Friend: "How's the new MacBook Air?"
Me: "No it's a MacBook."
Friend: "Yeah, that's what I said."
This is a conversation you will have a lot if you buy the new 2015 MacBook.
What Is It?
- Processor: 1.1GHz/1.2GHz
- RAM: 8GB
- Screen: 12-inch IPS display, 2304x1440 panel,
- Memory: 256GB/512GB
- Connectivity: 802.11ac, Bluetooth 4.0
The reason you'll have this conversation a lot is because what Apple has made looks a lot like the MacBook Air. It's crazy thin, has very few ports and it's packed to the gills with new tech. But let's get one thing straight. It's a MacBook, not a MacBook Air. The range now features the aforementioned MacBook, the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro.
In its most basic sense, the new MacBook is Apple's first 12-inch laptop with a Retina screen to boot.
Instead of filling the entire chassis with gear, Apple centralised the Intel Atom CPU, flash memory and RAM onto a tiny board that makes a fun-size Mars bar look chunky. In fact, the logic board on the MacBook is 67 per cent smaller than the logic board on the 11-inch MacBook Air.
It's the first MacBook to pack the Intel Core M (Broadwell) processor, and comes in two variants speeds: 1.1GHz (which Turbo Boosts up to 2.4GHz) with a 256GB SSD, or 1.2GHz (which Turbo Boosts up to 2.6GHz) with a 512GB SSD.
Another stark change on the new MacBook is the lack of ports. You only get two on the svelte new machine: a 3.5mm headphone jack and a new USB Type-C port that will act as everything from your charger, your DisplayPort, your HDMI port, your VGA port, your USB 3.0 port, your Firewire and your Gigabit Ethernet port. Of course, you'll need a host of adapters to do that.
All this space-saving design means that the new MacBook is the thinnest computer Apple has ever put out to market, measuring up at just 1.3cm thin. On top of that, it comes in funky new colours, to match your iPhone: Gold, Space Grey and the traditional Silver.
The entry-level 1.1GHz model starts at $1799, while the 1.2GHz model comes in at $2199.
As soon as you clap eyes on the new MacBook, you realise it's something special. Little differences from the MacBook Air make this new MacBook a really beautiful piece of hardware.
Not only is it insanely thin and mind-blowingly light, it has ditched the silver bezel found on the MacBook Air in favour of a super-thin black glass bezel. Directly beneath the screen and mounted between it and the keyboard is a new bar-shaped speaker grille that does some amazing work considering the size. One of my complaints about the MacBook Air was its speakers: they were always too quiet and maxing out their volume always distorted the sound. It was headphones or bust, but now it's different. Despite the fact that there's less space in which to fit larger speaker drivers, the sound is loud and clear.
Part of that big sound is the fact that it's bouncing some of the sound off the 12-inch screen glass living directly above it. It's miniaturised directional sound design at its most elegant.
Moving down from the screen and the speaker, you get the new keyboard. Apple has worked hard to "rethink" the keyboard for the MacBook. The laptop's designers wouldn't settle for anything less than a "full sized" keyboard, and managed to create a set of keys that defines the width of the machine. No space is wasted on the MacBook's keyboard deck. It wasn't just key width Apple had to worry about with the new MacBook. It also had to think about how it would allow space for keys to be pressed downwards and activated in a machine that can't even fit a Trackpad springboard. Previous thin MacBooks have had the problem of imprinting the keyboard layout into the screen glass while shut, so Apple had to really think hard about the depth of the keyboard press for the new model just to make sure it would close! So it came up with an idea: replace the traditional scissor mechanism of a keyboard with a "butterfly" mechanism to reduce travel, reduce key height and fit into the impossibly tiny enclosure.
It's ok in theory, but it's a bit of a nightmare in practice for returning users who are used to more keyboard travel. More on that in a moment. Issues aside, the new keyboard looks amazing, and I appreciate all the work that went into it from a technical standpoint as well.
Apple makes the best laptop trackpads in the business, and this new one is particularly special. The same issue popped up with the new MacBook's trackpad where Apple found that it couldn't fit the traditional springboard trackpad that has been inside its laptops for years. It had to make it a flat piece of glass. Fearing a user revolt over something that didn't go click, the new trackpad was blessed with something called Force Touch. Unlike a regular trackpad, there's no click when you push against a Force Touch pad. Instead, a tiny vibration motor pushes back against your fingers.
I was extremely cautious about the company moving away from the tried and tested excellence of its glass multi-touch pad. But I am a convert. I am so completely converted.
To really blow your mind, you need to follow a few steps. First, tap away at the trackpad with the MacBook turned off. No click. This is not good. This will not go well. Then, switch on the MacBook, then try and click something.
Honestly, it feels just like any other Apple trackpad — which is to say that it's excellent. The click (not that it's a click) feels firm and realistic and strong and instant — you wouldn't believe for a second that it's actually a tiny but incredibly powerful vibration motor buzzing for an incredibly short period when it senses a certain amount of pressure from your fingers. You can even change up the click strength on your trackpad between light, medium and hard feedback.
