Technology

MacBook Pro 2019: Release data, specs, rumors, and analysis

16-inch edge-to-edge display, fixed keyboard with escape key and inverted T arrow keys — will all our nerd wishes come true?

When I first reviewed the new MacBook Pro back at the end of 2016, I called it the love/hate future of laptops. Love, because we finally had a new design, terrific wide-gamut displays, Touch ID, and super fast, super forward-thinking USB-C Thunderbolt 3 ports.

Rather watch than read? Hit play on the video above!

Hate, because unlike the previous version with its function row and scissor switch keyboard, the new Touch Bar and butterfly and dome keyboard proved to be incredibly divisive. And that’s just not tenable when you want or need to use macOS and Final Cut Pro X and there’s only one vendor to choose from.

But, there are rumors of a new MacBook Pro coming our way. One that, like the iPhone X, shrinks the bezels to expand the screen size — in this case up to 16-inches. And one that maybe, just maybe, ditches the butterfly and dome keyboard and full-height arrow keys for something with more click, an actual ESC, and an inverted T.

Now, I don’t want to get anyone’s hopes up. I don’t want to create any expectational debt. The rumors have been few and very far between. We could end up with a spec bump again and membrane 2.0. Or with nothing. But maybe, just maybe, the same Apple that released the iMac Pro, finally updated the Mac mini, and hired a full-on Pro Workflows team to really pound on their bits and atoms before the public ever gets exposed to them… Maybe, just maybe that Apple has gotten its Mac mojo back.

So, because the rumors are so sparse but the tension in the community is kinda high, I’m going to do something different in this video. Usually I’m a big believer in not stating solutions I think I want but rather problems I have because there could be better solutions for those problems that I’ve just never thought of.

This time, though, I’m going to lay things out. And loud. Not just from a customer wishlist perspective, because we customers want it all. Bigger battery but lighter. More tech but lower price. No matter how contradictory that might be. No, I want to think about it from an actual product point of view — what could the people in charge of the MacBook Pro do to really meet the needs of the vast majority of MacBook Pro customers?

MacBook Pro 2019: The keyboard

I personally prefer the feel of the new, butterfly and dome keyboard. I got used to it after about a day and, ever since, whenever I break out an older Mac, I find the older, scissor-switch keyboards all loosey goosey. But this isn’t about me, this is about most people. And enough people seem to truly despise the new keyboard feel that, again, for a single vendor product, it’s just not tenable.

Also, while some people, like me, may prefer the new keyboard, I’ve never heard of anyone hate on the old keyboard, and funny as lack of hate might sound, that’s a key feature for a keyboard. It can’t be great for some and terrible for others. It has to be at least good for everyone.

Then there are the reliability issues. Sure, some people will tell you they’ve never had an issue. That’s great for them. Others that they’ve had constant issues. And that legit sucks for them.

Apple has apologized to those experiencing issues, instituted a replacement program for models outside the one year AppleCare coverage period, and recently mandated in-store repairs with a one-day turnaround.

Now, you can choose to believe that this is a dumpster fire of a product or that it’s just a lot of social media hype around a small percentage of failures. That’s all up to and on you. But here’s the thing: It doesn’t matter. Only the perception matters and the damage that’s doing to Apple and the MacBook Pro’s reputation is real either way.

Apple’s been through things like this before. The iPhone 4 antenna is probably the biggest example. And after a lot of noise and free bumpers, Apple managed to fix that for Verizon within 7 months and everyone with the iPhone 4s within a year and a half.

The butterfly keyboard saga has dragged on for three years now. Four if you include the original 12-inch.

Now, the common thinking is that the mechanism was designed to better prevent particulates from getting in but, turns out, if anything does get in the mechanism instead just keeps it from getting out. Last week, a Reddit thread made the rounds suggestion debris doesn’t explain why more common keys seem to become afflicted more often — because what does debris care about commonality — and that the dome mechanism itself might be to blame. But, that doesn’t explain why cleaning the keys seems to fix the problem. So, who knows? Could be a combination of factors.

Don’t try this at home, please, seriously, but since I had my first failure last year, I’ve followed iFixit’s guide and popped off a number of keys, cleaned them, popped them back on, and it’s been absolutely fine afterwards, every time. Not that any anecdote should ever be mistaken for data.

But what I’m getting at with all that is this: Whether or not people inside or outside of Apple love or hate the butterfly keyboard, it’s radioactive at this point. It’s kryptonite. A new generation, a new membrane, none of that can save it any more. It has to die. And that means ID has to have something to replace it, even if it means changing priorities on the current Mac roadmap.

I’m not one for hyperbole about stuff like this but, at this point, treat it like the thermal dead end of the 2013 Mac Pro. Like an existential threat.

