MacBook (2017) review

It’s now nearly three years since Apple relaunched the MacBook brand in March 2015. The chassis hasn’t changed, but there are a few things that have. Most notably, the price is higher than it was when it first launched, but that’s due to currency fluctuations, according to Apple, and that change only affects the UK.

The good news is that there are other changes that are a lot more positive than the price hike (which happened back in October 2016). In 2017 the new MacBook has gained a better processor, better graphics, and an updated keyboard, making it an altogether better laptop choice than it was.

But just how much better is the MacBook, and how does it compare to Apple’s other laptops? We have benchmarked the 2017 MacBook to find out.

Price and availability

The new MacBook is available right now from Apple.

As we’ve already touched on above, the MacBook was hit by Apple’s 2016 price hikes, and the starting price is still an eye-watering £1,249.

For £1,249 you get a 1.2GHz Kaby Lake Core m3 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.0GHz, 8GB RAM, 256GB storage, and the Intel HD Graphics 615.

There is a second MacBook which costs £1,549. Here you’ll get a 1.3GHz Core i5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.2GHz, 8GB RAM, 512GB storage, and the Intel HD Graphics 615.

Build to order options include a 1.4GHz Core i7 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.6GHz (for £135 more), and a 16GB RAM option (for an extra £180). So the top of the range MacBook fully specced out would cost £1,864.

Compare the entry-level price of the MacBook to the £949 MacBook Air, or the £1,049 entry-level iMac, and it might look like a bad deal. But there are many reasons why the MacBook is a better Mac than both of these cheaper options.

When compared to the £949 MacBook Air, you have to consider the fact that the chips in the Air are two generations older than those in the MacBook. The MacBook also has a more compact design and a high-res Retina display.

In comparison to the entry-level iMac, the MacBook might look like a bad deal: the processor is the same generation, Kaby Lake, except that the iMac has a faster clock speed (2.3GHz compared to 1.2GHz in the MacBook). But the entry-level iMac lacks the Retina display, has a slower hard drive (which will counter any speed improvements you might be hoping for) and obviously isn’t a laptop so you can’t exactly cart it around with you.

A more comparable option is the identically priced 13-inch MacBook Pro, which at the same price point of £1,249 offers a faster 2.3GHz Core i5 processor, rather than the Core m3 1.2GHz processor you’ll find in the MacBook.

So why are these two Mac laptop’s priced the same and what do you get if you opt for the MacBook rather than the MacBook Pro. Essentially, it boils down to size and weight, but we’ll go into more detail below.

Design and build

The MacBook is an exquisite piece of Apple engineering on a par with the iPod Classic or original iMac. This is the only Apple laptop available in four-iPhone inspired finishes (shown above). You can choose from Space Grey, Gold, Rose Gold and Silver. The only other Mac to offer a choice of finish is the MacBook Pro, but that is only available in Space Grey or Silver. If you want a gold or rose gold laptop then the MacBook is the only Mac to offer those hues.

The other way in which the MacBook stands out is its compact size and low weight. Here it has taken the crown from the MacBook Air, which when it launched in 2008 was so slim and light it was considered revolutionary. The design of the MacBook Air hasn't changed since the 11-inch version was introduced in 2010 and it is no longer Apple’s slimmest laptop - even the MacBook Pro is now slimmer than the thickest edge of the MacBook Air. But the MacBook is slimmer still and, while you sacrifice ports, 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. The laptop might be small but that doesn't mean you have to sacrifice a full-sized keyboard - the keys reach right to the edge of the body and there's an individual LED behind each one for a best-in-class low light typing experience.

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.

Apple appears to have answered this complaint with the new model. On the 2017 MacBook Apple has used a variation of the second-generation butterfly first seen on the 2016 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.

There’s also room for a decent sized Force Touch trackpad below the keyboard. Apple's trackpad design 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 high-res Retina display 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 one thing that the laptop lacks is ports. The MacBook still only has one USB-C port for charging and data transfer, and Apple doesn’t ship an adapter with it – that’ll cost you £69 if you want the official one to hook up any USB-A or HDMI peripherals.

Despite the lack of ports 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.

Dimensions

If you are primarily looking for a lightweight laptop that you can carry in your bag without feeling weighed down, whether on the commute or to lectures, the MacBook can't be beaten.

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.

Processor, RAM and graphics

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)

Remember that entry-level iMac we mentioned earlier? In the same benchmark tests it scored 9,506 in multi-core mode, which is better, but there were many other tests that we ran where the MacBook scored higher, as you will see if you read on.

