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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.

Please follow me on Twitter, or join me in the AppleHolic’s bar & grill and Apple Discussions groups on MeWe.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch Review & Rating

The story’s not just the new screen size. From small changes such as the ability to adjust the display refresh rate, to major overhauls like a long-in-coming keyboard redesign and a new AMD Radeon graphics processor, Apple has made its flagship laptop even better as 2019 rolls to a close. The 16-inch MacBook Pro’s considerable expense—it starts at $2,399 and costs $3,899 in our test configuration—means it is suited mainly to well-heeled creative types, music producers, software developers, and people with similarly demanding mobile-compute needs. If you can afford it, though, it’s one of the most powerful, capable, and feature-rich large-screen laptops you can buy.

Bigger Screen, Same Starting Price

For the same price as the old 15-inch MacBook Pro, which Apple has discontinued, you now get the significantly upgraded 16-inch model. The two laptops look very similar, since the overall MacBook Pro design language hasn’t changed much since 2016. That means the new MacBook Pro is a Space Gray-colored metal slab just like its predecessor. But there are some key differences, if you examine it closely.

Apple MacBook Pro 16 Inch 02

You can tell the first and highest-profile difference by feel, not sight: the keyboard. After years of using a unique, and oft-maligned, keyboard with “butterfly”-style switches and extremely shallow key travel in its laptops, Apple has returned to the traditional scissor-style switch that many laptop keyboards have used for ages. Scissor-style switches are inherently less stable than Apple’s butterfly ones, but these here address that issue and offer much greater vertical travel. (That said, it would be hard for any key design to offer less travel than the butterfly switches.)

By stability, we’re referring to the tendency of scissor and other keys to wobble a bit if hit off-center. The new MacBook Pro keyboard design has a scissor mechanism that locks into the keycap while the keys aren’t pressed, which helps eliminate the stability problem. The result is a very good keyfeel, at least as good as can be expected from a laptop keyboard. The keys feel sturdy, the vertical travel distance is adequate at 1mm, and the typing experience is much quieter than on the previous 15-inch MacBook Pro models.

However, the new keyboard simply returns the MacBook Pro to a state of typing normalcy, rather than leapfrogging it forward to best-in-class. After typing this entire review on the keyboard, I found the experience to be less satisfying than using, say, a Lenovo ThinkPad, whose keyboards have long been the gold standard in mobile typing, primarily for their generous travel distance and fine-tuned feedback.

I actually appreciate the new MacBook Pro keyboard’s minor changes—the addition of a physical Escape key and arrow keys rearranged in an inverted-“T” layout—just as much as I appreciate the new key switches. The Escape and directional arrow keys are workhorses I use constantly, for everything from selecting a line of text to dismissing a Siri window. The 13-inch MacBook Pro has no physical Escape key, instead displaying a virtual one in the Touch Bar.

The Biggest Deal? The Redesigned Keyboard

The Touch Bar itself is largely unchanged on the new MacBook Pro. It’s Apple’s answer to full-touch-screen capabilities that have been available on Windows laptops for years. Depending on which app you’re using, the Touch Bar displays an assortment of additional controls, such as buttons for fast-forwarding through a video in Preview or switching between tabs in the Safari web browser.

Apple MacBook Pro 16 Inch 04

The only minor change to the Touch Bar is that there is now a physical space between it and the Touch ID sensor to the right of it. (This sensor lets you use your fingerprint to log into your macOS account, authenticate Apple Pay purchase, and other similar tasks.) The 13-inch MacBook Pro has a Touch ID sensor that’s part of the Touch Bar.

Gimme a Little More Screen?

Apart from the keyboard, the other significant physical change to the MacBook Pro is its new, larger 16-inch display. The size difference may sound like more than it actually is, though.

The MacBook Pro was often categorized as a “15-inch”-class laptop. Most such machines actually have screens that measure 15.6 inches on the diagonal, but the older MacBook Pros were slightly smaller 15.4-inchers. While a full extra inch from 15 to 16 might sound significant in absolute terms, it’s not a full-inch uptick in practice; it’s a 0.6-inch increase from the previous MacBook Pro’s screen to the new one.

But the new screen feels appreciably bigger when you’re sitting in front of it. I discovered there’s enough room to display a Microsoft Word document and a full-width web page side-by-side, something I didn’t find to be comfortably possible on the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The narrower bezels around the display also contribute to the bigger feel.

Meet the Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch

These slimmer borders also let Apple increase the size of the screen without adding much bulk—and therefore weight—to the laptop. This is a tried-and-true strategy, and many manufacturers have employed it to fit larger screens into existing laptop designs without increasing their footprints at all. Apple hasn’t quite accomplished that no-spreading feat. The new MacBook Pro is both larger and heavier than its predecessor, though not by much. The new laptop measures 0.64 by 14.1 by 9.7 inches (HWD) and weighs 4.3 pounds, versus the 0.61 by 13.75 by 9.5 inches and 4 pounds of its 15-inch predecessor. Both models feel hefty, dense, and substantial—they might look sleek and modern, but they’re not ultraportable laptops by any means. (We define that category of laptops as weighing 3 pounds or less and measuring less than half an inch thick.)

