Apple MacBook (2016) review: Small and even more perfectly formed

Apple MacBook 12-inch (2016): Design

Another thing that hasn’t changed is the fanless design. Apple has replaced the old Core M with a range of different Skylake Core M options; I was sent the model with the Core m5-6Y54, but there are also faster Core m7 and slower m3 models. All the new models are fanless, meaning they retain the MacBook’s “no moving parts” approach.

Even the trackpad doesn’t move – although you’ll think it does. As with all Apple trackpads these days, it’s big and feels great, employing Apple’s ingenious Force Touch system. Press down on the trackpad, and sensors inside detect pressure is being applied; electromagnets then provide haptic feedback, which makes it feel as if the trackpad is being pressed downwards physically.

It’s a spooky feeling when, after using the trackpad for a while, you try pressing down on it when the machine is turned off and realise it’s just a solid, immovable piece of glass.

The keys on the keyboard do move, although, as with the previous version, this is something that’s likely to polarise opinion. In a move designed to slim down the physical thickness of the keyboard, there’s significantly less travel here than on conventional laptop keyboards.

Apple MacBook (2016) top down view

The best advice I can give is to try this keyboard before you run out and buy a MacBook. Either you’ll find it perfectly acceptable – some people I’ve talked to even prefer it – or you’ll react with visceral hatred towards it and want to throw the machine out of the window every time you use it.

The other big controversial feature of the MacBook range concerns physical connectivity. Basically, there’s a single USB Type-C port, a headphone/mic jack – and that’s it. The USB Type-C port charges the laptop and provides all the connectivity bar audio. And yes, that means you can’t connect a peripheral and charge the machine at the same time without using some kind of multi-port dongle.

Lots of people use their laptops without ever connecting anything to them, but if you’re the sort of person who likes to plug in an external keyboard, mouse and monitor when you’re using your laptop at your desk, be aware that you’ll need to budget extra cash for connectors. The USB Type-C standard is clearly the future, and the advantages of using it are obvious, but having only a single port makes life more difficult than it should be.

Apple MacBook 12-inch (2016): Performance

Here’s the good news: the 2016 MacBook is definitely faster than its predecessor. Our benchmarks showed it to be around 10% quicker than the previous model. The bad news is it isn’t noticeable in day-to-day use. It’s slower than any other currently available Mac we’ve benchmarked, and on a par with the Dell XPS 12.

That said, subjectively, it’s fine for light work. I used the MacBook for editing Office documents, web browsing, a bit of photo editing and some (very) light video and audio editing and it performed perfectly well. If you spend all your time in Photoshop or CAD applications, this is not the Mac for you, but, if you do that, what on earth are you doing considering a machine with a 12in screen?

Apple MacBook (2016) keyboard closeupHowever, one big change is the battery life. I’ve used the MacBook for a year as my main machine, and I’ve always been a little disappointed with the battery life. Starting at 9am, I usually get to 2pm or 3pm before looking desperately for my charger; it isn’t quite the all-day experience I like.

Our tests on the last model delivered 7hrs 10mins of battery with Wi-Fi off and the screen turned down to 120cd/m2. This time round, that figure improved to a far more impressive 10hrs 12mins – a significant improvement. The new MacBook might not make it all the way to 5pm, but it gets a whole lot closer than its older sibling.

Apple MacBook 12-inch (2016): Verdict

The MacBook answers the question, “What would happen if you mated a MacBook Air with an iPad?”. It’s a Mac, running OS X, but the design and feel of the product is heavily influenced by the iPad. It’s the first Mac I’ve used where OS features that have been ported over from iOS, such as full and split-screen apps, actually make sense.

And, with the 2016 model, the MacBook is better than ever. It delivers a significant uplift in battery life, a minor but welcome increase in performance and, for those who want everything in Rose Gold, wider colour options. It’s an iterative improvement, but iterative improvements can turn good products into truly great ones. Iteration, not revolution, is the most important force in technology today.

It feels like a design that has pushed a little bit further than the underlying technology wants to go

Like the original Apple MacBook Air, however, it feels like a design that has pushed a little bit further than the underlying technology wants to go. Just a little bit more performance, and maybe an extra USB Type-C port, would make the Air as redundant as the Air made the 2008 version of the MacBook. It took three years for the Air to effectively replace the MacBook as Apple’s low-end Mac. Perhaps it’s too much to expect the new MacBook to replace the Air in only a year.

Should you buy one? If your needs are relatively light, and if you value design and portability over everything else, then you’ll love the MacBook. But you’ll also find yourself grimacing occasionally when you release you’ve left the vital dongle you need to connect a monitor and power simultaneously at home. Thankfully, at least with this generation, you’ll get closer to all-day battery life from it.

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