Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) review: The best sub-1kg laptop in the world
Years after its retirement, the MacBook found itself reborn as a sub-1kg ultraportable – and an astonishingly good one at that. However, 2016 has seen Apple release the second-generation Macbook into the wild. With subtly improved performance and dramatically improved battery life, all thanks to the new Skylake Core M processors, Apple has made the MacBook even more desirable. Click here to read our review of the latest 2016 Apple MacBook.
The MacBook has been reborn – it now stands apart as the smallest, lightest laptop to ever wear the Apple logo. This is Apple’s attempt to redefine the ultraportable.
On the face of it, Apple hasn’t had to do anything groundbreaking: it’s simply taken its traditional laptop formula and, with the help of Intel’s Core M processor and a tiny motherboard, shrunk it down into a 12in chassis. There’s a Retina display with an aspect ratio of 16:10, just as you’d expect to find on one of Apple’s MacBook Pro models; a full-sized keyboard; and a huge Force Touch trackpad beneath.
The result is one very light, very slim laptop. At 923g and 13.1mm thick – and that’s including the rubber feet on the underside – the MacBook is only 125g heavier than the Microsoft Surface Pro 3 without its Type Cover attached. What’s more, it’s slimmer, lighter and has a smaller footprint than Apple’s 11in MacBook Air.
The MacBook is an alluringly petite laptop, but the fashion-conscious have another reason to rejoice: it now comes in a choice of Space Grey, Silver and Gold, so you can finally buy a MacBook to match your iPhone 6s and/or iPad Air 2.
Apple MacBook 2015 ergonomics
The MacBook’s attraction is more than skin-deep, however. This is a 12in laptop that, much of the time, is as comfortable to work upon as larger laptops. Set the MacBook side by side with its more powerful cousin, the MacBook Pro 13in with Retina Display, and you’ll see that the MacBook’s keyboard and touchpad are the larger of the two.
Each of the backlit keys is 40% bigger, and although they have very little travel, that’s something I very quickly got used to. A feather-light yet crisp dig of feedback leaves no doubt as to whether you’ve hit a key or not, and I was soon typing as comfortably and quickly as on my long-suffering office ThinkPad.
However, anyone used to using a mechanical keyboard, or indeed any other keyboard at all, may find that the MacBook keyboard takes a lot of getting used to. Developer Marco Arment, in his review of the MacBook, described the keys as feeling clicky, “almost like the iPhone’s Home button”, and there is something in what he’s saying.
In short, if you are considering the MacBook then I strongly advise you spend some time in your nearest Apple store trying the keyboard out – I suspect it’s a love/hate thing.
The Force Touch trackpad is far less likely to divide opinion. It is wider, if a little less tall, than that of the 13in MacBook Pro. But it’s every bit as good. Once you get used to Force-clicking documents, pictures and hyperlinks in Safari to bring up quick previews in OS X, it becomes something you instinctively miss on a Boot Camp installation of Windows 8. And despite the fact that the pad sits a mere couple of millimetres below the spacebar, it never caused any accidental clicks or errant cursor movements – it just works.
At present, it’s worth noting, Force Touch support is essentially only available within Apple’s own applications. And even since the arrival of OS X El Capitan, there still aren’t a huge number of third-party applications which take advantage of Force Touch – unlike 3D Touch on the iPhone 6s, it’s taking much longer for developers to get to grips with what the technology is actually useful for.
All told, Apple has put together an ultraportable laptop that’s unusually comfortable to use, whether it’s for work or play – one of Alphr’s team uses a MacBook as his everyday work laptop, and the combination of portability and usability is difficult to beat. Factor in the little touches – such as the good-quality 480p iSight webcam and loud, crisp internal speakers – and it’s unusually well-rounded for a sub-1kg laptop.
Apple MacBook 2015 Retina display
The 12in, 2,304 x 1,440-resolution display is superb. Images and pin-sharp text gleam from corner to corner, and set next to Apple’s MacBook Airs, which still use the old TN panel technology, the two generations look light years apart.
