The 16-inch MacBook Pro is amazing, but it’s still a Mac [Review]

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MacBook Pro review
The MacBook Pro, on the very edge of a table.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

There’s a great Steve Jobs story that somehow seems relevant in a 2019 MacBook Pro review. You probably know it, but I’ll tell it anyway. After the iPad launch, Jobs supposedly walked into a meeting with the Mac team, carrying an iPad. He woke up the iPad, which happened instantaneously. Then he woke up a Mac, which took a while to come out of sleep. Then he asked something like, “Why doesn’t this do that?”

Today, he might take the iPad Pro, and the brand new top-of-the-line MacBook Pro, start them both editing a few images, and wait for the fans to spin up on the Mac. While it cranks up to leaf-blower levels, he’d point at the silent iPad, and make some scathing quip.

The new 16-inch MacBook Pro is an incredible computer that’s let down by the red-hot Intel chips inside. Apple’s cool, fast, super-powerful A-series ARM chips can’t come to the Mac soon enough. Using this Intel machine after using an ARM-powered iPad for several years, the Mac feels like there’s something wrong with it. And yet, barely 24 hours into owning one, I absolutely love it.

Previously …

For context, my previous Mac was an old 2010 iMac that maxed out with macOS High Sierra. I briefly owned a MacBook Air — the first-gen, wedge-shaped one — but ditched that for an iPad years ago. I use an iPad Pro for almost everything, but recently I’ve been having trouble with it, and decided to try the Mac again.

The new 16-inch MacBook Pro, then, is my first with macOS Catalina and modern features like Continuity, AirDrop to iOS, a Retina display, and so on. So, a lot of this is new to me, if not in concept, then in daily use.

16-inch MacBook Pro review

First impressions

Compared to iOS, setting up a new Mac is like a trip back in time. With a new iPhone or iPad, you just have to bring it near your old one and wait. There’s minimal interaction needed to get up and running, and you can easily restore from an iCloud backup if you like. The Mac can also restore itself from your current Mac, but before you get there, you’ll have to type in your Wi-Fi passcode, your Apple ID, and more. It’s not bad, but iOS is way better.

Other than that, though, I dig the Mac. And it’s a real eye-opener coming back after all these years to see what’s changed. It’s like visiting your childhood home after another family has lived there for years. Only they’re using all your furniture, and you’re actually going to be living there again. Which is to say, weird.

Heat

This new MacBook is hot, but that heat is contained. Or rather, it is dissipated. Surely it’s no hotter than the previous generation, butterfly-keyboard MacBook Pro, but it’s a lot warmer than the iPad. Part of this is doubtless down to it doing all those new-Mac things it needs to do, like indexing and analyzing tens of thousands of photos. But the iPad manages this with little more than a slight hit to battery life, whereas this brand-new 2019 Mac spins the fans up pretty much constantly.

How hot? Hot enough that using the Touch Bar got uncomfortable for a while last night. As I said, I’m not used to Mac notebooks. If my iMac gets hot, I seldom notice it.

After the initial burst of activity wore off, things are much better. The Photos app is still running facial recognition on my library, but the fans are no longer running constantly. Photos is running three threads, and between them it’s keeping the CPUs at between 150% and 250%, yet the fans remain on low speed.

So, in day-to-day use, this heat is handled fine. But, for those used to iOS, it’s still a shock.

Convenience: Apple Watch, AirDrop and all that

The 2019 16-inch MacBook Pro is a good-looking machine.
It’s a good-looking machine.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

The biggest change for me is that this Mac is no longer an island. It is part of an ecosystem of devices. I love that my Apple Watch unlocks the Mac whenever I’m near, which — when I’m using the laptop — is always. I love that it has Touch ID, which makes entering passwords effortless. And I love that I can use Handoff between devices, and that I can throw a Mac app onto a nearby iPad’s screen.

Here’s an example of how great this interaction is. On Fridays, I write the week’s “best apps” article. I use a shortcut to take a list of apps, and turn it into a set of links, like this:

Shortcuts

Price: Free

Download: Shortcuts from the App Store (iOS)

Today, I quickly made a version of that Shortcut that uses the clipboard as input. I then copied the list of apps to my Mac’s clipboard, and ran this shortcut. It did its thing, and copied the results back to the clipboard. I hit paste on the Mac, and there it all was. Amazing.

Sidecar

Yes, that's Logic Pro X 'running' on an iPad.
Yes, that’s Logic Pro X “running” on an iPad.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

Speaking of Sidecar, the Mac app that lets you use an iPad as a second screen, it’s great. I’ve only tested it briefly, but it works really well. You just click a menu bar widget to connect to the iPad, and from there you can drag apps to the iPad as if it were any external monitor. I put Logic Pro X on there, and used it with an Apple Pencil. I don’t know how useful it is to spread out over two displays. But being able to throw an app onto the iPad, then take it over to the sofa to use it, is quite something.

