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Living in the future: Apple’s super-thin MacBook reviewed

By Leigh D. Stark | 3:08 pm 14/04/2015

Have you ever looked at a laptop and said “sorry, but this isn’t thin enough”? Apple has, and with its latest laptop, has found a way to make one of the lightest, thinnest, and most futuristic computers yet. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Apple’s MacBook.

Features

Inside the MacBook, you’ll find some Intel inside, with a Core M processor from the Broadwell generation, also known as the fifth-generation of Intel’s CPUs for those who want to know how recent the chips are (hint: the answer is “very”).

These are clocked at either 1.1GHz for the base model or 1.2GHz for the one above it, the extra hundred megahertz difference also bringing different storage options, with either 256GB on-board flash storage in the 1.1GHz model or 512GB storage in the 1.2GHz version.

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Memory on both of these computers is set to 8GB RAM, and Apple is relying on Intel’s HD 5300 graphics to do any heavy lifting if needs me, with no discrete graphics in either of these models, just like with the MacBook Air.

Connections on the Apple MacBook are pretty slim, but just enough, with 802.11a/b/g/n provided as well as 802.11ac (because ac is backwards compatible), Bluetooth 4.0, with wired ports provided through the 3.5mm headset jack on the right side of the computer and the new USB Type-C port on the left.

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USB Type-C is a bit of a newbie, so we feel the need to give this one an introduction: essentially, it’s an all-in-one port, providing video out, power, and data all through the one port.

The USB Consortium has been eyeing this for a while now, and USB 3.1 or “Type-C” as most people will call it has been expected to work as a charging port, making it possible for you to charge your laptop through the special port, while also using this for data transfers, and even to connect to a monitor by way of a special adaptor.

Think of this as the improved iteration of Thunderbolt, only even more open, and with the possibility of charging your laptop through the port.

That said, being a first generation product, the MacBook only has the one USB Type-C port, and there are no special adaptors to give you HDMI out or regular USB 3.0 out of the box, so if you want to do more than charge your computer using this port, you will need to go out and buy an adaptor for the purpose.

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But that’s all the ports and connection options being offered, and these sit inside of Apple’s typically metal unibody case, made from aluminium. This casing is built to be slim, sitting at a maximum closed height of 13.1mm at its thickest point, and 3.5mm at its thinnest, with a weight of under a kilogram, weighing in at 920 grams, lighter than the smaller 11 inch MacBook Air.

A new style of keyboard sits in this casing, as does the relatively new Apple Force trackpad, which made its first appearance on the MacBook Pro 13 inch (2015), and there is also a new screen here, too.

Inside the MacBook, you’ll find a 12 inch Retina grade screen, the first time we’ve seen Apple’s “Retina” technology move below the 13 inch space. This display relies on a 2304×1440 resolution, providing a pixel clarity of roughly 226 pixels per inch, scaling the display to a native 1280×800 with a higher pixel count, though you can force this to scale to 1440×900 if you need more space and can see smaller fonts with ease.

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A FaceTime camera sits above the frame, providing 480p video and images (720×480) and not the 720p you get out of a FaceTime HD camera.

Three colour options are available for the MacBook, with the MacBook available in gold, space grey, or the traditional Apple silver.

The battery is built into the MacBook and is not removable.

The model used for the review of the Apple MacBook was the base model, with a 1.1GHz processor and 256GB storage.

If you have a space grey iPad and a space grey iPhone, you can now get a space grey laptop to match. Neato.

If you have a space grey iPad and a space grey iPhone, you can now get a space grey laptop to match. Neato.

Performance

The “MacBook” name has been left dormant for too long, it seems, and Apple is keen to bring it back, resurrecting it with something new that aims to impress and stun, and not just an entry level laptop.

That was what we saw with the original “MacBook”, the white and black plastic model that grabbed attention all over the world by providing enough of what people needed without needing to spend on the aluminium that made its way into the Pro models baring the same name. If you didn’t mind plastic, the MacBook was ideal, and we’ve known plenty of people who had these and were happy with what they had.

But times have changed and now Apple doesn’t really rely on plastic for any of its machines anymore. There’s really no major product in Apple’s product line that doesn’t utilise metal in some way, and so with a reincarnated and resurrected product name, you can bet the polycarbonate won’t be making an appearance.

