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12-inch MacBook review

Invention and compromise

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(Shot on location at WeWork. Also available on YouTube)

Apple's latest laptop is simply called the MacBook.

Actually, I suppose, you're going to see everybody refer to it as "the new MacBook" for a little while, but that's just temporary. The name is a signal. Apple could have called it the MacBook Air 12-inch or the MacBook Slim or any number of other things. But instead, it’s the MacBook. That has to mean something.

You are really, really going to want this laptop, even though it's relatively expensive, starting at $1,299. It’s easily the most impressive laptop I’ve seen since the original MacBook Air. It’s almost unbelievable in every regard. How did Apple make it so thin? What dark magicks make this trackpad work? Is it really going to be fast enough? Why is there only one port? Every one of those questions has an interesting answer, and the mere fact that a laptop can still engender this much intrigue in 2015 is remarkable.

After using this tiny little wonder of a computer for a little over a week, I have a pretty strong guess about what the name means. It’s called the MacBook because Apple sees it as the Platonic ideal of what a laptop should be. It’s what Apple believes all laptops should eventually become.

But if you know anything about Platonic ideals, you know that there's a big difference between the ideal and the reality. And so the big question for this tiny new MacBook is simple: is the reality anywhere close to the ideal?

New MacBook 2015 images

The MacBook is what happens when the iPad Air decides to up and grow a keyboard, hinge, and trackpad. It's a thin, compact, and light sliver of a machine with no loose pieces and no unconsidered lines. The same precision we've seen on Apple's phones and tablets has been applied here — it's genuinely a level above any other laptop Apple has ever made, to say nothing of other hardware makers.

It is, in a word, beautiful.

A thin machine with no loose pieces and no unconsidered lines

It's almost impossibly thin, measuring just over 13mm at its thickest point. It's even more impossibly light, weighing just over two pounds. That's about a full pound less than the 13-inch MacBook Air and a third of a pound less than the 11-inch Air. And that weight is perfectly distributed across the deck of the laptop and the screen. It's so well-balanced that it feels lighter than it actually is.

People who use the 11-inch Air are going to feel right at home, and actually people who use the 13-inch Air will, too. It just feels like the ideal size for a small laptop, perfectly fitted to a full-sized keyboard and not a whit bigger. Apple also redesigned the hinge so that it is made of metal, increased the size of the trackpad, and moved the speakers (which are reasonably loud, but obviously lack anything resembling bass) up above the keyboard.

It comes in gold, silver, and space gray. I got a gold review unit because, well, why not? I think it totally works. It's much more restrained in person than you might think, but honestly I'd probably end up choosing the space gray model.

To pull off this design, Apple's marketing video will tell you that it required a lot of inventions. The keyboard, trackpad, screen, and batteries all needed to be redone to make the MacBook as thin as it is. And in every one of those cases, you can safely believe the hype. But the flip side of invention is compromise, and unfortunately there's enough of that here that I have to leaven the enthusiasm I've been expressing thus far with a warning: it's not all wonderful. Invention and compromise.

New MacBook 2015 images

But let's stick with the inventions for now, because they truly are remarkable. It starts with the keyboard, which is shallower than what you might be used to. Underneath each key is a butterfly mechanism, a "steel dome" that registers your keystrokes, and an individual backlight for every single key.

At first, I hated it. It felt weird to have each button move so little when I pressed down on it. But it didn't take long at all for me to change my mind. The combination of all those new parts meant that the essential friction and "clack" that make up any great keyboard is still here, just different than what I was used to. I can bang away on this thing or type more softly, and both feel completely satisfying. The only real hassles are the redesigned up and down arrow keys: they're entirely too small.

The next thing is the screen, a 236 ppi Retina display that's 2304 x 1440 pixels. The invention here is that it's thinner and brighter thanks to rearranged electronics inside, and it's also more energy efficient. The thinner screen also means that the Apple logo on the back of the laptop no longer lights up, if that's something you care about. But ignore those specs and just look at it: it simply puts the screen on the MacBook Air to shame.

The redesigned keyboard will grow on you

It's sharp and bright, and Apple also switched the bezels to black to match the rest of the Retina MacBook lineup. Those bezels are thin, too, so the combination makes the screen feel really big. You can set the resolution all the way up to 1440 x 900, so it's effectively giving you the same real estate as the 13-inch MacBook Air. You can’t crank it up to the full resolution, but you wouldn’t want to anyway, since it would make everything way too small.

New MacBook 2015 images

The Force Touch Trackpad feels like an impossible object. It has tiny pads that detect pressure, and then an electromagnet inside that simulates the feel of a click when you press down. So when the laptop is off, you feel nothing. When it's on, click. It's all in service of thinness — and some clever software features.

You can set the click strength in settings and also turn on a bunch of unique features for it in OS X. Force clicking (as it's called) lets you open up web page previews on links or definitions for words. You can also step through fast-forward speeds on videos and even feel some haptic feedback in a select few apps, like iMovie. Honestly, none of those software tricks felt very intuitive to me. But the trackpad itself felt completely natural, easily up to Apple's standards. In fact, it feels better than normal for a MacBook, since you can now click on the very top of it as easily as the bottom.

The Force Touch Trackpad feels like an impossible object

There are other inventions, too. Apple redesigned its batteries to be tiered, so they can cram more of them into the MacBook. The result is a claimed nine hours of battery life — a claim that's notably close to my experience. In our relatively light test, which reloads websites once a minute, this MacBook actually beat Apple's claims by about an hour or so. But when you're putting it under stress, you'll get a bit less, probably closer to eight hours.

macbook mags

But here's where the inventions, while impressive, begin to feel more like those compromises. Apple created an all new, tiny little circuit board to house all the microchips that power the MacBook. It means that it doesn't need a fan at all, but it also means that using the kind of processor we're used to on modern laptops isn't really tenable.

