Review: 12-inch MacBook

There are a lot of things to consider with the new MacBook—a Retina display, a new sized screen, weight, redesigned batteries, a newly designed keyboard and trackpad, and the fact the laptop only has one port—USB-C. Of course, one of the biggest things, for me anyway, is whether the MacBook fits into my workflow. Any one of these new features could be a deal breaker for many people, or this could simply be one of the smartest moves Apple has made in its laptop business in years.

Keyboard

I’ve been using the MacBook for a little while now, and it easily fit it into my daily routine of writing, checking email, surfing the Web and basically getting all of my work done. One of the things I was most interested to see and feel was the new keyboard.

I was happy to hear that Apple went with a full size keyboard on its new MacBook, but they did make some major changes to a part of the computer that hasn’t changed for years. It will take a little getting used, but it won’t take you long.

Apple redesigned the key mechanism, going from a scissor design found on other computers, to a butterfly design. The end result of the change is that the keys are pressed more easily and precisely, and they don’t go down as far as the old mechanism did. In fact, they go down about half as far as the old keyboard.

When you first start using the keyboard, you may get the feeling that you didn’t actually hit the key, but you really did. This is what will take some getting used to—I am typing very quickly with the MacBook now, but it took a day or two in order for my mind to trust my fingers were hitting all the keys.

The arrow keys took the most time to get used to. Surprising, I know. However, I use the up and down arrow keys a lot to navigate email messages and RSS feeds and those keys are quite close together—in fact, they are the only two keys on the keyboard that are so close together. It’s like the person that designed the keyboard doesn’t use those two keys and put them together like that because it looked better. At any rate, those keys are just taking a bit longer for me to use without error. I hope for a change in the future.

arrow

The other keyboard oddity I noticed was with the Escape key. This isn’t a functional complaint, but rather an observation. It looks like they ran out of ideas for keys in the “F” row and ended up with some extra space, so they extended the Escape to make up for it.

escape

All told, I love the new keyboard. It feels good when typing and the light under each key is brilliant in low-light conditions.

Force Touch trackpad

The Force Touch trackpad is another newly designed feature from Apple. The trackpad itself won’t take any getting used to, but some of the new functionality may.

From Apple’s Web site:

The Force Touch trackpad is engineered to deliver a responsive, uniform click no matter where you press the surface. And underneath, force sensors detect how much pressure you’re applying and give you new ways to interact with your Mac.

With other trackpads, I always felt like when I clicked on a corner or edge, it was on a teeter totter. Instead of the click going straight down, it would angle a bit—it was a bit weird, but that’s what we were all used to. The Force Touch trackpad is definitely much better in that respect, allowing you to click anywhere very comfortably and evenly.

As a writer, one of the features I use a lot is the dictionary and thesaurus. With Force Touch, I can click on a word and then just keep pushing down, adding more pressure on the trackpad. The dictionary pops-up for the word I was clicking on. The cool thing is how responsive it is—watch the video and notice how the dictionary pop-up reacts as I vary the amount of pressure I put on the trackpad.

The trackpad also has haptic feedback, a tactile type feedback for what you see on the screen. It also supports all of the multitouch gestures it did in the past.

Retina display

I don’t know what else to say about the Retina display besides, it’s absolutely beautiful. I’ve been using an 11-inch MacBook Air and a 15-inch MacBook Pro for the last year or so. I’d switch back and forth, with the majority of the changes coming because of the Retina display.

It’s easy to say that you really wouldn’t notice a difference, but I do, every single time I look at the screen. And I love it.

If I know I’m traveling, I’ll switch to the 11-inch MacBook Air, because it’s much easier and lighter to take on the road. I typically don’t do any intensive computing while I’m away, so portability and weight are my main concerns. I’m certainly willing to trade the 15-inch Retina for portability when I’m on the road.

When I get home, having the Retina display tops my list of must-have features.

The 12-inch MacBook gives me something in-between that could very well satisfy all of my requirements. A screen that is a bit larger and a Retina display so I’m getting the best quality.

