The 2016 Macbook Pros Part 1: The Design

Disclaimer: These are thoughts about a line of products I have not yet used. While they are still opinions, please keep in mind that this is NOT a review.

After what felt like a year-and-a-half of deafening silence on the state of the Mac, Apple has finally given us an update to one of their most important notebook computers: the Macbook Pros. Apart from much needed upgrades to the internal hardware, these new Pros also sport a new design. Apple has shown us what their vision for what a notebook computer should be like with the release of the 12-inch Macbook, and these new Macbook Pros are a continuation of that vision, for better and worse.

Sadly only the Macbook Pros got an update this time around. Many other Macs are in dire need of updates, and Apple hasn't been forthcoming with the state of the rest of their lineup. The iMac is still using last year's processors, the Macbook Air has an uncertain future, and the Mac Mini and Mac Pro are practically in purgatory at this point. Apple's silence on these products is a continuing source of worry and frustration for its customers, and it's in Apple's best interest to clear out the uncertainty soon lest their relationship with their customers further worsen.

But enough about the other Macs. Let's talk about the new Macbook Pros, shall we? I have a lot to say about these new machines, so I'm going to have to separate my overall thoughts over multiple parts. This first part is going to cover the overall physical design, including the form factor, trackpad and keyboard. Enjoy!

The New Design

Apple has been shown to have an obsession for thinness and lightness, so much so that they extend this design ethos even to their professional lineup. They have slowly shaved off the thickness from about 1 inch in 2008, to about 0.78 inches in 2012, and now around 0.6 inches in 2016. Innovations in the trackpad and keyboard (more on those in a bit) as well as thermal management have allowed Cupertino to shrink their pro notebooks into smaller and smaller packages, allowing them to be fit better inside bags and cause less strain on the human back during trips.

While I'm sure many professionals would question why thinness and lightness should take precendence over the sheer performance that professional work requires, as a mostly non-professional user I can't help but like Apple's priorities when it comes to industrial design. Sure, chasing ever thinner enclosures may mean these notebooks will never pack the highest end processors available, but I like that Apple has a vision of notebooks becoming more portable over time while also gaining performance boost, even if they're minor.

Apple has been very consistent for at least a decade about certain products targetting a certain performance class, even as they've redesigned the Macbooks again and again. Even as these notebook gets smaller, the CPU and GPU always incrementally improve with every iteration. I don't think we're at risk of Apple downgrading future Macbook Pros in the name of thinness.

As for other aspects of the design, I am very happy that they have finally gotten a metal hinge unto the Macbook Pros. It always bothered me that such a sensitive part of the notebook was made of flimsy plastic, so it's good to know that the entire body is sturdy now.

As for the death of the glowing Apple logo, I am surely going to miss it, but it is by no means a non-negotiable. I can easily move on from this.

Finally, I cannot comment on the sound quality of these new Macbook Pros because I haven't actually used on myself. For what it's worth, other reviewers have said that the sound quality has vastly improved compared to previous iterations.

The Larger Trackpad

Apple has been using the new Force Touch trackpad across almost their entire notebook lineup for a while now, but the new Macbook Pros are further evidence for why Apple was right to move to a simulated trackpad click instead of a mechanical one.

Apple has taken further advantage of this electromagnet technology and has allowed the Macbook Pro's trackpad to supersize itself. Not only does the Force Touch Trackpad allow for uniform clicking across the entire glass surface (unlike traditional trackpads where the top remains unclickable due to its hinge) and avoid physical wear and tear, the simplicity of its technology also allows it to extend to bigger sizes without having to deal with certain mechanical compromises.

Of course, it goes without saying that if you haven't tried Force Touch Trackpad for yourself you should give it a try before you commit to a new Mac notebook. From personally trying the 12-inch Macbook I think the Force Touch Trackpad feels pretty good, even if it could use a stronger click sensation from the electromagnet. I would gladly give up macOS's Force Touch feature if it means I get to reuse Force Touch as just a regular click. Somewhere around there is a click setting that's perfect for me.

The Keyboard and Butterfly Switch 2.0

The keyboard is easily the most controversial aspect of the 12-inch Macbook, and I expect these new Macbook Pros to be a very similar story. Apple's Butterfly Switch keyboards have drastically reduced key travel compared to traditional notebook keyboards, and tries to make up for it with higher resistance and an almost clicky sensation upon activation. This new design has polarized many people since its inception, and I have previously expressed my dislike for its drastic loss in tactility.

My beef with the Butterfly Switch is that it doesn't make itself obvious when it's been properly pressed down, while many other keyboard switches do. Mechanical keyboards click, laptop keyboards bottom out, and even touchscreen keyboards have a feedback where your finger touching the screen sends a signal to your brain that you just registered a key press. Butterfly Switches in my opinion lack a distinctive sensation to indicate actuation. The key travel is too small for distance to be a mental indication, and the click sensation isn't pronounced enough to tell my punchy finger that it has given way and has registered the key press. My brain knows I hit a key, but very little about the old butterfly switch told me that I actually pressed the key.

While Apple is steadfast in not increasing the key travel in Butterfly Switch 2.0 inside the new Macbook Pros, they did promise to increase the sense of click when the finger successfully overwhelms the keyboard's resistance. Apple VP Phil Schiller said these new switches offer a "greater sense of key travel", and sense is the word that needs emphasis here. These new switches may not let your finger press farther, but it will at least trick you into thinking you did, which may very well work if the Force Touch Trackpad is any indication.

If there's any room for optimism here, many online reviewers who previously hated Butterfly Switch 1.0 have come around to liking version 2.0. The same could happen to you or me, but this is one of those cases where you must try the new keyboard out in a store somewhere before you make any purchase decision.

Next time I talk about the Macbook Pro's updated specs, to see if the new CPU and GPU are worth the wait. Stay tuned!

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