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The most divisive MacBook Pro ever

2017 MacBook Pro
2017 MacBook Pro (Image credit: Rene Ritchie / iMore)

Rumor has it Steve Jobs dropped an iPad on the table and asked the team why they couldn't make a Mac more like that. What we've seen for the past few years has been in response to that. Whether or not Jobs would have liked every decision, from butterfly switches to Touch Bar, is immaterial. His one defining purpose was to make computing more accessible and approachable to the mainstream. And the latest MacBooks Pro, regardless of any personal opinions, follow that path.

Preface the first: People can disagree about products. I know perspective-taking is hard, but different people have different use cases, workflows, and personal opinions, and can legitimately dislike things without being haters or click-baiters, or like things without being apologists or fanpeople.

Preface the second: I really like the current MacBook Pro. It's by far the best laptop I've ever owned. I loved my 2015 MacBook Pro, but going back to it now, the keys feel sloppy, the function row just sits there collecting dust, and I swap one set of dongles for another.

Not the MacBooks everyone was looking for

The current MacBooks Pro have proven remarkably popular. Apple is selling a ton of them. Whether Apple would have sold a ton of any MacBooks Pro that finally got Skylake and Kaby Lake processors is impossible to say. Traditionally, when mainstream needs and pro user needs clash in the marketplace, pro users don't come out of it uncut.

So, for all their sales, we now have current generation MacBooks Pro that many long-time MacBook Pro customers don't just dislike but have a strong, emotional revulsion for.

And that's a problem.

Keyboarded

MacBooks with Magic Keyboard

MacBooks with Magic Keyboard (Image credit: iMore)

Marco Arment, writing for Marco.org:

Despite my love for the previous Retina MacBook Pro, I won't be able to use it forever. The best laptop to ever exist should be in the future, not the past.There's a lot to like about the new MacBook Pros, but they need some changes to be truly great and up to Apple's standards.

I'm going to use Marco's piece as a framework for this one, which means I'll be quoting him heavily. (Apologies, Marco.)

After three significant revisions, Apple's butterfly keyswitches remain as controversial and unreliable as ever. At best, they're a compromise acceptable only on the ultra-thin 12" MacBook, and only if nothing else fits. They have no place in Apple's mainstream or pro computers.

Again, I far prefer the new butterfly switches to the old scissor switches, which now feel wiggly-wobbly to me, but here's the thing: I can use the old ones just fine. I'm largely keyboard agnostic and I can go from an old-style clickity-clack keyboard to the iPad Pro Smart Keyboard and back and it only takes a few minutes for me to acclimatize each time.

That longtime Apple customers I respect, like Marco and Andy Ihnatko dislike the new keyboards so intensely is problematic. While I'm sure others prefer the butterfly keyboards like I do, I'm not aware of anyone actively hating the old scissor keyboards like many seem to the new butterflies.

When only Apple makes MacBooks and there only the option for the, divisive keyboard, that's a problem.

Also a problem: reliability. I've had a half-dozen or so review units with the new keyboards and I've been using a MacBook and MacBook Pro with the new keyboards since launch with zero issues. (And my keyboards look like they've gone through re-entry.) But, anecdotally, the number of people for whom the new keyboards have failed sounds significantly higher than in the past.

It seems like, in attempting to design a keyboard the prevented dust and particle ingress, Apple made one that sometimes keeps what ingress does happen from being easily removed or fixed. And that makes for a costly repair outside AppleCare. That alone could well result in a rethink.

Marco offers an interesting compromise and one I, embarrassingly, failed to consider:

The Magic Keyboard's scissor switches feel similar, but with a bit more travel, and all of the reliability and resilience of previous keyboard generations. They're a much better, more reliable, and more repairable balance of thinness and typing feel likely to appeal to far more people — even those who like the butterfly keyboards.