Instead, Apple has taken the time to thoroughly reinvent what it’s doing in the computer space, going back to the drawing board to concoct a machine that pushes the boundaries, that challenges what we know, and finds a way to be absolutely freakin’ amazing.

The result is a computer with the name “MacBook”, a new computer to reinvent that name, which will likely reinvent the other Apple computer names later down the track.

Does it succeed?

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Open up the box up and just like with numerous Apple machines we’ve seen in the past, you’ll quickly see a sleek metal thing sitting in front of you. This time, however, there’s a difference, with either a choice of silver, gold, or space grey available, making your decision a little more difficult.

We chose the space grey just to be different, and because gold doesn’t suit this reviewer specifically. Plus space grey has a look and feel of gunmetal grey, and that’s a look and style we just mesh with.

Out of the box and into your hand, the typically professional built-to-survive look and feel that Apple generally impresses into every product it makes is still here, and possibly more so because the MacBook is such a thin and sleek piece of kit, with a slightly thinner take on what the MacBook Air has going for it.

There’s the slope down the side, the severely thin triangular edge, with virtually no ports in this machine, sort of like the first generation of MacBook Air, only even less so.

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Specifically, there’s one port for your headphones, and one for everything else, and we’ll get to this later on, but this one port — the USB Type C port — is a new standard aimed at making charging and data transfer faster and more uniform across the board.

Start using the system and you’ll find a surprisingly decent system performance, which is curious because we anticipated that it wouldn’t be stellar, but we’re surprised it’s as good as it is, only exhibiting a few slowdowns when we started to overload the overall system.

We need to note that this isn’t a high-end system, and some might want to see the MacBook as a slightly more revamped luxury edition of a netbook, because it’s not far off. Granted, the Intel Core M inside is a little more potent than an Intel Atom system-on-a-chip processor, but not by much, since this is — like the Atom — a processor made for mobile use (hence the “M” in the chip’s name).

As a result, this isn’t your Photoshopping computer, nor is it really made for any games or graphically intensive work; rather, it’s the opposite, made for people who like to work on office-y activities, such as writing documents, dealing with spreadsheets, checking email, surfing the web, and a bit of coding if you’re into that.

And if you’re into any of those things, the MacBook will totally suffice, providing solid performance for things that don’t try to tax the processor too much.

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In our test, we were able to run note writing app Evernote, book writing app Scrivener, and about ten tabs in Google Chrome before we started to see a bit of resistance and slow downs when we tried to scroll, and these weren’t terribly heavy.

Start to throw more apps and more tabs into the machine and it’ll likely respond with some more slowdowns, though at one point over the weekend, we were able to keep a few more apps running as well, and beyond a bit of lag in switching into each app — slowdowns lasting only a few seconds — the machine handled itself fine.

Overall, better performance than we expected, but try not to tax the machine significantly with the sort of things you might do on a MacBook Pro, or your experience with the super slim MacBook may not be such a nice one.

Then there’s the keyboard, which is interesting, and not just because Apple has changed the font it uses for the letters (yes, we noticed).

It’s more than that.

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For starters, it’s flat, or practically flush with the metal on the computer casing, which is unusual for Apple — hey, it’s unusual for any computer company — because normally there’s a bit of raised space, not much, that reveals the keys to be a little higher than the surface they sit on.

But the MacBook is about keeping everything slim and thin, and because this product is about going for a new level of those adjectives, Apple has had to reinvent the keyboard mechanism, switching from the regular and taller scissor mechanism under the keys to a totally new butterfly mechanism which has less height and does pretty much the exact same thing.

Essentially, it translated to less height, but still enough travel to work with your fingers, and if you’re used to a good keyboard, you’ll find the result here works a charm.

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The keys have also been redesigned to be bigger with less space between the lettering on the island-style keyboard (known as “chiclet” to some), and Apple has even matched the size of the regular wireless keyboard, providing the 13 inch keyboard in a 12 inch space, which also helps, as it means you don’t have to relearn everything.

We need to note that Apple makes some of the best keyboards in the world, and we always enjoy our time typing away on Apple computers, as the company tends to throw in some of the best hardware from this department.

In fact, laptop keyboards generally rate best from Apple and Lenovo, so it’s nice to see that Apple hasn’t dropped the ball here, even with this new design.

