Apple 12-inch MacBook review (2016)
Welcome to our review of Apple's new 12-inch MacBook for 2016. If you'd prefer to read about the original model, head over to our 2015 12-inch MacBook review. Our review is based on two models we've spent time with: the £1,299 model (1.2GHz m5 processor, 512GB of flash storage) in Rose Gold, and the £1,049 model (1.1GHz m3 processor, 256GB flash storage) in Space Grey.
Please note that these are the original RRPs - Apple put the prices up in October 2016. Here's our article on the price rises. The MacBook now retails from £1,249 (previously £1,049).
Apple finds itself in a simultaneously difficult and enviable position in 2016. Having cast its spell over the laptop, the smartphone and the tablet, it has run out of things to revolutionise, things to invent. It seems that Apple is starting to plateau, in both creative and financial terms, but (perhaps unfairly) it must live up to its own hype every time it releases a product. Such as this amazing MacBook, an update to the original 12-inch MacBook unveiled in 2015.
Much like the original MacBook Air caused outrage among tech hacks by having only one USB port (Apple later relented and added a second), so the 12-inch MacBook courted controversy by featuring a lone USB-C port which also serves as the power connector: the world promptly decided it wasn't ready for a single-port laptop with a slightly different keyboard. We feel this is the wrong way of looking at this laptop - in a simpler world it is one of the best laptops you can buy. But it isn't that simple, and it will be compared to not only the rest of the world's computers, but also the incredible track record of the company that has made it.
There's no intended niche audience for this product - it is a laptop for everyone, a computer in its purest form that surely will shape the future of the portable computer.
If only it weren't so darned expensive.
12-inch MacBook (2016) review: Price and availability
For a laptop that is marketed heavily as the future of computing, the price and specs are both slightly confusing and undeniably high. It's available in two base models, their differences as follows:
- 256GB PCIe-based onboard flash storage
- 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core m3 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.2GHz) with 4MB L3 cache
- Configurable to 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core m7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) with 4MB L3 cache
- 512GB PCIe-based onboard flash storage
- 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core m5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz) with 4MB L3 cache
- Configurable to 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core m7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) with 4MB L3 cache
- Both models come with 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory as standard
Perhaps the price jars because of the way consumer technology has fallen over the past 20 years. You may remember the days of the first family PC costing well over £1,000, but you can now pick up a Windows laptop with higher specs than the MacBook for around half its price. Then again, this high price buys you an incredible feat of laptop engineering that weighs about as much as a tablet, yet (despite Apple's iPad Pro marketing) can do a tad more.
The 2016 MacBook is available in Space Grey, Silver, Gold and, oh yes, Rose Gold. More on that never.
12-inch MacBook (2016) review: Performance
We've been using the standard 1.1GHz model which has an Intel Core m3 processor. The 2015 MacBook's legacy has been, and will remain, that it wasn't very powerful. So far we have no complaints against the 2016 model in day-to-day use - it zips along very nicely for all your everyday computing needs. Geekbench 3 benchmark tests gave the MacBook a multi-core score of 5053. Compare this with the 2015 model's 4618 and the 2015 13in MacBook Air's 5821 and you get an idea of power.
There won't be any tech snobbery here, incidentally, against the idea of 'everyday computing', as though all tech journalists and specialists actually need and frequently use the power of the MacBook Pro they probably own. The 2016 MacBook, even in its lowest-spec model, is more than adequate for the needs of most - although video editors and gamers should look elsewhere.
It's the first Apple MacBook to ship with Intel's latest generation of processor, 'Skylake'. Along with Intel's HD Graphics 515 card, the MacBook has faster performance and storage speeds across the board. It's fair to say that these aren't extremely noticeable in use compared to the 2015 model, but the laptop is agile and responsive.
The standard 8GB of RAM helps, as does the flash storage - there are no moving parts in this laptop, and therefore no fan. It barely runs warm, even when put under a bit of pressure with multiple programmes running. A laptop that doesn't scald your lap is always a plus.
Bonus points: pleasingly for a laptop this small, the speakers are outstanding.
12-inch MacBook (2016) review: Design
Our attractively grey (Space Grey, because space is grey) review model in particular has picked up many compliments on its short travels. (The Rose Gold model is more of an opinion divider.) There's no denying this is a beautiful product.