As to solutions, it sounds like we might just be getting what a number of people, myself included, have asked for in the past: Something closer akin to the Magic Keyboard, but — big but, huge but — with a return of the inverted-T arrow keys. Like the previous MacBook Pro, no one seems to hate the Magic Keyboard, except that anyone who types a lot knows how important that inverted T is to – wait for it – typing a lot. Ditto an actual ESC key.

I know some pros really want all their function keys back or at the very least for the TouchBar to be a BTO option. But if the future really will be dynamic virtual surfaces, like an iPad keyboard but that fools your brain into thinking anything from QWERTY to Final Cut or Logic dials feel real, then we’ll need to get there somehow. And, who knows, If Apple can add taptics, maybe we’ll get there faster.

MacBook Pro 2019: The screen

The juiciest bit of the 2019 MacBook Pro rumors so far is the bezel shrink and equal and opposite screen size increase to 16-inches. In other words, just like the iPhone X crammed a Plus-sized screen into a regular sized body, this would cram something closer to the old 17-inch screen into the current 15-inch body.

But that rumor provokes more questions than it answers. When the display goes nearly edge-to-rounded-edge, does it also go fully 4K? Maybe finally match the points with double the pixels of the pre-Retina machines? And does it go ProMotion, with an up to 120hrz refresh rate like the iPad Pros have had going on a couple years now?

OLED is also on a lot of wishlists. But, while it’s a stunning display technology, it’s also still an incredibly compromised one that requires a ton of mitigation and still has consistency and cost factors that’s prevented Apple from moving to it even on the iPad Pro. MicroLED seems like the next, better future, but miniLED is what’s being rumored for that 6K Pro Display Apple’s had in the works for the last couple of years. Would that work well enough here, for now?

Touch screens are high on many lists but the simple fact remains that macOS, at least so far, isn’t a touch-based operating system. Microsoft spent years and painful years in the desert making Windows finger-friendly and it still feels like a veneer at times. Apple already has an incredibly successful touch-based operating system with iOS, so it’s hard to imagine they’d invest the same time and pain in making macOS touch-based as well when they could just keep investing it in iPad.

I agree that, for anyone who’s grown up on iPhone and Android, non-touch screens will just seem broken. And, I’d love to see basic navigational gesture support on the Mac, so I could, even crudely, swipe and tap my way around if and when I need to. But I’m not holding my breath. Mostly because I can’t hold it that long…

Now, an iOS-based notebook, that’d be a different story entirely… but, just as likely for a different audience entirely.

Face ID, well that… that would be for everyone. Combine Apple’s facial geometry sensor array’s security with its convenience, and you’ve got a real winner. Especially with autofill.

It would also bring augmented reality to the Mac, for iMessage, FaceTime, and the future. And, massive side benefit — a regular old RGB cam that doesn’t, you know, totally suck. I’d even take a notch or a bump to support it. Yeah, I said it. Go ahead, @ me in the comments.

MacBook Pro 2019: The ports

Pros have always had to deal with dongles. From FireWire 400 to 800, VGA to DVI to DisplayPort, miniDisplay, and HDMI, modem to ethernet, Compact Flash to MicroSD. What made the 2016 MacBook Pro so different, though, was that by going all-in with USB-C, while USB-A was still the overwhelming norm, it suddenly made the dongle problem mainstream. Everybody needed them. And even pros that had been dealing with them for over a decade suddenly felt underwater.

Balancing legacy with future proofing is hard. As long as you have old stuff, you want the old ports that go with it. As soon as you have new stuff, you want as many of the new ports as you can possibly get. And since you can’t swap ports after the fact, you have to make year-by-year decisions on what to leave behind and what to keep or embrace. Apple, though, left everything behind and went all in on USB-C. They didn’t even include a single, solitary USB-A to USB-C adapter in the box.

Some people still really lament the loss of MagSafe as well, the magnetic charging connector with the helpful indicator light that would shine green when it was done, or pop right off if anyone or anything hit the cable, and without yanking your MacBook off at the same time.

USB-C power has made it possible to plug your MacBook in from any port, on any side, which I’ve found hugely convenient. There are some third-party adapters and patents that seem to offer the best of both worlds — a USB-C-like connector that’s also MagSafe, but it’s hard to tell how realistic those are, or would be, at some point. So, for right now, to get MagSafe back you’d give up the option of using the same port for anything else.

A ton of legacy ports would be a real regression. None, like the current models, though, even now, three years later, feels like far too savage a progression.

A good rule of thumb could and should be most of the ports most customers will use most of the time. One or a couple USB-A ports and maybe — and I would personally love this, because video — SD card and HDMI.

I think that would end dongles for almost everyone, almost all of the time. But let me know your perfect mix in the comments.

MacBook Pro 2019: The power

The 2016 MacBook Pro feels like Apple’s effort to mainstream the mobile workstation. Years ago, Steve Jobs slapped an iPad down in front of the Mac team and asked them why their notebooks couldn’t do what that tablet could. And, ever since, Apple has been working towards making MacBooks more iPad-like. In other words, instead of catering exclusively to existing power users, trying to expand their appeal to empower a greater pool of users to becoming pros.

