I love the new MacBook Pro with TouchBar, but it isn’t for everyone

I got the new 2016 MacBook Pro a few days ago, and thought I’d write a review with my initial impressions.  I got mine fully loaded with TouchBar, 15″ display, 2TB hard drive, 2.9 GHz Intel i7 CPU, 16GB RAM, and Radeon Pro with 4GB video RAM.  My old laptop was a 2014 Macbook Pro, which is still an amazing machine.  But as the primary tool I use to produce my art and run my business, it’s well worth investing in a high performance laptop.

Thinner 2016 MacBook Pro

Why I upgraded

I had two primary motivations for upgrading.  First, is the larger hard drive.  While my old machine had 1TB (which is more than most), I was constantly moving files back and forth to my external hard drive (I have 6TB of total data).  I’ve already been using Smart Previews for all by my latest photos and have all of my iTunes content on the external drive, but things fill up quickly.  Now that I’m shooting a fair bit of video as an instructor, that storage limitation was getting painful.  Yes, I could have bought an external SSD for a lot less money, but I place a high value on the time I waste managing files and want to avoid the hassle and risk of working on live data on an external drive. The extra space is a game changer for me, and will definitely save me a lot of time.  For that reason alone, it’s been a valuable upgrade for me (and when I net out the cost of an external SSD and what I can sell my old machine for, the total upgrade price feels a lot more reasonable).

My second reason for the upgrade was to get the faster CPU, video, and hard drive.  I was looking to speed up my workflow, especially when working with video.  With intensive photo editing tasks, I’m seeing about a 10% time savings.  Not overwhelming, but it adds up when you spend all day editing images.  On the other hand, even though the new hard drive is 2-3X faster, the 2016 MacBook Pro actually takes much longer to save a photo than the 2014 model, unless you disable compression (see this article for more info on my test results).  Exporting a 15 minute video from Final Cut Pro X is 36% faster (dropping a 5:50 export time down to 3:44).  Using another video processing tool, I found only about a 10% savings, so it depends on how well optimized your video editor is.  And 4k video finally works for me.  Playback on my old laptop skips/jumps because it can’t keep up, but that’s no longer an issue with the new one.  Overall, I’m very happy with the speed enhancements in video, but I was hoping I’d see more meaningful benefit in Photoshop, and am both surprised and disappointed that it takes longer to save my images.

 

Other key details

The body is smaller, thinner, and lighter.  I wouldn’t call it dramatic, but it’s a noticeable and very welcome improvement for someone who travels quite a lot.

I was really hoping Apple would offer more than 16GB of RAM.  That’s the same amount of memory I had in the Macbook Pro I bought more than four years ago!  I’ve read some articles that suggest that battery life would have suffered from offering 32GB with the currently available options.  The explanation makes sense to me, but it’s still very disappointing.  I actually wouldn’t mind the performance hit, as my heavy use of the CPU typically means I get much less run time than people who use their computers to browse the web or type documents.  Most likely, Apple will finally offer this next year, and it’s a good reason to consider waiting a bit longer if you work with large files in Photoshop.  On the flip side, at least OSX does a pretty good job managing memory, and the blazing fast SSD on this computer means that performance won’t slow down nearly as much when I’m low on RAM.

There are of course a lot of other enhancements on this new machine, most notably the new “Touch Bar“.  This replaces the old function keys with an interactive touch display that adapts as you work.  It’s beautiful and a neat trick, but I think the jury is still out as to whether this will help me work more efficiently.  Currently, there are very few applications that support the touch bar.  Adobe has promised to add support to Photoshop.  Final Cut Pro X has support.  I think it’s a nice start, but it has a couple of limitations.  First, there are no tool tips or help to suggest what the buttons do, so you end up clicking and seeing what happens.  Second, I find that the lack of a tactile/physical <ESC> key actually slows me down in many cases.  And third, you can’t customize the Final Cut Touch Bar.   At this point, I’m primarily using it the same way I use the old keys, which is actually cumbersome in the default setup, because most of the basic icons are hidden away until you click to expand them. While this makes sense when you have another application open that uses the Touch Bar, I see no reason not to display all the volume and brightness controls so long as you’re working in an app that doesn’t use the touch bar – which includes FireFox, Word, Excel, etc for me.  I went to Settings/Keyboard/Customize Control Strip to make a couple of changes:  I set Touch Bar to show expanded control strip and Press Fn key to Show App Controls.   This keeps the major controls in front of me at all times, and gives me easy access to the application specific controls.  Overall, I think the Touch Bar has a lot of promise, but it needs more support from both Apple and third party developers before I would call this a useful enhancement.  At this point, I’d give it a “meh.”  But I’m looking forward to trying it with Photoshop in the future.

TouchBar on 2016 MacBook Pro

The display is a nice improvement.  The improved color gamut is subtle, but my images look better than ever in Photoshop.  Even more important, the screen can get much brighter now – which should be very helpful when working outside.  I hadn’t given it much thought when I made the purchase, but I am really going to appreciate being able to use this laptop much more outside on sunny days.

