Apple puts toe in touch waters with MacBook Pro remake

Raises prices as much as 39% for laptops that sport customizable, contextual 'Touch Bar'

Apple today reworked its notebook line, boosting the touch-ability of the MacBook Pro line, not by letting users smudge the screen but with an adaptable bar above the top row of keys.

The expected replacement for the row of function keys got the name "Touch Bar," without the "Magic" moniker some thought would lead of the label.

But with the new hardware came new, higher prices: Apple raised the entry-level prices of the new 13- and 15-in MacBook Pros with the Touch Bar by $500 and $400, respectively, from their bar-less predecessors. The price hikes represented increases of 39% (13-in.) and 20% (15-in.).

"This is very much a redesign, not a refresh," said Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticule Research. Traditionally, Apple has kept prices stable, even lowered them, when it replaces a component or two with a faster or more capable successor. Rubin's argument was that the new models went far beyond that modest swap.

apple macbook pro touch bar

Carolina Milanesi, an analyst with Creative Strategies, had similar thoughts. "Apple is repositioning the product, reinventing the [MacBook Pro]," she contended, acknowledging that the hikes were unusual for Apple. "Normally they keep the price the same, but it's not just a refresh. They're trying to find a different place in the market for the MacBook Pro."

Today was the first live event since March 2015 where Apple focused on the Mac, and it followed months of rationalizing by analysts that the long stretch since the last hardware refresh had been the root cause of a four-quarter sales slump.

CEO Tim Cook promised to make up for the omission. "For 25 years we've been defining and redefining what a notebook is," Cook said, citing the October 1991 debut of Apple's first PowerBook, a clunky, brick-thick portable. "Today, we're going to do it again."

Cook ceded the stage to others, including head of marketing Philip Schiller and Craig Federighi, the top software engineering executive: The two unveiled the redesigned 13- and 15-in. MacBook Pro laptops, then demonstrated the models' most notable addition, the Touch Bar.

The laptops are slimmer, lighter versions of their predecessors, each model dropping about half a pound and losing between 14% and 17% of its thickness. "It is the gold standard in notebook computers," Schiller asserted. "This is the thinnest and lightest MacBook Pro we have ever made."

Both the 13- and 15-in. MacBook Pros sport a trackpad doubled the previous size, and a keyboard whose underlying technology was brought over from the 2015 MacBook.

But the star of the new laptops was clearly the Touch Bar, a mutable strip above the top row of keys, where traditional notebooks feature the F1 through F12 function keys. The strip responds to the Apple-esque multi-touch gestures, and adapts to the active application. With Safari, for example, the Touch Bar shows icons representing favorite sites.

touchbar customized Apple

Craig Federighi, Apple's top software engineering executive, shows how the new Touch Bar can be customized.

Also imbedded in that bar is Touch ID. "We're bringing Touch ID to the Mac for the very first time," said Federighi. The integrated fingerprint scanner works just like the one on iPhones; users can log in -- dropping account password typing -- and validate online transactions using Apple Pay by pressing a finger or thumb to the bar.

The Touch Bar, Apple emphasized, kept the input area near the keyboard, where the hands were, implying that's more efficient than reaching out to a touch-enabled screen. The Cupertino, Calif. company has rejected touch screens on the Mac, and defended its decision to limit that to iOS. But it's impossible not to see the Touch Bar as a touch-is-input enhancement, an addition to the well-worn Touch Pad and its library of gestures.

Whether Apple moves beyond the strip, and to the screen itself, is unclear.

"I've learned never to say never about Apple," said Milanesi. "Right now, Apple is saying that not every screen needs to be touch-enabled. But over time, perhaps this is a stepping stone."

Although Apple's own applications will have a jump on third-party software in supporting the Touch Bar, outside developers will be able to access it as well. Microsoft is working on supporting Touch Bar in its Office suite, and Adobe is planning to add support to Photoshop by year's end.

"What will be important is how much developers are going to push [supporting the Touch Bar]," Milanesi added.

Like the MacBook, the new MacBook Pros have ditched the traditional USB ports for a quartet of ports that serve multiple duty, including USB-C, Thunderbolt and charging. For many, that will require new adapters to fit existing peripherals -- external keyboards, printers and displays, for instance -- after a MacBook Pro upgrade.

Apple also dropped the 11-in. MacBook Air, leaving only the $999 13-in. version, and adding a less expensive 13-in. MacBook Pro that features the traditional function keys -- no Touch Pad -- a slower processor and only a pair of ports. The Apple online store also continued to list the 2015 versions of the 13-in. MacBook Pro ($1,299) and 15-in. MacBook Pro ($1,999) for sale.

The 13- and 15-in. MacBook Pros with the Touch Bar start at $1,799 and $2,399 respectively. Customers can pre-order those notebooks beginning today, but the systems won't ship for approximately two to three weeks, Cook said. The new 13-in. MacBook Pro sans the Bar is available immediately at $1,499.

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Gregg Keizer

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