TouchBar Macbook Pro (15") 2016 - 2017 revisited

It has been around a year since I bought my 15" 2016 MBP, just under since I 'reviewed' it.

I liked quite a lot about it, was excited about Thunderbolt 3 & USB-C, but had some concerns around long term comfort on the keyboard and a few other things. There were some battery concerns that have seemingly dissipated and the touchbar was of questionable value, but nothing really stood out as a massive issue for me - in those early days.

So what has happened in the past year? Well, quite a lot in regards to this particular story. I have been through three 2016 models and I'm currently on my 4th touchbar 15" Macbook Pro, a 2017 model. Let's start with reliability.

Reliability

First unit - 15" 2016
Picked it up the day they arrived in the stores in the UK. It developed a fault within a couple of weeks. One of the arrow keys and the 'T' key, they double pressed or didn't press at all when certain parts of the key was pressed. I exchanged it for a new unit as I was still within the extended Christmas return period.

Second unit - 15" 2016
Developed several faults over a few months, first the left speaker blew out - it lost bass. It blew when I just opened the laptop up from sleep, no real reason that I could tell. Then a few weeks later the treble blew on the right speaker when just randomly playing a regular video on twitter. This unit also developed an annoying creak.. and cracking sound as it warmed up through regular use (from cold), it was snapping and.. cracking.. periodically. It also creaked when certain parts of the display were pressed.

On top of all that, it also had a keyboard fault too - the comma key was depressed and wouldn't register properly.

So I took this second unit in for repair, they replaced basically the full top side - but couldn't determine the issue with the creaking so didn't replace the display. I got the repaired unit back after an extended (longer than quoted) repair time with a keyboard that was worse in every way. It was un-usable. The speakers were fixed, I was told I got a new battery and trackpad out of it too - but the keyboard was useless.

Having waited so long for a botched repair, I went back in the next day and asked for a new replacement unit I could take home then. Apple obliged.

Third unit - 15" 2016
This third unit didn't have the creaking at first, but developed it much earlier on than the last one. Then the speakers blew in a similar pattern (but in different circumstances) to the last one, the keyboard was fine, but I still had two annoying issues - faulty speakers and the creaking.

So I took it in for repair, I explained my persistent issues and the technician was very sympathetic. He didn't suggest a repair, and instead suggested a short triage (3 days) to confirm the issues and then provide me with a quicker solution than a repair would bring. I thought that was reasonable, I suspected they wanted to confirm there wasn't any damage caused by myself to the device before just giving me a new one.

5 days later, 2 days longer than they said they'd have a solution for me, it appears the information noted down by the technician (e.g. this was just a triage to determine whether to replace it or not) had not been passed down properly. They were suggested they would need to do a repair, so on top of the 5 days I already waited - they were asking for potentially another 10 days.

I explained the situation, what I was told, and I was passed on to a manager. He was listened, read through the notes again and asked if I could come into the store that day to pick up a new model. It was an equivalent priced 2017 model, so an upgrade. Newer generation CPU (Kaby Lake i7 7820HQ), 'newer' generation GPU and actually the tier above the one I had (Radeon Pro 455 2GB -> Radeon Pro 560 4GB), which is quite a sizeable upgrade. So all in all, I was happy with that.

At this point, it was about 10 months after buying the first machine, so I'd have rather not spent all this time messing about with an expensive laptop that should not have had the quality and reliability issues this had, but there was a silver..ish.. lining.

It has been a couple of months with this 2017 model and it doesn't seem to be exhibiting any of the problems I had previously, the creaking hasn't returned, the keyboard functions as expected.

Thunderbolt 3 / USB-C promise

The experience has been mixed. When it works, when it all comes together, it's brilliant. However, thunderbolt 3 accessories are still ridiculously expensive, full 'docks' are £200-£300, even dual display adapters are around £70, the latter I didn't mind paying for to get the setup I wanted.

I liked to plug my laptop into my main desk setup (dual monitors, regular keyboard and mouse, usually plugged into my Windows desktop). This dual display device, some pre-routed cables/hubs and a keyboard switch has made the process of switching quite simple - not as simple as a proper dock and a switch, but for the money I'm saving - the 20 seconds extra I'm spending is not too bad.

