Good Sides: Apple adds new Intel CPUs, faster memory, longer battery life and its new Force Touch trackpad to the standard 13-inch MacBook Pro, which keeps its generous selection of ports.
Bad Sides: The 2015 updates make only a minor difference to the hands-on experience, while similar high-end 13-inch laptops continue to get thinner and lighter.
Over the past couple of generations, we’ve noted that Apple’s MacBook Pro line has received only minor spec updates, while keeping the same basic aluminum unibody chassis. Other premium laptops have shaved ounces and millimeters from their bodies, and added touchscreens and hybrid hinges, new graphics cards and even 4K displays, while the MacBook Pro, like the MacBook Air, looks and feels the same as it has for the past few years.
For spring 2015, the 13-inch MacBook Pro keeps the same body and high-resolution Retina Display as before, while adding some spec upgrades that run from minor to meaningful. As expected, the system moves to Intel’s fifth-generation Core i-series chips, also known by the code name Broadwell. The performance jump from this is small, but the battery life gets a modest boost, and Apple’s soldered-in flash memory, similar to the solid-state drives (SSDs) found in other laptops, gets a speed boost as well.
But the most notable update is the addition of Apple’s new Force Touch trackpad. This new design looks and feels a lot like Apple’s standard well-regarded trackpads, but trades the top hinge and clickable surface for a new click-free design that mimics the feel of physically depressing the pad by way of haptic feedback.
That new trackpad is also coming to the highly anticipated new 12-inch MacBook, where the extra-slim body will truly benefit from the thinner, click-free design. In the 13-inch Pro, it’s more of a party trick, and aside from some contextual pop-ups offered when you press down hard, you may not even notice the difference.
So, with nothing in the way of game-changing updates and the same $1,299 starting price (£999 in the UK and AU$1,799 in Australia), why is it that more and more people are telling me that the 13-inch MacBook Pro is now the Mac they most want to buy?
It’s perhaps because this model has best kept up with the changing laptop landscape. The current Air models are held back by aging designs and low screen resolutions, and the 15-inch MacBook Pro has not received the same updates or new trackpad, and is simply too big to lug around more than once or twice a week (although it’s great for a desk-bound system). The classic non-Retina-Display MacBook Pro is surprisingly still hanging on as the last MacBook with an optical drive, but it has little else to recommend it. There’s a lot of buzz around the new 12-inch MacBook, but its low-power Intel Core M processor, lack of ports and low-res webcam mean it likely won’t be the workhorse that other Macs are.
That leaves this 13-inch Pro as the best balance of performance, battery life, portability and expandability in the current Apple laptop lineup, and one of the first places you should look if you’re looking to buy a premium-priced laptop.
The exterior design of the MacBook Pro remains unchanged since the 2013 model we reviewed (and essentially unchanged from the 2012 original, as well), so much of our analysis of the previous models carries over. As it’s the biggest difference, we’ve already done a separate hands-on analysis of the trackpad.
At 18mm thick and 3.5 pounds (1.6kg), this is far from the slimmest or lightest 13-inch laptop around. That’s become even more evident over the past several months, with lightweight but powerful systems such as the Dell XPS 13 and Lenovo LaVie Z taking up less space and weighing less, while still offering standard Core i5 processors.
The unibody aluminum frame and edge-to-edge glass display are familiar but still-welcome design touches, and that glass overlay look is coming to the new 12-inch MacBook as well. Still, it’s not as tight-looking as the barely there bezel on the Dell XPS 13, which really does move the needle on design.
The island-style keyboard is the same as seen on the last several generations of MacBook. Other laptops have matched, but not surpassed, the backlit Apple keyboard, with the possible exception of Lenovo, a company as involved with keyboard R&D as any. The first real break with the current Apple keyboard standard is coming up in that 12-inch MacBook, which lowers the key height and and changes the underlying mechanism to reduce key wobble.
One new Apple part that is coming to this MacBook Pro before any other system is the new Force Touch trackpad. I suspect we’ll see it on every MacBook before too long, but this is where you can try it first.
The Force Touch trackpad eliminates the top hinge that previously required you to physically depress the glass top of the pad, usually from somewhere on the lower half to register properly. Instead, the new pad places four sensors under the pad, one under each corner. This replaces a design some describe as a “diving board” with one that’s a simple, flat surface.
The four sensors make it so you can “click” anywhere on the pad’s surface with identical results, and the Force Click effect, which combines the sensors with haptic (or “taptic”) feedback, allows you to have two levels of perceived clicking within an app or task. That deep click feels to the finger and brain like the trackpad has a stepped physical mechanism, but in fact, the movement you feel is a small tactile haptic tap, which, even when fully explained, still feels like you’re depressing the trackpad two levels.
Other companies have experimented with click-free pads and pressure-sensitive surfaces in the past, such as the ForcePad that Synaptics was pitching alongside Windows 8 a few years ago.
The Retina Display is one of the main reasons you might choose a MacBook Pro over the lower-resolution MacBook Air models. Better-than-1080p displays are becoming more common and some Windows laptops now go for even higher resolutions than the MacBook Pro. It’s rare, but not unheard of, to see full 4K resolution in a laptop, usually paired with a touch-sensitive display.
The 2,560×1,600-pixel resolution here is more than enough for a 13-inch display (the 15-inch Pro is 2,880×1,800), and looks clear, bright and colorful, even if a Retina Display is not quite the unique selling point it was when these systems were introduced in 2012.