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Apple 13″ MacBook Pro review: the best computer you shouldnt buy

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Its the best, lightest, most beautiful laptop around. Until it runs out of battery. Or you forget a dongle. Or you realise youre bankrupt

Apples latest laptop, the new 13in MacBook Pro, is a much anticipated re-design of the companys notebook range and represents a brave new USB-C-only future. But is it worth sacrificing ports and spending the best part of 2,000 to use?

The last update to the MacBook Pro that was more than simply a spec-bump was in 2012 with the addition of a high-resolution Retina screen. Four years on, powerful notebooks with high-resolution screens that can last all day on a single charge are commonplace in the premium market. The competition has never been more fierce.

Thinner, lighter and now in dark grey

Apple
The light-up Apple logo on the back is now just a mirror finish. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The new MacBook Pro is thinner and lighter than the old one like almost every tech product every year. Its also smaller in almost every meaningful way. Even the screen is thinner, and the light-up Apple logo on the lid is no more.

The trackpad has grown considerably, taking up a sizeable proportion of the laptops wrist rest In fact its so big you will have a tough time not touching it with the heels of your hands when you type, but thankfully Apples touch rejection works as advertised.

Apple
The trackpad is ginormous and great. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

Its also 3D Touch or Force Touch, whatever you want to call pressure-sensitive, enabled. It means it doesnt move. I dont miss the motion, the Taptic Engine underneath is great. The only thing I routinely use a harder click for, though, is to look up words in the dictionary, although a three-finger tap does that too.

The screen is beautiful. Vibrant, crisp, clear and bright: its everything you would expect from a 1,749 computer and is a big part of what makes it good to use. The 13in MacBook Pro is about as beautiful as a regular laptop can be.

Touch Bar

Apple
The emoji button, right next to the send mail button ready to dispatch your latest missive in Mac Mail. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The biggest visible change is just above the keyboard. The fabled Touch Bar, which replaces the standard function key row with an OLED, touch-sensitive screen. The idea is that it gives you dynamic buttons and sliders to control various aspects of your computing workflow dependent on which app you have open.

By default and without any apps in focus, the Touch Bar displays an escape key and a row of four icons on the right with an arrow expander to show more of the traditional quick settings keys. Its reminiscent of the Windows task bar.

Holding the Fn key will show the traditional function keys, but can also be set to expand the control keys. Alternatively they can be left expanded like a traditional control row all the time, but that limits what else can be displayed on it.

Apple
Calendar entries trigger month and time selectors on the Touch Bar. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

When using a particular program, its up to that program which functions are placed on the Touch Bar. Most provide formatting tools such as bold, italics, underline, justify and list tools. Theres the emoji button that does what you may expect in text boxes, plus theres the same auto-complete suggestions you might get on an iPhone, although stopping typing to tap on them is most definitely slower for anyone who types at a reasonable speed.

Almost all of Apples apps have Touch Bar support, and most buttons and functions can be customised. I liked having the send mail button in Mac Mail on the very left, plus a trash rather than archive button. Third-party imaging program Pixelmator is a great example of what can be done with the bar: you can select various tools straight from it, then change the size of them and other aspects. With a bit of practice you can do most things with one hand on the Touch Bar and one on the trackpad.

Apple
Tap the volume icon and slide your finger to adjust the level of sound output. Photograph: The Guardian

Those who use the function or control keys a lot will find the Touch Bar slows them down a bit, myself included. Those who touch type will find it more difficult to use as its slower to look down at the keyboard and hit a button rather than just bash out a keyboard shortcut. But for those buttons that you would normally mouse over to in my case the send email button having it just above the keyboard is faster and more convenient, although not as convenient as a touchscreen.

Touch ID

Apple
The power button in the top right hand corner of the keyboard is now a fingerprint scanner too. Photograph: The Guardian

The power button on the end of the Touch Bar is a Touch ID fingerprint scanner. I found it a bit of a mixed bag. When it works it works just as well as it does on an iPhone 6S, though not as well as on the 7. The problem is that I found it a bit inconsistent. Not knowing when and where you can and cant use it means its usually faster just to type a password.

