By Brooke Crothers, ,
Published December 14, 2015
The newest MacBook is a winner. That is if you agree with Apple's design philosophy.
That credo is centered on mobility, which means the design must be as light as possible but also deliver acceptable performance and good battery life.
And the 12-inch Retina MacBook (starting at $1,299) delivers on all three. It excels most at being thin and light – so much so that it might be mistaken for an iPad. The point: a laptop can be as minimalist as a tablet but also be a full-time productivity (work) computer.
Keyboard: I would argue that the linchpin of the design is the keyboard because, more than anything (with the exception of the battery), it allows Apple to build a 0.52-thick laptop that is only 2 pounds. And based on Apple's copious ad copy about the keyboard, that's probably accurate.
The keys are 40 percent thinner than a typical Apple laptop and 17 percent larger. I'm typing on the keyboard now and can see that the keys are larger than the excellent keyboard on the 2.68 pound Hewlett-Packard EliteBook Folio 1020 that I use as my regular laptop. Do I feel the size difference when typing? Yes. Am I a more accurate touch-typist with the keyboard? Yes. Is it a better keyboard than the Folio’s? Read on.
The most radical difference is the travel (the distance needed to push the key). Again, I'm going to compare the MacBook to the Folio’s keyboard because HP’s is probably the best keyboard I've used in the last five years (and note that the Folio is only 0.62 inches thick, almost as thin as the MacBook). The upshot is that the MacBook's keys are firm. Not uncomfortably firm but certainly firmer than the ones on HP's keyboard. Some reviews have compared the MacBook's keys to typing on the glass surface of an iPad. I wouldn't go that far but let's just say it's not for everybody.
That said, it is far and away better than the ultra-thin keyboards of scores of other laptop makers in recent decades. Mitsubishi and HP, for example, tried it in 1998 with the Pedion. The most salient examples are probably the Dell XPS 11 and the Microsoft Surface Touch Cover. Dell's 0.6-inch thick design sports flat keys with practically no travel. And it’s no different than typing on a tablet's glass surface (I tried it). The Surface's Touch Cover is a little better but not much. The MacBook's keyboard beats both of those. And, as is always the case with MacBooks, the trackpad is outstanding.
Would I recommend it? Yes. The larger keys make a difference. And despite the relative lack of travel compared to the Folio’s keyboard, the experience beats the Folio. Again, that’s saying a lot because the Folio’s keyboard is excellent. But if you like "softer" keyboards with travel, it might not be for you.
Performance: This is one of those things that you can never ignore. If your ultra-portable laptop is insidiously slow (meaning that the performance seems fine when doing light tasks but slows down under heavier loads), I guarantee that the sluggishness will reveal itself when you least want it to. For example, you're on a deadline and, bam, suddenly you have an unresponsive system.
So far, I have not encountered that on the MacBook. That's a pleasant surprise because it uses an Intel Core M processor (as the HP Folio does). The Core M chip is reserved for only the thinnest laptops and 2-in-1s because it's the only Intel Core series processor designed to be fanless. And, by design, it offers less performance than mainstream Intel chips that require fans to keep them cool.
For raw benchmarks, I'll defer to others. But, like the HP Folio, it holds up under moderately heavy business application loads. Where the Core M does slow down, however, is on some multimedia-intensive tasks such as video editing (and exporting).
Size/weight: Probably the single best feature. That is, as I said above, if you subscribe to Apple's design ethos. The 12-inch MacBook is probably the closest you can get, with a traditional clamshell laptop, to a tablet. At 2 pounds, it's only a little heavier than the iPad Pro and a shade lighter than Microsoft's Surface Pro 4 tablet and its Type Cover keyboard combined.
I feel the lightness every time I pick it up and carry it in my bag. That's important to me: if I can get adequate performance in a 2-pound laptop, it makes a huge difference when traveling or even when taking it to a local Starbucks, then a meeting later in the day.
Battery life: Good. The challenge for Apple is that there's only so much battery capacity you can squeeze into a 0.52-inch chassis. But, again, Apple has done its homework. Traditional rectangular batteries leave unused space when seated in a curved enclosure. So, Apple created a new type of terraced battery cell that translates into more capacity than would be possible with a traditional cell design.
I've been on battery-only for about 14 hours and am down to about 5 percent of the remaining charge. Let me be clear, this hasn't been unceasing heavy use, where I'm pounding away on the keyboard every hour, watching movies in the evening, and doing video editing on the side. But it has been consistent enough (the equivalent of roughly 8 hours of constant use) and taxing enough that I would rate the battery life slightly better than the HP Folio and better than my 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro (late 2013 model). And I keep the display bright -- between 80 and 90 percent.
Display: Speaking of the display, the 12-inch 2,304 x 1,440 resolution Retina screen is up to Apple standards. Display expert Raymond Soneira at DisplayMate Technologies has shown over the years that Apple displays are typically some of the best in the industry. This display meets those high Apple standards. I would ordinarily defer to Soneira's expertise but he hasn't evaluated the 12-inch MacBook's display. (http://www.displaymate.com/about.html). For this review, I will defer to others that have run a battery of tests, citing good brightness, high color accuracy, and a wide color gamut.
Ports: I’m pretty sure I’m in a distinct minority when I say I don’t have a major issue with the single connector – a USB-C port. This is the one aspect of the laptop that reviewers have almost universally panned. My take is that you have to be bold if you’re going to redefine the laptop (which I would argue Apple is trying to do with the 12-inch Retina MacBook). I see the 12-inch MacBook as being more of a mobile device, less a laptop. It’s kind of like an iPad Pro “Plus” because you have the option to hook it up an external display. Down the road, if I need to hook it up to a bigger display, I’ll get the USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter, which lets you connect to an HDMI monitor, while also connecting a standard USB device and a USB-C charging cable. That’s all I’ll say on this subject because I currently don’t have any of the adapters and have been perfectly satisfied using the built-in, 12-inch display.
Verdict: I’ve owned both the 13-inch and 11-inch MacBook Air and currently have a 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro. The 12-inch Retina MacBook is a completely different beast and I mean that in a good way. It’s the best MacBook that Apple has ever built.
Configuration as reviewed: $1,299. Intel Core M processor 1.1GHz, 8GB Memory, 256GB Flash Storage.