- Gorgeous 12-inch Retina display
- Thin, light, and feels solid
- Wonderful battery life
- Bright keyboard backlight
- OS X (why you buy a Mac in the first place)
- Excellent integration with iOS devices
- No touchscreen. Come on, Apple.
- Single USB Type-C port limits desktop/office use (adapter not included)
- Polarizing keyboard typing experience (shallow travel, limited feedback)
- Average processor performance (slower than expected)
- Worthless 480p webcam
- Overpriced for what you get
If you want a Mac that runs OS X, delivers great battery life, and has a beautiful Retina display then the new 12-inch MacBook is a solid choice. For everyone else, this is an overpriced status symbol.
Whether you’re talking about American coffee shop hipsters, college students in just about every country, or young entrepreneurs working at a startup, the Apple MacBook Air has been widely embraced by many people worldwide. It was only a matter of time before Apple merged the MacBook Air series with the primary MacBook line. The new MacBook is a groundbreaking design with a 12-inch Retina display that fits nicely between the 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Air laptops.
The MacBook Air is still being sold on the Apple website, but most industry experts agree that the Cupertino-based marketing geniuses will discontinue the “Air” line of products and we will simply have the “MacBook” and “MacBook Pro” models in the near future.
The question is, will the future be any brighter now that the MacBook has been slimmed down and limited to a single multifunction port? Will Apple fans embrace a laptop that is more like an iPad in terms of limited options for connectivity? Keep reading to find out.
Build and Design
While the new MacBook clearly shares a design heritage with the MacBook Air, Apple was obviously focused on making this MacBook the thinnest and lightest Mac yet. The new 12-inch MacBook almost looks like a fake “Ikea display laptop” next to a 13-inch MacBook Air thanks to its thinner and lighter profile, smaller footprint, and the nearly flush-mount keyboard keys.
As we’ve come to expect from Apple, this MacBook is wrapped in an aluminum chassis with clean lines and rounded corners … but customers now have the option of buying a MacBook in multiple color options (classic silver/aluminum, gold, or space gray). The Apple logo on the screen lid no longer lights up and is now polished aluminum in whatever color you selected. This seems like a minor change, but removing the glowing Apple logo goes a long way to making this look more like a modern premium laptop.
Opening the lid reveals the stunning 12-inch Retina display, the all-new keyboard, and the new Force Touch trackpad. Apple makes the most of the limited space by pushing the keyboard keys to the absolutely edge of the chassis, but that also makes the black bezel around the screen look excessively thick.
The thin chassis feels quite solid thanks to the tight tolerances used in the construction and assembly. The MacBook suffers from only minor flex and doesn’t creak if you pick it up with both hands on the palm rests and try to bend it. This isn’t a rugged laptop and will be vulnerable to surface scratches and dents just like other aluminum-clad MacBooks, but it should survive the typical bumps and bruises of airline travel or college use.
The bottom access panel on the MacBook is sealed with eight separate 5-point star tamper-proof screws. The overwhelming majority of Apple users never open their MacBooks and the truth is this MacBook essentially lacks any options for DIY upgrades, so Apple could have easily used standard Phillips bit or Torx bit screws to simplify repairs.
Ports and Features
The simple fact is that there are only two places to plug-in anything to the new MacBook. The right side of the MacBook features a standard headset jack for connecting headphones or a headset with a built-in microphone like the Apple iPhone headset with remote. The two small pinholes next to the headset jack are supposed to be the holes for the dual microphone array.
The left side of the MacBook is where you’ll find the headline news; the new USB Type-C (USB-C) port which serves as a one-port solution for charging and expansion. The single USB-C port will connect to the included power adapter to charge the MacBook, it will connect to USB 3.1 devices (with an adapter you must purchase separately) at speeds up to 5 Gbps, it includes native DisplayPort 1.2 video output (but requires a separate DisplayPort adapter for external displays that use the standard DisplayPort or mini DisplayPort connectors), and it can provide video output to HDMI or VGA … if you buy the required adapters which are likewise sold separately.
