By Jason Snell
April 9, 2015 9:01 AM PT
The new MacBook: A reviewer’s notebook
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
The new MacBook is here! I’ve been using the MacBook exclusively for most of the last week, and my massive full review of the MacBook is available now over at Macworld. (Seems like old times!)
After writing 3500 words about a laptop, you wouldn’t think there’d be much left on the cutting-room floor. Oh, but you’d be wrong! Here are a few brief hands-on notes about the MacBook that I’ve saved just for Six Colors readers…
The elevator pitch for the MacBook is probably, “It’s the laptop you’d expect the creators of the iPad to build.” From the shiny black Apple logo to the space gray and gold color options, this device is thoroughly embedded in Apple’s current design language. Making it smaller and lighter than any previous Apple laptop pushes it even closer to the iPad. And like the iPad, it’s got no fan and only a single port for access to peripherals or charging.
The iPad comparison even extends to the behavior of the device when it’s charging. If the charging adapter is already plugged into the wall, when you plug the other end of the USB-C cable into the MacBook you’ll hear a familiar chime—the same sound you hear when you plug in an iPad or iPhone. The USB-C plug itself is remarkably similar to the Lightning plug used on iOS devices, albeit slightly larger.
In fact, if the MacBook is turned off, when you plug in the charging cable, the screen will come on briefly and indicate how charged its battery currently is. That’s not behavior you’d expect—when a computer’s off, it’s off—but it’s something you’ll find in the MacBook.
What’s in the box is also very iPad like. There’s a power brick, a USB-C cable that can connect your MacBook to either the power brick or to other USB-C devices (should those exist), and that’s it.
That keyboard, though
I go into a lot more detail about this in the review, but in the end I’ve got to say that I’m not a fan of the new keyboard. Apple played the other enhancements that the keyboard offers, such as increased stability and wider keys, as attempts to offset some of the costs of the reduced key travel. That makes me hopeful that Apple sees this keyboard as what it is—a pretty serious compromise in order to get the computer thinner—rather than some breakthrough new keyboard that will be replicated on every other Apple keyboard in the next year or two.
If you don’t type a whole lot, or very fast, you may not care about the substantially reduced key travel. And you can get used to it. But it’s just a tiny step up from typing on flat touchscreen glass. I managed to score almost 120 words per minute on TypeRacer on the MacBook keyboard, but I didn’t enjoy it. If you’re someone who notices when a keyboard feels different or weird, you will notice this keyboard. If you’ve never really understood why people write about keyboards, you probably won’t care—but why are you even reading this section?
What do I use this adapter with?
In addition to the MacBook, Apple sent along the $19 Apple USB-C to USB-A adapter. It’s got a male USB-C plug on one end and a female USB-A (“standard USB”) plug on the other end. When I took the MacBook out of the box I wanted to migrate the contents of my MacBook Air to it, so I could have all my apps and stuff ready to use. I even booted the thing up with the T key held down, which put it in Target Disk Mode. A USB logo danced on the screen. I was ready to go.
Except. How do I connect it to anything? Even with the adapter, I’d need a USB-A-to-USB-A cable, which I have none of. (I’m not sure they exist—most USB cables are of the USB-A to USB-B variety, or are USB-A to Mini USB or Micro USB.) Regardless, I didn’t have one. So I decided to connect the MacBook to my Ethernet network, but then the realization dawned on me that my MacBook uses a Thunderbolt to Gigabit Ethernet adapter. No Thunderbolt. No dice. I finally found, at the bottom of a bin of cables and adapters, my old Apple USB Ethernet Adapter, attached that to the USB-C adapter, and attached it to the MacBook. (Turns out Monoprice sells a cable that would’ve done the trick for $10.)
What I’m saying is, if you get a MacBook, be prepared for some adapter logistics and probably to buy some new cables. You’ll also need to keep a video adapter with you at all times if you ever attach to a projector or TV anywhere, because nobody’s going to have one that matches your computer for years.
After I double-adapted the MacBook onto my Ethernet network, I decided not to bother running Migration Assistant and just load things from the cloud as I needed them. That led to a whole lot of downloads, and entering serial numbers, and re-setting preferences, and two-factor authentication codes, and app-specific password generation pages. Ugh.
There’s got to be some middle ground. I don’t necessarily need to migrate everything on one computer to the next, but it would sure be nice if I could sync some small subset that would get me up and running more easily. I’d like to keep my app preferences and passwords and the like. If Apple could somehow solve this in a future version of OS X, that would be swell, because right now the two choices—migrate every damned thing and wait out a potentially long, slow migration, or don’t migrate anything and reassemble your digital life piecemeal—seem pretty extreme.
Retina display scaled by default
The MacBook’s retina display is physically 2304 by 1440 pixels. In standard “2x” retina mode, that means the 12-inch display should look like a non-Retina display at 1152 by 720 pixels. While that’s an option in the Display preference pane, by default the MacBook displays at a scaled resolution that’s the size of a 1280 by 800 pixel display, more or less the same amount of real estate as an 11-inch MacBook Air. That’s also the resolution that the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro displays at, but on that screen it’s the native 2x resolution—here, the MacBook is drawing a 2560 by 1600 pixel interface and then scaling it down to fit in 2304 by 1440 pixels.
It looks good, though I almost immediately flipped over into the More Space setting, which emulates a 1440 by 900 display—the equivalent of the 13-inch MacBook Air display. There’s more room to breathe, and text is still readable. And really, if your display is going to be a scaled resolution by default, why not eke out a little bit more room? The native 2x mode might be super crisp (though I couldn’t really tell the difference), but there’s very little space in that mode. I don’t recommend it—and neither does Apple!
I played music at max volume out of the MacBook, next to my 11-inch MacBook Air doing the same thing, and I can declare that the MacBook’s speakers are louder and sound better. There’s good stereo separation, even. The noise comes out of a grille right above the keyboard.
My MacBook came with OS X 10.10.2 (14c2513) preloaded on board, and supported all the fancy trackpad stuff you’d expect. But yesterday OS X 10.10.3 shipped. This was sort of unavoidable—they had to start producing MacBooks weeks, if not months, ago, and OS X 10.10.3 just went final. What it does mean is that for some indeterminate amount of time, buyers of new MacBooks will immediately be prompted to install a software update.
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