When the new Touch Bar MacBook Pro was released back in 2016, I wasn’t exactly thrilled. In fact, back then I swore that I would skip this entire generation of Apple’s “professional” laptop offering. I thought I couldn’t survive without my beloved USB A ports or MagSafe, and that my trusty 2015 Retina MacBook Pro had at least a couple more years of life left in it. But when Apple bumped the specs in 2017 and I began to see a number of digital techs adopt the new machines – and after a particularly grueling location job that left my Retina MacBook Pro feeling at a loss for power – I decided to bite the bullet and place an order. And since then, I haven’t looked back! In fact, I recently sold the 2015 Retina and bought a second 2017 Touch Bar as a backup.
This blog post has been a long time coming. Just as I decided to be a late adopter with this machine and let others work out the kinks for me, I wanted to wait to write this post until I had some solid real world experience with it. I started writing this post a few months ago, but it quickly turned into more of a novel than a blog entry, so I have decided to break it down into a multipart series. This first post will be my review of the 2017 MacBook Pro and I will discuss some of the pros and cons of the new machine vs. the old Retina models. In the second post, I’ll share my thoughts on USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 and walk you through the various dongles and hubs that I use (and also the ones that I tested but DON’T use) on set. The third part will focus the Touch Bar itself and some of the ways that I’ve embraced this seemingly pointless feature. Finally, in the fourth part I will go into depth on options for power on location (bye bye Versa batteries).
*I will now also be adding a fifth installment discussing the new 2018 model MacBook Pro after I have a chance to thoroughly test it in the field.*
So without further ado, lets get into the review!
While at the time I thought (and still think) that the Mid 2012 to Mid 2015 Retina MacBook Pro was as close to perfect as laptops come, there was one feature that always irked me: the sRGB display. The accuracy of the Retina MacBook Pro’s screen could never be entirely trusted. The new Touch Bar MacBook Pro’s display, however, uses the DCI-P3 gamut. While P3 is designed more as a motion picture standard, it nonetheless covers an impressive 93% of the Adobe RGB color space and, while not a perfect match, is much closer to my Eizo monitors. It is accurate enough that I fully trust it on location jobs when I’m not running an external monitor.
Another huge pro: these things are FAST. The new Radeon Pro 560 GPU in the top of the line 15” models is a massive improvement over the 2015 Retina’s Radeon R9 M370X. In fact, tested side by side, I found that the 2017 model is approximately 40% faster at processing TIFF files in Capture One than the 2015 model and about 50% faster than the 2014 Retina MacBook Pro’s NVIDIA GeForce GT 750M GPU. The latest generation SSD is also blazing fast, even compared to the already stellar SSD in the 2015 model.Of course, the speed increase is incredibly important in the real world. It means that I can now use a laptop on many jobs that would’ve previously required a Mac Pro setup, saving my clients money and allowing us to do more complex work on location. And though I haven't tried it myself, the ability to connect an external GPU through Thunderbolt 3 means that this machine has the potential to allow certain hardcore professional users to ditch their desktops. I even did one job last year with a client's 13" 2016 model, and I was shocked how well it kept pace. Previously, I hesitated to recommend 13" MacBook Pro models to professional users, but if traveling light is a big concern for you, the latest generation 13" just might be able to keep up with your workload.
For the record, both of my 2017 Touch Bar MacBook Pros are configured with a 3.1GHz i7 Processor, 16GB of RAM, 1TB SSD, and the Radeon Pro 560 GPU. My 2015 and 2014 Retina MacBook Pros mentioned herein featured maxed out specs: 2.8GHz i7 Processors, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSDs, and Radeon R9 M370X (2015) and Nvidia GeForce GT 750M (2014) GPUs.
