Apple MacBook Pro 16 review: Return of the Mac

Posted: 6 December 2019 3:47 pm
News

Apple MacBook Pro 16

Apple shows that it actually can listen to what its customers want with the MacBook Pro 16, including better displays and a vastly improved keyboard.

Quick Verdict

The Apple MacBook Pro 16 is a very expensive laptop, but it's an important one for Apple's future Mac focus, with the return to a more functional keyboard, better processors and an experience that really lives up to that "Pro" suffix.

The good

  • Magic Keyboard isn't magic – but it's good
  • Lots of processing power if you need it
  • Larger display works well in the Pro space

The bad

  • Not a 4K display
  • Frighteningly expensive
  • Only USB-C/Thunderbolt 3 ports

Apple has been producing MacBook Pro laptops for 13 years now, and that "Pro" suffix has meant to convey that these are serious laptops priced for and pitched at a crowd that values productivity and reliable performance.

However, in recent years, Apple's strong focus on the look of its design above all else did rather detract from that argument. MacBook Pro models were still good laptops, but some design ideas – and specifically, the use of a notoriously unreliable butterfly switch keyboard – meant that they couldn't be called great. Apple has long had a viewpoint that it will sell what it wants to and customers can do it Apple's way or not at all, but in the MacBook Pro space, this meant compromising in an area where many pros just wanted something that, to borrow a phrase that seems particularly apt, "just works".

With the MacBook Pro 16, Apple appears to be listening to its customer base, because this is the best MacBook it's produced for years. It's not a low-cost option, but it hopefully points to where Apple will take the rest of its MacBook line in due course.

Apple MacBook Pro 16

Design

    • Space Grey or Silver finishes
    • Larger display with only a minimal bump in overall size
    • 4 USB ports, but other interfaces would be welcome
    • "Magic" keyboard is a return to sanity

Closed up, the MacBook Pro 16 looks an awful lot like the MacBook Pro 15 it's effectively replacing. The same essential rounded-corners-block-of-aluminium style is very much the story here, whether you choose the space grey or silver variants. Naturally, it has a large reflective Apple logo on the back, because how else would anyone know you're rocking an expensive Apple laptop?

What's actually impressive here is that the Apple MacBook Pro 16 sits on a footprint that's only fractionally larger than the MacBook Pro 15 it replaces. Specifically, it's 1.62 x 35.97 x 24.59cm (HxWxD) with a carrying weight of 2kg, where the older 15 model measured in at 1.55 x 34.93 x 24.07cm and 1.83kg. A 16-inch laptop was always going to be large and heavy, and the MacBook Pro 16 absolutely is that, but if you're coming from the 15-inch model, it's not a massive jump upwards.

Picture nApple MacBook Pro 16ot described

The 16-inch display on the MacBook Pro 16 has a resolution that Apple refers to as a "Retina Display", and that's a term that's never felt quite as irrelevant as it does here, because Apple applies it to everything it sells with a screen, more or less. In technical terms you're staring at a 3,072 x 1,920 pixel display with support for the P3 colour gamut and Apple's own "True Tone" technology for a cleaner overall display. It's certainly a pleasant display to use for (for example) photo work, although for the asking price it can't help but feel a little disappointing that Apple's not pushing out a true 4K display on the MacBook Pro 16, or at least an option for pro users to pay for that.

While I appreciate the quality of the display, the real story for me in the MacBook Pro 16 is the so-called "Magic Keyboard". Apple loves a silly suffix, and the use of "Magic" concerned me. Apple's "Magic" Mouse was (in my opinion) one of the worst peripherals ever made, after all.

Apple MacBook Pro 16

The "Magic" in this case is that Apple has invented time travel, and taken the MacBook Pro keyboard all the way back to 2015, more or less. Gone is the butterfly-switch keyboard used in most other MacBook Pro models (including the 2019 sibling MacBook Pro 13) with a return to scissor switches with much deeper travel. I'm in the camp that absolutely hates the butterfly switches, partly because they're less comfortable, but also because my own experience, and the experience of many, it seems, is that they're considerably less reliable over the medium term.