Weight

If you don’t travel, the weight of your laptop is probably not an important feature. However, I have run through airports from Germany to San Francisco and I can tell you, having a laptop that weighs a lot adds to the drama of trying to catch your flight.

At 2 pounds, carrying the 12-inch MacBook feels more like you’re touting around a magazine than a computer.

Battery

One of the biggest changes with the MacBook is the layered battery design Apple came up with. It really is quite incredible—the change means that every part of the MacBook, except where the CPU is located, is reserved for batteries.

The result is a long time between needing to charge the battery.

I’m not testing the battery in a lab, so I didn’t put on a movie and see how long it would play or anything like that—I simple did my normal days work. I think that’s how most people would test battery life for their own uses.

Each MacBook comes with a bit of a charge, so I completely drained it a couple of times before seeing how long it would last under normal use. By normal use, I mean using MarsEdit, Mail, Reeder, Safari, Chrome, Mail, Fantastical, Twitter, and iTunes. I had Bluetooth turned off, Wi-Fi on, and most of the other settings, including Energy Saver, were left at the factory defaults.

I unplugged the MacBook at 2:00 pm and carried on my day’s work, writing and posting to The Loop. Some reading of upcoming stories for The Loop Magazine, emails and other assorted tasks rounded out my work for the day. I didn’t really check to see where the battery level was throughout my time using it, but by about 8:00 pm, I still had 40 percent battery remaining.

It’s important to note that this was not straight usage. I took breaks to get a beverage, stroll outside, take phone calls, etc. During that time, the computer fell asleep to whatever settings Apple had set by default.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to sleep that night, so at 1:00 am I found myself back at the computer. The battery was now at 38 percent. I did some more work, watched some concert videos, planned out some coverage on the Web site, etc. Nothing too major, although I’m sure the videos took their toll on the battery.

By about 3:30 am the battery was at 4 percent, and I was tired. I woke up at 8:00 am and the battery had died sometime between the time I went to bed and when I woke up.

Considering everything I did the day before and throughout the night, I was quite pleased with the way the battery performed. I honestly don’t think I could ask for much more from a battery than that.

This type of battery performance has been consistent for me on a daily basis.

USB-C

I saved the most contentious issue for last—the MacBook only has one port.

The new USB-C port allowed Apple to make the MacBook much thinner and smaller, but it did take away the Thunderbolt and USB ports. This, to some people is an absolute deal breaker for buying the new laptop. For me, it’s brilliant.

With a computer like the MacBook, you go into it knowing you are making a compromise—one port. You can get a dongle that allows you to connect a USB device, like your iPhone, to charge and that’s enough for me.

People who buy the MacBook aren’t buying it for its expandability, but rather for its other features, namely the size. I don’t have a lot of devices I need to connect to the MacBook, so I’d rather have a smaller laptop with a dongle than carry around a heavier laptop with ports I’m not using 90 percent of the time.

If you know going into the purchase that you are going to connect a bunch of things to your computer, perhaps the MacBook isn’t for you. There’s nothing wrong with that, but for a lot of people, like me, not having the ports isn’t a big deal.

The decision between portability and ports is a pretty easy one for me—I’ll take portability 9 out of 10 times. That’s what a laptop is for.

Bottom Line

The new MacBook is a gorgeous computer that expertly fills a niche that many need. It’s powerful enough to do all of the regular work you’ll need to get done at home, the office, or on the road. The model I’m using is Space Gray, has 8GB of RAM and a 1.1 GHz Intel Core M processor.

The MacBook runs completely silent and fits perfectly into my workflow. I haven’t touched either of my other two computers since I started using this one, and I’m very happy. This is my workflow now.

The good news is that if you need more ports or more power, Apple has two other MacBook product lines that may suit your needs. For me, I’m sticking with MacBook.

MacBook will go on sale online at 12:00 am PT/3:00 am ET on Friday, April 10.



