At this year’s Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple gave its laptop line a modest makeover with some updated components — faster, more powerful Intel processors across the board, and more robust graphics chips for the MacBook Pros. Otherwise, aside from a RAM bump here and a slight price drop there, the 2017 Apple laptops (and ) are very similar to their 2016 predecessors, with the same enclosures, ports, trackpads and screens ( of changes and additions). Note that the 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2015 has been discontinued, though the 15-inch model of that vintage remains available for those who want full-size USB ports.
Meet the new mainstream MacBook.
Because the MacBook Air is now living in a form of suspended animation, still on sale, but lacking updated components or a tweaked design, it’s no longer the default mainstream choice. And the tiny 12-inch MacBook is a niche speciality system for frequent travelers who favor portability over flexibility.
The new MacBook Pro with Apple’s inventive Touch Bar and Touch ID fingerprint recognition is too expensive to be the go-to MacBook. Yes, the Touch Bar is impressive — it’s a 60-pixel-high OLED touch screen that replaces the traditional function key row with an ever-changing series of buttons and sliders. But right now I’d call it a want, not a need.
Instead, this most mainstream of the new MacBook Pro models has the same familiar Function key row found on almost every laptop. It sits above the keyboard, with its F1 to F12 keys still labeled for screen brightness, volume controls and other system tasks. It’s a disappointment to miss out on the most headline-grabbing feature of the new MacBook Pro line, but with that one exception, nearly everything else about this system is new.
A new keyboard with shallower keys, modeled after the nearly flat keyboard on the 12-inch MacBook, joins a larger touch pad and a pair of USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports. Lost in the shuffle is the traditional port collection of a MagSafe power plug, USB-A ports — the familiar rectangular ones that match all your existing accessories — HDMI output and mini-DisplayPort Thunderbolt connections. The old SD card slot is gone, too.
While you’re saving some money by foregoing the Touch Bar, this is still more expensive than the MacBook Pro it replaces. The entry-level 13-inch MacBook Pro with retina display was previously $399. This new 13-inch Pro starts at , £294 and AU$529and includes an updated Intel Core i5 CPU, 8GB of RAM and a 256GB solid state drive.
There are other compromises besides just the loss of the Touch Bar in this entry-level MacBook Pro. The starting CPU, part of Intel’s sixth-gen of Core i-series chips, is slower than in the $1,799 version. There are only two USB-C ports that need to handle all of your connection needs, including power, data and video output, while the higher-end MacBook Pros get four USB-C ports.
No Touch Bar, but a bigger touchpad
It’s not as cool as the Touch Bar on the higher-end Macbook Pro models, but there is one big touch-related upgrade here. The touchpad, which uses Apple’s Force Touch technology, is twice as big as before. It looks and feels massive, completely dominating the front half of the system interior.
Look for USB-IF certified logos to make sure you’re getting a reliable charger for all your devices.
Like the touch pads (Apple prefers to call them “trackpads”) found in the previous-generation MacBook Pro and 12-inch MacBook, this one has four corner sensors under the glass pad rather than the more traditional top-mounted hinge. The mechanism takes up less space, so the laptop body can be thinner. It’s now in every laptop Apple makes, with the exception of the MacBook Air.
A keyboard with less click
One of the things people had a hard time getting used to in the 12-inch MacBook back in 2015 was its very flat keyboard. It used a butterfly mechanism, which allows for shallower keys and a thinner body. The same basic design has made its way to the new MacBook Pros, and it’s going to be a learning curve for most.
The advantage is that you can have a slimmer body, but you lose out on some of the deep, clicky physical feedback of the current MacBooks or most other modern laptops. While the basics are the same, as is the key travel (an industry term for the distance the key moves downward to register an input) as on the 12-inch MacBook, the feel has been tweaked a bit for a better overall experience. The keys have a little more bite to them, and appear to rise up from the keyboard tray just a hair more.
The trade off is that you lose that satisfying feeling of your fingers on big, chunky keys that click down with a satisfying thunk. Instead, typing becomes a quieter, more subtle task. The keys in older MacBooks rise up from the system surface, like tiny platforms. Here, the keys just slightly break the plane of the keyboard tray.
Will MacBook buyers give the new keyboard design a shot? I found that the butterfly keyboard in the 12-inch MacBook wasn’t my favorite keyboard, but after a short adjustment period, I got used to it, and I’ve easily typed over 100,000 words on the 2015 and 2016 MacBooks. A full accounting will require more long-form typing sessions. Check back after a few weeks of heavy use and I’ll offer a more complete opinion.