USB-C / Thunderbolt 3
As you will discover in Part 2, I have VERY mixed feelings about the switch to exclusively USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 I/O. While the fact that the new MacBook Pro only has 4 of the same type of ports can be somewhat limiting with more complex setups, the adaptability of USB-C also allows me to better tailor my computer setup to the task at hand. Yes, carrying an extra bag full of dongles is annoying, but let’s not forget that Apple users have been dealing with dongles for a long time now. My 12” PowerBook G4 from 2004 needs an adapter to work with DVI or VGA displays. And how could we forget the Apple Display Connector of the late 90s? Theoretically, USB-C will eventually eliminate the need for dongles altogether as it is one standard that can handle virtually any type of device. Computer users have been dreaming of this for years! But in reality, I foresee a need for adapters for many years to come.
Sure, USB-C equipped hard drives, desktop monitors, and mobile devices make a lot of sense, but as we have seen with many other standards in the past, it will probably take a long time before we start seeing cable lengths over 6 or 10 feet. As digital techs, we need to run many of our devices over long distances: camera tethers, client monitors, etc. I can’t see USB-C replacing a 25’ HDMI cable any time soon. Nor do I think it will make up the entirety of a camera tether's signal chain for years to come. Right now, if I need to tether a USB-C equipped camera, I use a C to A cable into a 16’ USB A to A extender, back into an A to C adapter on the computer side. There simply aren’t long enough USB-C to C extensions available yet, nor do I want to spend hundreds or thousands of dollars right now on new cables that won’t be compatible with some of the hardware I still have in my arsenal (my Trash Can Mac Pro, for one). However, the days of USB A, HDMI, DisplayPort, and all of the other “legacy” interfaces are certainly numbered, and I think that we will very soon see the day when nearly every computer peripheral is equipped with USB-C, and cable lengths will begin to improve with time. Let’s just hope that Thunderbolt 5* and USB D don’t start popping up just as USB-C hits its stride (spoiler alert: they almost certainly will).
I also appreciate that USB-C Power Delivery opens up the potential for infinitely more battery power options than we had with MagSafe, though the market has not quite caught up to the demands of professional work environments (I will explore location power options in depth in Part 4 of this series). In short, the 15” model’s 87W power requirement limits compatibility with nearly all current USB-C accessories that feature power delivery. In real world use, this means that one of the precious four USB-C ports must be dedicated to the power supply, leaving you with only three usable ports for the rest of your I/O. Since day one, I have felt strongly that the new MacBook Pro ought to have six Thunderbolt 3 ports to be truly considered a professional machine, and after nearly a year of field use, that opinion remains the same.
However, I do appreciate that the new power adapter features a replaceable USB-C power cable. Though I always treated my MagSafe adapters well and never had the longevity issues that some users faced, I have picked up some USB-C power cables of varying lengths (make sure they're certified for 100W power delivery) for different use cases. With my tripod/DigiPlate setup, a three foot cable is the perfect length to eliminate unnecessary cable clutter. I've also picked up a couple of spare standard six foot cables from third party manufacturers for about half the price of Apple's OEM cable. No issues to report so far.
At the end of the day, I have to say that I really miss MagSafe. Though tripping over the power adapter isn't necessarily a big concern when your whole rig is neatly built on a cart or tripod, having the laptop plugged in on a desk, couch, or bed definitely makes me a little more wary of where I'm walking. Though the USB-C connection comes apart a bit more easily than the old PowerBook adapter, the fear is still there. But primarily, I'm angry that I have to sacrifice a quarter of my I/O for adequate power. If I can't have the six Thunderbolt 3 ports that I so desperately desire, I don't see why Apple couldn't have at least added MagSafe in addition to the four Thunderbolt 3 ports, or added a fifth port dedicated solely to a USB-C power adapter (though this confusing option probably would've substantially increased Apple Support's call volume).
*Thunderbolt 4 will probably be here soon, but I expect it to also use a USB-C connector, just as there was no change between Thunderbolt 1 and 2. Let’s hope, at least!
At first glance, a larger trackpad might seem like it belongs in the “pro” category, and in fact I do see the enlargement of the trackpad as an improvement over the previous model. It also feels as though Apple has refined the haptic feedback system introduced with the 2015 model; clicking feels a little more reminiscent of the hard button used on pre 2015 MacBooks. However, I am calling this feature a con due to what is in my mind an obvious omission: a lack of Apple Pencil support.