Graphics

The new MacBook also benefits from an improved GPU, boasting Intel HD Graphics 615 from 2016'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.

In our graphics tests we found that the MacBook scored better than the entry-level iMac, which features the Intel Iris Plus Graphics 640.

In Unigene Valley tests it scored a maximum of 11 frames per second compared to 10fps for the iMac. The over all score was 267 for the MacBook and 235 for the iMac. So close, but the MacBook has the edge.

The MacBook is left for dust by the 15-inch MacBook Pro with its dedicated graphics chip, however. The 2.9GHz, quad-core, i7, 15in MacBook Pro scored 789, and had a max frame rate of 18.9 frames per second. So if you are looking for a Mac laptop to play graphically intensive games the MacBook Pro is the only option.

In the Cinebench R15 OpenGL test the iMac beat the MacBook score, however, with the entry-level iMac managing 44fps, to the MacBook's 25.6fps. In that test the 15in MacBook Pro scored 79fps.

However, whether the graphics performance really matters is the question. If you are going to be using your Mac for general day to day work, editing photos and videos, and maybe watching a few movies the MacBook will meet your needs. If you are thinking of playing graphically intensive games, or doing high-end editing, then the MacBook isn't for you.

If you are interested in learning more about the MacBook Pro range, we have a comparison of the two MacBook Pro models here

Display

The graphics capabilities of the MacBook may lag behind the MacBook Pro and 5K iMac, but the MacBook still boasts a high-def Retina display as does every other Mac bar the MacBook Air (and other Macs that lack a screen, obviously).

The MacBook display offers 2,304x1,440 resolution at 226 pixels per inch. In comparison that MacBook Air we mentioned earlier offers 1,440x900 resolution (that’s 128ppi).

A closer comparison is the 13-inch MacBook Pro which has a resolution of 2,560x1,600 at 227 pixels per inch.

That’s quite a bit more screen real-estate given that there is just an inch difference (diagonally) between the two laptops. However we don’t think it makes a lot of difference in real terms. If you have a lot of windows open at once on the 12-inch MacBook’s screen you will feel cramped, but to be honest, if you have a lot of windows open you will feel that the screen space offered by the 13-inch MacBook Pro is cramped too.

Our recommendation - if you are at a desk then plug your laptop into an external screen and take advantage of the extra screen space. Even a 15-inch MacBook Pro feels cramped when you are used to a 27-inch display.

Storage

When it comes to storage there are just two choices for the MacBook: 256GB or 512GB. These are both SSDs - Apple discontinued hard drive laptops with the demise of the old non-Retina MacBook Pro with Super Drive that disappeared from sale in 2016 (having not been updated since 2012).

Utilising an SSD, also known as Flash storage, means that the laptop can perform faster when it comes to a lot of everyday activities than a Mac (or any PC) which has a hard drive. This is one major reason why we think that the MacBook is a better option than the entry-level iMac, which still has a hard drive.
Having an SSD inside your Mac means that start up times are practically instantaneous. There is no longer time to make a cup of tea while you wait for your computer to start up. It also means that files can be copied quicker, and data accessed faster.

We ran a couple of tests to get an idea of the storage speed. In the AJA System read and write tests the 1.2GHz MacBook, with it’s SSD scored 1,536 (read) and 1,038 (write). In comparison the 2.3GHz iMac scored just 102 (read) and 102 (write).

The best way to see how fast the MacBook is in comparison to the iMac is to do a straightforward copy and paste though. We copied and pasted a 4GB file and the process took 78.68 seconds on the iMac, and just 6.3 seconds on the MacBook. The MacBook was faster at 4.48, but what’s a couple of seconds.

In many ways the MacBook doesn’t need a faster processor because thanks to the Flash hard drive the normal day-to-day tasks will take next to no time.

Ports

The final thing to say about the MacBook in terms of hardware may well be the dealbreaker for you.

There is only one port. Well two ports actually if you count the headphone jack and we wonder how long that will last. That one port is USB-C - and it doesn't double up as a Thunderbolt 3 port as is the case on other Macs (the two standards using the same shaped interface).

The USB-C port supports charging, USB 3.1, can be used (with an adaptor) for DisplayPort and VGA and HDMI output (so you can plug it into a display like we suggest above).

The problem here is unless you buy all the adaptors you can't plug your laptop in to the mains and use a second display at the same time.

Of course you can just use a hub and plug everything in at once, we do have a few USB-C hubs and adapters in this article.

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 September.

Our time 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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