Greetings, primal human. I have been sent from the future to warn you of things to come, yet bring glad tidings and reassurances that things will get better.
If the 2015 MacBook could talk, it would probably say those exact words. This machine is from the future. The not-so-distant future, mind you, but the future nonetheless. It is the point on the horizon that all other high end portable laptops will converge at, and all other frigate laptops will watch, adapt, and learn from. Watch it unfold… as it is guaranteed.
The moment you actually hold the MacBook in your hand, you understand. The lightness, the tinyness. WTF that retina screen… it’s the best looking screen I’ve seen. “How is it that they could even craft something like this”, you will ponder. Like holding your first born child in the delivery room, you really can’t imagine the gravitas of what it is until it poops on you.
And then you start using it, and that’s where the road forks. One road stays on the flatland and heads home… “It was a very pleasant ride folks, but here’s where my journey comes to and end” some will say. The other road soars up into a lofty mountain, and the adventure is only beginning. As I have witnessed with everyone who has used or reviewed this machine, you will find yourself on one of those two roads. Lucky for me, I’m still bustling along up the mountain. Not to say there aren’t bumps, rocks, the occasional landslide, and a very scary ledge that is ever-present… because there are, but dammit if the ride isn’t well worth the risk.
Enough with the metaphors, analogies, an flowery prose. Let’s get down to business.
The keyboard is a revelation. If you ask any techcore person what their favorite keyboard was growing up, it will always come down to some flavor of IBM, or an Apple Extended II, etc. A number of companies have sprung up in trying to replicate what people loved about those keyboards, which if you ask them what exactly it is they are trying to replicate, one adjective will always be mentioned: tactile-ness or tactility. This MacBook keyboard has that in spades. The clicky, tactile feel of this keyboard has instantly made it my favorite. It was like moving into a new home with a great fireplace and all the furnishings you love. You may not know where everything is yet, but you know it’s home, and you can’t wait to live there. Oops, another analogy. Apple has increased the surface area of the MacBook keys and added a slightly larger concavity as opposed to any other keyboard they still produce, while at the same time slightly decreasing the space between the keys. Despite the larger surface area, the stability of the keys are higher than any other keyboard I’ve ever used (these key’s don’t “rock” or swivel about), and the travel length of the keystroke seems like it may be measured within a single millimeter or two (this is the part most folks will need to get used to – your fingers simply don’t need to push down as much to register a stroke). Once the keystroke is at the end of its extremely short journey, it’s met with an extremely satisfying metallic yet somewhat subdued ‘click’. It’s not really clicking from a switch in the traditional mechanical keyboard sense, yet there is definitely audible and mechanical feedback. Let me explain: If you type softly, your fingers will feel the clicky, tactile feedback of a key registering, and it feels wonderful. Audibly (again, at soft strokes) there is measurable sound, but not obnoxious… it’s very friendly. As you really start banging out words, the clicky feedback audibly increases, but never annoys. The feedback is a welcome delight with such short travel, and (at least for me) the frequency of hitting a key and having nothing happen are nearly reduced to zero. With less space between the keys, larger hands will perhaps find themselves with a slightly steeper learning curve on knowing just how far away the next key is, however the larger keys themselves help keep the slope small. Despite the fact that this keyboard is purpose-built (keeping the laptop impossibly thin), I’d like to see this exact configuration show up as at least an option for our desktop friends, though the likelihood is slim. If I had this keyboard in college, the carpel tunnel would have never reared its ugly head. Those were the days, and this is the keyboard.