Changing a setting, for instance, I normally had to enter my password, but sometimes I could use my fingerprint. When firing up the computer from cold I had to enter my password, but if resuming from standby I could use my fingerprint, unless the battery got too low, or I left it for too long, then it needs my password. You can buy apps with it, and other bits and pieces. Apple Pay works like it does on an iPad, but only in Safari.

You can also only register three fingerprints, which seems like a step backwards from the five you can register on an iPhone.

Fingerprint scanners on a smartphone were such a massive leap forward for usability, I presumed the same would be for laptops, but it wasnt the case. I certainly dont lock and unlock a laptop as much as a phone, so maybe my expectations were too high.

The keyboard

Apple
The MacBook Pro logo is now back on the screens bezel. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

A lot has been said of Apples practically-no-travel keyboards. What you make of them will depend on your typing style. I write a lot, and I type quite lightly. I found there was enough feedback for accurate and fast touch typing, but it made a surprising amount of noise. Its a different noise to a mechanical keyboard, but its definitely in that range, particularly when I was really going for it.

If you give the keys some welly when you type, if youre used to the travel of a good mechanical keyboard for instance, then you may hate the keyboard. If youre seriously considering buying one, get down to a shop and try it out for at least five minutes.

Specifications

  • Screen: 13.3in LCD 2560×1600 (227 ppi)
  • Processor: Intel Core i5 or i7 (6th generation)
  • RAM: 8 or 16GB
  • Storage: 256GB, 512GB or 1TB
  • Operating system: macOS Sierra
  • Camera: 720p FaceTime HD camera
  • Connectivity: Intel Iris 550, Wi-Fiac, Bluetooth 4.2, USB-C, Thunderbolt 3, headphone
  • Dimensions: 212.4 x 304.1 x 14.9mm
  • Weight: 1.37Kg

General computing power

Apple
Image editing in Pixelmator was a breeze on the machine. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

The 13in MacBook Pro has a choice of dual-core versions of Intels sixth-generation Core i5 or i7 processors. Theyre not the latest that would be the seventh generation but are entirely capable. The cheapest machine (as tested) has 256GB of storage, 8GB of RAM and a 2.9GHz Core i5 processor and is not a power-house by modern standards.

It handled the work I put it through admirably – writing, processing and manipulating photos, creating small snippets of video, gifs and doing the odd bit of number crunching.

With enough tabs open in Chrome, running Evernote, Mac Mail and various other bits and pieces, I did hit the 8GB RAM cap though. As with previous Flash-based Macs, Apples use of a speedy page file means you might not notice until you get an occasional sluggish page load or a short delay when jumping between apps. For longevity, 16GB of RAM is worth buying for most people, given its soldered on and you cant change it later.

For the general consumer, the 13in MacBook Pro is more than capable of getting the job done, but given it has Pro in the name, perhaps that isnt enough. Attempting to edit small documentary-length 4K video is likely to a bit of a chore on it, particularly if you do not use Apples video editing suite, but then Im not sure many who buy a 13in laptop are likely to be attempting to do so.

Its worth noting that the massive jumps in processing performance every 12 months or so that was possible five to 10 years ago have more or less faded into distant memory, replaced instead by incremental gains and reduced power consumption in computers.

Where are all the ports?

Apple
Two USB-C ports and a headphones socket on the right-hand side. Photograph: The Guardian

Apple has decided that USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are the future, which means apart from a headphones/mic socket, all you get are four USB-C ports. Theres no card reader, no traditional USB, no ethernet or mini DisplayPort. USB-C is even used for power, which means any of the four ports can be used to charge the MacBook Pro.

It might be the future, but right now its a dongle-ridden faff. How much its a problem depends on what you normally plug into your machine. Many things are cable agnostic just buy a USB-C to USB-A cable to connect your printer, if you still have one.

But many are not and the lack of even just one USB-A port is irritating. I ended up carrying an extra six different cables and adapters just to continue as I was, adding another step to most peripheral action.

