Review of MacBook Pro 13" with Touch Bar 2017

I've been using my MacBook Air for 5 years. Recently I purchased a new MacBook Pro 13" with Touch Bar. Here's some of my thoughts on the new machine.

Setup: moving from a previous Mac using Migration Assistant

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Using Migration assistant in conjunction with a Time Machine backup was stupidly easy. Simply fired up Migration Assistant on the new Mac, told it I wanted to move using a Time Machine backup, plugged it in and hit go. About an hour or so later, my new machine was set up exactly as my old one. All documents, settings and customisations (e.g. the height of the dock) just as they were before. Everything just worked. Side note, if you’re not currently backing up your machine with Time Machine, do yourself a favour and get an external drive and start using it. It’s effortless and well worth it.

Shape, volume and weight of the MacBookPro 13“ 2017 vs MacBook Air 13“ 2012

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Image source: http://bgr.com/2017/01/17/macbook-pro-2017-specs-vs-surface-4/

  • Shape - My biggest concern was that the new machine would be too flat in its design compared to the Air. The taper or wedge design on the Air makes it super comfortable to type on, plus it avoids cutting into your wrists when you are using the palm rests. This was the chief reason I chose the Air over the previous Pro. Well I am happy to report that the new Pro doesn’t cut into my wrists at all! It is (almost) as comfortable to rest and type on as the Air. This is definitely due to its lower profile. It’s actually thinner than the Air at its thickest point. I do still prefer the wedge design (like on the current MacBook) and I can see in the future all MacBook designs being wedge shaped, but this will do fine for now.

  • Volume - The overall volume of the device is smaller, at least it seems so because of the thinner bezels around the display and keyboard deck. I like it.

  • Weight - The 13" Air 2012 is 1.35kg. The 13" Pro 2017 is 1.37kg. That's a difference of 20g. Non-issue.

The screen

It is simply excellent. So much better than the Air: brighter, more even colours, better viewing angles, much higher pixel density. The interface elements throughout the whole OS are sharper, clearer and it makes using the machine a joy. Font rendering is one of the primary reasons why I prefer MacOS to Windows. I find it much easier to read web articles and engage in long coding sessions. They look crisp and clear on this display.

The keyboard

There has been a lot of divisive opinion over the new style of keyboard. It is the second generation of the butterfly mechanism keys that were introduced in the MacBook last year. Personally, I have no issue with the shorter key travel or the sound of the keys compared to the previous chiclet style. Yeah it’s different, but that’s fine. I am typing with fewer mistakes as the days go by and am finding myself pressing much more lightly on the keys than I used to. This is likely going to result in less fatigue over long typing sessions.

I would suggest that you take advantage of Apple’s excellent store experience and go nuts on the new keyboard before you commit to buying one. If you really don’t like it, you won’t have lost anything. That’s what I did and it helped solidify my purchasing decision to no end.

Minor niggles:

  • Arrow keys - the left and right arrow keys are now the same size as any other key. There is no longer a bare space above them on the deck. I preferred them before, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it. I’m certain this was one of the things Apple changed JUST because it made the design more uniform and prettier.

Force trackpad and new size

tl;dr: It’s much better than the Air’s, which was already great.

The new trackpad has a force click instead of the mechanical hinged click on the Air. This means you can click anywhere on the entire surface with the same amount of pressure and it will work. This is in contrast to a hinged design where the click is easier the further you move away from the hinge, simple leverage mechanics. If you use tap to click then this is largely irrelevant to you.

I found that the new force touch immediately changed how I use the trackpad. I noticed instantly that I now tend to drag my finger, moving the pointer to wherever it needs to be on screen, then without lifting my finger, I just push down and click.

Conversely, on the Air’s trackpad, I would lift my finger off momentarily to then tap. That was to overcome the mechanical constraint of clicking if my finger was in an area too close to the hinge. Sounds trivial, but it’s saving me time and effort in every task I do with the machine. Winner.

I’ve had no issues with the larger surface area and palm rejection. I don’t know about the 15” model though as that trackpad is gargantuan.

Touch ID sensor

It’s really good when it works. Sadly for me, this isn’t very reliable due to the fact my fingertips resemble boot leather most of the time from climbing. If you have lovely digits I suspect this feature will be great for you. I have found the same issue with my Sony Xperia Z5 Compact. Great sensor, doesn’t think I have fingertips. So it’s not particular to Apple.

One thing I have noticed though, is that Touch ID is simply not utilised enough throughout the OS. You can login with it, you can use Apple Pay on the web through Safari, but whenever there are system dialogs asking for your password, e.g. when installing an application, you can’t use it. Why not? This can obviously be fixed with a software update and I’d be amazed if Apple weren’t already aware of this issue.

