Hands on Apple's Big, Powerful 16-inch MacBook Pro

A larger screen, better keyboard, and more power than ever

If the new 16-inch MacBook Pro laptop proves nothing else, it’s evidence Apple is listening.

The new pro-level portable workstation, which Apple announced and started selling on Wednesday, ticks off a checklist of Pro user complaints, wishes, and demands for what Apple says is pro users' favorite Apple laptop (albeit the smaller 15-inch model).

Apple 16-inch MacBook Pro
Apple 16-inch MacBook Pro.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Here are the major updates:

  • A new 16-inch Retina display
  • A redesigned keyboard
  • The return of the Escape key
  • A reconfiguration of the arrow keys
  • The latest AMD graphics processor
  • 4 GB of VRAM to start
  • Support for up to 64 GB of RAM
  • Support for up to 8 TB of storage
  • A six-speaker sound system
  • Studio-level microphone array

It’s a lot, I know. What’s more startling is Apple raised the size and performance ante without turning the MacBook Pro into an unwieldy monster. The 16-inch MacBook Pro is 14.09 inches wide x 9.68 inches deep x 0.64 inches thick. Compare that to the 2019 15-inch model, which comes in at 13.75 inches wide x 9.48 inches deep x 0.62 inches thick. In addition, the new 16-inch MacBook Pro weighs 4.3 lbs., which is roughly a third-of-a pound heavier than the 15-inch model (4.02 lbs.).

16-inch MacBook Pro
The new MacBook Pro is bigger and a little heavier than the 15-inch model.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

This is a hefty laptop, but the 16-inch MacBook Pro didn’t feel much heavier than the 15-inch model, which this one replaces.

It’s a pretty striking accomplishment when you consider the screen is noticeably bigger. Apple accomplished this, in part, by significantly shrinking the bezels around the screen, while leaving room for the 720p Facetime camera along the top edge.

Those Keys

16-inch MacBook Pro
The new 16-inch MacBook Pro is familiar looking, yet quite different.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

In my office one admitted Apple Fanboy, let’s call him “Bob,” has been bugging me about when Apple would finally update the MacBook Pro. In particular, he wanted a new keyboard or at least a replacement for the oft-maligned butterfly keyboard. As he said it, Bob gestured toward an iMac’s Magic Keyboard and said, “I want that keyboard.”

Bob, your wish is granted.

Apple’s Butterfly keyboard system, which Apple introduced in 2015 with its ultra-portable MacBook has had a checkered history. While allowing for a surprising amount of movement and tactile feedback on the ultra-slim MacBook (and later on MacBook Pros), there were numerous complaints about debris creeping under the keys and undermining their function. Plus, people thought the keyboard was unduly noisy. Apple launched a repair program and made significant design changes, but I have yet to hear anyone say they love the Butterfly keyboard. As an Apple exec put it to me this week, “While the majority of customers like this typing experience, let's be honest some don't.”

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The new 16-inch MacBook Pro Magic keyboard.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Now MacBook Pro customers don’t have to love it. The new keyboard design is, as Bob hoped, based on the Magic Keyboard’s mechanics. Naturally, it’s called the Magic Keyboard. Gone is the butterfly mechanism and in its place is a more traditional key cap design. The keyboard mechanism locks into the key cap at the top of its travel to, as Apple put it, mitigate wobble,” and deliver a stable typing experience.

Underneath the keyboard, which looks like a mid-point design between the traditional 15-inch MacBook keyboard and a MacBook Butterfly keyboard, is a new scissor mechanism that delivers an extra millimeter of key travel.

16-inch MacBook Pro
The Escape key is back!.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The OLED-based Touch Bar remains, but has been narrowed a bit to accommodate the return of the Escape key in its traditional left-hand corner position. The right-hand corner is filled with a Touch ID power/sleep button. Apple also addressed another keyboard complaint and fixed the arrow array, returning it to a more traditional “T” design. The large and responsive track pad is unchanged from the previous MacBook Pro.

16-inch MacBook Pro
16-inch MacBook Pro still has the Touch Bar, but it's a little narrower.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

As for the typing experience, it’s good, solid, and satisfying. I all but hammer keys, but the noise was manageable. I will need a lot more time typing on the 16-inch MacBook Pro before I reach a final conclusion on the new Magic Keyboard, however.

Some have complained the MacBook Pro lacks a standard USB-3 Type A port, but once a legacy port disappears from a design, it never comes back. As with the 15-inch MacBook Pro, you get four Thunderbolt 3 USB-C-style ports. Also, good news for you old-school audiophiles: the 3.5mm headphone jack (still on the right side) lives on.

The Prettiest Picture

Apple didn’t just enlarge the MacBook Pro Display. It’s now 3072x1920 with a 226 ppi resolution. The 15-inch MacBook Pro was 220 ppi. Other display specs remain unchanged. The Retina display still offers 500 nits of brightness, wide color gamut, and TrueTone technology. There is now an added wrinkle for Pros: the ability to set screen refresh rates to match the refresh rate of your source material.

