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2016 MacBook Pro — More Goodies and a Higher Price

Apple made a point of reminding us that the first Apple laptop arrived 25 years ago, but it was not the first portable Mac. Ignored by CEO Tim Cook in his presentation at Thursday’s media event, there was once something called the Macintosh Portable, released two years earlier; it was hardly portable. But if you’re referring to a device that is the direct ancestor of today’s notebook computers, choose the PowerBook 100 from 1991.

Clearly Apple intends the 2016 MacBook Pro to be revolutionary — and it is. But the cost of all this nifty engineering is high, and those who might have been able to eke out enough money for previous Apple notebooks might think twice. You have to make a major decision.

So let’s do the basic comparison: The 2015 MacBook Pro started at $1,499 for the 13.3-inch version, and $1,999 for the 15.4-inch version. That’s lower than it had been in the past, but still relatively expensive for a notebook computer, if only because you can buy a PC notebook for half that amount. Obviously, the configurations wouldn’t match, but some only care about pricing.

Compare that to the 2016. MacBook Pro, particularly the models with the Touch Bar. Now if you want to buy the smaller model without the Touch Bar, it’s still $1,499. But the basic configuration with Touch Bar and Touch ID starts at $1,799. The larger model starts at $2,399, and it isn’t available without those two hardware additions. If there’s any consolation, it appears the jump from a 256GB SSD to 1TB SSD is a “mere” $600.00. That’s higher than you’d pay for that SSD all by its lonesome from third-party dealers. But the truly expensive update is a 2TB SSD for $1,400. Ouch.

In making the MacBook Pro thinner than a MacBook Air, Apple clearly did some heavy-duty engineering. It appears every key element of the new design has changed. The keyboard descends from the one in the MacBook, with the hint at more traditional keyboard travel. The trackpad is larger, and there are four Thunderbolt 3 ports that come in USB-C dress. Any can be used for charging purposes, but the MagSafe charging scheme is history. Both models use sixth generation Intel processors, known as Skylake. There is a successor, Kaby Lake, but it is probably not yet available in quantities sufficient for Apple’s purposes. With Intel Iris graphics on the 13-inch model, and AMD Polaris graphics on the 15-inch version, there are huge performance increases.

Apple also boasts that the larger MacBook Pro can drive two external 5K displays. But they won’t come from Apple just yet, since a new LG display, supposedly designed with Apple’s assistance, was mentioned. If you’re hoping for an upgraded Thunderbolt display, it may happen, but it’s clearly not a priority.

Now weighing three and four pounds, a half pound lighter than before, is quite meaningful if you need to lug one of these babies across the airport in a case armed with other stuff, such as a backup drive and assorted connectivity gear.

Adding Touch ID is just to be expected. The real improvement — and it’s major — is the Touch Bar. It’s also a whole lot more sophisticated than I could have imagined based on the rumors. So much so that it creates an impressive new way to manage your workflow. It also destroys the argument for a convertible PC with a touchscreen. Considering all the things you can do with Touch Bar with your hands comfortably on the keyboard, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would have considered a different alternative for a PC.

Clearly the MacBook Pro separates the concept of notebooks considerably from the tablet, though both may roughly be in the same category.

As the rumors stated, the Touch Bar is context sensitive, not just changing from app to app but from function to function. It replaces menus, buttons and sliders in clever ways that depend on the imagination of the app developer. I had expected Adobe and Microsoft to take their sweet time to become Touch Bar aware, but it appears they are already working on updates that ought to be out before year’s end.

So many of the things you did by mousing around suddenly appear in the Touch Bar, at your beck and call. Apple demonstrated how the Finder and other system features are managed in Touch Bar, not to mention Mail, Safari, iWork and other Apple apps.

The Touch Bar versions of such apps as Final Cut Pro X, GarageBand, iMovie, and iWork are already out. A new version of Xcode will arm developers with the tools to support Touch Bar. The new MacBook Pros aren’t shipping for another two or three weeks, but still in plenty of time to catch fire during the holiday season.

If you can afford the price of admission.

But Apple executives are already saying that they do not design to a price, and I have little doubt the cost of engineering and building Touch Bar is high, and so paying $300-400 more may make perfect sense. Over the next few years, that price will no doubt come down as Apple perfects this flashy invention. Do you remember the debut of the 27-inch iMac with 5K Retina display?

What it does indicate is that there’s life left in what many felt to be a moribund product category. Apple has demonstrated a way to become more productive, and if you’re a graphic designer who charges for your labors by the hour, it may not take so long to make up for the price increase. After that, it’s gravy.

But when it comes to other Macs sadly in need of updates, it’s just crickets, unless something shows up via a press release in the next week or two. The MacBook Air is pared down to one model, the 13-inch version, still $999, but it’s being sold unchanged. The 11-inch MacBook Air is destined for the closeout bins. As to the fate of the Mac mini and Mac Pro, well both are still for sale, older but at the same price. An update for the iMac may not arrive until early next year.

So, yes, Apple has made a huge commitment to the Mac platform. But whether potential buyers can get past the higher prices is an open question that may not be answered until the December quarter is in the rearview mirror.