Assorted things about the new MacBook Pros

Hello! Nice to see you. Do you want a snack? I have… oh just Ryvita. Sorry. Hey, I've got some notes on the new MacBook Pro, and especially its Touch Bar.

You can customise the Control Strip (the small section of system controls on the right-hand side of the Touch Bar), as shown during the keynote. But there are two levels to the customisation: you can select what appears in the collapsed view, as well as what appears in the full expanded Control Strip view. When editing, the icons wobble, just like iOS or Launchpad. When you add something, you can change it position by dragging it on the Touch Bar in this view.

You can also customise how it appears in other ways. You can set it to be the extended Control Strip by default, ignoring app-specific inputs. You can set it to be all app-specific inputs, ignoring the Control Strip. You can make it so that pressing the Fn key brings up the expanded Control Strip instead of the function keys, if you never use the latter.

Oh, and the Escape key was pretty much always present in the apps we saw used with it…

The tools you see are not just based on what app you're using, but what you're doing in the app. It's really contextual. We saw this in the keynote, but I had to see it to really catch its potential. In Keynote, it showed options for styling text when text was selected, even though the text-styling pane wasn't selected in the sidebar. The Touch Bar simply puts more options at your fingers, with fewer clicks required. Yes, some of them were options experienced users would simply know how to trigger with a keyboard shortcut (rich text BIU was there, for example), but things like making colour adjustments take a bunch of clicks even once you've brought up the option. Here, you get to keep the screen clear of extra control panes for a smaller task, and keep the focus on the options that are most important to the bulk of your work.

The details some tools go into and the level of context the Touch Bar can operate in means this really doesn't feel far from a touchscreen Mac. At the keynote, you didn't get the sense of how connected to the app the Touch Bar actually feels. But there's an argument it can be even better than a touchscreen Mac at times, since you don't need to obscure the screen to use it. You can have an image fullscreen in Photos, and make adjustments with fine-grained controls in Touch Bar, with the photo in full, detailed view.

Apple talked with me about how the ability to work with one hand on the mouse/trackpad and adjust tools with the other isn't common, even though it should be quite an optimum way to do things. It's interesting to note Microsoft's announcement of the Surface Dial so soon before Apple revealed the Touch Bar – both companies were looking at this same problem. The Surface Dial enables you to place a physical dial on the Surface Studio's screen, and you'll trigger a tool, which can be adjusted in increments with the dial. The same is possible with the Touch Bar, in a slider rather than a dial. So you can be drawing in a painting app, adjusting the brush size or hardness as you create one flowing line.

Apple's approach doesn't obscure the content, whereas Microsoft's does. Microsoft offers a much bigger screen on the Surface Studio to avoid obscuring that content, of course, while Apple's approach is in a notebook right now.

I'm a tentative convert to the Touch Bar right now. I haven't used it outside of a demo yet (a review sample will come soon), but seeing its use in the real world really impressed me. I do wonder if there will be problems of "predictability" about what I'll find there – if I'm not sure exactly what tools I'll see because I'm not sure what I clicked on last, hunting for the right icon there may be no quicker than clicking through some menus. This is the problem 3D Touch on the Macs has – you don't know what something will do until you try it, and it may not be what you're expecting. Only practical use will tell if this is a real problem. It may even be a problem in some apps and not others – like any interface element, it can be used badly.

The Touch Bar screen itself looked a little duller in person than I was expecting. Not unclear by any means, but there seemed to be more glass between the screen and surface than I expected, and it didn't seem as vibrant as the Watch display. However, the Touch Bar has its own ambient light sensor, and adjusts to lighting conditions automatically, with no manual adjustment possible, so it may have just been a quirk of the demo room – again, I would have to test in real life.

It's powered by the T1 chip, which includes the secure enclave for Touch ID, just like other Touch ID devices. Touch ID can be used for payments and locking Notes etc, just like on iOS. If you haven't logged into your Mac in 48 hours, or if your Mac has been powered off, you'll need to enter your password, again just like iOS.

The T1 doesn't have any additional security operations, according to Apple. It confirmed that it drives the camera, but said it didn't offer any extra protection, as I saw suggested elsewhere.

A couple of technical points:

16GB of RAM. I've seen some of the explanations online, but they don't add up to a whole answer that I'm satisfied with.  Apple said that it's a limitation of LPDDR3 that it's only possible to include 16GB. I asked what the limitation was, but it wasn't able to tell me immediately – I'm hoping to follow up with that information. Apple didn't use DDR4 (though that could have been used with this Intel chipset to reach 32GB of RAM) because of its higher power draw. I asked if Apple knew exactly what impact on battery life that would have, but that data wasn't available to hand. I'll follow up there as well.

Apple also said they think the ability to page things to the SSD so fast – 3GB/s in these models – means that pushing some open app data to main storage isn't the bottleneck it once was. But it did also acknowledge that it's not ideal for edge case users. Apple pointed to its desktop offerings for higher-end specs.