The high pixel density causes little in the way of practical problems, either. I preferred the extra desktop space afforded by the More Space setting in OS X, as it felt a touch cramped with scaling left at the default size, but it’s easy to tweak the setting to best suit your individual needs, or indeed the limits of your eyesight.
Indeed, the recent arrival of OS X El Capitan helps make the most of every one of those 3.3 million pixels. The new Split View feature joins two full-screen apps side-by-side, and dragging the split down the middle allows you to select how much space each app gets onscreen. Combined with the new, streamlined Mission Control, it’s now easier than ever to create and manage multiple desktops – which, if used sensibly, make the 12in MacBook capable of some pretty serious multi-tasking.
Regardless of what’s onscreen, however, image quality is top-notch. Brightness soars to a very respectable 381cd/m2, bright enough to remain legible on sunnier days, and the contrast ratio of 1,063:1 is highly respectable too.
Delve deeper into the numbers, and the Retina display continues to impress: a colour temperature of 6,683K doesn’t stray far from the 6,500K ideal, and the panel covers 93% of the sRGB colour gamut. Colour accuracy is good, too, with an average Delta E of 2.1 and a maximum deviation of 4.6.
Backlighting is noticeably more even than on high-DPI rivals such as the Surface Pro 3 or Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi; there is a faint halo of backlight leakage around the panel’s edges, but it’s far less pronounced than on other slimline models.
Apple MacBook 2015 performance and battery life
The MacBook is the first Apple device to be powered by Intel’s Core M processors. The £1,049 model comes with a 1.1GHz Core M CPU and a 256GB SSD, while the £1,299 model ups the ante with a 1.2GHz Core M CPU and 512GB SSD. In either case, it’s possible to upgrade to a 1.3GHz Core M CPU for £200 and £120 respectively. Whichever specification you choose, though, the MacBook is equipped with 8GB of LPDDR3 RAM – there’s no option to upgrade it.
Bafflingly, the 1.1GHz CPU in our review unit turned out to be a Core M-5Y31 – this is nominally a 900MHz processor that’s capable of boosting up to 2.4GHz. However, there’s good reason for this discrepancy: Intel allows manufacturers to increase or decrease the power consumption of its Core M chips to suit the cooling capabilities of each individual device. In this instance, Intel provides the option to increase the CPU’s TDP from 4.5W to 6W; a change that effectively increases the CPU’s base clock speed to the 1.1GHz figure quoted by Apple.
That aside, the MacBook feels pretty sprightly in everyday use. The PCI Express SSD certainly helps a great deal here. With sequential read and write speeds of 777MB/sec and 461MB/sec respectively, application-load times and boot times are seriously swift. Yet the Core M CPU does its bit, too. Indeed, it’s not until you push the MacBook with heavyweight photo- and video-editing duties that it starts to struggle.
That said, in Alphr’s new benchmark suite, the MacBook’s CPU struggled to keep up with the faster Core M-5Y71 CPU in the Asus Transformer Book T300 Chi. That’s to be expected, though: the MacBook’s Core M-5Y31 only gives away 100MHz to the Core M-5Y71 at its base clock speed, but its maximum Turbo frequency is 500MHz lower. As a result, the MacBook was between 20% and 25% slower across the board, arriving at an overall result of 20 to the Asus’ 25.
The MacBook’s passively cooled design works well, however. Silent operation is a given, but the cooling is surprisingly effective. After several hours of running the benchmarks, only the rearmost part of the base heated up substantially – to around 41˚C – while the majority of the metal underside became only warm rather than hot. Thankfully, sweaty knees aren’t the order of the day here.
Apple claims nine hours of battery life from the MacBook, and happily that’s very close to the truth. With Wi-Fi on, I got through most of a working day of light use without having to reach for the power supply. It acquitted itself well in the 720p video-rundown test, too. With Wi-Fi off, and the screen calibrated to 120cd/m2, the MacBook lasted 7hrs 10mins.