The funny thing is that many Android smartphones ship with USB-C to USB-C cables, meaning they can be plugged straight into the MacBook Pro no problem, but Apples own iPhone requires either a dongle or USB-C to Lightning cable to be bought.

Five-to-six hour battery

Apple
Plug in the power either side with two more USB-C sockets on the left-hand side. Photograph: The Guardian

Lack of ports is something you can get used to. Lack of battery life is not.

Apple claims that the 13in MacBook Pro will last for 10 hours under its testing conditions. I didnt get anywhere close to that figure. Barely using it for more than emailing and browsing with a few tabs open in Chrome, the brightness set at about 75%, Evernote and Twitter open and Double Shot preventing it from sleeping, I managed just over six hours on battery. Swapping Chrome out for Safari increased battery life for some sites, but I noticed others really chewed through battery, meaning it came out about even.

A good working day with about 10 tabs open in Chrome, as well as Typora for text, Wire for chat, Mac Mail for email, Twitter and Pixelmator open intermittently for image editing when required, I got just over five hours. Im not sure that could be counted as really pushing the machine either.

If it was the 15in MacBook Pro I could almost imagine that youd never use it when away from power, and that battery life wasnt that important. But a 13in laptop is made for portability. Thankfully charging it from dead while under full working conditions only took one hour 40 minutes, and less if I wasnt actively using it.

Observations

Apple
Youll struggle to get anything next to even one of the smallest USB-C to USB-A dongles. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs for the Guardian

  • I wish you could permanently place a single F key on the Touch Bar, but you cant
  • Touch ID seems slower than on an iPhone 7
  • Below 5% battery the computer becomes incredibly sluggish
  • Being able to plug in power either side is great
  • The speakers are louder and sound better than old MacBook Pros, but still not quite room filling
  • The USB-C ports are too close together to put anything wider into them meaning USB-C to USB-A adapters have to have a decent cord length to attach them next to anything else
  • I kept touching the Touch Bar accidentally when resting my hands on the keyboard
  • Changing the volume or brightness is now a two-stage tap and tap or tap and drag affair

Price

The 13in MacBook Pro with Touch Bar starts at 1,749 and reaches 2,759 with optional upgrades.

For comparison, Dells XPS 13 with a compatible screen starts at 1,129, Microsofts Surface Pro 4 with an Intel Core i5 starts at 849 and the Surface Book starts at 1,299.

Verdict

The 13in MacBook Pro could be a wonderful computer, but it isnt. Is it great to use? Absolutely, its brilliant, its beautiful, its almost everything Apple said it was, I absolutely love it until it runs out of battery. Or you have to dig out yet another dongle to use a sodding USB flash drive, or a card reader, or attach a display. Or you realise that you spent a months mortgage money on a computer and are having your house repossessed.

And that is the 13in MacBook Pros biggest flaw. It is very expensive for what it is. It hasnt got the latest processors or graphics, it has limits on the amount of RAM you can pay to shove in it and you cant change anything after youve bought it. Thats not such a problem for a general computer, but a minimum of 1,749 for a general computer, even a post-Brexit referendum Apple computer, is a lot of money.

So then its for the Pros, who justify spending large sums of money on working machines. But its not capable of getting through a journalists day on battery, let alone anyone who does anything more intensive than browse the internet, write in a basic text editor and edit the odd photo. Itll saddle you with iPhone 7 syndrome constantly in search of a power supply or chaining you to using it as a small desktop surrogate.

Perhaps all-day battery life shouldnt be a thing we expect, but previous Apple computers could do just that and more.

And theres the question of power. For almost two grand youd expect a machine to last four to five years. For a demanding user who must have a Pro the RAM cap of 16GB isnt going to cut it in two years time, which again, wouldnt be a problem if the machine cost 1,000 not 2,000.

So, then, the 13in MacBook Pro is the best computer you shouldnt buy.

Pros: beautiful, great screen, interesting Touch Bar, Touch ID, massive trackpad, thin and relatively light, USB-C

Cons: short battery life, no USB-A ports, no ethernet, no native display ports, no upgrading after purchase, very expensive

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/dec/12/apple-macbook-pro-review-the-best-computer-you-shouldnt-buy