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

The OLED Touch Bar in Apple's new MacBook Pro now works with Logic Pro, Photoshop, Spotify and other apps. But is that enough for this pricey upgrade?

Dan Ackerman

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 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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9 min read

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. 


Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016)

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.

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.

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

A couple of new apps have been added to the Touch Bar support list since our 13-inch MacBook Pro review. Spotify adds music playback and app navigation controls, while Adobe's Photoshop is exactly the type of pro-level app that the Touch Bar was seemingly made for.

The Spotify controls are basic at best for now, with play/pause transport controls, shuffle, a search button that just jumps the cursor to the in-app search bar, and a secondary volume control that's separate from the main system volume.


Photoshop recently added Touch Bar support.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Photoshop has much deeper Touch Bar integration, with controls sorted into three main categories: layer properties, brushes and favorites, the last of which is customizable. Brushes, for example, allows you to select the size or opacity of the brush from the Touch Bar, and even use your finger to scrub through color options. It's not only fun to use, it can save a little time over clicking through onscreen submenus, although experienced Photoshop gurus no doubt have their own shortcuts and macros set up for maximum efficiency.

Apple's Logic Pro X professional music production software has also just added Touch Bar support, including the ability to play a mini piano keyboard or drum pads on the Touch Bar.

Learning to love the USB-C port

The biggest leap may be the switch to USB-C ports for everything, from power to accessories to video output. Even the much-loved MagSafe port for power is gone.

Through various sold-separately adapters, these small, reversible ports can support USB sticks, HDMI output and anything else you'd want to plug into a computer. But that's small comfort for anyone who has invested a lot in external monitors, drawing tablets, extra hard drives or anything else.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I sympathize, but the USB-C trend isn't going away, and a lot of the newest, most forward-looking Windows laptops are going USB-C-only as well, so there's a good chance we're all going to end up there eventually. To help with the transition, Apple is cutting prices on many USB-C cables temporarily. But you'd think Apple would throw one of these $9 dongles in the box for free with these pricey laptops. That's exactly what Dell does with its latest high-end machine.

Big screen, big battery

The new MacBook Pro models have had reported battery life troubles, including some major inconsistencies when tested by Consumer Reports, which were later traced to a bug in a developer mode used in testing. But that doesn't dismiss the long online threads from people who have found the battery life in these systems underwhelming.

In our standard online video playback battery drain test, all three new MacBook Pro models hit around 10 hours, as promised by Apple. The 13-inch version without the Touch Bar did the best, running for 11 hours, 36 minutes. This 15-inch model, with a more powerful processor and higher-res screen, but also a bigger battery, made it to 10 hours, 5 minutes.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Apple has released a few MacOS updates since this system's launch, including one just last week, that may have a further positive impact on battery life. In real-world hands-on use, I've found it generally runs a bit short of the 10 hours for me, usually between seven and eight hours, but that's with both Safari and Chrome running (the latter being a notorious battery suck), with multiple windows and tabs in each, and occasionally either Spotify or Photoshop running at the same time.

Actual application performance is great, as expected from the quad-core Core i7 here, plus 16GB of RAM. Video editors in particular may wish for 32GB of RAM, as found in some high-end Windows laptops, but for now 16GB is the only RAM option.

Pay to play

As noted in our 13-inch MacBook Pro review, the Touch Bar is a nice extra, but not the main reason you should buy one of these. And the USB-C ports may be hard to get used to now, but in a couple of years, we'll wonder what all the fuss was about.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 15-inch MacBook Pro feels much different to use than the 13-inch models. The big screen feels even larger than it is, because it goes nearly edge to edge, thanks to a slimmer bezel, especially around the sides. The massive trackpad is one of the great laptop control surfaces of all time, and the overall highly curated aesthetic minimalism just gets more impressive the larger a laptop body goes.

But the new MacBook Pro, especially the $2,500-and-up 15-inch version, is also a major investment that may only make sense if you're a serious design/creative type who can justify the expense, or if you have a generous corporate employer willing to buy one for you.

Multimedia Multitasking test 3.0

Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016) 202Dell XPS 15 (late 2015) 202Razer Blade (14-inch, 2016) 205Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, 2016) 443Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) 460Microsoft Surface Book (2016) 610
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Geekbench 3 (Multi-Core)

Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016) 14451Dell XPS 15 (late 2015) 13446Razer Blade (14-inch, 2016) 13130Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, 2016) 7650Microsoft Surface Book (2016) 7337Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) 7178
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Streaming video playback battery drain test

Microsoft Surface Book (2016) 709Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) 696Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (13-inch, 2016) 607Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016) 605Razer Blade (14-inch, 2016) 341Dell XPS 15 (late 2015) 241
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System configurations

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 455 / 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 530; 512GB SSD
Dell XPS 15 (late 2015) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ; 16GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 2GB Nvidia Geforce GTX 960M; 512GB SSD
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
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
Razer Blade (14-inch, 2016) Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.6GHz Intel Core i7-6700HQ; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 6GB Nvidia GeForce GTX 970; 256GB SSD

Apple MacBook Pro with Touch Bar (15-inch, 2016)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 8Support 9
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