and keyboard method is still king.

Instead, we’re really waiting for internal advancements. Intel’s processor innovation has lagged behind. Rumors of Apple switching to its own ARM-based processors in the next year or two are everywhere now. And we’ll probably — finally — see a laptop from Apple by the end of the year with 32 GB of memory. The next quantum leap in hardware probably won’t change until we get rid of WiFi and put the computing tasks to a cloud-based server over 5G everywhere we are. But as it stands, the latest MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is simply one of finest, most refined machines the company has ever made. Windows users would be so lucky to have this hardware run their software.

The MacBook Pro with Touch Bar comes in 13-inch and 15-inch variants from $1,599 to $4,299.

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Ryan Mense's picture

Is this the one where there are multiple lawsuits opening up for its disastrous keyboard? What a joke this thing is.

kai mollerud's picture

I've used one every day for the last two years, and I'd say it's hot garbage. It's performance and screen are nice, but it's honestly among the most poorly designed laptops I've ever used.

The keyboard is like wet cardboard on concrete, it's the only keyboard I've ever developed hand pain while using.
Battery life is deeply unimpressive.
The track pad is a full inch too wide on each side, and clicking on it feels almost as bad as typing on the keyboard.
The touch bar was designed to look good in ads, not to actually provide a useful input option, because it fails to do that entirely.
There's plenty of space on the laptop where apple could have included 1-2 plain USB ports, but then they wouldn't be able to sell single port USB dongles for $12 a piece.
The touch id button locks the screen when clicked, and is conveniently placed 3mm from one of the most frequently pressed keys on the keyboard.

Noah Hayes's picture

This sounds like it was written by someone who doesn’t own and use one, but rather tried it at the store once.

If you’re clicking the Touch ID button you’re pressing REALLLLLLY hard, and it’s got plenty of space from the nearest button.

I get a good 7+ hours of battery life on mine even when editing, more if I’m just browsing/typing. Not sure what you’re doing to get “deeply unimpressive” battery life.

kai mollerud's picture

Interesting theory; that I would care enough about a laptop I don't own to list out all my complaints about it's design. But I actually have hundreds, if not thousands of hours of use with this laptop. I have to use because I'm a software developer and my company makes a lot of iPhone apps, if I had my choice I'd happily switch to a better designed machine running linux.

Eugene Shields's picture

Weird. Mine doesn’t turn off when you click the button. Was so by default. I got it mapped to the touchbar. I really like touch id. And to the other guy. The battery sucks on the 15”. Web browsing with yt and stuff gives me barely five hours is I am lucky and heavy editing brings that down to two. Not even acceptable. It should be twice that for modern standards. It’s the second worst thing about it right after the keyboard for which I just had to send it in for repair.

Adam Ottke's picture

I am really curious about this. I have yet to see ANY reasonably portable, professional 15" laptop with decent quad-core processors, higher-end graphics, etc., get more than 4-5 hours of video watching/web browsing/anything other than word processing alone (which, with networking off or not used much is the only time I've seen it MAYBE go a bit higher). And I've always only ever seen 2 hrs or so for heavy editing tasks. So just wondering if you know of any real-world tests with other similarly specced systems that last significantly longer...

Eugene Shields's picture

Alright, maybe I got a bit overzealous here. I do not have much experience with such high specced and portable laptops. The previous ones I used were always smaller or thicker. And considering the resolution and brightness of the screen I may have been a bit unjust. However, I do really feel like when I am doing web browsing, I should get six hours clean. They could have done it by integrating the stacked battery design of the 12” macbook and making it just a tad thicker to allow for both a bigger battery and more space for the heat to dissipate, increasing battery efficiency and again reducing need for the fans and thus battery usage. Sorry again if I sounded like a troll.

Brandon Rechten's picture

Seriously? I'd take the 2014 MBP over this abomination any day. If the battery in mine hadn't died, I would never have "upgraded" to this garbage fire of a laptop.

Getting multiple displays to work with the Thunderbolt ports is a complete crapshoot, the keyboard is awful, and the touchbar is a total gimmick. I absolutely hate this laptop.

Mike Kelley's picture

For stills editing, my 2014 MBP is still holding its own. Hope the next version is massively improved with regards to touch pad, keyboard, etc, or I'll likely jump to another brand.

Cepheus Chan's picture

I own the 2016 15-inch. Tons of bugs initially when connecting to external display (the LG one they launched with) but Apple was super helpful when I got in touch with them. The bugs got ironed out within 2 updates. Using it for 1.5 years now and I love it! It keeps up with me (except Lightroom), connects to all my peripherals (HDDs, 2 displays, card reader, USB hubs and printer) via just 2 cables.

