Good Sides: The new 12-inch Apple MacBook is amazingly thin and light, has a premium look and feel, and is available in three colors. It offers better battery life than other laptops with Intel’s Core M processors, and performance that’s as good as or better than those models. The new USB-C port allows you to charge from an external backup battery pack.
Bad Sides: Its performance and battery life falls short of the MacBook Air and Pro. The new keyboard is shallow and takes some getting used to, and sharing a single port for all accessories as well as the power cord is almost immediately frustrating.
The complaints started even before Apple’s first new MacBook demo ended. During the March, 2015 press event, observers fretted about the new, slimmer, lighter 12-inch MacBook. “It’s underpowered,” they said. “The battery life will be short. The new keyboard is too shallow. The no-click touchpad is a gimmick.”
The outcry, which ranged from deriding the new, singular USB-C port to the overall price was reminiscent of the world’s reaction to the original iPad in 2010. And like that groundbreaking tablet, the new 12-inch MacBook won’t do everything and isn’t for everyone. But its strictly enforced minimalism will make this laptop the model that industrial designers will strive to copy for the next several years.
The 12-inch MacBook is a system that ditches the Air and Pro monikers and returns to a simpler designation not seen since the classic black and white polycarbonate MacBooks of the mid-2000s (the ones you still occasionally see in coffee shops despite being their being discontinued in 2011).
Starting at $1,299, it includes a high-resolution Retina screen (much sharper than that on the Air), 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid state storage. Unlike other laptops with removable drives or RAM, everything here is (permanently) packed into a tiny custom motherboard that leaves maximum room for a large battery. A second version, priced at $1,599, adds a 512GB hard drive and a tiny processor speed bump. In the UK and Australia, the prices start at £1,049 and AU$1,799 for the base model and hit £1,299 and AU$2,199 for the upgrade. More expensive build-to-order models are available, too. (The MacBook can be ordered online at 12:00 a.m. PT tonight, the same time as the Apple Watch, and should be available in store — presumably in limited quantities — on Friday, April 10.)
By way of comparison, the 13-inch MacBook Air starts at $999, but a similar 8GB/256GB configuration will cost the same $1,299. The 13-inch MacBook Pro starts at the same $1,299 as this new MacBook, but with only half the storage. Upgrading that Pro model to the same 8GB/256GB will cost $1,499. And on the Windows side, a Samsung Ativ Book 9 with the same 8GB RAM/256GB flash drive and the same processor — will cost you $1,399 (all prices in US dollars). So, in the context of its main rivals, the MacBook is actually priced rather competitively.
Looking only at a spec sheet, it’s easy to see why this new MacBook might be a tough sell. The MacBook uses Intel’s new Core M processor, designed for slim, light laptops, hybrids and tablets with premium prices. It’s efficient enough that full laptops can even run fanless, allowing for quiet, cool operation. But, the Core M has disappointed in the handful of Windows systems in which we’ve already tested it, turning in sluggish performance and mediocre battery life, the latter an unforgivable flaw for computers designed to be as light and portable as possible.
To spare you the suspense, I can say that the new MacBook performs much better than any other Core M system we’ve tested to date, hitting 11 hours in our video playback test. That’s not nearly as much as you’d get from a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro — and it puts this system at a disadvantage compared to the longest-lasting laptops — but battery life is definitely not the deal-breaker it could have been.
Heavy online use will drain the battery even more quickly, and I found myself frequently glancing up at the upper right corner of the screen to see the battery life percentage tick down as I worked. I’ve found it can last for a full work day of moderate usage, but unlike a current-gen MacBook Pro or Air, it’ll be hard to go a few days without plugging it in at all.
Beyond that, the limitations of having a single USB-C port for all your connection needs (with the exception of a standard audio jack that also made the cut) is even more of a challenge, unless you’re prepared to arm yourself with a pocketful of dongles and adaptors.
Other changes are easier to adapt to. We’ve previously gone into some detail about the new click-free pad, which Apple calls the Force Touch trackpad, which is also available in the updated MacBook Pro. It’s a clever bit of space-saving engineering that replaces the old trackpad, with a hinged design for physically clicking down, with a flat glass surface augmented by a force feedback engine. The keyboard is an even more radical change, swapping out the long-standing Mac standard of deep island-style keys for a set of much shallower keys, but with larger actual key faces.
Using the new MacBook means accepting its limitations, some of which are deliberately self-imposed. That’s especially noticeable when you look at another new laptop, the Samsung Ativ Book 9. It weighs the same as the MacBook, has a similar 12-inch high-res screen, and an Intel Core M processor, but manages to fit in two full-size USB ports and a micro-HDMI output (although it also has a proprietary power connection and lacks USB-C, which is set to become the new standard).
If your need for longer battery life, more powerful performance, or more ports doesn’t automatically preclude you, then the in-person experience of using the new MacBook will far outshine the on-paper shortcomings. For writing, Web surfing, video viewing and social media, it’s a pleasure to use, and makes the still-slim 13-inch MacBook Air feel a bit like a lumbering dinosaur, to say nothing of other ultrabook-style laptops. It’s a perfect coffee shop companion.
Some of the critical reactions to this laptop remind me of another new Apple design introduction I covered seven years ago, the original MacBook Air. That system was also criticized for dropping ports and connections, such as an Ethernet and VGA, that people were convinced they still needed. And, much like the new MacBook, it included just a single USB port.
Back in 2008, I was correct that the Air’s new, stripped-down design had real legs, and would set the standard for years to come. But also true was that future refinements down the road would turn the MacBook Air from a speciality product into a mainstream one. When the next 12-inch MacBook update arrives, I suspect it will at the very least add a second USB-C port, and that’s when it will become much easier to recommend to a broader audience.