MacBook (12-inch, 2015) full review

Welcome to our review of Apple's 12-inch Retina MacBook from 2015. Apple has since launched an updated model. If you'd like to read about that, head to our 12-inch MacBook (2016) review.

Forget the mythical iPad Pro. Rather than follow Microsoft's ill-advised Surface Pro into a snap-on tablet cul-de-sac, Apple is sticking to what really works. It has melded the finest technologies from the latest MacBooks and state-of-the-art iPad Air into an iPad-sized clamshell notebook. And simply called it MacBook.

The essential form follows that of the unibody MacBook Air, with a solid aluminium body that’s been precisely milled into a slim all-metal wedge. But this machine is smaller, lighter, even slimmer than the 11-inch MacBook Air – despite sporting a larger 12-inch display.

The new MacBook takes the name once assigned to the cheapest non-Pro Apple notebook but now feels every inch the premium flagship notebook, as you would expect for a low-power portable priced from £1049.

It impresses with its sub-miniature proportions, like a ‘normal’ Apple notebook but after a short zap by the incredible shrinking raygun, to bring it to a very slender thinness of 13.4 mm and low weight of 923 g. When shut close, it put me in mind of the iPad, and is just as easy to tote around.

Three colours are available for the MacBook, a telling reminder that it’s not just OS X and iOS software that is converging – now we have Mac hardware available in iPhone and iPad livery.

We tested a sample in Space Grey, to our eyes a serious and sophisticated finish in metallic charcoal, anodised evenly across all surfaces. There’s also Silver, which we can only assume follows the traditional natural aluminium look of Apple notebooks since the late PowerBook G4 of 2003. And then there’s the opinion-dividing Gold finish, arguably a ghastly personal statement of fake-bling ostentation.

[We've also reviewed the new 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro, if you need a little more processing power and a few more ports, and the new 13-inch MacBook Air as well. Plus, are you wondering what happened to the 15in Retina MacBook Pro? Take a look at our New 15-inch MacBook Pro release date story. Finally, read our Best Mac buyers' guide 2015 and MacBook Air vs MacBook Pro comparison review. And our New 12-inch MacBook vs iPad Air 2 comparison.]

New 12-inch Retina MacBook review: Keyboard

Lid lifted, we find a wholly new keyboard with dark tessellating keys. The keyboard backlighting here is the best we’ve seen since Apple pioneered the idea with the first MacBook Pro in 2006. The idea was diluted in the current MacBook Pro unibody chassis though, with too much white LED light bleeding out from between the keys; now Apple has re-engineered the keyboard so that each key gets its own LED, with the result that the key’s letter or symbol lights up cleanly with next to zero light leaking around the edges. It’s a great look.

The bigger talking point for the keyboard is not how it looks so much as how it feels. This may be the shortest-action keyboard ever made, for better or for worse.

In recent years keyboard buttons have been shrinking in the amount of travel between rest and depressed positions, to what on the MacBook now feels like sub-millimetre movement. In fact with so little movement of the key cap, it’s akin to trying to type on an iPad virtual touchscreen keyboard, only of course with the turnaround benefit that you can rest your hands naturally on the keyboard without setting off typed characters. And you also have the tactile feel of real keys below your fingertips.

The keyboard is not too dissimilar in feel to that available for the aforementioned Surface Pro tablet, albeit with a classier, precise feel. Ultimately though it’s how well you can type, and here we did find a steeper learning curve than expected to get up to higher speed touch typing.

A neat touch we did appreciate was the tidying of legends on those key caps, specifically the modifier keys of Control, Alt and Command. While US Mac keyboards have long seen the cleaner layout of ‘control’, ‘option’ and ‘command’ – spelt out in lower-case characters and uniformly set at the key bottom – the British keyboards on MacBooks have a messier mix of ‘ctrl’ in lower left; ‘alt’ in top left; and ‘cmd’ back in lower left, with the latter two also having the Alt and Bowen knot symbols too.

New 12-inch Retina MacBook review: Display

You'll immediately notice the bright, vivid and detailed Retina display on the new MacBook. The MacBook screen now joins the Retina class, a 2304 x 1440 panel using IPS technology to give decent colour coverage, contrast ratio and wide viewing angles. Like the displays in the MacBook Pro with Retina display and the iPad Air, it has its front glass bonded to the LCD, reducing thickness and air gaps that worsen reflectivity. And the top surface has the same microns-thick anti-reflective optical coating to reduce glare from the screen’s shiny glass surface.

Unusually for a Retina-screened Mac, the default resolution setting for this model is not actually the true Retina mode for pixel doubling. For all other Retina Macs we’ve seen, the default interface setting looks like one scaled back to half in each axis: a 2880 x 1800-pixel 15-inch MacBook Pro, for instance, is set to look like 1440 x 900 pixels. This gives best graphics performance too, since the maths to scale the screen is easier than when interpolating to, say, 1680 x 1050 for that same MacBook Pro.