Unfortunately, this means there is no way to charge your MacBook while also connecting it to an external display straight out of the box. That won’t be an issue for most MacBook users, but this design choice severely limits the number of businesses that will consider purchasing the MacBook for office use.
You’ll find a 480p FaceTime camera located just above the Retina display. That wasn’t a typo … Apple shoved a sub-par VGA webcam into at $1,300 computer. You won’t get crisp 720p HD video for web chats or for filming a video podcast. The low-light sensitivity is pretty good, but the image quality is grainy and frankly just plain bad. We suspect that Apple selected the 480p camera either it was either the only camera that could fit inside the razor-thin MacBook or it was an Apple bean counter’s attempt to minimize production costs.
Speaking of razor-thin designs, the 12-inch Retina display on the new MacBook is the thinnest Retina display yet with a thickness of just 0.88 millimeter. This new screen is also 30 percent more energy efficient than any other Retina display thanks to larger apertures on each of the 3 million pixels, allowing are higher percentage of the backlight to pass through so you don’t have to crank up the screen brightness as much in order to see the screen.
The 2304 x 1440 resolution delivers a comfortable viewing area with a 16:10 aspect ratio. Apple claims this screen has a 178-degree viewing angle and we’re inclined to believe those claims. As with most Retina displays, color accuracy is quite good and there is plenty of contrast for enjoying Netflix or editing your vacation photos.
The stereo speakers are centrally located just above the keyboard and beneath the display. Audio quality isn’t great; there is minimal range between highs and lows, but distortion is kept under control at all volume levels. Frankly, we expected more from the built-in speakers because Apple acquired Beats Audio. The built-in speakers are sufficient for FaceTime chats and short YouTube clips, but you’ll want to connect headphones or external speakers for high-quality sound.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Apple designed a new and exclusive butterfly mechanism for the switches underneath each key in the new MacBook keyboard. Most notebooks use some variation of a “scissor switch” to control the up-and-down movement of each key as you press down. The benefit of the scissor mechanism is a distinctive pressure point that you can feel as you type to give you physical feedback so you know when you’ve pressed a key.
The problem with traditional scissor switches is that the key press is usually uneven, and keys “wobble” if you don’t press down in the exact center of each key … meaning you can sometimes press down the edge of a key without actually triggering the switch underneath. Scissor mechanisms also take up more vertical space and require thicker laptop chassis designs.
Apple’s new butterfly mechanism is wider than a scissor mechanism and covers most of the key area. This allows the action of each key press to be more stable with uniform movement across the key surface while also requiring 40% less vertical space for the key mechanism (allowing Apple to make the MacBook thinner). The only problem with the new butterfly mechanism is that each key now has less of a distinctive vertical “throw” between the top and bottom of each key stroke. The end result is that touch typists will either hate the new keyboard or simply need extra time to get used to how it feels. Younger Apple users who are more familiar with on-screen keyboards won’t have a problem.
The LED backlighting is nice and bright with multiple brightness settings that can be controlled at any time with the F5 and F6 keys. Each key has an individual LED underneath to maximize the brightness while also minimizing the amount of light that leaks out around the edges of the keys.
The exterior of the new Force Touch trackpad looks largely identical to the buttonless touchpads used on earlier MacBooks, but there are massive changes hiding underneath. A new set of “Force sensors” rest just beneath the corners of the trackpad’s capacitive glass surface. These sensors detect your click anywhere on the surface and notice subtle variations of pressure so that you can use different amounts of pressure when writing, drawing in an app, or controlling movement in a game.
The new “Taptic Engine” under the middle of the trackpad surface provides haptic feedback (vibrations/opposing pressure) that can be used in future apps to allow you to “feel” a response to your movements on the touchpad. As with all previous Apple touchpads, the new Force Touch trackpad recognizes the standard multi-touch gestures we’ve come to expect from OS X.
While the Force Touch trackpad is a mostly welcome addition, we did find the default settings to be a little too sensitive; frequently causing unintentional cursor movement and unwanted clicks. Frankly, the overly sensitive trackpad left us wishing for a touchscreen to simply click what we wanted using our fingers on the screen. Too bad that isn’t an option.