Review: Two weeks with a 16-inch MacBook Pro

I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a couple of weeks using one of Apple’s new 16-inch MacBook Pros, and thought I’d share a few thoughts on the new high-end notebook.

Skin deep?

On first glance the new Mac definitely maintains the svelte and modern appearance of all the company’s high-end Macs, a style inheritance that can be traced all the way back to the Titanium PowerBook G4.

This is an appearance that is often imitated and hardly ever matched and it means that anyone using one of these Macs is going to have the visceral feeling that they are using a high quality and professional solution. Which is the feeling you want when you’re asked to spend from $2,799 on a computer system. (Though Apple is offering 6% Daily Cash if you buy one of these with an Apple Card).

It’s all a display

You will also I think be impressed by the incredibly high-quality Retina Display. With a pixel resolution of 3,072-x-1,920 pixel it drives 5.9 million pixels at a density of 226ppi. The 500nits display is bright with a P3 Color gamut and supports millions of colors.

You also get slimmer bezels around the display, which means you’ll look at what’s on the display, not the frame.

That’s nice if you happen to watch TV on your Mac, but media consumption isn’t precisely what this is for – these systems are for media creation.

This is why video editors will get so much from using this system, and also why they will welcome Apple’s decision to give them controls over the screen refresh rate, in order to match it to the frame rate of the content they are working on.

You get rich and lustrous blacks, beautiful color, amazing contrast and the sheer quantity of pixels mean you’ll pick up plenty of detail.  Which means these Macs are very much solid enough for professional users.

Apple certainly thinks so, it claims 70% faster processing of well-threaded Photoshop features than you’ll get in a quad-core 15-inch MacBook Pro, huge improvements in using popular pro apps such as DaVinci Resolve, Logic Pro X, AutoDesk Maya and/or powerful scientific applications such as MatLab.

In the absence of a reference machine I couldn’t test those claims but did yield CineBench performance scores that stood consistently around an impressive 3,487 points. And yes, the Mac Pro will far exceed those numbers – but also runs on 300-watts of power.

In part this performance can be attributed to improvements Apple made in the Mac’s thermal architecture.

Not only do these mean the processor can run at its highest speeds for longer (thanks also to Turbo Boost), but it also means the Mac can handle the heat signature of the 100-watt battery you’ll find inside it. (That’s the biggest lithium-ion battery size you can carry with you on a flight, by the way).

I’ve noticed that in use the Mac can become comfortably warm, and that it can crunch through tough tasks fast and efficiently.

I tested this using Blackmagic Disk Speed Test and returned write speeds around 2,536MB/s and read speeds around 2,740MB/s.

I also ran the Unigine Valley benchmarking test.

As you might expect, the Mac performed really well int this, but what struck me most was how easily the machine crunched through and rendered all that test’s particle effects. I found myself sinking into watching the test, which I shouldn’t have done, really.

Oh, the result? It delivered a score of 3,632 at an average 86.8fps, which is around 10% better than the 15-inch MacBook Pro (likely due to the improved heat sync).

Inside the machine

What else is inside these Macs?

My 1TB test system was the standard model, which is equipped with 2.3GHZ 8-Core Intel i9 processor, 16GB 2,666MHz DDR4 memory and AMD Radeon Pro 5000M series graphics with 4GB of GDDR6 memory.

There are several build-to-order options:

  • For an extra $200 you can pop a 2.4GHz i9 chip inside, which I suspect will be what high-end video editors may choose to do.
  • If you need to pack more power into your system you can for the first time install up to 64GB DDR4 memory inside the Mac, though doing so adds another $800 to the cost.
  • You can also purchase systems equipped with 8TB of SSD storage (at an additional cost of $2,200), which is the largest solid-state storage in a notebook you’ll find at present.
  • Finally, you can spend an additional $100 to install AMD Radeon Pro 5000M series graphics card with 8GB of memory in the Mac.

The highest end BTO model costs $6,099 with all the upgrades.

What about the audio?

You’ll find a 6-speaker sound system and studio quality microphone inside these Macs.

The speaker system includes force-cancelling woofers.

These are situated back-to-back and are designed in such a way that they will cancel out each other’s physical force when they make a sound. The idea is that this reduces unwanted sound distortions.

The result?

I’ve spent a few days using the Mac to provide background music while I work, and am really rather impressed at the sound separation, audio clarity and accuracy – and you get a real sense of spatial audio, also.

Try playing music on one of the systems on display at your local Apple Store and move around a little, you’ll soon see what I mean.