You can manually set the MacBook to a true HiDPI mode that looks like a 1152 x 720-pixel display, but the interface starts to look a little large and clunky; instead you’ll find it is set to a virtual 1280 x 800, the same as older 13-inch MacBook Air and Pro models. Either side of these two scale options there is ‘1024 x 760’ and ‘1440 x 900’.

In our tests the display revealed good colour quality, just a little short of what you can expect to find from the MacBook Pro, and the same wide contrast ratio. Colour gamut stretched to 93 percent of the sRGB space, and 69 percent of Adobe RGB. Contrast ratio was a healthy 860:1 at the nominal 50 percent brightness setting.

Read next: Here's why it doesn't matter that the MacBook is expensive, underpowered and only has one port

And read our comparison review of the MacBook Air and the 12-inch MacBook to find out which is the best lightweight laptop.

New 12-inch Retina MacBook review: Force Touch trackpad

First debuted in the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display last month, the Force Touch trackpad is literally front and centre on the new MacBook. At 112 mm wide it may be the widest trackpad ever fitted to a laptop, if a little foreshortened at 70 mm when compared to the MacBook Pro (both 13- and 15-inch models have a squarer trackpad sized at 104 x 77 mm).

The innovation here though is not the size but the manner of operation. In place of a regular mechanical clicking button under the surface, the Force Touch trackpad uses a number of strain gauge sensors around the edge. With barely any discernible movement along its top glass surface, the trackpad can sense when finger pressure is applied.

Glancing strokes are treated as normal for mouse steering or light tap-to-click actions; press downward with a little more concerted pressure as you would do a normal hardware trackpad and you sense the ‘click’ of a mechanical switch. But it’s an illusion – what you’re feeling is the subtle jolt of an electromagnet’s impulse that replicates the sensation.

Press harder and you feel a ‘deeper’ click, again the feedback provided artificially to let you know you’ve completed the action. There can even be stages in between the two, as we discovered using the fast-forward/rewind controls in QuickTime Player. Increasing finger pressure here varies the speed of scanning, with tactile ticks perceptible as you drill down through the available shuttle speeds.

The new Force Click gesture (which is simply a harder version of the standard click) can be used in various ways. Force Click on an address, for example, and it will automatically launch the Maps app. And within the Maps app, you can use a Force Click rather than a normal click when zooming in or out, and the zooming will be quicker. Likewise, varying the pressure when clicking on the fast-forward button in QuickTime will vary the speed of the fast-forward function.

You can also Force Click on a Mail attachment to Quick Look at it, Force Click on a date and time to create a new Calendar event, or even Force Click a word to find out what it means.

It's not the same as a right-click (or the equivalent on a trackpad - usually either Ctrl-click or a tap with two fingers). The Force Click is effectively a third standard click, by default opening a 'look up' menu in most applications, delivering a definition or Wikipedia article summary for the word you're clicking on. Read next: How to right-click on a Mac.

New 12-inch MacBook review: Force Touch trackpad

Apple has also taken away the hinge traditionally found beneath the trackpad, so it feels the same no matter where you click. In fact, there's no mechanical click action at all: it feels and sounds like there is one, but this is entirely simulated by the vibrational effect of the electromagnets under the pad.

In the following video we explain how the Force Touch trackpad works, and demonstrate some of its current applications:

(Apple has since launched the Magic Trackpad 2, incidentally, which allows owners of older Macs to get the benefit of Force Touch features.)

Read: Mac buying guide: Which Mac should I buy? | 13 ways you can use Force Touch on the new MacBook

New 12-inch Retina MacBook review: Ports

It's easy to list all the ports on the MacBook – but one single USB port, not counting the headset audio jack. That's right: there's no Magsafe, there's no USB 3, there's no Thunderbolt, there's no SD card slot. Instead, Apple has decided that one port is all you need. 

This is a new take on the USB standard, USB Type C (or USB-C), a micro-sized interface that’s ready to supply and receive power to charge the internal battery. This particular version is called USB 3.1 Gen 1, with the same nominal 5 Gb/s interface speed as regular USB 3.0, but now also able to send ultra-high resolution digital video via either HDMI or DisplayPort standards.

Along with charging, the USB-C port can be used for connecting peripherals, for HDMI, VGA and DisplayPort. And of course, that means you're going to need an adapter, which you can buy from Apple (and you'll need to remember to lug around with you).

