The new MacBook is a marvel of engineering. It’s beautiful, and far more functional than a computer this size has any right to be. But it’s not for me, and I doubt it’s for you, either. It’s just too damn thin.
What Is It?
The latest crazy-thin Apple computer—a tiny 12-inch laptop with a incredible high-res display. So tiny you could practically stuff it into a large purse. So thin that it required Apple to create an entirely new type of ultra-shallow keyboard and touchpad so you can actually use it for work. So minimalist that it only includes a single I/O port—a do-it-all USB Type-C jack that’s clearly the future, but requires dongles for now. A little pricy at $1300 for the base version, though you get 8GB of RAM and 256GB of speedy solid state storage for the money.
Why Does It Matter?
In 2008, tech journalists made fun of the original MacBook Air. Sure, you could stuff it inside a manila envelope, but it was overpriced, underpowered, and included some questionable design decisions. But once Apple maximized the Air’s strengths and minimized its weaknesses, it upended the entire industry. Practically every thin laptop sold today owes something to the MacBook Air.
Now, Apple’s at it again. The new MacBook not only hints at where Apple’s own laptops are going next, but also beats a path through the brush where competitors will surely follow. Question is, which of the new MacBook’s features are “the future,” and which are mistakes? That’s a question I’m going to take a shot at answering.
Love At First Sight
Gorgeous. There’s no other word. Even if you’re getting a little burnt out on wedge-shaped aluminum laptops, the new MacBook has a charm that’s impossible to deny. Part of that’s due to just how small and light this computer really is; it makes the 13-inch MacBook Air look positively chunky by comparison. At just two pounds heavy, I can easily heft it with a single hand. The keyboard is the same width, the screen just a little bit smaller, but the frame is dramatically reduced in every direction.
Gone are those wide expanses of aluminum on either side of the keyboard, and gone are the large aluminum palmrests. In fact, those palmrests are short enough now that they rarely dig into my wrists—one of the things I’ve always hated about the Air and many of its clones. Gone too are the thick aluminum borders surrounding the screen. The new MacBook still has bezels, but they’re black, thanks to a single sheet of edge-to-edge glass that appears to be optically bonded to the panel.
And what a screen. It’s a 2304 x 1440 super-high res Retina display, as crisp, clear, and colorful than any laptop display I’ve ever seen. Perhaps even better. It looks like a giant iPad, to the point where I was almost disappointed when I poked at the panel and discovered it wasn’t touch sensitive. But like the iPad—and unlike most super high-res laptops—this machine’s light enough that I feel comfortable lifting it up to eye level to see fine details in HD movies and DSLR photographs. (Yeah, I’m a pixel peeper.)
But the screen isn’t the only reason that watching movies on the MacBook is a treat—this laptop has unheard of sound quality for a laptop anywhere near this size. I fired up Pandora, and my jaw dropped when I realized just how wide a soundstage this little laptop can produce. There’s a scene in an early episode of The Sopranos at an auto shop, and I could swear the machinery I was hearing was in the same room.
The hard part is figuring out how to actually get those movies and photographs onto this laptop to begin with. The other day, I wanted to write a Gizmodo post on the train that needed photos from my Canon camera. There’s no SD card slot, and no SD adapter—only a single USB Type-C port that doubles as the laptop’s charge cable. (Okay, that’s pretty damn cool.)
I knew that going in, so I obtained a $20 USB Type-C to USB adapter, used another laptop to stick my photos on a USB flash drive, and… left the frakking adapter at home. Nice job, Sean. I thought I would love USB Type-C, but for now it’s just a chore.
Which is pretty much exactly how I feel about Apple’s Force Touch functionality. Want to blow somebody’s mind? Turn off a new MacBook, then press down on the touchpad. Nothing happens—it just gives a little bit. There’s no actual button underneath. Then turn it on and press again. Boom: a nice, sharp click that doesn’t actually exist.
You’re being fooled by an electromagnet that provides haptic feedback in response to your press. What’s the point of that? It allows Apple to have a trackpad that you can press down harder—several times harder—to perform a wide variety of functions.
Two-stage clicks are now a thing. First a click, then press harder for a Force Touch.
Press harder in Maps to drop a pin at a particular location. Press down hard in Quicktime to speed through a video faster. Press down hard on a word in Safari to look it up in the dictionary, or an address to get a map, or a phone number to call it.
