Two Months with the 2016 MacBook Pro

Update November 25, 2017

In this review, I mention that changing volume and brightness on the Touch Bar are a minimum of two taps away, unlike the single key presses of the old function strip. However, I recently discovered that you can tap, hold, and drag the brightness and volume "buttons" on the Touch Bar, so I consider that small part of this review irrelevant.

I’m a serious computer user. It’s my job to be. But even if it wasn’t, I’d still be spending a ton of time on the computer. Every day, I spend hours upon hours typing away at my desk. On a daily basis, I develop software, use Photoshop, manage my finances, organize daily tasks, write blog posts, emails, and more. Any computer I own gets put through its paces and Apple has always delivered ever since I switched from Windows Vista back in 2009.

I had been using a 13-inch MacBook Pro for a few years and it was time for me to upgrade to a 15-inch model. My eyes are finally starting to outgrow 13-inch computer screens and I had been eyeing the new “Touch Bar” MacsBook Pros since they came out last year. So two months ago, I purchased a refurbished 15-inch MacBook Pro 2016 (the Space Gray Touch Bar model). The 2017 updates didn’t offer enough extra to justify spending hundreds of dollars more, and I didn’t want to upgrade to a “new” 2015 computer, so 2016 it was.

Overall, I’m happy with my purchase. It is definitely an upgrade from my older 13-inch MacBook Pro. It’s noticeably faster, has a larger, amazingly bright “retina” screen, and has twice as much RAM and disk space than I had before. But unfortunately, unlike every other MacBook I have ever purchased from Apple, this time my experience hasn’t been all good. I guess it was bound to happen eventually.

I’ll go ahead and get the bad out of the way first.

The Keyboard

Much has been said about the MacBook Pro’s new keyboard, and I’m about to put more salt on that wound. Many people gripe about everything Apple comes out with, and I’m usually not part of that group so this is a little unusual. I remember a time when there was no way in hell that I could afford a good laptop, let alone the top-quality offerings of Apple. I’ve owned some really crappy computers in the past and when I got my first Mac in 2009, it was like a breath of fresh air. I can adapt to change pretty easy so I have never been negatively affected by any of the controversial design decisions Apple has made in the past. Every time I have ever purchased a new MacBook, I’ve been extremely happy (and grateful to even have the means to do so).

However, I am very picky about the feel of my keyboard. At my desk sits a Topre Realforce and it is an absolute joy to use. Some would consider it a total waste of money, but as someone who spends an incredibly large amount of time each day at the computer, I really care how my keyboard feels and I consider it one of my best purchases. With that said, I have much lower—and very realistic—expectations for the keyboard that comes with my laptop. I know there’s never going to be a laptop keyboard that matches the feel of my Topre (or any other mechanical keyboard for that matter), no matter how expensive it is.

As much as I wish I could use my external keyboard all the time, there are times when I need to take my laptop elsewhere, and every night I take it upstairs to use in my bedroom once the kids go to bed. In fact, I’m typing this blog post while sitting in bed. Ever since MacBooks started using the island-style scissor-switch keyboards and all the PC laptops aped them, that’s pretty much what I’ve come to expect from a laptop keyboard—and that’s been totally fine with me.

While some people hate the feel of the 2nd generation “butterfly” keys on the new MacBook Pros, I’m fine with the way they feel. The keys wiggle less, which makes the keyboard seem more “premium” (at least at first), but unfortunately, that combined with the shallower depth sometimes makes it difficult for my fingers to distinguish between the individual keys. But none of this bothers me much.

The worst part about this keyboard, by far, and especially considering how much I paid for this thing, is how easy it is for keys to get stuck and for pieces of dust to require expensive repairs. It makes me scared to use the keyboard for fear it will break. I’ve had this computer for less than two months, and a couple of the keys have already gotten stuck on me. Fortunately, some blowing beneath the keys got them working again, but I may not be so lucky next time. Another crappy thing is that out of the box, several keys were extremely mushy (and still are). I hate pressing those keys.

I could have returned the computer for another one, but I’ve seen other reports of people getting back an even worse keyboard. Therefore, I decided not to exchange it since the mushy keys still work. I’d rather have mushy working keys, than keys that register twice for every keypress or other stupid issues like that. Also, my anger would be amplified if I got another defective keyboard considering I would have had to ship this computer to Apple (since it’s refurbished), and wait for them to ship it (or another one) back. That could take weeks. No thanks.

For such a premium product, at a very premium price, the fragility and unreliability of this keyboard is totally unacceptable. This isn’t just some arbitrary design decision that I disagree with. I’ve been apologetic about just about all the other controversial design choices, and I would even stand by this keyboard if the quality was there. But the lack of said quality almost makes me feel like I’ve been ripped off. That’s not a feeling I usually get from Apple.

And while I’m at it, another minor thing I don’t like about this keyboard is how fatigued the muscles in my hand get after extended typing sessions, which has never happened to me before on any keyboard. For someone who uses mechanical keyboards regularly, I’m surprised at how much strain I experience while typing on this thing. I find myself having to take momentary breaks every now and then to let the muscles in my hand recover, as if I’m working them out. This isn’t a deal-breaker in and of itself, but it’s just one of many “paper cuts” on top of the huge defects.

Unfortunately, unlike with software, Apple can’t just issue an update to fix these problems. I’m going to be stuck with this keyboard until I get a new laptop a few years down the road. I’m just going to have to live with it. One thing’s for sure, the next time I purchase a laptop from Apple, I’m going to pay close attention to what people say about the keyboard. And that means discussion forums and comment threads, not just reviews from publications. Before I bought this computer, I thought people were griping about the “feel” of the keyboard. I didn’t realize a piece of dust could bring the whole thing down.

