web analytics

Apple’s 2016 MacBook Pro has a slim new body. It boasts a faster processor, larger trackpad, improved keyboard, better speakers and a glorious high-resolution Retina display.

Everything in that list, except maybe the keyboard, is an improvement on earlier MacBooks. If you own an old MacBook Pro that’s approaching the end of its life, now is a good time to upgrade. You’ll get a definite performance bump, a better experience and greater mobility.

Complaints about ports and dongles are real enough but overstated. In a year or so everyone will wonder what the fuss was about.

The more expensive new MacBook Pro models have two important additions. The Touch Bar and Touch ID sensor are a departure from earlier computer designs.

Apple’s Touch Bar replaces the row of function keys while the Touch ID button sits on the far right of the function key row where the power button once lived.

Cosmetic or innovation?

People want to know if the Touch Bar and Touch ID are gimmicks or whether they help productivity. They may not be a Great Leap Forward, but they are useful. More useful than you might think. And they are more than just cosmetic upgrades.

Touch ID works on the MacBook Pro in the same way it does on iPhones and iPads. You can use it to bypass the login password. It may not give you a huge productivity boost, but it makes for a better experience.

Move back to a Mac without Touch ID and you’ll miss it.

Touch ID also works as verification for some apps and websites. If you have Apple Pay you can use it to make payments. You can login to some services with it. It won’t change your life, it will rub a few rough corners a fraction smoother.

Touch Bar controllers

Replacing the function key row with a Touch Bar is more radical than it looks. You can still use the function keys by hitting the function key. If you’ve memorised function key shortcuts they are all still there. At times I’ve managed to turn unchanged type the keys and they are exactly where my fingers expect to find them. But replacing function keys is not the whole story.

Because the Touch Bar is a long, thin touchscreen many apps can use the space to let you know your function key options. They can display function names, not just F1 or whatever.

They can have names written on them, show icons or be displayed in bright colours to draw your attention. The functions can change dynamically depending on the state of the software.

In the Safari browser tiny thumbnails of tab displays show allowing to switch quickly between pages. Navigation keys are also more obvious.

Touch Bar when a video is playing in Safari
Touch Bar when a video is playing in Safari

The Touch Bar comes into its own when apps need slider controls. In iTunes you can move a slider to control the volume.

Touch Bar for iTunes
Touch Bar for iTunes

In Garage Band the slider controls various functions for things like the mixing desk or dials used for synthesiser settings and so on. In graphics apps and photos editing tools you can use the Touch Bar to pick colours and so on.

It’s a touchscreen…

With the Touch Bar Apple has drawn a clear line in the sand between Macs and Windows computers.

Apple company wisdom has it that if you want a touchscreen device, you can get an iPad. If you want a more traditional Keyboard-based computer get a Mac. That way won’t need to keep reaching from the keyboard to screen and back again.

Touch Bar for MacOS Mail app
Touch Bar for MacOS Mail app

Apart from anything else, that constant reaching an occupational overuse hazard waiting to happen. The reach from the keyboard to screen is neither natural nor comfortable. I found aches on my forearms when I first spent a lot of time with the Microsoft Surface.

So the Touch Bar gives you some of the functionality you might get from a touch screen, but without the constant reaching.

Theory, practice,

That’s the theory. In practice it works better than you might expect. If it doesn’t make a lot of sense when you see the idea written down, wait until you start using it for real tasks. It takes a little adjusting.

Apple hasn’t done a great job of explaining any of this in its marketing so far. The Touch Bar wasn’t well described during the October 27 MacBook Pro launch.

To be fair, there wasn’t a huge amount of software support for the feature at the time of the launch. It has been progressively added over the past six weeks or so with more and more software using the feature. You also get the feeling that many developers have yet to learn how to make the most of the Touch Bar.

It’s hard to estimate how much extra you pay for Touch Bar and Touch ID because the specifications of models with and without the features are somewhat different.

Even if it is not a great leap forward, it is a useful step towards greater productivity. Often when Apple makes a change of this type, there’s a little market noise or even sneering from rivals, then other computer makers add the feature or something similar to their products. This may not happen with Touch Bar as the Windows world is busy ploughing ahead with full-on touch screens.

HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat

There has never been a better time to buy an ultraportable computer. PC makers may face falling sales, but they haven’t stopped building great laptops.

For years the laptop market was stagnant, with lacklustre me-too designs and unappetising performance. That’s changed.

The challenge from phones and tablets has spurred a new wave of innovation. In some cases, laptop makers pulled technologies from phones and used them to build better laptops.

We’re seeing a laptop renaissance. Here are six of 2016’s best choices. Four are traditional laptops, albeit slimmed down and stripped back for mobile productivity. One is a hybrid, the other is a tablet moonlighting as a hybrid.