Apple MacBook Pro 16 Inch 15

Beyond the trimmer bezels, the larger size, and a slightly higher pixel density of 226 pixels per inch, the display’s features are mostly the same as those of the Retina Displays that have graced previous MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models. Rated for a maximum of 500 nits of brightness, the panel is easily viewable in a brightly lit room. It can also display the entire P3 color gamut, which is useful for photographers and video editors performing color-correction work.

Video editors may also appreciate that Apple has added a tool for adjusting the display’s refresh rate in System Preferences. The usage case here is to better match the refresh rate with the frame rate of video footage. It’s a bit cumbersome to activate, however. You’ll need to hold down the Option key while you click the Scaled option in the Displays pane of the System Preferences app. (Options range from 47.95Hz to the full 60Hz of which the screen is capable.)

Brace Yourself: Gut-Punch Bass

Next to the slightly better display and keyboard, the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s improvement in audio quality is positively drastic. I’ve never heard such robust sound quality from a laptop, including from the already-excellent speakers on the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The improvement is almost entirely down to the addition of two subwoofers at the bottom left and right edges of the new MacBook Pro’s chassis. They offer astounding levels of bass, even on our punishing test tracks, which include Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” and “Silent Shout” by The Knife.

In addition to the new subwoofers, two tweeters are located in each of the generously sized speaker grilles that flank the keyboard. The upward-firing nature of these tweeters helps sound quality, as well, compared with the downward-firing speakers mounted on the bottom of many other competing laptops, including the Dell XPS 15. The MacBook Pro’s speaker placement, unfortunately, means there is no room for a dedicated number pad next to the keyboard. With sound quality this good, I’m OK with the omission, though spreadsheet jockeys may disagree.

Incredibly Robust Bass

The 16-inch MacBook Pro’s port selection, touchpad, and webcam are the same as previous versions. That’s a good thing in the case of the touchpad, with its spacious glass surface that provides uniform haptic feedback no matter where you click. It’s a merely okay thing in the case of the webcam, which offers reasonably good 720p video quality, though it can’t match the superior quality of some laptops and all-in-one PCs—including the Apple iMac—that feature 1080p cameras. And it’s a bad thing in the case of the port selection. It’s nice to have four USB Type-C ports, all of which support Thunderbolt 3 speeds, but those and a headphone jack are all you get. Professional media editors will almost certainly need to buy special adapters for their SD cards, external hard drives, mice, external displays, and other peripherals.

Wireless connectivity includes 802.11ac Wi-Fi and Bluetooth 5.0. Support for next-generation 802.11ax Wi-Fi (Wi-Fi 6) is conspicuously absent.

Robust CPU, Graphics Options

With an Intel Core i9 processor, an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M graphics chip with 8GB of video memory, and 32GB of system RAM, our MacBook Pro review unit is a performance powerhouse. The main configuration option our review unit lacks that might boost performance further is the maximum 64GB of system RAM. The entry-level version of the machine features an Intel Core i7, 16GB of memory, and an AMD Radeon Pro 5300M with 4GB of video memory. Storage options range from a 512GB SSD to a whopping 8TB SSD, the roomiest SSD on any laptop we’ve seen to date, Apple or otherwise. (Our review unit has a 2TB SSD.) The preceding model topped out at a 4TB drive.

Most of these specs are overkill for casual use, such as checking emails and browsing the web. It’s a pity that Apple doesn’t offer a version of the MacBook Pro 16-Inch with cheaper, less-powerful computing components. If you just want a large-screen laptop and don’t need professional-grade levels of computing performance, you’re stuck overpaying for the MacBook Pro or choosing a Windows laptop instead.

The CPU options are the same as the ones in the previous 15-inch MacBook Pro. Although Apple doesn’t disclose the exact CPU models it uses in its computers, we know that the processor in our review unit is an eight-core, 9th Generation Core i9 running at a base clock speed of 2.4GHz. Those specs suggest that it is the “Coffee Lake”-class Intel Core i9-9980HK, or something similar. (At this writing, Intel had not yet released equivalent 10th Generation versions of its high-powered laptop CPUs, only chips intended for ultramobile and mainstream systems.)

Space Gray Exterior

Memory speeds have increased slightly, to 2,666MHz, but the biggest performance improvement is the adoption of the new Radeon Pro 5000M-series graphics chips, based on AMD’s latest 7-nanometer microarchitecture. Announced in October, the chips are also available in some gaming laptops, among them the MSI Alpha 15.

Testing the 16: Solid Multimedia Performance

While that new GPU is likely no slouch, as we’ll see below, the MacBook Pro is decidedly not marketed as a gaming laptop. You can certainly play games on it, but this machine is all about the power for creative types.

