MacKuba

Kuba Suder's blog on iOS & Mac development

MacBook Pro 2016 - an iOS developer's review

Categories: Mac 0 comments

Here are some thoughts about my new MacBook Pro that I’ve been using for the last few weeks (the Santa Claus from DHL brought it to me just before Christmas), hopefully this will help someone who’s considering getting one.

Note: this is written from the perspective of a person who switched to the MBP from a 2015 13" MacBook Air (i7) and also has a 2012 21" iMac. Your experiences will obviously be different if you have e.g. a fairly recent 15" Retina MacBook Pro.

Specs

  • MacBook Pro 15", late 2016
  • Core i7 2.9 GHz (4 cores)
  • 16 GB RAM
  • Radeon Pro 450
  • 512 GB SSD
  • US keyboard
  • Touch Bar

Design

The weight

The size and weight of the previous generation MBPs was the main reason why I haven’t bought one. Since 2012 I’ve been using MacBook Airs as my main work machines, and once I got used to the extreme thinness and lightness, to not feeling the weight of the device at all when I carry it in my backpack, I couldn’t convince myself to go back to a heavier laptop. So I sticked to the Air. I replaced it with a new one in 2015 when it got too slow for Xcode, and it was ok for a while, but it was getting really annoying again lately, and I knew it was slowing me down. But I also knew that new redesigned MBPs were just around the corner, so I decided to wait patiently until they’re out.

And in the end, I got what I wanted. The MacBook Pro got a bit thinner and a bit lighter – not drastically, but just enough to make it comparable to the Air in case of the 13", and to move it into the acceptable range for me in case of the 15". I decided to get the 15". I’d still be switching to a heavier laptop again, but given that it was lighter than before, and I would get much better compilation times and more screen space for Xcode, it was an acceptable tradeoff.

I tried to convince myself in the store that it isn’t that much heavier, but the truth is, it is noticably heavier (I don’t know why, but I could swear even the 13" feels slightly heavier than the Air, even though it shouldn’t – it might have the weight distributed differently or something like that). I feel the difference when I have it on my lap, it’s harder to hold in one hand from the side, it’s harder to open it with one hand. I wish it could be made even lighter (ideally keeping the same battery life…), but I guess we’ll just have to wait the next 4 years for that. I mostly got used to the weight after a couple of weeks though, and I also adapted to its not-wedgy shape easier than I expected. It’s still in a completely different league than my first MacBook from 2008, or the pre-Retina MacBook Pro – I saw one from 2012 in the cowork last week, and the thing looked ridiculously thick.

The size

An interesting thing is that because the bezels around the screen are noticably smaller, the whole device seems much smaller than the previous generation in terms of width/height. The 13" looks like it’s less than 13", and the 15" looks like it’s less than 15". That made it easier for me to adapt to a larger screen, and I was even kind of worried that the 13’s screen would be a bit lower on the desk and I’d have to look at it from a slightly different angle. Anyway, I’m very happy with the decision to get the bigger one.

The logo & color

I was really sad when I heard they were removing the iconic shining apple on the back. This was probably the first thing that got me interested in those strange looking computers that I saw on one conference ten years ago, which started my whole adventure with Apple platforms… But looking at it now, the metallic apple looks even better. It looks almost exactly like the back of a silver iPhone 5 or SE (I got the silver MBP), and it’s beautiful and stylish in exactly the same way. And in the end, it’s still the same recognizable apple logo, just with a more modern design.

By the way, if you’re unsure about the color, better wait and see them in a store first. I was seriously considering the space gray one, because it looked great on photos in reviews, but I didn’t like the way it looked in reality. Kind of like with the rose gold iPhone, which looked much more orange on photos, but turned out to be way too pink.

Screen

OMG, the screen 😍 That was my initial reaction, and to be honest I still feel a bit like this 4 weeks later. I thought, looking at previous MacBook Pro Retina screens, that I didn’t need one, that it was a bit pointless. I was totally ok with a normal-resolution screen… but I instantly fell in love with this one. My jaw dropped when I saw how the system wallpapers looked on it, e.g. the Sierra mountains landscapes or the “Color burst” set. I also watched some 4K timelapses on YouTube, and they looked amazing, I felt as if I was there.

Surprisingly, I don’t feel a shock when switching back to the old iMac screen. It just feels… normal. But then when I switch back to the MacBook Pro, I’m surprised again with how gorgeous the screen is there. I can’t say how much difference it is from the previous generation screens, but they’re supposed to be brighter and have deeper color, so I suspect it does look at least a bit better.

