The modest updates to Apple’s 12-inch MacBook laptop don’t go far enough to make it the new must-have machine for everyone. At the same time, there’s a sizable enough boost to performance and battery life that the system can no longer be considered an outlier only suited for a very limited audience that values portability over productivity.
Nor is it the only player in the game. Since the 2015 original, we’ve seen super-thin laptops such as the upcoming HP Spectre shaving millimeters from previous versions, or tablet hybrids such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and Samsung Galaxy TabPro S showing off what Intel’s new Core M chips can do in a small, reasonably priced package.
But even if it’s closer to the middle of the road than the it was last year, the 12-inch MacBook is still a love-it-or-hate-it laptop. It seems to inspire either fierce loyalty or intense derision, at least judging from comments on my review of the original version, and social media feedback on any follow-up stories since. A new set of updates for 2016, including new processors for faster performance and better battery life, plus a new rose gold color option, may help throw off some of that shade, but not all.
Indeed, I liked the 2015 version of the MacBook, despite its many limitations. It relied on Intel’s initially unimpressive Core M processor, and its performance and battery life compared unfavorably to the bigger MacBook Air and Pro systems. The keyboard was unusually shallow, in order to fit into such a thin body. And most of all, the single USB-C port was a hard pill to swallow for those convinced of the need for separate power, video, and data ports.
It was not the perfect laptop for everyone, or even most people. But over time, I found myself appreciating Apple’s exercise in strictly enforced minimalism. I turned to it more and more often, especially for on-the-go computing in coffee shops around New York, eventually declaring it as my all-around favorite (as of March 2016, at least). But, it could still get bogged down with too many programs and windows open, and the battery life wasn’t at the level where it could go days and days between charging sessions. The USB issue turned out to be less serious than I feared, and only two or three times in the months after the product’s original release did I find myself stymied by a lack of ports (although when I did get stuck with a USB key and a misplaced converter dongle, it was very annoying).
With this 2016 update, Apple has addressed some, but not all, of the issues with the original. Both this system, and other computers with the second generation of Core M processors (confusingly part of Intel’s sixth generation of Core chips, also known by the codename Skylake), are closer to the mainstream levels of performance seen in laptops with more common Core i3 and Core i5 processors from Intel.
Along with new Core m3 and m5 CPUs (the M series now follows the same 3/5/7 format as the Core i-series chips), the new MacBook gets Intel’s updated 515 integrated graphics, which won’t make you a gamer, but may help with video application performance. The speed of the internal flash memory has also improved, but I doubt that’s something casual users would even notice.
Frankly, the most obvious difference between the 2016 MacBook and the 2015 model is the new addition of a fourth color option, rose gold, which is already available on iPhones and iPads. Sadly, our review sample is a rather straitlaced space gray (silver and gold are the other two options).
Note also that we’re testing the step-up model, which costs $1,599 in the US (£1,299 and AU$2,199), and includes an Intel Core m5 processor and a big 512GB of storage. The base $1,299 model (£1,049 and AU$1,799) has the Core m3 and 256GB of storage.
Color aside, the body is identical to last year’s model, weighing a hair over two pounds and measuring 13.1mm thick. The HP Spectre packs a 13-inch display (but only a 1,920×1,080-resolution one) into a 10.4mm body, but at the cost of more weight, at 2.45 pounds. That coming-soon HP also uses Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs, which should give it a significant performance boost. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that PC makers need to balance size, weight, performance and battery life, but can usually max out two out of those four at best.
APPLE MACBOOK (2016)
|Price as reviewed||$1,599|
|Display size/resolution||12-inch 2,304 x 1,440 screen|
|PC CPU||1.2GHz Intel Core M5-6Y54|
|PC Memory||8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz|
|Graphics||1536MB Intel HD Graphics 515|
|Storage||512GB flash storage|
|Networking||802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Apple El Capitan OSX 10.11.4|
A keyboard you may like, but won’t love
This is still the thinnest Mac that Apple has ever made. Part of the reason for that is the butterfly mechanism under the keyboard. The nearly edge-to-edge keyboard has very large key faces, yes, but the keys are shallow, barely popping up above the keyboard tray and depressing into the chassis only slightly. It takes some getting used to, especially if you’re accustomed to the deep, clicky physical feedback of other MacBooks or the similar island-style keyboards of most other modern laptops. It took a while to get used to, and it’ll never be my favorite keyboard, but I found it was easy to acclimate to after a few days of heavy usage, and I’ve easily written more than 100,000 words on the 2015 version of this system.
The touchpad retains the Force Touch feature found in both the previous MacBook and the current 13-inch MacBook Pro. (A version of this migrated to the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus as 3D Touch.) A set of four sensors under the pad allow you to “click” anywhere on the surface, and the Force Click effect, which combines the sensors with haptic feedback (or, as Apple calls it, “taptic”), allows you to have two levels of perceived clicking within an app or task. That deep click feels to the finger and brain like the trackpad has a stepped physical mechanism, but in fact, the movement you feel is a small horizontal shift, which, even when fully explained, still feels like you’re depressing the trackpad two levels.
