MacBook Pro with Touch Bar review: More than a touch overpriced

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New Atlas reviews the Apple MacBook Pro (2016) with Touch Bar(Credit: Will Shanklin/New Atlas)

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Apple has reinvented the laptop yet again. Or at least that's what the company's marketing will tell you, as it plugs this lighter, thinner, Touch-Bar-ier MacBook Pro for holiday shoppers. But is the new strip of screen a game-changer? And does any of this justify a starting price that's approaching US$2,000? Read on, as New Atlas reviews the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar.

The new MacBook Pro lineup is an improvement over the last-gen models. They're 13-percent lighter, 17-percent thinner, with a better-looking screen. Add the Touch Bar, a contextual strip of screen sitting above the keyboard, and it also adds a bit more fun.

But when a new product has a $500-higher starting price than the product it's replacing, we have to look at everything through that lens. Is the new MacBook Pro with Touch Bar a nice laptop? You bet. Is it worth $1,800 or more?

I don't think so.

Right now the Touch Bar is little more than a novelty. It's possible that, over time, younger Mac users – those who grew up using mobile devices – will become accustomed to it and find it as natural as using a trackpad and keyboard. Chat apps, or other places where you might use emoji, for example, are a great fit: Tap the smiley-face icon and immediately see the strip light up with smiley, frowny, thumbs-up-y or poopy icons.

And for those worried about the row of Fn keys being gone, have no fear: As soon as you press the Fn button they appear on the Touch Bar.

At this point, though, third-party developer support for the Touch Bar is nowhere near being "there." It's going to take time for contextual actions and shortcuts to pop-up in most or all of the apps you use. In ones where it doesn't, you just see the basic system settings for things like brightness, volume and Siri.

The bigger issue, though, is that the Touch Bar doesn't really add anything to the laptop experience, so much as it moves things from the screen down to this little landing strip. In the apps where Touch Bar use is fully supported (which usually means Apple's own apps, like Safari, TextEdit and Messages), I've yet to see anything pop-up that I couldn't already do another way. Usually just as quickly and easily.

I can't help but think this was a case where Apple looked at its touchy-feely Windows competitors, realized its non-touch MacBooks were looking a bit old-fashioned to younger users, and settled on the Touch Bar as a middle-ground between dated/unappealing-to-millennials and full-on touchscreen (something Apple has consistently sworn against adding to Macs).

And, on a usability level, I have no problem with this compromise. The problem is that it makes for an $1,800 and up laptop.

Also consider that history tells us Touch-Bar-equipped MacBook Pros will very likely see a price drop within one to three generations. If or when that price drop comes – at which point there will also be better developer support – we'll be happy to revisit the significance of the Touch Bar. Right now, though, the early-adopter tax Apple has slapped on here brands it as more gimmick than anything. It's a gimmick through financial context more than by functionality.

One nice perk that goes along with the Touch Bar is Apple's fingerprint sensor, Touch ID, making its way to the Mac for the first time.

It's nice not having to type passwords, but I've also experienced an intermittent bug where it often doesn't give me the option of using Touch ID to log in. There I am, typing my password, just as I could do on much cheaper, nearly-as-capable MacBooks.

In other areas, our impressions from the cheaper non-Touch-Bar model still hold. The lighter/thinner design is a nice step forward for the MacBook Pro lineup, with shades of the 12-inch MacBook combined with healthier horsepower (though its battery life hasn't improved; we may have preferred a middle-ground with longer uptimes and a bit more thickness/heaviness).

Its screen has better brightness, color range and contrast than the last-gen MacBook Pros. And its trackpad is 46-percent bigger than the ones on the old MacBooks: an unnecessary change, as the others were already large, but not one to warrant any complaints.

The port situation is going to annoy some old-school laptop users, and make us all question how hard today's Apple execs have to try to stifle a laugh when they use the word "Pro." This model has four USB-C ports, period. That's its entire port situation. One is used for charging (though that means you can now charge on either side of the device, a nice touch), and the others will be used – likely with adapters – for everything else.

We get it, Apple. You believe you're on a holy mission to push us mindless lemmings into the future. And sometimes we lemmings don't know what's best for our future lemming-selves. You do, and so you take away our beloved past technology standards so we can eventually look back and thank you for giving us that tough-love nudge we needed back in the old days of 2016 (remember that crazy election? Wow!).

But the fact is, right now if you buy this machine you're likely to need to lug around a bunch of dongles everywhere you take it. In the name of supposedly creating a cleaner, simpler-looking MacBook-future, Apple sure is adding a lot of clunky complexity to the MacBook-present (and let's not forget, this is $1,800+ clunky complexity).

What it adds up to is a laptop that feels more like an attempt to look cool and innovative than to truly serve the professional crowd. Looking cool and being innovative are two qualities that have served Apple very, very well through the years. But I can't help but think that this one is more grasping at straws than truly changing anything.

The new 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is available now, starting at $1,800 for this model that has a Core i5 processor, 256 GB storage and 8 GB RAM.

Product page: Apple

  • Buy 13-in MacBook Pro with Touch Bar on Amazon
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