We’ll be shooting and publishing our MacBook (2015) review later this week, but I wanted to jot down some thoughts from my testing and experience living with it for the past week and a half. Consider these testing notes a preview of my impressions on the laptop, and an opportunity for you to ask specific questions about it.
For context, prior to the MacBook, I’ve been using Macs as my primary work computers since 2008, starting with a 15-inch MacBook Pro. In 2011, I switched to the 11-inch Air, which was a maxed-out Core-i7 model. I really loved that formfactor and a balance between portability and performance–it was lightweight and yet had near performance parity with the 13-inch Air and even the entry-level MacBook Pros. At the office, I would plug it into a 24-inch 1080p display and peripherals, while also able to use it while traveling as a full-fledged work computer for writing and photography.
In 2013, I upgraded to the first Haswell model of the 11-inch Air, which had longer battery life and a zippy PCI-E SSD. Performance on that machine has been very satisfactory over the past two years, and I’ve even edited a few short videos on it in Adobe Premiere. The speed and usability of that stalwart machine is what I’m primarily basing the new MacBook on today. Just in terms of portability, the new MacBook and the refreshed 11-inch Air are the nearest competitors. Whether or not the differentiating factors warrant the significant price delta is what we’ll be discussing in-depth in our review video. We’ll talk about price last.
So in terms of that differentiating factors, the features I’m most interested in are as follows: screen, performance, battery life, keyboard, and the single-port form factor. We’ll start off with the display, since that’s the one area where I think the new MacBook has a clear-cut advantage over its Air counterpart.
The MacBook has the high-resolution “Retina” screen that MacBook Air fans have been waiting for. While the 11-inch Air has been stuck with a 1366×768 screen, and the 13-inch Air with a 1440×900 screen for over four years, the MacBook has a 2304×1440 display. On its face, the image quality is incredible on this screen–at least the quality of the Retina screens on the MacBook Pro 13-inch and as good as the high-density screens on the latest iPads (of course, it’s still not a touch-screen on the laptop). This is an IPS display with a wide color gamut, suitable for RAW photo editing and overkill for web browsing and internet video.
The awkward resolution–2304×1440–is due to this panel basically being cut from the same 226ppi LCD sheets as what’s on the 13-inch MacBook Pro–standard Apple manufacturing efficiency. But the result is that the desktop doesn’t run in a integer-multiplied scaled ratio as the MacBook Pro, iPad, and most iPhones. At 2304×1440, the typical 2x multiplier would have the desktop rendered at native resolution, displaying the ultra-sharp equivalent of a desktop of 1152×720 pixels (ie. pixel-doubled). However, the default desktop is scaled to look like a 1280×800 display. To accomplish that, the graphics card renders the desktop at 2560×1600, and then scales that down to 2304×1440 to remove any dithering and scaling artifacts. It’s like how the iPhone 6 Plus actually renders at 2208×1242 and then scales down to the 1920×1080 pixels on the LCD.
What this means is that the graphics chip on the MacBook is pushing a lot of pixels–the equivalent of the MacBook Pro 13-inch in its default state, to make the desktop, text, and images on its 12-inch screen look sharp. Going one step further, Apple gives you the option to run the MacBook at a simulated 1440×900 display, with the graphics card rendering at 2880×1800. In this mode, you get more desktop real estate, but at the cost of smoothness. Since I’m using the MacBook as my primary work machine, I have it set to this mode, with six virtual desktop Spaces. In this configuration–admittedly a “power user” scenario–scrolling down web pages in Chrome hitches occasionally, and dropped frames are very noticeable when swiping between Spaces and in UI “bounce” animations. Given that the 11-inch Air only renders at its native 1366×768, the MacBook is asking a whole lot more of its Intel HD5300 integrated graphics chip.
I’m a little surprised that Apple would let this MacBook ship with the potential for this amount of UI hitching, but my guess is that Apple expects the people who buy and use this laptop to run it at the default 1280×800 scaled resolution, for which I didn’t notice any hitching in a single desktop Space.
This leads us to the topic of CPU performance, something I was really concerned about when this laptop was announced. That’s because the MacBook runs Intel’s low-TDP Core-M CPU, which we’ve had mixed experiences with on previous Windows laptops. Based on a 14nm Broadwell architecture, Core-M’s selling point is that it can clock up to high clock rates like its i5 counterparts, but with a lower thermal threshold to keep it cooler and running longer. That’s why Core-M laptops can be fanless. My worry was that performance throttling would alter both battery life and usefulness of this laptop. But on the plus side, I was glad to see that Apple didn’t put Core-M on the Air lines–they retain full Core series Broadwell capabilities.
