First Impressions of the 13-inch Touch Bar MacBook Pro

I’ve been using a Touch Bar MacBook Pro review unit from Apple for almost two weeks. It’s the top-end 13-inch model in space gray. This piece isn’t meant to be a full review—that will come later—but I’ve spent enough time with the machine now that I feel I have a solid grasp of my thoughts on it so far.

My short take is I like this computer a lot. The size is great, the weight is great, the screen is great, and the Touch Bar is great. I’ve enjoyed using this MacBook Pro very much.

Keep reading for the longer version…

Size & Weight. The first thing that struck me when I took the MacBook Pro out of the box was how thin and light it is. It’s amazingly portable; carrying it around the house or in my backpack is no problem. In fact, it feels lighter than the 12.9-inch iPad Pro and Smart Keyboard that I’ve been using as my “laptop” for the past year. It could just be my imagination, of course, but it sure feels like I’m carrying less when I hold the MacBook as opposed to my iPad Pro.

(Sidebar: It was brought to my attention recently that, at 3 pounds, this MacBook Pro weights half a pound more than I did when I was born. I was born three months premature, weighing in at 2.5 pounds. How’s that for perspective? Wow.)

I wanted to test a 13-inch model for the simple reason that it’s smaller and easier to move around. This computer makes my girlfriend’s 15-inch MacBook Pro feel like a ton of bricks, and I can move that around our house with relative ease. The difference is stark; the easier the device is to move from place to place, the more I’ll use it.

The Screen. The MacBook Pro’s display is the best I’ve ever used. It’s brighter and sharper than any other, except for the one on the iPhone 7 Plus I’ve been using for a while. The wide color gamut technology Apple boasts about is no joke either. Retina displays are an essential accessibility tool for me, and the one on the new MacBook Pro is an absolute pleasure to behold. (As on my iOS devices, my MacBook’s screen is always set to full brightness. I need all that light to see.) Even my girlfriend has commented on how much better the display looks compared to the one on her laptop—and that one is pretty damn good itself.

The Keyboard & Trackpad. I love the keyboard on this thing. It feels (and sounds!) wonderful. I’m not a touch typist, so key travel doesn’t matter much to me. I feel faster with my hunt-and-peck method than I have on any other keyboard I’ve used. The older style keyboard feels like crap relative to the new one. I’m interested in seeing how the new keyboard compares to the one on Apple’s Magic Keyboard, which I’m currently eyeing for this new iPad stand that’s reminiscent of my beloved old Incase Origami Workstation. For now, though, the MacBook Pro’s keyboard is my favorite.

The MacBook Pro's keyboard has two distinct advantages over the Smart Keyboard: the keys are backlit and the Caps Lock key has an on/off light. These are huge accessibility wins, especially in low-light situations. The Caps Lock indicator light is so nice, as it’s my biggest peeve of the Smart Keyboard. I can actually tell whether Caps Lock is on.

The trackpad is interesting. It’s practically the size of an aircraft carrier, with tons of room for gestures and my coffee. The thing is, I don’t use it much. I actually prefer using my old Magic Mouse that I bought back in 2011. (Mine is the original model that takes AA batteries.) It still works flawlessly, and I've always loved how it feels in my hand. There’s great irony in the fact I champion iOS devices for their direct, touch-driven mechanics for accessibility, yet I prefer an indirect pointing device to the trackpad on macOS. (The Smart Zoom gesture in Safari is glorious.) It’s surely a vestige of my computing past, when I used Windows (then the Mac) on the desktop. I simply feel more comfortable with a mouse than I do with the trackpad. Or, to put it another way, I’m old.

