New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

The new MacBook is a marvel of engineering. It's beautiful, and far more functional than a computer this size has any right to be. But it's not for me, and I doubt it's for you, either. It's just too damn thin.

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What Is It?

Specifications
  • Processor: 1.1GHz/1.2GHz
  • RAM: 8GB
  • Screen: 12-inch IPS display, 2304x1440 panel,
  • Memory: 256GB/512GB
  • Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0

The latest crazy-thin Apple computer — a tiny 12-inch laptop with a incredible high-res display. So tiny you could practically stuff it into a large purse. So thin that it required Apple to create an entirely new type of ultra-shallow keyboard and touchpad so you can actually use it for work. So minimalist that it only includes a single I/O port — a do-it-all USB Type-C jack that's clearly the future, but requires dongles for now. A little pricy at $US1300 for the base version, though you get 8GB of RAM and 256GB of speedy solid state storage for the money.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

In 2008, tech journalists made fun of the original MacBook Air. Sure, you could stuff it inside a manila envelope, but it was overpriced, underpowered, and included some questionable design decisions. But once Apple maximised the Air's strengths and minimised its weaknesses, it upended the entire industry. Practically every thin laptop sold today owes something to the MacBook Air.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

Now, Apple's at it again. The new MacBook not only hints at where Apple's own laptops are going next, but also beats a path through the brush where competitors will surely follow. Question is, which of the new MacBook's features are "the future," and which are mistakes? That's a question I'm going to take a shot at answering.

Love At First Sight

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

Gorgeous. There's no other word. Even if you're getting a little burnt out on wedge-shaped aluminium laptops, the new MacBook has a charm that's impossible to deny. Part of that's due to just how small and light this computer really is; it makes the 13-inch MacBook Air look positively chunky by comparison. At just two pounds heavy, I can easily heft it with a single hand. The keyboard is the same width, the screen just a little bit smaller, but the frame is dramatically reduced in every direction.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

Gone are those wide expanses of aluminium on either side of the keyboard, and gone are the large aluminium palmrests. In fact, those palmrests are short enough now that they rarely dig into my wrists — one of the things I've always hated about the Air and many of its clones. Gone too are the thick aluminium borders surrounding the screen. The new MacBook still has bezels, but they're black, thanks to a single sheet of edge-to-edge glass that appears to be optically bonded to the panel.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

And what a screen. It's a 2304 x 1440 super-high res Retina display, as crisp, clear, and colourful than any laptop display I've ever seen. Perhaps even better. It looks like a giant iPad, to the point where I was almost disappointed when I poked at the panel and discovered it wasn't touch sensitive. But like the iPad — and unlike most super high-res laptops — this machine's light enough that I feel comfortable lifting it up to eye level to see fine details in HD movies and DSLR photographs. (Yeah, I'm a pixel peeper.)

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

But the screen isn't the only reason that watching movies on the MacBook is a treat — this laptop has unheard of sound quality for a laptop anywhere near this size. I fired up Pandora, and my jaw dropped when I realised just how wide a soundstage this little laptop can produce. There's a scene in an early episode of The Sopranos at an auto shop, and I could swear the machinery I was hearing was in the same room.

The hard part is figuring out how to actually get those movies and photographs onto this laptop to begin with. The other day, I wanted to write a Gizmodo post on the train that needed photos from my Canon camera. There's no SD card slot, and no SD adaptor — only a single USB Type-C port that doubles as the laptop's charge cable. (OK, that's pretty damn cool.)

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

I knew that going in, so I obtained a $29 USB Type-C to USB adaptor, used another laptop to stick my photos on a USB flash drive, and… left the frakking adaptor at home. Nice job, Sean. I thought I would love USB Type-C, but for now it's just a chore.

Force Touch

Which is pretty much exactly how I feel about Apple's Force Touch functionality. Want to blow somebody's mind? Turn off a new MacBook, then press down on the touchpad. Nothing happens — it just gives a little bit. There's no actual button underneath. Then turn it on and press again. Boom: a nice, sharp click that doesn't actually exist.

You're being fooled by an electromagnet that provides haptic feedback in response to your press. What's the point of that? It allows Apple to have a trackpad that you can press down harder — several times harder — to perform a wide variety of functions.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

Two-stage clicks are now a thing. First a click, then press harder for a Force Touch.