Side Label Productions's picture

Ahhh, you mean the release that moved me to a Dell XPS 15.

Luis Rivera's picture

I did EXACTLY the same.

Mikey Schaefer's picture

I had the 2016 for about 3 months. Had to get the keyboard replaced after a month and then again at 3 months. Took almost 10 days for Apple to replace it the second time. I actually ended up giving up and taking a lesser model off the floor because they couldn't tell me when it would be ready. I decided to not open the box and return it the next day and got a refund. Found a top of the line late mid-2015 for half the price.

While I did have the 2016 I wasn't that impressed with the speed. LR was no faster than my previous 2012 model. The read/write speeds on the SSD had little impact on my daily workflow. I had problems with an erratic cursor due to the larger trackpad that my palm rested on. I really have no idea why it needs to be so big. Zero complaints with the previous sized one. The touchbar wasn't that helpful and I actually found it harder to use than a standard row of function keys. If the touchbar was in in addition to the function keys I think it would be great for some things.

The couple things I really did like were the Touch Id and the USB-C/TB 3 ports. I use a fairly complex password for the laptop and 1password so the times savings with the Touch Id were noticeable. And even though I didn't have any USB-C peripherals at the time I was really looking forward to consolidating all the different cords I needed to carry.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

I'm sorry but a laptop that needs a dongle for just about everything isn't a well designed laptop.

Alex Armitage's picture

I've owned the first gen touch bar MBP 13 inch for a year and a half. I actually hated buying it honestly. I upgraded from a 2014 mbp and was really not happy about the purchase, the only reason I even got it was that work was paying for it and I looked into plenty of alternatives but nothing quite compared to the portability/design. That said, I was still VERY reluctant. Been using apple laptops since 2007 but always had multiple PC's as my desktops.

After a year and a half theres been a few things that grew on me:
1. The portability/light weight has actually been nice. The 2014 isn't too much bigger but it's noticeable and using it on a flight has been a pleasure.
2. The 'dongle' issue that I was absolutely pissed off about when I bought it has been "okay." The hard drives I use, I just bought some USB-C/Micro-B cables and that made using HD's easier. And I just carry around 1 'dongle' for emergencies but normally don't use the ports too often. That said, I have had things come up where not having a dongle or just a basic USB port has been an absolute pain in the ass. I wish they had left at least 1.
3. The USB-C ports can be really annoying for connecting external monitors with how easy it is to disconnect them.
4. Touch ID to login has been nice
5. Trackpad is larger than it needs to be really, but hasn't been that bad.

There's a longer list, but overall it's still not a laptop I'd recommend to people unless they absolutely want the mac eco system. I've always been a fan of the MBP for it's engineering and sleek design but this iteration just never made sense. The fact that you can't even plug your brand new iPhone x into your brand new mac book pro is probably making Steve roll in his grave.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

Some of my friend are die-hard iCult members. One of them has a box full of cables and connectors because just about every new device had a new connecting cable.

He also has an expensive dock that can't be used anymore because the connectors have changed.
I understand that technology changes and that you have to update your devices.

The question is: does Apple change their ports/connectors because it is necessary or do they change them because they want to sell lots of peripherals like adapters which are all propietary which means that Apple make money on every device sold.

Though I am not a fan of Steve Jobs, at least in his days there seem to be logical reason behind all.

Noah Hayes's picture

There is NOTHING proprietary about USB C or Thunderbolt (at least as far as Apple is concerned). Nearly every high end Windows PC is adopting the connections as well. A small inconvenience of using an adapter for your older legacy devices means any new devices you buy will work without an adapter.

My A7iii tethers to my laptop without an adapter or weird proprietary cable Nikon gave me with my D750. If I lose or damage my cable I can use the same cable that charges my laptop to tether my camera or charge my Nintendo Switch.

The old USB ports that majority of the people commenting on this post love so much is so dated now and if you actually adopt the new USB C connectors you’ll never want to go back.

Pieter Batenburg's picture

Owners of Thunderbolt: Apple and Intel. Although Intel claims they own the trademark.

They allow others to make cable for Apple products under a license.

Lightning cable:

Noah Hayes's picture

#1 yeah...INTEL owns the trademark and licenses the ability to make Thunderbolt cables, not Apple. And if you actually read the Wikipedia article you’ll see it’s based on Intels Lightpeak Technology and that many windows laptops desktops use the technology now too. Apple was simply the first company to fully adopt Thunderbolt.

