MacBook Pro 13-inch with Touch Bar review

Controversy has dogged the MacBook Pro lately. Is it still a good purchase?

The MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar is beautiful, but flawed.
The MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar is beautiful, but flawed.
The MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar is beautiful, but flawed.

Highs

  • Exquisite look and feel
  • Screen is among the best we’ve tested
  • Loud, enjoyable speakers
  • Spacious, responsive touchpad
  • Top-tier hard drive performance

Lows

  • Adapters needed to connect most devices
  • Keyboard is well below average
  • Touch Bar lacks an obvious purpose
  • Battery life takes a step back

DT Editors' Rating

The 2016 MacBook Pro’s redesign was divisive — to put it lightly. With its fancy new Touch Bar, reduced connectivity, and sticky keyboard, the new model’s reception wasn’t as warm as Apple may have hoped.

The base 13-inch model without the Touch Bar is $1,300, which comes with 128GB of storage and a 7th-gen Intel Core processor. If you want the Touch Bar model we reviewed, you’ll have to shell out $1,800, which now comes stocked with a refreshed 8th-gen processor and new keyboard.

Even so, $1,800 is a lot for a MacBook Pro 13 with a Core i5 processor, even by Apple’s standards. The sharp increase in price means you can only obtain a Core i5 MacBook Pro at prices that used to get you a Core i7, and perhaps a RAM upgrade as well. Does the MacBook Pro match the high expectations set by its premium price?

Still the most luxurious laptop

One look at the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar is all you need to know it’s a Mac. That’s even more impressive now that Apple has decided to take attention away from its branding, ditching the glowing white apple in favor of a slick, subtle gloss logo similar to what’s on the MacBook, the iPhone, and the iPad.

As before, the MacBook Pro 13 features an all-unibody design lacking any visible seams aside from those on the bottom. But the new version is slimmer and trimmer, shaving weight down to 3.02 pounds from 3.48 pounds, while thickness drops from 0.71 inches to 0.59 inches.

And that’s not all. Apple, like Dell, has aggressively shaved space from the display bezels to reduce the overall footprint. The MacBook Pro 13 remains slightly larger than the Dell XPS 13 overall, although it’s thicker than the newest Dell’s 0.46 inches while being just under four-tenths of a pound heavier. Overall, users with the older Pro model will appreciate the improvement.

The MacBook Pro comes in Space Gray, which seems to be Apple’s new default color, brought over from the iPhone. You can find more color options in the 12-inch MacBook, which come in Silver, Space Gray, Rose Gold, or Gold. Color choices may seem petty, but they add a touch of personality, and we wish Apple brought some of that to the MacBook Pro. Even Dell has expanded the XPS 13’s conservative color scheme to include a new Rose Gold with Alpine White, and HP’s Spectre 13 also has some fancy color options.

But regardless, there’s no arguing with the MacBook Pro’s elegance. The beauty of Apple design has always been subtle, which is why the company is sometimes accused of being safe, or boring. The Pro doesn’t even try to side-step those criticisms. It’s not the smallest 13-inch laptop, nor is the lightest. There’s something to be said for design that works, though, even if it’s not innovative, and the MacBook Pro remains the most luxurious laptop around.

Meanwhile, although the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar has a headphone jack, it makes another connectivity choice that’s just as controversial and, functionally, more important. Apple decided that USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 is the future and has ditched every other port.

Yes, USB-C is all you get. The MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar has four of these ports, two on each side. Even the card reader is missing. Crazy as it sounds, the decision has it benefits. The simplicity of the port selection is hard to argue with, and every port is a charging port, so you can plug the wall adapter into whichever is more convenient. The ports are quick, too, so you can hook up multiple displays or use fast external SSDs without worry about connectivity bandwidth.

You’re going to need adapters, and you might need lots of them.