Instead, the processor on the MacBook is an Intel Core M, clocked at 1.1GHz but with a Turbo Boost mode that can crank it up to more than twice as fast (and there are other, more expensive variants that can go even faster). Hence the compromises: the MacBook benchmarks at about the same level as a four-year-old MacBook Air. That sounds dire, but in my experience it doesn't feel anywhere near that slow — mostly.

Basically, if you do anything that’s going to really tax the processor, this laptop probably isn't going to cut it for you. In that sense it's actually kind of like a Chromebook. It's fast enough for 70 percent of what I do, but a little slower than what I'm used to. For about 20 percent of what I do — mostly photo editing — it works but requires patience. But it's the last 10 percent that's hard: video editing, really big iPhoto libraries, basically anything processor-intensive can get rough.

I'll also say that the Chrome browser is kind of the perfect app to show where the line is between "good enough" and "kind of slow." Chrome has really become something of a resource hog for me lately. It’s not a problem most of the time, but load up enough tabs, and any computer will start to chug. On my MacBook Air, that happens at around 20 tabs. On the new MacBook, it’s about half that.

Safari runs much better, but the point is that the headroom for apps that hog resources is much smaller than what I'm used to. And in any case, the fact that it's fanless means that the laptop gets warm. I wouldn't say hot, but it’s definitely riding that line of comfort for bare legs. Fortunately, the heat is localized to where that processor cranking into turbo boost is located: on the bottom, near the back.

The tiny board, the fanless design, the fact that it can power this Retina display at all — all these inventions are impressive. But being impressed and being able to get work done are not the same thing. It's a compromise I can't promise you is okay unless you're sure you're not going to push a machine beyond the basics and can stand to wait for those times when you need to.

New MacBook 2015 images

Which leads me to the last invention / compromise: the new MacBook has a new port, called USB Type-C. It's also the only port besides the headphone jack. You use it for power and for connecting your phone, monitor, printer, camera, or whatever else you might have. And because it's a brand new kind of plug, you will need adapters for all of those things.

Say you want to charge your computer, plug in your iPhone, and plug in an external monitor. That's a totally natural thing to want to do! To pull it off, you are going to need to have the right dongle — and you’re going to need to buy it, too, since they don’t come in the box. They're just beginning to come on the market now, and I’m hopeful they’ll be both cheap and plentiful, but so far I've only been able to use the basic ones. So, just by way of example, right now I can't plug my Apple MacBook into my Apple Cinema Display because I don’t have a dongle with Display Port on it.

Again, this is an invention and a compromise, and it's one that I'm actually a little torn on. USB Type-C has a legitimate chance of being the One Connector To Rule Them All. Google and Nokia are already using it, other phone and laptop manufacturers are on board, and from a technical standpoint it's a really great plug. It's strong, it’s reversible, it's fast from both a data and power perspective, and it's not proprietary. I charged the new MacBook with Google's power adapter. Heck, I charged the new MacBook off one of those battery bricks that's meant to power an iPad.

Sure, I miss the safety of the MagSafe adapter, but being able to buy any number of chargers and adapters from whomever makes the cheapest or best ones is a big deal — and worth the tradeoff. Or will be, once USB Type-C takes hold.

Apple says that it designed the MacBook with the idea that soon you'll be able to connect everything wirelessly anyway. The iPhone can sync wirelessly or use AirDrop, lots of cameras support Wi-Fi, etc, etc. That all sounds nice, but I can tell you from painful experience that the dream of wireless peripherals is usually more like a waking nightmare of confusing sync settings, delays, and frustration. The MacBook supports Bluetooth 4.0 and an alphabet of Wi-Fi standards, but that's not enough, not yet.

Talking to other Verge staffers about it, I joked that I'm looking forward to "Livin' La Vida Dongle." That's almost true! When it comes down to it, I mostly plug in power and only rarely need to use an SD card reader or plug in some other USB device. But when I need it, I need it, and having to carry a rat's nest of adapters and cables puts a huge damper on the portability of this machine.

New MacBook 2015 images

A lot of people remember the moment when Steve Jobs pulled the original MacBook Air out of that interoffice memo envelope. It was jaw-dropping. But it's easy to forget that the very first MacBook Air had problems — some of the very same problems as this new MacBook: not enough ports, slow, expensive. But the next version became the MacBook Air you know now, the one everybody either uses or copies. The one that changed laptops for five years.

This new MacBook is the future. All laptops are going to be like this someday: with ridiculously good screens, no fans, lasting all day. Just like the original MacBook Air defined a generation of competitors, this new MacBook will do the same. It, or something inspired by it, is what you'll be using in two or three years. It's that good.

All laptops are going to be like this someday

Here's a crazy surprise I didn't expect: my 13-inch MacBook Air felt big and clunky after I went back to it. And make no mistake, the MacBook Air is itself a wonder of engineering. Yet compared to the new MacBook it felt like a heavy, kind of ugly throwback with a mediocre screen. I really didn't want to go back to that Air.

But I still went back.

You see, the problem with the future is that it isn't here yet. Instead we live in the now, and the now doesn't have the ecosystem of adapters and wireless peripherals I need to use this laptop with its single port. The now doesn't have the right processor to power through the apps I need without ruining battery life. And right now, this laptop is far from cheap at $1,299.

But if history is any guide, all of those problems will go away — and more quickly than you probably expect. When they do, I'll be using this MacBook. The MacBook. Hurry up, future. Hurry the hell up.

Photography by Sean O'Kane


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