You can find fuller reviews of all the models mentioned here elsewhere on this site. They are expensive but remember this is a round-up of today’s best models.

The list is not in any particular order. Each one is worth considering. We’d be happy to live with any one of these computers, they are all worthy of your attention.

HP Spectre

HP Spectre rear ports

The Spectre marks a return to form for HP. It is slimmer than the 2016 Apple MacBook, with a great keyboard and three USB-C ports. HP didn’t skimp on the power either, inside is a full Intel Core i processor.

This is the best Windows laptop so far this year. It will take some beating. What you don’t get for the NZ$2500 and up asking price is a touch screen. If you think you’ll miss that, look at the Surface Pro or the Elitebook.

Dell XPS 13 Touch

Dell XPS 13 TouchIf you like a touch screen on a Windows laptop, Dell’s XPS 13 Touch should be on your list. Prices start at NZ$2800. For that money you get a dazzling 13.3-inch quad HD+ display along with a Core i7–5500U running at 2.5 GHz. That’s a lot of power in a small package.

The remarkable thing about the screen is despite being 13.3 inches, the computer is the same size as other 12-inch models. Dell does this by almost doing away with the bezels. Also worth noting, the XPS has great battery life. It beats everything here except the Apple models.

2016 Apple MacBook

MacbookNot everyone wants a Windows ultraportable. Apple may be about to retire the MacBook Air that started the ultraportable trend. So if you want a non-Windows machine it’s this or the iPad Pro.

The 2016 MacBook is thin and so light you may forget you’re carrying one in your bag. It has a great keyboard and a wonderful Retina display. Apple built a new keyboard for the MacBook. It isn’t everyone’s taste, but in practice, this is a wonderful machine to work with. Prices start at $2400.

Microsoft Surface Pro 4

f4202834-00cb-4717-a652-3bc5b6cb8f1c

Microsoft had a few goes at getting its laptop-PC hybrid right. This fourth-generation device got there in the end after a few firmware teething troubles. The result is well worth the wait. For Windows fans it is close to a dream machine being as coupled to its software as an Apple computer. A Microsoft operating system never felt this good.

Prices start at NZ$1600 plus another $240 for the type cover. Most people would be better off skipping the underpowered Core m3 entry-level model and getting a Core i model. Prices go all the way to a nosebleed NZ$4900 for a 1TB Surface Pro 4 with a Core i7 processor and 16GB Ram.

HP Elitebook Folio G1

HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat
HP Elitebook Folio G1 laid flat

HP’s made-for-business ultrabook is a touch more conservative looking and thicker than the Spectre. Yet it is still a powerhouse on the inside. The Elitebook has corporate features like Intel vPro support. It also folds back to a 180 degree position for laptop work.

There’s still the minimal aesthetic and only two USB-C ports. It comes in four configurations with an NZ$2600 non-touch screen model under-pinning the range. Spend $3700 and you get a the top of the line model. It has an ultra-high definition (UHD) touch screen with 3840 by 2160 pixels, an Intel Core m7 processor, 8GB of Ram and a 512GB solid state drive.

Apple iPad Pro 12.9

The 12.9-inch iPad Pro isn’t a true 2016 model, it appeared late last year. It also differs from the rest of the pack because it isn’t a laptop. It’s less of a laptop than the Surface Pro; a tablet with an optional keyboard.

While not for everyone, it does most of the work the other devices here can do and does many of them well, some better. Fans swear it replaces traditional computers, although it’s not good at dealing with complex file system problems.

Prices start at NZ$1400 and go all the way to $2180 for  a Sim card version with 256 GB of memory. You’ll need to find another $320 for the keyboard and, maybe, $190 for the Apple Pencil.

Apple MacBook Pro

Apart from the 2016 MacBook, Apple’s entire Mac line is overdue for a refresh. Sam Byford at The Verge caused a stir last week writing; “Apple should stop selling four-year-old computers“.

MacBook aside, Apple’s August 2016 catalogue is the same as it was a year ago. It is more than a year since any other Macs had an update.

Today’s Mac Mini design is coming up to its second birthday. The workstation-class Mac Pro is almost three years old. These are nothing compared to the last non-Retina MacBook Pro in Apple’s range. That computer is now more than four years old.

Put in those terms it all sounds terrible.

Bigger picture

Byford is right, but he misses the bigger picture. Indeed, a number of bigger pictures.

Let’s start with the biggest picture: Innovation is far from dead at Apple. There are new iPhone models every year. Cynics may quibble, but they are always among the most advanced digital devices of any description.

Likewise, Apple’s iPad Pro models are computers by any standard. They are sophisticated and do most of the things people buy laptops for. They compete with Macs. For some users they are a better option.