Now, for the bad news: You’re going to need adapters, and you might need lots of them. Do you use an external display? That’s an adapter. External hard drive? Adapter. Wired input of any sort? Adapter. Ethernet? Adapter. SD card? Adapter. At best, you’ll need to purchase one or two dongles. At worst, you’re going to need a dock solution, which can add another $100 to $200 to the price.

The greatest irony? Even Apple’s iPhone can’t plug into any MacBook Pro 13 without purchasing an adapter. However, thanks to Apple’s lead, this has increasingly become the norm for better or worse. Laptops like the HP Spectre 13, the new XPS 13, and the Huawei MateBook X Pro now have similar port options — and it’ll only continue to be the direction the way things go.

At least it can communicate wirelessly. Speaking of which, the new Pro 13 has the usual 802.11ac Wi-Fi adapter, now paired with Bluetooth 5.0 in the 2018 update. It’s good to see the latest version of Bluetooth here, as it’ll help connect with a wireless keyboard and mouse.

The keyboard of the future isn’t very good

The 12-inch MacBook, released in 2015, debuted an all-new “butterfly” switch that’s much thinner than any used in a laptop keyboard prior. Though Apple touted it as having great feel, we complained that “typing for more than an hour [left our] fingers with a dull ache,” due to the keyboard’s stiff feel and limited travel.

Now that same keyboard can be found on the MacBook Pro. Well, not exactly the same. When launched, the Pro’s keyboard was a “second-generation butterfly mechanism,” with slightly more travel than the first. And it is an improvement. If you’re a writer, the MacBook Pro 13 will serve you better than the 12-inch MacBook, especially now that we’ve moved on to the third-generation keyboard in the 2018 update.

Apple MacBook 13-inch Touch Pad
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

That’s not to say it’ll serve you well. While travel has improved, the keyboard continues to suffer a stiff, abrupt bottoming action that can make long typing sessions tiresome. The degree to which this will bother you is a matter of preference. A few Digital Trends writers thought it was perfectly acceptable and most thought they could learn to live with it. No one said they preferred it over the previous MacBook Pro 13.

And it’s not clear why this sacrifice was made. While the new MacBook Pro 13 is thin, it’s as thick or thicker than many competitors with better keyboards, such as the Acer Swift 7, HP Spectre 13, HP Spectre x360, and Dell XPS 13. Whatever the reason, it’s clear Apple had to make a compromise between size, performance, and keyboard quality, with the latter getting the bad end of the bargain. The increased complaints (and lawsuits) about sticking keys doesn’t help either. Even with Apple’s newest keyboard update, it’s been made clear that the keyboard sticking issue has not been resolved.

The keyboard suffers a stiff, abrupt bottoming action that can make long typing sessions tiresome.

Below the keyboard is a revised, plus-sized touchpad. Unlike the keyboard, this is an unmitigated plus. The spacious surface improves the ease of using multi-touch gestures, which work consistently well. While the new, larger surface means constant contact between it and your palms, we didn’t notice a single instance of unintended input throughout our testing. Windows touchpads have improved significantly in the last couple of years, but they’re still not as luxurious as Apple’s.

And don’t forget Force Touch. The haptic feedback system, which uses vibration to simulate a click, is so good at emulating real movement that most users never notice a difference. It’s quieter than it used to be too, without sacrificing the satisfying clarity of the click. The touch pad also offers force sensitivity, which can enable special interface functions — just like the iPhone. The feature isn’t widely embraced, even by Apple’s own software, but it’s great when offered.

The Touch Bar searches for purpose

In May of 2014, Apple Insider published an article talking about upcoming Macs with “in-key displays,” a rumor that began to snowball in early 2016. After several misses (the rumor mills thought it might appear in early 2016, then in summer), it’s finally here in all its OLED glory.

If nothing else, the Touch Bar is great to look at it. It boasts Retina-equivalent pixel density, which means icons are rendered with crisp, vibrant graphics. And because it’s OLED, blacks look inky black — so dark it’s often hard to find the Touch Bar’s boundaries.