Press harder in Maps to drop a pin at a particular location. Press down hard in Quicktime to speed through a video faster. Press down hard on a word in Safari to look it up in the dictionary, or an address to get a map, or a phone number to call it.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

But right now, Force Touch is almost always more trouble than it's worth. For one thing, there's a pretty small list of things Force Touch can do right now, and they're all limited to Apple's own apps — apps I almost never use like Maps, Safari, and Calendar. (Both Google and Microsoft have Apple beat on those fronts.) For another, it's never obvious when Force Touch is an option — like long-pressing the screen on an iPhone, you have to already know that there's a hidden command you can activate, or luck onto it through trial and error.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

But the biggest problem with Force Touch, if you ask me, is that it's no easier to press down — and often more awkward — than simply repeatedly tapping on glass. Years of using a MacBook Air taught me that clicking a touchpad was a cumbersome, unnecessary process when you could tap, and very few functions that Force Touch offers today are any faster than doing that.

Yet like USB Type-C, I have a sneaking suspicion that Force Touch could become a big deal for a different reason. The Apple Watch uses the exact same sort of haptic feedback to let you reach out and tap someone on the wrist by tapping on its screen. What if Apple extended that to these touchpads, and perhaps future phones too? Or deliver other notifications that way? It could be the beginning of a pretty interesting messaging platform. Not that you'll need this particular laptop to get in on the action.

The great part about Force Touch, though, is it isn't forced on you: you can turn it off, ignore it, whatever you like, and still have one of the best damn trackpads on any laptop ever made. It's quick and responsive and buttery-smooth. Just flicking up two fingers and watching as a long website flies by — thanks to inertial scrolling — is positively dreamy.

That Damn Keyboard

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

I just wish I could say the same about the new MacBook's keyboard. I've been using it for a solid week of work, banging out plenty of email, some Gizmodo posts, and a bunch of conversations with co-workers too. Oh, and every single word of the review you're reading right now. I think it's safe to say I've gotten pretty used to Apple's super-thin butterfly switches.

The good news is that after a week of practice, I can type as quickly as ever. Maybe even quicker. Since the keys are so thin and activate so reliably, you can bounce right off them at blazing speed and hit every single letter.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

The bad news is that they're ridiculously uncomfortable. Even though I'm typing quickly and accurately, I hate every single moment. It takes enough force that I feel like I'm stabbing my fingers into a hard surface. I feel the impact in my bones. The instant I switch back to any other laptop — not just my trusty ThinkPad X240 but pretty much any other of the dozen notebooks I have lying around the house — I breathe a sigh of relief.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

The half-height up/down arrow keys are the worst: when you're typing letters, at least you're bouncing around different places. Navigating through a document with these arrow keys sounds like the definition of repetitive stress injury.

I tried switching off between a 13-inch MacBook Air and the new 12-inch MacBook for a bit, testing out both keyboards, and the 12-incher's keys definitely felt more precise. Less squishy. But I'll take squishy in a heartbeat.

Kudos to Apple for getting a keyboard backlight into a laptop this thin, though — the individual LEDs behind each key come in handy, and they look great.

Performance Anxiety

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

When I heard the new MacBook was going to use an Intel Core M processor and a fancy new stacked battery design to cram as many Lithium-ion cells as possible into its tiny frame, I figured that meant that this machine would feel underpowered, but last a long time. It made sense: allthe Windows machines I've tested with Core M processors have felt that way — but Apple is pretty good about optimising the OS X operating system to get better battery life.

Surprisingly, I found just the opposite — it feels like Apple has optimised the Core M for speed. The new MacBook barely feels different than my old MacBook Air when it comes to basic tasks, and it's notably zippier than comparable Windows machines. I didn't see it bog down at all until I tried to install Photoshop, run two different web browsers and do some Evernote simultaneously — but it bogged down a lot then.

Benchmarks at sites like AnandTech clearly show that it's not quite on par with a new Core i5-equipped MacBook Air, but I'm not sure you'd notice unless you tried to play some games or do some photo/video editing — and those still work in a pinch. In a fairly unscientific test where I converted a 10MB movie to an animated GIF in Photoshop, the new MacBook was only a handful of seconds behind my Core i5-equipped ThinkPad X240 with a last-gen Haswell chip. Intensive games are iffier, but Borderlands 2 and BioShock Infinite can technically run at lowest settings on the new MacBook. I just don't know if I'd call them "playable."

