Apple MacBook Pro Review (2019, 16-Inch): A Return to Form

I don’t have many bad things to say about Apple’s new 16-inch MacBook Pro. In my month using it, I’ve found it to be familiar in a good way, and more important, reliable. That’s a big deal, considering that people who’ve been using MacBooks in the past few years can’t quite say the same.

All products have problems, but for some time now, MacBooks have been suffering from a plague of them. If it’s not the keyboard, it’s performance throttling or even potentially hazardous batteries. Media exposure on these issues has been omnipresent, and Apple has taken enough heat in the tech press to make this reengineered MacBook feel like an apology.

It’s a very good apology and, at $2,399 and up, a very expensive one. But rather than rely on a radical new design, the new MacBook Pro plays it safe, adding small improvements and fixing the big problems. While that might make it a bit boring, it could be exactly what Apple needs after years of misfires.

A New Keyboard

From broken keys that pop off to keys that don’t register at all, we’ve all heard constant complaints about MacBook keyboards ever since Apple introduced its new “butterfly switch” in 2015. Apple’s desire to make its laptops thinner and lighter ended up with a mechanism that allowed for less key travel—the amount each key moves when you press down on it—over a traditional, more bulky scissor-switch system. Apple’s design took up less space, but it inadvertently made the keyboard more prone to failure.

Keys could be rendered useless if you were unlucky enough to have dust particles—dust particles!—get under the keycaps. It took a while for Apple to acknowledge the problem and institute a repair policy, despite the company claiming the issue only affected a “small percentage” of MacBook owners. Apple eventually improved the butterfly mechanism with a slight tweak, but the damage to the company’s reputation was done.

Apple says it has spent the past few years on “extensive research and user studies” to inform the design of its next keyboard, until it realized it already had a great design: the Magic Keyboard it makes for the iMac. That same keyboard is the one you’ll find in this year’s 16-inch MacBook Pro.

There’s more key travel on the MacBook Pro now—up from 0.7 millimeters to a full 1 mm—so it feels like you’re actually pressing something when you tap a key. An Apple-made rubber dome makes the keys feel a little springier, and the keycaps don’t wobble as much. No, this is not the greatest keyboard in the history of keyboards, but it’s pretty good for a laptop. The springy feedback is pleasurable; typing is relatively quiet; and best of all, I’ve had zero issues whatsoever.

Also, the physical Escape key is back. No longer just an option on the Touch Bar, it now sits next to the OLED strip and is satisfying to press. The Touch ID fingerprint sensor has similarly been separated from the Touch Bar. It’s over on the right side, making it easier to find without needing to hunt for it. Finally, the arrow keys are back to their more distinct layout.

Photograph: Apple

Reliable Performance

One of the other problems with recent MacBook models is thermal throttling. When the laptop is being used for processor-intensive tasks, it generates a fair amount heat. Things get hotter and hotter until the interior of the computer reaches the maximum recommended temperature set by the CPU manufacturer. The CPU then slows down to cool off and prevent potential damage. But of course, slowing down means choking performance—not ideal when you really need to crank out some work. Apple discovered and fixed a bug that was causing the 2018 MacBook Pro to slow down more than necessary. More improvements in the new 2019 model go further.

For one, the machine’s thermal architecture has been redesigned, netting a 28 percent increase in airflow. A larger heat sink allows for a 35 percent improvement in heat dissipation. The MacBook Pro still gets hot, and it can get really loud as the fans churn, but I’ve yet to see the machine’s performance suffer.

I played Rise of the Tomb Raider for a good deal of time and it ran well, even if I had to crank up the volume to drown out the fans. I couldn’t point to any performance-related issues to blame for my shoddy gameplay. I also edited a 4K video in Adobe Premiere Pro over the course of two hours, and I barely saw the machine stutter.

It should be noted that I’m using a model of the MacBook Pro that’s slightly more kitted out than the $2,399 base configuration. My model, which Apple loaned me for testing, has the 2.4-GHz, 8-core, ninth-generation Intel Core i9 CPU with 32 GB of RAM, an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M graphics card with 8 gigs of memory, along with 2 TB of storage. All of that techspeak essentially means it’s very powerful. And the price reflects that: $3,899. That’s not even as high as you can go with the upgrades, either. You could take the RAM all the way up to 64 GB and bump the storage up to an insane 8 TB for a price tag of $6,099. Yikes.

The fully loaded versions of the Dell XPS 15 and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Extreme Gen 2 don’t go as far as the MacBook Pro in terms of features, but they are only a little more expensive than the base version of Apple’s 16-inch laptop. Also, you can replace components in those competing machines, while everything in Apple’s laptop is soldered in. So you’ll not only pay more to buy a MacBook Pro, you’ll pay more to upgrade or repair it too.