I haven’t yet tested the markup features, where you use an iPad to mark up PDFs. That will come in a later review.

The speakers

The 16-inch MacBook Pro speakers sound impressive. I haven’t run them though their paces with music production yet, but for listening to Apple Music, and for watching movies and TV, they’re more than good. It’s genuinely surprising that such a sound can come from these little things.

The 16-inch Retina screen

I’ll get to the keyboard in a moment. But first, that screen. It’s beautiful. And big. The side and bottom bezels are thinner than those on the iPad Pro, and the top is quite a bit thicker. The impression it gives, though, is of a massive, edgeless screen. Quality-wise, it feels a lot like the iPad Pro’s screen, only a little less sharp. And I don’t notice the lack of the iPad Pro’s 120Hz ProMotion technology, because I never touch the Mac’s screen. For me, ProMotion is really about making the touchscreen feel more responsive.

Anyway, this 16-inch MacBook Pro display looks beautiful. But it is marred by one Mac limitation. On iOS, you can use Dynamic Type to increase the text size system-wide. To do this on the Mac, you must change the resolution of the entire display, which makes everything bigger, not just text.

That Magic Keyboard

To an iPad user, four USB-C ports are a luxury.
To an iPad user, four USB-C ports are a luxury.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

OK, finally the Magic Keyboard that finally replaces the flawed butterfly keyboard. Obviously 24 hours — eight of which were spent sleeping, and two more spent waiting for the UPS package to warm up to room temperature before opening it up — are not enough to know anything about the long-term prospects of the new scissor-switch Magic Keyboard.

What I can say is that it does feel a lot like the regular Magic Keyboard, the one that comes with the iMac. It also feels like the previous Bluetooth keyboard (the one with the cylinder for AA batteries at the back). The keys are slightly more stable, and slightly larger than those on the aluminum Bluetooth keyboard, but with quite a bit less travel.

It’s not a bad keyboard at all. But right now, I prefer others. My typing is a little slower on this new keyboard than it is on the old Apple keyboard, or any mechanical keyboard, or the Logitech K811. On the other hand, I’m not really used to this one yet.

One thing I do love is the keyboard’s LED backlight which — thanks to seals around each key-hole — doesn’t bleed any light from the sides. Also great is the Escape key, although for me, it’s just normal. I never used a Mac without one. Apple is getting a ton of credit for putting it back, but it’s no better or worse than any other Escape key. It’s there, and it works.

Touch Bar

The Touch Bar, on the other hand, is amazing. Freed from its Escape-key duties, and trimmed on the other side to add a Touch ID button (which is itself an amazing addition to the Mac), the Touch Bar is a genuinely useful innovation. However, it’s not all good news. Hardware buttons still prove better than touchscreens in many situations (that’s why we use external keyboards with our iPads). And one of those situations is quick adjustment of things like volume and brightness. Once you get used to their position, you never have to look at keys to press them. But you always have to look at the Touch Bar.

The dynamic nature of the Touch Bar more than makes up for this, though. Apple’s own apps, and apps like Ulysses, make great use of it. In Logic Pro X, you can make selections, change parameters, and even see the timeline in the Touch Bar. This makes the app easier to use.

You can turn the Touch Bar into a row of permanent function keys, if you like.
You can turn the Touch Bar into a row of permanent function keys, if you like.
Photo: Charlie Sorrel/Cult of Mac

My initial impression of the Touch Bar — a MacBook Pro feature introduced in 2016 and often decried as a gimmick — is that it makes some old things worse, but adds more than enough new functionality to tip the balance in its favor. This is no good if you rely on the function keys, but at least there’s a setting to turn the Touch Bar into a permanent row of F-keys.

16-inch MacBook Pro review summary

I’m only one day in, but I already like what I see. I’m a big fan of USB-C, thanks to the iPad Pro, and in comparison to that, the Mac’s four ports are a luxury. (Since I’m running it from a desktop USB dock, I’m only using one port at the moment.)

The keyboard is perfectly usable. The Touch Bar is great, but will take a little getting used to. The heat comes as a bit of a surprise after so many years of using an iPad.

But in summary, I really like this MacBook Pro. It looks great, it’s fast, and it fits extremely well into your existing ecosystem of Apple products. And, while the Mac is certainly still the workhorse of Apple’s lineup, there are ever more places where the iPad has pulled ahead. One is the superior A-series chipset. Another is the way apps work so well together on iOS. And another is the initial setup process.

But really, this Mac is fantastic. My Cult of Mac colleagues tease me that I buy Apple gear, and then immediately send it back. This new MacBook is staying with me.