Apple's unibody MacBooks have enjoyed a multi-year run as the world's top-selling line of premium laptops. But in 2015, Apple disrupted itself with a major design change aimed at pushing laptops into the future.
In much the same way it did with the launch of the original MacBook Air in 2008, Apple has taken some risks and some leaps with the new 12-inch MacBook for 2015. It redesigned the keyboard and trackpad, reduced the number of expansion ports, changed how it charges, and added new technology with the USB-C port.
Some of these changes have naturally led to gnashing of teeth—especially changing the MacBook's charging port again and reducing the number of expansion ports. We've taken a deeper look at what the redesign means for people who want to use the the new MacBook to get work done.
OS: Mac OS X Yosemite
Processor: Intel Core M (1.1GHz, 1.2GHz, or 1.3GHz)
Display: 12-inch Retina display, 2304x1440 resolution, 16:10 aspect ratio
Graphics: Intel HD Graphics 5300, 1.5GB VRAM
RAM: 8GB 1600MHz LPDDR3
Storage: flash, 256GB or 512GB
Battery: 9-10 hours of use
Ports: headphone jack, 1 USB-C port (charging, and with adapter will support USB 3.1, DisplayPort 1.2, VGA, HDMI)
Weight: 2.03 pounds (0.92 kg)
Dimensions: H: 0.14-0.52 inch (0.35-1.31 cm) x W: 11.04 inches (28.05 cm) x D: 7.74 inches (19.65 cm)
Wireless: 802.11ac Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0
Price: US$1299 and up
Who is it for?
This machine is not for graphic artists or video editors. The Intel Core M processor does not have enough oomph to handle a ton of heavy lifting. But with 8GB of RAM, built-in flash storage, and an Intel Core M processor tuned to Mac OS X, it's zippy when pulling up web pages, working with documents, doing light photo editing, and handling everyday tasks. So, for professionals who are on the go a lot and especially people who do most of their work in a web browser, this is one of the most forward-looking, bleeding edge laptops that money can buy—if you're willing to pay a premium to be ahead of the curve.
SEE: Apple in the Enterprise: A Strategic Guide (ZDNet/TechRepublic special feature)
What problems does it solve?
For the first time, this redesign brings Apple's Retina display from the MacBook Pro line to its ultra-thin MacBooks. Ironically, the high quality Retina displays can most benefit graphic artists, designers, and people who deal with high res images. The new MacBook also takes an impossibly thin laptop and makes it even thinner and lighter, mostly by reinventing the keyboard and trackpad. I don't know if the MacBook really needed to be much thinner and lighter, but the resulting keyboard and trackpad both offer usability improvements, as we'll talk about in the next section.
Faster, more accurate keyboard - To make the MacBook even thinner, Apple reduced the height of the keys on the keyboard by 40%. That required redesigning the keys from a traditional "scissor" design to Apple's new "butterfly" mechanism. In other words, the keys are ridiculously flat. It's a different feel, but once you get used to it, the keyboard is noticeably faster. Gaining those extra fractions of a second every time you tap down on a key adds up. The keys are also 17% larger (Apple reduced the amount of space between keys), so it also feels more accurate. Oddly, I also found the it to be a lot louder. In our open concept newsroom at TechRepublic, I kept apologizing to my fellow journalists for how loud this thing was. We all got used to it, eventually. Nevertheless, I love the keyboard. It's the best feature of this redesign.
Great form factor - Similar to the 11-inch MacBook Air, when the screen is closed on the new 12-inch MacBook it's roughly the same size as the iPad. So it feels pretty natural to fold it up and carry it on its own into a meeting or a coffee shop, much like you'd carry a paper notebook or a padfolio. This is especially the case since the battery life is good enough that you don't have to carry a charger all the time.
Strong battery life - The reduction in size means less space for batteries, so I was concerned that would mean a step back in battery life. In my tests, that wasn't the case. The new MacBook easily made it through a 5-hour flight across the US with 40% to 50% of the battery to spare. So, in this case, it lived up to the 9-10 hours of battery life that Apple advertised.
Impressive Retina display - Professionals who prefer the MacBook Air have been clamouring for a Retina display on an Air ever since it was first introduced on the MacBook Pro in 2012. Battery life and cost were likely the main reasons it took three years to get a super high quality display on a machine this small and thin. Apple clearly figured out the battery life issue, as we just discussed. However, the price tag is a different matter, as we'll talk about in the next section.
The price stings - As much of an engineering marvel as this machine is, the price tag starts at US$1299, making it US$400 more than the base price of the 11-inch MacBook Air. Granted, the new MacBook has double the storage and RAM as the base 11-inch MacBook Air, but that's a lot to pay for a thinner body, a higher resolution display, and a better keyboard. It feels like it should be about a US$1000 machine, and I'm sure it will be within a couple years. However, when I put it next to a comparable Windows machine like the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro—which also sports a stunning design—the fully configured price comes out about the same.
Lack of ports - The consolidation of 4 MacBook Air ports (2 USB, 1 Mini DisplayPort, and 1 MagSafe 2 power port) down to one USB-C port is jarring, to say the least. Having to unplug your power cable to connect a USB storage device or a USB ethernet dongle feels wrong. Multi-prong adapters will eventually help, USB-C does charges more quickly, and it's nice to be able to charge the laptop off a USB backup battery pack. But, this feels like a step backward when juggling connections to one port. I want a USB-C dongle that has two legacy USB ports, a USB-C port (for power), and a Mini DisplayPort. I'm going to have wait for a third party supplier to make one of those.
Force Touch frustration - The new trackpad has a much more shallow click and relies more on vibrations (haptic feedback). But its main feature is Force Touch, which when you provide extra pressure, provides additional menu options and functions. It's kind of like a long-press where you push a little harder. However, I found it more frustrating and annoying than useful. When I tried to click-and-drag files in the Finder, it kept giving me Force Touch options, and when I tried to highlight text in Safari, it kept interpreting that as a Force Touch and wouldn't do what I needed. I eventually turned it off.
Bottom line for business
If you're a professional who loves the portability of the 11-inch MacBook Air, then the new 2015 12-inch MacBook is a thriller. It's roughly the same form factor as the 11-inch Air, only thinner and with a larger, higher resolution screen.
For professionals who travel a lot and are ready for a laptop upgrade, and for web workers who spend 80% of their time in the cloud, this state of the art machine will put you on the bleeding edge. It's a chance to own a piece of the future, as long as you don't mind paying extra for it and waiting for the accessories to catch up.
- Dell XPS 13 (2015) with Infinity Display (CNET)
- Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro (CNET)
- Apple MacBook Air 13-inch (CNET)
- Apple MacBook Air 11-inch (CNET)
Where to get more info
Jason Hiner has nothing to disclose. He doesn't hold investments in the technology companies he covers.
Jason Hiner is Global Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Global Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.