Macbook Pro (16″ 2019) quick review

I just upgraded yesterday to one of the new 2019 Macbook Pro 16″ models:

  • Macbook Pro (16″, 2019), 3072 x 1920 pixel display, 2.4 GHz 8-core i9, 64GB 2667 MHz DDR4 memory, 2880 x 1800 pixel display, AMD Radeon Pro 5500M GPU with 4GB of GDDR6 memory, 1 TB solid-state drive

    US$4120 list including Apple Care (about US$3800 after the education discount)

The only other upgrade option is an additionl 4GB GPU memory for US$100.

My computer for the last seven-plus years and basis for comparision is a mid-2012 Macbook Pro:

  • Macbook Pro (15″ Retina, Mid 2012), 2880 x 1800 pixel display, 2.3 GHz 4-core i7, 16 GB 1600MHz DDR3 memory, 256 GB solid-state drive

My old computer was dying. The screen was so burned in I could read last week’s xkcd (I never got the replacement during the recall). The battery was so shot it’d go from 30% power to auto shutdown in the blink of an eye.

I have no idea what’s available in the Windows PC or Linux world for a similar price. It probably comes with 32 cores, 256GB memory, and also acts as a hoverboard. For comparison, while working at Bell Labs in the mid-1990s, I once spent US$7200 for a dual-boot Linux/Windows XP Thinkpad with a super high-res monitor for the time and enough memory and compute power to develop and run our speech recognition code. So while US$3800 may seem outrageously expensive, the bigger picture is that really powerful computers just keep getting more affordable over time.

Form factor

I bought the new computer sight unseen without paying too much attention to anything other than that it had 8 cores, 64GB memory, and an escap key. I was expecting something like a PC gamer deck. Compared to my previous machine, the cases are exactly the same size and the machines are the same weight at least insofar as I can tell physically without reading the specs. It’s even the old silver color, which I strongly prefer to the space grey.

I like that the apple on the lid doesn’t light up.

Ease of upgrade

Apple makes it super easy to move everything from an old machine. Once I entered enough passwords on my menagerie of Apple devices, it took less than 2 hours to transfer everything from the old machine to the new one via my home wireless network.

The only software I’ve had to upgrade to get back to working on Stan is Xcode (the C++ compiler). And I did that just from the command line using this one-liner:

> xcode-select --install

Hats off to Dirk Avery for his blog post on Catalina, Xcode, and Homebrew.

It really was that easy. The entire Stan developer toolchain just works. R, RStan, etc., all just ran once I ran the above command from the terminal.

The keyboard, touchpad, and touchbar

There’s an escape key. I’ve been using emacs for 30+ years and it’s a big deal to me and others like me.

Keyboards matter a lot to me. I’m a very fast typist—around 100 words/minute the last time I tested myself on transcription (two years of school, part time jobs as secretary and keypunch operator, followed by tens of thousands of adult hours at the keyboard).

Overall, I consider this keyboard a downgrade from my 2012 Macbook Pro. I had the same problem with ThinkPads between 1996 and 2010—the keyboards just kept getting worse with every new model. At least the new Macbook Pro keyboards are a lot better than the very-short-throw, low-feedback keyboards used in the time between my 2012 Mac and the new 2019 ones.

The touchpad is huge compared to the old machine. I was worried I’d be accidentally hitting it all the time because I set it to use touch rather than click, but that has thanfully not happened.

The touchbar’s fine for what it’s there for. Its default is to display the only controls I ever used on the old computer—volume and brightness.

Display

Together, the keyboard and display are the most important parts of a computer to me. I’ve always prioritized displays over CPUs. I bought a first-generation Retina Macbook Pro as soon as they were available.

The monitor in the 16″ Macbook Pros is impressive. After using it for a day, the color on all my other devices (previous computer, iPhone, iPad) now looks off (specifically, blue-shifted). Sitting next to each other at max brightness, one might think the backlighting was broken in the old monitor it’s so dim.

Even though it’s not that much bigger, having spent 7 years on a slightly smaller one, this one feels a fair bit bigger. They squeezed it into the same form factor by reducing the bezel size. There are also a few more pixes.

Is it faster?

Yes, much. I haven’t done any formal measurements, but with twice as many cores, each of which is faster, and much faster memory, one would expect to see exactly what I’m seeing informally—the Stan C++ unit tests compile and run more than 50% faster.

Not much compared to the PC heyday when every 18 months saw a doubling of straight-line speed. But enough to be noticeable and well worth the upgrade if that was all I was getting.

I haven’t tried any GPU code yet. I wouldn’t expect too much from a notebook on that front.

64 GB?

It wasn’t that much more expensive to fully load the machine’s memory. This means we should be able to run 8 processes each using nearly 8 GB of memory each.

Ports and dongles

There’s a headphone jack on the right (instead of left as it was on my old computer) and two USB-C jacks on either side. I just plugged the power into one of the ones on the left and it worked.

Ports and dongles are the great weakness of Apple-knows-best design in my experience. I’m going to have to buy a USB-C to HDMI dongle. I really liked that the 2012 Macbook Pro had an HDMI port.

I’m also going to have to figure out how to charge my iPad and iPhone. I prefer to travel without the iPad-specific wall wart.

Apple seems to think they get points for being “mimimal”, flying in the face of every review I’ve ever read of an Apple product. So here you go Apple, another negative review of your choice in the port department to ignore.

Am I an Apple fanboy?

I certainly don’t self identify as an Apple fanboy. I use exclusively Apple products (Macbook, iPhone, iPad) primarily because I’m lazy and hate learning new interfaces and managing software. My decision’s being driven almost entirely from the Macbooks because I want Unix on my notebook without the incompatibility of Cygwin or administrative headache of Linux on a notebook.

It’s clear the Macbook isn’t getting the most love among Apple’s products. I also resent Apple’s we-know-best attitude, which I blame for their cavalier attitude toward backward compatibility at both the software and hardware levels. It’s no surprise Microsoft still dominates the corporate PC market and Linux the corporate server market.

Overall impression

I love it. For my use, the 8 cores, faster 64GB memory, and the high resolution and brightness 16″ monitor more than make up for the slightly poorer keyboard and reduced port selection.

I also ordered the same machine for Andrew and he’s been using his a day or two longer than me, so I’m curious what his impressions are.