Stunning Retina display. Sleek design. Excellent battery life. Above-average graphics performance
Expensive compared with entry-level, non-Touch Bar model. Very shallow key travel.
- Bottom Line
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar gets even better with a processor upgrade, vastly improved battery life, and a slight graphics bump. But the entry-level, non-Touch Bar MacBook Pro is a much better value.
The latest version of the Touch Bar-equipped 13-inch MacBook Pro ($1,799, $1,999 as tested) is virtually unchanged on the outside, but brings Intel's latest processors and a graphics upgrade this time around. If you're OK with a shallow keyboard and USB-C-only connectivity, the Kaby Lake CPU upgrade makes the new 13-inch MacBook Pro even more compelling, and it continues to be one of the best ultraportable laptops you can buy. Ultimately, however, you can get similar specs for a lot less cash with our Editors' Choice, the non-Touch Bar 13-inch MacBook Pro.
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This Keyboard Is Made For Tapping
This laptop takes its design cues from the 12-inch MacBook, which was the first Apple portable to go all-in on USB-C and transition to butterfly switches for its keyboard. Besides a less comfortable typing experience, the result is likely a need to purchase adapters for your phone, monitor, external hard drive, and other peripherals that don't support USB-C (That includes Apple's own iPhone 7, which still comes with a Lightning-to-USB cable). The entirety of the MacBook Pro's input/output options amount to four USB-C connectors and an input/output audio jack. Since more and more devices are migrating to USB-C, though, the lack of other ports will be less of an issue if you plan to upgrade your peripherals.
Meanwhile, the keyboard might require a more drastic adjustment. Apple says the butterfly style of its switches are more stable than the conventional laptop key switches, which resemble scissors. The result is very shallow key travel. In testing, it took me several pages of typing to become accustomed to the keyboard, which feels more like pecking away on a tablet or phone screen than typing on a laptop. The experience was tolerable—not necessarily enjoyable—but the keyboard (which is also backlit) will likely meet with your instant approval if you learned to type on a smartphone rather than a PC.
One benefit of a shallow keyboard is that it helps your fingers transition between typing on the keys and tapping on the Touch Bar that lies above them. The Touch Bar is Apple's answer to the full touch screens that have been present on Windows laptops for years. Gone are the Escape and Function keys, and in their place is a high-resolution touch panel with buttons that adapt to the app you're currently using. It also replaces the Brightness, Volume, and Launchpad controls, hiding them in a virtual tray on the right side that you must tap to open with your finger. Despite its versatility, the Touch Bar isn't for everyone (it's banned from some states bar exams, for instance), so it's worth a trip to the closest Apple Store to try out the Touch Bar and non-Touch Bar models side-by-side before you choose one.
A Laptop to Be Admired
On tho other hand, the MacBook Pro's overall design aesthetic has universal appeal. It's a gorgeous machine, and if you buy it in Space Gray (the color of our test unit), it bears little resemblance to the silver MacBook Pros of yesteryear (though it is also available in silver). Measuring 0.59 by 11.97 by 8.36 inches (HWD) and weighing 3.02 pounds, it's almost imperceptibly heavier than last year's 2.98-pound version, but significantly lighter than the 2015 13-inch MacBook Pro model, which weighed 3.41 pounds. Microsoft's Surface Laptop has all of them beat with a base model that weighs just 2.76 pounds. So does the 2.85-pound Dell XPS 13 and the 2.9-pound New Razer Blade Stealth.
Both finish options sport Apple's pioneering unibody chassis, and the only color variations are the keys and the bezel, which are black. You won't run out of tapping room on the giant trackpad, nor will you accidentally click, thanks to excellent palm rejection. The trackpad integrates Force Touch, which means you can press once to select an icon or other on-screen item, and then press harder for a contextual menu or preview of the item. I find Force Touch to be a bit gimmicky here, since many of the basic tasks it accomplishes can also be performed with a simple double tap on the trackpad. It's much more useful on the iPhone, whose input options are more limited.
A Superb Screen and Solid Sound
The MacBook Pro's 13.3-inch, 2,560-by-1600 display is as stunning as the rest of the machine with accurate colors and crisp, bright text, although not at 4K resolution. Like the display on the 15-inch model, its support for the P3 wide color gamut will appeal to photo editors and videographers, who represent some of Apple's most loyal customers. The screen is prone to glare, and while you won't want to use it outside for long periods, I found that its 500 nits of brightness go a long way towards blotting out the reflections of the fluorescent lights in PC Labs.
A new Intel Iris Graphics 650 integrated GPU powers the display in this model, which is the only major component upgrade apart from new Intel processors. That's better than both the Dell XPS 13 Touch, which comes with Intel HD graphics, and the Surface Laptop, which comes with a choice of Intel HD or Iris 640 GPUs. Still, it's not a discrete graphics card, so don't expect to use the MacBook Pro's gorgeous display for high-frame rate gaming.