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

As I've hinted, though, battery life takes a blow. I consistently got about 6 hours of real work from the new MacBook, compared to the 8.5 hours we get from a MacBook Air. That's not bad at all, and actually pretty incredible for a laptop this tiny, but that's the difference between needing to carry a charger and leaving the charger at home.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

At least until USB Type-C becomes widespread, anyhow. If the new USB connector becomes as ubiquitous a standard as micro-USB (and it looks like it probably will), one day you might be able to top off your MacBook as easily as you can charge a phone right now. Just don't use a stranger's cable. You'll find that the new MacBook can charge relatively fast with the right adaptor — I saw battery life tick up about a per cent each minute.

Like

The hinge tension and balance is perfect. You can lift the lid with a single finger with the MacBook resting on a table, and the base won't move one bit. You can reposition the screen at any angle — though sadly it only goes back to 45 degrees or so — and it will stay there.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

I love screens with the taller 16:10 aspect ratio, and I don't understand why Apple's the only one to put them in laptops — but I'm happy they did here.

This screen makes me happy, period. I could look at it for hours, under any lighting condition. It gets bright enough for outdoor use, and has an anti-glare coating just like the iPad Air 2. It gets dim enough not to wake my wife in bed, too. Love it.

Core M means no noisy fan, and this MacBook doesn't get very hot either! There's just one hotspot on the bottom of the machine, back near the hinge. It never felt uncomfortable.

The USB Type-C charge cable is an actual USB Type-C cable that comes out of the charger! No more replacing expensive MacBook chargers when the cable frays or your dog decides to take a bite. (True story)

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

These might be the best speakers I've heard on a laptop this thin.

Thank the maker, there is still a headphone jack.

Being able to pick different colours for a MacBook is awesome. I really like this Space Grey one, and the gold version isn't too garish either.

No Like

Why is this laptop so thin? I never felt that I needed a thinner MacBook. One with a better screen? Absolutely. Lighter? OK. But every other innovation in the new MacBook seems to be in the service of making it thinner. Who needs that?

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

The keyboard drives me up the wall. How can something work so well and yet feel so terrible?

USB Type-C is great, but only a single USB Type-C feels really, really lame. Why not two? Why not an SD card reader, which you can't even get in Apple Dongle form?

None of the three Force Touch sensitivity settings feel quite right to me. The firm setting feels the best, but requires me to press down too hard, and the light setting feels too shallow, like I'm shoving my fingers into the glass.

Force Touch has an SDK, so I'm not too worried about eventual adoption, but I'm disappointed that it has to be implemented on a per-app basis instead of globally in the operating system. It'd be really cool if the next OS X could automatically recognise phone numbers and addresses anywhere, not just in Safari.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

Should You Buy It?

Apple MacBook (2015)

Price: from $1799

Like
  • Impossibly thin.
  • Great screen.
  • Force Touch is a great idea.
Don't Like
  • Expensive.
  • Tough to get used to.
  • Carrying dongles is annoying.

No. Wait. Here's what I predict will happen: like the original MacBook Air in 2008, this new MacBook will be the prelude to a more mainstream, affordable, sensible workhorse that's just as gorgeous. As always, early adopters will pay the price for Apple's R&D efforts, but we'll all reap the benefits soon enough — as the Force Touchpad, the USB Type-C port, the more compact design and the excellent new hinge make their way to the true MacBook Air successors.

Right now, Apple is still selling MacBook Airs with designs and screens that are starting to look very dated, and no longer competitive with their Windows counterparts — except in battery life, of course — and the new MacBook paves the way for them to evolve. But when they do, Apple will surely want to maintain that battery life lead, and hopefully that means a slightly thicker laptop with a more comfortable keyboard.

But hey, you want a thin laptop right now. What should you do? Honestly, the 13-inch MacBook Air is still a solid pick, but you should also look at the Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre x360, and maybe the Asus UX305 if you like Windows. They're all relatively thin machines that don't try to go as crazy-thin as the MacBook, costing hundreds less, each with fairly comfortable keyboards, and each offering up some full size ports too.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

Asus UX305 vs. New MacBook If you do buy the new MacBook, though, you'll be getting a fine computer, just not the one you might expect. This machine isn't like a first-class ticket on an airline. It's more like a front-row seat at a concert. It costs an arm and a leg to get in, it's noisy and uncomfortable, and you might be expected to cheer. Sure, it's the best seat in the house, but you damn well better be a giant fan of the band.