Following from that, I compared its benchmark performance on our multimedia tests with other similarly priced, professional-level machines, including the Asus ZenBook Pro Duo (an out-there, dual-screen creator’s mega machine), the Dell XPS 15 (probably the MacBook Pro’s purest Windows-based competitor, this one with an OLED panel), and the Lenovo ThinkPad P53 (a muscular Xeon/Quadro workstation laptop that recently came through our labs). I also added in one gaming laptop, the Razer Blade 15 Advanced Model, since the Blade configuration we reviewed is attractive to gamers and content creators alike. The key specs of all these machines are summarized in the chart below.

Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch Performance Chart

Three of the most common media-manipulation tasks are editing images, transcoding video, and rendering 3D graphics and animations. We test these using a variety of synthetic and real-world benchmarks. In each case, the MacBook Pro was competitive, though it was only the best-performing in one of our three multimedia tests.

Related Story See How We Test Laptops

First is Maxon’s CPU-crunching Cinebench R15 test, which is based on workflows from the company’s Cinema 4D editing suite and fully threaded to make use of all available processor cores and threads. Cinebench stresses the CPU rather than the GPU to render a complex image. The result is a proprietary score indicating a PC’s suitability for processor-intensive workloads.

Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch Performance Chart

Cinebench is often a good predictor of our Handbrake video-editing trial, another tough, threaded workout that’s highly CPU-dependent and scales well with more cores and threads. In it, we put a stopwatch on test systems as they transcode a standard 12-minute clip of 4K video (the open source Blender demo movie Tears of Steel) to a 1080p MP4 file. It’s a timed test, and lower results are better.

Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch Performance Chart

We also run a custom Adobe Photoshop image-editing benchmark. We typically use an early 2018 release of the Creative Cloud version of Photoshop to apply a series of 10 complex filters and effects to a standard JPEG test image. In the MacBook Pro’s case, we used the most current macOS version of Photoshop, since older versions are 32-bit and therefore incompatible, barring workarounds, with the 64-bit-only macOS Catalina. We time each operation and, at the end, add up the total execution time. As with Handbrake, lower times are better here, and the difference in Photoshop versions should not materially affect the results.

Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch Performance Chart

The Photoshop test stresses CPU, storage subsystem, and RAM, but it can also take advantage of most GPUs to speed up the process of applying filters, so systems with powerful graphics chips or cards may see a boost. In this case, the Radeon Pro 5500M did not help the MacBook Pro achieve the fastest time.

However, the raw power of this GPU is without question. It achieved an average frame rate of 47 frames per second (fps) on the Unigine Heaven gaming simulation at the Retina Display’s native resolution (3,072 by 1,920 pixels) and the Ultra graphics quality setting. This is below the 60fps or more that high-end gaming laptops can display, but still better than its predecessor’s result of 38fps. The fact that it achieved this at such a high resolution is another feather in its cap.

The performance of the 2TB SSD is also formidable. It logged average read speeds of 2,489MBps and write speeds of 2,725MBps on the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test, which measures the suitability of the storage subsystem for processing large, high-resolution video files. This largely matches the performance of the 4TB SSD we tested in the 15-inch MacBook Pro, which achieved read and write speeds of around 2,600MBps.

Then there’s the battery runtime. The MacBook Pro’s 100-watt-hour battery helped it achieve an excellent battery life of nearly 19 hours on our video rundown test. This is especially impressive considering the laptop’s powerful CPU and GPU, paired with the high-resolution panel.

Apple MacBook Pro 16-Inch Performance Chart

Of course, most users will employ their MacBook Pro for pursuits more active than passive video-watching. Based on Apple’s own testing, the MacBook Pro is rated to last for up to 11 hours of continuous web browsing.

2019’s Peak MacBook Pro

Some of the improvements Apple made to its latest MacBook Pro are minor, but the most consequential one addresses one of our (and many users’) main quibbles with its predecessor: the shallow, unsatisfying keyboard. Beyond the board, the other major improvements, especially those to audio quality, are impressive, and they make what was already an excellent laptop even better.

Before, we were a bit grudging in our recommendation of the MacBook Pro due to the keyboard issue and Apple’s merely incremental responses to it. The butterfly keyboard was widely panned on the fronts of comfort and, in early iterations, durability, and Apple tweaked it only by half-measures generation to generation. This model shows Apple finally listening to its loyal users (and to many reviewers).

Apple MacBook Pro 16 Inch 12

With that change and the advances on the component and display fronts, the 16-inch MacBook Pro is easy to recommend to well-heeled content creators, whether they’re editing 8K video footage or compiling mission-critical code updates. It’s a pity that Apple doesn’t offer an easier-entry version of this laptop with less-expensive components, though. As it stands, we simply can’t recommend this expensive laptop for mainstream users, since its specs are overkill and its port selection will require too much in the way of accommodations and extra expense.

On the other hand, if your pockets are deep enough that you don’t mind buying a fistful of dongles and adapters, and you’re seeking a powerful, well-designed, full-featured, big-screen laptop for content-creation tasks, the 16-inch MacBook Pro has plenty of sizzle. It’s our Editors’ Choice and your best option if macOS is your world.

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