If you’ve bought an Apple laptop in the last few years and you try out the new 16-inch MacBook Pro, you will be furious. It’s so good. It works precisely as a laptop should—the issues that have plagued Apple’s laptops in recent years seem absent. Everything about the device seems to follow an age-old Apple edict the company forgot: It just works.
So while I’m delighted by the existence of the new MacBook Pro, I’ll admit there’s some frustration, too. It very much feels like Apple should have been making this device or something like it for the last decade. Instead, we’ve been saddled with year after year of underpowered laptops that prioritise minimalism over functionality.
Apple isn’t a company that talks about its internal process often, so we can’t know for sure why Apple clung so persistently to the old design despite ample criticism of it. (If you have information on the subject you can reach me anonymously via Secure Drop, at email@example.com, or DM me on Twitter for Signal number.) One likely reason was Jony Ive’s stewardship of Apple design. Ive, who left Apple to launch his own design form in 2020, is notoriously minimalism-obsessed. He once designed a car so minimalist it eschewed typical car things like a steering wheel. It stands to reason his philosophy guided the development of previous MacBook Pros and led to things like the miserable keyboard with keys so shallow it feels like you’re typing on piles of rocks.
That keyboard, and the ultra-thin, ultra-light laptop it was settled in, are gone. The new MacBook Pro is a 16-inch beast that’s added a little weight (it’s 0.3 pounds heavier than its 15-inch predecessor) and a little thickness (it’s 0.275 inches taller) in order to cram in things like a powerful 9th-gen Intel H-series processor and a keyboard with a whopping 1mm of travel. Travel is the term we use for the distance it takes a key to travel from its normal state to fully depressed. Mechanical keyboards have a range from 1.5mm to over 3mm, while laptops usually have a travel of 1.5mm to 2mm. The 1mm of the new MacBook Pro is shallow but not nearly as bad as older version, which had 0.6mm of travel.
The new keyboard is supposedly based on the keyboard found in the iPad Pro—which I’ve previously admired. Yet the new MacBook Pro keyboard feels less like typing on sturdy bubble wrap and more like typing on one of the outstanding keyboards found in a Dell XPS or Lenovo ThinkPad device.
Apple finally took all that money and incredible brain power to delve into designing a new keyboard. I’m told that ample research went into the design with Apple trying to understand precisely what about keyboards we find appealing. Like the vibration, we feel when a key actuates. Apple found that there’s a specific wavelength in that vibration that most people love and tried to replicate it in the key, giving it a deeply satisfying feeling.
It’s not quite enough for me, though. My favourite keyboard is a Topre from Japan, which uses a hybrid mechanical and membrane switch for a unique and deeply satisfying feeling. The new MacBook Pro’s keyboard can’t replicate that feeling, but it definitely comes close!
And here’s where my frustration lies, too. I love that Apple took the time to research what about keyboards we love and put all that research into a really fantastic device, but it absolutely sucks that it took years for Apple to do it. Lenovo and Dell—which are both smaller and less wealthy companies in many respects—have had simply wonderful keyboards for ages. Those companies figured it out a while ago and have been praised for it. Yet Apple had to go spend millions researching to come to a similar conclusion. It just feels like the last few years of Apple laptops were wasted, you know?
But while Apple had to invest a lot of time and money to figure out a solution for its keyboard problem, it’s clearly borrowed from other laptop makers, too. Chiefly it’s embraced a shrunken bezel on a laptop, a hallmark of Dell laptops (though the bezel on the Macbook Pro is nowhere close to the tiny bezels and footprint of laptops from Dell). Apple moved from a 15.4-inch laptop display to a 16-inch display, but that resulted in only a 2.6 per cent increase in the length and width of the device. It’s enough of an increase that 15.4-inch MacBook Pro owners might notice, but not enough to really detract from the device. It also means there’s a stunning 3,072 by 1,920-pixel display wrapped by some of the thinnest bezels on an Apple device yet.
That weird resolution is still not quite 4K—which means a lot of content makers will be at a loss if they’re trying to watch or edit 4K content on the thing, but the resolution is enough for most stuff. Using Photoshop, or even just the Tweetdeck app, feels a lot less crowded.