Laptop Versus iPad. A big reason for my enjoyment of this computer is it’s been nice using a “real” laptop again. I’ve been using the aforementioned 15-inch MacBook Pro more lately at home, but it’s effectively a desktop machine. Neither me nor my girlfriend take it out of the house, so I use it perched on the kitchen table. Thus, it’s nice to have a thinner and lighter machine with which I can go places to work. I’ve used my iPad Pro for this in the past, and while I love it, it’s been refreshing getting reacquainted with macOS. It’s caused me to rethink my workflow, which I think is healthy. I’m increasingly seeing the benefits of being on “Team Both,” despite the fact that an iPad is generally more accessible for me than a laptop due to its form factor and interaction model. I can envision a world in which I have both an iPad Pro and a MacBook Pro, switching between them depending upon my mood and what I want to do. (Although, a 27-inch iMac with a Touch Bar-equipped Magic Keyboard would be enticing.) macOS’s accessibility features are abundant, particularly for the Touch Bar, and I’m getting more comfortable employing them to make the experience more accessible.

Touch Bar & Touch ID. When I saw the Touch Bar demos at the October 27 press event, I immediately became excited. I could see all the potential, accessibility-wise, this technology could have for the Mac. In my testing, I’ve found the Touch Bar to be delightful, and I’m bullish for its future. Watching the Touch Bar's maturation will be fun.

From an accessibility perspective, the best thing about the Touch Bar is how it makes UI elements feel "closer." I spend much less visual energy scanning an app’s interface on screen now that many of the items I frequently click (e.g., Favorites in Safari, emoji) are shown on the Touch Bar. Likewise with keyboard shortcuts; instead of pressing ⌘-S to send an message in Mail, I can tap the iOS-style Send icon on the Touch Bar.

Visually, I’ve had no problems seeing the Touch Bar as-is. Content is bright and generally glanceable; motor-wise, I’ve had no issues swiping or tapping in the small space. That said, the most impressive thing about the Touch Bar, in my opinion, is the Zoom feature. Apple packed a lot of accessibility support into the device, as it supports VoiceOver, Zoom, and Switch Control. The Zoom implementation is really clever: After enabling Zoom in System Preferences, touching the Touch Bar will bring up an enlarged version of it on the bottom of the screen. You slide your finger back and forth to select items. It's very well done, and it’s my preferred way to use the Touch Bar most of the time. Certain emoji is hard to decipher on screen due to their small size, but using Zoom remedies the issue. I love it.

Touch ID on the Mac is nice. I don’t use it for logging in—I think Auto Unlock with Apple Watch is more accessible—but it is great to have for 1Password and using Apple Pay in Safari. I hadn’t used Apple Pay on the Web prior to getting this MacBook Pro, so I wanted to try it out. I bought a nylon Apple Watch band and an USB-C to Lightning cable from Apple’s website, and enjoyed the checkout experience. One of the struggles I often encounter with online shopping is entering shipping and payment information because I have to navigate all the little fields. Like on iOS, Touch ID alleviates this friction. It’s great being able to authenticate a purchase with only my fingerprint, and I hope more retailers integrate Apple Pay into their online stores. Apple Pay on iOS is a terrific, however unintentional, accessibility tool, and I’m happy to have access to it on the Mac now as well.

RIP MagSafe. If there’s one aspect of this new MacBook Pro that I truly dislike, it’s USB-C. I don’t dislike it technologically; it’s versatile and definitely represents the future of connectivity. Rather, what I dislike about USB-C is it's infinitely less accessible than its predecessor, MagSafe. Why does this matter? As with my argument in favor of Apple ditching the headphone jack on iPhone 7, the problem with USB-C in an accessibility context is it’s tough to insert and remove a cable from the computer. The connection is tight, as if it were clinging with the jaws of life. As someone with fine-motor delays, I have a hard time plugging into power, for example. MagSafe was much better in this regard because, being magnetic, the cord would align itself when I got close enough to the port. It was easier to remove for the same reason. This is a tiny, esoteric detail, to be sure, but it's important. I loathe plugging stuff in because it takes much more effort than it used to. It puts a dent on an otherwise excellent computer—in a sense, the loss of MagSafe belies the overall niceness of the machine. All because Apple's industrial design team decided MagSafe had to die. Sigh.