New MacBook 2015 review: is this the way all laptops should be?

Apple’s new MacBook is lighter than Air

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For

  • Superb battery life
  • So portable
  • The future of laptop design

Against

  • We want more power
  • More USB-C extras needed
  • Can't be your main machine

The most portable MacBook ever is far from the most practical.

The new MacBook crams more interesting tech than you can shake a USB (Type-C) stick at into its skinny 12-inch frame. It's a dazzling device for sure, one that would set tongues wagging down at the pub in a heartbeat — but whether it would slot into your life without causing a fuss is an entirely different matter.

The thing is, the new MacBook isn't a "MacBook Air with a Retina display", which is what many people on the street were expecting from Apple. While it borrows the MacBook Air's tapered design, along with the MacBook Pro with Retina's high-resolution display and skinny black bezel, its shallow keyboard, Intel Core M processor and single USB Type-C port position it as an entirely new category of laptop.

I'm not convinced that power-hungry MacBook owners will rush out to trade their machines for one, but if you're looking for a laptop that’s as portable as an iPad and runs OS X, the new MacBook is a luxurious, albeit flawed option.

A fashion item with a designer price tag to match, it starts at £1,049 for the entry-level model with 256GB of storage, rising to £1,299 for the more powerful 512GB configuration.

New MacBook: Size and build

Like Dell's Windows-powered XPS 13, the new MacBook slims down the display's bezel to accommodate more screen. Despite being 12 inches, its footprint is almost identical to the 11-inch MacBook Air, and at 2.03 pounds (versus the Air's 2.38 pounds) barely registers when slung into a backpack for transportation.

Measuring just 30 x 19.2 x 1.7cm (W x D x H), the new MacBook is a whisker longer and wider than the 11-inch Air (28 x 19.7 x 1.31cm) while shaving off around half a millimetre in height. It’s crafted out of a durable aluminium that stands up well to knocks and scrapes.

New MacBook: Features

One of Apple's more contentious decisions was to give the new MacBook just one USB Type-C port. Smaller than a standard USB port and reversible, USB Type-C has been hailed as the future because it provides power, a connection to an external display (through DisplayPort, HDMI or VGA) and a USB port.

The bad news is that to simultaneously use two or more of the above you'll need to pick up a USB-C Multi Port adapter, which Apple sells for £65. Apple had to make a trade-off between portability and convenience, and if you're set on using wired peripherals or charging your smartphone on the move, sorry: coughing up for and carrying around an adapter is a necessary evil.

Along with a switch to USB Type-C, Apple had to engineer an entirely new keyboard and trackpad to make the new MacBook catwalk-thin. The innovative Force Touch Trackpad, which enables a third ‘Force’ click by pressing down on the trackpad with a certain degree of pressure, can be used for anything from activating a Quick Look preview to annotating attachments or seeing a file’s information.

Where traditional keyboards use a scissor mechanism, which tends to wobble around the edges, the new MacBook’s keyboard uses Apple's new butterfly hinge under each individually-backlit key. Made from a single, strong piece of material, it makes every keypress responsive wherever you hit it.

While precise, it provides minimal travel and feels closer to typing on an on-screen keyboard than a traditional tactile one. If you're looking to buy the new MacBook to hammer out long documents on the regular, see if you can try its keyboard out first - or you may find yourself taking advantage of Apple's 14-day returns policy.

The new MacBook’s speakers provide surprisingly loud and clear sound at high volumes with punchy mid-range tones and, for their size, impressive low-end.

New MacBook: Display

The centrepiece of the new MacBook, its 2,304 x 1,440 pixel-resolution display is a sight to behold. At 226 pixels-per-inch (PPI), it goes toe-to-toe with the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina (227 PPI) - I'd go as far to say that the new MacBook's thinner black bezel makes it the more attractive of the two.

It's an IPS variant, which means bold colours, deep blacks and excellent viewing angles; crank up the brightness and you can even read websites comfortably outdoors - although you'll have to put up with screen glare and reflections.

By default, OS X sets the resolution to 1,280 x 800, which renders crisp text, smooth lines and sharp images but leaves little room on the desktop for apps and windows. Upping it to 1,440 x 900 strikes a better balance between usable space and image quality.

New MacBook: Performance

The new MacBook houses Intel's Core M processor, which brings a few advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side, it uses so little power that Apple didn't need to put a fan inside, lending to its thin-ness. No fan means no noise, and very little heat dissipation - even when you're pushing the machine to its limits.

So, here's the not so good part. Core M, a chip designed for mobile devices and 2-in-1 hybrids, is a good deal slower than the Core-series processors found in today's MacBook Air and MacBook Pro with Retina models, and as such isn't well-suited to heavy computing tasks such as editing large image files, videos and 3D rendering.

On the other hand, the new MacBook's 8GB of RAM and fast 128GB or 256GB SSD mean it's easily nippy enough for everyday tasks - such as surfing the web, editing small-medium image files, streaming video, writing documents and even some (very) light gaming thanks to its integrated HD 5300 graphics.

New MacBook: Battery

Rather than a traditional rectangular battery, Apple came up with a terraced, contoured battery design to better fit the new MacBook's slim dimensions. Rated at 39.7Whr, it fell just short of Apple's 9-hour batter life claim during T3’s rigorous battery life test, clocking in at just over 7 hours when looping a 1080p video over Wi-Fi. That's still impressive when you consider that it's driving all of those pixels, but if you value battery life above all else then the 13-inch MacBook Air, which has the legs to go for up to 12 hours, is still the king.

New MacBook: Verdict

A genuinely unique laptop for those seeking a Retina display in the most compact and light chassis around, the fact remains that the new MacBook’s many compromises mean it won’t suit everyone.

It has the ability to stun and confuse in equal measure, packing enough power to be used as your main machine, depending on what you do. But even then you’ll have to put up with switching adapters when hooking up monitors and wired peripherals and re-train your fingers to adapt to the keyboard’s lack of tactile feedback.

If money is no object, and you’re prepared to see past its deficiencies, Apple’s gorgeous new MacBook glistens like gold (literally, if you opt for it in Gold, rather than Silver or Space Grey). For everyone else, it may be worth at least holding out for a successor with one more USB port to appear down the line.

New MacBook: is this the way all laptops should be?

Including just one USB Type-C port and tampering with the MacBook Air's near-perfect keyboard were daring, if unsurprising moves considering Apple's penchant for minimalism. Holding the new MacBook in the hand is like seeing into the future of laptop design; it's the MacBook Air all over again. Tablets are expected to sell poorly for a second consecutive year in 2015 as people look toward thin and light computers that let them get real work done, an area where the new MacBook excels.

But - and it's a biggy - it feels like the new MacBook is ahead of its time and will prove one too many compromises for most people. Using an adapter is awkward compared to full-size USB ports, adds cost and detracts from the machine's slick design. It's likely that future laptop makers - including Apple - will at least do what Google did with the Chromebook Pixel 2 and include two USB Type-C ports to lessen the pain.

Like this? Also check out our Dell XPS 13 review: an Infinity display that's out of this world