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.
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 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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.