Introduction, Design Features
Apple’s June 2017 WWDC event was jam-packed with more announcements, product updates, and new-hardware teases than any conference, keynote, or product launch event in the company’s recent history. Alongside a macOS update called “High Sierra” (which was just starting to trickle out to beta testers as we wrote this), a Siri-packing HomePod speaker system, and the powerful, pricey iMac Pro (the latter two should arrive at the end of the year), Apple announced significant updates to its iMac lineup. That includes the Apple iMac 27-inch with 5K Retina Display that we just looked at, along with Intel 7th Generation “Kaby Lake” updates to its MacBook Pro and MacBook laptop lines.
We’re looking at the latter here, in the form of an update to Apple’s smallest laptop, the 2-pound, 12-inch MacBook. Aside from new Kaby Lake chips (all low-voltage Y-Series chips, not the more powerful U-series offered in ultrabooks and the MacBook Pros), Apple has also thrown in faster solid-state drives (SSDs). And it’s swapped the “butterfly” switches found in its previous-generation MacBook keyboard for second-generation versions, the same that can be found in the 2016 redesign of the Apple MacBook ProAsus ZenBook 3 and the Huawei MateBook XRose Gold version that we looked at in 2016.
That said, of late, Windows laptop makers have been giving Apple some serious competition on the pretty-portable front. HP’s Spectre 13 sports a distinctive copper-colored hinge, and it is actually slightly thinner than the MacBook, at 0.41 inch. And the Asus ZenBook 3, while it unabashedly copies Apple’s exterior design, is available in a head-turning blue-and-copper color scheme that may appeal to those who want something that stands out from the single-tone Apple crowd.
The MacBook’s dimensions and weight haven’t changed since the 2015 model, but at 0.52 inch at its thickest point and weighing just 2.03 pounds, the 12-inch MacBook is still an impressive feat of engineering. It’s not alone on that front anymore, though, as LG’s Gram line of laptops, which debuted after the 2015 MacBook did, are about as thin and light. That includes the 2017 version of the LG Gram 13Samsung Notebook 9 that we first saw at CES 2017 weighs even less, at 1.8 pounds. That makes the 12-inch MacBook a little less impressive than it was a couple years ago. But make no mistake: It’s still among the thinnest and lightest laptops around, and its chassis is more rigid than most other laptops in the 2-pound weight range.
Speaking of the 12-inch screen, the combination of edge-to-edge glass, a 2,304×1,440-pixel native resolution, and IPS technology for excellent viewing angles come together as one of the MacBook’s best features. The bezels are also fairly slim, without having to relocate the Webcam from its top-of-the-bezel perch, as Dell did with its Dell XPS 13. Still, we’d like to see something better than a 480p camera for FaceTime chats on a laptop that starts at $1,299.
Beyond that are the much-talked-about input devices. The “Force Touch” trackpad incorporates pressure sensors and haptic feedback, forgoing an actual physical click. This takes some getting used to, but it’s at least a decent alternative to the typical touch pad. Plus, you get the benefit of Apple’s macOS-specific pressure sensitivity, which lets you tap or press to select an item, then press harder to trigger a second action. For example, force-clicking on a document in Finder opens a preview of it, or on an address in Safari brings up a map. Or you can press harder or softer to adjust forward or rewind speed in music or movies in QuickTime.
It takes some practice to learn not to press too hard when selecting an item (i.e., to avoid force-clicking by mistake), but once you get the hang of it, it’s clever and convenient. And in a general sense, cursor control is as spot-on here as ever, feeling smoother and more precise than on pretty much any Windows-based laptop’s pad. Though again, Windows laptops have gained ground here, thanks to the Microsoft Precision Touchpad program, which unifies drivers and features across an increasing number of premium laptops.
Typing on the backlit keyboard is a somewhat improved experience versus previous-model MacBooks. With this update, Apple moved to a second-generation version of its “butterfly” key switches, which first debuted in its late-2016 MacBooks, like the Apple MacBook Pro (13-Inch, 2016). In case you haven’t had fingers-on time with one of those laptops, this primarily means that while there’s a fair amount of tactile feel when depressing the keys, there’s very little in the way of actual physical travel.
