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10-Year Archive

Humanizing Tech

13" MacBook Pro Versus 12" MacBook

Review comparing the new TouchBar enabled Pro version to the everyman’s 12" version

Apple MacBook Pro 13" and 15" side by side, in my beloved Space Gray

I. Setting The Stage

Lets get this out of the way first. This isn’t a publication dedicated to reviews, but from time to time we do create a head-to-head comparison or roundup where we find it interesting and helpful to our members.

So you get a sense of this writer’s perspective, below are the series of Apple MacBooks I’ve used over the last 6 years and what they were mostly used for. Each were brand new models and fully maxed out.

  • 2010 13" MacBook Air: business school work, consulting gigs with lots of Microsoft Office and emailing, creative agency work with lots of coding and photoshopping. Lots of learning, creation, and management.
  • 2012 15" MacBook Pro: creating mobile apps, web apps, managing design files and mockups, emailing, Almost entirely creation.
  • 2013 15" MacBook Pro: global tech turnaround management, lots of travel, emailing, using web apps, Microsoft Office, requirements, Jira. More management than creation.
  • 2016 12" MacBook: Same as 2013.Lots of management, lots of creation.
  • 2017 13" MacBook Pro with TouchBar: TBD but expecting lots of communication, creation of code, writing, Photoshop and InDesign creative, video editing, management, presentation, etc.

II. The Critical Competitive Difference

But you have to remember who these two different laptops are being marketed towards. The 12" is a consumer device. The 13" a pro device. It goes from social networking, texting, watching movies, and the occasional printing to deep content creation.

Stripping everything else away, the reason for my upgrade to the 13" Pro was simply one of performance. I was beginning to reach the processing power limits of a machine that was twice as slow as the Pro version. I couldn’t open an InDesign file without the screen lagging behind my scrolling. Command+Tab-ing through screens, typing furiously, and multi-tasking was taking a toll on the lightweight machine.

The only other thing that matters is weight. I had originally switched to the 12" from the 15" Pro because of the sheer size and weight of it. It was unwieldy on an airplane. The laptop was basically in my neck for trans-atlantic flights. Lugging it around Manhattan, a bajillion airports and even the home office got to be a literal drag, man.

So when the featherweight, 2 pound MacBook first touched my fingers, I was hooked. Now that I can get almost the same lightness for twice the speed and almost the same price, it’s a no brainer.

III. Harsh Criticisms Discussed

You can find a number of reviews of the MacBook Pro with TouchBar online so we won’t be regurgitating the same tic-tac feature comparison chart we would normally put together.

Instead, lets describe the feeling of using the 12" regular version and the 13" Pro version and address some of the biggest gripes the reviewer community has had with the new Pros.

  1. GPU graphics glitches.
  2. TouchBar as a gimick.
  3. Abysmal battery life.
  4. Not enough memory.
  5. Dongle life.
  6. Overpriced.
  7. Switching to Surface.
  8. Not for a pro.

I think that pretty much covers it. Lets take each one in turn.

GPU graphics glitches. Obviously this is cause for concern depending on how widespread the issue is. The MacRumors post has a good roundup of the experience. But look at what the dude was doing with his custom-speced out AMD, not Intel, GPU on the 15" model. Transcoding video with Adobe Media Encoder in Premiere Pro. Like what? I mean talk about an edge case. Apple engineers were all over it, and now a fix is out as of December 13, 2016. For me, I didn’t experience a single thing over the weekend. Seems corner case and not fat middle critical.

TouchBar as a gimmick. At first it seems like it might be. Takes a bit to get used to on when you’re supposed to pick your fingers up from the keyboard to tap the TouchBar and when you’re supposed to reach down to drag the trackpad towards the on-screen UI. For example, do I reach up to tap the B bold icon or reach down to select it with the trackpad?

Some things truly are gimicky like that. But other things are an absolute delight. I’ll give you two examples. The first is changing the volume up and down. It’s something many people do quite often. I thought it was worse having to tap the icon for sound in the TouchBar, then drag the slider to the desired volume. But then I realised I could press and hold, then drag. It’s so fluid now that I don’t even notice and it feels almost magical. I know that sounds silly. But I almost don’t even need to look at it.

Touch, hold, draaaaaag to change volume, courtesy of CNET’s gif-making department.

The other is also part of the sliding mechanism. When watching videos, I’ve found it much easier to scrub through a video with my finger rather than a precisely timed trackpad drag. It’s smoother and much more accurate.

