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★ 16-Inch MacBook Pro First Impressions: Great Keyboard, Outstanding Speakers

[2019-11-14 17:57:23]

If You Try Sometimes, You Just Might Find, You Get What You Need Apple today released its much-rumored new 16-inch MacBook Pro. It is full of good news. Yesterday, Apple held a series of roundtable briefings for the media in New York. There was an on-the-record introduction followed by an off-the-record series of demos.1 The introduction was led by MacBook Pro product manager Shruti Haldea, along with senior director of Mac product marketing Tom Boger and Phil Schiller. Attending media received loaner units to review. Let’s not even pretend that a few hours is enough time for a proper review, but it’s more than enough time to establish some strong broad impressions. Here’s what you need to know, in what I think is the order of importance. The Keyboard We got it all: a return of scissor key mechanisms in lieu of butterfly switches, a return of the inverted-T arrow key arrangement, and a hardware Escape key. Apple stated explicitly that their inspiration for this keyboard is the Magic Keyboard that ships with iMacs. At a glance, it looks very similar to the butterfly-switch keyboards on the previous 15-inch MacBook Pros. But don’t let that fool you — it feels completely different. There’s a full 1mm of key travel; the butterfly keyboards only have 0.5mm. This is a very good compromise on key travel, balancing the superior feel and accuracy of more travel with the goal of keeping the overall device thin. (The new 16-inch MacBook Pro is, in fact, a little thicker than the previous 15-inch models overall.) Calling it the “Magic Keyboard” threads the impossible marketing needle they needed to thread: it concedes everything while confessing nothing. Apple has always had a great keyboard that could fit in a MacBook — it just hasn’t been in a MacBook the last three years. There’s also more space between keys — about 0.5mm. This difference is much more noticeable by feel than by sight. Making it easier to feel the gaps between keys really does make a difference. Like the 15-inch MacBook Pro, all 16-inch models come with the Touch Bar. But even there, there’s a slight improvement: it’s been nudged further above the top row of keys, to help avoid accidental touches. No haptic feedback or any other functional changes to the Touch Bar, though. It’s hard not to speculate that all of these changes are, to some degree, a de-Jony-Ive-ification of the keyboard. For all we on the outside know, this exact same keyboard might have shipped today even if Jony Ive were still at Apple.2 I’m not sure I know anyone, though, who would disagree that over the last 5-6 years, Apple’s balance of how things work versus how things look has veered problematically toward making things look better — hardware and software — at the expense of how they function. Allow me to fixate on one particular detail: the arrow keys. The only reason to switch from the classic upside-down T arrangement to full-size left and right arrow keys is that it makes the keyboard look better. With the upside-down T arrangement, the gaps above the left and right arrow look a little funny, in the abstract. But those gaps serve a huge functional purpose — they make it so much easier to put your fingers on those keys without looking at the keyboard. The gaps give you something to feel for. Having used recent MacBook family keyboards for months at a time over the past few years, the arrow key arrangement has been my biggest annoyance by far. More than the low-travel keys, more than the missing hardware Escape button, more than narrow gaps between keys. I just could never get used to not having those gaps in the arrow key layout. I resorted to putting small strips of gaffer tape on the lower half of the left and right keys to have something to feel for. What Apple emphasized yesterday in its presentation is not that the butterfly-switch keyboards are problematic or unpopular. They can’t do that — they still include them on every MacBook other than this new 16-inch model. And even if they do eventually switch the whole lineup to this new keyboard — and I think they will, but of course, when asked about that, they had no comment on any future products — it’s not Apple’s style to throw one of their old products under the proverbial bus. What Apple emphasized is simply that they listened to the complaints from professional MacBook users. They recognized how important the Escape key is to developers — they even mentioned Vim by name during a developer tool demo. And they emphasized that they studied what makes for a good keyboard. What reduces mistakes, what increases efficiency. And they didn’t throw away the good parts of the butterfly keyboard — including excellent backlighting and especially the increased stability, where keys go down flat even when pressed off-center. The keys on this keyboard don’t wobble like the keys on pre-2016 MacBook Pro keyboards do. Typing is very quiet on the new keyboard, and the sound it does make is satisfying. Less click-ity, more chunk-ity. In short, Apple did not simply go back to the old style keyboards. It’s a new design, with the best attributes of the old 2015 keyboards and the recent butterfly-switch keyboards. Lastly, Apple seems very confident that this new keyboard design is durable and reliable. The new 16-inch MacBook Pro is not covered by Apple’s keyboard service program, because they apparently don’t need to be. I expected Apple to do this — to correct the mistakes of the previous keyboard. But I feared that they wouldn’t, out of stubborn pride or just plain bad taste in keyboard design. It is a bit frustrating that it took them three years to do it, but they did it. This is what their modern MacBook keyboards should have been like all along. Audio A keyboard reboot we all saw coming. Here’s one I did not: the new 16-inch MacBook Pro has radically improved built-in speakers. This is the audio equivalent of going from chunky pixels to retina displays. It’s that big a difference. It’s not simply about being louder, although they are louder at maximum volume. They just sound impossibly better. They don’t merely sound like good laptop speakers — they sound like good dedicated portable speakers, period. In a small room, you can credibly use the 16-inch MacBook Pro to play music as though it’s an entertainment