Some USB-C charging cables are rated for a lower wattage than the 87W adapter of the 15-inch Pro – specifically, Al Stonebridge pointed out that Griffin's BreakSafe cable which adds MagSafe-like charging back in (more on that in a moment) is rated for 60W. The 15-inch model will slow charge through that cable, though if you connect several peripherals and start doing high-end work, you might see a net loss on the power use even when connected to the power with that particular cable.

I asked about the downside of losing MagSafe in general. Partly Apple said it's so excited about the opportunities of USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 that it was just one of those things that had to go in the process. But partly, the idea is the same here as it was for the 12-inch MacBook: that its battery should last for a full work day, so you won't tend to have it plugged in in a position where you're likely to trip over it. The intention is that, much like a phone, you charge it overnight when it's not in use, and then roam free of cables when you are using it.

A slightly random aside: yes, it's possible to plug four charging cables into the MacBook Pro at once. No, it won't draw power from all of them. Whichever one you plug in first will be prioritised as the power source.

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Of course, I asked about the ports. Specifically, I asked about whether Apple considered ramping up the change more smoothly with maybe two Thunderbolt 3 ports and a few legacy ports, but it pointed out that it was not traditionally Apple's way to do it like that. It doesn't do things by half.

Apple wanted these MacBook Pros to be thinner and lighter. They're considerably less voluminous too. To get there, it decided that the larger and more cumbersome ports had to go. Apple appeared to accept the criticism on things like not being able to connect your iPhone to your MacBook Pro out of the box. It didn't brush it off as immaterial, but the suggestion seems to be that adapters will get you through until you can catch up with upgrading your accessories. (A specific point was made of noting that the Thunderbolt 3 to 2 adapter was useful for owners of current MacBook Pros, since they could use it with their existing notebook to buy and use Thunderbolt 3 or USB-C accessories now, while future-proofing for getting one of these MacBooks down the line.) Yes, there was an expectation that spending the extra money was no problem – though while Apple's adapters aren't cheap, it also talked about getting much cheaper cables from Amazon.

I’ve seen the argument that unless Apple “rips the Band Aid”, people won’t ever really make the transition to USB-C products. Maybe that’s fair, but a count to three before it pulled could have helped people steel themselves.

I mentioned on Twitter recently that one of the sharpest things I saw about the ports change on the new MacBook was from Phil Ewing.

“The issue is Apple has placed all the burden on users, rather than assuming any of it with the new hardware.”

It made me think of Steve Jobs' famous talk about what computers can be – the ideal of them.

“I think one of the things that really separates us from the high primates is that we’re tool builders. I read a study that measured the efficiency of locomotion for various species on the planet. The condor used the least energy to move a kilometer. And, humans came in with a rather unimpressive showing, about a third of the way down the list. It was not too proud a showing for the crown of creation. So, that didn’t look so good. But, then somebody at Scientific American had the insight to test the efficiency of locomotion for a man on a bicycle. And, a man on a bicycle, a human on a bicycle, blew the condor away, completely off the top of the charts.
And that’s what a computer is to me. What a computer is to me is it’s the most remarkable tool that we’ve ever come up with, and it’s the equivalent of a bicycle for our minds.”
Steve Jobs

Any tool, including phones and computers, should assume people’s burdens. What else do they exist for? If you're an existing Apple notebook user, then Phil Ewing is right, this minimum $1499 notebook is putting a burden back on you. Now you must consider having the right adapters with you for whatever situations may come up in your work. This isn't that big a deal on the face of it. You can solve an awful lot of problems with these two adapters from Satechi:
3-in-1 Combo Hub
Weighs barely anything. No problem to just store it in the bag you carry your MacBook Pro around in.
USB Type-C to Type-A Adapter
This has a loop so you can attach it to your keys, so you'll almost never be without an adapter for USB-A (and if you need to connect something more obscure, there's a better chance you can find the other adapter where you are. After all, the older MBP only had SD cards and Thunderbolt otherwise.)

But whether you can notionally solve the problem isn't the point. You're now at risk. There is now a higher chance that you'll be caught in a situation where you might NEED to connect something to your MacBook that you can't, because you forgot the adapter. This burden, and its mitigation, is now on you.

The counter-argument here is that the progress of its new design may relieve more burdens than it adds. Does thinner and lighter do it for you? Is the Touch Bar enough of an addition for you? What about the brighter, wider color gamut screen? I think you should try one in the store before you make a decision on this if you’re considering the upgrade, to give the Touch Bar especially a real test, but for sure the balance of this equation will not fall in the MacBook Pro’s favor for everyone. I'm looking forward to the chance to assess it properly, but for me personally so far, and the work I do, the balance of changes seems to come down in the MacBook Pro's favour.