In some ways, that makes sense. Apple never had a large share of the PC market and the share they had was primarily, ludicrously skewed towards notebooks. iPad, though, was owning its market. Customers who aspired to be or already identified as pros were also changing, expanding, and what they valued was more what traditional pros had. They wanted their power and their portability and their battery life and, yeah, their aesthetics too.

But, with this new generation of pros, Apple didn’t just add in more mainstream appeal, they took away some traditional appeal. And that’s proven to be a problem.

One compounded by Intel, which has been an absolute mess over the last few years. They’re so far behind on 10 nanometer it would be comical if it wasn’t so tragic. They’ve also failed to ship specific 14-nanometer chips often enough and for long enough that it’s caused significant delays in Apple’s Mac roadmap. And, as the crap cherry on top of the crap Sunday, they’ve failed to add support for everything from the newer, lower power memory to the newer, better display port standards, causing Apple to compromise on RAM levels vs. power draw and come up with things like custom timing controllers.

But, frankly, unless and until Apple switches to its own, custom Mac silicon, or to AMD as an intermediary step, that’s all Apple’s Intel problem to manage.

Last year, with the 2018 refresh, they added battery so they could drop back to the older, hungrier memory and offer a 32 GB configuration. But they didn’t add a new thermal solution so they could better handle the additional cores and power demands intel shipped to try and make up for the lack of process shrink.

That’s what some pros want. Sure, maybe only a very small percentage of the highest end most traditional pros, but that’s always been the part of the market pro machines were meant to, more than just include, but actually address.

As John Gruber of Daring Fireball fame put so well so many years ago, it’s the heaviness of the Mac that allows iOS to remain light. Conversely, the relative lightness of iOS and of the other MacBooks, up to and including the air, should let the MacBook Pro get heavy. Like, really heavy.

I’ve jokingly called this philosophy the iMacBook Pro but there really are pros who want a MacBook with 17-inch screens, Xeon processors, big honking graphics cards, ECC memory, and all the ultra-high end bells and whistles. Basically, the opposite of mainstream. The chill pro equivalent of a neon gaming laptop.

Maybe that could be a special model sitting at the very highest end for pros who want to work at that very highest end, like the Mac Pro sits in the desktop space.

For most pros, though, the current chips with better thermal solutions so they could hit and stay at their maximum clock speeds for as long as possible would be plenty powerful enough.

Nvidia graphics also tops a lot of lists.

Apple and Nvidia have been at loggerheads for years. Ever since Apple felt Nvidia refused to take responsibility for some bad boards and left them holding the bill, but also because both companies are big enough, successful enough, and stubborn enough that neither wants to cede control to the other.

Apple wants direct access to the metal for… Metal. Nvidia wants Apple to go through them. Neither will budge, no matter how much Apple pro customers want them some Cuda cores.

Never say never, just look at the iPhone going back to Qualcomm modems and Apple making the TV app for Samsung televisions. But, until one or both of the companies are motivated enough to budge, I think the most we could hope for is Apple and Nvidia making up at least enough to offer built-in support for Nvidia eGPU. That way, not only could pros who really want the biggest and best Nvidia cards get them, but they could update them as much as they want or need to as well, and without having to buy a new notebook every time to do it.

Now, Apple’s making a modular Mac Pro so maybe one day they’ll also make a modular MacBook Pro where you can keep it thin and light for those times you’re walking trade floors or shooting out in the wilderness for days, and then strap on the equivalent of a Hulk Buster-style smart battery, eGPU, and extra SSD case when you want and need full power and don’t care about the bulk that comes with it.

MacBook Pro 2019: The rest

If a lot of these suggestions sound like a return to the pre-2016 MacBook Pro, like returning to the cheese-grater from the trash can, just with smaller bezels and modern specs, that’s probably because the pre-2016 MacBook Pro was absolutely adored by the vast majority of pros. But, the future is going to move forward so all we can really hope is that Apple is learning from the mistakes of the recent past.

Totally fake mockup of edge-to-edge MacBook Pro 2016 with updated, old-school keyboard.

There’s a lot of other stuff I’ve seen on a lot of other lists, like bringing back the glowing Apple logo, the one that lit up so many pictures, including the ones of Microsoft events. Apple Pencil support on the ever-increasingly giant trackpads is a popular request as well, and would legitimately be awesome to see.

An inductive charging spot to go with it so you could just drop your AirPods and Apple Pencil, if not realistically your iPhone, down to top them up while you work or sleep. Cellular support, which, Qualcomm tax aside, macOS doesn’t yet have the power and data saving modes necessary for always-on cellular connections. At least not yet. And on and on and, of course, on.

The only real question is: What’s on Apple’s list for the 2018 MacBook Pro?

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