Apple has a 16″ MacBook Pro that improves performance, adds a bigger, better display, and makes promising changes to the keyboard – without increasing price. Next question: should you upgrade?

Apple’s flagship laptops still command a price premium: standard configurations are US$2,399 and $2,799, which can be punishing for cash-strapped musicians (especially in other countries once accounting for currency and cash). Figure budgeting at least $2599 for 1TB storage, and then the $2799 standard price point bumps processor speed and graphics.

But as before, what you get in exchange for the luxe price is some luxe hardware. That’s always been especially true of the display. Even big fans of the price/performance ratio on PCs have got to concede that Apple ships some big, bright, color-accurate, gorgeous displays.

And the 16″ revision does three things:

  1. It sweetens the display deal with what might be the best laptop display on the market.
  2. It improves the performance-to-price ratio with upgraded specs for the processor, graphics, and battery. But maybe most importantly –
  3. It fixes the damned keyboard. (Or at least first impressions suggest so.)
Now with an Escape key – and while the Touch Bar is standard, improved keyboard performance means there’s not really anything in particular to gripe about, we hope.

The keyboard had held a lot of people back. The butterfly-action keyboard on past models prompted some complaints about key travel, and worse, were subject to reliability problems. I was unable to attend the press preview for the new Apple laptop, but journalists more experienced with those issues are so far impressed – Dieter Bohn for The Verge and Roman Loyala for Macworld each have their first hands-on impressions. Apple are confident enough that they’re dubbing the new keyboard Magic Keyboard, in a nod to their well-liked Magic Mouse and Magic Trackpad (all the way back to the Steve Jobs era, actually).

You still get the Touch Bar whether you want it or not. But it’s no longer at the expense of a dedicated escape button (it’s back), and the fingerprint sensor now also gets its own dedicated control. Plus even the inverted-T directional keys are back.

Having tested the old keyboard, I have to say this is the MacBook Pro I would save up for. But I think the most encouraging thing about this is it means Apple was listening to complaints from pro users.

Also encouraging – you get more ports. You’ll still need adapters for a lot of gear (or a hub), but with USB-C evolving, having four USB-C ports that also double as Thunderbolt 3 (yeah, all four of them) makes this a machine that’s easy to connect.

Computers have largely caught up with the needs of most musicians, meaning all these extra performance specs won’t matter to anyone. But producers pushing the envelope should appreciate the new machines. All images courtesy Apple.

We’ll need a full review before we can judge the on-paper specs, but so far the indications are positive.

  • Ninth-generation CPUs (6- or 8-core, depending on model) from Intel – these will be great for running things like modeled synths (hello, VCV Rack), as well as CPU-native operations for visuals and so on.
  • 100 watt-hour battery (that’s the biggest battery approved to fly in the USA), for longer battery life
  • AMD Radeon Pro 5000M GPU with 4GB VRAM, option for 8GB

This is new generation AMD stuff, made just for Apple, though that also means it’s tough to make a direct comparison. As in past models in this line, it’s middle of the road stuff. Just remember that Apple likes to choose balanced GPUs as far as heat and power draw; they’re not making gaming laptops with big fans.

The relevant factor there is, you still don’t get to take advantage of NVIDIA-specific instructions and acceleration. I guess we’ll see if Apple are able to push Adobe to finally optimize Creative Suite for the Apple GPUs. (Right now, CS uses NVIDIA CUDA optimizations, and suffers quite a bit when it comes to performance on AMD chips. Of course, Apple will be happy if you use Final Cut Pro, at least on the video side.)

You can load up to 64GB of memory, though that’s overkill for even some sample playback applications. And you can add up to 8TB SSD.

BTO options are reasonable, too. It’s US$800 for 64GB RAM (which unless you’re Hans Zimmer, you may not need anyway – 32GB is a nice choice). US$400 buys you the 2 TB SSD.

But to me, it’s really the display and slick form factor where Apple continues to reign supreme. And, wow, that new display –

  • 16‑inch (diagonal) LED‑backlit display with IPS technology; 3072‑by‑1920 native resolution at 226 pixels per inch with support for millions of colors
  • 500 nits brightness
  • Wide color P3 / True Tone
  • Refresh rates: 47.95Hz, 48.00Hz, 50.00Hz, 59.94Hz, 60.00Hz

So everything is great, and you should go buy this – well, maybe.

The Catalina factor

Now that Apple has successfully responded to MacBook Pro customer feedback, let’s see how they handle complaints from developers. Developers I talk to are still venting widespread frustration with glitches under macOS Catalina – and Catalina is installed by default. These go beyond just eliminating 32-bit code and adding expected security improvements. Many developers I’ve talked to tell me that the major changes made to the OS are producing unexpected glitches and challenges.

I wish I could be more specific – Apple, for their part, infamously emailed developers to ask them to stop being so negative in their communication. But I can say this: Apple changed a lot of security features at once, and then shipped that OS on a strict timetable. That introduces a lot of variability, because it doesn’t leave a lot of time for even Apple to respond to developer and user feedback, let alone their third-party ecosystem.

16″ is the one to watch

I think the 16″ machine is likely to be a great choice in the long run – just maybe not today. As with new OSes, patience is a virtue.

If you can keep dust away from the keys, it’s even worth considering a refurb 15″ model for significant cost savings, which is what CDM contributor and friend David Abravanel just did. (Since we don’t live on the same continent, he’s safe from me showing up every day with croissants to see if I can torture test his new baby.) The 16″ model is almost certainly better, but if you get a great deal, that’s another matter. And a new Apple launch is likely to flood the market, especially since there’s no price increase here.

The 16″ model does look like the new sweet spot for the Mac. I would just wait a little bit to get some detailed reviews of the new laptop, and to wait as Apple inevitably works on any bug fixes for this new machine generation and/or macOS Catalina. Plus third party developers are working really hard on support, meaning even a couple of months from now, you can expect a smoother Catalina switch experience than now.

By then, maybe we’ll see this keyboard rolled out on the more affordable, more mobile 13″ model, too.

And Windows laptops remain an option. With more and more music software offering essentially identical experiences across OSes to end users – even in a growing number of cases, on Linux – we’re in a competitive landscape for laptops for music and live visuals.

But that’s a good thing. And it’s great to see a new laptop from Apple that promises to be genuinely inspiring again – and what users actually want.