16-inch MacBook Pro
The Retina display is the largest ever on a MacBook. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff 

In my brief experience, the screen looks gorgeous; it’s large and bright with eye-popping colors and inky blacks. The 4K videos I watched looks great on it, as well.

Sounds Good

Apple also pushed the envelope on audio. While the 15-inch MacBook Pro offers a pair of decent stereo speakers, the 16-inch MacBook Pro has 6 speakers, including a pair of woofers which manage to deliver deep base while canceling out the system vibration they cause. That way, you aren’t listening to hardware rattle during your in-office viewing party of Mad Max: Fury Road.

There were three microphones in the 15-inch MacBook Pro, but the new listening trio in the 16-inch model are, Apple claims, “studio quality” and include directional beam-forming technology.

16-inch MacBook Pro
There are now six speakers and three studio-quality microphones.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

More than once, Apple claimed you could potentially record a podcast with these mics. I tried a bit of audio recording during some hands-on time and, despite a less-than optimal recoding environment, my voice was quite clear. Later, I listened to some music Apple had recorded in a studio using only the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s microphone array. The sound was honestly unbelievable. In another instance, I listened to audio recorded from a group of competing laptops and one recorded with the popular Blue Yeti USB Condenser Mic. The 16-inch MacBook Pro microphones offered the cleanest recorded audio, while not degrading the sound. I’m anxious to try some real podcast recording with it.

As for the sound coming out of the MacBook Pro, it’s loud, clear, and well separated. The bass thumps, but I didn’t hear a bit of aluminum chassis vibration. Part of the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s audio prowess is attributable to MacOS Catalina and its new Dolby Atmos support.

Raw Power

As I noted above, Apple has packed its popular pro machine update with as much raw power as possible.

The starting specs are, for the most part, all grander. The 2.6 GHz, 6 core Intel Core i7 is essentially the same CPU as the one Apple currently offers in the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The $2399 base-level MacBook Pro still starts with 16MB of RAM, but now it’s clocked to 2666MHz. It’s now also possible to configure it up to 64 GB of RAM. The 15-inch MacBook Pro topped off at 32 GB.

16-inch MacBook Pro
Apple packed a bunch of high-end components into the 16-inch MacBook Pro.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

There's also an all-new AMD Radeon Pro 5300 Graphics card that starts with 4 GB of DDR6 video memory. You can now pump up the video RAM to a beefy 8 GB. The companion Intel UHD Graphics 630 chip is still in there, too.

On the storage side, the 16-inch MacBook Pro now starts with 512 GB of SSD storage and which you can scale up to an insane 8 TB SSD.

The $2799 model swaps the Core i7 for an 8-core Core i9 and starts with an AMD Radeon Pro 5500M (4GB of GGDR6 memory).

Putting the Power to Use

Specs don’t mean much unless they translate to actual performance. I couldn’t glean much from my own brief hands-on time, but Apple did walk me through a series of eye-and-ear-popping demos that highlighted the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s deep reservoirs of pro-level power.

I saw, for example, a photographer editing a stunning 80 million pixel image of the iconic Grand Canyon Horseshoe in Infinity Photo on a MacBook Pro 16-inch. Connected to it was Apple’s new 32-inch display Pro XDR (due to ship in December). As I watched, he bumped up the colors and highlights, enhanced the color of The Colorado River and added waves, with all his changes appearing in real time.

16-inch MacBook Pro
The 16-inch MacBook Pro has four USB-C style Thunderbolt 3 ports.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

At another station, a developer worked on live Swift code and showed how the 16-inch MacBook Pro’s screen is large enough to include a live, unscaled iPhone 11 screen next to the code. Notably, he could now use the Escape key for code completion.

In every situation, whether it was handling 3 million polygons in real time, testing multiple versions of an app at 60 fps, playing back full-quality 8K video streams, or editing hundreds of audio tracks (including the 300 needed for Lizzo’s Like a Girl), the 16-inch MacBook Pro appeared equal to the task. It was not clear, though, how many of these MacBook Pro laptops were running the base configuration and how many were relying on the more powerful and expensive 64 GB, 8 TB system.

As for battery power, Apple reached the FAA’s legal limit for what kind of Lithium Ion battery you can stuff inside mobile, airplane-bound hardware: 100wH. Apple’s promising roughly 11 hours of battery life, though your mileage is, depending on application, sure to vary.

16-inch MacBook Pro
Despite the larger screen and battery, the 16-inch MacBook Pro isn;t much larger or thicker than the 15-inch model.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Workhorse systems like the MacBook Pro require heat syncs and fans to manage the internal temperature. For the 16-inch MacBook Pro, Apple redesigned the fans for more efficient heat dissipation and enlarged the heat sink. Apple claims the heat management system affords the MacBook Pro an additional 12 watts of power at peak performance times.

Think of Apple’s new 16-inch MacBook Pro this way: It’s like you made a list for Santa and instead of bringing you just the Power Ranger or Hatchimal, Santa brings you the Ranger, the Hatchimal, Baby Shark Fingerlings, a Zero Gravity Racecar and basically everything else on your list. Your MacBook Pro stocking may finally be full, until you demand another power bump.

Watch my 16-inch MacBook Pro Hands On video!