If you’ve read other MacBook reviews, you’d find that on synthetic tests, Core-M performs as well as a MacBook Air from 2012. My testing in GeekBench confirms as much. But I was more interested in real-world performance, and specifically with regard to two use scenarios: the difference between performance when plugged into power and unplugged, and the level of throttling over time (eg. the nebulous “at load” scenario). I used thje 2013 MacBook Air as a basis for comparison, since both it and the 1.2GHz MacBook clock to 2.6GHz under Turbo. For tests, I ran our heavy Photoshop script on a RAW photo as one benchmark, and a Lightroom 6 export of 100 edited RAW photos as the second.
The MacBook surprised me on both fronts. First, performance didn’t degrade between unplugged and plugged-in states. It looks like at this wattage, Intel and Apple allow Core-M to clock from 1.2GHz to 2.6GHz and stay there when running on battery power. That was also the case with the Haswell part in the 11-inch Air. Second, the MacBook trailed behind the Air only by 8 seconds in the Photoshop test (3:09 vs 3:17) for a 4% delta. Not bad. In terms of throttling, I was even more surprised to find that the MacBook beat out the Air in the long-term Lightroom export, but 22 seconds (3:12 vs 2:50). I think we have to credit the new NVMe PCIe storage controller for that. It looks like for photography work, the MacBook is no slouch, with performance bottlenecks really being attributed to the graphics chip and desktop resolution.
Gaming warrants a brief mention here as well. While I think it’s clear that the MacBook shouldn’t be bought as a gaming machine, it did run games like LEGO Batman 3 and was playable with textures turned down and resolution set to 1440×900. The problem here is that games may have problems resolving the resolution scaling of the MacBook–images sometimes don’t fill the entire screen or were offset. The 2013 MacBook Air was passable as an entry-level gaming machine for StarCraft II and DOTA running at 1366×768, but that’s even less practical here.
Directly correlated to performance is battery life, and the MacBook was as adept as any new laptop. That’s to say that it’s really tough to gauge how the battery will perform over time without having used it for months. But in formal testing, Wi-Fi browsing in Safari with brightness set to one bar above 50% yielded over nine hours of use. That was also with only one browser window open, and in a single desktop Space. Running the MacBook the way I normally compute–with multiple Spaces and over a dozen Chrome tabs open–reduced battery life to barely six hours. According to Activity monitor and the Mac OS’s battery reporting, Chrome, Dropbox, and Lightroom drained the most power on this laptop. Still, charging was fast over the USB-C connection, and I could even top off the laptop with a connected USB charging brick, albeit very slowly.
While the MacBook is able to get respectable battery life out of a lower capacity battery, the compromise it makes with keyboard design is less palatable. The new “butterfly” keys have such a short throw that they still don’t feel “right” after typing several thousand words on them. Getting used to them isn’t a matter of being comfortable with the throw, but accepting that you’re never going to get the same kind of tactile feedback you expect from previous laptop keys, even if they’re just as accurate. Last year, I accidentally broke off a few keys on the MacBook Air, and repairing them changed their feel. The keys on this MacBook feel like the repaired keys on that laptop–forever a little off. And if you’re coming from a mechanical keyboard, you’re not going to like these keys.
Finally, we get to the form factor of the MacBook, arguably its biggest selling point. It’s what the Core-M, smaller battery, and redesigned keyboard allowed Apple to make. And to be honest, the form-factor isn’t all that impressive. The .38 pound difference between the 11-inch Air and the MacBook isn’t a night-and-day difference, and neither is the thickness. It still feels more like a laptop to me than an iPad. The size and weight advances are noticeable, but they won’t change your world. What will change the way you use this laptop is the single-port design. The single USB Type-C port is the potential dealbreaker here.
It’s not so-much that there’s only a single USB port on this laptop; hubs and wireless peripherals alleviate that limitation. What sucks is that the USB port is also the power and display port. Power, data, display. In an office environment, at least two of those are essential at the same time. Yes, Apple has a three-port adapter, but it’s crazy expensive. Adding just one additional USB Type-C port on this laptop (even at the cost of a headphone jack) would’ve made a world of a difference.
For a company that prides itself for attention to detail, the single-port design is an intentional choice, one that doesn’t just project Apple’s vision of the future of laptops, but identifies the ideal user of this MacBook. This isn’t going to be a laptop for someone who needs to plug into a monitor every day, nor is it going to be someone who needs a computer for video editing. It’s a laptop for coffee shops, airplanes, and hotel rooms. For shoulder bags instead of laptop bags. And that’s OK. It just sucks for MacBook Air users who’ve waited so long for a high-resolution screen. I can’t imagine that Apple wouldn’t put a retina screen on the Air eventually, so for most people, that’s the one to wait for.
Let me know if you have questions that we can discuss in our review video later this week.