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Long term, however, we found the keyboard to be surprisingly comfortable, and the MacBook has one of those keyboards that grows on you over time.

We spent a fair amount of that time working on a novel, and after several thousand words, found the keys really did feel good, with just enough travel to feel like real keys, even if the mechanism was different and the sound was closer to us typing on an iPad keyboard with a slightly different and higher pitched click.

Whether it was spending its time on a wooden desk or on our lap, the keys felt sound, and that slim travel was just enough to make us not feel as if we were striking our fingers on wood or metal, which slim keyboards can often resemble.

This helped us to type with speed, and our error rate was practically nil, only popping up for air every so often when the Force trackpad did the same thing that it was doing on the MacBook Pro review and forcing our cursor somewhere else when our palm touched the trackpad a little too much, something we don’t get on Apple’s conventional generic trackpad on the MacBook Air.

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That Force trackpad is still a very cool thing, despite that little bug (and we’re now learning to keep our palms well and truly away the trackpad as we type), with no real button, and only a semblance of haptic movement tricking you into thinking there’s movement there.

Apple has now told us how this little trick works, and it’s quite cool: rather than provide the typical haptic vibration resistance against the back of the button, the trackpad moves a very, very, very, very, very small distance left and right, tricking your finger (and your brain) into thinking that this is a clicking response.

Because this is just a type of vibration, it can be tightened and configured, making it possible for you to push it lightly for one click, and push it down harder for a full secondary click, and it’s this secondary click — the “Force” click, as Apple calls it — that can offer different functionality, offering definitions of words, maps of locations in your email or websites, or even just giving you previews of files (which the space bar can also do in Mac OS X).

Thankfully, the Force trackpad can be controlled, with loosening or tightening offered, and even the ability to switch it off, meaning you can use the computer in this new modern way if you so choose, or don’t and forget about it altogether, which is totally your choice.

We left it on and made the action firmer, making us press down harder if we wanted to use the Force click, but everyone will be different, and Apple tells us there’s a fair amount of pressure sensitivity for the trackpad, evident if you put your finger down gradually on a file before you hit the second deeper click, which will result in little files growing in animation.

Aside for these things, you’ll also find backlighting that has been firmed up and is now tighter with several levels of backlighting (we saw 16), and even though this is a first generation product, the new keyboard and new mouse (which we’ve seen once before) don’t feel like they’re equally first generation, just a little more refined.

We still think better drivers will clear up the trackpad’s confusion on our wrist pad, but the keyboard is very impressive for something so new.

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Battery life is also surprising here, because this is a remarkably thin computer, and yet it achieves battery life comparable to machines that are far thicker, with around 6 to 7 hours of performance likely.

There are some things Apple has had to do to get these sorts of levels, and we suspect the low-performance Intel Core M has a lot to do with this, as does Mac OS X 10.10 “Yosemite”, but there’s more to it, and there’s a degree of improved battery technology here, with a layered battery used inside the casing.

In the MacBook — this specific MacBook — Apple has decided to take advantage of all the space it has, because it has so much to work with now that the computer itself is so small, and when we say “the computer itself”, we mean all the bits and bobs that make this computer go, the guts, the chip, the processor, the stuff that makes it more than a screen, a keyboard, a mouse, and a battery.

That equipment is now very small and fan-less, and sits closer to the back of the computer than the front, with the rest of the chassis space made available for a battery.

How thick is the MacBook? Not far off the iPhone 6.

How thick is the MacBook? Not far off the iPhone 6.

As a result, Apple has decided to layer the battery, a concept that is similar to what LG did with its G2 smartphone, resulting in a battery that wasn’t removable, but was built to take advantage of the curved form near the base of the unit, meaning it could fill the spaces provided rather than provide the conventional “block with space left” design that most batteries in most devices rely on.

Apple’s take on this is a little different, with a battery that isn’t just a block, but rather made from layering, resulting in 35 percent more captive it and more of the metal unibody case having a battery inside.

This helps you get the most out of the machine, and if Apple had left this area the same as it does on the other MacBook Pro or Air models, we’d probably seen an hour or two less.

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Finally, there’s that USB port, and this is both a positive and a negative thing on our first-generation MacBook machine.

For now, we’ll start with the positives, because they’re easy: you have one port that provides power, data, and video.

This is the way USB should be, providing everything you need through one outlet. Easy.

