Long-term review: The new MacBook is a great travel laptop

After a month of testing, Apple's new MacBook rates as perfect for working on the go.

There are a lot of innovations crammed into Apple's latest MacBook, including a 12-in. Retina display, a new Force Touch trackpad, a full-size keyboard that's been redesigned to compensate for the device's size, the introduction of USB-C (a new USB standard featuring a reversible connection) and cleverly stacked batteries for maximum space efficiency. Also, for the first time, Apple is offering the MacBook in space gray, silver and gold, the same colors it offers in the iPhone and iPad lineup.

But looking past the specs, the question is: What is the new MacBook like as a day-to-day system? I spent a month with the MacBook -- including two round-trip car rides between Orlando, Fla. and Providence, R.I. -- in an attempt to find out.

The unit I reviewed is the $1,299 model, which is equipped with a dual-core 1.1GHz Intel Core M processor (designed around the Broadwell system architecture); the built-in Turbo Boost can clock the processor to 2.4GHz on an as-needed basis. An Intel HD Graphics 5300 chip powers the 12-in. 2304 x 1440 Retina display that has an aspect ratio of 16:10. This entry-level model also comes with 8GB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 memory (that cannot be upgraded) and 256GB of PCIe-based onboard flash storage. There is also a $1,599 version that features a dual-core 1.2GHz processor and 512GB of PCIe-based onboard flash storage.

The only configurable option is to upgrade the processor to a 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core M (Turbo Boost up to 2.9GHz) for an additional $250 on the entry model or $150 more on the higher-end model. All other features are locked into place.

The rest of the new MacBook's features include a 480p FaceTime camera for video calls that's hidden in the center of the display's black border; a stereo port on the right side; a backlit keyboard with ambient light sensor; Bluetooth 4; 802.11ac Wi-Fi; stereo speakers above the keyboard; and dual microphones (used for noise cancellation).

A small laptop with a full-size keyboard

This is a computer that makes the MacBook Air look huge. When I wrote my first impressions regarding this computer, I said that reading the dimensions (7.74 x 11.04 x 0.14-0.52 in. when the lid is shut, weighing in at slightly over 2 lb.) hardly does it justice. After using it for nearly a month, the size and weight are still a surprise.

It's also surprising how quickly I became accustomed to the MacBook's edge-to-edge keyboard, which had to be redesigned to fit the device's profile. Instead of going with a traditional scissor mechanism for the keys, a new butterfly method was invented that resulted in a shorter throw without the wobbly key travel that usually happens if you press the edge of a key while typing. Apple also enlarged the keys by 17%, leaving much smaller gaps between each.

The combination of short key travel, larger keys and the rigid behavior of key presses due to the new design really changes the feel of typing -- something not everyone will like. Some reviewers have panned the new keyboard: For example, one blogger stated that pressing the keys feels like pressing an iPhone's home button. And that's actually a pretty accurate comparison. As for me -- after a while, I grew accustomed to it, and now I prefer it.

Another redesigned element is the new Force Touch trackpad. The MacBook's glass-coated trackpad shares a similar aspect ratio to the display -- but that's not what makes this tech special. The trackpad -- also available in the 13- and 15-in MacBook Pro lineup -- is built around four force sensors that can detect how much pressure is applied; this, in turn, can trigger different behaviors, depending on which application is in use.

For example, unlike the previous trackpad, which used a spring mechanism for tactile feedback when clicking, the Force Touch's haptic engine produces physical feedback that simulates a click when the trackpad is pressed. When pressed harder than a normal tap, the trackpad responds with a double-tap, triggering contextually sensitive results: Force-clicking a link in Safari, for instance, will open the link in a preview window; force-click on a word and OS X will display its definition. In the QuickTime app, the amount of pressure exerted when pressing will adjust the speed at which movies are fast-forwarded and rewound, while applications like iMovie offer haptic feedback in the form of a subtle tap when you reach the end of a clip. (The force feedback sensitivity and feedback can be adjusted in the System Preferences / Trackpad pane.)

