Juha Saarinen is a tech blogger for nzherald.co.nz.

Gear Friday: MacBook Pros with Touch Bar arrive

Apple's latest MacBook Pro.
Apple's latest MacBook Pro.

When Apple launched the new MacBook Pro laptop range, media at the event in Cupertino were mystified why the company bothered to make a model with a row of normal F(unction)-keys to be sold along with the Touch Bar-equipped devices.

To recap, the Touch Bar might have one of those American names that English speakers outside the United States would utilise for something else than a F-key row replacement, but it's a very nice concept.

F-keys are really handy: they can be programmed to run macros or a set of functions, and hardcoded to provide access to computer features such as backlight and speaker volume, and also provide application-specific features. Like pressing F5 to refresh a web browser window for instance.

Apple's Touch Bar, which is a little ARM-powered computer system with a Retina display does all that and makes the whole F-key notion better.

The MacBook Pro Touch Bar running HazeOver's TouchSwitcher application swapping utility.

The Touch Bar is customisable, and macOS developers are starting to come up with novel uses for it. Adobe will bring out Touch Bar support for its iconic Photoshop image editing application - I saw an early version demoed, and it looks like it'll make some features easier to use and to find.

The last bit is where the Touch Bar excels, because it changes according to the application that's running, meaning you end up mousing around in menus to find the feature you need far less.

Using the Touch Bar does mean looking down on the keyboard, which I find a bit tricky to get used to being a touch typist.

Without physical keys, you might think the Touch Bar would be a poor choice for Accessibility. However, the Touch Bar supports Apple's VoiceOver, Zoom and Switch Control features for Accessibility.

Having the Touch ID sensor on the MacBook Pros means you don't need iPhones and Watches as companion devices with the laptops for biometrics.

VoiceOver gestures from Apple's iOS have been carried over to macOS for navigation and to control the info displayed on the TouchBar. One thing that would make the Touch Bar better is if it had the Force Touch haptic buzzes, to give tactile feedback on what you're doing.

That's engineering challenge, and we'll see if Apple can do it. Either way, the Touch Bar, and large Force Touch trackpads means you're doing touch computing without leaving finger marks on the screen, and covering up what's on the display.

Finally, Apple has added biometric authentication, a fancy way of saying "fingerprint sensors" on its laptops. The Touch ID sensor works great, and can be used to authenticate App Store transactions, and Apple Pay web purchases as well.

Having the Touch ID sensor on the MacBook Pros means you don't need iPhones and Watches as companion devices with the laptops for biometrics, which is a move I didn't think Apple would make. We'll see how this pans out.

Bigger is better

Obviously, budget and size considerations will decide which you go for, but if you want a Pro, it's a performance MacBook that you're after. In which case, stumping up another $700 for the 15-inch model with a quad core Intel processor and 16 gigabyte of memory and a separate graphics card makes sense.

Not only that, but you get a bigger screen too, and the Force Touch trackpad which is nice and large on the 13-inch model is even bigger on the 15-inch MacBook Pro.

All four USB-C ports on the 15-inch MacBook Pro provide the full 40 gigabits per second speed; I wasn't able to try it out, but you can apparently hook up two 5K high-resolution displays, or four 4K screens to the MacBook Pro 15-inch, and have the laptop Retina display going at the same time.

Yes, the 15-inch is 460 grams heavier than the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and larger. If it's compact size and light weight you're after, try out the MacBook: it won't be as fast but I've found it more than adequate for general computing, and it's eminently portable.

If you want a Pro, it's a performance MacBook that you're after.

Speaking of speed, be it due to software or Intel hardware quirks, the Core i7 6700HQ processor running at 2.6GHz in the 15-inch is not much faster than the Core i5 6267U chip at 2.9GHz in single-core Geekbench 4 tests; it scored around 4,200 compared to 4,000.

The 15-inch model hit 12,600 in Multi-core Geekbench 4 tests though, compared to around 8,000 for the 13-inch MacBook Pro. If your software can make use of the two extra physical processor cores, and the eight hardware threads that the Core i7 processor provides, you'll get things like video and image editing done much faster.

Graphics performance is a similar story.

The Intel 550 Iris graphics unit built into the Core i5 processor actually scored a third better than the equivalent Intel 530 HD Graphics device in the Core i7 chip.

The AMD Radeon Pro 450 though left both in the dust being between half again to double as fast depending on the test. However, there's a limit to how much battery life sapping and heat generating graphics that can go into a notebook: the separate Radeon Pro 450 card isn't as fast as the latest desktop graphics from AMD and NVIDIA.

You can bump up the graphics performance further on the 15-inch model by selecting the AMD Radeon Pro 460 card, with 4GB of memory. That costs another $340 and it's probably worth doing if you're going to keep the MacBook Pro for a few years.

Remember, you can't upgrade anything yourself on the MacBook Pros; if you're going to buy one, get the best hardware options your budget allows.

One slight anomaly the benchmark tests picked up is that 512GB storage in the 13-inch model is a bit faster than the 256GB in the 15-incher. The BlackMagic Disk Speed Test maxed out on reads (it peaked at 2 gigabytes per second!) but the 13-inch model showed around 1.7 GBps writes whereas the 15-inch MacBook Pro "only" managed just over 1.4 GBps.

This is likely due to the larger storage using more chips working in parallel and the fix is to add another $340 to the budget and get 512GB for the 15-inch model. It would be interesting to see if the 1TB storage is faster than 512GB as well. Either way, the storage in the MacBook Pros is superfast, no matter which model you pick.

USB-C quirks

After I reviewed the entry-level MacBook Pro with physical function keys, some readers contacted me about problems they'd encountered with connecting devices to the USB-C ports on the laptops.

USB-C seems a great idea, with a universal plug that can fit in either way, multiple uses like hooking up displays and Thunderbolt devices, and high-speed data connections but... not all cables are equal.

What's worse, there's no easy way to tell which cable supports what USB-C feature, like high-speed data, displays, full power supply and so forth. Some cheap USB-C cables can even damage your devices.

You have to be careful here, and pick the right ones. I suspect this means using Apple supplied USB-C cables only for now with the MacBook Pros. For a standard that's meant to make life easier for users, this USB-C cable confusion is a major fail by the industry.

- NZ Herald

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