Not only Apple is stagnant

Another big picture overlooked in Byford’s article is that if the Mac line-up stagnant, that reflects the state of the PC market.

Intel rolls out new processors every year. The chips keep coming, but these days the change in performance is, at best, incremental.

You’d be hard-pressed to notice any performance difference between any computer built with a 2016 processor compared to one built four years ago.

Today’s top PC processors boost computer performance by ten percent compared with the best in 2012. There’s less of a boost when you compare mainstream PC processors.  Ten percent makes no difference to how fast you produce documents or surf the web. Your cloud apps won’t be faster. The extra performance may show up if you do heavy-duty video editing, but you’d probably be using different hardware anyway.

Buyers don’t care

Perhaps the most significant big picture is of less interest to computer buyers, but is the most important of all from a computer maker’s point of view. Customers are happy with Apple’s Mac line-up. Or at least they were happy until recently.

For most of the four years since Apple last refreshed the non-Retina MacBook Pro, Macs gained market share from other PC makers.

In mid-2012, Apple didn’t feature among the top five PC brands for global shipments. Both IDC and Gartner bundled Apple into their tables as part of the others at the bottom of their lists.

Markets not bothered

At the time Gartner put Apple’s US market share at 10 percent. By the start of 2016 Apple’s US was almost 13 percent. For the first quarter of 2016 Apple accounted for 7.1 percent of global shipments up from 6.4 percent a year earlier. In other words, customers were buying more, not fewer, of what could be described as outdated computers.

Market share, and quarterly shipment market share at that, are lousy statistics to use for complex  arguments about the state of a computer maker’s strategy. Yet it’s clear Apple’s failure to update its products hasn’t damaged its business. At least not so far.

That last phrase, so far is the killer. Apple’s laptop rivals have lifted their game in recent months. HP is enjoying a product renaissance with impressive models like the Spectre and EliteBook Folio G1.

Meanwhile, Apple has a MacBook Air range that screams out for higher resolution displays. The MacBook satisfies an important niche, but does not suit everyone. And what’s with not being able to connect it to a high-resolution monitor? The MacBook Pros need performance bumps. Mac Mini seems half dead and the Mac Pro is languishing.

Although the 2016 MacBook has changed little since last year, it is much improved.

If the song remains the same, it now lasts longer and has a faster tempo.

That’s because Apple uses newer Intel Core M processors. Intel’s updated chip gives the MacBook a speed boost and at least an extra hour of battery life.

Apple Core

The review model has a 1.1GHz Intel Core m3 processor. It is the anchor model in the range and costs NZ$2400.

Pay NZ$2900 and you can move up to a 2016 MacBook with a 1.2GHz Intel Core m5 processor. If you go down the built-to-order route, there’s an optional 1.3GHz Core m7 model at NZ$3170.

That option might not be the best approach if you’re looking for more mobile power. You wouldn’t choose a MacBook for grunt.

And anyway, reports say Apple will launch a new Retina screen MacBook Pro later this year. It is likely to more compact than existing MacBook Pros.

More than a speed bump

The newer Intel chips represent more than a simple speed bump. My review MacBook was faster than last year’s model. Some applications run 25 percent faster.

That speed boost is significant. The 2015 MacBook was more than enough for most office type applications. It could be sluggish at times if you pushed it with more advanced creative tasks.

To be fair, I never found that’s a problem. It struggled with games. I’m not a gamer, at best I dabble, but the old MacBook would sometimes lag. You wouldn’t say that about the 2016 model. The difference is like night and day.

Computer power is a curious thing. For years constant upgrades were essential because software demands ran ahead of hardware capability. That hasn’t been the case for over a decade, yet people often think they need more power.

Often they don’t. Most of the time we browse, answering mail, write, listen to music, watch videos and using cloud apps. Only a tiny fraction of users push the limits with apps like video rendering. Unless you know you plan to use demanding apps, the 2016 MacBook will more than meet your power needs.

Gimme just a little more time

For most mobile worker battery life is more important than processor power. This is where the Intel processor upgrade is more important.

My older MacBook Air can go a full working day away from home on a single charge. The battery doesn’t last as long as it once did, but it is still good for nine hours.

The 2015 MacBook couldn’t make it to the end of eight hours without charging. By about 4 PM on a normal, away-from-home working day I’d be getting battery alerts. I’d put that at about 7.5 hours of usable life.

In comparison the 2016 MacBook has at least another hour in the tank. In testing it would go for almost nine hours before the alerts started. I’d be making my way home before needing a charger.

An extra 90 minutes and 25 percent more processing power amount to a big improvement.

This, by the way, has been Apple’s launch pattern: a new product appears, then a year later it gets a performance boost.