I have a Magic Keyboard on my iMac and like it a lot. I'm not sure everyone who loved the scissor-switch MacBook Pro keyboard loves the Magic Keyboard as much, but if it's something that manages to please more people — and, importantly in my book, provide even more consistency between Apple's keyboards — than I'm all for it.

The Magic Keyboard only needs one change to be perfect for the MacBook Pro: returning to the "inverted-T" arrow-key arrangement by making the left- and right-arrow keys half-height again. This arrangement is much more natural and less error-prone because we can align our fingers by feeling the "T" shape, a crucial affordance for such frequently used keys that are so far from the home row.

I barely noticed this change and it hasn't affected me at all. But I'm not a touch typist and I know a lot of people, including my former podcast co-host, Marc Edwards, who have cited the lack of the inverse "T" design as substantially hurting usability.

There may be counter-arguments in support of the new, full-height side left-and-right, half-height up-and-down arrow, but I haven't heard them. If it doesn't harm anyone but does help many, Apple should consider it.

USB-Wait-And-C

The MacBook Pro bet heavily on the USB-C ecosystem, but it hasn't developed enough on its own.

Apple in general, at least for the Mac, bet heavily on USB-C, and the industry, in general, hasn't realized its potential.

USB-C is also confusing. It looks like Thunderbolt 3, since they share the same plug design, but not all USB-C ports are Thunderbolt 3 ports and not all USB-C cables support Thunderbolt 3, making things terribly convoluted for customers.

Dongles are legitimately annoying but because standards change over time and ports cannot, they've become a fact of life. I had FireWire and VGA and DVI and mini DisplayPort dongles, now I have ethernet, USB-A, and HDMI.

Alex Lindsay, among others, wished Apple had left the right side of the MacBook Pro alone: HDMI, USB-A, and SD Card for everyone, and loaded up the left side with USB-C. That would have been a great transitional machine for some people for some years.

You can ditch dongles when they bcome outdated, though. I have a drawer full. You can't upgrade outdated ports to get better throughput or capabilities, though.

I do find two USB-C ports to be too few on the entry-level MacBook Pro. And I find the difference in throughput on the four ports on the mid-level MacBook Pro to be something no human should ever have to think about. Mostly, I think Apple should have include adapters in the box, much as the company did when it removed the 3.5mm headphone jack from the iPhone. Just one USB-C to USB-A adapter in the MacBook Pro box — and in the iPhone box — would have taken the sting out of the transition for any customers.

Touch disbarred

The Touch Bar should either be discontinued or made optional for all MacBook Pro sizes and configurations.

Macbook Pro Touch ID

Macbook Pro Touch ID (Image credit: iMore)

I don't use Touch Bar a ton but I use it far more than I ever used the function keys. For people who "grew up" using them, I'm sure the esc and function key row are wonderful. For people new to computers, though, I think they're impenetrable.

Steve Aquino, writing for Steve's Blog:

I've read many articles and heard many podcasts where prominent members of the community deride the feature and question its future. These criticisms, while legitimate, sting me personally because I like the Touch Bar.It stings because, in my usage, I find the Touch Bar to be an invaluable tool when I'm using macOS. Where it shines considerably is as an alternative to keyboard shortcuts and the system emoji picker. Tapping a button on the Touch Bar is far more accessible than trying to contort my hands to execute a keyboard shortcut or straining my eyes searching for an emoji. In addition, the Zoom feature—one of the Touch Bar's many accessibility features—makes seeing controls much easier.

When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone, he showed many of its competitors and explained the problem they all had was in the lower 40: the keyboards. They couldn't change. Different apps wanted different keyboards and couldn't have them and, if you come up with a new feature, you couldn't ship a new key.

The multitouch display with multitouch keyboard solved that problem for phones and tablets but not for laptops. Perhaps, one day, the fullness of the force touch technology will bring real simulated textures and virtual, changeable, keyboards, but we're not there yet.

Face ID will render Touch ID on MacBooks irrelevant and Apple, if it wants to, will be able to call a Mulligan on the Touch Bar as a whole. My hope is that it neither continues nor disappears. My hope is that it significantly improves.

