The Apple 16in MacBook Pro is a laptop with a bigger screen but without the bulk traditionally associated with a big laptop. A laptop with plenty of power and storage, but with good enough battery life to be carted around.
My excitement fell a little when I discovered the screen measures 16in exactly across the diagonal, however. To put this in context, the “15-inch” MacBook Pro launched last year wasn’t exactly a 15in laptop. Its display actually measured 15.4in across the diagonal, so the new one is only 0.6in bigger. But even small improvements such as this should be embraced, especially since the chassis of the laptop itself is only a touch larger than the 15in model that predated it.
The Apple MacBook Pro 16in is Apple’s flagship laptop and, as such, it’s a pretty aspirational thing. However, it’s not a laptop for everyone. It’s a laptop designed principally for budding film-makers, developers, music producers and photographers – people who need the extra screen real estate and the power to render video projects, compile software and edit the biggest RAW image files without having to wait.
Naturally, aimed at such a demanding audience, the new MacBook Pro is stuffed with the most powerful mobile components the mobile market has to offer. It comes with either Intel’s eighth-gen six-core Core i7 or eight-core Core i9 chip. Storage starts at 512GB and runs all the way up to a staggering 8TB, whereas the RAM allocation starts at 16GB and rises to 64GB. And you’re getting discrete graphics, too – either the AMD Radeon Pro 5300M or the AMD Radeon Pro 5500M with up to 8GB of GDDR6 RAM.
Naturally, the MacBook Pro 16in runs macOS Catalina, too, but it’s a handful of what you’d normally consider minor upgrades that command the most attention. The new “Magic” keyboard re-introduces scissor switches beneath each key, replacing the much-maligned low-travel butterfly switches of recent-generation MacBook Pro machines. Apple has re-engineered both the speakers and the microphone to “professional” standards and it has also boosted the size of the battery to a capacity just shy of the FAA limits.
The Dell XPS 15, on the other hand, is significantly cheaper. For the equivalent specification to our review machine, the Dell comes in at around £2,700 – just for confirmation, that gets you the same eight-core Intel Core i9 CPU with 32GB of RAM, an Nvidia GeForce GTX 1650 GPU with 4GB video memory, and a 2TB SSD. Plus the display is a touchscreen OLED unit, where the MacBook employs a wide-gamut IPS LCD panel.
If you want a laptop much more powerful than this, though, in a slim and portable chassis, the MacBook Pro 16in is your only choice. Even Dell’s range of workstation laptops can’t match the top-spec MacBook when it comes to outright power.
And the MacBook Pro 16in is certainly among the most portable and compact high-power laptops money can buy. It’s a mere 16mm thick, 246mm deep and 358mm wide. It’s no featherweight, at 2kg, but considering what you can squeeze into this thing, I think that’s a hit many potential customers would be willing to take.
It's carved, as all MacBook Pro laptops are, from what feels like a single block of Aluminium, it looks smart in either Space Grey or Silver, and the layout of the machine is, with a few subtle differences, largely the same as the 15in laptop of 2018. It’s minimalist around the edges, with four Thunderbolt 3 ports a single 3.5mm audio jack and nothing else in sight. Those hoping for a re-introduction of the SD card slot are going to be disappointed once again.
It has re-introduced the physical Escape key on the left side of the bar, something developers have been asking for ever since Apple removed it back in 2017, and it has added a combined Touch ID sensor and power button on the right-hand side. Apple has also tweaked the keyboard layout, reverting to an inverted T arrangement for the cursor keys. All of these are improvements worth having.
Keyboard and touchpad
These enhancements pale into insignificance, however, next to the new Magic Keyboard, the design of which, Apple says, takes inspiration from the peripheral of the same name supplied with the iMac Pro.
Specifically, Apple has replaced the low-profile butterfly switches in the previous model – a mechanism that, to put it mildly, not everyone got along with – with more traditional scissor mechanisms. It’s an excellent keyboard to type on. Keys don’t quite have the same amount of travel – it’s 1mm this time around – as they did in the pre-butterfly switch days, but typing does feel more comfortable than it does on the current MacBook Pro 13in and MacBook Air.
As for the touchpad, that’s the same as ever: a gigantic 159 x 99mm glass-topped force-feedback touchpad that works brilliantly for touch gestures and general mousing. If you’re coming from a laptop with a more traditional physical click, instead of the pressure-sensing tech on show here, it does take a little getting used to.
However, the pressure sensitivity can come in really handy, especially with creative apps such as Illustrator and Photoshop that support pressure-sensitivity for brushes and selections.