I’m using it the default resolution, which is not the native one – the native resolution is 1440x900 @ 2x, i.e. 2880x1800, and the default one is 1680x1050. I don’t want to use 1440x900, because then I’d have the same amount of screen space as on the MBA, and it would be pointless to buy a larger and heavier machine and have the same resolution as before. I was kind of hoping Apple would bump up the resolution to the same DPI as the MacBook Air has (x2) with this upgrade, but I guess that would probably make them even more ridiculously expensive… So this will have to do. And it seems Apple believes the scaled resolution looks good enough, if they made it the default, so if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me. I think I do see a small difference in sharpness when I switch to the native resolution, but it’s already infinitely better than on a non-Retina screen, so I don’t care.

What I do care about is whether I can fit all the Xcode panels, sidebars and edited code or storyboards on the screen at the same time, without having to constantly resize panels depending on what I’m doing. That was the main point of getting a 15" screen, and I think it was worth it. On a 13" screen I couldn’t comfortably fit an expanded file manager sidebar + code with 120-character lines + right sidebar, and 15" has enough horizontal space for all of that. It’s also easier to fit the iOS simulator on the screen without zooming out too much. I don’t see much difference outside of Xcode, since in most other apps the window doesn’t occupy the whole screen anyway, but I bought it mostly as my work machine, so this should definitely increase my productivity a bit.

Keyboard

Based on some short testing of the 12" MacBook in iSpot, I was expecting not to like this keyboard at first. I was sure it would take me weeks to adapt to it and consider it acceptable.

That was not the case at all – I loved it from the first moment. I don’t know if they improved it so much from the 1st generation, or if I’m just the kind of person who likes these keyboards, but it feels great to me. The sound the keys make when pressed and the feeling you get in the finger is just more pleasant in a way.

Of course it’s not absolutely perfect, and it definitely takes some time to adapt to the slightly different key layout and shapes. I’m not sure if I’m yet typing as fast on it as on the old one, and it certainly doesn’t help that I’m constantly switching between 2-3 different kinds of keyboards (although I almost felt like I’m writing faster on it the first time I started using it). But I can definitely say I enjoy typing on it.

The arrows are an issue, I have to admit. I don’t know how much it’s because of the larger left/right keys, and how much because of the different shape of keys and less space between them in general, but I do have trouble finding the arrow keys when looking at the screen sometimes, especially the up/down arrows. I hope I will get used to it in the end.

I chose a US keyboard when customizing the Mac during the order, which is not the one you normally get in Poland (English International). My first MacBook Air came from the US and had this layout, and I just got used to it, so I always order US keyboards now so that I don’t have to retrain myself. Also, I think it just logically makes more sense – the Enter key is longer so it’s easier to reach, and that’s a key you use a lot, the left Shift is longer, and it doesn’t waste space for a pointless ± key that 99.9% of people will never use.

TouchBar

Touch ID

One part of the TouchBar is definitely great, and that’s of course the Touch ID. It’s something that you don’t want to live without once you start using it. It’s extremely easy and natural to use, and you can now log in or unlock the Mac without typing that password so many times every day. Same with unlocking 1Password. Apple Pay doesn’t yet work in Poland, but I’ll definitely be happy to use it once it’s here. And since you don’t need to type those passwords so often, it might be more acceptable to make them longer and more complex.

It even seems to be much more tolerant of wet fingers than my iPhone, it almost never rejects the fingerprint – though it could be just because it uses the newer generation of the scanner from iPhone 6/7, I’ve only used the first generation that’s used in iPhone 5s and SE.

Programmable keys

As for the rest of the bar – well… I’ve been using it for a few weeks now, but I can’t say I’m convinced that it’s a good idea. I don’t hate it, but I’m not sure if the times when it’s useful make up for the times when it slows me down.

I miss the physical ESC key sometimes, even though I’m not a Vim user (you couldn’t make me use it even if you put a gun to my head :P). And it’s not something you can fix with remapping it to Caps Lock. You’re just trained to subconsiously press it in various dialogs, more often than you’re aware. And your finger moves there, and the key you expect isn’t there, and it takes you a moment to realize what’s wrong.

