MacBook Pro 2020 Initial Impressions
I buy what might be the last Intel MacBook Pro, and give my first impressions of it as compared to my outgoing 2015 MacBook Air.
This week I bought a 13-inch, 2020 MacBook Pro. The model I chose features four Thunderbolt 3 ports, 2 GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 (10th gen) with 16 GB of RAM, and a 1 TB SSD. It replaces my 2015 MacBook Air, which my wife bought for me in September 2016 after I had my fill of using Linux full time.
The purchase ends months of internal debate on whether I switch to iOS or continue using the Mac for my professional and creative needs. My MacBook Air was getting long in the tooth. Its stock 128 GB SSD was becoming increasingly difficult to work with especially as I started editing audio and video. Moreover, I was experiencing issues with performance, not only in more strenuous workloads but also in everyday tasks like simple web browsing.
On paper, it's a terrible time to buy a Mac, thanks to Apple's impending transition to ARM-based silicon. This computer may very well be the last Intel MacBook Pro. However, I bought now because I needed a new computer now. I bought a Mac because my day job as a technical writer and developer is still best done on a full desktop operating system. I bought Intel because Apple Silicon still has unanswered questions. I don't know when the development tools and utilities I use will migrate to ARM.
On paper, it's a terrible time to buy a Mac, thanks to Apple's impending transition to ARM-based silicon
So, those are my reasons for the purchase, and I don't regret it one bit because my initial impressions are extremely positive. What follows isn't a full review — there's plenty of those on YouTube. Instead, I offer my thoughts on how this MacBook Pro meets my needs as a writer, developer and creator, as compared to my 2015 MacBook Air.
As a writer, the most critical feature to me in a laptop is its keyboard. I crank out hundreds of thousands of words in a year. I need a laptop keyboard that is comfortable, responsive and reliable. From 2016-2019 Apple categorically failed to deliver a laptop keyboard with these requirements. The god-awful, block-of-wood, failure-prone Butterfly keyboard is the principal reason why I did not upgrade sooner.
Thank Jobs Almighty, Apple finally came to their senses with the introduction of the Magic Keyboard to their laptops late last year.
Shockingly, I like this new keyboard even more than I like the 2015 keyboard, which now feels spongy and inconsistent by comparison. The 2020 MacBook Pro's keyboard has more than enough travel to give the tactile feedback my brain expects. The keys are firm and responsive, with the activation force spread evenly across the keycaps. With the return to the scissor mechanism, the reliability is also greatly improved and no longer will a single spec of dust render this expensive machine inoperable.
Another plus is the backlighting which I've noticed has much less bleed than the 2015 Air. Less bleed makes typing in low light much more pleasant, at least for me. While I am comfortable touch typing, the backlight is still useful for keys I use less often. I also find it acts as an ambient counter-point to the light emitted by the screen.
You can't buy a MacBook Pro without the Touch Bar; they are standard across the line. If Apple had given me a choice, I might have elected not to buy a Touch Bar model. My opinion when Apple first announced the Touch Bar was that it was an unnecessary gimmick. After using the Touch Bar for half a week, my opinion has changed.
The programable Touch Bar is far more useful than hard-coded buttons, which I only used as media controls. Apps I use daily — Messages, Safari, Ulysses, Scrivener — all utilise the Touch Bar to surface useful functions otherwise buried in menus. Even the Terminal gets in on the action with the Man Page button, which is fantastic for working on the command line.
The next most important feature for me in a laptop is its screen. For years, I've used the non-Retina MacBook Air and honestly, it's complete rubbish. It was dull, with washed-out colours, horrendous viewing angles, and subpar resolution — even in 2015.
In summary, when I placed my MacBook Pro beside my old laptop words honestly failed me for a solid 30 seconds.
The 2020 MacBook Pro has the best screen I have ever viewed — and yes, I have a retina iPad. When I opened the Mac for the first time, my youngest son asked me if they stuck an iPad on the computer, and the observation isn't far off the mark. The retina resolution is crisp and detailed — text looks stunning, as though I'm writing on paper. As someone who needs glasses, the added visual acuity it provides will significantly improve my comfort as I write for hours on end.
Yet writing isn't all I do, and I use my computer for graphic design, photo editing and creating maps for my fantasy novels. In this context, colour is essential, and my MacBook Air was so bad I would always have to finalise my artwork on another screen to make sure it didn't look bad. Now I don't have to do that — the MacBook Pro is more than adequate. The colours on display as rich and vibrant thanks to its support of P3 colour. Photos taken on my iPhone now look like they are supposed to.
Even beyond the resolution and colour, the MacBook Pro also gets True Tone (auto-white balance) and a brightness amounting to 500 nits.
Overall design and build quality
Beyond the keyboard and screen, I like my laptop to be well-designed and well-made, while being fit for the road. The portability factor made me pick up the 13-inch model, even though my new job is home-based, I still envisage needing to travel.
In weight and size, the MacBook Pro is comparable to the 2015 MacBook Air. It's slightly heavier, at 1.4 kg (verses 1.35), but the footprint is smaller by about 2 cm along the width and depth of the device. Being heavier while more compact lends the Pro a density that somehow adds to its premium feeling. Where the MacBook Air felt well, airy with lots of unused space inside, the Pro feels much more rigid and satisfying to hold and place on one's lap.