  • Kristian

    Escape key. What I like about that is that the function key gaps line up with the second row of buttons now. Each gap is in the middle of each second row key, sans delete. And the function key gaps line up with the gaps of the QWERTY line of keys — esc is the width of the tab key. Caps lock, return, and shift throw it off after that. But the bottom row again lines up better (function key gap lines up with the middle of most of those). So, in aggregate, it looks cleaner than the old keyboard. Would I want the esc to be the same size as the power on off? Absolutely! But that would result in a different layout.

    • nutmac

      That makes a lot of sense. Even after many years using MacBook Pro, I find myself hitting the number keys instead of Fn key accidentally. I still wish there was an extra vertical gap between Fn and numeric keys, however.

  • sleepcountry

    Isn’t the up/down arrow key duo exactly the same as the wireless keyboard that ships with iMacs? (two keys compressed into the vertical space of 1 regular key)

    • Kip Beatty

      Yeah, I thought the same. Those two keys are similarly compressed on my MacBook Pro and Apple Bluetooth keyboards. Are they different somehow on the MacBook? The only thing that looks different is they expanded the left and right arrows to full size keys. Perhaps that threw Jim off as they now look smaller by comparison.

      Also, I can’t get the video to play, FWIW.

      • John Parkinson

        I think the key size expansion is probably what is making it trickier to use. On the Bluetooth keyboard the empty space above left/right allows you to use that space to more easily position your finger for up or down. All other keyboards tend to have that gap so the up key is distinct from the others, regardless if they’re full or half size.

        • That suggests people will be able to get used to it over time: Hit the very top of the key, and you’ll be hitting the up arrow. Hit the bottom and it’ll be the down arrow.

          I wonder if a rocker would have worked there. 🙂

      • no video here, either. does it require flash?

  • Kip Beatty

    Jim, no word about performance? One of the concerns many have is the M processor. It benchmarks out about the same as a 2011 MacBook Air, not exactly the fastest MacBook Apple ever released. How does it work with Photos, multiple Safari tabs, your music editing apps?

    • rick gregory

      Yeah, this is what I wanted to hear about, especially about what happens when the CPU is challenged. When that happens on my 11″ Air the fan kicks on. This is fanless… does the CPU just throttle? Yeah, most of the time I don’t need the extra oomph… but when I do what happens?

      More generally, how does this compare to the current Airs with i5 and i7s?

      • Sigivald

        It shouldn’t need to throttle – because it has a much lower TDP than the i5 the 2011 MBA.

        (4.5-6W vs 17W)

        • Thomas M

          But it does throttle. That’s somehow the point of the whole Core M (and that’s why I would not buy it). Because with time the chip gets hotter than the TDP, it’s then throttling to stay inside the rated TDP. It can’t run at full speed all the time.

        • rick gregory

          Yeah but at some point it’s going to hit a performance ceiling. I was looking for discussion of that in real world terms because he uses an Air and so could compare the feel of the new Macbook with the Air on a variety of tasks.

          Honstly, had they taken the Air, moved to this feature set but kept the i5/i7 CPUs, I’d be preordering one. As it is the ultralight Macbook seems to be a significant step back in performance, but has the graphics I want (both its screen and the ability to drive an external 4k screen), the Air has the performance but not the screen and the Pro has both of those but is bigger and heavier. AH well, a couple more years and it will be fine.

    • Dayv!

      He mentioned performance briefly:

      “It’s powerful enough to do all of the regular work you’ll need to get done at home, the office, or on the road.”

      I would have liked some more detail, but I tend to think that the fears of this thing being unable to handle most users tasks are overrated. I wouldn’t want to render 3d video on it or try to play the latest FPS at high frame rates, but I already don’t do those things.

      • Moe Better 11

        It is clearly a trade off – if one is concerned with performance over portability, then get the bigger beefier laptop – though I can understand, as many people may be on the fence … but I think the emphasis for this system is on tiny, portability and batter run time – so it may not due much “heavy lifting”.

        I do think this is almost between the iPad and Mac Book Air – but running the full Mac OS X … and the single port and low power design kind of points to this. I wonder if this was the rumored 12″ “pro” iPad? 😀

        Some people even use iPads for much of their daily work, though my main reservation would be multi monitor support – which this has.

