On Thursday I started using a new 12" MacBook. Yep, that one with just one port. Yes, in the gold finish because I am obnoxious. I made quick post about how the gold model came with gold Apple stickers and asked if any of you wanted to hear more about it. Some said yes, so here we go!
In June of 2011, Apple updated the MacBook Air with 2nd-generation Core i-Series processors. This was a big jump in power over the Core 2 Duo chips used in the 2010 models. While it kept the same case design, it was the first time the MacBook Air had the processor power to keep up with the rest of the Mac lineup. In November of 2011, I got a loaded i7 model that rang up around $1700 (paid for by my employer). Since then it has been a great sidekick, seeing use in more airplanes, coffee shops, hotels, conference rooms, and family couches than I care to count. Basically I shitpost from it a lot. I also do work on it sometimes.
In that time it has taken quite the beating. There are dents in the case and a chunk missing from the aluminum in one corner, but it just keeps running. About a year ago I started noticing some instances where it did struggle to keep up a little bit and started thinking about what to eventually replace it with. The Retina MacBook interested me, but I wasn’t sure about the 1-port design and when I played with one in the Apple Store I wasn’t happy with the keyboard. In the time since then, I’ve noticed that I basically never plug anything into the ports on my Air. Maybe 2 or 3 times in the last year. I have a $4k Dell Precision tower sitting under my desk to do all the heavy lifting - the Air always has been something to use when I am out of the office. So I don’t need a laptop with a ton of ports. I’ve also picked up some more USB-C devices. (Now I can bring just one charger for my MacBook at my Switch!) Also, Apple released another MacBook update with a revised keyboard in June. Then it happened last month. The dreaded “Service Battery Soon” message on my Air. Yes it still worked, but I could tell the battery was quickly getting worse. Sure you can replace it, but on a nearly 6 year old laptop it was a sign.
So here I am with a shiny new MacBook. It is the i5 model with 8 GB of RAM and a 256 GB SSD with the gold finish. It came out to $1379 (paid by my employer) with the modest $20 discount B&H is running right now on this particular configuration.
Let’s get this out of the way first. The keyboard seems to be an even more divisive issue with this computer than even the one port design. So what can I say about the keyboard? Well, for starters I’m typing this entire review on it. So far, I don’t hate it, though typing quickly on it does cause fatigue quicker than most keyboards. I’m also making more mistakes than usual, but I think I can get over that with some more practice.
Look, I have a Corsair K70 with Cherry MX Brown switches on my desk in the office. I’m a bit of a keyboard snob. I’m not going to try to compare this keyboard to it because it isn’t fair. But I actually think it is pretty decent for a laptop and actually feels just as good as some of the crap Dell has put in mobile Precisions over the years even if those do have more key travel. Overall I’d say based on my impressions so far it is a perfectly acceptable compromise for how ridiculously thin this laptop is. It isn’t perfect, but it is far from terrible. In fact, worse than the keys are the sharp edges of the body that dig into my palms when I place them like I normally would on the wider Air. I think I can get used to that either by adjusting pressure or the placement of my hands.
I realize some people just won’t be able to get used to this keyboard. But if I can go from a Cherry MX keyboard to this and back without any major issues, I think others can as well. It’s not for everyone, but I wouldn’t dismiss it out of hand based on reviews. Give it a try. If you tried the 2015 or 2016 version, give the 2017 a try. If you still hate it I don’t blame you, but I think it has improved enough over the older versions to deserve a fair shake.
Let’s start with the screen. If you’ve used an Apple Retina MacBook Pro or iMac or even an iPhone or one of the numerous 4K PC laptops out there you get the idea. That being said, this is still one of the best. Apple makes some claims about expanding the apertures on the pixels or some crap like that. All I know is that it has a level of even lighting and vividness to the colors that a lot of lower end screens don’t. There are other screens the same size with the same pixel count, but I haven’t used one the makes you just want to crawl inside of it an live like this one does. The clarity of the screen also makes it feel bigger than it is. I guess the same can be said for the 13" MacBook Pro and and the Dell XPS 13, but the skinny bezel high resolution and vivid color make the screen feel easier on the eyes than the Air. Even though the desktop is just a doubled version of 1152x720 it doesn’t feel very constraining like 12" laptops did in the pre-retina days.
The USB-C port is the port. There is a headphone jack too. That is nice actually because I’ll often have headphones in while using my laptop in airport terminals. I’m guessing if you’re reading this you already know if the one port only will work for you or not. It’s fine with me. I do have the VGA and USB type-A combo dongle. Occasionally I will plug into a projector and for some reason those all still use VGA. I know a lot of people would rather just have the ports in the laptop body, but I like carrying a dongle in the bag. Keeps the body smaller for tray tables.
And that is one big thing that drew me to the MacBook - the size is just ridiculous. The Air is thin but it is significantly wider/deeper to the point it is a little hard to use in airplanes and on some of the smaller cafe tables. The MacBook just fits anywhere. It also is almost unfair how light this thing is. I’ve almost thrown it across the room just picking it up from the desk. It weighs less than a 12.9" iPad Pro. Less than a 10.5" iPad Pro with a keyboard case. Yet it is a full featured laptop running the full MacOS X.
