The keyboard is fixed.
If Apple did nothing else, that one thing makes the 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro better than its predecessor and any other MacBook you can buy right now. The tide definitively turned against Apple’s butterfly keyboard design in the past year, thanks in large part to persistent reporting from Casey Johnston and Joanna Stern, and Apple had to do something. Thankfully, Apple did the right thing: it went back to a more traditional keyboard design.
But Apple’s backtrack on the keyboard isn’t the only accommodation it has made to answer complaints about its MacBook line. Apple also altered how the laptop dissipates heat, allowing the processor to run faster and more predictably. It also brought back a physical Esc key and most pro users’ preferred arrow key layout.
There are a few other notable updates compared to the 15-inch model — including, yes, the namesake for the laptop itself, the 16-inch screen. But the keyboard and the thermals are the big updates that show Apple is willing to look back in order to move forward.
I am actually nervous saying that the keyboard is good now. I have reviewed the majority of the butterfly keyboard MacBooks, and with each iteration, I haven’t minded the key feel. It had a sort of gliding feeling that — to me — was almost worth the clacky sound. But those reviews were all written after a week or two of use, which is not enough time to run into a reliability problem.
I’ve had this 16-inch MacBook Pro for the same amount of time, but I’m calling it fixed regardless because the new switch mechanism under the keys is the more traditional scissor-switch — a known quantity. Apple says it’s based on the Magic Keyboard that ships with iMacs, and sure, perhaps it is.
As a keyboard, it’s up there among my favorites right now. (For the record, the one at the top of the list is the quiet keyboard on the Pixelbook Go.) Apple’s new keyboard has a full millimeter of travel (about 0.5mm more than the butterfly keyboard and 0.5mm less than the keyboard on a 2015 MacBook Pro). And though the keys aren’t especially springy, they do land with a satisfying and relatively quiet thunk.
Apple says that it redesigned how the keycap attaches to the scissor-switch to improve stability across the key. The backlight also doesn’t bleed out around the edge of the keys. Finally, the keycaps are slightly smaller than the ones on the butterfly design, which allows them to be spaced slightly farther apart from each other and — critically — the Touch Bar. The “inverted T” layout on the arrow keys is also much easier to use than the old layout.
The physical Esc key shortens the Touch Bar up a bit, but I haven’t noticed any problems stemming from the lost length. That’s probably because, like most people, the Touch Bar is something I endure instead of something I enjoy. Apple believes in it, and there is still potential there. But in general, it’s less useful to me than a row of function keys. I use a utility called Pock to put my Mac’s dock there instead of the default, but even that doesn’t make the Touch Bar a must-have for me.
Inside Apple, I am sure there are engineers who still believe that the butterfly keyboard is fixable. Perhaps it is, but hardware design has to take culture into account as much as it does engineering. Even if Apple were able to turn out a perfectly reliable butterfly keyboard with decent key travel and quiet clacking, nobody would trust it. Apple really had no other choice, and I’m glad it finally acceded to the inevitable.
The only question now is when Apple’s other laptops will get the new (old) keyboard design. Apple, of course, isn’t even hinting. But there are clues: the company has spent the last year doing the obvious things everybody has been asking for: improved iPadOS USB access, thicker phones with bigger batteries, and a Mac Pro that’s modular again. Hopefully, 2020 will be more of the same.
We can get a lot of the standard “laptop stuff” out of the way because Apple has done a good job with the fundamentals. The trackpad is still almost comically big, but Apple does better than anybody at palm rejection. There are still four Thunderbolt 3 ports, and there’s still a fingerprint sensor to log in. But unfortunately, there’s no SD card slot.
The screen — aka the namesake of this laptop — is typical Apple, which is to say it’s great. It’s not actually a full inch larger than the 15-inch version (which actually had a 15.4-inch display), and it doesn’t really feel that much more capacious. It’s a big, color-accurate retina screen. I think on the next iteration of this design — which is presumably more than a few years out — Apple should aim a little higher. But OLED and HDR screens on laptops are still relatively rare, and I think Apple was right to nail the basics.
The 16-inch model is just slightly larger than the 15-inch model across all three dimensions, but not so much so that you would really notice it unless you compared them side by side. If you have a bag that will fit the 15-inch MacBook Pro, I would be very surprised if it didn’t also fit the 16-inch laptop.