      • rick gregory

        Eh. Performance needs its own section. Where does it hit limits on things that are between browsing Facebook and rendering 3D video? And I DO play some games on my Air. The Air kicks on the fan and is clearly stressed, but that’s fine. What does this machine do? I don’t expect 60fps on Ultra settings but are things even playable? What about editing photos – I do that for various websites…

        Bottomline is without some discussion of performance beyond “it works” this review is missing a significant bit of information. Hell, he wrote more about the thing’s weight than how it performs.

  • frikova

    Jim, the review is great but you really should get someone to get better pics than these. It demerits the whole thing instead of adding to it.

  • Sigivald

    It’s like the person that designed the keyboard doesn’t use those two keys and put them together like that because it looked better.

    Hypothesis:

    Apple has usage data just like Microsoft did for the Office re-design, and very few people use the arrow keys.

    Oh, power users and old-timers do, some … but I notice most people don’t seem to, very much, if at all.

    • Jacob Varghese

      With such a great trackpad on macbooks, I very rarely touch the arrow keys. Maybe when I’m in Excel.

      • The Cappy

        I use them all the time while typing, to make selection (option and command arrows are nice shortcuts).

  • Walt French

    “You can get a dongle that allows you to connect a USB device…”

    Or, you can get a device with a USB-C connector. A few moments of Googling came up with a SanDisk Flash device, for instance, that has BOTH the classic USB3 and USB-C connectors on it. I suppose there are mobile applications where you might need to have two devices continuously attached, but it’s awfully hard to imagine a workflow where you couldn’t be fine with temporarily undoing the power and plugging in your SLR, Flash Drive or whatever.

    • Moe Better 11

      I do think it was important to mention the dongle – since there seems to be a lot of press out there freaking out about USB -C or they are other dumb conspiracy theories about Apple, USB-C and/or aliens.

      Good points though -USB-C looks like great – forward thinking tech – its like Thunderbolt 1 for the masses.

  • Ryan Simmons

    So they gave you a MacBook but not an Apple Watch? Interesting.

    • Moe Better 11

      I’m thinking I like the MacBook better – I may have purchased an iPad in the next 6 to 12 months, but that may well be a MacBook – since I can add things via dongle – like Gigabit enet, etc… this might just be the ticket! I hope they fix Mac OS X 10.10 by that time 🙂

  • Dark Cooper

    I realize it’s not meant to be a professional’s go to powerhouse machine, but how does Logic Pro X run, and how does it look on the 12″ both in standard retina mode, and in full resolution mode? (sorry, I forget what these modes are actually called…I’ve only ever seen them on display)

    I’d like to get a laptop for simple photo editing, homework and writing on the go, as well as some light audio recording and editing (importing vinyl, maybe running RX4, recording riffs and ideas, etc).

    It sucks I can’t use my Apollo Twin, but a Duet 2 would be fine. I like the idea of it being light and compact. Besides, my Apollo is probably better suited as part of a permanent workstation.

  • richardmac

    Here’s my big question. I always use an external hard drive connect to my Mac and Time Machine. It has saved me three times so far. With one port, does this mean I can’t plug in my backup drive and power at the same time? Would that not be a problem? Or is there a little hub I could buy that would let me plug in the power and the external drive?

    • Canucker

      Buy a Time Capsule? Also, there is a $99 USB-C dongle adaptor that has a standard USB3, USB-C replicator and VGA ports. Will be other dongles over time no doubt but Apple wants you to use wireless.

      • janakj

        Or, plug the hard drive into an AirPort Extreme. I think that works, right?

        Also, most NASes now support Time Machine.

    • rick gregory

      There’s a dongle that gives you 3 ports – USB, USB C and HDMI which would do what you need. $79 though…

    • SV650

      Or you could switch to a cloud-based solution such as Arq, Crashplan or Dolly Drive. There are lots of wireless solutions in addition to those mentioned by others.

