MacBook Pro 2017. Image courtesy Apple Inc.

2016 MacBook Pro: Good for photographers?

How does the 2016 MacBook Pro measure up for photographers? Let’s take a look at some of the changes, and what they mean for photographers and other creative professionals.

I don’t yet have a 2016 MacBook Pro, but we can arrive at some reliable conclusions from the published specs. To start with, if you take your laptop with you on jobs, especially when traveling, the slimmer dimensions and lower weight are welcome. The 13-inch MacBook Pro is now only 3 pounds, while the 15-inch MacBook Pro is just 4 pounds — almost a third lighter than the 5.6 pounds of my current 2011 15-inch MacBook Pro.

2016 MacBook Pro, 13-inch and 15-inch models. Image courtesy Apple Inc.

Display: P3 wide gamut

The resolution of the Retina displays hasn’t changed. But what has changed is the color gamut. The 2016 MacBook Pro displays now cover the same P3 color gamut as the Retina iMac, iPad Pro, and iPhone 7. For photographers, the larger gamut is a major point in favor of the MacBook Pro since most other laptop displays are still based on sRGB. You no longer have to plug in an external display to view your photos in wide gamut color.

Apple claims the display is also much brighter than the previous generation, so the screen will be easier to see under conditions such as a sunny window or doing a tethered photo shoot outdoors. But if you edit photos for print, having a brighter display doesn’t necessarily help because your display brightness should be consistent with your print media, and that’s usually much lower than the maximum display brightness. If your display brightness is set too high, your prints will be too dark.

Graphics: 4K/5K friendly

As in previous generations, the 13-inch model has integrated graphics (Intel Iris Pro). The Mac system dynamically allocates RAM to integrated graphics based on the amount of system RAM installed, so to get the most out of integrated graphics for photography your computer should have several gigabytes more RAM than you need for applications. In most cases this just means you order your MacBook Pro with the maximum 16GB RAM.

All 15-inch MacBook Pro models now have Radeon Pro discrete graphics in addition to integrated Intel HD Graphics. (In older 15-inch MacBook Pros, only the top of the line model had discrete graphics.) The base model has 2GB of RAM dedicated to discrete graphics, sufficient for most photography-related applications. It’s worth noting that 2GB of graphics RAM is the recommended (not minimum) amount in the system requirements for Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. You can boost the graphics RAM to 4GB for demanding applications or to run multiple 4K/5K displays from the MacBook Pro.

Performance: Modest upgrades, disappointing battery life

Like the earlier generations, the 13-inch MacBook Pro is based on the dual-core Intel Core i5 processor while the 15-inch is based on the quad-core Core i7 processor.

All models can be configured with up to 16GB of RAM. Do this at purchase time because you can’t upgrade the RAM later. Many users were hoping for up to 32GB RAM, but Apple says they chose RAM with lower power requirements.

Apple claims up to 10 hours battery life compared to up to 9 hours in the previous generation, but Microsoft claims up to 12–16 hours for its Surface Book announced earlier the same week. All of those figures probably drop significantly when processing photographs, especially when programs such as Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom activate the more power-hungry discrete graphics in models equipped with it.

Update: The 2016 MacBook Pro seems to have issues with low battery life, caused by multiple factors including the fact that Apple reduced the capacity of the non-removable battery. As Ars Technica reports in their article Explaining the Battery Life Problems with the New MacBook Pros:

The 13-inch model drops from 74.9 WHr to 49.2 WHr and the 15-inch model falls from 99.5 WHr to 76 WHr. That’s a 34 percent and 24 percent reduction in capacity, respectively.

Since then, Bloomberg reported that the 2016 MacBook Pro was supposed to ship with a new higher-capacity battery design, but the new design didn’t work out.

In the run-up to the MacBook Pro’s planned debut this year, the new battery failed a key test, according to a person familiar with the situation. Rather than delay the launch and risk missing the crucial holiday shopping season, Apple decided to revert to an older design…The new laptop didn’t represent a game-changing leap in battery performance, and a software bug misrepresented hours of power remaining.