One of the reasons I’m being so vocal about this is that if enough people complain about the keyboard, maybe Apple will put a lot more focus on this area the next time they refresh the MacBook Pro. I hope Phil Schiller sees this.

The Touch Bar

I’m going to be blunt and get this out of the way.

In my opinion, this is a novelty feature that wasn’t worth the amount of engineering effort Apple put into it and the additional cost to consumers. It’s not something that degrades my experience, but it doesn’t enhance my experience either. Certainly not enough to warrant the additional cost. After almost two months with this laptop, I rarely use the Touch Bar for more than brightness and volume, which isn’t anything more than I could do before. In fact, there are two ways the dedicated function row was better for me: volume and brightness were never an extra tap away, and I could feel the escape key. I never miss the escape key since it’s always in the same spot, so it isn’t a huge issue, but I certainly can’t feel it anymore and I don’t like that.

I already paid the extra cost though, and since the Touch Bar doesn’t reduce the reliability of the computer (like the stupid keyboard), I’ll just cut my losses on this one and move on. Next time around I’ll be looking for a non-Touch Bar model if they offer one with the same specs though. I’m sorry to say, but it just isn’t worth it to me.

On the other hand, if the Touch Bar featured some kind of Dock that allowed you to have a Dock while hiding the one on-screen, that would be nice. I want to hide my Dock, but unfortunately that means I can’t see icon badges (like missed Slack messages) at a glance. Or even if the Touch Bar simply had a section that showed an indicator for notifications, it would be much more useful than it is now. As it stands, the Touch Bar isn’t of much use to me, and that’s unfortunate because I know it contributed quite a bit to the price tag.

The Good Parts

You’d be forgiven for thinking I hate this computer. Like I said, I wanted to get the bad parts out of the way first, because apart from my gripes above, I absolutely love everything else about this MacBook Pro.

Performance is great for my “pro” use-cases, which consists of web development, iOS and Android development, and some Photoshop. As I mentioned earlier, it has twice as much RAM and disk space than I’m used to having, so I’m definitely enjoying that (especially since I have to use some of heavyweight apps for work like Android Studio, IntelliJ IDEA, and Slack).

Battery life is good (as usual).

The 15-inch high resolution display is gorgeous. The bezels ar smaller. Colors look great, and it is fantastically bright. I’ve had laptops and monitors in the past that couldn’t get bright enough, but now I have to actually turn the brightness down sometimes. The screen is also large enough that I no longer need to use an external monitor at my desk—a laptop stand to keep it at eye level is perfect for me.

The Space Gray color looks amazing and the build quality is everything I’ve come to expect from Apple (apart from the keyboard of course). Despite the laptop’s relatively large size (I’ve been using 13-inch models for years), it is amazingly thin and light (I guess the keyboard wasn’t neutered for nothing).

The speakers are loud and clear. They sound fantastic. When I’m at my desk listening to music without headphones, I no longer need external speakers. If I did have external speakers, they probably wouldn’t sound as good as these do. It’s a nice touch, because although I was never displeased with the speakers in my older MacBook, these are definitely much better.

The trackpad is bigger. A lot bigger. The huge size looks a little awkward, but I don’t pay much attention to it. I have to use an external mouse anyway due to a condition I have called hyperhidrosis that causes my hands to sweat. Trackpads generally don’t work well for me, so I don’t even bother anymore. I’m not going to comment on Touch ID for the same reason. Not Apple’s fault.

USB-C

Another controversial design decision in this generation of MacBook Pro is that it has four USB-C ports (and a headphone jack that I never use), and no other ports. Since I’m at my desk most of the time, I can get by with a single dongle that has several USB 3.0 ports on it. I plug my external keyboard in and any devices I use for development and I’m good to go.

I miss MagSafe a little, but I have actually come to like charging with USB-C. I love being able to plug the charger into any port. While at my desk, I charge from the left side but while sitting in bed, I charge it from the right. I’m very glad (and somewhat surprised) that Apple decided to make the USB-C cable detachable from the power brick, because in my experience, the point of failure on MacBook chargers has always been the cord. So now if I ever need to replace it, I can do so for relatively cheap. I’ve never had an Apple power brick go bad on me, so I’m not worried about that happening. Of course, I’ve never had a bad Apple keyboard either, so maybe I shouldn’t be so sure.

I personally don’t consider the limited port availability as a bad thing. This is an example of a design choice that I can adapt to, and have adapted to just fine over the past couple of months. I don’t see the point in complaining about it. It’s not like the USB-C ports are broken or have a high chance of failing (like the stupid keyboard). That would be a different story, and thankfully that’s not the story this time. I’m just glad they didn’t go with four Lightning ports (although if they keep making the MacBook Pro thinner that may be where we’re headed… oh boy).

Conclusion

If it weren’t for the unreliable keyboard and the expensive Touch Bar that has limited utility, this would be the best laptop I have ever owned. Unfortunately, the keyboard issue is no small thing, and I’m highly disappointed in Apple for shipping a keyboard with these kinds of flaws. I sincerely hope that for the next iteration of MacBook Pro, Apple fixes the keyboard and finds a way to make the Touch Bar more useful, at least enough to justify the extra cost.

I mentioned feeling ripped off earlier, so you may be wondering why I even bother to stick with Apple computers. On one hand, I have no choice because work requires that I use macOS. On the other hand, even if it didn’t, I still think macOS is light years ahead of Windows and “Desktop Linux” in so many ways. For me, leaving macOS behind would be even more painful than dealing with a crappy keyboard.

Fortunately, most the time I’m using an—awesome—external keyboard, so the keyboard defects are not something I have to deal with every time I use this otherwise outstanding computer. That’s why I didn’t return it and get the 2015 model. I really like this laptop, I just wish it had a more reliable keyboard.

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