Besides the larger screen, one of the reasons it’s just slightly bigger is that it has a full 100Wh battery, which is the Federal Aviation Administration’s limit for laptops that are allowed on planes. It also comes with a 96W charger to match. Apple claims up to 11 hours of battery life that consists of web browsing and various other non-intensive tasks. I didn’t quite get there — I averaged around eight hours — but on the whole, I do think it’s slightly better than the last model.
If there’s one place where Apple could do better on the hardware, it’s the webcam. It’s still a piddly 720p affair. The other place Apple needs to do better is macOS Catalina. Even now, almost two months from launch, it’s still a little buggier than it ought to be.
My favorite part of the 16-inch MacBook Pro isn’t the keyboard or the improved thermals. (More on that below.) To be blunt, those are both things Apple shouldn’t have messed up in the first place, so I don’t want to give it too much credit for just hitting par.
It’s the speakers. They’re the best I’ve ever heard on a laptop.
Apple’s technical explanation for the speaker quality is that it has three speakers on each side, two of which are woofers designed to cancel out each other’s vibrations. That allows the MacBook Pro to get half an octave deeper bass. It also means that the speakers can get much louder without sounding tinny.
Speaker details like that often end up just being marketing gobbledegook, but not here. The laptop gets super loud and has great stereo separation. It still won’t fill a room like a Bluetooth speaker, but it will impress anybody who sits in front of it.
Apple also has improved the microphone — it’s now a three-mic “studio” array. It certainly sounds better than most microphones — including Microsoft’s “studio” mics on the Surface Laptop 3. It’s less hissy and a little less echoey to my ears. But despite Apple’s claims, it still doesn’t stand up to a dedicated USB microphone like a Blue Yeti.
After the keyboard, the other consensus on the 15-inch MacBook Pro is that it was thermally throttled. The processor couldn’t run as fast as it otherwise might because of various design factors. Last summer, there was another initial worry that the processor was much worse than it should have been, resulting in a fast software update from Apple to provide a so-called “missing digital key” in the firmware.
I think those days are behind us. In both benchmarks and lots of real-world tests, the 16-inch MacBook Pro can maintain higher speeds than before and — I think, more importantly — it does so consistently.
That all happens, thanks to some design changes that Apple made: it added a larger heat sink, changed the fan design to move more air, made the whole thing slightly thicker, and even rearranged the logic board to optimize for heat dispersal. Apple claims that all of these changes allow it to push 12W more power though the processor under load.
I’ll let others handle in-depth benchmarking, but I will note that, in my tests, the MacBook Pro was slightly better than last year’s model across raw processor tests. Cinebench 20 on my Core i9 review unit hit peak turbo speeds and then settled into a very consistent 3.1GHz (800MHz above its “base” speed) across multiple tests — aka it was the same on the first test and the fifth when the laptop was warm.
In a more real-world test — a very complex export in Adobe Premiere Pro that took about a half-hour to run — I saw a 3 to 5 percent improvement over a fairly comparable 2018 model (which is technically two generations behind, thanks to a processor refresh earlier this year). That’s a modest jump, but it’s also completely in line with what you’d expect from the year-over-year improvements in Intel’s processors combined with Apple’s improved thermals.
Software that takes better advantage of the GPU will see much bigger gains in performance. Our video team doesn’t use Final Cut X, but Jonathan Morrison has posted a video to YouTube confirming that there are significant speed improvements on it. Similarly, in the built-in benchmark in Shadow of the Tomb Raider, I saw frame rates at the default graphics settings jump from about 30 fps to nearly 60 fps very consistently.
In short: the performance is there, but unless you definitely know your software can take full advantage of the new GPUs in the new MacBook, you might not see life-changing improvements.
There is an alternate universe where I might not have bothered to review the 16-inch MacBook Pro. In that universe, it would have been an iterative update with a slightly larger screen, nicer speakers, and new graphics card options. That alternate universe is the one where Apple didn’t go off on a thinness-at-all-costs Quixotic quest. In that universe, the keyboard always used scissor-switches.
But in this universe, here’s my review: it’s the MacBook Pro that lots of people have been holding out for. It rolls back the most experimental of Apple’s changes. The Touch Bar has an Esc key next to it, the processor is better cooled at the expense of thinness, and the keyboard is (almost surely) reliable.
It’s the no-drama MacBook Pro. And thank god for that because for people who want a big-screen, big-power Mac laptop, it’s also the only option around. This year, it’s a very good one.
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