There are other costs to consider, like bulk and weight. The 16-inch MacBook Pro is bigger and heavier than the 15-inch MacBook Pro it replaces (though not by much). It’s a massive laptop that just fits into my bag. You won’t notice too much of a difference coming from the 15-inch MacBook Pro, but if you’re like me and are coming from a 13-inch laptop, be warned that your coffee table will feel more cramped.

If you also sometimes hold your laptop in one hand to do some quick work standing up, as I do when I’m powering through emergencies at trade shows, this isn’t the ideal choice. Your arm will quickly tire of holding up the 4.3-pound machine.

But I don’t want to complain too much about size and weight. Apple has long tried to build the lightest and most portable products, seemingly at any cost, but we see a change of heart this year. The iPhone 11 Pro is heavier and thicker than its predecessor, with the upshot of class-leading battery life. The heavier and thicker MacBook Pro allows for better heat management and a better keyboard. If the easing of size constraints entails some trade-offs, I’ll take them.

All-Around Excellence

Beyond the nice keyboard and exemplary performance, the rest of the MacBook Pro measures up. The 16-inch screen has slim bezels around it, delivering a more modern look next to laptops like the Dell XPS 13.

The 3,072 x 1,920 resolution display is sharper than the 2,560 x 1,600 panel on the 15-inch MacBook Pro, and it looks gorgeous. Colors look accurate, contrast is excellent, and it can get very bright. I did some work at the dog park and had no trouble seeing the LCD screen in sunny conditions.

Otherwise, the MacBook Pro looks like, well, any other MacBook that came before. That follows through with the trackpad, which is excellent, as usual, with the ability to register the gentlest of taps; not to mention the fact that it affords a generous amount of space.

But if I was tasked with taking one feature from the MacBook Pro and deploying it to every other laptop in its class, I’d have to choose the speakers. It might seem a little silly to rave about tiny speakers, especially if you usually wear headphones, but I truly think the MacBook Pro’s new six-speaker system is the best you can get on a laptop. It has ruined all other laptop speakers for me.

Music sounds rich and dynamic, and audio can easily fill a small room—all of which I found helpful when editing a video. It’s handy not to have to rely on headphones to get a better picture of what the video sounds like when you have such good speakers. There are “studio-quality” microphones as well, and I’d say they’re quite comparable to my Blue Yeti USB mic, producing little distracting hiss.

Battery life is good and lasts an entire workday, especially when work largely consists of Slack, web browsing, and a lot of typing. Anything more intensive will send the battery percentage dropping fast. For example, a two-hour editing session in Adobe Premiere Pro saw my battery dip from around 80 to 22 percent. Thankfully, charging the laptop back up is a quick affair with the included 96-watt adapter, which is also reasonably compact.

The Missing Link

For all these upgrades, it’s puzzling that the 720p webcam hasn’t seen any improvement, namely in the form of Face ID. Where is it? Apple’s biometric authentication on MacBooks is still relegated to Touch ID, which is fine, but Face ID would be more convenient. It would also put the MacBook Pro on par not only with Windows machines that offer Windows Hello face authentication, but also Apple’s other Pro-labeled products with screens, which support Face ID.

The Touch Bar, which sits above the keyboard and offers access to brightness and volume controls, is still largely useless. Because it’s an OLED strip, it can morph into context-specific tools in various apps. For example, in Safari, you can tap the Touch Bar to search for a website. It sounds neat on paper, but I’ve yet to find a killer reason to tap on this slim screen instead of moving my fingers a few centimeters and tapping on the trackpad. We’ve had a few years with the Touch Bar, and it’s still not very compelling. Bring back physical buttons!

Know what else would be nice to bring back? Varied ports! Apple has four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C ports here, along with a headphone jack (surprising, I know). That’s all well and good, but considering this machine is meant for professionals, is it too much to ask for an SD card slot, or maybe even a USB-A port so that I don’t need to carry so many dongles?

An Expensive Apology

The quibbles I have with the MacBook Pro are far outweighed by the positivity of my experience in using it this past month. The question now is, should you buy it? If you have the funds and want the best and biggest laptop Apple has to offer, then the 16-inch MacBook Pro is the way to go.

But it’s probably more laptop than you need. Apple will likely refresh the 13-inch MacBook Pro next year, replacing its thermals with a similar system, as well as getting rid of the butterfly switches on the keyboard. (And yes, this 16-incher is the only MacBook with the updated keyboard design for now.) Apple might even eventually bring these enhancements to the MacBook Air. If you want a smaller and cheaper machine, I’d say wait—but only if you’re not interested in switching over to Windows.

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