The MacBook Pro, My Mid-Life-Crisis Laptop


I’ve been using the late 2016 MacBook Pro (13” Touch Bar) for around five months now, so I think it’s about time I gave it a review of sorts. I like to think of it as my mid-life-crisis laptop: it’s hideously expensive for what it does, comes with flashy, useless trimmings, and is more than a statement than practical because I can’t actually use it as my primary machine – and yet it is nice and oddly fulfilling.

The configuration I got is the 2,9 GHz Intel Core i5 with 16GB of RAM (plus 500GB SSD), which is more than enough for me to code, do some photography work, and run a Windows 10 VM now and then at glorious resolution1. For good measure, I paired it with an LG UltraFine 4K display, since it was discounted at the time and I needed a relatively beefy desktop display with better quality than the Samsung P2270s I bought nearly seven years ago.

In contrast to my work-issued Lenovo X1 Carbon (which I complain about regularly, even if re-imaging made it a little more palatable), the MacBook Pro is a godsend – the screen (despite the lack of a touchscreen, something I will go into later) is absolutely terrific and wipes the floor with everything else I’ve used recently (including the Surface Pro 4), the trackpad (despite the somewhat exaggerated size) is still unsurpassed in terms of sensitivity, accuracy and overall feel, and I have no performance complaints whatsoever.

And since I also have a MacBook One in the house (the original post-Air consumer model with a single USB-C port) and still use a desktop Mac daily, I can make all sorts of interesting comparisons. The Touch Bar, however, is… well, let’s start by terming it unique.

That Thing Called The Touch Bar

When I wrote “flashy, useless trimmings” in the lead paragraph, the Touch Bar was exactly what I had in mind. It was confoundedly erratic at first (with half the icons vanishing on occasion), but the latest macOS update made it much more reliable.

It works OK for scrubbing videos and common tasks like switching browser tabs and navigating to the right folder when filing e-mail, for instance2. But for developers and terminal users, it’s a nightmare. Although I’ve long been used to using vim without a readily accessible Esc key, the Touch Bar adds insult to injury for nominally having an Esc button but lacking haptics to tell my fingers it was actually hit.

And that, I think, is the real issue here. Without any sort of haptic feedback, the Touch Bar is just half of a good idea, and not necessarily the best half considering some of the default choices Apple made.

For instance, whomever thought having Terminal color preferences on the Touch Bar was a priority clearly never actually used a terminal for actual work. It’s easy enough to have the function keys as default, but you have to wonder what Apple was thinking here.

So one of the first things I did when I got the machine was remove all the stupid choices Apple made, defanging the Touch Bar and leaving a slightly tweaked variation of the brightness and media controls in place.

As I started writing this I went back to the defaults for a couple of days and immediately remembered that I removed typing suggestions because they were simply too distracting, as well as it bening completely impractical to tap the touch bar to complete a word when I’m typing at speed.

Also, having random emojis pop up as part of the suggestion list is the kind of distraction I just don’t need, further compounding my impression that the defaults leave much to be desired.

The real problem, I think, is that we’re all still at a loss as to what purpose the Touch Bar may serve in the long run. Right now, it’s only marginally more useful than go faster stripes and hood ornaments on fancy sports cars.

Keyboard

My go-to keyboard on my home office is still an Apple Bluetooth keyboard, and I find it to be the best balance between overall layout, key travel, and noise. I like its compactness and responsiveness, and I’ve long since stopped caring about numeric keypads, multiple Ctrl keys and the location of the Fn key. So like many others, I initially found the MacBook One‘s keyboard to be shallow and lack feedback – until I got used to it, because it’s actually rather nice and very quiet.

In contrast, the very first thing I noticed when starting to use the MacBook Pro is the astounding racket the keyboard makes, which is loud enough to be annoying in the evenings – and almost impossible to tolerate when you’re typing at speed on the bed.

Contrasting it with both the MacBook One and the Apple Bluetooth keyboard, it’s somewhere in between in terms of key travel, but feels much too stiff.

I probably shouldn’t complain much because the Lenovo feels like it’s carpeted with loathsome finger-fitting mushrooms (the only decent PC keyboard I’ve used lately is the Surface Pro’s, but only for a couple of hours), but overall I think I’d rather have had the exact same keyboard as the One – which is not likely to be a popular opinion, but I assume Apple will never again ship something as nice as their standalone keyboards as part of a laptop.