As with the keyboard, there's just enough give to provide mechanical feedback, but the new trackpad definitely has a different feel -- a feel that some long-time users might not like. I took to it right away, and the more I used it, the more I appreciated it. I love the multitouch trackpad on Apple devices, and while haptic feedback has been around in game controllers for a long time now, the way the Force Touch tech is implemented just makes Apple's notebook lineup better. I'm really looking forward to what app developers do with this technology.

A great Retina display

The MacBook has a Retina display with over 3.3 million pixels squeezed into its 12 inches, adding up to 226 pixels per inch. OS X's High Dots Per Inch (HiDPI) feature scales the interface to fit on the display; it can be adjusted under System Preferences / Displays by selecting Scaled interface instead of Default. On the MacBook, you can scale the resolution to 1024 x 640, 1152 x 720, 1280 x 800 (the default setting) or 1440 x 900.

In use, the display produces text and graphics that are sharp and easy to read, even on the small screen and no matter which resolution you choose. Colors are crisp and bright. If you're accustomed to Apple's Retina displays, you shouldn't be disappointed.

Long battery life, reasonable performance

The MacBook features battery cells that have been designed to take up as much space within the device as possible. Apple states that you can get up to nine hours of Web browsing and 10 hours of movie playing, and my tests weren't that far off the mark. With light MacBook use, the battery lasted for days. As a continuous use test, I played a 55GB video file of all three Lord of the Rings extended cuts; I was able to watch the first nine and a half hours in iTunes before the battery cut out. (I could have squeezed more out of it, but I kept the display at 80% brightness and left features like Wi-Fi and Bluetooth turned on.)

The size and weight of the MacBook is fantastic for travel, but it comes at the expense of performance. The MacBook's speed is fine for tasks like Web browsing, email, editing text and even editing videos; throughout it all, the UI remains pretty responsive, mostly thanks to the PCIe-based system architecture and flash storage. However, the system trips up when it comes to processor-intensive tasks -- so you can edit a movie using iMovie, but actually exporting the project will take a while.

I exported a couple of projects and compared the MacBook's timing to that of my 2013 15-in. MacBook Pro. The results weren't pretty: The first project, a three-minute video of my father chasing a stubborn rooster that I shot using a drone, took one minute and 34 seconds to export using the MacBook but only 46 seconds using the Pro. A complex 20-minute video assembled from family vacation footage exported in eight minutes and 49 seconds using the Pro, yet took nearly 40 minutes to export from the MacBook.

On the other hand, this computer is almost eerily silent; it makes zero noise. You will never have to worry about the sound of a fan whirring away or the click-clack of a hard drive being accessed.

Considering USB-C

One thing I will really miss is the MagSafe connector, which, because of its easy detachabilitly, has saved my bacon on many occasions in the past. Besides the stereo port on the right, the only physical connector on this computer is the USB-C port, which doesn't detach when pulled.

USB-C is nice. It will be better when it catches on and more peripherals use it. Meanwhile, users might find a need for an adapter or two, as that sole port is also used to power the machine.

Apple sells a USB-C to USB converter for $19. You can purchase a USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter or a USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter that lets you connect to power, a USB device and external video out via HDMI or VGA, respectively, for $79 each. There is also an external USB SuperDrive ($79) if you want DVD/CD writing/reading, but you must also purchase the USB-C to USB cable for it to work. If your lifestyle involves traveling often, without needing accessories that are not wireless, this will work; but some might want to look into using a hub of sorts at home base.

Bottom line

The new MacBook is Apple skating to where the puck will be, and for that reason, it may not be suitable for every user. But, as a whole, it's a gorgeous, tiny, full-fledged OS X computer. It's a wonder that Apple was able to provide a high-resolution Retina display, a full-size keyboard and a full-size multitouch trackpad with such a long-lasting battery on a device this size.

The new MacBook isn't the fastest Mac ever -- but then again, with a size and weight perfect for traveling, it doesn't need to be. The MacBook offers a full OS X 10 experience in a package nearly as portable as the iPad. If your digital lifestyle is mostly on-the-go with an emphasis on wireless, this could be the computer for you.


Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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