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MacBook Pro review (2015)

Force Touch, Chapter 1

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Apple is rolling out a major new hardware feature this year with the introduction of what it calls Force Touch. It is a catch-all term for a combination of pressure sensitivity and haptic feedback that you will find built into the Apple Watch and the trackpad of the newly redesigned MacBook. Force Touch is Apple’s hallmark of newness for 2015, but it also finds a home in one of the Cupertino company’s less adventurous machines, the 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Though it was a mere footnote to Apple’s big event last month, the MacBook Pro will actually play a pioneering role for its maker. It’s going to serve as the device on which many people experience Force Touch for the first time, and it signifies Apple’s intention to make this a standard feature across all of its laptops. Unlike the more glamorous Watch and MacBook, the new MacBook Pro is practical and designed for everyone. Its price isn’t weighed down by a novelty premium, its versatility and power aren’t compromised, and its raison d'être isn’t in question. This is Apple’s most powerful mobile computer, so if mobile computing is a thing you do, this is the laptop for you. It really is that simple.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display 2015

Left: 2013 MacBook Air with original glass trackpad. Right: 2015 Retina MacBook Pro with new Force Touch trackpad.

The new MacBook Pro’s design is, to borrow a famous Jony Ive adverb, unapologetically unchanged. Convinced in the superiority of its display, keyboard, and chassis, Apple has kept them all the same as in years past. All the upgrades have taken place within. Everything inside the machine is now faster: the processor, the memory, and the SSD have all been given a speed boost. This dual approach of moving to new technology while sticking to a familiar aesthetic is best exemplified by the Force Touch trackpad.

The size and shape of Apple’s new trackpad on the Pro are the same as the classic glass pad that’s been around for years now. Touch it and you won’t notice anything different about its smooth surface. Press into it and you’ll hear and feel a familiar click. It’s the same reliable, satisfying user experience that Windows laptops have been so chronically unable to match. Only the click isn’t real.

Force Touch uses a haptic feedback system, which vibrates the pad’s surface in a way that simulates the sensation of pressing a button in. In reality, the trackpad is fixed in place and barely moves at all. The sound of the click is simulated just like the sense of motion under my finger, but both feel real. As far as all my senses are concerned, I am clicking exactly as before. Apple has taken one of the last remaining mechanical parts in its laptops and replaced it with a more high-tech version that — successfully — recreates the familiar tactile response.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display 2015

I came to this review dreading the idea of Apple tinkering with a thing that really didn’t need changing. The original glass trackpad is one of the MacBook’s clearest advantages, and it seemed to me that Apple was tackling a problem that didn’t need a solution. But I’m gratified to find that little has been lost in the transition to an electronic alternative, and there’s plenty to be gained from it — in the future, if not immediately.

For example, the new design means a click at the very top of the trackpad feels the same as at the bottom. The old hinge made clicking easier in the lower half of the touchpad. Another important advantage for Apple’s engineers, claims the company, is that the static pad is less likely to break down over time and takes up a tiny bit less space than its predecessor. While that doesn’t make a difference for me today, Apple’s big design revolutions are built upon small evolutions of precisely this magnitude: shaving off a millimeter here, improving space efficiency there, and suddenly a new MacBook is born.

And yet, the MacBook Pro isn’t the future-facing MacBook. It’s the machine for now, for today, which signals that Apple considers Force Touch a technology that’s mature enough to be deployed widely and capitalized upon through software. That’s the thing that can make Force Touch special: what Apple and its vibrant ecosystem of software developers do with the new pad’s capabilities.

So far, practical uses for the Force Touch trackpad’s pressure sensitivity are quite limited. I’ve made a valiant effort to try and use the functions Apple has integrated into OS X, but they’re honestly no more useful or intuitive than bashing out a quick right-click. I can press down once for a click, or push further to get a Force click, which produces a contextual action like a dictionary lookup or a preview of a web link or a document. Even with three distinct settings of "firmness" for the regular click, I am never truly sure if and when I’m adding enough pressure to turn it into a Force click. And what’s worse, most apps don’t yet support the feature, which means I’d be wasting my time developing the proper Force Touch habits if I spend most of my days inside unsupported apps.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display 2015

The most immediate benefits of Force Touch on laptops are likely are to be felt when using drawing apps. Inklet was first out of the gate in announcing support for the new trackpad, turning it into a Wacom-like input field for styluses. With force sensitivity, you’re now able to control the thickness of your digital brush’s tip by adjusting how much pressure you apply with the stylus. Apple has already enabled the same feature when signing documents in its Preview app — even if you just use your finger — and the latest version of OS X contains the APIs necessary for more software makers to get involved.

The true potential of Force Touch is only beginning to be explored

Beyond practical and artistic applications, Force Touch also has great potential to benefit disabled users. The tactile feedback provided from Apple’s Taptic Engine can be used to help those with poor eyesight by augmenting information on the screen. The trackpad can give small sensory hints and help people navigate their way around the OS X interface. While very little of that potential has yet been tapped, it’s certainly available for both Apple and others to explore. With Force Touch being a prominent feature of the Apple Watch and new MacBook — two devices that are only just beginning to figure out their best uses and applications — there’s good reason to expect a wave of innovative applications for Apple’s new technology.