Storage: Up to 2TB on board

All MacBook Pro models come with 256GB internal storage for the entry level models. Upgrading storage is expensive, and most expensive of all is the new option to install 2TB of internal storage in the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The $1200 price of this option shocks many, but it turns out that Apple is not overcharging for it. The MacBook Pro uses some of the fastest PCIe-based storage available, and a comparable 2TB PCIe NVMe drive of the same speed costs about the same when you don’t buy it from Apple. While you might see 2TB SSDs for sale online for less than $600, the reason they’re less expensive is that they’re SATA-based so they are much slower. The PCIe-based storage used in the MacBook Pro is many times faster than those commodity drives, so it’s premium storage at a premium price.

Ports and expansion: More or less…

The MacBook Pro now has four Thunderbolt 3 ports (except for the base 13″ model which has two). What about USB? Thunderbolt 3 uses the USB-C 3.1 Gen 2 connector, so you can plug both Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C cables directly into these Thunderbolt 3 ports. Any of the ports can connect and power accessories or charge the MacBook Pro battery. Thunderbolt 3 and USB-C 3.1 are great for photographers and others who need to connect super-fast storage, such as external SSDs or RAIDs, or multiple high resolution displays.

Right side view of the 2016 MacBook Pro showing Thunderbolt 3/USB-C and audio ports. Image courtesy Apple Inc.

If you use accessories with the much more common USB-A port (the rectangular one), or need other ports such as Mini DisplayPort, HDMI, or Ethernet, add the cost of adapters to what you’ll pay for this computer. USB-C is the right direction in the long run, but many users would have preferred that Apple leave one or two of today’s more common ports to ease the transition.

Because any of the Thunderbolt 3 ports can be used for charging, there is no more MagSafe charging port. The included charger now has a detachable USB-C cable. Now that the charger and cable are independent of each other, it will hopefully be much easier and cheaper to replace just one or the other. The only other type of port on the computer is the same 3.5mm headphone jack that Apple left out of the iPhone 7.

There is one more change that could potentially inconvenience many photographers: The 2016 MacBook Pro has no SD card slot. If you’ve always loved the convenience of quick transfers of images from your camera cards to your Mac through the SD card slot, you will now have to add one more accessory to your shopping list, and one more gadget and cable to remember to bring.

I hoped that the wireless transfer capabilities of newer cameras might help compensate for the missing card slot in a Lightroom workflow, but when I asked Gordon Laing of CameraLabs about this, the answer wasn’t encouraging:

If your workflow depends on software that automatically organizes camera images into a defined folder structure as it transfers the files, proprietary wireless camera transfer adds another step to the process. Even if wireless transfer fits into your workflow, it will still be slower than a card transfer. Directly connecting a camera with a USB-C cable will also work, but has its own disadvantages. For transferring large numbers of photos, connecting a MacBook Pro to an external card reader may be the most efficient option.

Touch Bar: New option for shortcuts

The flashy Touch Bar was clearly the marquee feature of the 2016 MacBook Pro rollout event. The Touch Bar takes the place of the function keys that used to be across the top of the keyboard. Most people don’t use the function keys, so for many years Apple has set them up as media keys by default, controlling things like screen brightness and audio volume.

Apple saw that part of the keyboard as a space with unrealized potential, so they created the Touch Bar — a context-sensitive touch strip that’s a Retina resolution display. It displays touch controls that change depending on the current application and selection.

The Touch Bar on the 2016 MacBook Pro. Image courtesy Apple Inc.

The Apple Human Interface Guidelines for the Touch Bar has some interesting examples of how Apple thinks the Touch Bar could be used. Apple advises developers to treat the Touch Bar as supplemental to the screen and keyboard. Touch Bar functions shouldn’t be exclusive to the Touch Bar, partly because not all Mac models have one. For example, Touch Bar functions can be versions of keyboard shortcuts, commands, or tools, but should not replace them.

I use the Esc key all the time, mostly as a shortcut for clicking the Cancel button. Some have complained that the Esc key is gone because of the Touch Bar. But an Esc button can clearly be seen in several versions of the Touch Bar. If you want the Touch Bar to display standard function keys, you can display them temporarily by pressing the fn key, or you can display them permanently in System Preferences. The Touch Bar is customizable, but I don’t yet know if you can set it up to display the Esc key all the time.