That’s not to say everything is perfect. As I write this the company is reportedly pulling together a software update to fix a weird audio issue in which some people experience intermittent popping sounds when audio is skipped, stopped or an audio app closed.

Apple says this is a software problem and I imagine it will be resolved quite soon, but it’s a shame this audio artefact shipped – though I’ve had no experience of this problem on my system, which I hope means the matter has been overblown.

Apple is making no bones about its push to promote podcasting and claims these Macs are already good enough to provide the kind of high-quality audio recording experience you need if you’re making podcasts.

Though if you’re anything like me even with this astonishing degree of audio quality you’ll still hate the sound of your own voice, even though I retain a face for radio.

Has the keyboard improved?

Recent generations of MacBook Pro used Apple’s butterfly keyboard design. There were lots of reported problems with this, which prompted the company to redesign its design and offer free keyboard replacements to users.

In this Mac, Apple seems to have bitten the bullet and returned to (an improved version) of a more standard keyboard technology.

The new Magic Keyboard boasts a redesigned scissor mechanism and 1mm travel for a more satisfying key feel. The keyboard also provides a physical Escape key and arrow keys.

What’s it like to use?

I can only offer an anecdotal opinion based on my personal experience.

I found the Butterfly keyboard rather loud to use when typing and also eventually found it inflamed the writing-induced Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) I suffer from. In part this was because the action on the Butterfly keyboard felt much stiffer than my (still favorite) 2015 MacBook Air keyboard.

This keyboard is quieter in use with a much smoother feeling action than the Butterfly keyboard it replaces.

I seem to have been able to use it for extensive periods comfortably and I don’t annoy people near me when I type. I’ve also not experienced any stiff keyboard characters, a problem I did encounter with the previous model.

There’s an old engineering adage that better is not necessarily better than best, and I think this holds true here. Apple’s new keyboard is on par with its pre-butterfly keyboards for comfortable use, but was it ever really necessary to refine keyboard design just to trim a millimetre or two off the size? I’m not certain it was.

All the same, with this new keyboard Apple does seem to have done the right thing, ensuring that its high-end pro users won’t feel they’ve been sold a dud machine.

Apple will need to work for some time before the tarnish of the butterfly keyboard design debacle disappears, but I’m optimistic this new design hits the spot – though we’ll have to wait to see how robust it is in long-term use.

The Touch Bar has also been improved with the addition of a physical Escape button (an invaluable addition), and I’m convinced that users of pro apps will find the bar to be a useful way to reach application controls when working on projects – particularly as they gain app-specific finger-memory for the commands situated there.

But wait, there’s more

Apple’s T2 chip delivers a range of useful features for pro users.

  • Encrypted storage meaning all your data is kept highly secure, so the rushes of that movie you’re working on won’t slip.
  • Secure boot: Which makes it much harder for hackers and others to slip low-level malware into your Mac.
  • Touch ID: Open your Mac, pay for stuff, look cool and attract your opposite sex by opening your Mac with a finger.
  • And Hey Siri support, which gives your Mac a second identity as a desktop-based virtual assistant for some tasks. (Here’s a selection of productive uses of Siri on a Mac).

One of the features on this Mac I like most is the huge Force Trackpad.

It helps me achieve really precise cursor control, while its pressure-sensing capabilities mean I can use it to draw (though it’s still easier to use Sidecar and an iPad. The Multi-touch gestures also help me get things done.

Of course, the much larger machine (14.09-x-9.68-x-.64-inches) and much bigger battery means this Mac is way heavier than the 15-inch model (13.75-x-9.48-x-0.61-inches), right?

Actually, not right at all: the 16-inch MacBook Pro weighs just.3-pounds more than the 4-pound 15-inch model.

For the sake of comparison, the historically important clamshell iBook weighted 6.6-pounds, and some may recall what Steve Jobs did with that – and that was a consumer laptop early noughties schoolchildren lugged around.

Must or miss?

Like the Mac Pro, not every Apple user is going to need a Mac as powerful as this one. I’d argue that in a huge number of usage scenarios a large number of consumer users only really need something as powerful as an iPad to get most tasks done.

However, if you are a pro video editor, sound engineer, scientific researcher, architect, product designer or belong to any of the other high-end user groups, you’ll want to take a look at this machine, which seems to promise the horsepower you need to get things done – or switch to a Mac Pro for even more potential.

For myself?

I’ll regret it when this Mac gets returned to its owner.

It’s absolutely the most capable Apple notebook I’ve ever used, and I’ve used a few. Including that orange iBook referenced above.

Would I buy one? If I needed the power and could afford the fare, certainly — but most Apple users won’t need quite so much power. Though they may well aspire to it.

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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