As a conversation starter, then, it holds up. As a functional tool? Less so. Apple tries to integrate the Touch Bar in a way that makes it relevant even in everyday web browser, note-taking, and photo-viewing. Its display changes constantly as new apps are opened, and old ones closed. It performs well, keeping up no matter how quickly apps are switched, or how many are open.

Apple MacBook 13-inch Touch Pad
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Yet there’s rarely much use for it. At best, it provides a quick way to scroll through lists, such as your Photo Stream. It can also be useful if you’d like to scroll through a video – and it’s great at picking up on such content, activating a scroll bar even when browsing YouTube.

In other cases, though, it’s clearly a solution searching for a problem. Take typing, for instant. As you input text in Safari, Word, and other apps, the Touch Bar constantly flashes word suggestions. It’s a feature that works well on the iPhone, where typing is often slow and cumbersome.

On a laptop, it’s not all that convenient. Type in “office,” for instance, and the Touch Bar will suggest alternatives. Did you mean “officers?” Or, perhaps “off-season?” This happens whether a word is spelled properly or not. Even if you do slip in a typo, it’s hard to imagine why a user would look to the Touch Bar for help when MacOS already presents a correction on-screen and, in most cases, will correct the spelling automatically.

Since its release, a growing number of apps now feature Touch Bar support — including Evernote, Microsoft Outlook, and LastPass. But even with more developer support than it had at launch, the Touch bar is still not quite as integral to the MacBook’s user experience as Apple would like it to be.

If nothing else, the Touch Bar is great to look at it.

Even where it might be useful, the Touch Bar is limited by its size. It automatically displays open Safari tabs, complete with miniature content previews, a feature that could prove helpful. Yet the previews are so small that it’s often hard to tell the tabs apart, even with just three or four open. If you open six, or eight, or ten tabs, then the previews become smaller still, until they’re so tiny that it’s hard to even tap the right one. Similar problems trouble its photo preview and video preview capabilities. In theory, you can scroll through photo collections. In practice, it’s harder to do than with the touchpad. Asus has come up with a competing idea with the ScreenPad on the ZenBook Pro 15, and while that’s not perfect, it does offer a tantalizing glimpse of something better than the Touch Bar.

In short, the Touch Bar isn’t great. But giving the function row over to an OLED display does come with an important perk called Touch ID. Yes, you can now log in with your fingerprint, and it works as seamlessly as it does on iPhone. Fast, secure login authentication methods are a great way to improve security for the average user, something that Windows users have enjoyed for a few years thanks to Microsoft’s Hello functionality. And Touch ID integrates with Apple Pay, so you can use it to securely make online purchases — from stores that accept Apple Pay.

Display

A quick look at the specifications could make you think Apple’s new MacBook Pro 13 had an old display. It’s still Retina, which means the resolution is still 2,560 × 1,600. That was stunning in 2012, but today it seems mediocre next to QHD+ (3,200 × 1,800) and 4K (3,840 x 2,160) screens.

But don’t worry, Mac faithful. You can banish any concerns about the display from your mind. It’s fantastic.

We measured a maximum brightness of 548 lux. That’s ridiculously brilliant, and complete overkill for use indoors, but it can help make the screen, which is still very glossy, usable in extreme situations. By comparison, the Dell XPS 13 with QHD+ display only hits 278 lux, and the HP Spectre x360 hits 355 lux. Both those systems can have a problem with glare in bright conditions, though Dell gives you the choice to combat that with a matte display option.

Apple MacBook 13-inch Touch Pad
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Brightness is only important in a bright room. What’ll stun you, no matter where you use the MacBook Pro 13, is its color. The display can achieve 100 percent of the sRGB gamut, as well as 91 percent of AdobeRGB. It also delivered an average color error value of 0.72 (lower is better). Anything below one is generally unnoticeable to the human eye, and this reading is among the lowest we’ve ever recorded from a laptop. Only Dell’s XPS 15, with its excellent 4K IGZO idsplay, boasted a better average error value of 0.6.

