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Apple MacBook (2015) review: Slimmer and lighter than Air

The slimmest, lightest Apple laptop currently available High-quality Retina display Fanless design runs cool and quiet Sturdy, yet elegant constructionSingle USB-C interface for connectivity and charging Modest performance and battery life Expensive

It is, perhaps, a sign of the times that the slimmest and lightest laptop that Apple has ever produced has been almost completely overshadowed by the launch of the endlessly hyped Apple Watch. However, Apple’s Mac computers — and particularly its MacBook laptops — have sold consistently well in recent years, regularly posting double-digit increases in sales at a time when the wider PC market seems to be in steady decline.

Apple’s new MacBook is certainly a significant release, providing a major redesign for a long-neglected member of the Mac lineup. It’s a wonderful piece of design, but it also turns Apple’s existing laptop range on its head. It relegates the former flagship MacBook Air to the role of entry-level laptop, and establishes a new category of premium ultraportable devices that Apple, with typical modesty, describes as “the future of the notebook”.

The 12-inch MacBook measures just 3.5-13.1mm (0.14-0.52in.) thick and weighs 0.92kg (2.03lbs). Image: Apple

Prices for the new MacBook start at £1,049 (inc VAT; £874.17 ex. VAT), which buys you a dual-core 1.1GHz-2.4GHz Intel Core M-5Y31 processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid-state storage. For £1,299 (inc. VAT; £1,082.50 ex. VAT) you can step up to 1.2GHz-2.6GHz Core M-5Y51 and 512GB storage, while £1,419 (inc. VAT, £1,182.50 ex. VAT) secures a further speed bump up to the 1.3GHz-2.9GHz Core M-5Y71. The new MacBook is only available with a 12-inch Retina display with a native resolution of 2,304 by 1,440 pixels, and there’s no option to upgrade the memory beyond 8GB.

That’s expensive, but still in the same price range as ultraportable rivals such as Lenovo’s Yoga 3 Pro (which, incidentally, beat Apple to the punch with a slimline Core M laptop by several months). But, as always with Apple, those numbers only tell half the story, and you need to spend some hands-on time with the new MacBook in order to appreciate its strengths and weaknesses.

The extent of the redesign that new MacBook has received is illustrated by the fact that this 12-inch laptop manages to be both slimmer and lighter than the 11-inch version of the aging MacBook Air that’s still on sale. The 12-inch MacBook measures just 3.5-13.1mm (0.14-0.52in.) thick and weighs 0.92kg (2.03lbs), compared to 3-17mm (0.11-0.68in.) and 1.08kg (2.38lbs) for the 11-inch MacBook Air. The MacBook Air also has a chunky metal border around the screen, which results in a total width of 300mm (11.8in.) for the screen panel, whereas the edge-to-edge glass panel of the new MacBook reduces the width of the laptop by almost 20mm to just 280.5mm (11.04in.).

The build quality, of course, is immaculate. The aluminium chassis of the MacBook looks smart and elegant, but feels very sturdy and provides good support for both the screen and the keyboard panels. There are no internal cooling fans either, so the MacBook is virtually silent when running.

new-macbook-keyboard.jpgThe ultra-thin keyboard uses a new ‘butterfly’ key hinge mechanism, while the trackpad is a ‘taptic’ Force Touch unit. Image: Apple

The pressure-sensitive Force Touch trackpad has already made an appearance on the recently updated MacBook Pro, but the new MacBook also benefits from a redesigned keyboard that uses a ‘butterfly’ hinge mechanism under each key to reduce the thickness of the keyboard while still providing a firm response that feels comfortable when typing quickly. And, taking a leaf out of the iPhone’s book, the MacBook is now available in three different colours: traditional silver; a darker ‘space grey’; and a gold model that might be a little too ostentatious for business users seeking an air of cool professionalism.

new-macbook-colours.jpgThe new MacBook comes in Apple’s now-familiar colour choices: Silver, Space Grey and Gold. Image: Apple

Another key difference that sets the MacBook apart from the MacBook Air is the new Retina display. The 12-inch display boasts a resolution of 2,304 by 1,440 pixels (226 pixels per inch, or ppi), compared to just 1,366 by 768 (142ppi) for the 11-inch MacBook Air, and 1,440 by 900 (131ppi) for the 13-inch model. In fact, it’s only 250 pixels short of the 27-inch display on my office iMac.

