Apple released updates to the MacBook Pro this week that hopefully address some concerns with the late-2016 version.
At the end of 2016, I was in dire need of a new Mac. My 2010 MacBook Pro had served me well (with some upgrades), but it was time to move into the present.
I’ve used Apple laptops as my main computer all the way back to the PowerBook 5300cs, so it wasn’t a question of whether I’d get a portable. But I had reservations: The late-2016 MacBook Pro maxed out at 16 GB of memory, and although the new Touch Bar looked intriguing, it wasn’t a must-have feature.
I bought one anyway, and it’s been a perfectly good computer. Despite the 16 GB memory ceiling, I’ve rarely run into memory issues. And I’ve fortunately not had the keyboard problems that recently prompted Apple to initiate a keyboard service program to replace faulty keyboards.
This week, Apple released updates to the MacBook Pro that hopefully address those concerns.
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The 13-inch and 15-inch models are now powered by eighth-generation Intel 6-core and quad-core processors (Core i7 and Core i9 “Coffee Lake” processors), and supplemented by faster DDR4 memory; the 15-inch model (not the 13-inch) now supports up to 32 GB of RAM and up to 4 TB of internal storage. Internal solid-state storage can be increased to 2 TB on the 13-inch model and 4 TB on the 15-inch model (for a cool $3,200 extra); the storage isn’t upgradeable, so you need to make that decision at the time of purchase.
They contain larger batteries to offset the power requirements of the DDR4 memory, so according to Apple the battery life should be the same, which I don’t find encouraging. I can get decent battery performance on my 2016 model, but as soon as I launch apps that need the discreet graphics card, battery life takes a hit; I can’t work an entire day at coffee shops without my power adapter.
One question about the improved keyboard is whether Apple’s claims that it’s quieter are accurate. I don’t find the sound on mine to be distracting, but it’s definitely louder than the earlier models. The bigger question, of course, is whether reliability has been improved; we’ll see as time goes by.
For those of us who sometimes work late into the night, the new True Tone display is welcome. It’s the same brilliant Retina resolution screen, but True Tone adjusts the warmth of the display based on ambient lighting.
Another under-the-hood improvement is the Apple T2 chip that runs the Touch Bar. Like its presence in the iMac Pro, the T2 runs several subsystems including the Secure Enclave, encrypted storage, and controllers for system management, audio and storage. It also enables the “Hey Siri” feature of activating Siri by voice. (Jason Snell at Macworld wrote a good article about what the T2 does.)
The 13-inch models with the new hardware start at $1,799; two 13-inch models with last year’s specifications and no Touch Bar are still available starting at $1,299. The 15-inch models start at $2,399. With these updates, Apple has retired the old, pre-Thunderbolt 3 design; hoist a drink to the late, great MagSafe power connector.
Overall, this update looks more like what we expected in 2016, which is a good thing. I’m not ready to ditch the one I own, but I expect it will make a lot of pro users happy.
End menu bar anarchy. I’ll admit, I’m not a fastidious Mac user — let’s just say I’m eagerly looking forward to the new Stacks feature in macOS Mojave that cleans up the Desktop. There’s a tipping point, though, between clutter and anarchy. That was the state of my menu bar.
I didn’t even realize that I use menu bar items as often as I do, until I realized I was consistently getting annoyed several times a day. The accumulation happened slowly, with applications adding menu bar shortcuts to the point where I couldn’t view them all. When my MacBook Pro was connected to an external 27-inch display, it wasn’t an issue, but as soon as I took the laptop elsewhere, I couldn’t reach everything.
A couple of utilities eased my frustration levels.
First, I installed Vanilla, a free utility by Matthew Palmer that lets you choose which icons are visible at the right side of the menu bar. With the app’s preferences open, Command-drag icons to a representation of the menu bar that sets which are visible and which are hidden.
You expose hidden icons by clicking a < symbol. After five seconds, they’re hidden again. A $4.99 upgrade to the pro version gives you a third option to remove items entirely, and set a keyboard shortcut for hiding and showing the set.
Vanilla is a good option, though it has its quirks. Revealing the hidden icons doesn’t help on my MacBook Pro when I’m in an app with more than four or five menus (which is basically everything), so it’s difficult to get to some items anyway. Also, Vanilla doesn’t transition well when switching between a workspace and a full-screen app, temporarily obscuring the top of the app.
Next I turned to Bartender 3, which costs $15 and offers a four-week trial. It, too, hides menu bar icons, but there’s more granularity to the choice: you can always show or hide an item, or choose whether items are visible in the full menu bar or in the Bartender menu bar.
Showing and hiding icons certainly helps, but doesn’t solve the problem of accessing menu bar icons that are obscured by an application’s menus. This is where Bartender has a secret weapon. Control-click the Bartender menu that appears to display a search field, and then type the name of the item you want. Now I don’t need to worry if an item is obscured by an app with many menus, because a few quick taps on the keyboard will bring me the one I want. You can also customize the text that brings them up if you want to create shortcuts.
Now that I’m no longer stressed — even in a small way — by my menu bar items, I can switch to pondering how long I can hold out before wanting the new MacBook Pro models.
Jeff Carlson writes the Practical Mac column for Personal Technology and about technology in general for The Seattle Times and other publications. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. More Practical Mac columns at st.news/practicalmac.