Even the contrast ratio of 1,200:1 is excellent. The Pro can deliver dark blacks next to brilliant colors without trouble.

The only flaw we found is gamma, which came in at a reading of 2.3. The ideal curve is 2.2, and the MacBook Pro 13’s result indicates it portrays content a bit darker than it should. But this is a very minor fluctuation, and plenty of competitors miss it, too.

The Retina display may not be this Pro’s headline feature, but it remains its most attractive trait.

When the numbers are tallied, the new Retina display comes away a winner. It defeats the Dell XPS 13, Asus Zenbook S, HP Spectre x360, and Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, beating them in color gamut, color accuracy, and contrast ratio (except for the ZenBook S, which was slightly better).

That’s not to say it lacks competition, though. Microsoft’s Surface Book 2 can go toe-to-toe with it in a few categories. Our tests found the Surface Book had an even better contrast ratio of 1,460:1 and its gamma curve reading was the proper 2.2. But even still, in terms of color accuracy and brightness, they still don’t quite match up.

There’s also a small handful of Windows systems, like the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Yoga, available with OLED displays. These clobber the MacBook Pro 13’s strong contrast ratio, and deliver an even wider color gamut, all with accurate gamma. But they don’t match the Mac’s out-of-the-box color accuracy.

Numbers aside, the display on the MacBook Pro 13 is excellent, and looks it in everyday use. Games and movies are crisp and vibrant, and high-quality photos render with such detail that you might think your display was switched with a canvas print. The Retina display may not be this Pro’s headline feature, but it remains its most attractive trait.

Sound quality is another important multimedia feature, and Apple has always shown an affinity for audio quality rarely found elsewhere. Simply put, the MacBook Pro is no exception. In fact, its speakers are the best we can recall hearing in a 13-inch system. That’s saying a lot, because a few recent laptops in this category, like the Asus Zenbook 3, have surprised us with their quality.

The MacBook Pro 13 offers a wide range of volume and, at maximum, it’s far louder than most people will need in normal use, and capable of filling a large room with tunes. Bass is present and accounted for in minimal but noticeable amounts – the thump can be felt through the keyboard at higher volumes. High and mid-range sound remains clear and free of distortion.

External speakers will be an improvement, as always, but the audio quality present here is surprising, and may convince you there’s no need to plug anything into the headphone jack.

A fast processor, facing stiff competition

Specifications have never been Apple’s area of focus, but that used to be a marketing concern rather than an indication of the company’s preference for hardware. Over the last few years, though, that has changed. The MacBook Pro fell behind, adopting new Intel processor lines late.

The MacBook Pro only partially addresses the problem. The entry-level MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar that we reviewed has an Intel Core i5-6267U, though since then, it was updated to 7th-gen and now 8th-gen Intel Core processors. The update to 8th-gen is important, as the jump as significantly increased multi-core performance in other systems we’ve tested. It’s a bit late though —  and frustratingly, the lower-end, non-Touch Bar models have left to die at 7th-gen. That’s not a good sign for the future of non-Touch Bar MacBooks.

The system’s Geekbench 3 multi-core score of 7,600 was not the best we’d seen for 6th- and 7th-generation machines, and it falls well behind contemporary 8th-generation notebooks. For example, the XPS 13 with a Core i5-8250U scored twice as fast in the multi-core test at 15,127.

In our Handbrake test that converts a 420MB video file to H.265, the MacBook Pro took 446 seconds. Again, the XPS 13 was (almost) twice as fast at 270 seconds, and other 8th-generation machines weren’t far behind.

The MacBook Pro 13 will be much faster now that it, too, leverages Intel’s latest CPUs. We’ll be sure to update our review once we’ve tested the latest model, but it should be noted that only the 15-inch MacBook Pro includes the fast, though controversial, inclusion of the Core i9 processor.