I have really loved using my Apple Pencil with my iPad Pro, especially in conjunction with AstroPad, an app that allows me to use my iPad as a pseudo Wacom Cintiq drawing tablet. To me, it only seems logical that Apple would extend Apple Pencil support to the new larger trackpad on the MacBook Pro (which approaches the size of some of Wacom’s smaller tablets), allowing professional users to leave the tablet at home on extended trips where retouching on the road might be necessary. In an era where Apple seems hell-bent on forcing users to purchase accessories to continue using legacy accessories with their devices (read: USB-C adapters, Lightning Headphone Adapter, etc.), I’m actually quite shocked that they have not given users yet another excuse to go out and spend more money on their own accessory that could so seamlessly integrate into the Mac ecosystem and enhance the professional user's experience.
Use on Location
Speaking of form factor differences, let’s talk about Apple’s constant obsession: thickness and weight. The new MacBook Pro is a full tenth of an inch thinner than the previous generation and nearly half a pound lighter, and you can instantly feel that the difference is quite substantial when you pick up the new machine for the first time. But while many photographers and other pro users might appreciate a lighter load when traveling, I for one couldn’t care less. If you've been following along, you probably know that I tend to strap my laptop to a DigiPlate rig that weighs just as much as the computer, and then I go ahead and tack on a few more pounds of accessories, so thin and light are never high on my list for features that I look for in a professional computer. I wouldn’t mind sparing some of that space for a larger battery, space for more storage, and increased I/O capacity. And even more important to me is the machine’s ability to perform well when faced with heavy processor loads for many hours on end, often in extreme temperatures (it’s a laptop, after all! It had better work on location!).
Indeed, the new MacBook Pro suffers from an affliction that will rear its ugly head on nearly every Mac at some point in its life: thermal throttling. Thinness comes at the expense of airflow. Compared to the Retina models, the new MacBook Pro tends to run a bit hotter. For years, I have been using apps like smcFanControl and iStat Menus to manually regulate fan speed and crank the fans to the max. I tend to do this any time I’m running Capture One, whether in the studio or on location, Mac Pro or laptop, and it helps keep everything a lot more stable. However, even when running the fans full blast, I have definitely seen the new machine succumb to temperature on location a few times. I’m still trying to work out a solution to increase airflow that is compatible wit the DigiPlate system. I will note, however, that it held up quite well on an outdoor location job in sub 20º weather back in February, so extreme low temperatures don’t seem to be much of an issue (as long as you’re not running off the internal battery).
Furthermore, I’ve found the build quality of the machine to be subpar compared to past models. While it is no doubt the best looking laptop Apple has ever produced and the manufacturing is precise, the weather sealing seems lacking compared to previous generations. I have already had to go in for a screen repair after water managed to seep between the glass and the screen panel on a particularly soggy day on location, and many users have been affected by an issue involving dust under the keyboard. And though it hasn’t happened to me yet, I’ve spoken with a number of techs who have already had to replace USB-C ports due to wear and tear. My Retina and Unibody MacBook pros seemed to fare much better in harsh conditions.
The Touch Bar
Perhaps the boldest of the new MacBook Pro’s features, the Touch Bar is also the most perplexing. In Apple’s view, the Touch Bar expands the functionality of the machine by eliminating the static function buttons, instead creating a dynamic interface that can accommodate the needs of a specific application. Steve Jobs talked similarly about the iPhone’s keyboard back when the original model was introduced in 2007. If you'll recall, many users were incredibly skeptical of a touchscreen keyboard back then, but 11 years later, the technology has been almost universally embraced. However, I don’t necessarily feel that the Touch Bar will go down in history as a groundbreaking development.