Abysmal battery life. Honestly I couldn’t tell you I even noticed. I’ve had it plugged in, on my lap in a chair throughout the house, and in use from 7am until about 11pm. When the battery gets low, I plug it in. This is not rocket science, folks. Until we technologists come up with altogether better batteries, or siphon energy from the dark energy in the air, we’re gonna have to plug something in, sometime. Next.

Not enough memory. Do these reviewers even know what memory is? Are they confusing it with storage space? Are they trying to physically RAM things into their RAM? Like what are you doing that requires more than 8GB of RAM at one time, man? Every app on your laptop open at once while streaming and editing 8K VR video in real-time, analyzing it GPU-accelerated deep learning algorithms? You show me how you’re maxing out 8GB of RAM and I’ll show you that you’re trying to run an AWS competitive data center, not write some code or create a design file.

Dongle life. You know how many disk drives and dongles I’ve plugged into my laptop over the last 6 years? Two. Everytime I charge the computer (you ain’t gettin’ around that one). And 5 years ago when I had to install Microsoft Office from an old CD before they launched their SAAS product. That’s. Freaking. It.

Ok. I get the whole “I’m a pro” thing and you need to plug in cameras and hard drives and monitors and ethernet cables and phones and disk drives. Or something. But just calm down. Go buy a dongle and put it in your bag. Because clearly you’re carrying all of this equipment around with you everywhere you go right? I mean it’s a laptop and meant to be mobile. So you’re taking all this hardware with you, no?

Hmm. Maybe you’re doing it wrong. If you’re working out of the same space every day then you probably have a drawer next to your desk. Throw a dongle in there just in case. Problem solved. Lets all get back to work. Here’s that soapbox back. Thanks for letting me borrow.

Of course, coming from the 12" MacBook all of this is a moot point because that only had one USB-C port. Now you have 4 and a headphone jack. Fancy.

Overpriced. For the 12" MacBook, with Apple Care and tax, you’re looking at an even $2,000 price point. For the 13" MacBook Pro with TouchBar, Apple Care and tax, you’re at $2,200.

That’s a $200 difference for twice the performance and all the new features. If you’re trying to decide between which one to get, the choice is a no brainer. Spend the extra $200 and have the world’s most advanced computing device to play with.

When those two things are compared, it’s not overpriced. Maybe if you compare this to a Chromebook. But I mean, if you’re really doing that comparison, you’re not really in the market for an Apple laptop.

Switching to Surface. Ok, you’re going to get a tablet with a detachable keyboard that runs Windows instead of Mac. I’m an Apple dude, through and through. I have friends that swear by Google and Android and others that have been developing on Windows since the dawn of the internet. It’s your preference.

But if you’re comparing the 13" MacBook Pro with Touchbar to the Surface, then you have to be talking about the Surface Book. The tablet isn’t in the same ballpark and the desktop is more of an art easel. The Book seems like it makes a good head-to-head comparison, though it does start $600 more expensive than the 13" MacBook Pro with TouchBar (not including Apple Care, for an apples-to-apples comparison).

That seems more like the one that should be called out for being too expensive.

Not for a pro. I believe I addressed this at the very top of this article. My use cases are for a business pro, a startup pro, a creative pro, a writing pro, a developer pro, a video pro, a traveling pro. I’m not sure how much more pro you can go. I’ve done lots of stuff across these fields for years. And done them on far less performant machines.

Here we have a new, top-of-the-line supercomputer and we’re complaining about details because we need something to “Donald Trump” about.

I’m not buying it.

IV. Things I Love About the New Pro

Speed. Every few months or so I’ll wipe my MacBook and restore it fresh from factory settings. Because I have everything backed up with Dropbox and iCloud, plus most of my software is all SAAS based, it means I don’t ever have to worry about what machine I’m using.

But, the problem with the 12" MacBook was that as I was flying through the few hours of restoring and syncing all the data, it would struggle to keep up. With only about a 1.2GHz processor, I wanted to tell it to unhitch the plow sometimes. The new Pro, however, blew me away. It worked faster than I did, which is saying something. No matter how many things I was setting up or syncing at a time, including hundreds of thousands of Dropbox files (where I also back up my git repos), it didn’t flinch.

That’s because moving from a 1.2GHz processor in the 12" to a next gen 2.9GHz as its standard computing power really makes a difference. That’s over 2x the compute power. The GPU is also the next gen version, from Intel’s 515 model to 550.

Performance specs for the new 13" MacBook Pro

Light. The 12" machine is just a hair over 2 pounds. It’s basically a feather. I can hold the thing at my side between a pinky and a thumb. That number doesn’t do it justice. It’s just a number. You have to physically hold one and carry one around in your bag or maneuver it in a cramped airplane to understand how big of an impact this has in real-world use. Lightness for a laptop is critical. A pound goes a long way.