Fan noise and machine heat

The machine got hot when I was setting it up for the first time. It sometimes gets a little warm when I’m doing compilation/building a release version of an app. That’s to be expected. But it’s not uncomfortable at all.

I haven’t heard the fans yet. In fact, I have found myself periodically checking that they’re even running. I guess they are as the Mac hasn’t melted yet.

There is a completely new thermal cooling design on this thing, with big vents on the side that draw in air, leaving along the underside of the hinge. Seems like it’s working pretty well. Nice.

Touch Bar

tl;dr: There are some minor issues (see below), but in my opinion they are far outweighed by the added benefit of the user configurable area. It’s not a gimmick.

I really like it. It has been integrated into all the first party apps (Safari, Mail, Calendar etc). You can also customise it by clicking View -> Customise Touch Bar in supported apps.

For the first time in forever, I am now using Safari regularly instead of Chrome. Its support for the Touch Bar is genuinely useful:

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Having added the reader button to it myself, now when loading a page, if I don’t like the styling or there are too many ads, I just hit that reader button with my left hand instinctively. This gives me a nice, easy to read page with no distractions. Safari is a bit weird when it comes to doing a google search from the url bar however. It takes seemingly ages to load the results page on first go. Subsequent searches are snappy. Odd.

For apps that have yet to be updated to support it, I have used the very excellent BetterTouchTool. This enables me to set custom buttons for any app I want and map them to any shortcut or OS functionality I see fit.

Here’s the controls I made for Visual Studio Code using BTT:

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I use these soft keys all the time now. Previously I had to use the right click context menu and select the option I needed, or use the menu bar at the top of the screen (for back and forward). This is because I simply could not get used to the weird shortcut key combos assigned to them. Now I don’t have to think about it. I can be typing/using the mouse with my right hand, then without skipping a beat, hit the required soft key with my left hand. I find it really comfortable to use and it genuinely improves my productivity.

Minor niggles:

  • Escape key - this is by default positioned between the weird key nobody uses and the number 1. Every other keyboard I’ve used has the escape key in the extreme top left. Honestly it’s not a big issue, my muscle memory has adapted very quickly and I am used to it now. I don’t miss it being physical either as it’s now a silent operation with no force required. Depending on your use case that will be a good or bad thing, for example if you’re used to resting on the key or you use it very frequently. I do neither of these things.

  • Control strip - the new control strip on the right is neat, but I don’t find it more intuitive or easier to use than the original keys that were there before. I much prefer tapping successively on a key to change volume/brightness to using a slider. This can be fixed with a software update (and it looks like it is coming with MacOS High Sierra).
    On my Air, I’d often, show desktop using the trackpad, click and hold a screenshot from its icon, then use the dedicated Mission Control key to find the app I wanted to drop the icon into. This is not possible on the new TouchBar (you can only have 4 keys in the control strip on the right). So for now, I’ve remapped the weird button nobody uses (next to number 1) to invoke Mission Control using BTT. Problem solved.

  • X button in custom setup - When you make a custom set of keys using BTT, you get that annoying X on the left and the escape key is indented from its normal position. This is an API restriction, not something the developer intended. Anyway, so far it hasn’t actually caused me any issues. If it does become an issue, I can hide the control strip using BTT when in VSCode and the X will also disappear. No biggie.

Touch Bar Piano

Worth the price of the machine alone. It’s so much fun. http://www.utsire.com/touch-bar-piano/

Ports!

Holy balls, how will I ever use my existing peripherals and learn to live with dongles? Yeah this has been massively overblown:

  • External monitor - I already needed a dongle to change HDMI to MiniDisplayPort, so switching that dongle for a USB C one is no different. Problem solved.

  • USB A - Bought 2 of these adapters. I leave one attached to my Time Machine HDD cable. I leave the other in my bag which I take my Mac everywhere in. Problem solved.

  • SD Card slot - I never used it. In fact I bought a TarDisk 64GB expansion disk for my Air which used up that port nicely. Your mileage may vary.

  • Magsafe - I always found it really annoying trying to charge the Air when it was on my lap or a pillow, the MagSafe connector was just too weak and kept disconnecting.

Now all 4 ports are USB C, I can plug the charger in to any of them, which means either side of the machine. This has immediately come in useful at my desk (I like to have the Mac on the left of the external monitor I use). I no longer have to wrap the cord around the back of the monitor to get to the other side of the machine to plug it in to charge. There are plenty of third party MagSafe type cables now, which come with an insert that you leave in the designated port. Apple is even purportedly working on their own.

The benefits of being able to use any port to charge outweigh the loss of MagSafe. For now…😱

Battery life

It’s better than my 2012 Air (I changed that battery for a new one recently), so I am happy. I know it’s not better than the current Air, but I didn’t have that anyway. So I still win.

Conclusion

I think that’s it for now. This machine was crazy expensive but I use it every day and it is my solitary computing device, so I think it was worth it.

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