Apple’s newest lightweight laptop isn’t a MacBook Air. It just goes by the name MacBook — a pared-down name for a pared-down computer.
It uses technologies and techniques Apple learnt from making the iPhone and the iPad. The result is a mobile computer that is as elegant, small and polished as a 2015 portable can be.
The new MacBook is thinner, smaller and lighter than any other laptop.
Not laptop, nor tablet, nor hybrid
Yet in some ways it isn’t a laptop. At least, it is not a traditional laptop. And despite appearances the MacBook isn’t a replacement or an alternative to the MacBook Air.
The MacBook sits between the MacBook Air and an upscale iPad tricked out with a Bluetooth keyboard and running OS X.
Although it is both laptop-like and tablet-like, it most definitely is not hybrid-like. It’s a new class of device for people who need more than an iPad and less than a full-blown laptop.
An Apple laptop built for mobile journalists
Given that positioning, this is not a computer for everyone. It isn’t even the right computer for most people — the MacBook comes with compromises many are unwilling to make.
That said, the MacBook is ideal for someone wanting reasonable power while on the move.
Perhaps someone like a journalist working away from home? That was me when I took it to Wellington to cover a conference earlier this month.
Journalists were among the first professionals to use laptops.
If we need a computer on the go, we prize three things above all else: portability — in the broadest sense, a good keyboard and enough processing power to run key apps.
The MacBook ticks all three boxes.
Apple designed the new MacBook with portability in mind. Some reviewers worry about the MacBook keyboard. I’m fussy about keyboards, yet I didn’t find it a problem.
If the MacBook has a weak spot, it’s the processor. It’s more than enough for my work as a print journalist, but it may not suit your needs.
Let’s look closer at these:
Ten out of ten for small and light
It never occurred to me I might want a laptop smaller or lighter than a MacBook Air. Then I met the MacBook.
For the last two years my 2013 13-inch MacBook Air has racked up air miles and road trip kilometres.
It’s been everywhere I have. It never felt heavy. It was never a burden. After a few weeks it still doesn’t feel heavy or burdensome. And yet…
The MacBook is one-third lighter than my 13-inch 2013 MacBook Air. It weighs 900 g compared to the Air’s 1.35 kg.
While that’s a big numeric difference, a few hundred grams not something you notice when packing a bag before heading out-of-town to a conference.
The weight jump from earlier laptops to the Air was bigger.
Laptop weight becomes noticeable when you move around all day with a backpack. That 450 g makes a 10 percent difference to my load. It’s a small improvement, but one worth having.
While the lower MacBook weight changes things a little when carrying a backpack, it makes a big difference when I take my leather briefcase to town. There I get a 20 percent weight reduction. It means less strain on the handle and on the carry strap is noticeable.
One thing I have to report is that in both cases I have found myself checking the bags to see if the MacBook was still there .
You notice the difference immediately when holding the MacBook. Although you can hold both the MacBook and the MacBook Air in one hand, that hand soon tires with the 13-inch Air. I can go a lot longer holding the MacBook one-handed.
It’s hard coming to terms with how small the MacBook is. My 13-inch MacBook, which is hardly oversized, dwarfs the new MacBook. It has a 12-inch screen, but comes with a smaller footprint than the 11-inch MacBook Air.
The MacBook is only marginally larger than my iPad 2. It’s just 13 mm thick. And that’s the key to understanding the wee beastie. Apple has built a full function laptop in something roughly the size of a tablet. Indeed, it occupies roughly the same volume and weighs about the same as an iPad with a Bluetooth keyboard.
This is ultra-portable
There’s more to portability than size and weight. Like everything else from Apple, the MacBook is beautifully made.
It speaks quality engineering. Other brands get close, but not as consistently as Apple.
The MacBook is robust with an anodised aluminium unibody shell, much like the MacBook Air. This gives it plenty of protection, laptops can take a beating when constantly on the move. This solid feel gives me confidence that the computer won’t let me down when I need to type.
Portability is also about battery life
When I first got my 2013 MacBook Air, the computer could go all day on a single charge. It’s not unusual to work 12 or 13 hours at a stretch, the computer can handle it.
My Air’s battery life is not that good these days, partly because I keep Bluetooth and Wi-Fi switched on all the time thanks to the OS X Continuity feature. Also because I crank up the screen brightness. I suspect the battery life degrades over time too.
The new MacBook doesn’t make it to 13 hours of work time like my MacBook Air did in its early days.
Mind you, it gets close. On my trip I charged the battery to 100 percent before leaving Auckland. I worked for about 40 minutes at the airport.
The next day started at around 7 am and went on until 7 pm. There were a couple of breaks. The battery coped with at least 10 hours solid work and there was still something in the tank.
While I was in Wellington the venue Wi-Fi would time out after eight hours use. I went on for an hour or so using cellular data. That’s a battery punishing test the MacBook passed.
The MacBook keyboard
Typing is my stock-in-trade. I get through thousands of words every day. Some years I hit half-a-million words. And I’ve been a touch-typist since manual typewriter days.
So I know about keyboards. I also know about repetitive strain injuries and keyboard productivity.
Which is why I’m curious about comments criticising the MacBook keyboard. After two weeks and maybe 10,000 words I can’t see anything wrong here. I like the keyboard and had no problems with it.
Keyboard sits at the heart of the MacBook
Apple says the company’s designers made the keyboard first, then built everything else around it. That rings true with me.
