First look: The 13-in MacBook Pro's Touch Bar wows

The newest Apple laptop offers a host of innovations, but it's the virtual function keys that get the attention.

touch bar answering a call

When you show someone Apple's new 13-in MacBook Pro -- the one with the virtual Touch Bar -- the first thing they'll want to do is play with the darn thing. They'll adjust the screen brightness or turn up the volume. Launch some apps to see the virtual buttons change. And slide their fingers along it to see how it feels.

And they'll probably agree that, as innovations go, this is one cool update to a laptop line that was long overdue for an upgrade.

But that's not the only big change to the 13-in. model that I've just unboxed -- or the larger 15-in. models due to arrive later this week. Here's what would-be buyers eyeing the new MacBook Pro are most likely to notice.

The Space Gray aluminum body is flat-out gorgeous, and marks a welcome break from aluminum-and-black look of previous models. The Retina screen is not just brighter, but shows more saturated colors than any Retina screen I've used. (For the first time, I had to turn the brightness down a couple of notches.)

The keyboard is, well, different. It's flatter, shallower and has a hollow-sounding "click" when keys are pressed. The Trackpad, where you spend a lot of time navigating through apps, clicking and pinching and swiping, is indeed huge compared to previous models.

Oh, and there are exactly four ports -- two on each side -- and an old-school audio jack. The USB-C-style Thunderbolt 3 ports represent a leap into the future, and they mean you're almost certainly going to need adapters to connect up older peripherals, whether it's an external monitor, a backup drive, an external keyboard or even a thumbnail drive. (There's a reason Apple just lowered the prices on all of its USB-C adapters.)

But it's the Touch Bar, which Apple execs highlighted when the new MacBook Pros were unveiled on Oct. 27, that sets this laptop apart from earlier models. The Touch Bar replaces the function keys at the top of the keyboard with a lighted strip that dynamically changes depending on what application you're using.

It also returns to the MacBook Pro something that's been missing from Macs in recent years: fun. By combining the company's usual attention to detail and design with a bit of whimsy, the Touch Bar showcases technology in a way that makes you want to discover just what happens when you use it.

The Touch Bar and Touch ID

Nestled at the top of the keyboard where the function keys used to be, the new Touch Bar is the design change for this generation of MacBook Pros. (There is also the 13-in model with normal function keys.) And it really is useful -- though it's going to require retraining some muscle memory to get the most out of it in day-to-day use.

The Touch Bar is essentially a thin, horizontal, full-color OLED touch screen that offers various functions that change as you move through apps or macOS Sierra. (The display is 2170 x 60 pixels, and is set up so that the optimum viewing angle is 45 degrees.)

Select the desktop with your cursor, and the Touch Bar lets you do things like increase and decrease the screen brightness or audio, access Siri or skip through the tracks playing in iTunes. Launch the Mail program and you can tap the Touch Bar to start a new email, reply to someone, file an email or mark something as junk. It even suggests words based on the context of what you're writing, just as iOS does on the iPhone when sending texts and emails.

The TouchBar also allows you to tap a virtual button and then use it as a slider (such as when changing the screen brightness). Functions change instantly and the Touch Bar is always well-lit (there's no separate brightness control for it). The finish makes it feel like one of the keys on the keyboard -- albeit a very, very wide one. You can even customize it by dragging icons from the display to the Touch Bar.

touch bar custom Ken Mingis

The Touch Bar can be customized by dragging and dropping "key" icons from the screen to the keyboard.

So it's cool, and it works as billed. But is it useful? Yes, although in limited ways at the moment. Once more apps are updated to take advantage of it -- Microsoft has already said it plans to do just that with its Office suite -- it'll be even more useful. So it has great potential, as long as you remember to use it fully.

Touch ID is useful in a different way. Integrated at the right-side end of the Touch Bar, it works pretty much as Touch ID works on the iPhone or iPad. You hold your finger on the sensor until it reads your fingerprint pattern, and then you can use it to unlock your MacBook Pro or make online purchases. Setting it up is simple, and it's worked every time I've used it (though I haven't tried to authenticate any purchases with it yet).

Touch ID Ken Mingis

The Touch Bar points to the Touch ID button to remind you it can be used to unlock the computer.

And The Touch ID button also doubles as a Power button. You don't need it, since the MacBook Pro comes on when you raise the screen. But in the event of a crash requiring a hard restart, you just hold down the Touch ID button for 16 seconds.

Screen, keyboard and trackpad

Apple didn't spend a lot of time talking up the new Retina display last month, but its execs should have. The screen is noticeably better than the one in the last-generation MacBook Pro. The scaled resolution is unchanged in the 13-in. model, meaning it's still 1680 x 1050 pixels. But the brighter screen and the wider P3 color gamut deliver vibrant colors and incredibly sharp text. Apple says the new screen is 67% brighter,  offers 67% greater contrast -- and yet it's also more energy efficient.

To me it looks like the difference between a high-end 4K TV (last-year's MacBook Pro) and an OLED 4K TV (this new one). The difference is that dramatic.

As for the keyboard, I'm a little less celebratory. This is the second generation of the one that debuted on the smaller MacBook last year. It has a butterfly mechanism that allows the keys to be shallower (and consequently lets Apple slim down the laptop's thickness by several millimeters). The key travel is flatter than in the past, and it's going to take some getting used to.