Apple MacBook 2015 gaming performance
If there’s a downside to the MacBook’s power-efficient Core M processor and fanless design, it’s that GPU performance takes a severe hit. It’s not that the integrated HD Graphics 5300 GPU is underpowered, but rather due to the constraints of the Core M’s frugal power envelope. With little more than 5 or 6 watts of power to work with, there simply isn’t the headroom (nor the thermal capacity) to simultaneously get the most out of both the CPU and integrated GPU cores.
In GFXBench GL’s suite of graphics benchmarks, all run in 1080p resolution, the MacBook produced average frame rates which were ~30% higher than the Cherry Trail Atom processor in the Microsoft Surface 3, and ~35% slower than the Intel HD Graphics 6000 GPU in the 13-inch MacBook Air.
In terms of real-world gaming performance, you can all but forget about playing games at the MacBook’s native screen resolution. Fire up recent titles such as BioShock Infinite, and you’ll need to drop the resolution right down to 1,024 x 768 and reduce detail settings to minimum if playable framerates are the order of the day. It’s safe to say that the MacBook is not a featherweight gaming machine.
Apple MacBook 2015 connectivity
Perhaps the biggest compromise in the MacBook’s design is connectivity. When it comes to wireless, 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4 still make the cut, but physical connections are now limited to a single USB-C port and a headphone socket. That really is your lot.
The MacBook relies on its single USB-C port for everything bar audio. The power supply charges the MacBook via a 2m, reversible USB-C cable, and should you want to connect a USB device – or a monitor or Ethernet cable for that matter – you have one option: buy one of Apple’s pricey adapters or seek out a third-party alternative.
For some, that sole USB-C port may crush the MacBook’s appeal, but it’s worth bearing in mind that the USB 3.1 (Gen 1) standard that Apple has employed is designed to defeat such limitations. A single cable is capable of transferring data at a rate of 5Gbits/sec, as well as up to 100W of power, so there’s no need to choose between hooking up a hard drive or charging your laptop.
There are even some more pragmatic benefits to Apple’s decision. Using USB-C as a power connector opens up the possibility of topping up the MacBook’s battery from a portable USB charger, given a suitable adapter cable.
Slowly but surely, though, an increasing number of USB-C hubs, adapters and peripherals are beginning to hit the market. Shell out £65 on Apple’s own USB-C Digital AV or VGA Multiport Adapter and you get a full-sized USB 3 port, a USB-C passthrough and a VGA or HDMI socket depending on which model you choose.
Third-party manufacturers are increasingly getting in on the action, however. There are already a fair few reasonably-priced USB-C hubs on Amazon UK, many of which mimic the Apple official adapter for less than half the price. Suffice to say, the MacBook’s limited connectivity is rapidly becoming less of an issue.
Apple MacBook 2015 verdict
For anyone who can afford a MacBook, the question of whether they actually need one will be met with a disinterested shrug: as a lust-inducing example of laptop design, there are few, if any, devices on the market able to engender the same kind of instant, irrational desire.
Of course, there are practical concerns. The MacBook is simply not fast enough to replace a desktop or more powerful laptop for demanding users; and, depending on how you use your laptop, the connectivity may prove obstructive – for now, at least. At this price, I’d be sorely tempted the MacBook Pro 13in with Retina Display instead – and especially if this is going to be your sole laptop.
And then there’s the question of whether an iPad Pro might suit particular needs better than a non-touch laptop – I suspect that artists might be tempted to choose Apple’s giant, stylus-equipped iPad instead.
There’s no doubt, however, that Apple has succeeded in what it set out to do. That is to create a sub-1kg laptop that is as usable as far larger laptops, as long-lasting and powerful as most people need, and that doesn’t compromise on display or build quality to achieve its goals. Yes, it’s expensive; no, it isn’t for everyone – but it is sublime all the same.