Trackpad

Unlike what appears to be a sizeable (or at least vocal) set of people, I’ve had no trouble with the size of the trackpad. There are one or two mis-placed taps now and then, but no issue with palms or thumbs. The trackpad is almost exactly the width (and around two thirds the height) of the Magic Trackpad I use on my desktop, and accidentally brushing a finger across either is both frequent and easy to compensate for – even for me, and I use only light taps and multiple finger gestures (including three-finger window drag) and never click on it.

In fact, I hardly ever use Force Touch at all – for some reason, it just never occurs to me, since I value speed over exertion and therefore see no noticeable advantage to bear down on it, so haptic feedback (what little there is currently in macOS) often comes as a surprise. What the trackpad isn’t, however, is insensitive or erratic (unlike my Lenovo’s).

It is the best trackpad I’ve ever used on a laptop, and I don’t think size or haptics have anything to do with it. The operating system helps (even on different hardware and multiple browsers, I’ve never had Windows zoom a web page as smoothly as macOS), but this is the one bit of hardware where Apple’s iterative polish shines.

Battery Life

A few months back I linked to a piece about battery performance, and I stick to my comments on it – with light use, I’m getting around a week’s worth of battery life (sometimes much more, as I’ve had occasions where I was too tired to do anything in the evenings and only woke up the machine two or three times during weeknights), and I can sometimes make it through from morning to evening with light browsing and a few terminal windows open.

Of course, in practice I tend to be running Visual Studio Code (which is lightweight, but as all Electron-based apps, has far too much junk under the hood) instead of vim, plus iterating on code that goes out and does a fair bit of processing and network calls, so I’d say six hours is the outside in those situations.

Lightening the load helps: I got rid of the Slack app (which is insufferably bloated, so I use it through Safari or my phone), I have The Great Suspender installed in Chrome, and have an AppleScript for toggling notorious battery hogs like Dropbox and OneDrive (although sometimes turning them on again and having them re-sync seems to be more wasteful of battery life than just letting them be).

The biggest win, however, seems to come from Installing Time Machine Editor to prevent Time Machine from hogging CPU and I/O on an hourly basis. I have no idea why Apple doesn’t allow more control over backup timings, but my unquantified perception is that turning off Time Machine gave me the biggest boost in battery life.

Since I haven’t yet needed to really tax the CPU (except when handling large batches of photos, which has sadly only happened a couple of times), I have no benchmarks. It’s fast enough, although to be fair that also applies to the smaller MacBook most of the time.

Weight and Form Factor

Still, the batteries and compactness come at a cost – the MacBook Pro is dense and hefty. Having an original MacBook One in the house, I sometimes regret having gone for the Pro when the plain MacBook is such a nearly weightless joy to behold and use.

As it is, though, the 13” MacBook Pro is slightly heavier than my Lenovo X1 Carbon (not much, but enough to notice when hefted with a single hand). I suspect the 15” would be intolerable for me, but on the whole I’d rather use lighter hardware, partially because my current lifestyle revolves around traipsing through the city with a backpack in tow, and my back does not condone that (which is another reason why I loathe the Lenovo X1 and all the crap that comes with it).

In fact, if Apple had managed to provide us with the grand total of two USB-C ports on the updated MacBook, I would probably have gone for that instead and (other from less beefy processing power) would probably have been much happier altogether, simply due to being able to carry that around everywhere on a daily basis.

And that, I think, is the one aspect that brings me a touch of regret. With a primarily cloud-centric job, there is nothing I really need to do on a laptop but run Office and a few lightweight development tools, and I hardly needed the Pro‘s added bulk.

It might be the thinnest MacBook Pro ever, but I would have been better off with a slightly beefier MacBook (with two USB-C ports, at the very least) and an i7 Mac Mini that wasn’t insultingly hobbled (like the current, or rather extant models are).

USB-C

Ah, yes, the dongle event horizon, and the impending tide of change towards USB-C… or lack thereof.

To be honest, I’ve had no trouble whatsoever – yet. I got an HDMI adapter (already had VGA and Ethernet for the other MacBook), got a couple more USB-A to USB-C adapters, and just re-used all the other stuff I have around, even though I’m not the kind to have a bunch of stuff hanging off a laptop (that’s what desktops are for, really).

Although a higher (i.e., non-insulting) port count was one of the reasons I went for this specific model, I haven’t needed more than two ports on a regular basis, and even when I just need two ports, one of them is for my Time Machine disk and the other is almost invariably plugged in to my LG 4K monitor – or through it.