But right now, Force Touch is almost always more trouble than it’s worth. For one thing, there’s a pretty small list of things Force Touch can do right now, and they’re all limited to Apple’s own apps—apps I almost never use like Maps, Safari, and Calendar. (Both Google and Microsoft have Apple beat on those fronts.) For another, it’s never obvious when Force Touch is an option—like long-pressing the screen on an iPhone, you have to already know that there’s a hidden command you can activate, or luck onto it through trial and error.
But the biggest problem with Force Touch, if you ask me, is that it’s no easier to press down—and often more awkward—than simply repeatedly tapping on glass. Years of using a MacBook Air taught me that clicking a touchpad was a cumbersome, unnecessary process when you could tap, and very few functions that Force Touch offers today are any faster than doing that.
Yet like USB Type-C, I have a sneaking suspicion that Force Touch could become a big deal for a different reason. The Apple Watch uses the exact same sort of haptic feedback to let you reach out and tap someone on the wrist by tapping on its screen. What if Apple extended that to these touchpads, and perhaps future phones too? Or deliver other notifications that way? It could be the beginning of a pretty interesting messaging platform. Not that you’ll need this particular laptop to get in on the action.
The great part about Force Touch, though, is it isn’t forced on you: you can turn it off, ignore it, whatever you like, and still have one of the best damn trackpads on any laptop ever made. It’s quick and responsive and buttery-smooth. Just flicking up two fingers and watching as a long website flies by—thanks to inertial scrolling—is positively dreamy.
That Damn Keyboard
I just wish I could say the same about the new MacBook’s keyboard. I’ve been using it for a solid week of work, banging out plenty of email, some Gizmodo posts, and a bunch of conversations with co-workers too. Oh, and every single word of the review you’re reading right now. I think it’s safe to say I’ve gotten pretty used to Apple’s super-thin butterfly switches.
The good news is that after a week of practice, I can type as quickly as ever. Maybe even quicker. Since the keys are so thin and activate so reliably, you can bounce right off them at blazing speed and hit every single letter.
The bad news is that they’re ridiculously uncomfortable. Even though I’m typing quickly and accurately, I hate every single moment. It takes enough force that I feel like I’m stabbing my fingers into a hard surface. I feel the impact in my bones. The instant I switch back to any other laptop—not just my trusty ThinkPad X240 but pretty much any other of the dozen notebooks I have lying around the house—I breathe a sigh of relief.
The half-height up/down arrow keys are the worst: when you’re typing letters, at least you’re bouncing around different places. Navigating through a document with these arrow keys sounds like the definition of repetitive stress injury.
I tried switching off between a 13-inch MacBook Air and the new 12-inch MacBook for a bit, testing out both keyboards, and the 12-incher’s keys definitely felt more precise. Less squishy. But I’ll take squishy in a heartbeat.
Kudos to Apple for getting a keyboard backlight into a laptop this thin, though—the individual LEDs behind each key come in handy, and they look great.
When I heard the new MacBook was going to use an Intel Core M processor and a fancy new stacked battery design to cram as many Lithium-ion cells as possible into its tiny frame, I figured that meant that this machine would feel underpowered, but last a long time. It made sense: all the Windows machines I’ve tested with Core M processors have felt that way—but Apple is pretty good about optimizing the OS X operating system to get better battery life.
Surprisingly, I found just the opposite—it feels like Apple has optimized the Core M for speed. The new MacBook barely feels different than my old MacBook Air when it comes to basic tasks, and it’s notably zippier than comparable Windows machines. I didn’t see it bog down at all until I tried to install Photoshop, run two different web browsers and do some Evernote simultaneously—but it bogged down a lot then.
Benchmarks at sites like AnandTech clearly show that it’s not quite on par with a new Core i5-equipped MacBook Air, but I’m not sure you’d notice unless you tried to play some games or do some photo/video editing—and those still work in a pinch. In a fairly unscientific test where I converted a 10MB movie to an animated GIF in Photoshop, the new MacBook was only a handful of seconds behind my Core i5-equipped ThinkPad X240 with a last-gen Haswell chip. Intensive games are iffier, but Borderlands 2 and BioShock Infinite can technically run at lowest settings on the new MacBook. I just don’t know if I’d call them “playable.”
