Who doesn’t love a good news/bad news joke? You know, like the one on the Roman galleon ship: “Gentlemen,” says the whip master to the galley slaves, “I have good news and bad news. The good news: For the first time in a year, you all get a change of underwear!” The rowers cheer. “The bad news is: Julian, you trade with Cato. Cornelius, you trade with Drusa…”
Apple’s new laptop, called the MacBook Pro, is also a good news/bad news story.
Which do you want to hear first?
The good news
OK, here it is. The new flagship laptops from Apple (AAPL), available in 13- and 15-inch screen sizes and a choice of aluminum colors, are thinner (0.6 inches), lighter (3 and 4 pounds), and faster than ever before. They’re not tapered like the MacBook Air, but they’re thinner than the Air was at its thickest part.
That’s right, “was.” The existing MacBook Air will remain available for awhile, but there won’t be any more models. Told you this was good news/bad news.
The MacBook Pro screen is a masterpiece. It’s so bright, it could light up a runway. It’s a Retina screen (resolution so high, you can’t see the pixels), which is something MacBook Air fans have waited for forever. The color is spectacular. You will love this screen.
Especially because Apple has shaved away most of the margin around it. As a result, this laptop is actually about an inch smaller in each dimension than the Air, despite having the same size screen.
The new MacBooks are very fast; as you can see in my video above, they demolish the wait times on the equivalent MacBook Airs.
The trackpad is huge, which makes a difference when, for example, you’re painting in Photoshop or pinching to zoom out. The speakers are more powerful and sound great. Battery life is 8 to 10 hours, somewhat less than in previous models.
The keys are very flat and don’t travel much at all. I actually dig it—I can really fly when I type—but lots of people hate it, at least initially. Try before you buy.
The Touch Bar
The star feature of the new laptops, though, is the Touch Bar.
Above the keyboard, where the function keys (F1, F2, F3…) once sat, there’s a colorful, half-inch–tall, Retina, 2170×60 pixel, OLED touch screen. It can display whatever programmers want: buttons for functions you might need right now, a rainbow of color selections, or a timeline of the video you’re editing. The Touch Bar is designed to give you quick access to commands and features that are usually hidden in menus—but now you don’t have to memorize keystrokes to trigger them.
The controls here change according to what you’re doing at this moment—what program you’re using, and what function within that program.
When you’re typing, you might see QuickType (autocomplete buttons for the three words the Mac thinks you’re most likely to want to type next, just as on a smartphone). When you’re in Safari, you see thumbnails for your open page tabs. When you’ve selected text, you get formatting controls. When you’re editing video or reading an iBook, you see a horizontal “map” of your movie or book, for quick navigation with a finger touch.
All the major programs that come with the Mac have been outfitted with Touch Bar controls. Other software companies, including Adobe (ADBE) and Microsoft (MSFT), will be adding Touch Bar buttons to their programs, too.
In many programs, you can customize what’s on the Touch Bar, so that the functions you use most often are always glowing there.
Editing your Touch Bar is a strange, delightful procedure. You inspect the palette of available Touch Bar buttons on your Mac’s main screen. You can drag one of those buttons downward with your mouse, down off the screen, “through” the laptop’s hinge, and onto the Touch Bar. Super cool.
There’s no feedback when you tap the Touch Bar—no little beep or vibration—so you do have to glance at it to see what you’re doing. Fortunately, the Touch Bar image is actually angled, not flat, so it’s looking right at you.
Even though I’m a hardcore keyboard-shortcut nut, I kept finding situations where the Touch Bar is a truly helpful work accelerator: navigating a video I’m editing without having to fuss with the onscreen scroll bar, for example, or tapping out emoji symbols in Messages.
(If you miss the old function keys, like F1, F2, F3, you can have them back on command. Just hold down the physical fn key on your keyboard; the Touch Bar buttons change to the old F-keys.)
The right end of the Touch Bar is a customizable Control Strip, which expands at a touch, in any program, to reveal the standard brightness and volume keys.
Oh—and being able to log in without entering a password 65 times a day is a joy. The power button—the rightmost Touch Bar button—is also a Touch ID fingerprint reader, the same sensor that’s on the iPhone and iPad. Once you’ve taught the Mac to recognize your fingerprint, just resting your finger on this button is enough to unlock it, bypassing the password screen.
In fact, if you’ve set up your Mac with different accounts, the next person can insta-switch to his account just by clicking the Touch ID sensor himself—no logging out, no menu commands, no other steps.