Audio quality is very good thanks to the laptop's two rather large upward-facing speakers, which hug either side of the keyboard like brackets. They deliver clear, crisp sound even when the volume is maxed out—it's not quite room-filling, but it's close.
Storage options start with a 256GB PCIe-based solid state drive, but our test unit comes with a 512GB SSD, a $200 option. You can also configure your machine with a 1TB SSD for a painful $600 premium. Memory capacity starts at 8GB and maxes out at 16GB for an additional $200; our unit has 8GB. Like all MacBook Pros, this one is not user-serviceable, so you're stuck with the memory and storage options you choose at purchase time.
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The MacBook Pro's current operating system is macOS Sierra, although macOS High Sierra, an iterative update, will be available as a free upgrade once Apple releases it this fall. The MacBook Pro also comes with Bluetooth 4.2, 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and a one-year warranty.
Our test unit is built around a 3.1GHz dual-core "Kaby Lake" seventh-generation Intel Core i5 processor, though you can opt for a Core i7. We put it through our suite of benchmark tests—with the exception of the Windows-based tests that it can't run—and it offered few surprises. It clocked 39 frames per second on our Valley video game benchmark test with settings set to medium quality. That's barely above the 30fps needed for enjoyable gaming, but significantly better than the Dell XPS 13's 23 fps or the Surface Laptop's 27fps. Turning the settings up to ultra brought the frame rate down to 14, and the similar Heaven video game benchmark offered comparable results. Serious gamers won't likely be considering a laptop without a dedicated graphics chip, but it's worth noting that the previous 13-inch MacBook Pro outperformed competitors when it comes to frame rates, and the slight graphics performance bump means that the new one is even better.
Productivity is the MacBook Pro's strength. It's designed for smooth multi-tasking as well as processor-intensive applications like rendering video and manipulating photos. With a new CPU generation, we expected the laptop to perform better than its predecessor, and it does not disappoint. On our Handbrake video rendering test, the MacBook Pro completed the task in two minutes and one second, an identical time to the previous generation and several seconds faster than its closest Windows competitor, the Dell XPS 13 Touch, which clocked in at 2:08.
Both the Cinebench benchmark and Photoshop image manipulation test prove again that the new processor generation does make a difference. The MacBook Pro achieved a 381 Cinebench score (up 43 points from last year's model) and completed the Photoshop test in three minutes and 59 seconds, shaving 17 seconds off its predecessor's time. These scores are better than all of the MacBook Pro's Windows-based competitors except the Dell XPS 13, which managed a class-leading 3:42 on the Photoshop test.
On our battery rundown test, the MacBook Pro lasted 14 hours and 30 minutes. That's excellent for any laptop, let alone one with a reasonably powerful Core i5 processor. But even more impressive is its 35 percent improvement from the previous generation, which recorded a time of nine hours and 28 minutes. In general, Mac laptops are known for their battery life, with the 15-inch MacBook Pro and the MacBook each surpassing 15 hours. The only recent ultraportable we've tested to post longer battery life is the Microsoft Surface Laptop, with 16 hours and 44 minutes.
To Touch or Not to Touch?
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Touch Bar is an excellent ultraportable laptop with some unique features that won't appeal to all shoppers, but it has one unequivocal weakness: its price. The non-Touch Bar version is $1,299, $500 less expensive than the Touch Bar-equipped starting price (it's our Editors' Choice). If you have $1,799 to spend on a MacBook Pro and don't need or want a Touch Bar, you can configure the base version with an Intel Core i7 processor and 256GB of storage for the same price. From a pure computing perspective, that is a better value than spending $1,800 on the base Touch Bar model, which has a Core i5 and the same amount of storage. Meanwhile, if you store your documents in the cloud, don't need extra processing oomph, and can make do with two USB-C ports instead of four, you can save $500 and still walk out of the Apple Store with an excellent laptop.
Don't get me wrong: There are countless ways to use the Touch Bar (here are 15 to start with), many of which could simplify the workflows of creative professionals. But most users likely won't get an extra $500 worth of enjoyment or productivity out of the Touch Bar-equipped model. If that's you, we recommend the non-Touch Bar version. Or, if you're not beholden to macOS, the New Razer Blade Stealth or Dell XPS 13 Touch are worth a look. While the MacBook Pro is a venerable ultrabook and a processor upgrade makes it an even more compelling choice for Mac fans and creative pros, it is no longer in a class by itself.
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As a hardware analyst, Tom tests and reviews laptops, peripherals, and much more at PC Labs in New York City. He previously covered the consumer tech beat as a news reporter for PCMag in San Francisco and Silicon Valley, where he rode in several self-driving cars and witnessed the rise and fall of many startups. Before that, he worked for PCMag's sister site, Computer Shopper, where he occasionally dunked waterproof hard drives in glasses of water. In his spare time, he's written on topics as… More »
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