Instead, we are drawn to notice, and potentially criticise, the one sole port on this computer. (Bar the headphone port. First name on the team sheet.) It's USB-C, a relatively new standard of USB connection. The bundled charger connects to the port, which is also able to transfer data and act as a video output port. You'll need an adapter to do all three at once.
But so what? If you know you'll want to attach several USB sticks to your computer every day, then you just won't consider this laptop - much like those who will want to connect an external monitor. The MacBook doesn't support Thunderbolt 3, so the best option for second screening is with an HDMI adaptor to connect to a compatible monitor.
But if you really think you'd want to connect this particular MacBook to an external monitor, why would you plump for a 12-inch screen laptop in the first place? A 15-inch MacBook Pro with a plethora of ports is surely your preferred machine, negating the need for an external display. The point here is that the design of this laptop should not be judged harshly by what it cannot do in relation to its price. This is to misunderstand its excellent combination of form and function.
Unfortunately, for the next couple of years, the one USB-C port thing is probably going to affect sales of this laptop. Given that Apple has gone with it again for the second generation, we think Apple is sticking with this strategy for the long haul - we'll have to wait and see what the next MacBook Pro brings. Some users will feel they might need to suddenly plug in two USB sticks and the SD card for that point-and-shoot camera that's lying about somewhere. The MacBook Air is now considered a design classic used by several generations of person, and indeed allows these plug-ins - but in 2008 it was actually laughed at by many for being overpriced and only having a single port. Sound familiar?
Here's one final point of potential interest: the USB-C ports on our test machines were both a very snug, very firm fit: we had to give them a good old yank to get the cable out. By which we don't mean that you'll ever be unable to get it out - just that, unless it loosens up significantly over time, it will never ever come out inadvertently. And while that sounds good, it does mean that tripping over the wire is going to bring the MacBook crashing down instead of pulling out the cable. We miss MagSafe.
(If you miss MagSafe too, there are options. Griffin makes an accessory called BreakSafe - available from Amazon or Griffin itself - a USB-C power cable that incorporates a battery segment and will separate and unattach itself when placed under moderate pressure.)
12-inch MacBook (2016) review: Keyboard
Apple has made the travel of the MacBook's keys particularly shallow in order to squeeze the size of the chassis down, but it's not as far removed from other more traditional typing surfaces as reports might have you believe. It's not so much a compromise as a conscious design choice, just as the decision to buy this laptop is a choice of whether its design tweaks complement your computing needs.
The company has made the keys larger than on its other keyboards yet amazingly has fit a full-size design on to a laptop that is a hair over 11 inches wide.
Typing on the 12-inch MacBook is okay, if a bit of an acquired taste. The reduced travel can make the keys less satisfying and, more importantly, less accurate to use. The sound of the keys, by the way, is very different to what we're used to with Apple laptops: not necessarily bad, just different. We quite like it, really - it's a cleaner tap than the slightly rattly, springy sound effect you get from the MacBook Pro's keys, for instance. But it's a shade louder than you might expect, and may become annoying for hypersensitive officemates.
The keys are a good size but squeezed together more closely than on the Pro. And the reduced travel (and consequently keys that sit less proudly above the level) mean it's harder for your fingers to find their way round.
We generally mishit or entirely missed keys more often than on larger or deeper-travelled keyboards, but the most common error concerned the lefthand Shift key. We continuously missed this key and hit the key to its right instead. Indeed, all the keys down the lefthand edge are a little hit and miss.
The issue appears related to the low-slung key profile. The keys sit very flat in their bay; whereas the keys on the MacBook Pro are about a millimetre proud of the baseline, these are half that. Having flat, low-travel keys is great for making a highly portable laptop, but it means the keys down the edge are at the same level as the bezel - a bezel so narrow, incidentally (roughly 1.5mm), that it's really just a ridge next to the keys. If your finger strikes one of the far-left keys on the left of the key, there's a good chance it'll strike the bezel ridge at the same time, muffling or entirely blocking the downward action of the key.
