Over the past decade-plus, I've seen MacBook designs come and go. The 12-inch MacBook quietly vanished after three generations; the plastic (Apple preferred "polycarbonate") 13-inch MacBooks were replaced by aluminum; and I'm even old enough to remember the late, great 17-inch MacBook Pro, which was killed off in 2012 after years of will-they-or-won't-they drama. But one product I thought was in it for the long haul was the 15-inch MacBook Pro. This most mainstream of do-everything laptops has been around since 2006, and I've reviewed just about every update and refresh since then. And while we all knew a 16-inch MacBook was coming, the fact that it completely replaces the 15-inch version -- leaving Apple without a 15-inch laptop in its current lineup -- is still a shock to the system.
How it stacks up
- Bigger screen, with a higher resolution
- Upgrades to processor, GPU, RAM and storage options
- Much-improved keyboard
- Decent audio upgrade
- Starts expensive and goes up from there
- Touch Bar still doesn't make a compelling case for itself
- Slightly less portable than the much-loved 15-inch version
- Ports are still limited to USB-C
The new 16-inch MacBook Pro is something of a greatest-hits compilation of MacBook features. The body's shape, size and weight are very close to the 15-inch Pro, a well-established standard for high-end laptops that are mostly desk-bound but occasionally portable. The screen is closer to the gone-but-not-forgotten, 17-inch MacBook Pro, a classic big-screen system that readers still email me about at least once or twice a year. The 3,072x1,920 Retina display has tons of pixel real estate, edging closer to the 5K screens on iMacs.
And perhaps most important, the keyboard is... different. No, it's not the clacky classic MacBook Pro keyboard of yore. Frankly, that was never as good as you remember it being. Nor is it the ultra-flat butterfly mechanism keyboard that's slowly bled into every MacBook since 2015. Apple says this new version is based on the standalone Magic Keyboard the company includes with its iMac desktops and also sells separately (yes, there's also a Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad -- frankly, the whole thing always sounded a bit too Disney-fied to me).
For a deeper dive on the exact changes to the processor, RAM and storage options, my colleague Scott Stein has an excellent in-depth breakdown of all the new MacBook Pro specs here. Instead, I'll focus on a few key areas, including the keyboard, Touch Bar and battery,
The butterfly effect
Both the iMac Magic Keyboard and this new MacBook Pro keyboard use scissor-style switches under the keycaps, rather than the much-derided butterfly-style switch. The latter was prone to all sorts of issues, from stuck and dead keys to a general lack of pleasingly tactile feedback. Apparently one of my greatest heresies has been to sidestep the butterfly keyboard pile-on and admit that my personal relationship with it wasn't all that bad.
Earlier this year, I mustered a defense of the butterfly keyboard, at least from some of the overblown rending of garments that made it sound about as useful as trying to type on a keyboard drawn in chalk on the sidewalk. I said:
"The super flat keyboard on current MacBooks is one of our favorite things to hate. It ranks right up there with millennials ordering avocado toast, DC Universe movies and robocalls as fair game for everyone to knock ... But the sheer level of MacBook keyboard hysteria overstates the case."
Lest you think me a butterfly apologist, I also said:
"My experience can be summed up as: 'Not great, but not as bad as people say. Is that a hedge on the big question of the ultimate value of MacBook keyboards? Sure, it is. But like most things in life, this falls somewhere in the middle part of the bell curve. Not great, not terrible."
After just a single day of typing on the new Magic-style keyboard on the 16-inch MacBook Pro, I'm ready to retcon the butterfly keyboard back to being a disaster. That's because the new keyboard is positively delightful, which is not praise I offer lightly. Put another way, my first thought early this morning while typing this review on the 16-inch Pro was, "Where the f*** has this been for the last four years?"
The feel is definitely closer to the modern MacBook keyboard than the classic one. Seeing all three side by side, it looks more like the butterfly design, with low-slung, wide keys. If anything, this new design fuses the two, with keycaps that are smaller in surface area than the butterfly version, but larger than the old-school version. Likewise, the key travel (a term often used as shorthand for how far one can depress a keyboard key, although it's really the distance before a key press activates) is a substantial-feeling 1mm, which feels like a happy medium. A new rubber dome is under each key, and the individual keycaps can be removed and replaced (I have not tried that yet), which should at least mitigate any problems from dust and debris causing stuck keys. But really, stop getting cookie crumbs on your laptops, you monsters.