I’m more of a tapper than a clicker, and the first thing I do on any new MacBook is turn on tap-to-click in the settings menu (which is still inexplicably turned off by default), so I have not given Force Touch much thought since it was introduced, with the exception of deep-clicking on addresses occasionally to bring up a contextual map pop-up. Here’s another Mac trackpad tip: besides the tapping feature under the trackpad preferences menu, you should go to the accessibility menu and look under Preferences > Accessibility > Mouse & Trackpad > Trackpad options to turn on tap-to-drag.
A small but sharp screen
The 12-inch Retina display has a 2,304×1,440-pixel resolution, which gives you a very high pixel-per-inch density, as well as an aspect ratio that sticks with 16:10, as opposed to the 16:9 aspect ratio found on nearly every other laptop available now, and in HDTV screens.
The slightly glossy screen works from wide viewing angles and is very clear and bright. On-screen icons, text and images all scale well to be very viewable despite the smaller size and higher resolution. While the bezel around the display is thin, it’s nowhere as minimalist as the barely there bezel on the excellent Dell XPS 13.
Audio remains thin, best suited for YouTube videos or single-viewer Netflix experiences. While Apple has owned the Beats brand for a while now, there’s no sign of any kind of Beats-enhanced audio in any Macs yet.
Another issue carried over from the previous version is the webcam, which is still just a low-res 480p model, which leads to generally soft images when using FaceTime, Photo Booth, or other camera apps.
Still the elephant in the room
If you ask 10 people about the 12-inch MacBook — assuming they know enough about this product to differentiate it from other MacBooks — and they’ll all say something along the lines of: “That’s the one with just one USB-C port, right?”
There were hopes that we’d see a second port, either USB-C or something else, in this updated model, but that was not to be. The use of a single port for data, video and power — and a not-quite-mainstream one at that — remains the most bedeviling thing about this laptop.
And yet, using the 2015 MacBook fairly heavily over a course of months, I also found it wasn’t nearly the deal breaker some had feared. The battery life was long enough that I didn’t need to worry about taking up the power port to connect an external peripheral, and frankly, so many things have migrated to the cloud, that I’ve even removed the once-ubiquitous key-shaped USB drive from the keychain, where it hung for many years.
Yes, if you need a wired Ethernet connection on a daily basis, use sneakernet-delivered USB keys every day, or need to send a video output to an external monitor, it can be a real pain. There are USB-C dongles and adaptors available for each and every eventuality, but they’re inconvenient and often expensive. A simple USB-C to USB-A adapter is $20, while Apple’s big multiport dongle that gives you HDMI, USB-A and USB-C (the latter for pass-through charging) is $80.
Through hands-on testing, I’ve concluded I can mostly survive in a single-port world, but that won’t be true for everybody.
Core M, take two
The original pitch for Core M was that it enabled laptops to be very thin and light, but still powerful and long-lasting. That was an appealing idea, but the first-gen Core M chips found in premium-priced systems such as this and the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro didn’t live up to the hype in terms of performance and battery life. Of those early models, the MacBook was the most impressive, likely because Apple was able to tune both the hardware and operating system to work optimally with that still-new CPU. Despite that, the 2015 MacBook could slow down at times, with too many windows and tabs open, and with very large documents and files in use.
The handful of systems we’ve tested with the newer, second wave of Core M chips, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro S and HP Spectre x2, have all felt zippier, even if still lagging behind full-size laptops with Core i5 processors. With this updated MacBook, you can get a new Core m3 or Core m5 processor. We’re testing the better Core m5 version, so it’s not going to be an exact comparison to the original 12-inch MacBook.
So far, in a couple of days of use, this Core m5 system feels faster than the older model, not so much in terms of minute-to-minute responsiveness or opening apps, but in that there were fewer moments where the system seemed to slow down or lag when pushed. The benchmark results reflect this, and while it felt like you’d be pushing your luck to use the 2015 MacBook as your mission-critical, all day, every day computer, I feel more confident in this more powerful update, although we’ll need more extensive hands-on use to say for sure.
Battery life in this new version is, by Apple’s account, about an hour longer than a system with the first-gen Core M CPU would get. In an online video streaming test, the MacBook ran for 10:33, which is about a half hour longer than the most-recent 13-inch MacBook Pro. We’re continuing to run other battery tests, and will update this review with additional results.
An even better laptop, but still with caveats
In hands-on use, the new MacBook feels almost exactly like the previous version. If you’ve got the 2015 MacBook, there’s no need to upgrade, but if you were holding off to see what the second generation looked like, the potential boost to performance and battery life makes me feel even more confident about using this as primary laptop, especially for frequent travelers. However, the lack of ports and the feel of the keyboard will still be enough to discourage some, especially those who are looking for a laptop that will stay tethered to a desk for all day, every day.
Keep in mind, too, that we’ll almost certainly see updated MacBook Pro laptops later in 2016, possibly as early as Apple’s WWDC event in June.