The more we used the 12-inch MacBook's keyboard, the more we grew used to its ways: we'll admit it feels different, but after a couple of hours of adjustment and typos, the words flow. Nevertheless, touch typing never reached quite the same level of speed, accuracy and all-round confidence we have with other Apple laptop keyboards. It's a bit of a 'looking down' keyboard, unfortunately.
12-inch MacBook (2016) review: Trackpad
Not only has Apple impressively included a full-size keyboard in what is the ultimate portable form, but also has managed to fit a well-sized trackpad. Much like the 2015 model, it is a Force Touch trackpad that doesn't physically click, it just gives this impression: Apple created a space-saving mechanism that uses electrical pulses to trick your brain into feeling a click. Press a little harder and you get a deep click, similar to 3D Touch on the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus.
This is useful to pop up dictionary definitions within web browsers when words flummox you. Really, though, the absence of another traditional moving part has allowed Apple to shave a few millimetres off the MacBook's design. The standard feel of the trackpad Apple has pioneered is still there - namely, the most responsive and pleasing to use on the market.
(Read our Force Touch tips for more on this.)
The trackpad is big and a pleasure to use. It takes up a huge proportion of the area under the keyboard - by our measurements there's 84mm of non-trackpad, then the 112mm-wide trackpad, then another 84mm of chassis, so it's 40 percent of the horizontal space - and has a whisper-smooth top surface.
12-inch MacBook (2016) review: Display and screen
Where Apple has differentiated this MacBook line from its aging MacBook Air is in the screen. It's amazing. It has Apple's Retina display - but then again, so did the iPhone 4 in 2010. Why Apple has resisted adding such an impressive display to the Air is now slowly being answered by its inclusion here.
The MacBook, in all current models, only ships with a 12-inch screen option. It has a 2304x1440 resolution at 226 pixels per inch. In real-life terms, it is one of the best screens we have ever seen on a laptop, with an outstanding range of colours and backlight brightness levels, the auto-adjustment of which is second to none in its accuracy. You can also scale the resolutions, the most useful being the 'More Space' option that pushes the 12-inch display to its most spacious for multitasking.
In comparison to the cheaper MacBook Air, the screen has a better resolution but also a more pleasing screen-to-bezel look. Only since this laptop's design premiered in 2015 have people begun to consider the Air as looking a bit aged. The Air's thicker, plastic grey bezel now looks outdated and unnecessarily wide compared to the sleek, thin glass black bezel of the MacBook. It's a small touch, but adds to the premium look and feel of the device.
12-inch MacBook (2016) review: Battery
Straight up - the battery, despite the improvements, is not as good as the current crop of MacBook Airs and Pros. This comes down to simple physics: this computer is tiny, and Apple has done its best to cram as much battery as possible in there.
The new Skylake processor performance allows for slightly improved battery consumption compared to last year's model, and Apple quotes up to 10 hours of wireless web use. Using the 2016 MacBook day to day we found we could go through the working day without having to plug the mains charger in.
We noticed a sharper drop in the battery levels once you fire up a fair few tabs in Chrome (a famous MacBook energy sapper), along with apps like Mail, Slack, Notes and Google Drive, as well as video playback all chipping in now and then.
What we describe here is many people's daily work needs, and the MacBook offers more than acceptable battery performance for a laptop for these needs. All laptops decrease with this kind of usage. If you really balk at the 10 hours quoted, it's possible that you've been spoilt by the MacBook Air! And fair enough, if you need to push 15 hours away from a plug, coffee shop hopping and working on the go. Your job sounds chilled.
Macworld poll: Will you buy a 12-inch MacBook?
What do you think? Will you buy a 2016 12-inch MacBook, or will you stick with your current laptop?
There's no escaping the fact that this is a very similar laptop to its 2015 predecessor, which so divided the tech community. But we think the problems have been overblown. The engineering on show is superb, and the performance is completely acceptable for a modern-day computer of this size. The arguments that there should be more ports on the MacBook only exist because people want one, and are frustrated that their current set-up needs will not allow for it.
Apple has undoubtedly improved the MacBook for 2016. It is a truly outstanding laptop that will be wrongly categorised as a luxury technological item. There's a difference between something costing a little too much and it being luxurious - just like the MacBook Air, this laptop deserves to fall in price and rise in specs to continue to be what we consider an excellent flagship computer. The world and its ports just need to catch up.