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Type-C USB is also hard to mess up, providing a cable that can’t be plugged in the wrong way, making it reversible, just like Lightning, Apple’s replacement to the iPod dock connector, and just like the iPhone and iPad, Apple even provides a similar power pack, with a small power block rated for 29W that has a USB Type-C connector plug into it.

In fact, when you look at the USB Type-C connector, it even reminds you of Lightning, with a similarly sized port completely with a similar shape, only this port is male rather than female Lightning.

iPhone 6 on top with Lightning, Macbook on the bottom with USB Type C

iPhone 6 on top with Lightning, Macbook on the bottom with USB Type C

However, it’s the way that Apple has designed the power pack that screams USB Type-C is the future, not just for laptops, but phones and tablets, because wouldn’t it be better to replace Lightning and microUSB with something that was compatible with everything in your life?

It has already been seen in the other components for the MacBook that this computer represents the future, so why not keep that momentum going with the power port?

Well that’s exactly what Apple has done, providing you a taste of the future and making the whole package complete.

Where it goes wrong is by not including any adaptors in the box, and by only bringing one of these ports.

Want a traditional USB port? That'll be $29.

Want a traditional USB port? That’ll be $29.

We’re not sure if the future has truly arrived, but most people are still pretty reliant on a USB dongle of some sort, whether it’s for a thumb drive, an external hard drive, 4G modem, sound card, digital camera, SD card reader… really, we could go on, but the point is USB is used in such a large amount, it’s hard to imagine the world is ready for a move away from the standard connection.

That said, you can buy a converter to make this available for $29, or you can buy one for $119 that has either power, HDMI, and standard USB, or power, VGA  and USB.

Essentially, though, you need to pay around $120 extra to turn the MacBook regular into a regular MacBook with the ports you’ve come to expect, and for many, that will be too hard of an ask, especially when they can just get that in another computer, when they can get that in another Mac today.

And that’s fine, because this first-generation product isn’t made for you.

It’s not made for photographers keen to get photos from their camera via an SD card slot, and it’s not made for video editors because simply there just isn’t enough grunt.

Want to charge your MacBook, add a USB port, and have HDMI out? That'll be $119.

Want to charge your MacBook, add a USB port, and have HDMI out? That’ll be $119.

The first generation MacBook Slim — our name, not Apple’s — is made for people who want to be on the cusp of technology, and have something that says “I’m already a part of the future”, and aren’t concerned if they have to fork out an extra hundred bucks for the privilege of plugging in the drives they’re generally reliant on.

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Conclusion

Make no mistake, Apple’s MacBook is something special, and its lack of a model moniker tells us how confident Apple is that this is an example of a machine from the future, with a sexy thin and sleek look like no other, a beautiful screen, a truly light weight that won’t tax the back and barely bothers the hand, and even a surprisingly decent battery.

And you know what? Apple is right.

The MacBook is a statement of what’s to come, and it’s an awesome declaration at that.

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How many computers can you rest comfortably in your hand?

But it’s a first-generation product, and as such it still has some things to iron out, such as the inclusion of only one port, and not a standard one at that — not yet, anyway — as well as performance that could be tightened up just a little bit.

If neither of those things bother you and you’re already living in a wireless world, relying on a phone and/or tablet to take care of your life, you will love the MacBook, as it’s not just an excellent machine, but also a sign of things to come, and if living in the future is your idea of awesome, this is one machine you’ll have to check out.

Price (RRP)

$1799 (starting price); 1.1GHz with 256GB storage is $1799; 1.2GHz with 512GB storage is $2199;

Pros & Cons

Product Pros

Beautifully designed with premium materials; So thin, so light, so pretty; Another of Apple’s exceptional Retina-grade screens; Surprisingly good battery life for a machine this size; Despite how thin it is, the keyboard is surprisingly comfortable to type on; Almost like a taste of the future today;

Product Cons

Not at all a high-performance machine; Only one port, and it’s a type of port that you can’t find really anything available for (beyond Apple’s expensive adaptors); Requires one of these adaptors if you want to simultaneously charge the device and use the USB port for data; No memory card slot, SD, microSD, or otherwise; No FaceTime HD camera; Could be seen as expensive; 

Ratings

Overall

Features

Value for money

Performance

Ease of Use

Design

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