The keyboard is thinner and flatter than most laptop keyboards. You can see that when you open the computer’s lid.
The keys glow, each one backlit by its own LED. Each key is larger than on the MacBook Air and there is less space between keys.
There’s a new key mechanism. Keys travel less than on other keyboards. I’ve read reports of people struggling with this, but I haven’t noticed anything odd. Perhaps I’m an insensitive brute and lack refinement.
The other reported negative is that some keys have changed shape.
I have a minor problem finding the right keys when I touch type. That’s normal when using an unfamiliar keyboard. There are times when my muscle memory is still hunting for the MacBook Air key positions. That will change with practice. Or maybe not, the review MacBook will go back to Apple soon.
If my typing speed has slowed, it’s not noticeable. There doesn’t seem to be a productivity slow-down, in fact, there may even be an improvement.
Force Touch Trackpad
Until now I thought the MacBook Air had the best trackpad in the business. The MacBook’s Force Touch Trackpad is better.
Force Touch detects how much pressure you put on the trackpad. It comes with a Taptic Engine which feels like you are clicking a button, although that’s not what’s happening.
Being pressure sensitive means the trackpad can do new things. Press a little to select something, press a lot on, say, a word to get a dictionary definition or a Wikipedia entry.
This is tricky at first, knowing how hard to press to get the result you want. After a day it’s second nature. Now I’m doing the deep-press thing on my MacBook Air and wondering why I’m not getting the Force Touch functions.
Apple’s Retina display is not new. I’ve used it on iPhones and iPads, seen it on MacBook Pros, but had never used it in action for real work on a computer before.
What surprised me, is the higher resolution changed the way I use a laptop. On my MacBook Air I keep most apps and documents in full-screen mode and alt-key between screens.
The MacBook’s higher resolution makes it makes easier to have many windows open on the small screen at the same time. That’s not something I’d expect from having more pixels to play with, I’ve no idea why it works this way, but it does.
A single USB-C port
If one thing has people agitated about the MacBook it is Apple’s decision to drop traditional connectors. Instead there’s a single USB-C port which is also used to charge the computer .
The USB-C port is better and more versatile than any port that has gone before, but there’s just one. You can buy port adaptors to connect your old devices, but Apple expects you to spend most of your time connecting by wireless.
This sort of works for me. I have a backup NAS drive on my network that connects by Wi-Fi. I also have a Wi-Fi Wireless drive from Seagate. My third drive uses USB 3. That’s either going to be redundant or I need an adaptor. For now I’ll choose the former approach.
Where this gets tricky is with my iPhone and iPad. Both can use wireless to connect to the MacBook, but there are times when a physical connection is better. It’s a bridge I’ll need to cross when I get there.
My only disappointment with USB-C is that it isn’t a Magsafe plug. I like the idea of my computer not crashing to the floor if someone trips on the power cable.
Reasons NOT to buy
As I’ve already said, this isn’t the laptop for everyone. Not by a long way.
Jack Schofield sums up the arguments against buying a MacBook in a single tweet:
@billbennettnz Slow, poor keyboard, lack of ports (so you need adapters), twice the price of PCs with better specs. What’s not to like? 😉
— Jack Schofield (@jackschofield) April 26, 2015
His points make sense when we’re talking about a general user.
Slow is a killer for many. If you need computer power this is not the laptop for you. It will struggle with Photoshop, with video editing, with any media production. It won’t cope with a lot of games. You can’t keep umpteen apps or browser tabs open.
Poor keyboard overstates the case in my experience, although you may feel otherwise. I typed this post on the MacBook. Sure one of those big, full-travel mechanical IBM keyboards would be better, but this is a laptop tuned for mobility. If you need more keyboard, go elsewhere.
Lack of ports (so you need adapters) could be a worry. I’ve had the computer two weeks and so far haven’t felt the need to connect anything. Over time I suspect this problem will be like a lack of floppy drive or lack of optical drive, which people struggled with for a while.
Apple is ahead of the pack. Presumably other PC makers will soon make computers with fewer ports. If that doesn’t suit the way you work, look elsewhere, the MacBook isn’t for you.
Twice the price of PCs with better specs in New Zealand that would be more like 40 percent more than PCs with better specs.
Even so, there’s no question with prices starting at NZ$2000, the MacBook is expensive. Whether it is good value depends on what you want from a computer.
Better specs is in the eye of the beholder. If small and light top your list then the MacBook has better specs and the premium is worth paying.
Is this the Apple Laptop to buy?
Maybe. It depends on your needs. If you travel a lot, don’t need to plug stuff into the device and don’t need a powerful processor, it will suit you. Laptops don’t come more mobile than this.
If a high-resolution display is important, it makes sense.
If you were considering dropping the laptop altogether and moving to a tablet plus keyboard combination, this would be a sensible alternative.
Otherwise, stick with the MacBook Air or Pro.
I’d choose the MacBook if my work involved spending less time sitting at my home desk. It would be a great choice for a journalist who moves around a lot.
For now, the MacBook Air is a better choice for my work.
- If you’ve ever taken a portable typewriter on a plane, you’ll understand why. ↩
- On the other hand saving 450 g gives a handy margin when dealing with Air New Zealand’s seven-kilogram carry-on baggage allowance. ↩
- It is that light. ↩
- There’s also a headphone jack, that often gets overlooked in the excitement. ↩
- Not that this has ever happened. ↩