A few years ago, I stumbled across an article on MacRumors that detailed a recently approved Apple patent for a notebook computer with two screens: one a traditional laptop display, and the other a large touch screen in place of the keyboard. In fact, Apple filed another similar patent earlier this year. Essentially, an iPad like screen in the bottom case that acts as a dynamic keyboard when necessary and at other times a secondary touchscreen display. To be honest, I think that its a pretty cool concept. And in my mind, there’s no doubt that Apple will indeed go in that direction in future notebook generations. With this in the back of my head, my immediate reaction to the announcement of the Touch Bar was that Apple was pawning off what is essentially an internal manufacturing proof of concept on their professional users, to whom it is no secret that they have become increasingly hostile in recent years. After nearly a year of using the Touch Bar, my thoughts on this haven’t really changed.
While I think that the concept of the Touch Bar has a lot of potential, its execution has left much to be desired. First and foremost, even two years after its introduction, it seems that most third party professional app developers haven’t really embraced the technology all that much. Capture One support is virtually non existent (more on that in Part 3), and while Photoshop offers limited TouchBar support and now the ability to customize the Touch Bar to your liking, the functions that are available on the Touch Bar are already more easily accessible in other areas of the UI and through keyboard shortcuts, so tapping through multiple levels of tool palettes seems like a waste of time rather than a workflow improvement. Furthermore, simple and potentially useful features like a cursor tool palette appear to be missing. The size of the Touch Bar really limits its contents to simple buttons and sliders. Even Apple’s own Cover Flow-like implementation in apps like Photos don’t seem to enhance the functionality of the app – the thumbnails are simply too small to be useful. I guess we’ll have to wait for the full size touch screen keyboard to really see the true potential of a touchscreen interface on the Mac that is separate from the primary display. Of course, Apple is going to have to figure out how to improve battery life in a thin and light design before this becomes a real possibility.
For some developers, the necessity to make cross platform apps seems to limit the desire to develop features for a single model of hardware that represents only a portion of the install base (read: Capture One). For other apps, the Touch Bar doesn’t really seem to open up any new possibilities that are more practical than mouse and keyboard inputs. And because the Touch Bar essentially requires me to take my eyes off the main screen in order to use it, it often removes my focus from the task at hand. This issue could potentially be solved by another missing feature: haptic feedback. With all of Apple’s focus on haptics with the Apple Watch, iPhone, and the trackpad, I am quite shocked that they did not incorporate haptics into the Touch Bar. As a result, I’ve had many issues with inaccurate inputs and a lack of feedback causing me to click the same button twice. This is especially true concerning the escape key – the one button on the Touch Bar that I expect to be able to use without looking. But this too is problematic since the digital escape key is about half an inch to the right of where the physical button once lived. Apple really should have left this one extremely necessary hard button in tact.
But my biggest complaint of all about the Touch Bar: they put it in the wrong place altogether! Apple claims that the Touch Bar is an evolution away from what they see as obsolete technology from the days before graphical user interfaces that has withstood the test of time (function keys). But if this technology is truly revolutionary, I don’t understand why they felt the need to put it in the same position as the keys that it replaces rather than further enhancing the user experience by making these dynamic buttons more accessible. The ergonomics of the current Touch Bar are terrible – I find that its position makes it extremely uncomfortable to use. In my mind, placing the Touch Bar below the keyboard rather than above it would’ve dramatically improved its comfort and functionality. Some people that I have discussed this idea with have rightfully brought up the possibility of more accidental inputs in this position, but if you really look at how your hands are placed on the laptop when typing, you’ll see that the arch of your fingers naturally creates an open space there. And for the lingering naysayers, let’s not forget that Apple has plenty of experience with identifying accidental multitouch inputs. The iPad does this beautifully, especially more recent Apple Pencil compatible models. Placing the Touch Bar closer to the trackpad would make using a second touch interface feel much more natural as opposed to the current layout where users must “jump” from one to the other.