I miss some other keys too. I used to often use the Exposé key for switching between apps, now that’s hard to do without looking at the keyboard. The media switching keys are harder to reach too. The volume and brightness keys are replaced with sliders, and it’s possible that they can feel as natural to use as the keys after a while, but the habits are so hard to change after so many years. Especially if you keep using old keyboards on other devices.

The upside is that you can now edit your keyboard… which feels totally insane the first time you do it. What do you mean, I’m moving the keys on the keyboard? What sorcery is this?!

So you can arrange the keys in the collapsed and extended system section in the System Preferences. You can get rid of the Siri button for example. And you can put something more useful there – for example I’ve put the lock button on the far right of the extended bar. Now, when I’m at the coworking place, I can lock the computer faster than I can get up from the chair, by pressing Fn+lock, so I do this now every time I get up, which I wouldn’t normally do. Especially since I can log back in just as quickly with the Touch ID.

As for the custom keys in apps – I haven’t used them a lot so far. Some might be useful, some are pointless, most are kind of meh. I suppose it might be something that you have to actively teach yourself to use, like keyboard shortcuts, except they’re easier to discover, because they’re right in front of you. But on the other hand, unlike keyboard shortcuts, you can’t really use them without looking at the keyboard, so in a lot of cases it might be faster to use a shortcut or just click a button.

Trackpad

The Force Touch Trackpad feels absolutely crazy – I’m talking about the technology, not the size. I’m amazed how they managed to make it feel so real. Unlike the new fake home button in iPhone 7, which feels so horrible IMO (although I only tested it for a moment in the store, so maybe it gets better), the fake trackpad feels 100% as if you’re actually pressing a real trackpad, pushing its surface down. I know how it works (I mean the general idea), but my brain is still completely fooled by it. If you show it to someone and don’t tell them how it’s built, there’s no way they’ll figure out it’s not real.

And it also feels much better than the old trackpad. Not only because it clicks exactly the same across the whole surface, but also the click feels somehow more subtle (I use it on the medium setting), and you need to apply less force to press it. I rarely physically pressed the trackpad on the MacBook Airs, because I just didn’t like how it felt, it was too strong and too loud, so I almost always tapped it instead. Here, I’m pressing it all the time (though still probably tapping more than pressing, but I used to only press it maybe a few times a day).

As for the deep pressing that’s supposed to let you access some other features than plain pressing – I don’t use that often yet, mostly because I don’t usually know what it can do. So far I’ve discovered that it opens the dictionary when you deep-press a word, and previews a link in a popover when you deep-press a link in Safari, both of which seem very useful. But I keep forgetting I have this option…

And there’s also the thing where the MacBook can trigger the haptic feedback itself on some in-app events, which is possibly the most insane thing about this component. You can test this e.g. in Preview, if you copy and paste a few smaller images on a larger canvas and start dragging them. At the point when two images align, the trackpad suddenly clicks by itself below your finger. It feels really weird and unnatural, but in a good way; it’s hard to describe. You feel that a trackpad is not supposed to work this way, but it doesn’t feel bad, it’s just really surprising. Probably only the first few times though.

As for the size – it’s nice that it’s much bigger, but honestly, I can’t tell if it makes that much of a difference. Possibly it’s because the Air had a smaller screen, so there was less distance to drag the cursor through. Or it could be a matter of the cursor speed setting. It’s ok, but it’s not something I notice. It definitely doesn’t cause any problems though because of its size – I almost never press or drag it accidentally, at least not more than before.

Performance

Unsuprisingly, a 15" MacBook Pro is much faster than a 13" MacBook Air, as I expected. Again, what matters to me is mostly how well it performs in Xcode, everything else wasn’t a problem before – but since a large part of what I do happens in Xcode, whatever makes it faster is worth the money.

I saw some benchmarks before, so I knew it should run things around 2x faster than the MBA, and that’s pretty much what I got – you can see a comparison on a few types of builds here. It might only save me 10-20 seconds during each build, but if you multiply that by how many times I run the build in a day, that should be a lot of time saved in total. Not to mention that a faster build means I’m less likely to get bored waiting and go to Twitter or Facebook…

The storyboards also load much faster, so I’m not as scared to open them as before (no more “noooo I clicked the storyboard again”). That said, scrolling and typing code somehow feels even slower than before at times… It could be because there’s more pixels to move because of the double resolution. Hopefully that’s something that can be improved over time with software optimizations, because come on, this is a quad core i7 CPU, what better can I get? And this is something that only happens in Xcode. But overall, I’m very happy with how fast it is and how much less time I have to waste waiting for it to open, compile and process things.

