First Look: The no-Touch Bar MacBook Pro still delivers speed, style

The entry-level 13-in. model -- the only one currently shipping -- makes a compelling case for itself

Apple unveiled three new radically redesigned Apple MacBook Pro laptops last week, two of which feature a cutting edge function-key replacement -- the new Touch Bar, including Touch ID -- and one of which did not. Guess which one I have?

I'll have a look soon at the Touch Bar-equipped MacBook Pro (which isn't shipping for two or three weeks), but first, let's talk about the entry-level 13-in. model, unveiled Oct. 27.

For price-conscious buyers, this model still represents a good choice. At a reasonable 3 lb., 0.58 in. thick when closed, and with a smaller footprint to boot, it's apparent that the 13-in. MacBook Pro is what the MacBook Air dreams to be when it's in sleep mode. Compared to the Air, the new 13-in. Pro has a higher-quality display; a better, faster Core i5 processor; faster, modern USB-C ports for connectivity; a much faster SSD; and the first case update in four years.

mbp family Michael deAgonia

The 13-in. MacBook Pro (center) next to a MacBook Air (left) and an older 15-in. MacBook Pro (right).

I'm a big fan of the MacBook line. I love the balance of power and portability; I love the aesthetics (especially the Space Gray MacBook); I love the glass multitouch trackpad; and I even love the keyboard -- the stiffer, larger key design and the shorter key-stroke throw really works for me. (Other Mac users disagree, and feel the keys are too shallow.)

When I reviewed the first MacBook last year, I said that users who lamented the lack of standard (USB-A) ports and those that needed more processing power should instead focus on the MacBook Pro lineup. That advice no longer holds, since the new MacBook Pro no longer has standard USB ports. (The older model is still being sold, however, should you really need USB-A.)

mbp port keyboard Michael deAgonia

The entry-level MacBook Pro gets two USB-C Thunderblot 3 ports and an updated keyboard like the one in the MacBook.

This new MacBook Pro takes last year's advances from the less expensive MacBook and moves them to Apple's Pro line-up. At $1,499, the base model's price lines up well in Apple's notebook strategy, as it costs a couple of hundred dollars more than the MacBook, and it's $300 less than the cheapest MacBook Pro with the Touch Bar. (That one starts at $1,799 and will be available later this month, likely at the same time the larger 15-in. model arrives.)

The MacBook Pro does offer quite a few major changes, with design decisions obviously influenced directly from the MacBook. Aside from what's new, it's important to highlight what's gone: Every bit of connectivity found in the last-generation MacBook Pro (USB-A, the MagSafe power port, the SD card slot). In their place are two Thunderbolt 3 ports -- four in the Touch Bar models -- and the headphone jack. The good news is that USB-C should be around for a while, and the Thunderbolt 3 ports Apple uses support very fast transfer rates (up to 40Gbps). The downside: You're going to have to invest in dongles. Or a hub. Or both.

That's the biggest shift mandated by the latest round of MacBook Pro models, and will force owners to make some choices. Buy new peripherals or figure out some way to connect your old peripherals to this new laptop. (Did I mention there will be dongles?)

The trade-off is that you get better specs: a brighter, sharper, deeper Retina display; a new speaker system; the second-generation keyboard; and a lovely, enormous multitouch Force Touch trackpad. Apple trackpads are second to none, and the larger the trackpad, the more you can rely on gestures to use the new MacBook Pro.

mbp 13 Michael DeAgonia

The new 13-in. MacBook Pro sitting in top of a MacBook Air, showing the new model's smaller footprint.

It's also fast. Computerworld's Lucas Merian says it may be the fastest shipping notebook on the market. According to Apple, the 13-in. MacBook Pro has sequential read/write speeds of 3.1Gbps and 2.1Gbps per second, respectively. That's roughly double the read/write speeds of the last generation. (The 15-in. model is marginally faster still.)

With that in mind, I used the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test to check the on-board SSD speeds. Blackmagic showed write speeds up to 1.3Gbps and read speeds that pinned the needle at 2Gbps. So yes, it's as fast as Apple claims, which should bode well for would-be buyers concerned about the laptop's more mainstream CPU and GPU.

In terms of these tech specs, the processor speeds and integrated Intel graphics chipset indicate a computer that's not entirely top-of-the-line. The entry-level MacBook Pro has a dual-core 2.0GHz i5 processor (Skylake) and shared graphics at a time when quad-core processors and a dedicated graphics card are preferred. That's especially true since macOS is tuned for multicore chips, including the use of dedicated GPUs as additional processors.

The pricier 15-in. MacBook Pro, which starts at $2,399, comes with a Core i7 processor and dedicated graphics. So if you need that kind of processing power, you'll need to step up to one of those models.

That said, the super-fast PCIe-based storage and its inherent speed boost goes a long way in real-world use to making up for those less-than-top-end processors in the smaller model.

Bottom line

In short, from the beautiful design to the updated internals there really is a lot to like -- even without the Touch Bar. I've only had a few days to try out the 13-in. MacBook Pro, but I can already tell that while it may not be revolutionary, it's more than an evolution.

First look checklist:

Pros:

  • Solid construction
  • Gorgeous design
  • Fast read/write speeds
  • Light-weight
  • Enlarged trackpad
  • Larger gamut, brighter Retina display

Cons

  • No Magsafe
  • No USB-A
  • No smart card reader
  • No optical audio through headphone port
  • No start-up chime or lighted Apple behind the screen

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