speaker system. And at maximum volume they really are a lot louder — without the sort of distortion we’ve all come to expect from laptop speakers at high volume. Apple’s demos pitted the new MacBook Pro against high-end models from Dell, Razer, and (I think) HP. It was an embarrassing comparison. I of course can see why Apple’s own demo compared the new MacBook Pro against laptops from competitors, but the difference is just as stark when compared to the 15-inch MacBook Pro from 2018. In addition to sounding holy-shit-I-can’t-believe-these-are-laptop-speakers better, the new speakers also vibrate less when the volume is high. Other laptop speakers, including Apple’s, pump audio through the keyboard. You can feel the whole machine vibrate with your fingers on the keys. Not so much with the new 16-inch MacBook Pro, even with the volume pumped all the way. Apple credits this to force-canceling woofers. Speaker drivers are paired back-to-back, emitting sound both up and down, which cancels out the physical force that creates vibrations and distorted sound. They provide some real bass. The amazing acoustic engineering that led to the HomePod and AirPods Pro is now starting to pay dividends in every product Apple makes with speakers. iPhone and iPad speakers have gotten really good too, but with those products, there’s been a steady improvement year after year. I can’t recall one single iPhone or iPad where the difference in sound quality over the previous generation was this significant. Really, I don’t think there’s anything I can write here that will convince you how good these speakers sound. However good you think I’m saying they sound, they sound way better than that. There’s more! Audio input is improved as well. The 16-inch MacBook Pro has a new 3-microphone array that Apple describes as “studio quality”. They claim you can credibly use it to record a podcast — a bold claim. The new three-microphone array certainly sounds noticeably better than the old built-in microphone. Here are some samples I recorded last night, at the desk in my basement where I usually record my podcast. 2018 15-inch MacBook Pro: The new 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro: My iPhone 11 Pro: Shure Beta 87A microphone connected to an Onyx Blackjack XLR interface — the setup I use for my show: Would I recommend the new built-in MacBook Pro microphone for recording a podcast? No. But would I be willing to use it for my own show in a pinch? Yes. And it should be a great improvement to audio for teleconferencing and FaceTime. The New Display The new 16-inch display has a native resolution of 3072 × 1920 pixels, with a density of 226 pixels per inch. The old 15-inch retina display was 2880 × 1800 pixels, with a density of 220 pixels per inch. Apple didn’t just use the same number of pixels and make the pixels bigger — they actually made the pixels slightly smaller and added more of them to make a bigger display. Brightness and color gamut are unchanged. No rounded corners (like on the iPad Pro and iPhone X/XS/11) — the display is still a good old-fashioned rectangle with pure corners. Computery Stuff The 16-inch MacBook Pro is the new “big” MacBook Pro — it replaces the previous 15-inch MacBook Pro in the lineup at the same prices: $2400 for a 6-core base model and $2800 for the 8-core base model. The Intel chips are the same as the ones available on the May 2019 15-inch MacBook Pro. So it goes, until Apple switches to its own chips for Macs — these are still the best laptop chips Intel makes. It’s a bit unusual, to say the least, that a major update to the flagship MacBook uses the same CPUs as the generation it’s replacing. But there are performance improvements. An all-new thermal system means the chips can run at peak performance longer. Graphics are faster, with the debut of AMD’s Radeon Pro 5000M series GPUs. The base models come with 16 GB of faster DDR4 RAM, and can now be configured with up to 64 GB. Apple also now offers up to 8 TB of SSD storage, which they believe to be the first 8 TB SSD on the market. The port situation is unchanged: four Thunderbolt 3 (USB-C) ports, two on each side, and a headphone jack. The 16-inch MacBook Pro does have a slightly larger footprint than the old 15-inch models. It’s slightly heavier too (4.3 vs. 4.02 pounds) and as mentioned before, it’s slightly thicker (1.62 vs. 1.55 cm). But in hand and in use, it effectively feels the same size as the 15-inch MacBook Pro. Conclusion It feels a bit silly to be excited about a classic arrow key layout, a hardware Escape key, and key switches that function reliably and feel good when you type with them, but that’s where we are. The risk of being a Mac user is that we’re captive to a single company’s whims. No one would ever suggest that the steering wheel for a car be designed by people who don’t drive. But yet somehow the entire Macintosh world has spent the last three years dealing with or avoiding keyboards that were seemingly designed by people who don’t type.3 The whole saga of the butterfly keyboards — their unreliable switches, poor typing feel, and anti-functional layout — betrays a certain arrogance. The more powerful an organization — a corporation, a nation, a sports team, whatever — the more at risk that organization is to hubris. It’s power that allows one to act on hubris. We shouldn’t be celebrating the return of longstanding features we never should have lost in the first place. But Apple’s willingness to revisit these decisions — their explicit acknowledgment that, yes, keyboards are meant to by typed upon, not gazed upon — is, if not cause for a party, at the very least cause for a jubilant toast. This is a MacBook you can once again argue is the best laptop hardware money can buy. The demos all included the new Mac Pro too, which they announced will be shipping in “December”. No additional information on Mac Pro pricing until it ships, alas. ↩︎ Actually, Ive is still listed on Apple’s leadership page as Chief Design Officer. ↩︎︎ One could argue too, that in addition to keyboards designed by people who don’t type, modern MacBooks offer ports selected by people who never connect peripherals to their computers. But while USB-C is clearly taking over slower than Apple expected, it is taking over. Apple still thinks it will be proven right on going all-in on USB-C for MacBook ports. ↩︎︎

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