These pictures come from iFixit's teardown of the new Retina MacBook, which I strongly recommend you browse along with every other iFixit teardown in existence. It's gadget porn. I'm a big fan of the new MacBook for other reasons too — look at that tiny logic board, this is a whole PC — but the trackpad is one of the two pieces of any laptop that you actually physically interact with, and Force Touch is a quantum leap forward.
Who even decided that this needed to be done in the first place? The guy that decided just how incredibly crazy thin the new MacBook had to be, I guess. This kind of thing is incredible. It's fucking sorcery is what it is.
Thankfully the new MacBook with its Core M processor and chassis full of batteries is just as nice to look at as it is to use. There was a fairly decent row in the office when the new MacBook was announced over whether it would be able to do the job of day to day productivity for the modern road warrior. After all, that's who it's for. Surprisingly, however, it's able to handle quite a bit that's thrown at it.
You do notice a bit of a slowdown when you're running around 30 Chrome tabs, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Evernote and iTunes, but surely that's to be expected from any laptop with a mobile-friendly processor and a fanless design, right? I say all that to say: if you need to be doing any sort of gaming, image or video editing with your laptop, the 2015 MacBook probably isn't for you. It's for the travel-obsessed productivity junkie.
That junkie is going to be pretty happy with the battery life on the new MacBook too. The battery holds up under a seven to eight hour day of heavy usage. That means you can start a business day with 100 per cent and do everything from connect to external displays for presentations, running Powerpoint and other Office applications, leaving your email client going all day, running numerous Chrome tabs and leaving iTunes open and playing and still get at least seven hours worth of life before you need to scramble for your charger. Kill your Wi-Fi and turn the screen resolution, however and you'll find the usable life is boosted up to around 8.5-9 hours.
What's Not So Good?
The new MacBook certainly takes a bit of getting used to. It's not a bad machine in any respect. Far from it, in fact. But for a long-time Mac user there are a few things that require a shift in thinking.
First of all, the USB Type-C connector is a real departure from traditional user behaviour. Whereas you'd normally plug your charger, a USB hard drive and maybe even a network connector into the side of your Mac at the same time, you'll need adapters for everything. Instead of conform to that normal user behaviour, Apple is going full iPad with the new MacBook: you won't be able to connect anything to it without the right adapter.
Want to connect a USB device? That's a $29 adapter. Feel like plugging in an external display or projector? The HDMI model will run you $119, while the VGA will cost you another $119. Work in an environment where you'll need both? Sorry: probably cheaper to lug an Apple TV around with you and do it wirelessly. If you were to buy all three adapters (keeping in mind not everyone will have to do this), you're looking at an extra $267 for your machine to be usable in the real world.
I know Apple wants you to live in a wireless future, but not everyone's there yet. I spent three days on the road with the MacBook in the last fortnight doing boardroom presentations and hotdesking at a few different offices, and found myself using all three of the adapters (USB-C to VGA Multiport, USB-C to HDMI Multiport and USB-C to USB) over the course of the trip. There's no such thing as standard hardware out in the wild, and you'll need to be prepared for all eventualities if you're the hardcore road warrior Apple says this product is designed for.
The second issue comes from the keyboard. The keys may be smoother and quieter and more aesthetically pleasing than ever, but they're also slightly larger than they have been on previous models. That makes getting around the deck a little trickier if you're a returning user. I've been using the MacBook for about two weeks now and I'm still making a few mistakes here and there, hitting keys that I thought were there. Instead, I end up tapping the edge of the key right next to it. Not hard enough to register a stroke, mind you, but it's still something that stops your typing dead so you can fix the error you just made.
It's also a little weird having some of the keys you use more often made smaller on the new model. For example, the up and down arrow keys take up the same amount of space as a single left or right arrow key. Since I've been reviewing this super-skinny laptop I've discovered I use those arrow keys more than I thought I ever would. Making them smaller often means I'm either pressing the wrong one or pressing both at the same time. Like I said, I think it's more punishing to returning Mac users who are used to a certain amount of space between the keys as well as a specific amount of travel. Plus, I'm only dwelling on it because I've been writing on Macs and MacBooks for almost a decade now. Other people won't find it nearly as annoying as I do.
Should You Buy It?
Despite a few issues which you'll get over with time, the new MacBook is a dream bit of kit for the mobile worker. It takes a huge amount of effort and smarts to create a piece of kit that makes the current generation MacBook Air look fat, but Apple has managed it. It's really exciting to see the laptop as we knew it get thinner and thinner. Every time I see a new ultra-thin laptop, I wonder where we can go to from here, and that excites me.
The new MacBook is loaded with cool new tech like Force Touch and the surprisingly mighty Intel Core M processor in a gorgeous new lightweight design. If you can afford the $1800 and upwards price tag, it's certainly worth investing in.
It's thin, smart and has an amazing battery that will take you everywhere. Isn't that what every mobile computing user wants?