USB-C has otherwise seen pretty good adoption, with the main issue remaining the hundred thousand different ways manufacturers can implement the USB-C standards, creating a bit of a fragmented and confusing market.

When it works, it's great, but expensive.

Keyboard

The keyboard is one of the biggest mistakes Apple has made in the last 10 years, easily. The primary issue is the reliability, the issues are seemingly quite widespread, repairing them is difficult - requiring a full top side replacement, keys are not designed to be removed and cleaned and can be broken if you attempt to do so. The design of the keyboard is so that small particles can render a key useless and all you can do without going for a full repair is hoping compressed air can get it out.

It's a simply unacceptable design. Now, from a usability perspective - I think it has many really positive points. The keys are wide, perfectly stable and offer a really nice chunky click. But there's next to zero travel, and that affects longer term comfort. This was my main worry in my original review and it has been confirmed. However, the bigger usability issue (ignoring reliability), turned out to be the awful arrow keys.

They are a stupid shape and they're indistinguishable from each other (up/down) when working at any kind of speed and touch typing (as is expected). But really, the conclusion here, is that the reliability is just unacceptable. The tolerances are far too low for the a moving component that is used constantly through the life of the device.

I said in my original review that it may be not too far off being a really, really great keyboard. Add 30-40% more key travel and you have potentially one of the all time best laptop keyboards. That seems unlikely, but maybe after all the reliability issues, Apple may reconsider for their MacBook Pros.

TouchBar

I wasn't so pessimistic about it this time last year, at worst I thought I'd ignore it, and that has mostly been the case. It hasn't really proven itself outside of a few particular use cases to be any real addition to the device. I probably wouldn't miss it if it went away.

TouchID is cool though, if sometimes a bit slow, although I think it has improved somewhat in High Sierra. FaceID (from the iPhone X) does feel like it would be at home on a laptop though, perhaps more so than a fingerprint sensor.. so.. Apple.. ditch the Touchbar and give us a FaceID sensor array.

Finally

The reliability issues have soured me significantly on this device, but then I've come to not expect reliable laptops from Apple. I've had several MacBooks over the years and they have not been what I consider reliable - and had the Apple store not been a thing - I'd have probably long since abandoned the Mac, despite my preference for macOS.

There have been some indications that Apple are beginning to recognise the importance (indirectly) of their 'pro' and enthusiast market for the Mac and that they do want to address some of their (our) concerns of the Mac lineup. So I hope that happens, because overall - I am unsatisfied. My laptops are my development machines, moving to another laptop to use with some kind of Linux distribution may be in my future if I don't see Apple taking it a bit more seriously.

Update

I wrote this post as a separate one a while back (although after publishing the post above), I decided to cut out a lot of the crap from that one (although there's still plenty here), and add it on to here. The post I'm butchering was written purely because I wanted something to write about, not because I had much more to say.

This post was spurred on by this post by Marco Arment.

Fixing the MacBook Pro

As I mentioned in a previous post, I think the keyboard has severe design issues. One of Marco's primary points is the keyboard, whilst I happen to like many things about the new keyboard (tactility, stability and accuracy) I do think there's a balance that can be made to make it more palatable for everyone*. But the primary issue is reliability, Marco's solution is one I can get on board with.

The second is ports, and I'll come to my views on this later on in a section about 'perspectives', but again - it kinda comes back to the whole idea of balance. USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 are mostly pretty great, especially for a pro machine. But is it necessary to have all ports be that? Probably not, so perhaps getting rid of one or two of them in favour of an SD card slot and a couple of USB-A ports would have gone a long way. The argument here is in favour of more versatility.

Also, another point I hadn't thought of myself - but one that seems obvious now. Apple should invest more themselves in creating USB-C and Thunderbolt 3 accessories, because the market out there is a bit confusing and actually not terribly competitive for certain types of Thunderbolt 3 accessories (e.g. docks, which Apple kinda of sold the future on).