It’s a retina screen. If you’ve owned an iPad or iPhone from the last few years, you are already spoiled with Apple’s exacting standards. For a laptop, the pixels feel closer to the glass than any other previous model I’ve owned. For comparison’s sake, my last lappy was Apple’s latest 15 inch MacBook Pro with retina screen. This screen surpasses that in both color rendering and general looks. Despite this being Apple’s smallest retina laptop screen, it never feels cramped (especially if you opt for the ‘more space’ display setting), and having the pixels close to the glass (coupled with the reasonably svelte and deep black bezel) somehow makes it feel bigger. It makes the Macbook Air screens (and bezels) feel like 1980’s computing. And for me, the return of the ‘MacBook’ moniker on the bottom of the screen is a welcomed nostalgia-tickler. I have more proof than ever that Yosemite really doesn’t shine unless you are using it with a retina screen, and the system-wide fonts really look magnificent on this one. The black levels are approaching near OLED, and it feels like I’m seeing some of my photos clearly for the first time, matching my minds eye of how they looked when I took them. This screen gives new life to sites like 500px, or Flickr… prepare to fall in love. And prepare to want a Leica. That’s just how it works, I guess.
The Nobel Prize Winning Trackpad
Wait… you are saying the person or team who invented this trackpad didn’t win a Nobel Prize? Well I guess it makes sense as they probably phased that out in the year 3030, which is where this trackpad came from. This ish is SPACE. It is NUCLEAR. It is NASA before the funding cuts. Did I mention it doesn’t actually move? You can click it. You can click through it. You can experience multi-level clicking for the first time in the history of man, yet it doesn’t actually move. This trackpad is the greatest single innovation in human-computer interaction since the invention of the mouse itself. Nothing I say can accurately articulate the mind-blowingness of this piece of technology. You won’t believe me when you try it… you won’t believe your own mind. But once you realize the trackpad is fooling your finger, body, mind, and soul into thinking it actually ‘clicks’, you’ll never trust this Matrix world again. But the trickery also has a very practical use: 3-dimensional input. At it’s most basic level, you click down, and then continue pressing further down to a 2nd click (which, by the way, feels ‘deeper’ and stronger than your initial first click), and then the word you are clicking “through” is instantly highlighted and defined for you, through OS X’s built in dictionary. Very useful… and much easier than highlighting, right-clicking, and then clicking ‘Look Up …’, as was the old way of getting a word’s definition. This deep-click is just the beginning of 3-dimensional computing interfaces, but wow oh wow, Apple should be commended for this. It’s a big deal.
Lol… the port. That lonely port. Never has more been written about a sibling-less port than the single USB-C port on the new MacBook. OH WAIT, this MacBook’s great grand-daddy, the ORIGINAL MacBook Air, also suffered through such speculation, punditry, and persecution. Well, the Apple doesn’t fall far from the tree I guess. Yes, the MacBook has only one port, used for both charging, and peripherals. There is also a headphone jack, but that’s it. Nothing else for your $1300. Want more ports? Fork over $80 until the myriad of aftermarket USB-C extendo tchotchkes flood Amazon. If there were a legitimate complaint to be made against the MacBook… THIS ISN’T IT. Personally, I get it. The MacBook is a return to the definition of Apple’s vision of the ultra-portable in the modern age. The future has no ports, only magic. And this laptop has just enough magic to warrant the original vision of the Grand Daddy Air. You have to be practical when evaluating a device for your personal use. It is no different when it comes to port speculation. When was the last time you plugged in a printer, scanner, memory card reader, or anything into your laptop? Why? Is it because that’s the best way, or is it because it is just familiar? For me, ports were already on the way out. Some ports on my Retina 15 were completely virgin. For printing, I AirPrint. Same for scanning (my printer is of the wireless variety, and supports OTA printing and scanning). I haven’t used a USB drive since DropBox first arrived on the scene. I might miss the lack of a memory card reader, but for that one day out of the quarter that might need it, the adapter will be fine. For all other days, there is AirDrop and iCloud Photos. What about Time Machine backups? My Airport Extreme with attached USB drive takes care of that for me, over the air. If you haven’t figured it out, I’m about neck deep into the Apple Ecosystem. I have an Airport, I use iCloud, I use AirDrop, I use AirPrint. For everything else, there is Dropbox or a dongle. I don’t miss a beat, and more importantly, I don’t miss any ports. I am the poster child for Apple’s vision of the future, and I will enjoy it while others whine about it.
