There are two models with the Touch Bar, a 13-inch and a 15-inch laptop, which cost at least $300 more than the model with no bar. (The Touch Bar itself isn't the only difference; the more expensive models also have better processors, more ports and other upgrades.) When you’re in front of these machines, it’s hard not to be wowed by their huge track pads and bright screens. Both have Touch ID’s fingerprint sensor built into the power button, which works as snappily as on the iPhone.
Apple also provided me with a 13-inch MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar to review. Its keyboard was very pleasant to type on. I liked the keyboard on the new MacBook Pro much better than on my own 12-inch MacBook. Both use the same slimmer, “butterfly” technology that Apple introduced in 2015, which cuts down on bulk but can also feel too shallow to some users. Apple also improved the design by making the keys feel as though they’re traveling a little more into the keyboard.
In the short time I’ve had the new MacBook Pro, it feels more powerful than its predecessors. If you have an older MacBook Pro, this is an upgrade: The screen is brighter, the performance noticeably better and the computer lighter. Not bad as a total package.
But the focus of this new line really is the Touch Bar, which changes depending on the program in use. For example, if you're using Safari, the bar may feature your favorite sites. I have nothing bad to say about it — apart from how it may require some creative ergonomics to use comfortably. I’m a person who likes physical, clicky buttons, but even I have to admit that the adaptable software controls on the Touch Bar are intriguing. Not all of those controls are necessarily timesavers. For example, some observers of Thursday's event remarked that the Touch Bar adds steps in Photoshop.
But some controls do save you from having to click through annoying drop-down menus. Being able to customize the Touch Bar is a huge perk for often-used functions. If you have an abnormal devotion to flagging messages, for instance, or if you’re an “Archive” person instead of a “Trash” person in Mail (or vice-versa), you can add those quick shortcuts right to your keyboard through the Touch Bar.
And with zero training, I knew exactly how to use the Touch Bar. That's not nothing.
So, in a vacuum, these are exciting and excellent computers. In the real world, they are still excellent, but there are other things to consider.
Price is a big one. The MacBook Pro line has always been Apple’s premium line, and that has never been more apparent. The new entry-level, 13-inch MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar is $1,500. If you want the Touch Bar, you have to pay at least $1,800. You could spend about $4,800 on a fully tricked-out, 15-inch MacBook Pro with all the bells, whistles and software that Apple offers. That’s not insignificant.
Apple is also strongly pushing its users into new technology, which means we’re going to have a transition period here. While the MacBook Pro fixes one of users’ greatest laments about the MacBook — the MacBook has a single USB-C port; the Touch Bar MacBook Pros have four — people will still need to use adapters for most of their accessories. And that, quite frankly, can be annoying. I personally have forgotten adapters on business trips before, making my job unnecessarily harder. (In my case, I need an adapter for my digital voice recorder. Your mileage may vary.)
That problem won’t last forever; USB-C is likely to become the new standard. But that isn't the case now, and prospective buyers should know they’re going to have to wait for an adapter-free existence.
Even the Touch Bar itself will take some time to get used to, despite its overall excellence. And if developers other than Apple don’t embrace the technology and add some tricks of their own, a worst-case scenario could see the Touch Bar going down in history as a great missed opportunity: a piece of tech that was interesting but never lived up to its full potential.
Of course the Touch Bar could easily become second nature to users for swiping, tapping and sliding at the top of their keyboards. I sort of hope it does, because it’s a lot of fun in the demos. But it will take me — and, probably, many other Mac users — some time to figure out how to personalize the Touch Bar's perks to justify the MacBook Pro's price tag. That hurdle may prove a hard one for Apple to overcome, and the tech giant will have to make a strong case to users and developers to get all of us to jump on it.