Apple MacBook Review: The Laptop of the Future Isn’t Ready for the Present – Wall Street Journal
You won’t find it in Apple’s advertisements, but the new MacBook is a time machine. It’s much simpler than Doc Brown’s DeLorean: All you have to do is look at it to observe the future—the future of the laptop, that is.
With this machine, available starting Friday, Apple has imagined a laptop reduced to its essentials—a sharp, insanely thin screen, a flattened keyboard panel and a magical new glass trackpad. Removed from the wire-dependent past, all that remains on its edge are a jack for headphones and a single USB Type-C port.
But as ahead of its time as the MacBook is, there’s a slight problem: You have to use it right now. Here in 2015, the majority of us still require two or three ports for connecting our hard drives, displays, phones and other devices to our computer—not to mention a dedicated power plug.
Also, I speak for the people of the future when I say I am not willing to sacrifice battery life and performance, even if it is for a stunning design. Certainly not for $1,300.
The new MacBook represents an exciting evolution in portable computing, but at this point it is more a proof of concept than your next computer.
The Most Beautiful Laptop
When I hear “gold laptop,” I think gaudy, like a computer that has too much in common with Mr. T’s necklaces. But fear not, the MacBook’s finish—contrasted by the mirrored Apple logo on its cover—makes it look more like a bauble from Tiffany’s. In fact, using the word “laptop” to describe the thing feels wrong.
But even if you opt for the space gray or silver finishes, you’ll still get the most beautiful computer ever created. Much of that beauty has to do with just how insanely thin and light it is.
At two pounds, and measuring just over a half-inch at its thickest, the MacBook feels more like an iPad with a crazy svelte keyboard. The all-metal machine feels quite sturdy, a good thing since you’ll be porting it around a lot… along with its 0.2-pound charging brick.
The 12-inch Retina display adds to the overall beauty. With the 2304×1440-pixel screen, photos look like they were painted on, and even boring text is nice to look at. Prepare for your eyes to be spoiled. Now when I go back to my MacBook Air’s lower-res display, everything looks pixelated.
Absent from the new MacBook—and any other Mac, for that matter—is the touchscreen you’ll find on most premium Windows laptops and Chromebooks. That isn’t quite a complaint: OS X isn’t optimized for touch and no time during my testing did I feel like reaching out and touching the screen. And let’s not forget about fingerprint schmutz, which quickly covered the screen bezel and the mirrored Apple logo.
Trackpad Advances, Keyboard Shrinks
There is plenty for your fingers to do, though. Not only is the surface area of the new Force Touch trackpad bigger, giving you more space for incredibly responsive swipes and clicks, it also enables a new way of interacting with software.
The flat piece of glass doesn’t actually press down. When the computer is off, it feels immobile. But when the system is powered on, sensors measure the pressure you’re putting on the surface. With haptic feedback and an audible clicking sound, it fools you into thinking you’re really pressing down. It is downright trippy.
By sensing different pressure levels, you can also do more. For instance, press firmly on a highlighted word and the dictionary definition pops up. The tricks are limited for now, but hopefully that will change as developers tap into the functionality.
The full-size keyboard is also different, though not necessarily better. Due to the thinness of the panel, Apple created a new mechanism under the keys to help with their feedback and bounce. That and the wider key size meant I could type at my normal fast clip within a day or so. Still, the experience isn’t as comforting as typing on my MacBook Air.
The MacBook’s real annoyances begin with that single USB Type-C port.
Don’t get me wrong, this port itself is amazing. A new type of connector, it has bi-directional power, which means the same port is used to charge the laptop and to charge or connect to other peripherals like monitors or phones. It is also reversible, like the iPhone’s Lightning jack, so no more having to flip around the cord to make sure it plugs in. But living with just one port— especially one that doesn’t work with much yet—is painful.
The best answer I found was a dongle that would turn my single USB Type-C jack into a triple bay for HDMI, regular USB and this fancy future USB. It costs $80 from Apple. I used it to simultaneously charge my iPhone, charge the laptop and connect to a monitor. Forget the dongle at home, and all you can really do is…try to figure out the quickest way to get back home. Bad news for owners of Apple’s Thunderbolt Display: The new MacBook is not compatible with that (though it can drive higher-res monitors via HDMI).
You also can’t leave the charger (and its ridiculously short cord) at home. Not only will no one else have a USB Type-C power cable you can borrow—at least not until the year 2018—but you really need a charger with this machine. I was consistently disappointed with the new MacBook’s battery life, especially compared to my trusty MacBook Air.
In a streaming video test, with all the laptops set to comparable brightness (around 75 percent), the MacBook conked out after 7 hours, while my 13-inch Air braved on for over 11 hours. Even the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina got 9 hours.
Our grueling Web browsing test brought similar results. The MacBook lasted only 6.5 hours—the 13-inch Air made it five hours longer. (Dell’s XPS, which crams a 13-inch, 3200×1800-pixel screen into a 12-inch laptop chassis, didn’t make it to 6 hours. However, its lower-resolution sibling, which starts at $800, was able to keep pace with the MacBook Air. (Remember: Screen resolution makes a huge difference!)
In actual daily use, the MacBook ran for about 7 hours, two hours shy of Apple’s 9-hour claim. A few years ago, that sort of battery life wasn’t to be scoffed at, but we’re now accustomed to better—largely thanks to Apple. We now have a choice, the difference between always having to keep an eye on the laptop’s battery meter—and never having to.
Don’t Give In
The new MacBook also isn’t as fast as the Air. It’s rather snappy at managing my basic routine—checking email, surfing the Web and running various messaging apps. But the Intel
Core M processor, even backed by 8GB of RAM and a 256GB fast solid-state drive, struggles at performance-intensive tasks, like managing lots of open apps and browser tabs while editing photos. When I have over 25 tabs open in Chrome (which happens more often than not), I can feel it wanting to keel over.
And if this really is the laptop of the future, where’s the biometric password support? I can log into my phone with a tap of a finger, why can’t I do the same on my laptop? Even Windows 10 will have support for facial recognition in 2015.
It’s nearly impossible not to be seduced by this MacBook’s beauty, its dazzling screen and perfect trackpad. But don’t give in. Like the original MacBook Air, introduced in 2008, there are too many key compromises—in battery life, speed and port access—for the early-adopter price.
I expect the new MacBook to follow the same path as the Air. Over the next few years, it will improve, and become an affordable, indispensable tool for life in the future. But here, now, in the present day, there are more practical slim, everyday laptop choices. The MacBook Air is the best option all around, the MacBook Pro Retina 13 is a great step up, and PC users can do no better than Dell’s latest XPS 13.