I did have a giant concern about that one port, however. To understand my concern you should first understand my love of MagSafe. MagSafe was the greatest invention ever for powering laptops. Somewhere within MagSafe lie the secrets to peace on earth. Yes, it is that great of an invention. Almost as good as the new trackpad. With MagSafe, Apple eliminated the fuss of plugging something in, or the consequences of tripping over said plug. With the MacBook it’s now gone, slayed as part of some strange sacrifice for this newfangled USB-C. I had concerns that I would miss MagSafe too much, or worse, that this USB-C would be like every other experience I’ve ever had with plugging in anything USB… which is to say, it has always been somewhere between awful, and thoughts of suicide. I worried that even though this new USB is supposedly reversible, would it still behave like the snaggy weird toothy mess of a “Shiz, I think I just broke it” experience like micro-usb? What would it feel like? Nothing can replicate the pure joy of pugging in a Lightning cable, right? That satisfying snap and solidity? Well, dear readers, I’m happy to report Apple’s implementation of USB-C in the MacBook is pure joy. It feels even clickier than a Lightning cable, and not at all flimsy, or off-putting. It has a very satisfying tactile-ness to it that puts it on par with the keyboard, screen, and trackpad. In other words, it fits, and I’m not going to miss MagSafe, nor long for the Lightning. It’s totally fine. Not to mention it’s a very attractive connector. I thought there could never be another Lightning… but I was wrong. But what about cord tripping? As it turns out, I think Apple made the right choice. The MacBook is light. Essentially 2 lbs. Basically the same as an iPad 3. To have MagSafe not be annoying, it needs a reasonably strong magnetic connection. With the MacBook being so light, that magnetic connection would probably be just strong enough to drag the MacBook off the table on a slow pull, yet would probably work properly if it was a very quick yank. So it’s a tradeoff. If you have the weight of an iPad, why not give it the same power connector, since MagSafe wouldn’t be 100% optimal anyway? Plus the single port is cleaner, and fits the vision of the device. In a coin toss, the vision side of the coin was slightly favored. MagSafe lost, and it’s not a bad decision.
Like anything with a depleting source of energy, it depends on how you use it. Even a Hummer can get respectable gas mileage downhill. If you are editing 1080p videos in iMovie all day, it’s not going to cut The Mustard for very long. If you are typing a review about said product, you’ll get through most of a practical work day without issue. This is no 13 inch MacBook Air. But on the flipside, this is no 13 inch MacBook Air. The MacBook looks like paper sitting next to any Air, or especially its Pro cousins. It’s thinner than an iPad Air with an aftermarket keyboard. It’s nearly the same x/y dimension as the 11 inch MacBook Air, yet has an even larger retina screen! The physics have to give somewhere, and they do on battery life. Practically speaking, look for around 6-7 hours of solid work. It’s not bad, but it’s not magnificent. A newer Intel chipset should push the battery life into Golden Child status next year, or sooner. Until then, it’s not exactly in a bad spot, and should not be a deal-breaker for anybody who’s considering this laptop. It’s good enough. If you long for workhorse status, you have no choice but the 13 inch Air anyway. Would I have battery anxiety on a 6 hour flight? Not really, unless I was using the laptop during any part of the 3 hour pre-flight TSA molestation, while subsequently losing once again at musical power outlet, immediately prior to the pre-board cow culling ceremony where only the strong survive the 90 minutes of standing before getting on a plane built in the 70’s. I love flying. The terrorists won.
