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Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) review: The next best thing to the Retina MacBook Air you've always wanted

It's missing the fancy new Touch Bar, but everything else about this entry level Pro has been updated.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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6 min read

Editors' note (June 8, 2017): 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 (MacBook and MacBook Pro) are very similar to their 2016 predecessors, with the same enclosures, ports, trackpads and screens (full listing 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. 

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8.4

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016)

The Good

A massive touchpad dominates this incredibly skinny, high-powered laptop. The screen really pops, with less bezel and wider color range. Adding space grey as a color option gives it a bold, mod look.

The Bad

This version leaves out the amazing new Touch Bar. It's more expensive than the model it replaces and has only a pair of USB-C ports plus a headphone jack for wired connectivity. The shallow keyboard takes getting used to.

The Bottom Line

While it's missing the buzzworthy Touch Bar, the entry-level MacBook Pro is effectively the redesigned and updated 'Retina MacBook Air' that you've been waiting for.
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Watch this: Apple's MacBook Pro gets an early upgrade
Apple's MacBook Pro gets an early upgrade
1:49

The Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) review, published in November 2016, follows.

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.

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Josh Miller/CNET

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.

Excising those ports and slimming down the keyboard means the new MacBook Pro has a body that's a few millimeters thinner and about half a pound lighter than the previous MacBook Pro. The new design takes the MacBook Pro down to 14.9mm thick from 18mm and the weight down to three pounds (1.36kg). But it's still far from the thinnest laptop out there. HP's Spectre and Acer's Swift 7, both powered by even newer Intel Core i7 seventh-generation Kaby Lake processors, are both less than 10mm thick. Meanwhile, the classic MacBook Air, once the king of the thin laptops, is still 17mm.

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A MacBook Air next to the new MacBook Pro.

Josh Miller/CNET

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 $1,299. This new 13-inch Pro starts at $1,499, £1,449 and AU$2,199 and 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.

But, unlike the new iPhone 7, the headphone jack survives. For now.

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This new Force Touch track pad is twice the size of the previous version.

Josh Miller/CNET

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.

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.

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Josh Miller/CNET

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.

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Josh Miller/CNET

One port, many uses

The rush to expunge a wide variety of ports and replace them with a single solution started with the 12-inch MacBook. It dropped nearly everything in favor of USB-C, which can carry Thunderbolt-speed data, connect to power. Through add-on adaptors they can support USB sticks, HDMI output and anything else you'd want to plug into a computer.

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These Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports work for power, data, even video output, as long as you have the right connector.

Josh Miller/CNET

In the new MacBook Pro, Apple doubles down on the idea of USB-C, adding two of these flexible ports (and the more expensive models double that again, to four total USB-C ports). It's a bold move for a laptop that may spend a lot of time tethered to a desk, driving external displays or connected to storage drives.

And, it's a sad goodbye to the beloved MagSafe power connection, an invention that has saved many laptops from a grim death over the years. The idea was simple, but brilliant. The MagSafe connector attached via a not-too-strong magnet, so that when you inevitably tripped over the cord, it was safely pop out from the laptop's body, instead of pulling your laptop down to the floor. The Air is now the only laptop that still has that. Farewell, MagSafe, we'll miss you!

To be fair, it's not USB-C or nothing. There's one more port still hanging around the MacBook Pro. the humble headphone jack, recently excised from the iPhone 7, gets a reprieve here. For now.

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The new MacBook Pro on top of a last-gen MacBook Pro, with a MacBook Air on the bottom.

Josh Miller/CNET

The new MacBook Air, kind of

With the classic 13-inch MacBook Air frozen in time, one could see this as the new "basic" MacBook that people turn to as the default. Having gotten my hands on one, it definitely has more of a Pro than an Air feel. And of course, it has a more Pro-like price.

If you were waiting for a MacBook Air upgrade with a Retina display, this is as close as you're probably going to get. That Retina display is said to be a costly component, especially over the older 1,440x900 screens on the Air, which have been the same almost since that series launched eight years ago.

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A 13-inch MacBook Air next to the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Josh Miller/CNET

A more Air-like experience may actually be the 12-inch MacBook, which starts at $1,299, halfway between the price of the old Air and the new MacBook Pro. It's meant for easy travel and is one of the slimmest, lightest laptops you can buy.

But, it's not an all day, every day laptop. Despite feeling some pangs over missing out on the Touch Bar (and the Touch ID feature it allows), this entry-level new Pro has the new, larger touchpad and slimmer body -- both definite pluses; and the new keyboard, on which the verdict is more mixed. At it's lower price, it represents the best balance in the current Mac lineup between price, features and power.

Multimedia Multitasking test 3.0

Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016) 202Dell XPS 13 (2016, non-touch) 441Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, 2016) 443Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) 460Razer Blade Stealth 482Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) 491Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) 505Microsoft Surface Book (2016) 610Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 702
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)



Geekbench 3 (Multi-Core)

Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016) 14451Razer Blade Stealth 7704Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, 2016) 7650Microsoft Surface Book (2016) 7337Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) 7178Dell XPS 13 (2016, non-touch) 7118Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) 6729Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 5879Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) 5672
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance





Streaming video playback battery drain test

Microsoft Surface Book (2016) 709Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) 696Dell XPS 13 (2016, non-touch) 636Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 633Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) 608Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, 2016) 607Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016) 605Razer Blade Stealth 416
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)





System Configurations

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) Apple macOS Sierra 10.12.1; 2GHz Intel Core i5-6360U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel Iris Graphics 540; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, 2016) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.2GHz Intel Core i5-7Y54; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 615; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016) Apple macOS Sierra 10.12.1; 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-6820HQ; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 2GB Radeon Pro / 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 530; 512GB SSD
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) Apple El Capitan OSX 10.11.4; 1.2GHz Intel Core m5-6Y54; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 515; 512GB SSD
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2015) Apple OSX 10.10.2 Yosemite; 2.7GHz Intel Core i5-5257U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel Iris Graphics 6100; 128GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) Apple Yosemite OSX 10.10.2; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-5250U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphis 6000; 128GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Book (2016) Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6600U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz, 2GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 965 / 128MB Intel HD Graphics 520; 1TB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (2016, non-touch) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
Razer Blade Stealth Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-7500U; 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
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8.4

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 7Battery 9
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