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The good, the bad, and the mysterious of a 16-inch MacBook Pro

MacBook Pro 2018
MacBook Pro 2018 (Image credit: iMore)

While it has yet to appear, Apple is heavily rumored to be producing a 16-inch variant of the MacBook Pro. This would be the first new screen size added to the MacBook Pro lineup since the introduction of the 13-inch model in 2009. It would also be the largest display on a MacBook Pro since Apple discontinued the 17-inch model in 2012.

A recent code-diving expedition unearthed what appeared to be an icon of the 16-inch MacBook Pro, so we may have gotten our first (kind of) look at this thing. It doesn't look that different from the current 15-inch MacBook Pro, and that can actually be both good and bad.

Here's how I think it could break down.

The Good: Bigger screen without a bigger MacBook

If the image that appeared in the macOS Catalina 10.15.1 beta is indeed a 16-inch MacBook Pro, it would appear that the laptop isn't getting a bigger footprint, or at least not much bigger. Instead, it appears that Apple, as it has done for both the iPhone and the iPad Pro, has brought its War on Bezels to the Mac, shrinking the bezels on the MacBook Pro to increase the size of its display.

That's certainly plausible, as the 15-inch MacBook Pro currently has a noticeable amount of bezel. Shrinking it for a bigger display while keeping the overall size of the computer the same as the 15-inch model. This allows it not only to be as portable as its slightly-smaller sibling, but it also won't take up more space on your desk or lap, and it probably also won't be much heavier when you go to put it in your bag. A larger computer means more metal, which, despite aluminum's lightness, means more weight.

The Bad: Industrial design is standing in place

Again, this is assuming that the leaked icon is indeed referencing the 16-inch MacBook Pro. And if it is, it seems as though, aside from the bigger display, we can expect the design of the MacBook to remain unchanged from the current models. While there's something to be said for consistency, Apple has been using (increasingly thinner) versions of its current design language for the MacBook Pro since 2008. It's okay to shake things up a little.

I don't need Apple to offer a new design for their products every year. For God's sake, the iMac's design language goes back even farther than the MacBook Pro's. But if Apple's going to release a new screen size on the MacBook Pro, it would be great if it could stand out a little more.

I have a hypothesis as to why Apple seems to be sticking with its current industrial design trends for the MacBook Pro, but more on that later.

The Good: Keyboard improvements

I'm still rocking a 2013 MacBook Pro, so I've missed the butterfly keyboard era entirely so far. And while I don't know just how widespread problems truly are with Apple's butterfly switch, they do seem to be more prevalent than they were in pre-2016 models of MacBook Pro.

Apple will reportedly be returning to the scissor switch for the 16-inch MacBook Pro (and other models in the MacBook lineup in 2020). This is the keyboard switch that was in use before 2016, when Apple was considered to have some of, if not the, best laptop keyboards around. Indeed, in the six years that I've been using this MacBook Pro, I've only had a couple of problems, and those have only cropped up in the last few months.

While Apple has seemingly done everything it can to improve on the butterfly mechanism and increase reliability, it seems like returning to the scissor switch will be a positive step in the eyes of many Apple customers.

The Bad: Not so many ports in a storm

Related to the issue of static industrial design, it seems likely that the 16-inch MacBook Pro will keep the same port configuration as the 15-inch model. That means four Thunderbolt 3 ports and a 3.5 mm headphone jack.

This wouldn't be that surprising. I wouldn't, after all, expect Apple to reintroduce USB-A, HDMI, or other such ports to the MacBook Pro, not in an increasingly USB-C world. I wouldn't even hold out for the return of my beloved MagSafe connector. But would it kill Apple to bring the SD card slot back? What about another set of Thunderbolt 3 ports?

If you were hoping to see a radically different port situation on the MacBook Pro, I'd let go of that hope now.

Why do this?

The question I keep asking myself about the 16-inch MacBook Pro is: why? Why add a screen size to the MacBook Pro lineup now, so close to 2020, after having just refreshed the MacBook Pro earlier this year? Especially when there's such a major change to the Mac lineup said to be on the way.

Apple is rumored to be preparing a for a major transition for Macs, the move from Intel processors to Apple's own, custom-designed silicon. A combination of Apple's continually impressive in-house mobile A-series processors for iPhone and iPad and multiple chip release delays from Intel have had people speculate about this outcome for years, and recent reports point to a 2020 launch for ARM-based, Apple-designed Mac chips.

Laptops seem to be likely first candidates to get such chips, as Apple would probably like to tout any improvements in battery life and performance per watt. While I've long thought that the MacBook Air, Apple's mainstream laptop, is the likely first candidate for the switch, I don't think an ARM-based MacBook Pro is entirely out of the question.

If Apple is indeed planning an ARM-based MacBook Pro, I also think a few more noticeable changes to the form factor could be used to mark the occasion. Before now, I would have thought that this could include a new screen size, but it seems that Apple's first new screen size in a decade won't be the first of a new era of Mac laptops, but the last of the current one.

Perhaps the 16-inch MacBook Pro is the last hurrah for Apple's Intel MacBooks. If the company is planning a relatively quick switch to its own processors in Macs, with multiple models arriving, sans Intel, in 2020, the 16-inch Pro, complete with a new screen size and a scissor switch keyboard, could be a great machine for those professionals, including developers, that might be too nervous to make the switch as soon as next year. It stands to reason that not all of your favorite software will work out-of-the-box on an ARM Mac, so it's possible that the 16-inch MacBook Pro will be a way for developers to have the newest MacBook possible that still runs a powerful Intel processor.

But that's just my hypothesis.

What do you think?

How do you think a 16-inch MacBook Pro would fit into Apple's lineup, and what are your hopes for it? Let us know in the comments.