Display and audio
Like the touchpad, not much has changed when it comes to the screen, aside from a slight bump in resolution up to 3,072 and size, and a small reduction in the width of the surrounding black borders. It’s a wide-gamut LCD using an IPS panel and has a P3 colour gamut.
As with all Apple products, the display is calibrated in the factory and, in my tests, colour accuracy was pretty amazing. The average Delta E in the P3 colour space was 0.49 and – when anything below 1 can be considered effectively indistinguishable from the real thing – that’s genuinely impressive. Delta E, incidentally is a measurement of colour difference, so the closer to no difference – zero – the better.
Brightness peaked at 471cd/m2 in my testing, which is as bright as you need on a laptop display for general work and most creative things, and the contrast ratio measured 1,364:1. There’s continued support for True Tone, which matches the white point of the display to the ambient lighting, so your brain isn’t having to readjust continually to different colour tones as you flick your eyes off and on the screen.
The only disappointment here, perhaps, is that Apple’s displays don’t yet support HDR playback. Perhaps we’ll have to wait until Apple introduces OLED displays before that happens.
However, as far as audio goes, there’s no such disappointment. The six-speaker audio system in the 16in MacBook Pro debuts a technology called force cancellation to reduce “unwanted vibrations” and thus improve sound quality. Effectively, what you have here is a pair of small woofers, both active, arranged back to back either side of the keyboard behind those broad grilles, with a pair of tweeters to deal with the higher frequencies.
The result is audio of quite astonishing quality in a laptop. There’s still not much bass here – at 100Hz there’s around a 10dB drop and it drops off into nothing pretty sharpish after this – but in the mids and above there’s bundles of body, clarity and volume, with no discernible distortion or vibration. For TV shows, YouTube videos, radio, podcasts and the like, you’re not likely to feel the need to hook up a pair of headphones or a speaker at all.
I don't have a huge amount of experience with this sort of thing, but I have featured on a fair few podcasts in my time and have produced a small handful, too, and I reckon that the quality matches that on many professionally produced podcasts I listen to. There’s very little hiss that I can discern; voices are picked up incredibly clearly and rendered with an astonishingly full-bodied sound.
Performance and battery life
You can specify the MacBook Pro 16in with one of three eighth-gen Intel CPUs: a six-core 2.6GHz Core i7, a 2.3GHz eight-core Intel Core i9 or a 2.4GHz eight-core Core i9-9980HK. Memory starts at 16GB and that’s configurable up to 32GB or 64GB. Storage starts at 512GB, configurable to 1TB, 2TB, 4TB or 8TB. And you can choose between either the AMD Radeon Pro 5300M or the Radeon Pro 5500M with either 4GB or 8GB of DDR6 memory.
As I mentioned above, I was sent a MacBook Pro 16in with the 2.4GHz eight-core Core i9, 32GB of RAM, 2TB SSD and the AMD Radeon Pro 5500M. Compared with the last MacBook Pro 15in – and the rivals we’ve tested – it’s very, very quick:
It’s worth noting that the MacBook Pro 16in is the only laptop here using an eight-core chip, but there’s no denying how powerful it is. The speed of the SSD is also fast, with Apple claiming read and write rates of up to 3.2GB/sec. Our tests weren’t far off that, making it faster than last year’s MacBook Pro as well as the 2018 Dell XPS 15.
Perhaps more remarkably, battery life isn’t terrible. That’s understandable when you realise how big the battery is in the first place. It has a gargantuan capacity of 99.8Wh – a mere 0.2Wh shy of the US Federal Aviation Administration's maximum limit on personal electronic device battery capacities. Beyond this, you’d need approval from the airline to take it on a flight.
In our test, it fell a little short of last year’s 15in MacBook Pro; a long way short of the Surface Book 2 with its twin batteries; and about level with the Dell XPS 15 from 2018.
Say what you like about Apple, but it certainly knows how to put together a high-quality, high-powered laptop. The MacBook Pro 16in is up there with the very best we’ve reviewed. It’s solidly built, sensibly put together and fast across the board, and it comes with some genuinely welcome improvements.
The new keyboard is great, the display is a fabulous thing, and the audio systems are out-of-this-world good for a laptop of any calibre. Some might bemoan that Apple hasn’t seen fit to reintroduce the SD slot and, yes, it would be nice to have one or two regular USB Type-A ports around the edges, if only to make older peripherals easier to connect.
Objectively, the Dell XPS 15 2019 makes more financial sense: if you buy one with a similar spec to my review model, in fact, you’ll be saving around £1,000. But there’s no denying the quality of the MacBook Pro 16in. It’s a mighty fine machine, especially for the most demanding of users.
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