My 1.1 ghz MacBook feels fast, most of the time. Large complicated applications take longer to load than on comparable systems with faster processors, but it’s not overly dramatic. The fast SSD helps mask whatever slowness the Core M processor exhibits. When it does feel slow, it often feels like it’s not strictly due to the CPU. The noticeable problems often feel like they lay with the GPU. The graphics processor can comfortably push around these retina pixels for most tasks. Word processing… scrolling in Safari… these feel and are great (If they didn’t, this thing would be DOA. Luckily, they are fine). System-wide animations in OS X also feel right most of the time. Expose, Launchpad, notification center – they have the appropriate framerate to not feel crappy, if just barely. But if you have 10 largish applications open, Expose will drop its framerate to passable, which is annoying and disappointing for the hypercritical side of me. Framerate drops also manifest if you happen to dock your Application folder. There is the occasional chuggy-ness when expanding Applications in Grid view, but this specific use-case has felt slow on other machines I’ve owned, including the 2013 iMac that didn’t have a discreet GPU. That’s no excuse however… these folder actions and animations are 100% smooth on the MacBook Pros, modern Airs, or other machines, especially if they have discreet graphics. But on the MacBook, animation smoothness runs the gamut from mostly butter, to passable, to chuggy. It’s nit-picky given this is an ultra-portable. But it’s an Apple ultra-portable that starts at $1300. I’m putting the framerate drops on blast. I don’t expect 120 fps at all times on this tiny machine, but expanding a list of folders shouldn’t be chop suey either.
Now while system animations might be the subject of scrutiny, oddly enough video playback is not. I’ve streamed 60fps 4k vides on youtube and nearly had heart attacks at how beautifully smooth and vibrant the images passing before my eyes were. When I die, I want ‘birds of prey 4k 60fps’ flashing before my eyes… preferably on this very MacBook 12-inch retina screen. Yet it isn’t too long before Jekyll goes Hyde again.
When loading up a reasonably sized image in Pixelmator for editing, scrolling around the image taxed the GPU, and the framerate suffered a little. It’s passable, and won’t affect my workflow too much, but it’s these instances which bring you back down from the clouds as you are forced to recall, “Oh yeah, this is a Core M processor”, even if it is the GPU portion that is likely at fault. Apple needs to pressure Intel to step up its built-in graphics prowess. For anything but watching video, this isn’t good enough. I don’t care if it’s an ultra-portable. And even though this on-board GPU issue affects other Macs as well, it is in the MacBook where it is most manifested. Apple, figure it out.
Conclusion and Recommendations
This is Apple’s most ambitious laptop since the original MacBook Air, and it is an obvious nod to that machine. It is a direct descendant. The heir of the Air. A bold, pricey, not-for-everybody-and-not-ahsamed-of-it kind of laptop. It’s the laptop Steve would have made, which is perhaps ironic, as it’s the first truly new lappy since his passing. And whereas the world of the original Air was not quite socially or technologically ready, now, with the ecosystem that Apple has built, this machine has a place.
Yeah, it’s not perfect. It probably won’t be for at least another generation or two. And there is no way I could survive if this was my sole machine. But dammit if I wouldn’t love to attempt having this thing be my main squeeze. And that’s what’s so fun about it. It’s got moxie, and you just want to root for it. There is so much here that Apple may change or kill, and I hope all of it makes it (minus the crap GPU… kill it with fire).
If you buy one laptop every 6 years, and/or this is your main machine for everything, be all end all, skip this and get the MacBook Pro.
For those of you who want the most portable retina display money can buy, and don’t play hardcore 3d games or edit 4k videos, this is likely a great fit.
For those of you on the fence… to a point, the decision to buy the MacBook cannot be distilled by reason. It is an artistic decision. When you behold a Seurat in person, it either moves you or it doesn’t. Go to the Apple Store. Hold the MacBook in your hands. Type on its clackity keys. Push through its magic trackpad vortex. Behold that beautiful screen. At the end, you are either one of us, or you’re one of them.
So gun to my head: punt or purchase? Isn’t it obvious? For me, this is automatic. Purchase. This is Apple’s glimpse of the future, and I am voting with my dollars to express my approval. I love the slaughterhouse port murdering, keyboard upheaval, and drastic power restrictions that show Apple can still make the bold moves. Moves no other company dares to make for fear of facing the wrath of people who wouldn’t buy the product anyway. Good on you Apple. Stick to your guns. I don’t want to see two ports in your next stab at the future, I want to see none.