A rose by any other name

The only other change of note is cosmetic. The 2016 MacBook now comes in Apple’s ‘rose gold’ finish.

Otherwise it’s still the same beautiful tapered aluminium slab. Sitting closed it looks like it could be a tablet. The body is 13mm deep at its thickest point and about the size of an A4 sheet of paper. The 2016 MacBook weighs 900 grams.

Apple stuck with the 12-inch Retina display. At first sight it looks small in comparison with other laptop screens. In use, the lit 2304 by 1440 pixels look beautiful. Photos display in great detail. Text is always crisp and easy to read, even at small point sizes.

Can you feel the force?

The Force Touch keypad feels great, although there are few applications making use of it.

Not everyone warms to the keyboard. It’s shallow and offers little travel. You may take a while to adapt to it. Here’s the odd thing about the MacBook keyboard.

When I’m working on the MacBook, it feels fine to me. I don’t notice any obvious shortcomings. There are no ringing alarm bells in my head. My typing productivity is normal. Perhaps a few more typos, but the speed is still there.

And yet when I returned to my MacBook Air after a month with the 2016 MacBook, I was like going back to a warm, comfy chair. I didn’t feel the step down to the 2016 MacBook, I did feel the step up back to my regular keyboard.

Oddities for now

Many reviewers and users complain about the lack of ports on the MacBook. You get one headphone jack and one USB-C port. This handles power supply as well as any wired peripherals.

Critics say if you buy a MacBook you need an adaptor to back-up to an external drive or use a monitor while charging. It’s clumsy looking and jars with the MacBook’s minimal vibe.

That’s true. Yet in practice I found I never need to use an external screen with the MacBook. My back-ups are all handled by wireless connections. For that matter, I use Bluetooth to connect external speakers.

The MacBook forced me to update some old-fashioned ideas. I still have a cable back-up drive, but it’s third level back-up behind a NAS drive and a Seagate wireless drive. That clumsy looking adaptor spends most of its life in a drawer.

The future MacBook

In some ways the MacBook is still ahead of its time. Many users, particularly those working for companies with strict technology policies may feel restricted. I find it liberating.

For me mobility, simplicity and all-day battery life trump most other considerations. One day most laptops will be like this.

Apple iPad Pro

Microsoft understands where personal computing is heading. So does Apple.

Only a handful of today’s computers matter1. None are Windows laptops. None are desktops.

They are:

Everything else is legacy computing, a clever clone of one of the above or specialist kit for  power users2.

Evolution

All three3 represent evolutionary steps from the old PC model. They also represent a move from local processing towards a cloud, web and services model.

This last point is essential. The productivity bottleneck in old-style personal computing was running out of the headroom needed to run many local apps at the same time.

When, say, a new version of Microsoft Office appeared, there was a worry that existing hardware couldn’t carry the extra load.

Everyday users don’t care about those things any more.

Browser is king

Today a lot of apps run in the browser. Most apps are lightweight compared to the old behemoths. And, I’m thinking here of iOS, they can stay live in the background without chewing resources.

We use computers so different today that the old resource requirements don’t make sense. They haven’t been essential since the first netbooks arrived more than a decade ago.

Microsoft and Apple recognise this. Their response has been to pare back the personal computer to its essentials. Add a great display, long battery life and, in most cases, touch.

Most people in most jobs can achieve everything they need on one of these three computers. Before you write to tell me this is nonsense, ask yourself if your arguments are matters that concern mainstream users.

Hurdles

There are still hurdles. All these machines are expensive compared to mainstream PCs. Not everyone can afford the premium prices they command. I get that.

You might argue some of the devices I list are underpowered. Well, maybe, but we’re talking mainstream computing here. It’s been a generation since computers struggled to deliver the power I need for writing, publishing and trimming photos to size.

Some say “you can’t do real work” on these devices. That maybe true for some given value of real work, but be realistic about what other people do on their computers.

Most of the critics can’t get their head around the idea that for most people Microsoft Word is the most sophisticated app in their locker.

I’ve spent weeks at a time using each of a Surface Pro 4, 2015 MacBook and iPad Pro as my only computer. In each case there are either a few, minor things I can’t do or that involve an uncomfortable compromise.

For the most part these problems were down to my unwillingness to change old habits. None of these were deal breakers. And I’m old. I’ve been using personal computers for 36 years. Young people will see these devices in a different light. Which is just as well. After all, they are going to live with the future of personal computing longer than I will.


  1. We’re talking here about mainstream users. If you’re a gamer, a developer or a hard core geek these tools may not meet your needs, you are not typical.
  2. In theory PC makers like Lenovo, HP and Dell all have the ability to make decent Surface or Surface Book clones.
  3. Four if you think the Surface Book is distinct from the Surface Pro.