The speakers on the new laptop are improved…  I’m surprised I haven’t heard Apple or anyone else talking about this yet.  They are dramatically louder and have a much better sound quality at any volume.  I could host a small party with this laptop.  I love listening to music while I work, and this is just an awesome surprise.

There’s Touch ID, which lets me sign into the computer with a finger.  Not a game changer, but very nice.  And it can be used for Apple Pay, which will be great if it’s widely supported (I love Apple Pay on my phone, but I still can’t use it that many places yet).

The trackpad is much larger, and it’s a little thing that I like.  I bet most people will appreciate this new interface.  I’m struggling a little to get used to the Force Touch component.  For example, I keep getting into the file renaming interface when I’m trying to move files.  But I expect it’s just me at this point, and that I’ll get used to applying the proper amount of force consistently.

They keyboard keys have been modified.  Much has been written about the new design.  I don’t mind the interface, typing feels natural to me.  The keys are definitely louder though, but it isn’t a big concern.

Battery life rating suggests the new machine is good for a couple more hours of typical web use.  However, I expect that I don’t gain too much while I’m doing heavy photo/video editing work, but will certainly appreciate anything I can get.  It’s too early for me to say if the battery life is really that much better than my old laptop, but I’m very optimistic.  [Dec 10 update:  Several days of web browsing suggest that I am seeing no benefit in battery life.  There are many complaints of battery issues with the new laptop, so I hope that an OSX update may improve this in the future.  I would say the battery life is about the same as my old laptop, but I have not done any rigorous/scientific testing.]

And there is of course the introduction of USB-C / Thunderbolt 3.  These will be awesome in the future as the new connector becomes a standard and there are more high speed externals to take advantage of the massive increase in speed.  The new plugs are very simple and nice, and you definitely get a solid connection (though you could argue it takes too much force to unplug a cable).  On the flip side, Apple got rid of all “legacy” connectors.  I don’t mind using an adapter for old USB or Thunderbolt devices, I can get new cables and this is definitely the way forward.  And I don’t terribly mind the loss of HDMI (though the adapter is annoyingly expensive and adds more bulk to my travel kit).  What hurts a lot, as a photographer, is the loss of the SD card slot.  I think this was a major mistake on Apple’s part.  It’s thin enough to fit the slim laptop, and widely used by the majority of photographers.  Phil Shiller, Apple’s VP of marketing, explained that it’s too awkward to have half a memory card sticking out of your computer.  I don’t see how that is less awkward that having half a memory card sticking out of a card reader that’s sticking out of your computer.  But it is what it is.  I expect I’ll just bring a USB3 cable and download the images from my camera.  Hopefully, Nikon and Sony will add super-easy to use WiFi to their cameras (Sony has Wifi now, but the user interface is so bad that I never use it).  I ultimately ended up spending hundreds of dollars on USB adapters, an HDMI adapter, Thunderbolt 2 adapter, and charging cables.  And I still can’t use the new iPhone 7 headphones with the new MacBook Pro.   Overall, the connector choices made by Apple create a lot of pain in upgrading.  USC-C is the future, but a complete change overnight is too much too soon.

[Dec 10 update:  I also appear to be falling victim to external hard drive crash issues, though I am not seeing Time Machine problems.  Instead, when I plug in a hard drive with a partition, the system crashes immediately.  I have the same model hard drive without partition and it does not crash.  There is a fix coming for the Time Machine crashes, and I expect that there is a good chance that it solves my issue as well, based on some of the technical details I’ve seen and the crash logs from my machine.  But it seems to be part of the ongoing trend of OSX quality issues.]

 

My Conclusion

When I add it all up, it’s been a worthy upgrade for me, mostly because I put some a huge value on the extra storage space still prefer OSX over Windows for my own use.  I also appreciate the improved weight, size, screen, and speakers.  I have many Apple products and typically rave about them.  But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend other photographers race to upgrade their MacBooks.  The loss of the SD card slot is painful, new cables add significant cost, TouchBar isn’t yet meaningful, and you probably won’t see a huge boost in speed for Photoshop.  In another year, I expect the 16GB RAM limitation may be lifted, TouchBar and TouchID should be more useful, and it should be a little simpler to migrate to the USB-C ecosystem.  If I weren’t doing video, I’d probably be fine for a couple more years on my old machine.

And of course, if you don’t have a strong passion for Apple, Windows machines offer much more bang for the buck.  With the stability of Windows 10, price to performance ratio, range of options, and a very promising line of tablets; I’d say PC are arguably a better choice for a large number of photographers.  Having built and used Windows machines for over a decade before switching to OSX, I’m very comfortable with them.  And the cost of re-buying Windows versions of critical software wouldn’t be too costly.  If recent trends in OSX and Windows quality continue, I wouldn’t be surprised if my next computer is a PC.  I originally switched to a Mac to avoid bugs, and I no longer see a quality difference.

 

 


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