MacBook (2017) preview

Apple has subtly updated its MacBook Pro, MacBook Air and this, the MacBook. Retaining the chassis of the 2015 debut of the machine but adding second generation butterfly mechanism keys and the latest Intel chips, is it finally a truly better option than the MacBook Air?

We have done some benchmark tests on the new MacBook to see.

Price and availability

The MacBook was hit by Apple’s 2016 price hikes, and still starts at an eye-watering £1,249. Compare that to the £949 MacBook Air and it might look like a bad deal, but the MacBook boasts a chip two generations ahead, an improved keyboard and a more compact design.

The new MacBook is available right now from Apple

Design and build

The MacBook remains an exquisite piece of Apple engineering on a par with the iPod Classic or original iMac. Where the MacBook Air is still basically the same as the one from 2010, Apple’s slimmest ever laptop remains ahead of the curve. Sure, you sacrifice ports but you gain an ultrabook that weighs under a kilo.

The subtle wedge shape feels like an iPad when closed and slips into a bag just as easily. It’s available in classic silver, rose gold, gold or space grey and looks great in all hues. The contentious butterfly keys that have shallow travel sit in a full sized layout that reaches right to the edge of the body and have an individual LED behind each one for a best-in-class low light typing experience.

You might still not like the keys though. On its 2015 release, the MacBook came under fire for the new butterfly mechanism used that meant the laptop could be as slim as possible. The low travel of the keys was somewhat hard to get used to and almost clicked like a mouse button rather than clunk like normal keys.

On the 2017 MacBook Apple has used a variation of the second-generation butterfly first seen on the updated MacBook Pro. It’s a definite improvement, with a more reassuring travel to the keys, but it still won’t please those who prefer the traditional chiclet style perfected on the MacBook Air. Try it out; we don’t mind the compromise as it’s improved here, but it might not be for you.

A recent iFixit teardown shows that Apple has subtly changed the mechanism under the keys from 2016’s version. See the differences in the photos below. The rose gold is 2016’s and space grey is the new 2017 model. As iFixit notes, the keystroke switch is now round, not crossed shaped and the plastic mechanism itself is slightly thinner. 

Courtesy of iFixit - 2017 MacBook on left, 2016 model on right

These pictures also show that the control and options keys have been altered to show Mac keyboard shortcuts.

There’s even room for a decent sized Force Touch trackpad that is still the best on the market in its responsiveness and still magic in how it replicates a physical click with electromagnets. It remains excellent two years after its debut.

Apple squeezes a 12in screen into the chassis by slimming the bezels and packing in the display in a 16:10 aspect ratio. The result is a beautifully compact slab of metal.

The laptop still only has one USB-C port for charging and data transfer, and Apple doesn’t ship an adapter – that’ll cost you £69 if you want the official one to hook up any USB-A or HDMI peripherals.

We are big fans of the design of this MacBook, and in improving the keyboard Apple has tackled one of the original’s main complaints. It’d be hard to update the design because there’s no inch you could really shave off.

If you want the smallest Mac laptop going, there’s now less you have to compromise on in the 2017 version. You just can’t plug a USB stick in.

Features and specifications

The 12in body is smaller than the now discontinued 11in MacBook Air and considerably slighter than the now-showing-its-age 13in Air that was once the slimmest laptop on the planet. Its dimensions remain 28.05 x 19.65 x 0.35-1.31cm (the last spec showing thickness when open and closed).

1.31cm thick is absolutely insane on a closed laptop, and even in its third generation this remains impressive. The whole unit weighs just 0.92g and you will barely notice it in your bag.

What Apple has changed apart from the keyboard is on the inside. For the first time, the MacBook is available with m3, i5 and i7 chips. Previously the latter two were m5 or m7.

The difference is positive, but note the the i5 and i7 chips here are Intel’s Y series rather than the full fat U series. They still provide better and more efficient power than the old m5 or m7 though, and at the same (if high) price point.

We have benchmarked the new entry-level Core m3 MacBook against similar models from 2016 and 2015. As you can see, there is a pleasing increase in the performance of the m3, the least powerful chip in the series.

Geekbench 4 64-bit multi-core scores

For a computer that costs the same as the 2016 version, it’s good to see an improvement from the seventh-generation Kaby Lake processor, which scored 7091 on Geekbench 4’s 64-bit multi-core test compared to 2016’s 5860.

Here are the exact processors used in each possible configuration of the new MacBook:

Intel Core m3-7Y32 Processor (5W, 1.2GHz CPU base, 3.0GHz CPU max single core turbo)

Intel Core i5-7Y54 Processor (5W, 1.3GHz CPU base, 3.2GHz CPU max single core turbo)

Intel Core i7-7Y75 Processor (5W, 1.4GHz CPU base, 3.6GHz CPU max single core turbo)

The new MacBook also benefits from an improved GPU, boasting Intel HD Graphics 615 from last year's 515. While still not as powerful as the GPU of the MacBook Pro, it goes some way to making the MacBook a more viable option for those who want to game on macOS.

Software

Even though Apple announced macOS High Sierra at WWDC 2017, the iterative update to Sierra is not yet available. But, the MacBook is, so it’s shipping with plain old Sierra for now. But, like every other user with an eligible device, the MacBook will receive a free upgrade to High Sierra this autumn.

Our short time so far with the MacBook has been positive. Any spec bump to a machine that was maligned for being underpowered is a positive one, and with the Kaby Lake generation we finally are presented with a MacBook that is on a level playing field with the MacBook Air in terms of power.

macOS Sierra remains a fine iteration, and with the new features of High Sierra we are hopeful that High Sierra will push more consumers to consider the beautiful if overpriced MacBook.

OUR VERDICT

The MacBook is stunning but it is cursed with one port in a world that isn’t ready for that yet. If you do everything over the air though and want the smallest, lightest ultrabook possible then it is an outstanding, if expensive, option.

The Kaby Lake generation of processors sees a pleasing increase in power on the entry-level model, leaving us with the feeling that the MacBook is finally ready to take the lightweight crown from the MacBook Air.

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