Apple’s new 13-inch MacBook Pro is, of course, a great showcase for the newest member of the Apple Silicon team: the M2 chip. But it’s also a reminder that we can’t have our apple cake and eat it too.
As Apple introduces its remarkably powerful and energy-efficient M2, it is also preparing the smart and useful (and unfairly slandered (opens in new tab)) Touch bar.
I know, it’s confusing. Apple has taken its newest silicon and put it inside an old design with its single Mac touchscreen. But it’s all about the laptop, which we explored on our full 13-inch MacBook Pro. (2022), shouts “This is the end”. And it is, at least for the Touch Bar.
To understand the importance of the Touch Bar when it launched six years ago, one has to go back to Apple’s co-founder and former CEO, the late Steve Jobs. In 2010, and not long after Apple released the first iPad, Jobs scrapped the idea of a touchscreen laptop (opens in new tab):
“We’ve done a lot of user testing on this, and it turns out it doesn’t work. Touch surfaces don’t want to be vertical. It gives a great demonstration, but after a short time you start to get tired and after a long time your arm wants to fall off. doesn’t work, it’s ergonomically terrible. Touch surfaces want to be horizontal, hence the pads,” Jobs said.
Granted, it was a spurious argument. In a few years, we’d see Magic Keyboards that float iPad Pros in a more or less vertical plane above full-sized keyboards.
Why is this one thing?
On the surface of things, the 13-inch M2 MacBook Pro looks like an excellent laptop from Apple for its friendly neighborhood maker. In my benchmark tests, the M2 handily outperformed its predecessor M1 (and an 11th Gen Intel Core i7).
Its graphics numbers are impressive, thanks to the standard 10-core GPU. The starting price of $1,299 gives you 8GB of unified memory and a 256GB SSD. It has a beautiful 13.3″ Retina LED display (2560 x 1600) and promises 20 hours of battery life. In my tests, it really consumes power (has to love an ARM CPU in a laptop), lasting approximately 18 hours.
Problem is, the other system with the new M2 chips is the new $1,199 MacBook Air. Like the Pro, it starts with 8GB of unified memory and a 256GB SSD. The screen, however, at 13.6 inches is slightly larger than the Pro screen. It even houses a high resolution FaceTime camera (1080p as opposed to 720p). Instead of stereo speakers, you get a four-speaker system.
What you get with the MacBook Pro: an active cooling system, the promised extra two hours of battery life, and the 10-core GPU (you can upgrade the Air to 10-core).
More importantly though, the MacBook Air M2 doesn’t include the Touch Bar. In fact, the new MacBook Air has more in common with the MacBook Pro M1 Pro and M1 Max (14 and 16 inches). None of these high-end MacBooks offer the Touch Bar. And I think it’s safe to assume that future generations never will.
Still, even as Apple brings iPadOS and macOS closer together, it resists the idea of adding touch to any Mac. Until it introduced the Touch Bar, a thin, horizontal strip of touch- and gesture-friendly OLED screen that sits just above the main keyboard.
It was a blank slate for Apple and eventually developer partners to handle per app.
For a while it appeared on various MacBook Pro models, although there were still a few sold without it.
I was an early fan, writing in my review of the first MacBook Pro (there were 13-inch and 15-inch models at the time) to characterize it:
“With the Touch Bar, Apple does a near-perfect double backflip in the world of touch computers (without recognizing that people would want to touch their screens).”
Now, though, Apple is playing a different trick, offering a MacBook Pro chassis and technology that is surely soon to be decommissioned in service of a necessary Pro-level platform for its M2 SOC.
Goodbye fun, old friend
What’s great about Touch Bar is its innate serendipity. For every time it appears to repeat the actions offered to you on the main screen, the Touch Bar also displays frequently used or hidden features. In virtually any text input field, it offers autocomplete (or autocorrect) input options. With Microsoft Word integration, the Touch Bar displays only the contextual features you really need right now. It’s the Office tape reduced to its necessary essence.
In iMovie, it makes the obvious confusing by displaying the word “Split” so I can, with one tap, split a clip in two. It also gives you instant access to clip volume control. This is utilitarian if you ask me.
Above all, the Touch Bar has always offered clear and visible access to volume, brightness and Siri controls. On the other hand, it infuriated professional traditionalists for replacing function and escape keys. Apple quickly brought back the latter in the 16-inch MacBook Pro (2019), appearing to soothe some Pro users.
There were also fun Touch Bar apps like Piano and a single track version of Pac-Man.
Was it always necessary? Not. But it has always been useful and continues to be in this MacBook Pro 13 with M2.
An affectionate goodbye to the familiar
Much like the Touch Bar, much of the MacBook Pro’s excellent 13-inch chassis design (solid, responsive, lightweight and with a great keyboard) is unlikely to make it to future generations. The 14-inch and 16-inch Pro and MacBook Air M2 are a one-piece, offering a slightly squarer, though no less leaner, view of future MacBooks. They will all have bigger screens, notches, better audio and MagSafe charging ports.
Even marveling at the M2’s incredible performance, I can’t help but consider the 13-inch MacBook Pro a relic. The ultimate resting place for an Apple look, feel and flirt with touch on a MacBook: the Touch Bar.
Yes, I’m delighted with the laptop, but it’s hard to recommend hardware that, outside of the CPU, looks backwards rather than forwards.