MacBook (Early 2015)
Slimmer and lighter than ever before!
Apple created a new way of making thin layers of batteries to better fill the aluminium body of the MacBook
From £1,049 Manufacturer Apple, apple.com/uk Processor 1.1GHz or 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core M Memory 8GB Graphics Intel HD Graphics 5300 Storage 256GB or 512GB flash storage
Apple’s quest for ever thinner and lighter devices is unrelenting, and while we’re all for things being more portable, the question is whether the company sometimes goes too far, or too fast. The new MacBook is just 13mm thick, and weighs under a kilo – easily the thinnest and lightest Apple notebook yet. It fits a 12-inch screen and a fullsize keyboard into a smaller footprint than the 11-inch MacBook Air. But it’s also Apple’s slowest notebook, and it comes with just a single data port, which also doubles as the charging plug. So the question is whether these compromises are actually worth it – whether you get enough extra utility from the portability to offset the lack of ports,
and whether it’s still capable enough to justify its £1,049 price tag.
Okay, we’ll just tell you: it is, but with caveats. It won’t be for everyone just yet, as we’ll explain, but we are completely sold on the 2015 MacBook, compromises and all.
A surprising amount of new technology has gone into creating the MacBook. It’s Apple’s first ever computer with one of Intel’s Core M processors; lower-power chips for fanless designs. Apple created a new, smaller circuit board and a new way of making thin layers of batteries to better fill the aluminium body. It needed to develop a new keyboard that could be thinner without losing comfort or feedback.
It also required a thinner, multipurpose port, and so this is one of the first machines to use USB-C, which isn’t much larger than the Lightning port on iPhones and iPads. The new trackpad design is more efficient with space, removing the clunky hinge mechanism and using a tiny motor to simulate a click. Oh, and there’s the Retina display, which is enough reason for some
to want the MacBook. When you add all that up, the price increase over the MacBook Air seems reasonable – provided all of the new things do their job well.
Let’s start with the Retina display, which fits a 2304x1440 resolution into a 12-inch screen. That gives the same pixel density as the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, meaning that it offers the same brilliant levels of detail, whether you’re looking at photos or just reading lovely crisp text. The display is bright and vibrant, offering fantastic colours for viewing images or watching movies. It offers superb viewing angles as well, which is something the MacBook Air struggles with.
Also instantly brilliant is the Force Touch trackpad, just as it is on the 13-inch MacBook Pro. It felt to us like the feedback clicks are perhaps slightly softer here, but we got used to it very quickly, and you can adjust their strength somewhat. We still have reservations over the consistency of what deep presses on Force Touch trackpads do in OS X, but as just a regular trackpad, it’s pretty much perfect.
Using the new keyboard on the MacBook is more of an uncertain experience. Since it’s made to be thin, there’s very little travel in the keys, which we expected. They still give reasonable feedback during typing, though. It didn’t take long to get used to, and we were accurate on it after just a minute or two, but even after a couple of days of light use, we still weren’t sure if we liked it or not. But after using it exclusively for a week, coming back to the older style of Apple keyboard was just as weird as switching to the MacBook’s had been. Suddenly, our much-loved MacBook Pro felt too soft. In the end, we’d put the usability of the MacBook’s keyboard more or less on a par with its previous design – not better or worse, just different.
The MacBook’s physical usability is great, then, but one of the biggest
question marks hangs over its performance. The Intel Core M processor is dual-core, but is clocked at just 1.1GHz, and is a less advanced design than you get in every other Apple notebook. Intensive tasks really show this up – it took almost twice as long to complete our hardcore video encoding test than the 13-inch MacBook Pro, and almost 50% longer than the 11-inch Air. But this is no surprise – the MacBook just isn’t designed for that kind of pro-level creative task. The real question is whether a more limited processor holds you back in the kind of general use the MacBook is really built for. And there, it’s actually great.
A surprising turn
OS X flies along on it, generally as fast as you would hope (helped heavily by the really quite fast flash storage and a healthy 8GB of RAM). It’s still instant to come on from sleep, and apps load with little wait. Using things like word processors doesn’t seem to strain it, and websites are quick to load. That said, you can find yourself hitting the upper limits of its capabilities fairly easily. Working in the Photos app is generally fast enough, for example – making edits to iPhone-size photos is pretty much instant. But when you’re scrolling through a huge library, or going between different views, the animations can stutter dramatically. It’s totally usable, but will need a bit of patience, which if you own a faster machine, you may struggle with.