Apple’s also tweaked the speakers in the 16-inch MacBook Pro. Listening to them without comparisons left me unimpressed. There’s that telltale tinniness we’ve come to expect from laptop speakers. But then I compared it to some of the other laptops I had around, including a 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2016, a 13-inch Dell XPS 2-in-1, and a 15-inch Microsoft Surface Laptop 3.
Holy cow are the speakers on the new MacBook Pro incredible. There’s a sense of space in the audio that isn’t present on other laptops. Watching the opening sequence of Mad Max: Fury Road (a popular clip reviewers use to test the Dolby Atmos ability of speakers), I could hear the voices in Max’s head as if they were in the room with me. They whispered in my ears and seemed to flit around in a way only a Dolby Atmos speaker can do. Which makes sense as the MacBook Pro is the first Apple laptop to support Dolby Atmos.
Other stuff sounded good, too. The bass line in Billy Eilish’s “bad guy” thrums nicely despite the size of the speakers, and there’s no distortion when the volume is maxed out. Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, Op. 4 can often start off too quietly, forcing you to up the volume and then rapidly drop it as the music reaches its emotional peak. I never had to adjust the volume on the MacBook Pro. The speakers are so good, I keep wanting to leave my usual workhorse, the smaller and lighter 13-inch MacBook Pro, behind just so I can listen to music and watch movies out of speakers that don’t suck.
Processor-wise, the MacBook Pro 16-inch is on par with the previous generation. Apple already had one of the most powerful mobile processors available in the 15-inch, and that line of 9th-gen H-series processors from Intel made the move to the 16-inch device. Ours was outfitted with the 2.4GHz i9 processor, which is the similar to the processor found in the Dell XPS 15 we reviewed earlier this year.
It’s a solid comparison if you’re trying to decide between a Mac and Windows machine. The Dell XPS 15 has a similar processor, 16GB of RAM, an Nvidia GTX 1650 GPU, 1080p display, and a 1TB drive for $3199. A similarly spec’d MacBook Pro will run you $4399 – over $1000 more for a larger display and newer AMD Radeon Pro 5500M GPU with 4GB of VRAM.
Our MacBook Pro was quite a bit more powerful, though, with 32GB of RAM, an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M GPU with 8GB of VRAM, and a 2TB drive. And at $5839, it’s also a lot more expensive.
Spec’d similarly, I would expect the MacBook Pro to have performance on par with the XPS 15. Our souped-up MacBook Pro did just a little better than the XPS 15 in Geekbench 4’s CPU benchmark, while in Blender—where we time how long it takes for Blender to render a 3D image—the MacBook Pro was more than 30 seconds faster.
The GPU seems to be where the real magic lies. AMD’s Radeon Pro 5500M chewed through the Blender file 45 seconds faster than the Dell XPS, and had more than double the GPU compute score in Geekbench 4. While we can’t test most available games—including standards like Far Cry 5 and Overwatch—we did compare the Dell’s 1650 to the Apple’s 5500M to the Rise of the Tomb Raider benchmark. The results were as we expected. Games typically gave better support for Nvidia products so the Nvidia GTX 1650 averaged 54.2 frames per second while the AMD Radeon Pro 5500M averaged 49.7 frames per second.
But I don’t think most people buying the MacBook Pro will actually care about gaming. This device feels like its intended more for creative professionals emotionally attached to their macOS workflows, and casual Apple fans with a lot of cash to spare. And if you’re one of those people, then you should be very excited.
This new MacBook Pro feels like a slight if a fundamental change in design philosophy at the company. Instead of focusing its enormous team of talented engineers and designers on producing computers that serve as an ode to minimalism, Apple is finally focused on making a product that’s just damn fine. I don’t know if this is just a blip or the actual future of laptop design at Apple, but it needs to be the latter. Apple’s once-revolutionary laptops have lacked the pizazz of traditionally more staid companies like Dell, Lenovo, and HP—where innovation is happening on a regular and remarkable basis.
If you need a larger laptop, then be glad that you can buy the new 16-inch MacBook Pro and feel like your money was well spent. If you’re looking for something smaller and macOS capable, then hang tight. If this new design ethos trickles down to Apple’s other more affordable laptops, 2020 could be a winning year for the company.
The speakers are incredible.
The keyboard is a definite upgrade.
The speed is nice.
The price of our review unit is obscene.
Please let this be how Apple makes laptops going forward.