As of today, Force Touch is a neat enhancement, but far from a singularly excellent feature that you should go out and buy a new computer for. There are plenty of good reasons to own a MacBook Pro, though, even if they are as familiar as the computer’s appearance. For starters, the Retina display on my 13-inch review unit is simply stunning. Coming from a 2013 MacBook Air, I notice major differences in color reproduction, viewing angles, contrast, and, of course, sharpness. The 2560 x 1600 resolution of the display embarrasses my incumbent laptop’s non-Retina screen. As someone who spends great stretches of time staring into text editors on screen, I really appreciate the crispness and precision of text rendering on this new MacBook Pro.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display 2015

One of the initial stumbling blocks for Apple’s Retina displays was the graphics chip’s inability to handle all of those pixels at once. Intel’s new Broadwell processor promises, as every new piece of silicon does, major improvements in performance, but there are still occasions where the MacBook Pro is simply overwhelmed by the amount of information it has to animate on the screen. This most commonly happens when switching in and out of the Mission Control multitasking overview with a bunch of apps open. I may be willing to forgive such infractions on my MacBook Air, which trades away a sliver of performance for better battery life and a thinner profile, but the Pro is supposed to be the no-compromise MacBook.

The comparison to my present laptop is also salient when looking at the new Retina MacBook Pro’s general performance. It’s very fast, right from the start. It boots up in under 14 seconds, wakes from sleep in less time than it takes me to open its lid, and handles multiple apps with aplomb. It can play back the new 60fps 4K videos that YouTube has just rolled out (provided I use Safari and not Chrome). But I can say the exact same things about my Haswell-powered Air, only adjusting the boot time to a slightly slower 16 seconds.

To feel the actual benefit of the greater power contained within the new Pro, you’ll have to take on more intensive tasks like video and image processing. Gaming is another obvious power-hungry application, but that’s the one thing I wouldn’t recommend buying a MacBook for. Even lightweight games like Sid Meier’s Starships and Valve’s Dota 2 are buggy and unattractive when played on OS X. The lack of a discrete graphics chip in the 13-inch model is another hint pointing committed gamers in the direction of Windows-based alternatives that will better suit their needs. MacBook Pro users will be more interested in getting creative with Apple’s new Photos app or their favorite audio or video editing application. It’s when these workloads grow large that the MacBook Pro distinguishes itself.

Benchmarks improve, real world experience does not

A GeekBench score of 7,001 marks a nice bump over the 6,303 of the 2013 Retina model as well as the 6,057 of my MacBook Air from the same year. But in most of my daily activities, this extra power goes completely unnoticed. The fast SSD storage in the new Pro machine is also capable of ludicrous speeds — doubling the previous generation’s numbers and achieving a read speed in excess of 1GB per second — but I am again unable to come up with daily use scenarios that make that apparent. The difference is between fast and ultra fast when handling specific, heavy workloads. A good example is the update to OS X 10.10.3, which took significantly longer on the Air than it did on the 2015 Pro — but how many times are you transferring and processing that volume of data?

Battery life isn’t a massive differentiator between the Air and Pro lines. The MacBook Air has the edge during our web browsing battery test, but it’s a slight one: the Air runs for 13 hours and 29 minutes whereas the 2015 MacBook Pro achieves 13 hours and 18 minutes. Mind you, that’s when using Safari for your browsing, and there’s a major drop-off when using Google’s Chrome browser, which chews through the Pro’s battery in 9 hours and 45 minutes. In daily use, I’m finding myself recharging both the Pro and the Air at roughly the same intervals. Pushing beyond 10 hours of use isn’t a problem with either laptop and I can confidently leave home in the morning without worrying about bringing a charger.

Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display 2015

I’d be happy to recommend the Retina MacBook Pro on the strength of its display alone. Sure, I’m late to the Retina party, but now that I’m here, I don’t want to ever leave. The new Force Touch trackpad has the potential to be equally transformative, once compelling uses for its pressure sensitivity and haptic feedback are developed. As of right now, though, it’s just a really good trackpad, probably the best there is. It doesn’t feel like an obvious upgrade when moving to it from the MacBook Air, but I do sense a downgrade when going in the opposite direction and having to tap instead of click at the top of the pad.

Apple has deliberately camouflaged its new Force Touch trackpad in the garb of its familiar hardware. It’s even simulating the click in an effort to keep the same trusty feel of the pad that MacBook users know and love. While the company’s confident about the technology, it clearly recognizes that Force Touch applications are yet to come and it’s being honest with its customers by releasing a new MacBook Pro that looks identical to the old one. There really is no reason to consider this new Pro model if you have one of its recent forebears. It’s undergone the annual honing and improvement of specs, but in its essence, it is the same old MacBook Pro. That might be a downside for any other machine, but in the case of the MacBook Pro, it just means that Apple continues to have one of the absolute best laptops in the world.