As I’ve hinted, though, battery life takes a blow. I consistently got about 6 hours of real work from the new MacBook, compared to the 8.5 hours we get from a MacBook Air. That’s not bad at all, and actually pretty incredible for a laptop this tiny, but that’s the difference between needing to carry a charger and leaving the charger at home.
At least until USB Type-C becomes widespread, anyhow. If the new USB connector becomes as ubiquitous a standard as micro-USB (and it looks like it probably will), one day you might be able to top off your MacBook as easily as you can charge a phone right now. Just don’t use a stranger’s cable. You’ll find that the new MacBook can charge relatively fast with the right adapter—I saw battery life tick up about a percent each minute.
The hinge tension and balance is perfect. You can lift the lid with a single finger with the MacBook resting on a table, and the base won’t move one bit. You can reposition the screen at any angle—though sadly it only goes back to 45 degrees or so—and it’ll stay there.
I love screens with the taller 16:10 aspect ratio, and I don’t understand why Apple’s the only one to put them in laptops—but I’m happy they did here.
This screen makes me happy, period. I could look at it for hours, under any lighting condition. It gets bright enough for outdoor use, and has an anti-glare coating just like the iPad Air 2. It gets dim enough not to wake my wife in bed, too. Love it.
Core M means no noisy fan, and this MacBook doesn’t get very hot either! There’s just one hotspot on the bottom of the machine, back near the hinge. It never felt uncomfortable.
The USB Type-C charge cable is an actual USB Type-C cable that comes out of the charger! No more replacing expensive MacBook chargers when the cable frays or your dog decides to take a bite. (True story)
These might be the best speakers I’ve heard on a laptop this thin.
Thank the maker, there is still a headphone jack.
Being able to pick different colors for a MacBook is awesome. I really like this Space Gray one, and the gold version isn’t too garish either.
Why is this laptop so thin? I never felt that I needed a thinner MacBook. One with a better screen? Absolutely. Lighter? Okay. But every other innovation in the new MacBook seems to be in the service of making it thinner. Who needs that?
The keyboard drives me up the wall. How can something work so well and yet feel so terrible?
USB Type-C is great, but only a single USB Type-C feels really, really lame. Why not two? Why not an SD card reader, which you can’t even get in Apple Dongle form?
Do you video chat with people? The Facetime camera on here is only 480p now. It’s so grainy. Way worse than the one in your iPhone. Not sure why.
None of the three Force Touch sensitivity settings feel quite right to me. The firm setting feels the best, but requires me to press down too hard, and the light setting feels too shallow, like I’m shoving my fingers into the glass.
Force Touch has an SDK, so I’m not too worried about eventual adoption, but I’m disappointed that it has to be implemented on a per-app basis instead of globally in the operating system. It’d be really cool if the next OS X could automatically recognize phone numbers and addresses anywhere, not just in Safari.
Should You Buy It?
No. Wait. Here’s what I predict will happen: like the original MacBook Air in 2008, this new MacBook will be the prelude to a more mainstream, affordable, sensible workhorse that’s just as gorgeous. As always, early adopters will pay the price for Apple’s R&D efforts, but we’ll all reap the benefits soon enough—as the Force Touchpad, the USB Type-C port, the more compact design and the excellent new hinge make their way to the true MacBook Air successors.
Right now, Apple is still selling MacBook Airs with designs and screens that are starting to look very dated, and no longer competitive with their Windows counterparts—except in battery life, of course—and the new MacBook paves the way for them to evolve. But when they do, Apple will surely want to maintain that battery life lead, and hopefully that means a slightly thicker laptop with a more comfortable keyboard.
Asus UX305 vs. New MacBook
But hey, you want a thin laptop right now. What should you do? Honestly, the 13-inch MacBook Air is still a solid pick, but you should also look at the Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre x360, and maybe the Asus UX305 if you like Windows. They’re all relatively thin machines that don’t try to go as crazy-thin as the MacBook, costing hundreds less, each with fairly comfortable keyboards, and each offering up some full size ports too.
If you do buy the new MacBook, though, you’ll be getting a fine computer, just not the one you might expect. This machine isn’t like a first-class ticket on an airline. It’s more like a front-row seat at a concert. It costs an arm and a leg to get in, it’s noisy and uncomfortable, and you might be expected to cheer. Sure, it’s the best seat in the house, but you damn well better be a giant fan of the band.
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