John Gruber: 16-inch MacBook Pro First Impressions
Roger Stringer • November 12, 2019
5 min read
Apple today is releasing its much-rumored new 16-inch MacBook Pro.
It is full of good news.
Yesterday, Apple held a series of roundtable briefings for the media in New York. There was an on-the-record introduction followed by an off-the-record series of demos.1 The introduction was led by MacBook Pro product manager Shruti Haldea, along with senior director of Mac product marketing Tom Boger and Phil Schiller. Attending media received loaner units to review. Let’s not even pretend that a few hours is enough time for a proper review, but it’s more than enough time to establish some strong broad impressions. Here’s what you need to know, in what I think is the order of importance.
We got it all: a return of scissor key mechanisms in lieu of butterfly switches, a return of the inverted-T arrow key arrangement, and a hardware Escape key. Apple stated explicitly that their inspiration for this keyboard is the Magic Keyboard that ships with iMacs. At a glance, it looks very similar to the butterfly-switch keyboards on the previous 15-inch MacBook Pros. But don’t let that fool you — it feels completely different. There’s a full 1mm of key travel; the butterfly keyboards only have 0.5mm. This is a very good compromise on key travel, balancing the superior feel and accuracy of more travel with the goal of keeping the overall device thin. (The new 16-inch MacBook Pro is, in fact, a little thicker than the previous 15-inch models overall.) Calling it the “Magic Keyboard” threads the impossible marketing needle they needed to thread: it concedes everything while confessing nothing. Apple has always had a great keyboard that could fit in a MacBook — it just hasn’t been in a MacBook the last three years.
It’s hard not to speculate that all of these changes are, to some degree, a de-Jony-Ive-ification of the keyboard. For all we on the outside know, this exact same keyboard might have shipped today even if Jony Ive were still at Apple. I’m not sure I know anyone, though, who would disagree that over the last 5-6 years, Apple’s balance of how things work versus how things look has veered problematically toward making things look better — hardware and software — at the expense of how they function.
What Apple emphasized yesterday in its presentation is not that the butterfly-switch keyboards are problematic or unpopular. They can’t do that — they still include them on every MacBook other than this new 16-inch model. And even if they do eventually switch the whole lineup to this new keyboard — and I think they will, but of course, when asked about that, they had no comment on any future products — it’s not Apple’s style to throw one of their old products under the proverbial bus. What Apple emphasized is simply that they listened to the complaints from professional MacBook users. They recognized how important the Escape key is to developers — they even mentioned Vim by name during a developer tool demo. And they emphasized that they studied what makes for a good keyboard. What reduces mistakes, what increases efficiency. And they didn’t throw away the good parts of the butterfly keyboard — including excellent backlighting and especially the increased stability, where keys go down flat even when pressed off-center. The keys on this keyboard don’t wobble like the keys on pre-2016 MacBook Pro keyboards do.
The new 16-inch display has a native resolution of 3072 × 1920 pixels, with a density of 226 pixels per inch. The old 15-inch retina display was 2880 × 1800 pixels, with a density of 220 pixels per inch. Apple didn’t just use the same number of pixels and make the pixels bigger — they actually made the pixels slightly smaller and added more of them to make a bigger display. Brightness and color gamut are unchanged. No rounded corners (like on the iPad Pro and iPhone X/XS/11) — the display is still a good old-fashioned rectangle with pure corners.
The 16-inch MacBook Pro is the new “big” MacBook Pro — it replaces the previous 15-inch MacBook Pro in the lineup at the same prices: $2400 for a 6-core base model and $2800 for the 8-core base model.
The Intel chips are the same as the ones available on the May 2019 15-inch MacBook Pro. So it goes, until Apple switches to its own chips for Macs — these are still the best laptop chips Intel makes. It’s a bit unusual, to say the least, that a major update to the flagship MacBook uses the same CPUs as the generation it’s replacing.
It feels a bit silly to be excited about a classic arrow key layout, a hardware Escape key, and key switches that function reliably and feel good when you type with them, but that’s where we are. The risk of being a Mac user is that we’re captive to a single company’s whims.
We shouldn’t be celebrating the return of longstanding features we never should have lost in the first place. But Apple’s willingness to revisit these decisions — their explicit acknowledgment that, yes, keyboards are meant to by typed upon, not gazed upon — is, if not cause for a party, at the very least cause for a jubilant toast.
John touched on more too, but these were points I found most interesting.