    • Walt French

      My wife & I back up (via Time Machine) to a 3rd-party NAS in the basement. Works fine over wifi (laptop to home router) + Ethernet (between router & disk).

      More generally, remember this machine isn’t yet for sale but that there are 3rd-party adapters, hubs and other devices all sporting USB-C, already for sale. I personally plug 4 cords into my current MBP when I sit down, but there are many alternative arrangements that could make more sense.

      • richardmac

        Sounds like the best solution for the non-power user who already has a hard drive would be a dongle with multiple ports. Wireless backup is still mostly for nerds. Sadly, backup in general is mostly still for nerds. And the parents, spouses, and relatives of nerds who listen to their nerds. But my point stands – if you currently use an external hard drive for Time Machine backup that you connect with a cable, buying this laptop means also spending more money to update your backup system.

        • richardmac

          I’m just speaking generally. I’d never buy this laptop – it’s not for me. I run a home studio based on Logic. But I do agree that wireless everything is the future.

  • GFYantiapplezealots

    That is how the up/down keys are on the Apple Wireless Keyboard. I like it.

    I wish it also had the larger left/right keys like the MacBook keyboard does.

  • I really enjoyed this review, because you gave real-life examples of the sort a user like me could expect. I am a writer and editor and I need a great travel computer, a second computer. The iPad just can’t fill that need. This MacBook is expensive, and probably under-powered. It comes at the same price as a MacBook Pro with a lot more power. I do wonder, if I buy this MacBook, can it work for me for three years? Four years? I would think the Pro could, but it weighs 1 1/2 pounds more. I think that extra weight would make it a lot less useful in real life. Tough decision.

    • Jacob Varghese

      Yeah, I’m struggling with the same decision. I’m leaning towards just waiting till the next version. I can’t see Apple holding on to both the Macbook Air and the standard Macbook lines. I see them beefing up the Macbook and dropping the Air series.

  • The Cappy

    I went to the local Apple Store today. I went back and forth between the old line and the new MacBooks. I think you’re misleading when you say the keys are pressed more easily. The keys are noticeably more stiff. Even though the travel is less, I feel like it requires more force to type, not less.

  • Bill Maslen

    Phew, a nice, sensible review by somebody who’s actually evaluating it against the way he works rather than immediately descending into a “where have all the ports gone? why has it got such a puny processor?” rant. Thank you, Jim. My priorities would be much the same as yours. I’m sure there are plenty of other sets of priorities – I have no problem with that, and I’m not going to rant about them. The fact you can seriously envision replacing a MacBook Air AND a MacBook Pro with the new MacBook is very interesting (to me; I’m sure there will be others who scoff). Bravo!

  • Dayv!

    I tried one out at the Apple store yesterday, and I love it. Beautiful display, lightweight, amazing trackpad, and a keyboard that is a little bit different, but I feel certain I’ll get used to quickly. I tried to convince my wife to let me buy one immediately by telling her she could have one too, but she saw through the poor financial planning of that ploy.

  • mattlutze

    Jim, I’m really interested to know how the MacBook handles things like web-based video playback (something like Netflix), iTunes video playback and web conferencing. Anything you can note there?

    My biggest reservation pulling the trigger on one of these is the max 1.3 MHz dual-core processor and it’s ability to deal with some moderate level of multimedia use.

    • Wout!

      Rather late reaction but might still be worth it. I bought the 1.2GHz version and I’m using it as my main computer for a month now. I do lot of 3D (Blender), video editing (FCP), photo editing (Affinity Photo), vector design (Affinity Designer) and I have no complaints about speed whatsoever. I am coming from a 2014 Macbook Air (i7, 8GB) and I hardly feel the difference in day-to-day usage.

      When it comes to raw render power, my previous machine was about 20% faster. But I always render 3D animations and final renders in the cloud. Way faster than any Mac* Pro machine out there anyway, and you can keep working while your stuff is being processed.

      Bottom line, it’s an amazing little machine, capable of handling much more than you’d might expect.