New MacBook Review: Stupidly Thin

Comments

    Surface Pro.

    End debate.

      I'm not sure how this end the debate. It only ends the debate if you are looking for a portable device running the Windows OS. But if you are looking for a portable device running MacOS or something else, it hardly ends the debate. And my guess is you are referring to a specific model of the surface, because the first generation of the surface pro were junk.

    "So thin that it required Apple to create an entirely new type of ultra-shallow keyboard and touchpad so you can actually use it for work." Except that it is still not as thin as a 3rd generation Surface Pro with a TypeCover, which people have been using for work for nearly a year already. Microsoft even manage to fit full-power Core i CPUs into the SPro 3 so, realistically, this thing is more of a match for a Surface 3, which is even thinner.

    "... beats a path through the brush where competitors will surely follow". Again, Apple is well behind the competition. Lenovo has the Yoga 3, Asus the UX305, and both are thinner, lighter, cheaper, more useful (more ports) and far more innovative than this thing. Apple is at least 6 months behind its competitors here and this new MacBook isn't as good as any of them.

    Damn! I've been called into work to cover the Sydney weather. I'll finish pulling this plainly absurd piece of fantasy journalism apart later.

      I was mostly open to differing opinions, and different usage situations until he started praising the sound quality of the speakers.
      To be fair, I haven't heard them myself...but praising any laptop speakers is like praising a particular sh*it your dog took on the lawn; sure it may be the biggest, but it's still sh*t like all the others.

        I have to disagree, i am a bit of an audio nut and i am often amazed by the sound stage and imaging achieved by the speakers in my Retina Macbook Pro 15. Does it have a lot of base, NO obviously not. But they do sound fantastic considering they are in an super thin laptop.

        I don't pretend to be a golden ear, but i do have good speakers to compare to with a set of B&O Beolab9 at home and Focal gear in my car.

          Seriously? "I'm a bit of an audio nut" and yet you only have one pair of speakers. Let me show you what an audio nut's line-up is really like. I have the speakers in my laptop/tablet/phone but I NEVER, EVER listen to music on them. EVER. I have a pair of Edifier Luna Eclipse multi-media speakers for daily desktop duties. I have two portable speakers - an Infinity One and a less portable but better sounding Harman Kardon Onyx Studio. For serious listening I have my studio monitors, a pair of bi-amplified Wharfedale Diamond Pro 8.1's. The Harman Kardon system my car came with is fine, given the environment in which it is used. I also have a pair of AudioEngine A2s lying around, along with a pair of floor standing Yamaha hi-fi speakers (which mostly do PA duty these days) and half-a-dozen older portable speakers, any and all of which sound better than your MacBook Pro speakers.

    Was using one on the weekend. The keyboard is a strange sensation to use and I didnt expect that. Having said that, I think you are being a little dramatic about its use. I found it quite comfortable once I got used to how responsive it was.

    Nice little machine but one port.....no thanks.

    "Why is this laptop so thin? I never felt that I needed a thinner MacBook. One with a better screen? Absolutely. Lighter? OK. But every other innovation in the new MacBook seems to be in the service of making it thinner. Who needs that?"

    This hits the nail on the head. Thinness for the sake of thinness and nothing else to the point of making it even less useful (1 port)

    Last edited 21/04/15 11:30 am

      Thank god companies don't think like you do or we would still be stuck with tapes for music.

        How do you figure? CDs are better than tapes in every respect - capacity, quality, size, cost. As @lillee pointed out, the MacBook has to sacrifice useful things in order to be thin. The two scenarios aren't at all comparable.

        Last edited 21/04/15 1:35 pm

          "CDs are better than tapes in every respect - capacity, quality, size, cost. "

          Capacity? Nope. I remember buying C-120 tapes back in the early 80s. That's two hours of music. In fact there were even higher capacities, but the quality of tape dropped off quite significantly. CDs had a capacity of 74 minutes.
          Quality? In the majority of situations, most people wouldn't be able to pick the difference.
          Size? Um, maybe you're too young to remember them, but tapes are smaller than CDs.
          Cost? Nope, tapes were always cheaper than CDs.