Apples primary contribution to thunderbolt is via the Mini DisplayPort connection that they made and was adopted as a VESA standard (one that is used on the Microsoft Surface for example too!) that was for Thunderbolt 1 and 2. Thunderbolt 3 uses the USB C connector and works with all USB C connectors.

Not sure at ALL why you added a post about Lightning cables to this because that’s 100% irrelevant to the MacBook Pro. The Lightning cable is proprietary but only applies to iphones and iPads.

USB C and Thunderbolt are standards that every major manufacturer is adopting so if you’re living in the dark ages with old USB type A and type B connectors, you’re going to upgrade on need a dongle at some point regardless of what brand of computer you buy.

Bet you hated having to give up floppy disc and serial cables too

Pieter Batenburg's picture

No, I actually have very little trouble adapting to changes. As long as the changes bring me benefits. Then I change in a heartbeat. Having to use adopters isn't an improvement and doesn't bring me benefits.
USB-C is great. They should also have included other means of connectivity.

Jim Cutler's picture

Hi Pieter, I agree that every time there's a new socket type I roll my eyes. Since owning the USB-C only MacBook Pro for a year now I have come to love the USB-C. Fast and simple. I have no need of dongles either as I have just replaced my device cords with USBC on one end and whatever it need (micro-B etc) on the other. But I totally hear what you're saying. You mention the USB-C is great and I think the speed increase and simplicity of the USB-C becoming universal is a step up. I found myself in agreement with you in your original post. Definitely a frustrating first few months with it because of limited connectivity. Now for me, it's smooth sailing.

Alexander Petrenko's picture

On my "old" MacBook I have 7 ports + 1 audio. 4 of them (power, Thunderbolt to dock station, USB to external SSD, SD with some photos from yesterday) are busy at the moment.

Dock station gives me the chance to connect external monitor (hello HDMI port!) and Ethernet (hello one more USB/Thunderbolt).

So, in total I need 5 ports for productive work without hubs.

I switched everything I could to Bluetooth (mouse, external keyboard, Wacom tablet) so I have one spare USB port when I tether.

Out of all devices I have, only 2 have USB-c - Sony camera and Godox A1 flash/commander. And I can use them with "old" USB.

Was the idea to abandon so many ports that good - not sure.

Ett Venter's picture

My 2012 Retina MacBook started getting slow, so I needed a new MacBook. The price of the new one and the stupid dongles put me off, so I built a PC myself. 4 months later, I sold it and bought this new MacBook.

Yeah, it was expensive, and yeah, the dongle situation is silly, but absolutely nothing compares to this machine. And it doesn't matter what I do to Windows 10, I can never get it to be as good and as efficient as OS X is.

TouchBar MacBook owner here, and I absolutely love it.

BTW, if you have one, and aren't using BetterTouchTool for your Touch Bar, you're seriously missing out. BTT allows you to put literally whatever you want on the Touch Bar. Controls, sliders, and if you know AppleScript, the possibilities are pretty much endless.

olivier borgognon's picture

an interesting competitor is the Asus zenbook 3 Deluxe with amazing features, worth checking out IMHO.

Nate Reese's picture

I have two coleagues .. one has 2 years old MB Pro 15 in highest configuration, other one bought some 1000USD Dell with i7 CPU and dedicated GPU (not XPS) .. the MBP coleague envy how fast Dell is compared to his MBP ... MBP is beautyful device and if you are tied to apple ecosystem it is obvious choice for pro users but it is not really worth the money if you are not.
Personaly running Asus Zenbook + PC workstation and I`m fine .. in work I have to use MBP, iMac or Mac Pro and for most parts it is no problematic .. I wouldnt mind more stable Capture One tethering connection (not sure why it happends only on OSX devices) but everybody in industry kind of count with it being disconnecting now and than so it is just inconvenient. Plus all clients looking at the same screen as you is nice benefit .. for post you hook it up to Eizo anyway but while shooting it helps specialy if client is not on stage ...

Chris Gouge's picture

Is the author really saying we should dispose of all our hard drives and other peripherals and splash out on new ones that use thunderbolt just because Apple have decided to make our lives more difficult?
These laptops are too expensive as it is and now we're supposed to spend money replacing all our other equipment too just so that it's compatible??

Wonder Woman's picture

Dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle dongle

Jim Cutler's picture

Not needed anymore. Just replace whatever cord your device uses with USBC on one end.

Wonder Woman's picture

Using one during a tethered shoot with two cameras, we constantly had to disconnect something to plug something back in. The removal of the SD card reader really hurts, as moving files around quickly is a pain.

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