One downside of a maxed out CPU is that I think the case is getting a bit hotter in general than the MacBook Air did. Not very hot, but a bit hotter.

RAM

Well, what can I say… I wish it had more, but I totally understand why it doesn’t. The MBA had 8 GB (and it was very constraining in the last few months), so it’s an upgrade for me. The 2012 iMac already has 16 GB though. Of course I very quickly filled it all up with Safari tabs, but that’s just a problem with how I use the internet, not with the machine. I would have probably filled up 32 GB quickly too… For some reason I still haven’t installed Ghostery on it yet, so I suppose a large part of the memory is wasted on ads and trackers now, so I should be able to free up some of it.

Battery & charging

It’s not terrible, but it could be better. I haven’t done any professional measurements, but it seems to last somewhere between 5 and 7 hours depending on what I’m doing – which is less than the MacBook Air I think, but acceptable to me. I’m very rarely in a situation where I need to work for many hours on the computer without a power source, so for me it just means I need to get up from the couch to plug it in more often. On the desk and at the coworking place it’s usually plugged in, so it doesn’t matter.

As for plugging in – I miss MagSafe a bit, but it’s not a problem in practice. The MacBook is usually close to a power outlet, the cable isn’t that hard to plug in, and instead of the orange led light when it starts charging, you get the familiar iOS charging sound. If I ever have to drag the cable further away in such a way that someone can trip on it, I’ll have to be careful, but that would probably only happen on some kind of conference. And being able to charge from both sides is very useful in a coworking, where I sit in a different place each time, and sometimes the closest power outlet is somewhere on the right.

The new MacBook Pro also has a new USB-C charger, which has the main charger box separate from the cable, unlike the old MagSafe one, where this was a single component. I think this is actually a great thing, for a couple of reasons. One, you can probably get cheaper replacement components much easier, since USB-C is a common industry standard. Two, in a situation described above, if someone tripped on the charging cable and damaged it somehow, you’d only need to replace the cable, not the whole charger. (Hopefully they wouldn’t damage the port on the MacBook… but even then you still have 3 more left :)

I know some people complained about the lack of the extension cord that was previously included in the box, but honestly, I never used it anyway. It was a big thing to carry around everywhere, and the standard cable was almost always good enough. And the good news is that the standard charging cable in the MacBook Pro is about 30 cm longer than the one in the MacBook Air – in my room the Air’s cable didn’t extend all the way from the power outlet to the couch, and this one does.

Ports

To be honest, I was one of those people who completely embraced the idea of a USB-C only machine from the beginning. I don’t use many peripherals and cables – the only one I use on a daily basis is the Lightning cable to connect the iPhone while working in Xcode. So I bought a couple of those, plus some USB-A adapters so that I can occasionally connect a pendrive or an external disk, and an HDMI adapter, which I’ll probably only use twice a year on average (it’s a shame that the 3 MiniDisplayPort adapters I own are useless now though). I don’t use external screens, external keyboards or mice, or anything else like that. I do need to read SD cards from a camera from time to time, but for now I can use the iMac for that. And luckily, the headphone jack is still there :) I’m not too happy that they moved it to the right side, but I guess it’s something you can get used to.

And there are advantages to having only USB-C ports – Apple wouldn’t be able to make the body of the MacBook as thin if they had to include even one USB-A port, so it would be thicker, and probably also heavier. Instead, I have a future-proof device, and in a couple of years I won’t complain about having too few USB-C ports and too many useless USB-A ones. Plus there’s the charging from any side thing.

Summary

If you can afford it (buying it as a company expense and getting back the VAT is nice 😎), and you really need all the CPU power you can get, while still having a mobile device, but it doesn’t have to be too mobile, and you need it right now – then I can definitely recommend it. You’re probably gonna love it.

If you’d like one, but your current device is still ok and you can wait e.g. 9 more months, then I’d probably wait for the Kaby Lake upgrade, which will almost certainly be able to handle 32 GB of RAM. It might even be a bit cheaper.

And if you need something cheaper or more mobile, then you’ll have to pick either a 13" MBP or a 12" MacBook. I don’t think I’d want a MacBook Air anymore, now that I got spoiled by the Retina screen, but if you’re still blissfully unaware of how great those screens look, you can be fine with one – they’re still very good devices. At least as long as you don’t need to use Xcode…


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