Finally, you can use your fingerprint to approve App Store purchases with a single touch, or to buy stuff on the web without having to enter your name, address, and credit card info over and over again (Apple Pay).
And now the bad news
Are you sitting down?
Apple has eliminated all the traditional jacks.
The MacBook Pro has no standard USB jacks, no video output jack, no SD card reader for your camera’s memory card. Gaaahhh!
This laptop doesn’t even use the MagSafe magnetic power cord. Remember how Apple used to promote this fantastic idea? People couldn’t drag your laptop off the desk by tripping on the cord. All of that—gone. And all of your current laptop power chargers are now worthless to you.
In the place of all that, Apple has put two or four USB-C jacks.
Now, I love USB-C. It’s a universal connector: It’s a power cord, and it carries data like USB, and video like HDMI, and audio, like—audio.
And it’s universal across brands, too. Google (GOOG, GOOGL), Microsoft, and Samsung are already using it. You may curse Apple for changing connector styles yet again—but this time, it’s not for its own benefit. Apple is changing to a global industry standard, meaning that for the first time, you won’t have to buy Apple power chargers and Apple video dongles.
You can plug the power cord into any of these jacks on the MacBook Pro—on either side.
There’s no upside-down to the USB-C connector, and no wrong end. USB-C is amazing. People call it the Jesus jack.
However. It’s a little early to eliminate all those other jacks. For the next couple of years, you’ll need adapters. Dongles. Adapters for your flash drives. For your monitors. For your printer. For your camera.
Apple says that by eliminating all alternatives, it’s forcing the industry to get on the USB-C wagon much faster. That’s probably true, but man; for the next year or two, fumbling for adapters all the time is going to be clumsy and awkward.
A least the adapters for regular USB gadgets are cheap; here, you can get three for $11. Here’s a USB-C card reader for $8. (Those are much better deals than Apple’s own adapters, even after the company dropped prices by 25% in response to customer rage.)
Then there are the power cords. Lots of people own two or three, which they leave plugged in at different work spots. Apple’s are $80 each, and aren’t as polished as they used to be. For example, you no longer get the six-foot power-cord extension in the box; the white brick no longer has wrapping prongs; and the connector no longer lights up to tell you if it’s charging. (You do get a little chime, just as on the iPhone.)
(This is also the first Mac in history that doesn’t make a happy little chime when you turn it on, which is strange and sad. Also weird: The laptop powers on when you open the lid—even if it was turned all the way off.)
Fortunately, you don’t have to use Apple chargers anymore. You can borrow a USB-C charger from someone’s Google phone, Microsoft tablet, or whatever, because USB-C is a universal power cord!
I tried plugging the charger from a Google Pixel phone into the Apple laptop. Sure enough, it started charging the MacBook! Very, very slowly, of course—the charging speed depends on the wattage of the adapter you’re using. But the point is: universal. All brands, all devices. Phone, tablet, laptop, desktop: all can use the exact same charger. This is a historic moment.
The second bale of bad news: the price. These are expensive laptops. The cheapest model (with only two USB-C ports and no Touch Bar) is $1,500, which is $500 more than the base MacBook Air model used to be.
The basic Touch Bar model is $1,800 (13-inch) or $2,400 (15-inch).
If you max out the storage and speed of a 15-inch model, the grand total is $4,300. For that, you could buy a fancy couch, or a week in Las Vegas, or a used car. Or one night in the Franklin Suite at the new Trump hotel in Washington.
And that doesn’t include any adapters.
Now, look: If a Mac is your main work machine, then you can probably justify the purchase. The size, weight, speed, screen, and Touch Bar are really fantastic. And you can now upgrade that solid-state drive to 1 terabyte of storage (on the 13-inch) or even 2 terabytes (on the 15-inch), which is double the previous max.
Life with the MacBook Pro
The “Pro” part of the name is the controversial one. Many creative professionals are deeply frustrated that the new laptops’ maximum memory is 16 gigabytes. That’s always been the MacBook Pro max, but for high-end work like video editing and Photoshop, pros want more, more, more—and Windows laptops are available with 32 gigs of memory.
For everyone else, though, using the MacBook Pro is a delight. The speed, screen, Touch Bar, and universality of chargers are all huge leaps forward, and they make day-to-day life with this machine very satisfying. That’s the good news.
The bad news is carrying around all those adapters—and ponying up the money you’ll have to pay for the opportunity.
David Pogue, tech columnist for Yahoo Finance, welcomes non-toxic comments in the Comments below. On the Web, he’s davidpogue.com. On Twitter, he’s @pogue. On email, he’s firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s how to get his columns by email.