It’s going to take something special for Apple to lose the qualifiers and name a new laptop simply ‘MacBook’. There’s no ‘Pro’, no mention of a Retina Display, or an ‘Air’ to insinuate this thing’s small. It is simply ‘MacBook’, and as such it’s a statement of intent for Apple’s entire range.
This is where Apple has set out what it thinks is the future normal for laptops: super-crisp screens, no fans, effortless portability and a distinct lack of ports. The inclusion of an SD card slot, let alone a DVD-ROM drive, would be laughable. That in a nutshell is the MacBook. But what’s it like face-to-face? And isn’t it too pricey for an ’normal’ machine? We went hands-on at Apple’s Spring Forward event, and if this is the future of laptops, it’s looking pretty sexy.
DESIGN AND BUILD
The MacBook is ridiculously slim. Like, 13.1mm, fat smartphone-slim. The silhouette is classic Apple, with rounded corners and sharp, squared-off edges, and the keyboard sits barely a millimetre above the flat of the main body. It’s all aluminium - there’s no plastic around the hinge as there is on an Air - and for all its 900-ish-gram lightness, it feels solid.
There’s not much else to it. A polished stainless steel Apple logo in the hood, a drilled speaker grille above the keyboard, four tiny rubber feet, a USB-C port on the left edge and a 3.5mm jack on the right. It’s simple and minimal, and it looks lovely. Our pick is the space grey model, but the gold one is also curiously alluring.
It’s hard to judge a laptop screen after a few minutes of play, but first impressions of the MacBook’s are positive. It’s 12 inches across and sports a resolution of 2304 x 1400. At arm’s length it deserves the Retina label: get up close and you can see pixels, but in day-to-day use you won’t notice them. That means images look impressively detailed and OS X Yosemite’s fonts are rendered smoothly. It also seems bright and colourful. Again, we haven’t yet compared it to Apple’s other Retina displays, nor the screens of competitors such as Lenovo’s Yoga Pro 3, but we’d be surprised if you were disappointed by it.
Is it large enough? Now that depends very much on what you’re used to. A 12in display looks tiny compared to a 15in one, but the MacBook itself is smaller than an 11in Air, despite cramming in more screen real estate. Anyone used to a 13in MacBook Air or Pro should feel quickly at home, but if you currently use something bigger, do try before you buy.
KEYBOARD AND FORCE TOUCH TRACKPAD
Apple seems proudest of what it's achieved with the MacBook’s inputs. The backlit keyboard is almost flat to the MacBook’s body and spans its entire width - in fact, it determines the size of the chassis - and if we’re not mistaken it’s similar in size to that of the 13in MacBook Air. Apple claims to have re-engineered the spring mechanism in the keys (it’s now a ‘butterfly’ rather than a ‘scissor’), which results in something both slimmer and more stable. When you try it out, you expect little give in the keys, but the movement they have is precise and almost satisfying. You might yearn for a little more give, but we don’t expect that yearning to last.
The other all-new input device is the ‘Force Touch’ trackpad. Rather than hinging at the top as the current trackpad does (which means you can’t click above a certain height), this hinges in all four corners. And it can recognise how hard you’re pressing it, which allows it to access more functions than the current trackpad can - and give you ‘Taptic’ force feedback when it does so. For example, if you apply a certain pressure to a fast-forward button when watching a video, it’ll double the speed. Press harder and it’ll quadruple, harder still and you’ll be zooming through at 16x normal play rate.
Each incremental pressure increase is accompanied by feedback through your finger: it feels like you’re clicking further, but in fact it’s just a buzz sent through your digit. Other functions Force Touch unlocks include the ability to immediately access dictionary definitions of and Wikipedia entries for words as you highlight them, or the ability to call up Maps windows when you press on an address. Will force touch change the world? No. But it will make getting around OS X infinitessimally faster.
The MacBook marks Apple’s first use of Intel’s new Core M chips: proper PC innards that require no fans and barely sip at energy but are capable of real PC tasks. You won’t be playing 2015’s most graphically intensive games on this - our past experience of Core M-powered laptops suggests indie gaming and Source engine titles such as Portal 2 are about the limit - but for web browsing, image editing, office work and light video editing, the MacBook should perform just fine.
If you want to do more, then a MacBook Air or Pro will suit you better. Getting around Yosemite is nippy, and loading apps is fast, too. The base model sports a 256GB SSD and 8GB RAM, so we’d expect nothing less, although we’re not sure opting for the 1.3GHz version over the 1.1GHz model will make a huge amount of difference day-to-day. We’ll find that out once we’ve had a MacBook in to test.
WHERE ARE ALL THE PORTS?
Ah, the MacBook’s white elephant. Just as it did when it nixed the floppy drive from the iMac, or the DVD-ROM from the MacBook Air, Apple’s dropped most physical ports from the MacBook to reflect and expedite a move away from plugging in. Instead there Bluetooth 4.0 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, plus a single, brand new USB-C hole. This uni-directional port functions not only as the MacBook’s power socket (that’s right - the MacBook charges via USB) but as a connector for anything a USB port can now - external storage, for example. It makes for an uncluttered chassis, but for anyone who plugs something into their laptop on a regular basis, it will be limiting.
Sure, USB-C adaptors can reinstate most ports - Ethernet, HDMI/DisplayPort/VGA, and more - and we’ve already seen a breakout adaptor that’ll let you plug in to an external monitor while hooking up a keyboard and mouse - but adaptors can be easy to lose, and cost extra too. Getting used to having just one port in a laptop will take some getting used to. The good (nay, essential) news is that the MacBook’s power adaptor has a USB input, so you can accessorise while you’re plugged in. No matter how you cut it, USB-C is pretty cool - but it’d be nice to have a couple of them.
Apple states an ‘all-day battery life’ for the MacBook, which it reckons amounts to around nine hours of browsing or 10 hours of video playback. This is achieved by cramming Li-ion battery packs into every cranny of the MacBook’s unibody: the batteries are ‘terraced’, looking like those incredible Chinese fields that are carved into the sides of mountains. It’s an ingenious approach, and past experience suggests the stated figures won’t be pie in the sky.
PRICE AND AVAILABILITY
Apple’s making the MacBook available on April 10th with a starting price of US$1,299 for a 1.1GHz, 256GB SSD model with 8GB of RAM. The new normal, it seems, is crazy expensive. You can get many times as much power and storage for a similar outlay, or if you opt for a Chromebook or entry-level Windows laptop, similar power for a third of the cost. If you want something really versatile, look elsewhere - either to a port-laden big brother such as the MacBook Air, or a touchscreen-enabled competitor such as the Yoga Pro 3.
And while you’re at it, you might want to chuck Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 into the mix, as that’s a tablet too. But if a laptop’s portability is your primary consideration, first impressions suggest there’s no better one than the MacBook. (You could also be blinded by the MacBook’s beauty, its engineering, or its new toys. That’s just fine.)
First impressions suggest the MacBook’s a seriously impressive laptop. It’s an object of desire, a feat of engineering and a honed tool for getting stuff done. It imposes some limitations that may start off awkward, but it’s likely you’ll quickly adapt to them. But it’s clearly not for everyone. The professional show-off will love how tiny and sexy it is, but the regular user for whom a laptop is also as a repository for photos or a portal to entertainment will find alternatives that suit them better.
Is the future normal not really for normal people? That’s how it looks to us. But who wants to be normal? With the MacBook, you’ll be paying to live in the future - and the future looks pretty nifty.
Check back for a full review once we’ve had a unit in to test.