            Capacity: The orange book standard for CDs is 80 minutes per side, which can be overburned as much as 100 minutes a side and still work in a standard CD player. C-120 cassettes were 60 minutes per side. CDs were also produced double-sided, for 160-200 minutes capacity.

            Quality: Come on now. The audio quality difference between cassette and CD was significant. Of the three main media (CD, cassette, vinyl), cassettes had the worst dynamic range by a good 30dB, and even vinyls produce more stable analogue sound.

            Size: I'm well aware of how much space my cassette collection took up back then. I'm also aware of how much space the same number of CDs on a spindle took up when I started replacing my cassettes with CDs. You can fit around 60 CDs in the same space as 12 standard cassettes. It was also a lot safer to store CDs outside their cases, whereas doing the same with cassettes ended up getting dust inside.

            Cost: In 1985 right at the beginning of the CD era, $14 was about the standard price for a CD full album, and $12 for a cassette full album. By 1988 the situation was reversed and remained that way through the entire rise of CDs and decline of cassettes. I'm not sure where you were shopping, but I used to go to a small independent store near Broadway (Sydney) and then later to HMV when they opened their CBD location. Sanity might have priced CDs higher, I never liked them much so I never shopped there.

            Last edited 21/04/15 10:50 pm

          I think the point @zzz was making had to do with innovation. It was an analogy. When Apple dumped the floppy drive there was a huge uproar. If you can't possibly live without a dozen ports on the side of your laptop - don't buy this macbook - it wasn't designed for you.

    Apple has had a steady decline since the passing of its visionary (RIP, lots of respect to you Steve jobs)

    What has since come out of Apple is nothing more than gimmicks and sheer planned obsolescence... Their marketing machine has writers and the sheepish public alike hailing anything that comes out of the cupertino company...

    For value, for everything besides an APP ECOSYSTEM (that statistics show is really irrelevant) the Surface Pro and the Windows phone are a better fit and a better solution to an ADULTS needs.

    The faddish absent of snapchat and insta doesnt bother me simply because I live my life instead of projecting a bravado of my life via those mediums. :D

      "Apple has had a steady decline..."

      The sharemarket and sales would indicate you couldn't be more wrong if you tried. And you tried so VERY hard!

      Any by the way, I'm an adult and all my Apple products suit me just fine thanks. But keep up your anti-Apple tirades - it amuses us adults to see someone putting so much effort into achieving so little.

        The fact that Apple's share price is good is a reason NOT to buy their products, as it indicates they are making way too much money off their products. I'd buy from the struggling company who is hungrier for your bucks. They are far more likely to offer value-for-money.

    You can't plug in a USB device while it is on charge? That bites.

    Why would anyone watch a movie on a laptop. I have my pc plugged into my 65 inch TV and watch movies through that.

      Do they let you take your 65" TV onto an aircraft as cabin luggage? Is it handy on the train or bus? A more apposite question might be "who needs their computer to watch movies at home?"

        I wouldn't think there'd be a bus or train trip that would be as long as a movie. Interstate train trip for sure. Domestic flights might scrape it in. International plane trips have their own TVs and movies. (I think. Never been on one)
        All my movies are on my computer and I also use pop corn time, so yes, I need my computer hooked up to my TV.

      I will be spending the next two years watching movies and TV shows on my laptop! Moving overseas for a working holiday, so not realistically gonna waste money on a TV when I have one here. Plus living in a share house means not everyone's going to want to watch the same thing at the same time!

    I like how this review has the balls to call this out for the beta product that it is. Unlike all the other reviews ("OH MY GOD SO THIN!!! 10/10").

    Ok so I get this is the 'beta' release and it's likely to improve massively in the coming years but, right now, why would anyone buy this? The base model is several hundred dollars more expensive than the base model 13-inch Air, with less battery life and comparable performance at best. The only advantages are size and the resolution of the screen, neither of which are deal-breakers when looking at the Air, especially at the lower price point. So what exactly is the market for this thing compared to the Air, other than just people who want to spend more money?

    13" MacBook Pro Retina 2015 for exactly same price.
    Easy choice!

    I was waiting for the new MacBook 2015 to buy one and was very disappointed when it was released.
    But I still was after a new MacBook and I made a table of "value for money" for MacBooks:
    https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1IGHR6wBMVbAY84nZQSZ_xZruvRy1hQB8htssVIOXFjk

    Last edited 22/04/15 1:47 pm

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