I've not had the MacBook Pro 16 long enough to really comment on the durability of the keys, but the essential relief I felt going back to the older key design was palpable. I've kept a MacBook Pro 15 from 2015 wheezing along for a while now simply because that was the last scissor-switch model, so seeing Apple making a rare position reversal here is very welcome indeed.

That largesse towards the wishes of real users doesn't end with just better keys, either. You also get more of them.

The Apple MacBook Pro 16 does feature Apple's interactive "Touch Bar" that you either love or loathe (I'm in the latter camp), but it's positioned between two very welcome keys. On the right hand side, the combined TouchID/power button is now its own button, rather than being a part of the Touch Bar. On the right-hand side, the escape key is... well, it's a key again. Apple rather haphazardly placed it on the Touch Bar to the chagrin of many users for prior MacBook Pro designs with the Touch Bar, but on the MacBook Pro 16, it is a distinct actual key. It's especially welcome if you touch type, because you never have to look down at the keyboard any time you want to hit the escape key ever again.

Apple MacBook Pro 16

The arrow keys also go back to a classic, and much easier to touch type with, T-shape that again favours those who don't want to spend a lot of time looking down at their keys when there's productive work to do.

One area Apple really hasn't shifted much on is ports and connectivity. The Apple MacBook Pro 16 features four Thunderbolt 3/USB C ports, one of which is used for charging. You can use any of them in that style, but for such a large laptop it's annoying not to see more input options in play. Yes, it would impact the sideline view of the MacBook Pro, but adding additional features would be a definite plus for what's meant to be a "Pro" notebook. I guess Apple is trying to tell me to shut up and be happy with the new keyboard.

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Performance

  • Core i7 or Core i9 processors give it plenty of grunt
  • Up to 64GB of RAM, but it'll cost you
  • Great speakers and microphone

Is the Apple MacBook Pro 16 a powerful laptop? Oh, my, yes. While Apple has played around in previous years with some configurations for MacBooks that included more low-end options, the two base configurations for the MacBook Pro 16 come with either a 9th Generation 2.6Ghz Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage and a 4GB AMD Radeon Pro 5300M GPU, or a higher end model that steps up to a 2.3Ghz Core i9 processor, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD and 4GB AMD Radeon Pro 5500M GPU.

It's the latter I've tested with, and for most professional purposes such as high-end video processing and the like where the luggability of the MacBook Pro 16 would beat out having a dedicated graphics workstation, it fits the bill nicely.

Apple MacBook Pro 16

Indeed, if you're so inclined, and cashed up enough, you can go the whole hog with the MacBook Pro 16, equipping it with up to an 8TB SSD, 8GB Radeon Pro 5500M GPU, 5.0GHz Core i9 processor and an impressive 64GB of RAM. Mind you, you'd need to have your credit card on anti-depressants to do so, as it would cost you $9,679.

If you are considering the MacBook Pro 16, you should keep in mind that, like Apple's MacBooks of recent years, the RAM is soldered in place. 16GB is a decent entry level point, but you're never going to be able to upgrade it, so if you do need either the 32GB or 64GB upgrades, buy them when you first order the MacBook Pro 16.

The MacBook Pro 16 had little issue with any tasks I could throw at it. To give some benchmark comparison, just testing out the internal SSD storage on the review model, using BlackMagic's Disk Test it scored read/write scores of 2,785.8/2,863.4, compared to 2,553/7/1,273.9 on a 13 inch 2019 MacBook Pro 13 inch laptop. If you're pushing a lot of 4K content at the MacBook Pro 16 you could stress it, but most use cases where it's going to be your go-to machine will see it run without issue.

Indeed, for many users even just the higher-end base MacBook Pro 16 is likely to be overkill. While I've tested out video editing on it for review purposes, I've also used it for more mundane tasks like web research and article writing, and that's rather like taking a Ferrari down to the shops to buy some milk.