Drive performance is often overlooked by consumers, but it’s important to a system’s overall capability. Apple knows this, and has been a leader in storage performance for years. The new MacBook Pro line is no exception. It quotes read speeds of 3.1 gigabytes per second, and write speeds of 2.2 gigabytes per second.

We can’t do an apples-to-apples comparison with Windows competitors here, because the tools we normally use to test performance aren’t compatible with MacOS. However, we did test using two benchmarks that run only on Apple’s operating system.

First up was Blackmagic, a test designed to tell professionals if a drive is up to the task of handling content at specific framerates and resolutions. It produced a write speed result of 1,348 megabytes per second, and a read result of two gigabytes per second (annoyingly, this appears to be the maximum result the benchmark can show). That’s a big improvement over the MacBook Pro 13 with Retina (2015). It hit a write speed of 647MB/s, and a read speed of 1,056MB/s.

It’s clear the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar has outstanding drive performance, and it’ll handle any workload you ask of it.

We also fired up DiskMark. It spat out sequential read performance of 1,826MB/s, and sequential write performance of 1,289MB/s.  We hadn’t tested with that benchmark before, so take the numbers with a grain of salt. Still, they’re good figures, and reasonably consistent with Blackmagic.

Again, these benchmarks do not run on Windows, so we can’t make an apples-to-apples comparison of hard drive performance. But numbers we have from CrystalDiskMark, our Windows test, suggest Apple is at the head of the pack.

The Dell XPS 13 with 512GB solid state drive scored a read speed of 1,893MB/s and a write sped of 475MB/s. The Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon, on the other hand, was better able to keep up, at 2,121MB/s and 1,832MB/s.

If this all sounds confusing, don’t worry. While the numbers are outstanding, you don’t need to obsess over them. It’s clear the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar has outstanding drive performance, and it’ll handle any workload you ask of it. This just might be the most future-proof component in the entire system.

Mac gaming is still a bad idea

As in most past incarnations, the Apple MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar relies on Intel integrated graphics. If you want a more powerful discrete graphics solution, then you’ll need to accept the MacBook Pro 15’s larger footprint.

With that said, our review unit did boast Intel Iris Graphics 550 which, in theory, should be much quicker than standard Intel HD graphics. Compared to Intel HD 620, the solution most common in modern Windows laptops, Iris Graphics 550 has double the execution units (48 vs. 24) and a higher maximum clock speed (1,100MHz vs. 1,050MHz). Better still, Iris Graphics 550 has 64 megabytes of dedicated eDRAM, something you’ll never find with Intel HD 620.

But does that mean you can play games better than with a typical Windows ultrabook? To find out we fired up Civilization VI, testing it at 1,440 x 900 resolution on the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar, and on the same resolution on HP’s Spectre x360, with minimum detail and memory consumption selected.

Apple MacBook 13-inch Touch Pad
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

The game performed identically — and poorly — on both, delivering 21 frames per second through the in-game benchmark. But the HP was the better experience, as the Mac suffered graphical glitches that weren’t present on the HP Spectre x360.

If you’re curious why the game performs poorly despite greater technical capability, blame Apple’s OpenGL support, which hasn’t been updated significantly for years. Instead, the company prefers Metal, its own API which can be used on both iOS and MacOS devices. The problem? Porting a game from Windows’ popular DirectX API to Metal is unfamiliar territory. Developers of Windows PC games don’t have a good option for porting to the Mac, and the result is often performance that’s less impressive than you’d expect.

You’ll have better luck with games ported over from iOS, such as CSR Racing Pro 3, Super Octagon, and Limbo. There’s a fair selection of such games on the Mac App Store. These also tend to suffer problems, though, especially in control, which is often poorly converted from touch to keyboard and mouse.