Compared to the key feel on the 2016 MacBook, the keys here feel slightly different, with a less sticky-feeling bottoming out and bounce-back. But there’s no improvement in key travel compared to that laptop, at least that our fingers could discern. And what we were most surprised about was just how loud the keyboard can get when typing. If you press the keys lightly, and type slowly, they’re fairly quiet. But when we started typing faster, our fingers hit the keys harder (likely because they’re used to more travel in the downstroke), and the typing noise became quite pronounced, almost akin to what we’re used to hearing from a clacky mechanical keyboard.
This might get better over time, as your fingers adjust to the keys and strike them more softly. But if you’re not a delicate typist, you probably wouldn’t want to use this keyboard in a setting like a quiet library. Heck, you may even get shushed by fellow patrons in a quiet coffee shop.
For all that, we don’t dislike the MacBook Pro’s new keyboard. Its unique feel is oddly compelling, which makes us feel we’d get used to it after some time using it as our daily driver. The real question is why anyone should have to do that. But if you’re an Apple die-hard, that’s increasingly becoming the case, as only the aging MacBook Air still sports the company’s previous-generation keyboard.
As noted earlier, the MacBook has a single USB Type-C port, housed on the left edge, near the back…
This also doubles as the power jack, which means you can’t charge the MacBook and use a wired peripheral or external storage at the same time without some kind of adapter. Apple will be happy to sell these adapters to you, but they aren’t included in the box. USB Type-C is certainly more common today than it was a year or two ago, but it’s still nascent on the peripherals front; most stuff ships with an ordinary USB Type-A connector. We don’t want Apple to ditch USB Type-C port altogether, by any means, but considering that the power pack also uses this connector, it’s cumbersome in practice that the company didn’t see fit to add a second USB Type-C in this refresh.
Note also that, while Apple lowered the prices of its USB Type-C adapters for a few months late last year after the launch of its USB-C-only MacBook Pros, those prices have now gone back up. The company’s USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter, for example, which adds a USB Type-A port and an HDMI output via the USB Type-C port, sells for $69. But you can certainly find reliable, less-expensive adapters elsewhere. Accell’s USB-C to HDMI 2.0 Adapter, which lets you plug the MacBook into a 4K, 30Hz display, sells for a more palatable $35, though it doesn’t bring the extra USB ports of the pricier Apple adapter.
One place where the physical ports haven’t been compromised for thinness is in audio. You still get a standard headphone jack on the right edge, also near the back. So, at least, you won’t have to resort to Bluetooth headphones or speakers.
Apple sent us the $1,299 entry-level MacBook for review, which is built around a dual-core, 7th-Generation “Kaby Lake” Intel Core m3 processor. That chip has a 1.2GHz base clock, can boost as high as 3GHz for short periods, and comes backed by 8GB of RAM. Also under the hood is a 256GB PCI Express-bus-based solid-state drive, which Apple says also gets a speed boost over last year’s model.
And it seems Apple delivered on the speedier storage front. We tested the 2016 MacBook using the Blackmagic Design drive testing app and saw sequential-read speeds of about 930MB per second and sequential writes of about 670MB per second. On the 2017 model, we saw read performance jump to around 1,350MB per second, and write speeds increase to about 1,040MB per second. That’s speedy compared to most boot drives, even if we’ve seen much faster performance from the fastest internal drives. Samsung’s SSD 960 Pro, for instance, is an M.2 SSD that roughly doubled those speed numbers in our testing.
That said, as we’ve seen from testing and actually using many very fast drives, there isn’t a lot of real-world advantage (or difference in general computing “feel”) when using an extremely speedy drive, compared to “just”a Serial ATA-based SSD that can only manage around 500MB per second reads and writes.
If you want more in the way of performance and storage, you can also opt for Core i5 (starting at $1,599) or Core i7 (starting at $1,749) models of the MacBook, with a 512GB SSD, and up to 16GB of RAM (a $200 extra over 8GB configurations). But keep in mind that even though the higher-end processors here have “Core i” in their name, these are still low-wattage Y-Series processors targeted at quick, short tasks. These chips used to be called “Core m5” and “Core m7” in previous chip generations. So don’t think of them as the kind of CPUs you’d want to use for things like 4K video editing or the like. For those kinds of tasks, you’ll definitely want to step up at least to a MacBook Pro.
And while the $1,299 model we tested is the best overall value, it’s still expensive for what you get on a raw-components basis. Unless you place a serious premium on the pixel-dense screen, you can get better general performance from laptops like the LG Gram 13 or Asus ZenBook 3 for around $1,000. And the former, as we’re about to see, even matches the MacBook’s excellent battery life.