Joseph Keller is the former Editor in Chief of iMore. An Apple user for almost 20 years, he spends his time learning the ins and outs of iOS and macOS, always finding ways of getting the most out of his iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, and Mac.

  • I wish to high heaven they would let go of the thin and light obsession for just ONE Sku in their laptop line, and build one model that is large enough to have sufficient cooling such that the i9 processor *never* throttles. And throw in a 99.5 Whr removable battery so you can carry a spare, and battery life becomes less of a problem. They need one model needs to tilt the calculus more towards function rather than form. The author of this piece admits to using a 13 inch laptop; shouldn't we hear from the people who use the 15 inch model, and who would be glad to carry a 7 pound laptop, if it performed flawlessly, and really fulfilled the potential of those hex core i9 processors? It should also have an option to forego the fancy graphics, and just use the integrated Intel stuff, for those of us who are not graphics designers, need some portability, and mostly just need lots of fast CPU cores, fast RAM, and fast flash drives. You know, developers. The ones who make all this software you love. for us. Just one. There's plenty of thin and light options. And where is the Mac Pro? Pretty please, Apple? And iMore, could you please write about it more, there's gotta be some news or rumors or something somewhere. Apple would be more likely to get around to releasing it if they thought anybody at all cared about it (hint: me).
  • Regarding the design, while current 4th generation MacBook Pro design is fundamentally the same as 2nd generation MacBook Pro design from 2008, there's probably very little I would change as far as the design (not the features) is concerned. Top of my lists would be: 1. MacBook Air's more pronounced bottom case notch: easier to figure out which side is the front and easier to open.
    2. Relocate the vents on the bottom case: so that they don't scrape your skin. Otherwise, any other major design changes would amount to gimmick. I do agree with the need and desire for feature changes, however. Topping my list are: 1. Scissors key mechanism (which is all but confirmed).
    2. Physical Escape key (also appears to be all but confirmed), inverted T cursor keys.
    3. Slimmer bezel around the screen (which also appears to be happening).
    4. True 2x native retina screen. No more weird scaling.
    5. HDR screen.
    6. Face ID replacing Touch ID.
    7. More ports, whether it be 2 additional Thunderbolt ports or SD slot and USB-A port.
    8. Redesigned USB-C charging cable with detachable magnetic safety feature.
  • USB-A in a 2020 laptop? Come on now, that's just silly. Apple has started the transition to USB-C only laptops, and even the rest of the industry is following the suit now. There is no way Apple will go back to USB-A ports, nor should they. SD slot? Sure I will take that - these are small and non-obtrusive.
  • Rene - Apple's support for their mobile Pro customers is not looking good. The working pro's that needed a tank of a laptop Apple once offered: Quiet keys (and working) and the needed ports on board and lastly MagSafe power port. And thats not even moving the needle forward! Yes! We love the performance of USB-C but it has its limits! USB-A is still and will be used for years and years to come! To force such a move as Apple did was and still is foolhardy. We just can't make the leap and many of the Pro's have ditched Apple to other systems because of it. The other hardware companies see the blunder and have made an effort to keep at least one USB-A port. A group of us are working on getting a custom laptop made! Yes, its gotten that bad! We've already started the design and it will be based the same design language of the original Unibody MacBook Pro 15" & 17" systems. It won't be cheap! This is a Pro's MacBook Pro it is not lightweight system, it will have the cooling & power to process what a Pro photographer/videographer can throw at it without throttling! It will have what we need!
    ● 4 USB-C ports 2 of which are recessed to support a USB to MagSafe adapter.
    ● 2 USB-A ports
    ● Ethernet (1/10 Gbps) Copper
    ● SD Card (SDXC/SDUC)
    ● MIMO WiFi 6
    ● Bluetooth 5.1
    ● Dual M.2 SSD
    ● Upto 32 GB of RAM We are hoping to get 4K/5K displays and better battery tech than what Apple is using we are working on this now. I'm sure we'll get some coders and illustrators interested once we get our GoFund me page setup. Too bad Apple won't be the maker! We were hoping Apple's vision with the new Mac Pro would have rolled into the Laptop space. This was the last straw for us if the new 16.5" MacBook doesn't address the issues we Pro's deal with: Ports, Thermal limitations, & power issues the current design fails at, besides the keyboard and touchpad (too large).
  • I don't see the jump to the A-Series APU's for quite a few more years replacing the CISC architecture for RISC. I do think there is a window here for AMD to offer the next group of CPU's if Intel can't get both the thermals & performance better. It's a lot less work and given the price difference AMD is cheaper than Intel presently in the desktop space. The custom Microsoft APU chip AMD made for the Surface Pro is looking quite good! So they clearly have the know-how to make the chips needed for a laptop. As you scale up the image size and depth the processing goes up proportionally. This was quite a feat the A-Series chip had jumping from a phone to tablet as it was quite a jump! It is just now at a workable performance level with the iPad Pro. Now jumping to a small laptop is possible, but a larger laptop or desktop is still too far with the current A-Series design. Thats what will hold it back. But, beyond that, the lock-in with a APU design will force Apple to either build multiple designs to meet the different markets or simply bring the design back down to be more of a CPU design with direct access to memory, GPU's as well as other elements that meet different markets. So, where does that leave us? I see the iPad laptop coming! Filling-in the void of the MacBook market, as newer more powerful A-Series come out moving into the 13" MacBook Pro market. I don't see it replacing Intel 15/16" MacBook Pro's the heavyweight pro's are using. macOS is still a more mature OS than iPadOS. Pushing into iPadOS the macOS elements we need will probably overtask the A-Series APU we have currently. This gets into the 'Ying and Yang' of the two, balancing out overhead of the OS and the power of the APU.