Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016) review: The biggest MacBook has a trackpad that's bigger than your entire phone

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The Good The larger version of Apple's MacBook Pro has a big, bold display, a thinner, lighter body, an AMD graphics chip by default and a massive trackpad. The inventive Touch Bar second-screen display saves clicks here and there, and now works with apps like Photoshop and Spotify.

The Bad Even the base 15-inch model is painfully expensive. The Touch Bar is a fun add-on, but not a necessity, and the move to USB-C ports means potentially carrying a bag full of dongles.

The Bottom Line With a slim bezel around its 15-inch screen and a thinner, lighter body, the top-end MacBook Pro packs a real visual punch. But if you miss the traditional HDMI and USB ports, consider the older 2015 model that Apple still sells.

8.3 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 8
  • Support 9

Editors' note (June 27, 2017): At this year's Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple gave its laptop line a modest makeover. The $1,299 12-inch MacBook and $999 13-inch MacBook Air have been updated with faster, more powerful Intel processors. The new MacBook Pros -- the $1,299 13-inch, $1,799 13-inch with Touch Bar, and $2,399 15-inch with Touch Bar, the 2016 version of which is reviewed below -- have those new chips, too, along with upgraded graphics hardware. 

Otherwise, aside from a RAM bump here and a slight price drop there, the 2017 batch is very similar to the one from 2016, with the same enclosures, ports, trackpads and screens. But be forewarned: Buying a new MacBook Pro may require you to invest in a variety of adapters for your legacy devices. Also note that the 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2015 has been discontinued, though the $1,999 15-inch model of that vintage remains available for those who want all the ports and fewer dongles.

Now playing: Watch this: Hands-on with Apple's new MacBooks

The trend line points toward ever-smaller computers, with premium systems diving below 10mm thick, and screens dipping down to 12.5 inches from the more common 13-inch or larger versions. But sometimes you want a big, bold, laptop with a large screen to match, especially for photo and video editing, design work -- or even just spending hours each day staring at endless text in a word processor.

Apple no longer makes a 17-inch laptop (although we get reader emails a few times per year lamenting the loss of the 17-inch MacBook), so the new, updated version of the 15-inch MacBook Pro is as big as you're going to get without jumping to an iMac all-in-one desktop computer. And while we've already spent a lot of time writing about and testing both new versions of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, we haven't dived as deeply into the larger 15-inch model before now.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Even though these are all part of the same family, the 15-incher offers important differences from the 13-inch models, starting with the configuration options. There are two base configurations of the 13-inch Pro -- the less expensive stripped-down model, with only two USB-C ports and lacking both the new Touch Bar control strip and the Touch ID fingerprint sensor, and a premium version, which includes the Touch Bar and Touch ID, better specs and twice as many USB-C ports. The two base configurations of the 15-inch model, however, both include Touch Bar and Touch ID and both start with roughly the same premium features, including four USB-C/Thunderbolt ports, an Intel Core i7 processor and a discrete Radeon Pro graphics card.

And that's why the price for each is eye-wateringly expensive, starting at $2,499 (£2,349 or AU$3,599) in the US, and bumping up the processor, storage and GPU for $2,799 (£2,699 or AU$4,249), which is the configuration tested here. It makes the 13-inch models, which start at $1,499 and $1,799 (£1,449 and £1,749 or AU$2,199 and AU$2,699) seem very reasonably priced in comparison.


The 13-inch and 15-inch models, side by side.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Of course, there's also another 15-inch option that's a little less expensive. For the time being, Apple is still selling the 2015 15-inch MacBook Pro, which misses out on some of the newer features, but still has traditional USB, HDMI and other ports.

Apple MacBook Pro (15-inch, 2016)

Price as reviewed $2,799
Display size/resolution 15-inch, 2,880x1,800-pixel display
PC CPU 2.7GHz Intel Core i7-6820HQ
PC memory 16GB DDR3 SDRAM 2,133MHz
Graphics 2,048MB Radeon Pro 455 / 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 530
Storage 512GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.2
Operating system MacOS Sierra 10.12.1

Mostly new, inside and out

Much has been written, blogged or Tweeted about Apple's newest MacBook Pro laptops, first unveiled in late October 2016. Despite it being a near-total refresh of this decade-old line, a good deal of the focus was on complaints about the (still) high price and the switch away from traditional USB and HDMI ports to USB-C/Thunderbolt ports. The inclusion of a slim touch strip for commands, called the Touch Bar, was also polarizing -- it's moderately useful in many circumstances, amazingly so in a handful. At launch, it didn't have the software support to be a must-have productivity tool, but that's slowly changing. You can read much more about the Touch Bar experience here.

Beyond that, there are a lot of other updates and upgrades that got lost in the noise about USB-C ports and the Touch Bar. The MacBook Pros, including this 15-inch model, have newer Intel processors, the aluminum unibody chassis is both thinner and lighter, the keyboard has been shifted to a flatter design, akin to the 12-inch MacBook, and the trackpad (Apple's touchpad) has doubled in surface area. On this 15-inch MacBook, it's larger than even an iPhone 7 Plus screen.


The massive MacBook Pro trackpad

Sarah Tew/CNET

That last point is especially important, as this is one area where no PC maker can touch Apple (no pun intended). The multifinger gestures that make MacBook hardware and the MacOS operating system such a killer combo is enhanced by the new, larger finger surface. It's as if just when PC makers were starting to catch up on touchpads, with better surfaces and reliable multitouch gestures, these oversize MacBook trackpads move the goalposts further away.

This is also a Force Touch pad, a design now in every MacBook except the MacBook Air, which replaces a traditional hinge with a flat glass panel with two levels of haptic feedback. You can read more about Force Touch here.

Magic touch

The Touch Bar here is the same as in the 13-inch MacBook Pro we reviewed previously. And by the same, I mean exactly the same. Both the 2,170x60 OLED Touch Bar display and the keyboard have been dropped in right from the 13-inch version. The main physical difference is that the larger 15-inch body has extra room on either side of the keyboard for speaker grilles, while the 13-inch keyboard goes nearly to the edge of the body.

A much more in-depth exploration of the Touch Bar is available in our review of the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and the functionality, benefits and limitations are the same on this model. You can read that review for an extended test drive of the Touch Bar, but it's worth noting a few highlights and lowlights here.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Initially, Touch Bar support was limited to Apple apps built into MacOS, and a handful of third-party apps, although that list is finally growing. In most cases, the unique-to-each-app set of buttons you get is presented logically, but some onscreen buttons have layers within them, and navigating deeper in and then moving back out isn't always intuitive (as in the case of Photos, Apple's photo organizing and tweaking app). In other cases, such as with Safari and Messages, the Touch Bar buttons are a perfect distillation of the most important functions in an app and the uses are easy to pick up immediately.

One of the best Touch Bar features is the built-in fingerprint reader, which uses a new custom T1 security chip to implement Apple's Touch ID system, as seen on iPhones and iPads. Setup is similar to on an iPhone, with repeated fingertaps on the sensor recording fingerprint data. Unlike iPhones or iPads, Macs support multiple user profiles, so everyone using the machine can set up fingerprint access to separate profiles, or you can set up different profiles and access each one with a different finger.


Safari tabs on the Touch Bar

Sarah Tew/CNET

Switching between tabs in Safari is an especially cool Touch Bar trick. Each tab you have open in a Safari window is represented by a tiny thumbnail image. They're too small to really see much detail, but tapping on each one switches the browser to that tab, and it's probably still my favorite overall new Touch Bar feature. I'd love to see it in Chrome as well, as I'm often running more than one browser.