The idea of a keyboard that has some degree of contextual flexibility is hugely appealing on the Mac. With proper Taptic support and some other improvements, perhaps Touch Bar could become a better tool for more people. Maybe even most people.

(Touch screens are a separate issue. I'd still like to see Apple add basic touch navigation to the Mac display.)

That charger

USB-C PD charging and replaceable charging cables are great advances that should be kept. USB-C PD is the reason I didn't include battery life in this list — occasional needs for extended battery life can be achieved with inexpensive USB-C PD batteries.But Apple could make their chargers and cables so much nicer — and they only need to look to their own recent past.

The move to USB-C charging has been a huge win for me. I can charge from any port at any time, meaning the days of having to contort myself or my cable just to plug in AC power are over.

But in giving us USB-C, Apple took away a lot of what made the old chargers great. Including the extension cord in the box. And the horns on the brick for easy wrapping. And the light on the cable so you knew you were charging. And the breakaway safety of MagSafe.

Taking away the extension cable in a product that already requires a lot of change adaption from customers just seems unwise. Adding the sound to signal charging is great for low-or-no-vision customers but removing the light is terrible for low-or-no-hearing customers.

iPad has existed without MagSafe since inception, and it's clear iPad-style charge-at-home-use-for-hours-on-the-go behavior is what Apple is pushing with MacBooks now, but old habits die hard.

This seems like the kind of problem Apple is typically good at solving.

The most divisive MacBook Pro ever

People are forever telling Apple that it's wrong. More often than not, it's proven right. But that creates a problem: Apple becomes immune to being told it's wrong.

If the company learns that it just has to wait a while for its customers to overcome old habits or move past misconceptions, legitimate issues get through. It's happened in the past with the "fatty" iPod nano and buttonless iPod shuffle. Apple rolled both back the very next year.

People inside Apple seemed convinced the new keyboards and Touch Bar were the future and thought customers would love them as much as they did. Many do. Many don't. And maybe too many don't.

I'm not of the opinion Apple should revert back to the 2015 MacBook Pro. But I agree Apple needs to iterate forward on the current design.

If you love the MacBook you can't get one from anywhere else and that makes it incumbent on Apple to meet the needs of as many customers as possible.

Tweak the keyboard. Tweak the Touch Bar. Add an even more powerful version on top of the product line, opposite to the lower-end version, for people who really do want or need as much Mac as Apple can squeeze into a laptop.

2018 is right around the corner. With it will come new MacBooks Pro (Intel's horrible roadmap willing). And Apple has an opportunity to deliver a machine almost every MacBook lover can truly love.