There's a USB adapter for plugging in one USB device available from Apple for £15. Apple also supplies the USB-C VGA Multiport Adapter and USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter (£65) as an accessory if you need to charge the MacBook and connect USB peripherals and external display at the same time. There’s a Type A USB port able to operate as USB 3.0, and an HDMI 1.4 port which allows up to 3840 x 2160 displays, albeit at a maximum refresh rate of 30 Hz. While too slow for comfortable viewing on a computer monitor it may be sufficient for watching video. Apple says that a DisplayPort adapter is coming soon.

Read next: Best USB-C speakers, headphones and storage accessories | Best USB adaptors

There’s also the possibility of full 60 Hz UHD operation, thanks to the DisplayPort 1.2 option, but you’ll need to find the necessary USB-C to DisplayPort cable. At present we could only find one supplier for this, Google, to complement the advertising company’s Chromebook Pixel laptop.

If you just want to connect a desktop peripheral like keyboard, mouse or storage drive, you’ll need at least the USB-C to USB Adapter (£15) to get the job done.

Beyond wired connections, the MacBook packs the latest 802.11ac Wi-Fi connectivity, with a two-stream solution able to sync to wireless routers at 867 Mb/s. And Bluetooth 4.0 handles short-range connections to mice, keyboards and assorted other peripherals.

For online video calls there’s still a webcam mounted in the screen bezel, in the usual top-central position too (unlike Dell’s XPS 13 with Infinity screen, whose tiny bezel forces a reposition, at screen bottom and offset to the left). The Facetime camera resolution is not the HD of 720p or 1080p, but 848 x 480 pixel, or 0.4 MP, which is still quite sufficient for Skype and Facetime use, for instance.

Including just one port may have enable Apple to make this MacBook incredibly slim, but just how portable is it really if you're required to also carry adapters, which you're likely to forget and leave behind?

It's something that has both impressed us and concerned us, but as Macworld editor Karen Haslam pointed out, we all freaked out about the MacBook Air when it launched without an optical drive and everyone is over it now. (She defends the new MacBook's allocation of ports in an opinion piece: Why people need to stop panicking about the MacBook's USB-C port.)

We'll see how we go with it in day-to-day use, but for now concerns aren't completely banished (far from it, in fact).

Apple isn't worried, though. The MacBook is designed to fly solo, unencumbered by wires.

New 12-inch Retina MacBook review: Processor and speed tests

Inside the new MacBook notebook is Intel's new energy-efficient Core M "Broadwell" processor, housed in a logic board that is 67 per cent smaller than Apple's previous record. The Core M runs so cool that computers that take advantage of the chip can be fanless. And being fanless means that the computer in which they feature can be thinner and smaller than ever. That M in Core M stands for mobile, though, and these are processors destined for tablets and hybrid laptops, so don't expect anything like the power of the Core i5.

There is a choice of three new Intel Core M processors in the MacBook. The entry model at £1049 includes a Core M-5Y31, specified by Apple as 1.1 GHz, and offers 256 GB of flash storage. The second off-the-shelf model includes 512 GB storage and a Core M-5Y51, specified as running at 1.2 GHz.That model costs £1,299.

There’s also a CTO model, otherwise identical to the latter, but with Core M-5Y71, advertised by Apple as a 1.3 GHz processor. That option adds £120 to the price, bringing it to £1,419.

Clock speed specifications have become something of a grey area lately, with Turbo modes that allow much higher than nominal speeds to be used in short bursts; and underclocking modes that reduce processors’ clocks below the named speed when the computer is idling.

In the case of the new MacBooks, the low-power chips in question are specified with base frequencies even lower than advertised in Apple’s marketing. So the ‘1.1 GHz Intel Core M processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.4 GHz)’ in our sample is the chip that Intel sells as the 0.9 GHz Core M-5Y31. It’s a chip that has a feature Intel calls ‘configurable TDP-up frequency’, which is listed as able to run at Apple’s figure of 1.1 GHz.

In Intel’s words, ‘Configurable TDP-up Frequency is a processor operating mode where the processor behavior and performance is modified by raising TDP and the processor frequency to fixed points.’

So while the chip in use here has a listed clock frequency of 900 MHz, Apple seems to have set it 200 MHz higher, in line with Intel’s available configuration. This does make it run hungrier for power though, and likely with more waste heat to disperse; while the Core M-5Y31 has a nominal thermal design power (TDP) of 4.5 W, when overclocked to 1.1 GHz its TDP is listed at 6 W.

In our tests of processor performance, we found something of a moving target. While no-one is likely to press a passively cooled ultrabook processor into workstation duties, we nevertheless used our standard Cinebench tests to get an idea of performance – and found it highly variable. This is likely a symptom of intelligent on-die temperature sensing and clock frequency readjustment, with the processor underclocking as it reaches thermal maximums to prevent any overheating.

Our first run with Cinebench 11.5 showed scores of 1.05 points for a single processor core, and 2.18 points for dual-core mode (effectively four cores here, with the help of Intel Hyper Threading Technology).

