Apple's 'Kaby Lake' MacBook: Very Fine Laptop, Intriguing Software Possibilities
Apple (AAPL) recently updated their MacBook Pro line of laptops, and the company was kind enough to provide Barron's with a unit to test.
The upshot is it's a very fine laptop that will serve anyone who purchases it very well. And it also points the way to an intriguing future for the company's software in the way that it can operate across multiple devices.
A new chip These machines run Intel's (INTC) "Kaby Lake" microprocessor, the next generation after the chip that shipped in the prior version, "Skylake."
The particular model I was sent was the 2.9-gigahertz Core i7 with 16 gigs of DDR3 DRAM, and a "Radeon Pro 560" chip from Advanced Micro Devices. This model retails for $2,799 and is the higher-priced of the two 15-inch models, the other one being $2,399 and having a slower processor and slower graphics chip and half the storage, 256 gigs. There's also the option to have a 3.1-gigahertz processor for an additional $200.
Prior to receiving this newer model, I also spent several weeks testing the previous MacBook generation, a "Late 2016" model with a 13-inch screen, with a 2.9-gigahertz Skylake processor and 8 gigs of RAM and 512 gigs of storage, which sold for $1,999. The 13-inch model does not come with the additional AMD graphics chip that the 15-inch model offers. Apple has since upgraded those 13-inch models to the Kaby Lake generation, with a faster 3.1-gigahertz clock speed, for the same price.
At four pounds, the 15-inch MacBook is superbly compact, and true to Apple's word, the innovative cooling system in the machine kept it both utterly quiet and also nice and cool even when using more demanding tasks such as Final Cut Pro video editing.
A grand future
The MacBook Pro points to an interesting future for Apple's family of devices. In the course of working with not one but two MacBooks, I was impressed with the ability to copy and paste between the 15-inch unit and the 13-inch unit. This is a new global copy-and-paste function that arrived with last year's "Sierra" update to MacOS. It also lets one copy and paste to the iPhone and iPad. One starts to think less about individual machines and more about a collection of devices that can seamlessly share information.
It didn't always work perfectly: at times, one machine might hang while trying to grab the copied text from the other. I presume that's a software refinement that will be fixed over time.
Along the same lines, the way one edits the "Touch Bar" presents an intriguing future possibility. The Touch Bar is a strip of touch-sensitive screen at the top of the machine's keyboard that take the place of what have been function keys on laptops for years now. It's like having a narrow iPhone screen on your keyboard. I'll talk more fully about that in a moment.
What's particularly intriguing is that when you enter edit mode, you can drag icons from the laptop's screen into the Touch Bar. This seems simple but it's profound. The ability to drag and drop between one screen and another, like the global copy and paste, points to a future where all the screens and input sources between multiple devices are a collective shared resource. Each computer, be it tablet or laptop or phone, becomes just a window into the software that spans the devices.
I expect Apple will continue to refine these capabilities so that at some point, you're focused more on the continuity of software than on the device. Continuity, of course, happens to be Apple's phrase for this kind of "workflow" across devices, and it's very apt, when one takes in the grand picture of things.
Controversies There were a number of controversial aspects when this generation of laptop appeared late last year. One was battery life, another was the lack of older ports for peripherals, such as the standard "USB3.1" socket; another still the redesigned keyboard that is shallower than on older Macs; and a fourth point of contention was the Touch Bar itself.
I found all of these not to be drawbacks in my testing with this latest model.
Battery life With the original 13-inch model, something was definitely perplexing about battery life. Apple promises "up to ten hours" for both 13-inch and 15-inch models. With the older model, I was getting more like six or seven hours, sometimes as little as four hours.
After sending a system report to Apple, the company's engineers suggested a Bluetooth speaker I had connected might be chewing through battery and advised disconnecting it. This is the kind of thing that could be possible but didn't sit well with me. After disconnecting the speaker, I still had issues with battery life. I found that one application in particular had a tendency to drain the battery, the Citrix Receiver application that I use to run FactSet's financial software. Turning this thing off led to an immediate improvement in battery life.
With the newer model, I find that without running Citrix Receiver, I can get ten hours reliably. That's running what I would call normal applications such as a Web browser, a calendar program, email, Pages software for writing, listening to music through iTunes, looking at photographs in the Photos apps, and the like.
Apple's fine print about battery life, found at the bottom of the Web page overview, specifically talks about things such Web browsing and video playback. It was never about running pro apps. So I'm not surprised to find that when firing up a pro app such as Final Cut, battery life takes a sharp turn lower.
After one hour of intensive chopping of a timeline in Final Cut, with changes to clip speeds and transitions added in several places, I was able to burn down about a quarter of the battery life. I expect actual pro users will do most of their work plugged in, so dropping to four or five hours of disconnected use ought to be fine for the occasional nomadic style of work with such demanding apps.
Perhaps more important, the battery proved very nimble. When I would put the MacBook in a bag to take with me somewhere, or leave it idle, it lost very little charge, so standby time was excellent. When I quit a demanding app like FactSet, the subsequent pace of battery drain rebalanced to get back on pace with the quoted ten hours. It didn't end up being ten hours, of course, but the remaining battery life was more what you'd expect. Your battery life is "pro-rated," in a sense, penalized for demanding apps, then given reprieve for less-demanding apps.