The demonstration at the Apple event makes the Touch Bar look quite useful in photographic and other creative applications. At the rollout, part of the Touch Bar presentation included an Adobe representative showing a version of Photoshop that uses the Touch Bar. (Support for the Touch Bar became available in the 18.0.1 update of Photoshop CC 2017.)

I think the Touch Bar brings more to the Mac than it takes away. But by itself, it isn’t a reason to buy this model.

Touch ID: Instant security

Adding Touch ID to the MacBook Pro means you can unlock your computer without having to type your password by tapping the right end of the Touch Bar. Password managers are probably going to support this, which will reduce the number of other passwords you have to manually enter. This is increasingly important in a world where you need to have long, strong passwords but you don’t want people to watch you type them while you’re sitting in an airport or coffee shop. Touch ID is instant security, and to support it Apple brought over the fingerprint reader and Secure Enclave that it perfected in its iOS devices. Touch ID is also integrated with Apple Pay, so it’s now easier to make online purchases without having to type your credit card number.

Price: Brace yourselves

The 2016 MacBook Pro is more expensive than the previous generation. The 2015 MacBook Pro started at $1299 for the 13-inch model and $1999 for the 15-inch. The 2016 versions start at $1499 for the 13-inch and $2399 for the 15-inch. But adding the options many photographers need will often push the price above $2000 for the 13-inch and over $3000 for the 15-inch.

That’s a considerable amount of sticker shock given that the new models are not universally better than before. It’s possible to rationalize the price increase given the upgrade to four Thunderbolt 3/USB-C ports, the wide gamut display, Touch ID, and maybe the Touch Bar.

But the price increase is harder to accept when you add back in the possible hidden costs you’ll also have to pay. Because the only digital connector on the computer (USB-C) isn’t widely used yet, you’ll probably have to buy adapters or adapter cables to connect most of the displays, storage, and other accessories on the market today. The space they will take up in a bag might offset any size or weight savings from the slimmer MacBook Pro case.

For photographers, another hidden cost is the need to bring along an SD card reader if you need to offload your cameras to your MacBook Pro. When the SD slot was built in I would simply grab the laptop and go, knowing I had everything I needed to edit photos from cameras.

The verdict

There’s a lot for photographers to love about the 2016 MacBook Pro. It’s got a wide gamut display, some of the fastest storage and I/O ports you can buy, and Touch ID. But the price increase, the current inconvenience of USB-C, apparent lower battery life, and the lack of an SD card may cause many to stop and think about alternatives before clicking the “Buy” button.

I think the 2016 MacBook Pro is an example of when Apple comes out with a Mac that’s designed for the near future, in ways that make it less than ideal for the present. And the battery issues make it look like a laptop Apple felt forced to ship, instead of the laptop they wanted to ship. With that in mind, I’ve decided to wait and see if my SSD-upgraded 4.5-year-old MacBook Pro will keep working well until the next minor MacBook Pro update. I’m hoping that the specs and battery life go up, USB-C becomes more common, and prices go down. I’d like to hope that a future model will once again include an SD card slot, but that’s unlikely.

If you need to replace your current Mac laptop right now, there’s nothing wrong with picking up the 2016 MacBook Pro if it fits your budget, and if you think ahead about how you’ll handle the accessories you need to connect. But if your current Mac laptop is still getting the job done, you may want to hold back on buying an expensive, battery-challenged, forward-looking MacBook Pro until the near-future becomes the present.

Update: Ars Technica published their review, Touch Bar MacBook Pros give an expensive glimpse at the Mac’s future; it provides some useful explanations about subtle performance differences between the models, and the reasons behind the choices Apple made for graphics processors. If you do a lot of pro-level video editing, nofilmschool published The New MacBook Pro: The Complete Filmmaker Review, adding to the pile of reviews that say the 2016 MacBook Pro is not a slam dunk, but a mixed bag, compared to the previous generation.

2 comments

  1. Nice Conrad. I am like you, sitting on an older 15″ pro that is getting the job done very well. The one thing that I was hoping for in the new Pro was 32Gb of RAM. That would make me look a lot harder at the new machine. I don’t think the new features would make my work flow significantly faster or more streamlined. My older Pro is so good that I really am only waiting on file transfers from external drives and software that should be faster by now…but isn’t.

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