By Jason Snell
May 12, 2016 1:30 PM PT
2016 MacBook review: A laptop with a point of view
The MacBook isn’t just a laptop. It’s a statement.
It doesn’t happen with every Apple product, but every so often the company creates a product that comes with a point of view so strong, it’s like a statement of personal belief—if a technology product from a many-billion-dollar corporation could ever be that.
It’s impossible not to look at the MacBook and see its idiosyncrasies. Size and weight have been prioritized over everything else. It’s as narrow a laptop as can exist while still having a full-sized keyboard; it’s so thin that the key travel on the keyboard is minuscule. This is the laptop designed like an iPad, fanless and thin and with a single USB-C port.
MacBook demands your criticism
The price of making a statement is that it doesn’t just invite criticism, it demands it. If everyone agreed that the MacBook was the right sort of computer, it wouldn’t be a statement—it would be obvious. So last year, when this MacBook design hit the scene, its quirks were rightly and fairly criticized. It’s a device with a lot of limitations, and while reasonable critics can differ about whether those limitations are relevant for most of the MacBook’s target audience, their existence isn’t in question.
What’s less reasonable is transmuting last year’s fair criticism into outrage that Apple hasn’t given the MacBook an immediate rethink. Given the lead time it takes to redesign hardware, the cramped space inside the MacBook shell, and Apple’s track record in keeping product designs around for at least two years, changing the MacBook design now would have been tantamount to Apple admitting that the statement it was making with the MacBook was misguided.
While I’m sure that Apple has heard the criticism and possibly even agreed with some of it, do I think that Apple regrets the overall statement that the MacBook makes? Not on your life. The MacBook is inhabiting the role that the MacBook Air used to fill in Apple’s product line—it’s the future, the cutting edge, a product that seems outlandish today but will appear commonplace tomorrow. (I’ll remind you that the MacBook Air also debuted as an impractical low-powered laptop with a single USB port—and it was nearly three years before Apple redesigned the Air hardware.)
I’m also not entirely sure why Apple would regret it. Does every computer need to offer every feature to appeal to every user? We heap our expectation and desire on every new Apple product, and the MacBook’s design pushes back. It is unabashedly a product that is not created to check all the boxes. In fact, it checks some you didn’t know existed and ignores the existence of ones you considered givens.
Though I’m not entirely convinced that we’re all evolving beyond our need for wired peripherals, there’s certainly an argument to be made that most MacBook users won’t miss the lack of USB ports. (Indeed, Apple’s choice to move to USB-C—breaking compatibility with previous peripherals—seems like more of a speed bump.) In a year or two, when Apple will likely take the opportunity to re-engineer the MacBook hardware, the wild design decisions of 2015 will seem a bit less wild, and more powerful and smaller parts will allow Apple to make that hardware more functional without giving up on its vision for the product.
(Idle speculation: If Apple’s really ditching the headphone jack in the iPhone 7, perhaps a future MacBook will have two USB-C or Thunderbolt 3 ports, one on either side of the case. The ultra-thin design wouldn’t be compromised, and people who need to hook up headphones or speakers would either use Bluetooth or a USB-C audio adapter. I’m not saying I love the idea, but it does sound like something Apple would do.)
It’s the same, only better
Meta-commentary on the reaction to the MacBook aside, the fact remains: This is a speed bump to an existing product design, as almost always happens in the second year of an Apple hardware release. Some things on the inside have changed, but the basic facts of this product remain the same.
Yes, the keyboard still lacks in terms of key travel, and whether you will find it problematic is a matter of personal taste. I don’t really love typing on it, but I can type at full speed. Perhaps the keyboard instills a little less trepidation in me now that Apple has released the Magic Keyboard, which suggests that the company isn’t using the MacBook’s keyboard as the basis for all of its other keyboards going forward. While I don’t love the MacBook keyboard, it does the job and probably isn’t going to infest the rest of the product line. I’ll take it.
The MacBook also has a Force Touch Trackpad, and again, personal taste applies. I think it’s just fine, and after a few days of using it you’d never notice that it’s not really depressing when you push on it, just vibrating in a way to make you feel like you’ve clicked it. However, Apple has done a poor job of making Force Touch an essential feature on OS X, so the trackpad’s support for sensing various levels of pressure feels largely irrelevant. Perhaps a future OS X update will make this feature more relevant.
That one USB-C port is still there, and if you need to charge your laptop while plugging in something, you’ll need a hub. (And for all your old USB devices, you’ll need an adapter.) If you plug USB devices in a lot, this is worth considering: You’ll need to travel with extra gear or park a hub at your workspace to use as a dock when you’re not roaming. Fortunately, there are many more USB-C accessories, especially hubs, available today than when the MacBook was originally available last year. But if you travel a lot and need to plug in external devices, you’ll need to carry some sort of dongle, which is a drag.
The rest of the MacBook is also still intact and unchanged: A spectacularly good Retina display at 2304-by-1440 pixels. It weighs two pounds and even makes my 11-inch MacBook Air look large. It even makes my 12.9-inch iPad Pro look big. (For the record, the iPad Pro is a little less than half a pound lighter, but its screen is bigger.) When it’s closed, the MacBook feels like an iPad in a shell.
2015’s MacBook model really did struggle when it came to its Intel Core M processor, a poorer performer than the Core i5 chips common in other Apple laptops. The Core M runs cooler than the i5, and since the MacBook doesn’t have a cooling fan, that was a necessary trade-off. The 2016 models are still running Core M-family processors, but these models (part of Intel’s Skylake generation of chips) are definitely upgrades. As with the 2015 model, Apple is selling three different processor variants for the 2016 MacBook: You can get a model with a 1.1GHz Intel Core m3, a 1.2GHz Intel Core m5, or (as a build-to-order option) the 1.3GHz Core m7.
I tested the 1.2Ghz Core m5 model, which offers Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz. Using GeekBench 3, it managed to score higher than my 2013 Core i7 MacBook Air on the single-core test, while being a bit behind on the multi-core test. It was appreciably faster than last year’s model, which is great news. (I should also mention that my 12.9-inch iPad Pro beat both of these laptops on the single-core GeekBench 3 test, though it lagged behind both on the multi-core test.)
The right tool for the job
A good tool is designed with purpose, a point of view, and an intended user. The MacBook may be a good tool for you, if you use a computer in a way that fits Apple’s vision. This is a light, thin device that provides a decent (but not more) amount of computing power in a traditional computer interface.
Apple makes products that surround the MacBook that offer more of one thing or less of another. If you want something smaller and more flexible, and don’t require that traditional cursor-and-keyboard interface, the iPad Pro might be a better choice. And if you want more of everything—power, ports, display size—the MacBook Pro is going to be a better fit. (I’m hopeful than in the coming months, we’ll see new MacBook Pros that incorporate some of the same philosophy that led to the MacBook, but in less extreme measure.)
My daughter has repelled my suggestions that she use an iPad, preferring an old Chromebook I gave her. When she saw the new MacBook, I could see it in her eyes—this is a computer she’d love to have. It provides everything she needs, and nothing she doesn’t—and it would save me from having to let her onto my iMac when she needs to run real software.
It’s a good fit for her. It might be for you. Or it might not. That’s the thing about products with a point of view: Not everyone will share it.
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