The 'Late 2016' MacBook Pro isn't exciting, but still leads by example

The much-hyped Touch Bar is less important than four Thunderbolt 3 ports

15mbp
Credit: Michael DeAgonia

What should you take away from the long, long wait for Apple's new 13-in. and 15-in. MacBook Pros and the fact that they're relatively pedestrian? For one thing, they might not be as pedestrian as they seem.

Let's get this over with: Macs just aren't the coolest thing Apple does anymore. They don't bring in huge profits. People don't lust after them the way they do a new iPhone. They're not the second or third or even fourth thing that CEO Tim Cook and Design chief Jonny Ives are thinking about.

So Apple let the new MacBook Pro release slip and then it let it slip some more. Before you knew it, the company was releasing sixth-generation Skylake laptops into the rollout of Intel's seventh-generation Kaby Lake processors. Apple needed something new and different and -- poof! -- the Touch Bar was born. Touch Bar is a red herring, a pink unicorn, eye candy designed to cast a "these aren't the droids you're looking for" spell on anyone who looks too closely at the new line up of MacBook Pros. What's more, even if Touch Bar might someday be useful, that won't be for another couple of years when mainstream software supports it. The list of supporting apps consists mostly of niche players with the exception of Microsoft Office. And Microsoft's support? Has anyone heard a timeline on that? By the time the Touch Bar gets real, Apple might be on to a full-size touchscreen.

macbook pro late2016 review adam touchbar maps Adam Patrick Murray

There's more to the new MacBook Pro than the Touch Bar. I bought my daughter a space gray MacBook Pro 13 for Christmas. (And you thought I was a hater.) The form factor changes have a greater effect in the 13 than they do in the 15. I'm not talking about the specifications; I'm talking about what it feels like to use these laptops in the real world. The 13 has something the 15 (and the previous generation 13) doesn't have: total portability. If you're not sure what I'm driving at, maybe boxing is a good analogy. The heft and size changes Apple made to the 13 put it into a lighter weight class. The differences between the old 15 and the new one are measurable, but they don't change the overall usage pattern.

Given that the MacBook Pro 15 Retina I use is an early 2013 model, making it four years old, I'll need to upgrade soon. I'm certain to buy the latest MacBook Pro 15 because I've never been able to stand the 13-in. screen size. What tends to draw me to a new Mac isn't the slightly faster CPU, video or SSD performance. It's the little conveniences that get me: being able to plug in the power cord on either side because of the Thunderbolt 3 ports, the Touch ID login, a noticeably brighter LED display and a big beautiful trackpad. The Touch ID login is more useful than you might think. The new MacBook Pro is designed to sleep first. In fact, you really have to work to shut it down from the hardware. By default, when you press the physical off/Touch ID button the MacBook Pro goes to sleep. In my tests of the latest models, the MacBook Pro can go a long time in that sleep state. The next time you start the Mac you're waking it up -- not powering it on. Touch ID works beautifully when waking up, making apparent boot times much faster. The success of this sleep state should make Touch ID useful more often. (Apple requires password entry when the machine is started up from an unpowered state.)

I'm not going to run down the new MacBook Pro's specs. If you're interested, you've likely read about them in four zillion stories that cover those details in minutia. There is only one aspect of the MacBook Pro that is revolutionary. It didn't come out of Ives' design studio either. Apple's decision to dump all pre-existing ports except (ironically for iPhone 7 users) the headphone jack is bold and smart. It replaced all of those ports quite nicely with the addition of four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C Gen 2 ports. Since each Thunderbolt 3 port has a theoretical throughput of 40Gbps, Apple endowed the late 2016 MacBook Pros with 120Gbps of I/O, which is very impressive. Two years ago the three USB ports on your computer combined for a grand total of 15Gbps.

macbook pro 2016 handson headphone jack Susie Ochs

Thunderbolt 3 ports all have dual personalities. They can alternatively function as one of two flavors of USB 3.1, the specification behind the latest version of USB. USB 3.1 has a new form factor: USB-C. It also has two variations, Gen 1 and Gen 2. The second generation doubles performance to 10Gbps. Apple opted for the more powerful USB-C Gen 2 implementation.

So how can Apple get away with abandoning all those ports? No power port. No ports for DisplayPort, HDMI, Thunderbolt 2? I started using Thunderbolt 3 in late 2015 when I bought a Dell computer that sported a single Thunderbolt 3 port/USB-C Gen 2 port. USB, Thunderbolt and DisplayPort are peas in a pod. They were designed to be highly interoperable. The Thunderbolt 3 port (in combination with specific cables or adapters) can handle power both coming into and being shared out of your Thunderbolt 3 device, HDMI, DisplayPort, Mini DisplayPort, USB 2, USB 3, VGA,Thunderbolt 2, gigabit Ethernet and it can daisy chain USB-C/Thunderbolt 3. With the proper adapters, you can drive two 4K monitors or one 5K monitor at 60Hz. And that's just with one Thunderbolt 3 port. Thunderbolt 3 also makes an excellent basis for a docking port since it connects to just about every type of device used with a computer. Thunderbolt 3 is the new universal port for data connection and power.

After six months with a 4K Dell XPS 15 9550 and its lone Thunderbolt 3 port, I knew we were looking at the greatest port killer of all time. USB-C's small form factor and ability to accept the USB-C plug in either orientation could eventually put Apple's Lightning cable out of business. The combination with Thunderbolt 3's throughput makes it unstoppable. We're beginning to see a glimmer of that at CES 2017, where a growing list of Windows PCs are adding at least one Thunderbolt 3 port. HP's just-announced 15" Spectre X360 offers two Thunderbolt 3 ports, as does Asus' Zenbook 3 Deluxe.

You've got to love the fact that Apple bypassed the hedging-their-bets phase and just went whole hog with four Thunderbolt 3 ports. The maker of the Macintosh may be more focused on iPhones these days, but it still knows how to lead with innovation. Late 2016 MacBook Pro buyers needn't worry about getting connected with all the right cables. A slew of companies just announced Thunderbolt 3 docking stations, all of which do the adapting for you. (For more information about recent announcements, read Computerworld and check the Thunderbolt industry site.

Touch Bar? Ho-hum. Apple examines the obvious and jumps in with both feet. It may seem a little worrisome now to lose the ports that we've had for so long, but it won't be long before the flexibility this gives the MacBook Pro becomes apparent to the industry. Along with the size and weight reductions, the very large trackpad, Touch ID, wonderful LED display, excellent portability of the 13, fast SSDs and yes, OK, the Touch Bar, Thunderbolt 3 makes this new line of MacBook Pros the leader.

This story, "The 'Late 2016' MacBook Pro isn't exciting, but still leads by example" was originally published by Computerworld.

New! Download the CIO March/April Digital Magazine