I'm certainly able to type as fast as before, and the full-size keyboard has keys with individual LEDs that light up in the dark. That means there's no light bleed around them, and make for an upscale, polished look. But the clicky sound of the keys is louder than I'm used to, and undercuts the design. If noisy keys bug you, type on one before you buy. They should appear in Apple stores in the next week or so.

MBP keyboard Ken Mingis

The oversized keys are backllit with individual LEDs. Here, the Touch Bar shows some of the options when Mail is open. Note also the oversized trackpad.

As for the new Trackpad, it's huge -- roughly 50% larger than in the past. That allows you to more easily use pinch and scroll motions to navigate through the OS and apps. And Apple's palm-rejection software seems to work just fine. I have yet to have a problem where resting my hand on the trackpad led to unwanted input.

All USB-C, all the time

One of the big concerns for would-be buyers involves Apple's decision to do away with the various ports. USB-A, SD card slots, Ethernet, display ports -- they're all gone, replaced here with the USB-C ports. Sure, the audio jack means you can use your old headphones (or wireless ones), but even something as simple as connecting  an iPhone or iPad to sync with the laptop requires an adapter. That mismatch is rather un-Apple-like.

That said, the ports are Thunderbolt 3 port, meaning they can carry up to 40Gbps of data and you connect any device to any port. Want to plug in the charging cable on the right side instead of the left? (I do.) You're in luck. You can also connect multiple external monitors. But if you have a lot of peripherals -- anything from an external display to a backup drive or keyboard -- you'll need an adapter. That may explain Apple's wise decision to drop prices on the various adapters and dongles it sells.

As for me, I only ever plug in my Time Machine backup drive, an iPhone and an iPad. And I already have a mini-port replicator that allows me to connect to USB-C. The port issue matters to potential buyers, but I wouldn't let it stop you from getting the new MacBook Pro.

The line-up and specs

Apple actually unveiled three new MacBook Pros last month. There are two models with the Touch Bar -- the 13-in. and 15-in. versions -- and a 13-incher that has traditional function keys. That latter model has two USB-C ports instead of four, but otherwise offers all of the other updates; it won plaudits from Computerworld's Michael deAgonia. If you don't care about the Touch Bar, that's the Pro for you. Plus, it starts at $1,499 -- a full $300 less than this model.

If you do want the Touch Bar, you're going to pay. The least expensive MacBook Pro with it (the one I've been using) starts at $1,799. The cheapest 15-in. model is $2,399; like this one, it comes with just 256GB of storage. You can also custom-order a MacBook Pro and get a slightly faster processor and up to 2TB of SSD-based storage. Or you can spend $2,799 and get 512GB of storage, a faster quad-core i7 processor and a slightly better Radeon Pro graphics card. That's the one I bought for myself.

All 13-in. models start with 8GB of RAM, but for $200 more, you can double that to 16GB; all 15-in. models come with 16GB of RAM. That's more than enough for what most people will need, but it has prompted concerns among some users about whether it will be enough in a few years. (Given the memory compression in macOS Sierra, I expect it to be just fine down the road, but your mileage may vary.)

If you want to max out a MacBook Pro, you can opt for a speedier processor (the dual-core i5 in the 13-in. model maxes out at 3.3GHz; the quad-core i7 in the 15-in. model tops out at 2.9GHz); upgrade the GPU; and get a 2TB SSD. It'll cost you $4,299, plus tax. Spend wisely.

Touch Bar and Safari Ken Mingis

The Touch Bar also shows tabs when Safari is in use and you can select them with a quick tap.

Odds, ends and final thoughts

The launch of this year's MacBook Pro caused a lot of consternation among the Mac faithful, with complaints focused on higher prices, the wholesale move to USB-C, storage limits on entry-level models and a 16GB ceiling on RAM. Those latter two prompted my colleague, Computerworld freelance writer Michael deAgonia, to go on an extended rant during my "Mingis on Tech" show. (See the video below.) He's not alone; columnist Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has doubts as well.

Other non-buyers are upset that the traditional Apple start-up chime is gone (no longer needed since the MacBook Pro powers up as you raise the lid); some also lament the loss of the lighted Apple on the backside of the display. Still others wanted more powerful GPU cards.

Those are generally valid concerns -- I'll miss the familiar Mac start-up BOING -- but they miss the larger point. By its nature, any laptop design involves compromises. Thin and light means less room for a big battery (or different ports). A faster CPU or GPU could mean more heat. A different keyboard means added thickness. And on and on.

Even so, Apple says that sales of the new model have been brisk, and delivery dates are already stretching into December. So someone is buying these things. Just take a look at excited buyers on this Macrumors forum trying to figure out when their new laptops will arrive.  (The 15-in. model I ordered 10 minutes after the Oct. 27 event ended is set to arrive Thursday. I got the shipping notice yesterday.)

Having spent a few days with the smaller MacBook Pro, I'm confident I made the right choice. The new look, updated internals, the super-bright screen and the innovative Touch Bar all deliver in spades. Battery life seems to match Apple's 10-hour estimate. The SSD drive really is super speedy. That being the case, I'm curious to see whether deAgonia changes his tune after he's had some time with a 15-in. Touch Bar model for his upcoming review.

This story, "First look: The 13-in MacBook Pro's Touch Bar wows" was originally published by Computerworld.

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