More unexpected to us was finding that Google Maps was frustratingly slow in Safari. We can imagine why – native apps always run smoother – but it’s the perfect example of where things can go south with a slow processor. In general use you might have no problems with its speed at all, then some little thing you rely on doesn’t work as well as expected.
The MacBook even manages to play simpler games. The graphics chip is reasonably capable, and even recent city-building favourite Cities: Skylines is playable at 1280x800 with all its settings turned down. That said, we could never get Batman: Arkham City satisfyingly playable – you’d have to keep it very light indeed.
So while there are obvious limitations to the new MacBook’s power, we don’t find them to be dealbreakers, as long as you understand what you’re getting. And you do get something in return for living with the low-power processor. Two rather fantastic things, in fact.
The first is the battery life, which matched the 7.5 hours of the 11-inch MacBook Air in our intensive tests, outlasting the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro by almost an hour. The 13-inch MacBook Air is still the ruler here, managing a colossal 549 minutes to the MacBook’s 454, but it means that the MacBook still offers a full working day of battery life without problem.
The second and more surprising feature is one that we now really don’t want to do without. The MacBook is fanless, making it totally silent to use (well, it has speakers, of course, which are fine, though hardly impressive). It got warm, but never overly hot, in our experience. When you then go back to using other laptops, with fans firing up even when just browsing the web, they suddenly seem so… archaic. It makes the MacBook pleasant to use on the sofa or in bed – much like an iPad.
That leaves one last, major stumbling block, though: expansion. The single USB-C port (there’s also a 3.5mm headphone jack, but that’s it) for data and power is, much like the processor, perfectly fine most of the time, then suddenly not. While travelling with the MacBook, we wanted to transfer some raw photos to it from our camera on a whim… but didn’t have any suitable adaptors. It’s not like the necessary USB-C cables are common yet, so we couldn’t easily pick one up from a nearby store. We also needed to get our benchmarking tools off the Thunderbolt drive we keep them on, but were stuck – there’s no adaptor for that. Still, these were our only problems – various cloud services had us sorted in everything else we wanted to do. Again, if you can understand and assimilate this limitation, the MacBook will work fine for you (and a plethora of USB-C adaptors and docks are coming), but if you need flexibility, you just won’t find it here. Again, Apple may just be trying to be a little ahead of its time.
A stunning addition
The 2015 MacBook is possibly the best companion Apple has ever built. It’s solidly built, despite its thin size; it’s usable everywhere from folddown train and aeroplane trays to your office desk; it lasts hours and hours; it weighs barely anything, so there’s never a question of whether to laden yourself down with it; it’s eminently usable and comfortable… we know it’s full of limitations, but we so enjoyed using such a light, zippy, quiet machine in general use that we totally forgot those drawbacks. Well, until we hit them dead on. But that’s the trade-off.
Some in the MacFormat office have said that if they’re going to spend £1,000 on a notebook, they expect it to be able to do anything. It’s a totally reasonable point of view, but the great thing is that Apple already makes that machine – it’s the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, which is the same price, and which we also love (see MF286). The 12-inch MacBook is for people who aren’t after something all-purpose, who want something much lighter, both in weight and in impact on their life. It’s so thin and light that Steve Jobs might well have seen this one as another ‘insanely great’ Mac. Matt Bolton
MacBook is for people who want something much lighter, both in weight and in impact on their life
The new MacBook comes in the same colours as the current iOS lineup: Silver, Gold and Space Grey.
The strength of the new Force Touch trackpad is adjustable in OS X’s System
Top: MacBook features an entirely new keyboard layout and key mechanism. The Appledesigned butterfly mechanism is 40% thinner than the more traditional scissor one.
Above: USB-C is brand new to Apple products and despite some early limitations, we expect accessories to get around most of the problems you’re likely to face.
The MacBook retains the sleek lines that made previous models must-have notebooks for so many.
Thanks to the all-new terraced battery technology inside, Apple has made the MacBook almost impossibly thin at just 13mm – 4mm thinner than the MacBook Air’s thickest point.