I do miss my hard function keys in day to day use with this new machine, but that’s not to say that there aren’t a few things that the Touch Bar has improved. They may be small, but they also point to the fact that the Touch Bar has potential to be a great tool once software developers discover and refine the ways they can implement better Touch Bar functionality. One tool that I’ve found to be quite handy is the screen brightness slider. With my old Retina MacBook Pros, it was difficult to set my screen brightness properly when calibrating. Eventually, I learned that I could open System Preferences and use the screen brightness slider to dial in my brightness down to 1 nit, but that was a buggy solution since i1 Profiler is a full screen app when profiling and often made it difficult to access System Preferences without getting in the way of the calibration. Now that that slider can be placed right in the touch bar, its a lot easier to set my screen brightness accurately, but it still needs some work. The slider is pretty touchy, and sometimes removing your finger after getting the brightness just right causes the level to jump considerably. Yet another area where some haptic feedback could really improve functionality. But my larger point is that there are features within MacOS and existing apps that probably make more sense in Touch Bar form than on screen. It just seems from my experience that developers are still identifying just which features those are.
So should you buy this machine? That's a tough question, as it really depends on how you're going to use it. In general, if you consider yourself a professional user and your Mac notebook was made before 2014, it's definitely time to upgrade. You'll instantly notice and appreciate the difference in speed and the superior display. And if Tim Cook's Apple has you yearning to jump ship to Windows, I would highly recommend that you give the Touch Bar MacBook Pro another thought. You WILL adapt to this machine, all of your current devices will work with it, and if you're a long time mac user you'll probably still like using it a lot more than whatever Windows machine you would otherwise end up with (cue the trolls in 3...2...). If you're running a 2014 or 2015 MacBook Pro and you're terrified of USB-C, then you should be able to get at least another solid year or two out of that machine, but do take a good hard look at the next generation when it eventually comes out.
A quick note here: observant consumers will note that the 2017 model MacBook Pro was released a mere 221 days after the 2016 model began shipping, which by any measure would be considered a short product cycle. However, it is important to note that Intel's 7th generation Kaby Lake processors found in the 2017 model weren't quite ready when Apple released the new generation MacBook Pro back in 2016. In a perfect world, Apple probably would've liked to ship the first generation Touch Bar models with Kaby Lake chips, but it seems that after nearly five years of the Retina form factor and users begging for a major update, Apple rushed the new generation machines to market with 6th generation Skylake chips.
While next generation Coffee Lake chips appropriate for a MacBook Pro are now available, I wouldn't be all that surprised if Apple skips Coffee Lake altogether for the MacBook Pro lineup and waits for the (delayed) Cannon Lake generation to become available. That would mean no new MacBook Pros until at least mid 2019. Furthermore, its entirely possible (and likely) that we will see a new generation MacBook Pro powered by one of Apple's own chip designs as early as 2020.
On July 12, 2018, Apple unexpectedly released an updated 2018 Touch Bar Macbook Pro which feature 8th generation i9 6-core processors in the top tier 15" models, the option for 32GB of RAM (FINALLY! Plus, they upgraded from 2133MHz DDR3 to 2400MHz DDR4), a higher capacity battery, Bluetooth 5.0, and a third generation keyboard. I have a feeling this new model with have even more heat issues than the 2017 model, but if you've been waiting to take the plunge, NOW IS THE TIME! I have placed an order and will post an update after I've had some real world experience with it.
Based on previous experiences with Apple, I can’t see any scenario where they decide to revert back to old technology (USB A, MagSafe, Function Keys, etc.) in the next generation MacBook Pro no matter how much negative feedback they receive from users. And as with nearly any bold new feature Apple has introduced (or more accurately, done away with) – FireWire, matte displays, swappable batteries, headphone jacks, the list goes on – it's fun to complain for a few months until the market adapts and not only is the old technology not missed, it starts to feel antiquated, too. I think that the same can be said for USB-C, and Apple was keenly aware of this trend when they decided to release this generation of MacBook Pro. It would've been easy enough to include a USB A port, but they needed to incentivize manufacturers to adopt USB-C more quickly. Sure enough, that's what's happened. In fact, in the long term I'm somewhat glad Apple chose to go this route. I've said it before and I'll say it again: USB-C is a fantastic I/O standard, at least it will be once it becomes universal.
I’ll survive #donglegate, but I really miss my Esc. key.
Stay tuned for Part 2 - All About Dongles