Rene Ritchie
Rene Ritchie

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

18 Comments
  • Computer “pros” are like audiophiles: stuck-up, arrogant, condescending, narcissistic, megalomaniacal. You know, like Leo LaPorte and Andy Ihnatko on the Apple hating MacBreak Weekly podcast. Screw ‘em Apple, and just keep making products the rest of us like and use.
  • They are indeed. I've built computers myself, and know a very large amount about hardware and software, so I guess I would consider myself a "pro" but at the same time I'm using a Mac given to me by my work, and I can appreciate that it's a great machine, even if the hardware isn't as good as some others on the market. The question is, does it need to be? Other machines on the market can overheat, or suffer overheating issues after a year or two, due to focusing too much on the hardware. Other machines can also have an embarrasing battery life, due to focusing more on hardware than being portable. If I need a desktop computer I'll build one myself, or attempt at a Hackintosh (not tried this properly yet). If I need a laptop, I'll probably go for a Mac, since I know what I'm getting works and works well
  • I like the new MacBook Pro. I enjoy the new keyboard, and usb-c. I could take or leave the touchbar but its not like I used the function keys to begin with. I enjoy the design for the most part. I like the new sleek design, the new metal huge the lighter weight and thinner profile and smaller bezels.
    However I still have issues with the new MacBook pro. The price and just how unfixable it is for example. It is the most expensive and most fragile MacBook ever. As if that is not enough it feels as if I have been nicked and dimed for ever additional thing needed for this computer. Apple care is needed more on this computer than any other and it is more expensive. The extension cable that used to be included now costs extra. I miss the little LED strip on the end of the computer informing me of the battery left on the device without opening it. I miss MagSafe and it's let indicator so now I cannot tell if the computer is charging when the computer is off. Cables are more expensive and harder to get for specific purposes.( I am still looking for a usb-c to hdmi cable)
  • https://www.amazon.com/Thunderbolt-Compatible-Macbook-MacBook-ChromeBook... Why wouldn't this USB-C to HDMI cable work?
  • I like the current Macbook Pro and I may purchase one soon. The machines are very pricey for what they deliever. I am holding out to see if the 32gb rumors hold true for next year. At this price I need a machine that will last a few years. I really wish they made the 13'' model with the quad core chips. I need the performance not the extra size. That seems to be an Apple thing though. I had to get an iPhone 7+ to get the better camera.
  • As a developer using the 13 MacBook Pro I can say, in its current configuration 16GB is perfect and the lack of a quad core chip isn't really a problem either. I was worried about these things and the 15 to 13 inch transition before spending every day with one. In the end, I have no complaints about performance.
  • FaceID on MBP. Great. They will put a notch in the MPB screen too and call it bezel-less all screen laptop.
  • I think the notch will just stay with the iPhone and potentially the iPad, I don't think it'll come to the Mac. Most likely Face ID would just be built into the currently existing bezel, unless Apple do have plans to get rid of the bezels on Macs as well, but I think it was more to compete with other smartphones on the market
  • Marco's job on ATP is to be the vocally negative one. In reality, the issues surrounding MacBook Pro seem to be more about a reticence to change. The keyboard is fine and generally feels tighter. I touch type so it doesn't bother me in the least. In my development experience I found the older MacBook Pro keyboards good as well, but not problem free. I've known them to have key problems (sticking, or outright failure) and the black coating came off on some keys on some keyboards. People didn't complain about the keyboard because it was still the best available on the market. In the same way people are holding the old MacBook keyboards as pinnacles of human development you have those that hold ancient Mac keyboards and IBM PC keyboards (clicky keys) in high esteem, but that sort of person always exists and we pity them. The one difficult aspect of the new keyboard is the large left right arrow keys. I've gotten better, but slowly. This issue is, as you stated, one of orienting your fingers without looking and the bigger keys make that harder without any discernible tactile feedback. At the very least they could have kept the old design, put little orienting bumps on the keys, or some other tactile guidance, but the new MacBook Pros are still great.
  • It took me a while to get used to the MBP's keyboard but now, almost a year later, when returning to the previous keyboard, that one just feels quite .. awkward. I do miss the physical escape key though and there are times when I still do miss the function keys but all in all I quite love the current keyboard.
    The Touch Bar is awesome! I use it quite a bit for macro's and such. I would like to have seen it expanded to the trackpad! If the next generation of MBP's get trackpads with integrated Touch Bar that'd be brilliant.