There will no doubt be many longer-term verdicts from many opinionated quarters for this new keyboard, but in my first-24-hours opinion, it's pretty great.
Still, peace has yet to be restored to the MacBook keyboard galaxy. Welcome to the amazing world of... keyboard fragmentation! Now the 16-inch MacBook Pro has this new and improved keyboard, while the MacBook Air and 13-inch MacBook Pro both have the clearly inferior butterfly version. The only reason there isn't more MacBook keyboard confusion is that these are the only MacBooks left after the 12- and 15-inch prunings this year. That automatically makes any MacBook Air or 13-inch MacBook Pro purchase a compromised experience, as there's a 99.9% chance this new keyboard style is coming to those systems sometime next year (not that Apple would cop to any such thing when I asked).
With all the keyboard talk, it's worth noting that the large trackpad, already a MacBook highlight, is unchanged and still feels huge, even paired with a 16-inch screen.
The incredible shrinking Touch Bar
The Touch Bar, nearly as divisive as the butterfly keyboard, is still here, and still largely underused, at least according to my informal survey of MacBook Pro users. It is, however, getting slowly whittled down, with a physical escape key added to the left side and the fingerprint reader broken out on the right. Apple's Phil Schiller told my colleague Roger Cheng, "If I were to rank the complaints, No. 1 was [from] customers who like a physical Escape key."
The rest of the Touch Bar remains as mildly interesting as it ever was. Per-app support is decent, but requires learning new workflows, and the entire setup just serves to remind us that this is one of the only major computer platforms without a touchscreen. Like endless Fast and Furious movies, the Touch Bar keeps showing up, but never really makes a great case for itself. It self-perpetuates because there's no way to get a MacBook Pro without a Touch Bar right now. Still, the fact that it's losing real estate doesn't sound like a vote of long-term confidence.
That said, I always use the Touch Bar controls for volume adjustments when using a MacBook Pro. That's even more important here, because better audio is one of the other areas where the new MacBook Pro makes improvements. Built-in laptop speakers are never much to write home about, but with some speaker placement prestidigitation to cancel out rattle at higher volumes, this is certainly a decent-sounding laptop. Apple claims great noise reduction and nuanced capture for the built-in three-mic array as well, but I have not had a chance to test that yet.
As big as a battery can get
Screens get bigger, processors get more powerful, graphics hard gets upgraded. That's all great, but also a contradiction to longer battery life, a key selling point for any laptop. The CPUs and other components can become more power efficient, with more performance per watt, operating system tweaks can manage battery life better and even low-power displays can add hours of extra life.
But the most reliable way to increase battery life is to add a bigger battery. The new 16-inch MacBook Pro takes to its logical limit with a 100 watt-hour battery (made up of four individual cells), and a promise of 11 hours of battery life, up one hour from the previous 15-inch Pro.
Why not go even bigger? Apple has hit something of a wall in battery capacity. The US Federal Aviation Administration limits the battery capacity of lithium batteries to 100 watt-hours (and even then, you have to carry those on; they can't be in checked baggage). A laptop that can't fly is going to have a fairly limited audience, so the MacBook Pro is unlikely to move past that unless the rules change or new battery technology comes to laptops.
We have yet to test the battery life in the new MacBook Pro, and will update this review when we do. The most-recent MacBook Pro we've tested was the 13-inch 2019 model, which ran for 10 hours, 39 minutes in our video-streaming battery test.
Big screen, big changes
In a short time with the new 16-inch MacBook Pro, I can say that it feels bigger than the 15-inch model it replaces, both in screen size and desktop footprint. Not by a huge amount, but it certainly seems less portable and more of a desk-bound laptop.
The keyboard feels extraordinarily different, better than both the butterfly version and even the classic pre-2015 version. It's also less loud and clacky, which you might only notice side by side, but a definite improvement.
It will take more than a few days to come to a definitive conclusion about this, but there's at least a good chance that new 16-inch MacBook will make you actually like MacBook keyboards again.