Thirdly, Touch Bar. Getting rid of it is something I'd probably support at this point, I've had some issues with it more recently that have continued so I'm changing my stance - it's overall a net negative. It has introduced complexity where there shouldn't be, and that complexity has resulted in simple things like changing the volume to become a risky task, as if you're in certain apps in certain states and you change the volume, you may find yourself with a frozen Touch Bar. Utterly unresponsive for a 5-10 seconds... and all you want to do is change the volume. It's dumb, adds nothing but a cool look and detracts plenty. These issues have happened across the several laptops I've had, across Sierra and High Sierra (including latest betas).

TouchID is cool and it's not necessary for that to go should the Touch Bar be axed.

There are other points in there, which I personally think are minor or I don't actually agree with - so I'll leave that there. Overall, I actually do agree with many of the principles of Marco's arguments. However, these things are weighted a bit differently depending on your perspective.

Perspective

On the latest Accidental Tech podcast, Marco and Casey Liss argued on what these mean to different people. So my initial reaction to the all-thunderbolt-3 announcement of the latest MacBook Pros was one of excitement, I actually thought it was quite a cool idea. I understood it'd be a bit awkward in certain instances, but overall, I thought it was a good move. These were my immediate, very self-centred thoughts.

A few seconds later, you begin to think about the wider audience and understand a lot of people will not like this. But what other people like isn't necessarily my concern, so it didn't dampen my excitement.

Because this is where the different perspective comes into it. I use my laptops in a particular way. I (used to at least) carry it to and from work, plug it into a set of monitors, keyboard and mice and it'd just be sat on a desk untouched for the day. The extra functionality and versatility offered to me by having four high bandwidth ports that can do practically anything I need was super exciting for someone who uses their laptop in situation like this. At the end of the day, I'd unplug it very easily, go home and if I wanted to keep working on my laptop - I'd do the same on my home desktop setup (which is primarily used for my windows desktop, but can be used for my laptop too when I want to do some dev work).

When I use my laptop portably, I use it entirely individually - I rarely ever have anything else plugged into it, nor actually need to. Plugging into TVs in meeting rooms is probably the most common task, but those events are planned - and having a couple of dongles in the bag I carry my laptop in is a minor effort, but admittedly it's not as simple as simply having the compatible port on my laptop. But overall, as I said, I was geeking out about the possibilities afford by four high bandwidth ports that can do anything on my laptop.

My only attitude change in regards to all this over the past year has been.. I want this laptop to be more things to more people. It's better for the Mac ecosystem that more people feel well served by the available hardware and I think it would signal that Apple has a better understanding of their 'Pro' market. I'd sacrifice a couple of these ports for that.

I don't think Apple are too far from having something that a lot of people would like. I said at the top of this page that I do much prefer using this new model over the Retina MacBook Pro I use at work every day, here are the reasons:

  • Far better display (the panel itself, the coating and the housing)
  • Incredible speakers
  • Brilliant trackpad, the size is a big improvement - and over the past year I have not had a single accidental touch of it despite concerns.
  • TouchID
  • Fantastic cooling (from an acoustics and overall disruption point of view at least, Apple have rarely cared about thermal throttling.)
  • It looks and feels better (smaller, lighter, fit and finish of the body)
  • The keyboard is clicky with great feedback and accuracy, the old one is definitely still a good keyboard, but the keys are smaller and wobblier, so I'm less accurate and quick.
  • Thunderbolt 3 (doing more with less in my desktop setups).

There are solutions to the issues with the reliability of the keyboard, I hope if Apple does take action that it doesn't sacrifice too much of the things I like about it, but as I said previously, I'd accept some sacrifice for added travel to better appeal to more people.

The keyboard reliability is the biggest issue of this laptop, maybe I believe that because it is the issue I've had the most experience with. However, it also appears to be the one people speak about most (of those who actually use the device, the port situation is something people who use them don't seem to talk about so much, anecdotally).

I hope this is the last of these boring posts about a laptop. I'm not sure what makes me care so much about something most people don't give a second thought to a few weeks after buying, but I am a bit of a snob about the computer hardware I use and despite my efforts, I can't shake it off.