  • The removal of the 'horns' on the charger is actually great, I have considered them a design failure for a long time. Everybody knows you should not wrap a cable to tight and using the horns did just that resulting in defective cables (see https://d3gyiijzpk1c44.cloudfront.net/upload/product_photos/base/0/45/0/... ).
  • I disagree with that. I never wrap them to tight and mine have lasted forever. I think they are a major convenience for storing in my backpack. Lord knows I have enough stuff in there already. I don't need the added inconvenience of the power cord un raveled in there too.
  • _You_ don't do that and _I_ don't do that, but most people are not that careful wrapping cables. Apple should not have "designed" it like that, simple.
  • I think Rene hasn't been an apple user for as long as most but I could be wrong. I just seem to remember him getting more into apple in recent years. Maybe he doesn't remember the older machines as well as some of us. Like when he talked about always having dongles on hand. I don't remember those days from my old 2010 MBP or previous iBook or Powerbook. Change is ok when it works but I'm still not so sure about the reliability of these new slim keyboards. I can't say how frustrated I've been even about the Mac mini which has been my main desktop computer since 2012. I recently had to buy a new Mac mini but its still 3 years old yet selling for the same price it was in 2014. I just fear what will come out though since Tim Cook said the Mini is still an important product in apple's lineup. Will it get rid of the hard drive like apple's laptops and not be user upgradable? Will the ports to all to USB C? I said I had to get a new/old one since I feared what the new model will be. Similar to how I got a MacBook Air last November since I feared they would kill it off and the 12" MacBook would be all that remained. Left with a higher cost and one USB C port. I liked how I still had ports I could use on the Air and a keyboard I preferred. I wish apple would get with it and get these new Mac Pro and Mac mini moving and selling since we are kind of up against a wall right now with the Mac laptops and iMac being the only recently updated product. Choices are limited for people who want a desktop Mac. The current Mac mini is 3 years old going on 4 and the Mac Pro is similar. We should have some updated desktop Mac's besides the iMac to choose from.
  • I have to say one of the main reasons I haven't upgraded my 2013 rMBP is that keyboard. I have been in the Apple Store many times trying to convince myself that I like it and to buy one. Also have to say that THE biggest reason is. My 2013 rMBP is still killing it for the workload I throw at it. I use my personal machine everyday at my job and it still destroys the Windows PC they have on my desk that never gets turned on.
  • The only way you will properly know if you like the keyboard or not, is to try it out for a month or so. One of the developers I follow on Twitter obviously uses his keyboard a lot, and loves the new MacBook Pro keyboards.
    https://twitter.com/_inside/status/935481215120965633
  • The MacBook Pro should be called a MacBook Plus to more accurately describe it. In the 12 months I've had it, I've had to have the touch bar replaced once, when 1/4 of it (right hand side) blacked out. This also meant that I got a new keyboard which fixed some of the problems that were starting to occur with some of the keys (lack of responsiveness) That new replacement keyboard lasted about 4 months before having to be replaced, because the "b" key would frequently not work. Before it was replaced, the genius bar replaced the key cap, but that changed the problem with the "b" key from not working to a mix of not working to double typing. The frustrating thing is that I have to lose my computer for 3 to 5 days each time to get the keyboard sorted out. Other complaints with the notebook:
    - 16 GB RAM limit
    - no ability to change sensitivity of the touch bar - responds to the merest graze of a finger - so I've sent so many half complete emails just by hovering my finger near the "send" on the touch bar.
  • Let me say up front, Rene is the shining light of intelligence in a world of tech punditry bereft of engineering skill. I love you Rene, BUT… If Rene says one more time how much work it would be to create a Touch macOS…
    They've had 10 years! 10 years!! With all the experience of iOS, Apple should have the most amazing touch computer experience! Yes, start all over. Yes, it will be different. As if we don't love different - who doesn't want to flick up to go home on EVERY iPhone? (it's not like it couldn't be done… and it would probably work better on a phone with a chin, possibly the reason Apple hasn't done it) Then the ultimate Mac insult - TouchBar, a pre-iPhone technology on a 2016 MacBook Pro. Apple aren't even doing us the courtesy of calling it rain. This is 10 years of neglect of Mac, at the highest level in the company. Hopefully there's someone somewhere saving Apple's bacon, operating against orders, making a Touch macOS. Talk about protecting iOS at an almost Kodak-level of ignorance. iOS was designed for a phone. It's great for a phone, but it's not a computing platform - way too many compromises, no matter how much you can make the hardware look like a computer, the compromises are too deeply buried for it to be a computer. There are a lot of people in the world that don't need a computer, and iOS is perfect for them, but people that need a computer, need a modern Mac.