Photographer: Stephen Pulvirent/Bloomberg Business
Technology

Review: Apple's Ultra-Thin New MacBook

A niche addition to Apple's notebook lineup

It’s not as flashy a release as the much-anticipated Apple Watch, but the new MacBook is a boundary-pushing notebook for Apple. It eschews most cables in favor of wireless connectivity, delivers sharp visuals, and is a testing ground for new interactive technologies. The MacBook is Apple’s vision of the notebook of the future.

Slim and Bright

The first thing you’ll notice about the MacBook is its impressively streamlined size. The 12-inch Retina display is housed in an enclosure that’s a mere 13.1mm thick and weighs just 2.03 pounds. It makes the 13-inch MacBook Pro look like a behemoth and even looks slim next to the MacBook Air.

At 13.1mm the MacBook is almost 30 percent slimmer than the MacBook Pro.
At 13.1mm the MacBook is almost 30 percent slimmer than the MacBook Pro.
Photographer: Stephen Pulvirent/Bloombereg Business

This is the first MacBook Air-style laptop with a Retina display, and the screen looks absolutely brilliant. At a resolution of 2304 x 1440, you never really see a pixel. But even with the high-resolution display, the screen is still on the small side. I often found myself sizing browser windows so small that websites would contract to their alternate tablet view. You can adjust the scaling to replicate a standard 1440 x 900 display, but that’s still not giving you much room to move.

It’s great that the MacBook is also extremely lightweight, especially when it's in a bag or tucked under your arm. But the lightness sometimes makes the notebook hard to steady on your lap. It has a tendency to bounce around as you type, without any noticeable center of gravity. And because the computer is so small, I found it difficult to place on my knees without squeezing them together uncomfortably.

The MacBook shines on a table but is wobbly on your lap.
The MacBook shines on a table but is wobbly on your lap.
Photographer: Stephen Pulvirent/Bloomberg Business

I averaged about 8 hours of battery life with the new MacBook, which isn’t bad for such a small package carrying a bright, dense screen. It's a little less than Apple says the MacBook can muster, and I did find myself double-checking that I had my charger before leaving my apartment for work; otherwise things started to get dodgy come 5 p.m.

One Port to Rule Them All

The MacBook's svelte case has a surprising lack of openings. On the right is a single headphone port, and on the left is an oval-shaped one called USB-C. The MacBook uses that port for power and to connect to displays and various USB peripherals.

The single USB-C port acts as the source of power and the notebook's only connector for peripherals.
The single USB-C port acts as the source of power and the notebook's only connector for peripherals.
Photographer: Stephen Pulvirent/Bloomberg Business

USB-C might eventually be standard (and it's technically superior to USB 3 in almost every way), but for now you’re stuck using fiddly dongles for more common USB 2 and 3 devices and for SD cards. I can’t believe I still have to use the word “dongle” in 2015. Apple’s ideal scenario is that we all use Airdrop to move files and access everything external through cloud and streaming services. Unfortunately, we're not quite there yet. The MacBook might help usher in the wire-free era, but it’s going to be a pain in the meantime. Still, consider Apple’s elimination of the optical disc drive with the original MacBook Air: When was the last time you wanted to load a disc into your laptop?

The smaller USB-C power adaptor is a welcome change, as is the totally reversible cable, but the disappearance of a MagSafe connector is frustrating. The USB-C connection is firm and even a little difficult to disconnect. The Genius Bars of the world are undoubtedly going to be inundated with repair requests from people who accidentally yanked their precious new MacBooks onto the floor. It sounds crazy to talk about a change in power-adaptor standard as a possible deal-breaker, but MagSafe is missed.

Touch and Feel

The MacBook’s keyboard is still full-size but uses a new kind of key. Butterfly-shaped mechanisms under each one eliminate the wobble effect that sometimes accompanies hitting the edge of a key. But the keys sit extremely low, making the keyboard feel almost like using a touchscreen at first. They're also larger than standard MacBook keys, and sport a new font—the cleaner and leaner San Francisco, which was created for the Apple Watch.

The new keyboard is extremely flat and takes some getting used to.
The new keyboard is extremely flat and takes some getting used to.
Photographer: Stephen Pulvirent/Bloomberg Business

Apple also added a “Force Touch” trackpad to the MacBook. It still supports the pinch-and-spread and other multitouch gestures from older trackpads, but a Taptic Engine (similar to what’s inside the Apple Watch) sits underneath and gives feedback as you press on it. Since the trackpad isn’t actually moving, the vibration is used to replicate a normal trackpad click. It even plays a little clicking noise through an unseen speaker. Force Touch also allows you to hard-press into folders and menus or to use pressure for varying degrees of manipulation. It’s uncanny and a little bit awesome, but I don't know if it's all that useful yet.

Whose Notebook?

The MacBook isn’t for everyone. The Retina display is beautiful but hogs processing power that might be better used elsewhere. And if you do a lot of photo editing or like to multitask, you’ll notice some lag and jitters. Even scrolling quickly through typical Web pages produced a noticeable lag and stutter compared with my standard MacBook Air.

The MacBook makes the MacBook Pro look massive.
The MacBook makes the MacBook Pro look massive.
Photographer: Stephen Pulvirent/Bloomberg Business

The MacBook comes in the same three colors as the iPhone and iPad—silver, space gray, and gold—a nod to Apple’s newfound love of customizable and differentiated gadgets. No longer will everyone tote the same white or silver notebook, and the colors are Apple subtly suggesting that you consider your notebook a lifestyle accessory rather than just a portable tool.

In gold, the MacBook looks unlike any other notebook Apple has made before.
In gold, the MacBook looks unlike any other notebook Apple has made before.
Photographer: Stephen Pulvirent/Bloomberg Business

With the new keyboard and trackpad innovations, lust-inducing industrial design, and impressive downsizing of internal components, the MacBook feels like a an important next step in the evolution of portable computers. But this machine isn't for everyone, particularly those who expect extremes from their devices. Still, if you prioritize style, need something ultraportable, and don’t mind trading power for a crisp and clear Retina display, then the perfect computer may have arrived.

The MacBook goes on sale April 10 and is priced from $1,299. 

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