Review: The new 12-inch MacBook is a laptop without an ecosystem

If you value portability over power, and you don't need to physically connect to much, the new MacBook might be for you.

1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2

But here’s the thing: At that resolution, the 12-inch display seems small. Like, really small. Nearly unusably small. So Apple has made the decision to ship the MacBook with its default resolution scaled to emulate a 1280 x 800 display, roughly the same screen area as you’d find on an 11-inch MacBook Air. Fortunately, the scaled resolution looks really good. But after a little while, I decided I wanted my display scaled even more, so I switched it to the More Space setting, which emulates a 1440x900 display, the equivalent number of pixels as the 13-inch Air. This was the setting I used for the rest of my time with the MacBook.

The MacBook’s display is covered edge-to-edge with glass, with a black bezel underneath. This is the style that the MacBook Pro line has had for some time, but it’ll be a change for MacBook Air users. The MacBook Air’s display has a large silver bezel around the screen, but this look is much simpler and more attractive, and I didn’t notice any real difference in glare versus the Air’s display.

No need for speed?

The MacBook is powered by Intel’s Core M processor, which is designed to be power efficient and cool. (The MacBook has no fan—it’s completely silent, even when stressed out.) It’s not designed to be fast, and by the standards of all of Apple’s other current laptops, it’s not. It’s not fast by the standards of last year’s models. Or those of the year before. I pulled out every laptop in my house dating back four years and the base model MacBook is slower than all of them–though to be fair, my four-year-old MacBook Air is the top-of-the-line model. Still, it’s not a stretch to say that the MacBook is bringing 2010 performance to 2015.

Does it matter? If you’re a power user who likes to read super-long reviews of Apple laptops, it might. I honestly gave some thought to not even including test scores in this review, because if you’re the kind of person who seeks the longest bar, the MacBook just won’t please you.

geekbench scores new macbook

See?

But the Intel processors in Mac laptops have been so powerful for so long that I’m not sure it matters for most users. I fancy myself a bit of a power user, what with my Photoshop and my Logic Pro, and you know what? I was able to edit a multi-track Logic project on the MacBook just fine. Yes, bouncing the final project to disk took longer than it does on my 5K iMac or even my 2014 MacBook Air, but it still exported.

Similarly, although the MacBook is limited to 8GB of RAM, this seemed sufficient for all of my tasks. If you’re someone who can’t use a laptop if it doesn’t have more than 8GB of RAM, there are better options in Apple’s laptop line—specifically, the MacBook Pro.

I never found using the MacBook sluggish. Then again, I didn’t try to play games on it. But again, if you’re trying to play games on the MacBook, you may be missing the point. The integrated Intel HD Graphics 5300 processor is more than enough to drive the Retina display with no lag, and I found Apple’s various interface animations ran smoothly.

Like a great many computer features that used to be essential, speed appears to have become a high-end luxury. In 2010, if you handed me a new laptop that was as fast as the average Mac laptop from 2005, it would probably have felt sluggish and unusable. But honestly, I wouldn’t have any qualms using this MacBook as a travel machine, just as I’ve chosen to use the 11-inch MacBook Air rather than a MacBook Pro. Opting for a tiny, thin laptop doesn’t mean you can’t get your work done. It’s a lesson the 11-inch Air taught me, and the MacBook fits that tale well.

Battery

By using the Intel Core M and packing in a whole lot of battery, Apple claims that the MacBook boasts “all day battery life.” Of course, these things are relative—editing a Logic Pro project will suck the battery out of even the hardiest laptop. But in general, I was extremely impressed with the battery life of the MacBook.

During my testing I tried to spend as long as possible between charges, and was continually surprised at how little the MacBook was draining its battery. I spent most of a workday with the MacBook in my living room and at a nearby Starbucks and didn’t get close to running out of battery.

macbook at starbucks Jason Snell

Now you can pick your seat without having to scope out its proximity to an available power outlet.

It will take a long time to break old-school laptop users out of the habit of constantly seeking a power plug in order to avoid “range anxiety,” but if there’s a laptop that can do it, it’s probably the MacBook.

Bottom line

The MacBook is a gorgeous piece of hardware. The Retina display is excellent, and I’m really loving the Force Touch trackpad. The keyboard is more of a hit-or-miss affair; if you’re someone who is particular about your keyboards and spends a whole lot of time typing, it may be a deal-breaker.

This is a laptop that will serve its audience well. That audience is one that prioritizes size, weight, and stylishness over compatibility and ports and computing power. I’d say that this isn’t a laptop for power users, but I don’t think that’s true—there are whole classes of “power users” who don’t actually need more power than the MacBook can provide.

But if your workflow includes lots of USB flash drives and external hard drives, if you’ve invested in Thunderbolt hard drives or displays, or if your work really does require 16GB of RAM and the very fastest processors around, the MacBook won’t be a good fit. Fortunately, Apple’s isn’t ceasing production of the MacBook Pro—and it offers all of that and more.

As a longtime user of the MacBook Air line, I look at the MacBook with a mix of excitement and trepidation. This is the future of Apple’s thin and light laptop line, as well as a warning that we’re about to enter a transition period for devices as Apple begins to embrace USB-C. And ultimately that’s the trade-off here: To get the cutting edge technology, you’ve got to deal with the incompatibilities and limitations that go with it.

People who are willing to deal with the pains in order to get their hands on a product like this, you know who you are. It’s waiting for you. The rest of the world will catch up, in time.

At a Glance
  • The new MacBook is the future of Apple laptops. The Force Touch trackpad, Retina display, and 2 pound weight make up for the MacBook's weak keyboard and slower performance, but not everyone can live on the cutting edge.

    Pros

    • Thin and light, with great battery life
    • Beautiful Retina display
    • Force Touch trackpad

    Cons

    • Weak keyboard
    • Single USB-C port for charging and peripherals
    • Slow Core M processor
1 2 Page 2
Page 2 of 2
  
Shop Tech Products at Amazon