The Retina update is long overdue, but the image quality is undeniably impressive, with bold colours, strong contrast and excellent all-round viewing angles. There are Windows rivals that can beat its resolution, of course (including the 3,200-by-1,800 [282ppi] display on the 13-inch Yoga 3 Pro), but the Mac operating system handles these ultra-high resolutions more effectively than Windows. The Display control panel within OS X provides a number of ‘looks like’ options that scale text and graphics in order to enhance visibility. By default, the MacBook display ‘looks like’ 1280 by 800, which is quite easy on the eye, but you can increase or decrease this simulated resolution to suit whatever applications you use in your work. Some people may still prefer to work on a slightly larger screen, but if lightweight portability is your priority then the new MacBook is hard to beat.

But, as always, there’s a trade-off between portability and performance. Even with a Turbo Boost option that can increase clock speed to 2.4GHz, the entry-level 1.1GHz Core M processor with its integrated Intel HD Graphics 5300 GPU delivers only modest performance. To be fair, its GeekBench 3 scores of 2489 for single-core performance and 4633 for multi-core are comparable to those of Lenovo’s similarly configured Yoga 3 Pro, but they’re slightly lower than the less expensive 1.6GHz Core i5-based 13-inch MacBook Air.

The new MacBook will still be perfectly adequate for routine web browsing, email and running Microsoft Office, but if you’re thinking about more demanding tasks such as photo- or video-editing then you’ll need to look at the more powerful Core i5/i7-based MacBook Pro range.

The real strength of Intel’s new Broadwell processors is their power-efficiency, and we’ve seen impressive battery life from a number of Broadwell laptops recently. However, the slimline design of the new MacBook means that there’s only room inside it for a relatively modest 39.7Whr battery to power the high-resolution Retina display.

Apple claims nine hours of web browsing for the new MacBook, but we only got 6 hours and 40 minutes of streaming video from the BBC iPlayer during our tests. That’s respectable enough (and comparable to the battery performance of the Yoga 3 Pro), and you can probably squeeze another couple of hours out of it for more casual web browsing. However, the high-resolution Retina display clearly affects battery life, and there are plenty of laptop rivals that can match that performance. The MacBook Air may have a more modest display, but it can handle 10 hours of streaming video with no trouble at all and is still worth considering if battery life is your main priority.

new-macbook-side.jpgApart from the headphone jack, the only interface on the new MacBook is a USB-C port: you’ll have to buy optional adapters to get extra connectors. Image: Apple

new-macbook-dangle.jpg Image: Apple One other factor that allowed Apple to reduce the size of the MacBook so dramatically. Apple says that the new MacBook is designed for ‘a wireless world’ — which is one way of saying that it has virtually abandoned physical interfaces and cables for external connectivity. A single USB-C port on the rear left corner is used to charge the MacBook, the only other connector being a headphone socket on the opposite left-hand corner. There’s no video output, and the new MacBook has even abandoned Apple’s own high-speed Thunderbolt interface.

The assumption is that all other peripherals and network connectivity will be over wi-fi (802.11ac) or Bluetooth (4.0). This, of course, is nonsense — as we discovered as soon as we tried to install our test files off a USB memory stick. Fortunately, Apple does supply a number of USB-C adapters for those of us that still use cables to connect to monitors, hard drives and other peripherals. There’s a basic USB-C-to-USB adapter, which allows you to connect a single USB device to the MacBook. However, you can’t charge the MacBook while you have a USB device plugged in with that cable, so it makes more sense to opt for one of Apple’s Multiport adapters instead. There are two available: both include a USB-C port to charge the MacBook and a conventional USB 3.0 port for peripherals, and either HDMI or VGA for an external monitor. There’s no Ethernet adapter available from Apple, but third-party manufacturers such as Belkin have already announced plans to plug that particular gap.

Apple provided these adapters with our review unit, and they proved essential in order to perform routine tasks such as transferring files from a hard drive and charging an iPhone that was connected to the MacBook. Unfortunately, none are included with the MacBook, and Apple charges £15 (inc. VAT) for the basic USB adapter, and a thumping £65 (inc. VAT) for the Multiport units. Most users will need at least one of these accessories and it’s unforgivable that Apple doesn’t at least throw in the basic USB adapter free of charge.

The new MacBook’s lightweight, slimline design certainly has that special aura of elegant functionality that always overcomes objections to Apple’s high prices. And while the limited connectivity may deter business users who need to connect to wired office networks and other peripherals, we suspect that those issues are likely to fade in coming months as USB-C becomes more widely adopted.

However, the new MacBook’s portability does come at the cost of performance and battery life. If weight is your main concern when travelling with your laptop, then this MacBook is in a class of its own. But if you value battery life or raw power then you’ll probably want to look elsewhere.

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