A smaller battery leads to adequate endurance

While the MacBook Pro 13 took a step forward in processor performance, it also took a significant step back in battery capacity. The previous model had a 74.9 watt-hour battery, but the 2016 MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar was launched with a 49.2 watt-hour battery (the model without Touch Bar has a slightly larger 54.5 watt-hour battery). That was a reduction in capacity of almost 35 percent. In the 2018 update, it’s been upped to a 58 watt-hour battery, though Apple’s endurance estimates have remain unchanged.

Peacekeeper, a looped web browsing benchmark, drained a full charge in five hours and three minutes. That’s not a bad result, but it’s not amazing, either. The Dell XPS 13 with Core i7 lasted five hours and seven minutes, while the Acer Swift 7 lasted five hours and 56 minutes. The HP Spectre lasted a tad bit less at four hours and 54 minutes.

We also tested the system in a video loop, using iTunes. It drained the battery in ten hours and 24 minutes. That’s another solid result, though behind the XPS 13 with a Core i5-8250U and Full HD display and neck and neck with the XPS 13 with a 4K display and Core i7-8550U. The MacBook Pro did beat out some other competitors, such as the ZenBook S and the ThinkPad X1 Carbon.

In real-world use, we found battery life to be average. Most 13-inch laptops priced about $1,000 can last through nearly a workday of a use, and the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar can, as well. But this assumes your “normal” use isn’t constant use, and that you stay away from demanding applications.

Some users have noted that Safari seems to drain the battery more quickly than hoped. We’ve noted that, as well, even after the MacOS 10.12.3 update, which fixed a bug that caused Safari to use more graphics horsepower than needed.

If you want amazing portability, you should aim for Dell’s XPS 13 with 1080p display and Core i5 processor. The older version lasted an outstanding six hours and 12 minutes in Peacekeeper, and the latest version lasted for a strong 13 hours and 34 minutes in our video loop. The best of all options in terms of battery life is the Surface Book 2 13, which lasted an amazing 17 hours of battery life in our video playback test. The MacBook Pro 13 used to be the last word in battery life, but the new model — or, at least, the Touch Bar version — has lost the crown.

Our Take

Apple’s new MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar is a beautiful machine, but it has several flaws, and it’s far too expensive. The update to 8th-gen makes buying a MacBook Pro viable again, but only the lack of updated entry-level options is disappointing.

Is there a better alternative?

That depends on if you’d consider a Windows computer. If not, the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar is an attractive option – though you should consider the model without Touch Bar first. It’s more affordable, and has a larger battery. The processor is not quite as fast and looks to be stuck at 7th-gen, but the downgrade won’t be significant for most people.

If you’re open-minded about choosing between Windows 10 and MacOS, there are numerous competitors. They include the Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre x360, Huawei Matebook X Pro, Surface Book 2, and Razer Blade Stealth. Many of these are a bit quicker, some have better battery life, and all offer a better keyboard. The Windows alternatives also offer an optional touchscreen, and some are 2-in-1 devices usable as either laptop or tablet.

The main sacrifice you’ll make with these alternatives is display quality. Only Microsoft’s Surface Book 2, and the handful of OLED laptops currently available, can go toe-to-toe with the new Pro in that area.

How long will it last?

Apple has control of each Mac’s lifespan by dictating which systems will receive MacOS updates. Since the MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar was just released, it’s safe to say it’ll last as long as any Mac currently available. With this MacBook in particular, the real danger is in the keyboard, which has had notable reliability issues. And Apple’s warranty might be limited to an industry-standard one year of coverage, but the company’s customer support is legendary.

Should you buy it?

No, at least not at the configuration we reviewed.

The MacBook Pro 13 with Touch Bar is not a bad laptop. On the contrary, it’s quite good. But the $1,800 price tag demands more than just good. A laptop sold for that, as an entry-level model, must be among the best of the best. The MacBook Pro 13 without Touch Bar (starting at $1,300) and MacBook Pro 15 (starting at $2,400) are both better values for what you pay.

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