The charger is small because it only pushes 29W. So that is nice too. Since it is USB-C, in a pinch you can charge it slowly from a phone or tablet charger. I have an Anker PowerCore battery that I can charge it with too.
The trackpad is fantastic. Force touch is cool, but I haven’t really found any great uses for it in OS X. Seems to do more on the iPhone. This trackpad uses “Taptic” feedback like the iPhone 7 and newer. So the trackpad doesn’t actually have a button. But it still feels like it clicks. If you’ve used an Apple trackpad you know what to expect. If you haven’t... well chances are it’s like a trackpad you’ve used but better.
Really I can’t say enough good things about the hardware here. It feels sold, sturdy and well built. The screen is great. The trackpad is great. The keyboard is good enough. It doesn’t have an obnoxious fan like the Air - it has no fan at all! I’m sure in 10 years we’ll all be laughing about what a pig that 2015-2017 MacBook was, but today it is fantastic. There is a reason that these cost a little more than the competition and you know it the minute you open the lid. Build quality doesn’t matter a ton on a desktop, but it does on a laptop and Apple knocked it out of the park here.
Unfortunately we now arrive at the part of the review where “first impressions” really kicks in. I’ve had MacBook for 5 days now and I haven’t really used it all that much. I did upgrade from the base m3 chip to the “i5" (really just a rebranded m5) for a little extra headroom. I didn’t go past 8 GB of RAM because Air has 4 GB and it is still doing OK-ish. So far the processor has handled what I’ve thrown at it. If you don’t know the drill, this “ultra low power” chip runs at a base speed of just 1.3 GHz which is much lower than the 2.0-ish that the Air and Pros start at. But it can “turbo” up to 3.2 GHz which isn’t that far off what the bigger chips go up to at their high end, typically 3.6-4.0. The issue is that without a fan and big power supply, it can’t sustain that speed for very long. So it is good at “burst” type tasks and not so good at things like video encoding.
So far I’ve loaded a lot of websites and watched Doug talk about some qwerks on YouTube while writing messages and doing some light photo editing (cropping, adjusting levels) and it has felt very fast. The only software I’ve loaded is my work VPN and Microsoft Remote Desktop Client. So if you’re actually still reading you’ve found my dark secret - most of the time that I have WiFi I’ll be using RDP to connect to my Precision tower and basically remotely run Windows 10 on my MacBook so that I can do things like SolidWorks and MATLAB with all of the firepower that I have over there. So far it has run great with no complaints.
The SSD is absurdly fast. This thing boots from fully off to the desktop in a matter of seconds. I used a USB-3 hard drive through the dongle to transfer a few files over and it went stupidly fast - I’m sure the external drive was the slower part. It has WiFi that can go faster than any access point I’ve yet to connect it to.
I haven’t done a scientific test, nor do I plan to. Apple has removed the “Time Remaining” estimate in 10.12, so I can’t guess based on that. All I can say is that it looks like it will be insane. I’ve been using it for well over an hour on battery right now and I’m at 92% remaining. And I’ve done that a few times. So it looks like 12-14 hours. This has been in low ambient light, though, so the screen isn’t set that bright. Still, real-world 10-12 hours seems totally do-able. Even when my Air battery was new I could only ever get about 5. And that’s just another thing that makes this more portable. I can take it to a remote office for the day and leave the charger at home. It can get through a regular full day on battery just fine. So if you do need that one port, you can use it. There really isn’t a big need to have this plugged in and be doing something like transferring photos from an SLR at the same time.
Probably I’m just getting old, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that I’m holding a laptop that runs a full desktop OS and will run for 12 hours on a single charge while weight 2 pounds. Not that long ago if you wanted that kind of battery life you were hauling around an 8 pound beast with one of those piggyback batteries or using a PC laptop with a spare battery that you were swapping part way through the day.
If you made it this far, I’m sure you can tell I like this thing. A lot. For me it looks like it will be pretty much the perfect travel machine. The build quality is great, the performance is good and I absolutely think it is worth the price. In fact, I’d go as far as to say if portability is your main concern it is a bargain at this price. I think there are a ton of people that is a great machine for. But there are also plenty that just won’t be able to get over the compromises. Still, with a USB-C hub at a desk it might work for people who come and go and don’t need a ton of horsepower. The keyboard may still be the hardest thing to get over. I typed all this nonsense on it. It didn’t kill me. But it definitely wan’t as good as some of the better laptop keyboards in existence. In the end, though, I’d say that if you are even considering this MacBook it is definitely worth giving a try in store or buying and returning if it isn’t for you. In 2015 the MacBook was slow, had a bad keyboard and was in a world where one USB-C port didn’t make any sense. Now it is fast enough, the keyboard is no longer bad, and having just one USB-C is livable. And that is good enough for me. Hopefully I get another 5+ years out of it!
Sorry for any typos. It is late and I’m scheduling the post without reading it through. Also, AMA about things that aren’t here. I might not have an answer, but I can try.