Display, and the LG 4K

I have zero complaints about the internal display – it is, by and large, the best integrated display I’ve ever used on a laptop, and wipes the floor with the Lenovo X1’s dim and somewhat fuzzy HiDPI display (which, to add insult to injury, lacks an oleophobic coating and looks hideous alongside a Surface when used for the same period of time). I do wish it was a touchscreen on occasion, but my brainstem has already figured out that raising a finger to macOS (in any sense) isn’t beneficial, so that doesn’t really matter at this point.

But like I mentioned above, I decided I wanted to one-up the Samsung P2270s I have, and got one of the new 4K displays manufactured by LG. It has a nice, plain, understated but completely stupid design, because the built-in USB hub (which appears to be only USB 2.0, despite the USB-C ports) forces you to dangle adapters and dongles off the back, instead of (for instance) placing said hub in the bottom and having moderately sane cable management.

I won’t miss Apple displays (I’ve never relied on them, and dislike the integrated iMac form factor because it limited my options), and I’ve been lucky enough that the 4K wasn’t prone to the same interference issues as the 5K, so I’m generally happy with what LG has delivered – the image quality is more than a match for the internal display, the speakers are good enough for casual use and you can change monitor brightness from the MacBook by holding down Ctrl and brightness up/down, which is a nice (if somewhat obscure) touch.

The killer feature, however, is plugging in the laptop to my entire setup through one cable. This is so good that it makes the mess of dongles protruding from the USB hub on the back of the monitor doubly insulting, and I really wish Apple had given some thought to the overall solution (and gotten LG to move the ports to the monitor base somehow).

We use the monitor with the MacBook One too (at 60Hz), and leave either laptop charging (or doing backups) while hooked up to it so often that I probably used the power brick for the Pro only a half dozen times since I got it.

Other Frills

The remaining features are relatively unobtrusive, and “just work”. The built-in speakers are decent, and conferencing using the internal microphone and the built-in camera is buttery smooth (well, in FaceTime, at least, I don’t have enough data points to say Skype for Business runs well with both since we mostly do audio calls).

I love using Touch ID to log in or to unlock my 1Password vault, and logging in via the Apple Watch also works fine (so much so that I seldom think about it anymore). Either is pretty much instant from the moment I open the lid (whereas my Lenovo X1 takes forever to acknowledge I can log in and trouble with my fingerprint half of the times).

Siri, however, is still less than useless, since there is very little it can actually help me accomplish – although to be fair I seldom use Cortana on my Lenovo as well, and for largely the same reasons (although I understand the limits involved, I’m at a loss why either can’t access my Outlook calendar, for instance).

Annoyances

The only thing I can single out here is that the MacBook Pro tends to get a bit too warm for my taste even without any significant load, with the area surrounding the keyboard becoming noticeably warmer than my fingers and the bottom becoming somewhat uncomfortable on my lap. With Summer coming up, and given Portugal’s tendency to hover near 40C, I expect this will become a problem for continued use.

Conclusion

Even with all the rumours about hardware launches at WWDC (which, by the way, I find highly unlikely and further evidence that technology reporting has gone to the dogs – or, most likely, has finally sacrificed veracity for page views), I expect Apple to stay their course and, at best, deliver an insulting speed bump in this form factor rather than fixing any of the others, and it saddens me somewhat.

But until that day comes, this is a nice, flamboyant laptop to ride in, if you can stomach all its peculiarities. If you can’t and need a macOS laptop for casual use, I suggest waiting to see if Apple comes to their senses and does right by the standard MacBook – that’s a much nicer and more portable machine altogether that only needs a few tweaks to be perfectly usable, and might well become Apple‘s Mazda miata if they knew what they were doing with their product line.

If you want a truly Pro “luggable” machine, well… I just don’t know. Maybe the 15” model will fit the bill (which will be even more outrageous than what the 13” cost), and maybe you’d benefit from beefier CPUs – I’m happy with the i5 on this machine, but I just don’t do the kind of development (or design work) that warrants more these days.

Either way, I expect this machine to last me a few years (I don’t intend to spend any money on laptops for a good while), and in the meantime will be looking towards the desktop line to see if there’ll ever be something that looks like a real Mac…


  1. I’ve run just about everything inside that VM at least once, from Office and my usual work setup to Visual Studio, and it does the job, but I invariably prefer to use remote desktop. Alas, Parallels Desktop 12 isn’t that good at running games – Quake Champions refuses to run – otherwise I might use it a bit more. ↩︎

  2. I actually rather like it in that context, really, although it’s still faster to use Mail Act-on and not look at the keyboard at all… ↩︎

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