I also prefer the non-wedge shaped body. The Air's body tapers to a hard, almost sharp edge that chafes the skin of my wrists, leading me to use fingerless gloves. The sharpness is absent on the Pro's wrist-rest making typing much more comfortable than the Air.
The aluminium skin feels better, perhaps thicker or denser again in ways that are hard to define. I went with the Space Grey finish out of personal preference. It's the same finish as I have for my iPad Mini, and it looks great in my opinion — classy and understated.
Another design feature I love is the smaller bezel around the screen, and that it is black and flush with the display thanks to the edge-to-edge glass panel. The Air was infamous for its enormous silver bezel, and since it didn't sit flush allowing dust and fluff to accumulate in the edges. The thin black bezel disappears into the content on the screen, which I appreciate when writing full screen in Scrivener or Ulysses.
Another plus is the trackpad, which is both more extensive and much more responsive. While I was happy with the Air's trackpad, it used a hinge mechanism that failed to deliver consistent activation. The Pro, by contrast, uses a solid-state force-sensitive trackpad similar to 3D Touch on iPhone. No hinge means that no matter where you press, the activation feels the same and is equally responsive. The force-sensitive aspect also replaces some multitouch gestures, for example, Dictionary lookup, which required a three-fingered tap in my old Air. Apple's trackpads are second to none, and it's nice to see improvements here, especially when I wasn't expecting them.
Speakers and microphone
Crikey I wasn't expecting this, but the speakers and microphone on this thing are excellent. I've always dismissed laptop speakers as thin, tinny and quiet — so bad you never actually want to use them. The Air was no exception. The 2020 MacBook Pro, by contrast, sounds superb with plenty of low-end and nice clear mids. With my Air, I would typically listen to music through headphones or external speakers. With the Pro, I don't feel that I have to, especially if I want something ambient playing while I write.
The microphone array (there are three of them apparently) is another pleasant surprise. You wouldn't want to record an audiobook with the MacBook's mic, but you could record a podcast at a pinch, either as a guest or host. The main benefit though will be for conferencing, something we're all doing a lot of in lockdown. You'll sound great without being wired to earbuds or having your face obscured by a mic, stand and pop filter as I do.
Oddly enough, for writing at least, performance is low on my list of priorities. That said, it is something I care about as I don't just write, but also use my computer for podcasting and graphic design. I've not used the Mac enough yet to gauge its performance in heavier workloads, and so I'll likely report back on that as the weeks and months progress.
I've already noticed the difference — even in everyday tasks like web browsing, file operations and general application use. Scrolling through text and webpages is much faster than on my Air, which would lag frequently and sometimes result in beach-balling. Files copy faster, the MacBook boots and decrypts the SSD much faster. Apps open in the blink of an eye, and the Touch ID sensor is so fast I flinched the first time I used it to unlock the Mac.
Dongleville — or one connection to rule them all
This MacBook Pro is my first laptop with Thunderbolt 3/USB-C, and in this model that's all I get (well, I still have the 3.5 mm audio jack). There's no MagSafe, no USB-A, no HDMI/DisplayPort.
Four years ago, when Apple first debuted this arrangement, it was a disaster, and I was among their critics. While I had Thunderbolt-equipped Macs before this (the 2015 Air and my old 2011 Mac mini), I only used them for their DisplayPort capability.
Thankfully the world has moved on, and luckily for me, I guess I let the early adopters feel the pain and cry for a better world. Lots of devices and accessories now come with USB-C support, and even the PC world has moved to adopt both USB-C and Thunderbolt 3. Heck, I even have a couple of devices now that use USB-C for charging, such as my Sony headphones.
I still have older peripherals and to avoid the hassle of dongles, I bought a Belkin Thunderbolt 3 Pro Dock. This accessory gives me everything my MacBook Air had and a lot more besides. When I set my computer down on a desk to work, one cable gives me power, Gigabit Ethernet (which I prefer to wireless), half a dozen USB ports, an SD card reader, a DisplayPort connection, and another Thunderbolt port. It really feels like the future is here, and my computer still has three ports free I could use if I need to, I don't know… connect an external GPU or a screaming fast RAID array.
I don't at all feel limited by the lack of ports, especially with this dock. Yes, I also bought a USB-C to Lightning cable for my iOS devices (and to use Sidecar, another novelty). I'll probably pick up a USB-C portable drive in the rare event I need external storage when I'm travelling.
I've used a Mac since 2005. Every Mac I've owned before this MacBook Pro served my needs and each has a place in my heart for different reasons. And yet, they represented the compromises of consumer-level hardware forced upon me for practical or financial reasons. With the MacBook Pro 2020, at last, I feel as though I've graduated to professional-grade hardware.
This Mac might very well be the swan-song for the Intel era. It's the culmination of years of improvements in computer technology, materials science and design. Apple may very well surpass this, even with their first iteration of their ARM-based Macs.
Yet, I am content, overjoyed even, with this computer. For me, it represents my 15-year journey with Apple, that began when they were a much smaller company, and I was at the very earliest days of my career as a writer. Apple has done so much right with this model, and I suspect it will be the cornerstone of my creative and professional life for years to come.