Apple MacBook Pro 16

The MacBook Pro 16 features a genuinely good set of onboard speakers, with the idea here being that you'd use them as part of a video editing workflow. While I did play around with that, I won't deny that I also "benchmarked" them with a bit of Netflix binging as well. Don't try that at work, of course, but once you've clocked off for the day it's nice to have a machine that's eminently capable as a small home theatre system in a laptop form factor.

Apple also claims that its inbuilt microphone is "Studio quality", which is a bold claim. I won't be throwing out my podcasting mic of choice any time soon, but for a laptop microphone, the pick-up on the MacBook Pro is very good. I experimentally used the microphone on the MacBook Pro while recording an episode of Vertical Hold as a back-up source.

When editing the podcast together, I did still get better pick-up from a USB-connected Yeti Blue microphone, but I certainly could have used the MacBook Pro's output if something had gone wrong with my primary recording. I could see myself using the MacBook Pro 16 as a rather large voice recorder in the field in a pinch, too.

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Battery life

  • Good battery life for such a large device
  • Can get rather warm under heavy workloads

Laptops with larger displays are usually terrible when it comes to battery life, because screens can sap so much power from any computer. The MacBook Pro 16 is rated by Apple as suitable for "up to" 11 hours of web usage on Wi-Fi, which is a rather bold claim for a larger laptop.

Apple MacBook Pro 16

Surprisingly, it can hit that figure pretty closely. Looping a full-screen, Full HD video to battery exhaustion saw the MacBook Pro 16 conk out at 10 hours and 43 minutes, only slightly shy of Apple's "up to" figure. Now, there's some obvious compromises you've got to make if you're going to use the MacBook Pro 16 away from a charger all day, most notably how well you handle a 2kg anchor on your shoulder all day, but its ability to last for a day's general use is undeniable.

Quite how well that balances against the stated "pro" market for this laptop is a slightly more open question. Push it hard with CPU-taxing tasks and you may find the need of that USB-C connected charger a little more rapidly.

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Should you buy the Apple MacBook Pro 16?

  • The MacBook Pro update that pros have been waiting for

For quite some time now, the future of the Mac platform has been rather up in the air. It's no secret that Apple makes way more money from iPhone sales than it does Mac ones, and the rather stagnant design ideas around new MacBooks lend credence to the idea that the MacBook was a concept living on borrowed time.

By returning to a feature set that has genuine utility for professional users, with a larger display and significantly more comfortable keyboard, Apple has listened to that user base and delivered a top-notch productivity laptop.

It's not for everyone – if you're a more regular user you'll be paying for power you're not entirely going to tap into any time soon – but it's also a hopeful sign that we might see the same magic keyboard, speaker and microphone quality in the next refresh of the 13 inch MacBook Pro too.

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Apple MacBook Pro 16: Pricing and availability

The Apple MacBook Pro 16 sells in Australia with a 9th Generation 2.6Ghz Intel Core i7 processor, 16GB of RAM, 512GB of storage and a 4GB AMD Radeon Pro 5300M GPU for $3,799.

The step up model, with 2.3Ghz Core i9 processor, 16GB RAM, 1TB SSD and 4GB AMD Radeon Pro 5500M GPU retails at $4,399.

You can configure a more powerful model with substantial price increases as a result, but with entirely sealed components, it's not possible to upgrade after the fact.

Apple MacBook Pro 16 specifications

Product Name
Apple MacBook Pro 16
Display Size
16 inches
Resolution
3,072 x 1,920
PPI
226 ppi
Processor
9th Generation Intel Core i7/Core i9
RAM
16GB/32GB/64GB
Storage
512GB/1TB/2TB/4TB/8TB
Operating System
macOS Catalina
Front camera
720p FaceTime HD camera
Battery
Up to 11 hours
Dimensions
1.62 x 35.97 x 24.59cm
Weight
2kg
Price
From $3,799
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