Apple MacBook 12-Inch (Early 2015) Review: The Laptop Reinvented?

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Design & Layout

The new MacBook looks very similar to the MacBook Air, though Apple says it "started from scratch, reinventing each essential element as part of a singular, deceptively simple design." Beyond the hyperbole, Apple stuck with its tried and true aluminum unibody construction.

Apple MacBook

Apple lets you select from three color options -- Silver, Gold, and Space Gray. The model we received sports a Space Gray finish with Apple's iconic and reflective logo sitting in the center. Just as with both the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, the new MacBook feels solid and durable, belying its lightweight frame.

One thing we like about aluminum laptops is that they're highly resistant to fingerprint smudges and are easy to clean. That's not the case with many carbon fiber laptops, especially ones that offer a glossy finish. Beyond the aesthetic value, aluminum is also good at acting like a heatsink -- perhaps too good in this case. Whether it's surfing the web or playing a game, part of the underside gets pretty toasty. Ironically enough, that's true of many laptops, though we were surprised that even casual computing tasks brought out the heat the way it did. The heat output didn't affect stability, but if you're resting it on your lap, it can be a bit uncomfortable (and dangerous to your little swimmers, if you're a fertile male).

As with all MacBooks, the battery is non-removable. You should also kill any aspirations of ever upgrading the core components -- tearing into the new MacBook is a risky affair, and even if you're successful at taking it apart, you'll find that the CPU, RAM, and flash memory are all soldered onto the logic board. Since the RAM is the same on both available SKUs (8GB) and there's only a 100Mhz speed difference between the Core M-5Y31 in the $1,299 model and Core M-5Y51 in the $1,599 model, what the inability to upgrade the core components boils down to is choosing your storage option wisely -- 256GB ($1,299) or 512GB ($1,599).

Apple MacBook Open

Opening up the MacBook gives a view of the gorgeous 12-inch Retina display. It's an IPS panel that looks stunning from virtually any angle, and with a 2304x1440 resolution with a 16:10 aspect ratio, there are plenty of pixels (3.3 million) to feast your eyes upon. That's a big step up from the MacBook Air's 1366x768 (11.6-inch) and 1440x900 (13.3-inch) panels, both of which are of the inferior TN variety.

It's also only 0.88mm thin, making it the thinnest Retina display on a Mac to date. The display sits behind a 0.5mm edge-to-edge glass, and you'll notice there's a black border around the viewable area, This is one way you can tell the new MacBook apart from the MacBook Air, the latter of which has a silver border. And because it's so thin, it looks as though the visuals are splashed right on the surface versus being able to see that they sit behind a small gap.

Apple MacBook Keyboard

The display glass isn't the only thing that's edge-to-edge -- so is the keyboard. It's a full-size plank with subtlety curved keycaps, and in keeping with the thin and light theme, they're about as low profile as you can get. While low profile keys are good for silent typing, they're not the most comfortable to type on. To account for that, Apple designed a butterfly mechanism for the keys to replace the traditional scissor mechanism found on most laptop keyboards.

Apple Butterfly Mechanism

Apple's awfully proud of this design and is quick to point out that it virtually eliminates key wobbling in a plank this thin, which could otherwise occur when tapping a key off-center. The butterfly mechanism is a single assembly and made from a stiffer material, and according to Apple, that allows for a more stable, responsive key while taking up less vertical space.

In practice, we didn't detect any wobbling, even when intentionally pressing keys nears the edge. We also found that they exhibited decent click action for a low profile plank. Still, the typing experience doesn't compare to a traditional keyboard with raised keycaps.

On the bright side (literally), each key has its own LED underneath. You can't customize the backlight scheme on a per-key basis, but you do get clean lighting that's uniform across the entire plank without any spillage of light around the edges.

Apple MacBook Trackpad

Along with the Apple Watch, the new MacBook introduces Force Touch technology. It's integrated into the generously sized trackpad and it does two main things. The first is that it detects pressure levels, so if you're drawing a picture, the harder you press the trackpad, the thicker the brush stroke will be. And secondly, it offers haptic feedback.

As for detecting pressure, it's one of those 'gee-whiz' features that's cool to show off, but lacks a lot of real-world utility. Beyond manipulating the thickness of brush strokes, Force Touch can be used to speed up or slow down QuickTime movies or zoom in, to give a couple of examples. But it's really up to developers to embrace the technology and come up with creative ways of using it that go beyond one-off novelty experiences.

Far more useful is the Taptic Engine with force sensors that sit underneath the capacitive glass surface. We're using Apple's fancy nomenclature here, but what it boils down to is a trackpad that registers clicks with the same amount of pressure no matter where you press, whether it's in the center or one of the corners. Combined with haptic feedback that's triggered with certain events, it's a pretty slick experience that will improve over time as more apps take advantage of the technology.

Apple MacBook Left Side
Apple MacBook Ports (Top=Left, Bottom=Right)
Apple MacBook Right Side

At this point, we've arrived at the elephant in the room. As we stated before, the new MacBook doesn't give much in the way of ports. You get a total of two -- a 3.5mm headphone jack on the right, and a USB-C port on the left. Apple will happily sell you a USB-C to USB adapter for $19, though if the battery runs low and you need to tether the MacBook to an outlet, you'll have to disconnect the adapter (and whatever USB device you were using it for) and connect the USB-C charging cable. A better (and obscenely priced) option is the USB-C Digital AV Multiport adapter, a $79 accessory that sports a USB-C port, HDMI port, and USB port. This allows you to connect a USB 3.0 or 2.0 device while still having access to the USB-C port for charging.

Perhaps more than anything else, the port selection (or lack thereof) and heavy reliance on wireless technologies will either sell consumes on the new MacBook or scare them away. On one hand, this is really what a laptop is all about -- total mobility without wires getting in the way. The keyboard and mouse are built in, and with Apple pushing iCloud (plus the availability of other cloud services), users living on the technological edge will find that sacrificing connectivity ports in favor of a thin and light design is totally acceptable.

For everyone else, it's a deal killer and Apple is bat-crap crazy for thinking otherwise. That's the general sentiment, anyway. And it's not without merit. For many people, the wireless world Apple envisions doesn't yet exist -- most of us own multiple USB flash drives and a wealth of USB devices, like digital cameras, backup drives, and pretty much any modern electronic gadget.

Beyond the minimal wired connectivity, the new MacBook also lacks an Ethernet port, HDMI output, or a media card reader. We get what Apple is going for here, we really do. But at the same time, the reduction in ports both restricts the new MacBook's utility and makes it feel a bit like a concept product intended to show what tomorrow's laptop might be like.

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