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.