Moreover, charging was fast, in my experience, going from empty, or nearly so, back to almost full in about an hour and half, on average.
All that suggests one can have "burst" sessions, if you will, where you do pro work disconnected from charging for a period of time, and then revert to a more conservative style of work, with routine, less-demanding tasks, and get through a full day. Obviously, it all depends on your style of work.
A keyboard shift The keyboard takes some getting used to. I tend to prefer the chunkier keyboard, where keys push down more deeply than with these new MacBooks. But I adapted and found it didn't interfere with my touch-typing. Other users who've had the late-2016 MacBooks told me they had no problem whatsoever, and some even gave me a blank stare when I asked if they had any issue with the keyboard. One individual pointed out to me that there are louder "click clack" sounds with this keyboard, which is a drawback in this individual's view. So Apple may want to make some effort to dampen that effect in future revs.
Enjoying the Touch Bar The Touch Bar has been derided by some as a gimmick. I didn't find it to be so, and in fact I welcomed the addition.
There have always been multiple ways to do a task on a personal computer. For most any task in a program, there are menu selections to do it, there are buttons you can click on, there are click-and-drag methods with the touch pad, and there are shortcuts with key combinations. That's been the case for decades. You may use only one of these approaches, but they're all there to allow for a variety of ways of working.
The Touch Bar just adds one more method, tapping on a choice in the glowing strip above the keyboard. I found this highly appealing for certain repetitive tasks.
For instance, when editing photos in the Photos app, one could click with the mouse pointer on the icon for "Edit," or simply press the Return key on the keyboard, which is easy enough. But one can also tap the button on the Touch Bar, and I found this a welcome alternative, because it then reveals a set of editing tools that one can tap on, such as to crop an image, to change its angle by a certain degree, etc.. Similarly, in Safari, I liked being able to set up a custom selection of shortcuts to "Share" a page or to open the "History" view of the browser.
In Final Cut, two little buttons on the Touch Bar will let you nudge the end of a clip, which I found an enormously valuable quick fix that goes very well with a sort-of quick-and-dirty editing style.
There's also a kind of insidious, unconscious appeal of having a glowing strip of icons. Because we are so familiar these days with tapping on glowing screens, we've become somewhat addicted to them. When I went back to working on my older MacBook Pro, I missed that little glowing strip.
The Touch Bar also adds a fingerprint sensor, which worked flawlessly and which was a welcome relief from unlocking the Mac with a password.
Oh, those ports! As far as the scorched-earth policy of ports - there are four identical USB-C ports where once there had been a plethora of UBS3.1, HDMI, Thunderbolt, etc. - I can understand the frustration of users. It instantly obsoletes a lot of investment in cables and it requires a whole bunch of purchases of dongle adapters. But I think Apple made the right choice. The quicker all of these connections are standardized, the better for everyone. Moreover, my casual check of prices for laptops with four USB-C ports suggest it is a steal to get a machine that will manage this many high-speed ports at these prices.
Moving forward always brings frustration of some kind, and Apple have chosen to go down that route and the benefits ultimately outweigh the deficits.
Just one gripe about USB-C I do have one gripe with USB-C, which is that having reduced everything to one physical port standard, it should be much easier to make anything connect.
In particular, I wanted to move multiple gigabytes between the two MacBooks by physically connecting one of the four USB-C ports on one machine to one of the ports on the other. Using WiFi, it took me five minutes to move multiple gigabytes. It would have been much faster to put a cable between the two machines, as they were sitting next to one another.
Alas, none of the USB-C cables I had at the time would work. The MacBook told me it wanted me to use a cable capable of Thunderbolt, an older networking standard that Apple has shipped for many years. The USB-C cable I had lying around didn't fit the bill, nor did the charging cable that comes with the MacBook, which is also USB-C. I had to specifically have a "Thunderbolt-enabled" cable, which is a kind-of mash-up of the newer USB-C wiring with the older Thunderbolt networking standard.
It's not the end of the world, but it's rather a drag. Having cables with different capabilities means that the theoretical simplicity of reducing everything to a single port type is now newly complicated by having to have one of multiple wires of differing capabilities. Moreover, even with a proper cable, in order to actually talk to one computer from the other, you've got to memorize IP addresses (or reboot one of the Macs to what's known as "target disk mode.")
It shouldn't be that complicated. There should be one type of cable and you should be able to find Macs just like you do over WiFI, by their name in the Finder. Oh, well.
In conclusion I would happily make the MacBook Pro my main machine after this update to the new Intel processors. Battery life for most tasks is very good, and the addition of Touch Bar and fingerprint sensor are excellent ways to enhance working on the machine. I appreciate that Apple went whole hog, if you will, with the future of connectivity in USB-C. And the MacOS software points to an intriguing future for those of us who work across multiple devices, in a way that no other computer maker has articulated with their wares.
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