The new 13" Pro is only 1 pound heavier. Just a hair over 3. The 15" I used to use was 4.5 pounds. Shaving 1.5 pounds off a Pro to get it closer to a 12" two-pounder is a win for the product team. Kudos to y’all. I love carrying it around already.

Lemme show this sucker off.

9to5Mac’s nice review of the 15" MacBook Pro, compared to the 12" gold MacBook (my prior laptop)

Trackpad. I found myself thoroughly enjoying the satisfying click the massive trackpad makes. The only weird thing is I have lower-right-hand-corner enables right click mode so I have to stretch my fingers a bit further to get to that. It’s subtle. Some reviewers believe it to be too mechanical, or prefer silent, but it’s nice. My personal preference is to require on a delicate tap on the trackpad to click something. That enables silent mode. But I find myself sometimes really wanting to tell the computer, “I’m pressing this with vigor. Forthwith.” And so when I really push, I hear the satisfying, barely audible click. It’s refreshingly lovely.

System Preferences > Trackpad > Tap to click

Keyboard. Coming from the 12" chicklet keys, these new v2 keys are a thing of beauty. They don’t have as short a throw as the 12" but they pop back much nicer. If I had to compare it to something, it comes very close to sounding like the iOS keyboard (which is software only sounds). I have to imagine they did this on purpose. What a great user experience design consistency. Make the hardware keyboard on the desktop platform. sound like the software keyboard on the mobile platform.

MacBook Pro second generation butterfly keys
MacBook Pro second generation butterfly keys have 4 hinge points instead of 2.

One note on the 12" keyboard, that you should be aware of. About a month ago I had to send the entire MacBook nto Apple to get repaired because the space bar, where I always push, had one of the keys break. It took a few days for them to work on it and send it back. Luckily I had a backup computer but not sure how I would have done any work without my very important tool. Speaking with the Genius folks, it seems it was a widely reported problem with the v1 keyboard, which likely contributed to their industrial redesign on this new Pro. Incidentally, Apple replaced my entire logic board before they sent it back. Thanks Apple Care.

Previous generation MacBook scissor keys (left), 12" MacBook first generation butterfly keys with 2 hinge points (right)

TouchID. It’s just plain dope. I stopped using my Apple Watch for health reasons (ironic right?). So I need a way to quickly unlock my MacBook without having to type in my password every time. Now, I just reach up and touch with my finger.

The MacBook Pro’s new TouchID integration directly into the TouchBar

What you might not have picked up from other reviews though, is that there’s an actual button on the right side of the TouchBar where you tap and hold for the fingerprint scanner. I’m not quite sure what it does or why it’s there because TouchID doesn’t require that you click it. Interestingly, there is no corresponding button on the left side where the escape key is. There was some murmor about this, mostly from dustin curtis who hates it, but it really doesn’t affect my day-to-day usage at all.

Display. Holy moly is the new display a thing of beauty. The 12" MacBook had an already great LED-backlit screen at a 2304-by-1440 resolution at 226 pixels per inch. The 13" MacBook Pro has a similar LED-backlit screen with slightly higher resolution due to the size at 2560-by-1600 native resolution with 1 more pixel per inch.

However, the difference is in the color gamut. The new machine uses P3 color, which gives you much more of a range than sRGB on the older displays. Is it noticeable? I can tell when I’m in a high res photoshop file.

V. The Final Verdict

Even with all the negativity that I had read about the new Pro, it didn’t stop us from getting it. Simply because the performance improvements were so great for nearly the same price. A fully spec’d out 12" MacBook with Apple Car is north of $2,000. And the weight savings, now, is only one pound, which is negligible.

After using the new Pro for a few days, I’m in love. The Space Gray looks dark and mysteriously handsome in a way that makes all the nerds swoon. It changes color in different light as well which is an interesting discovery.

The keys feel exquisitely manufactured, perfect for typing out extended-form Medium posts. The sound is killer even if the audio isn’t pumped out of the industrially designed microscopic, perfectly aligned holes. The TouchBar has relevant and useful features beyond swiping through silly emoticons.

And I could care less about dongles. The only one that most people use is the one that gets plugged into the wall. And unless you’re traveling non-stop, which most people don’t, you’re near an outlet and plugged in anyways.

I say leave the naysayers at the door and go play with one yourself. If you find yourself wanting it, go get it. Even if there are a few wrinkles around the edges of Apple’s perfectly manicured face these days, they still haven’t lost their product mojo.

Two TouchID fingers up. I’m all the way up 🙌 (typed with TouchBar).


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13" MacBook Pro Versus 12" MacBook was originally published in Humanizing Tech on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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