Cinebench 15 reported 98 and 204 points respectively for the same tests, scores that compare favourably with the 110 and 260 points we found on the last MacBook Air update, based on Intel Core i5-5250U running at 1.6 GHz baseline.

But successive iterations of the same test saw performance gradually fall, then plummet, as the processor warmed up. Single-core speed especially showed the difference after concerted demands were made of the central processor – scores returned were 98, then 92, 84; and on the fourth run, just 49 points. It seems likely that the 2.4 GHz Turbo boost is removed as a dynamic option when internal temperatures exceed a calculated threshold.

But in use the MacBook never felt ‘too’ hot, just pleasantly warm on its flat underside, where we understand the logic board and CPU is dispersing its spare heat.

Using the Temperature Gauge application we were able to see internal temperatures move up and down, reaching a maximum of 95 ºC in the CPU core under peak stress, before quickly ebbing back to little under body temperature (37 ºC) within just a few minutes after the loading ceased.

Geekbench 3 revealed scores of 2459 and 4618 points for its single/multi modes (cf, 2900 and 5820 points for MacBook Air), which shows that while no heavy lifter the MacBook can nearly keep up with the familiar lower-power variants of the Intel Core i5 processor.

For reference, a recent 2.16 GHz Intel Celeron N2840 processor in a Windows laptop scored just 1069 and 1863 points in this test. Meanwhile the iPad Air 2 reports around 1815 and 4515 points in Geekbench 3.

So while the tri-core 1.5 GHz Apple A8X chip in the latest iPad is incredibly fast for an ARM processor, we can see why Apple has stuck to the usual Intel x86 architecture in its new lightweight MacBook, for the moment at least.

Shoehorned into the same die of the Core M chip is the graphics engine, Intel HD Graphics 5300, which proved quite competent for driving high-resolution displays and even up to some light game playing.

We tried first Tomb Raider 2013 at the usual starting point of 1280 x 800 resolution, and with Low detail setting. Here the MacBook averaged 16.9 fps on the first run. Following runs at the same setting were slowed slightly but not too precipitously – 16.1, 16.0, 15.1 and 15.0 fps on succeeding trials.

Dropping settings to 1024 x 768 pixels and Low detail was still too much for the MacBook graphics processor, returning framerates around 20 fps. But by selecting Legacy OpenGL from the game’s preference settings, you can get to play at 24 fps (1280 x 800, Low) and even 27 fps average (1024 x 768, Low).

Tested with Batman: Arkham City, we again saw borderline framerates, 25 fps with 1280 x 800 and Low detail.

But is speed an issue for a product like this? Perhaps not - and it certainly doesn't feel sluggish in use. Gaming won't be a highlight, but for most day-to-day tasks the new MacBook will be fine.

New 12-inch Retina MacBook review: Storage

Helping to keep the MacBook feel fast and fluid in normal use is a very advanced flash drive, like that now fitted to the MacBook Air and Pro. This version appears to be the first using an in-house designed memory controller, rather than buying in a complete SSD from the usual OEM suppliers of Samsung, SanDisk or Toshiba.

It is connected by a 4-lane PCIe 2.0 bus, in common with the latest 13-inch MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, although the MacBook didn’t quite hit the giddy speed heights we recorded from these two models recently. But at 845 MB/s sequential read and 477 MB/s sequential write speeds, we have no cause from complaint. And in place of the usual advanced host controller interface (AHCI) long used for SATA drives, the MacBook’s flash drive now uses NVM Express to control the increasingly fast IO that’s now emerging in these highly developed solid-state storage drives.

And while its average of 226 and 167 MB/s for random reads and writes respectively (4 kB to 1024 kB) cannot match the circa-500 MB/s figures from the drives in the new 13-inchers, it shows a marked step-up from the 181 and 138 MB/s results for the latest 11-inch MacBook Air (Early 2015), which is using an older 2-lane PCIe 2.0-connected flash drive.

Read about the storage in the middle 13in MacBook Pro which is faster than that in the £999 model

New 12-inch Retina MacBook review: Battery life

Apple made a point of highlighting that the battery is one of the new MacBook's standout features. Apple describes it as "all day" battery life, but what that really means is an official rating of 9 hours of web surfing or 10 hours of watching video.

Mind you, Apple has become known for making surprisingly modest claims about its devices' batteries: we're currently finding that the new 13-inch MacBook Pro, for instance, consistently outlasts its 'official' battery life by a matter of hours.

Battery life should be the real benefactor when you select a low-power processor, although Apple engineers did have to take a hit on runtime by selecting a high-grade, high-resolution IPS display over the more economical TN screens fitted to current MacBook Air models.

Nevertheless, the newly tiered layers in the MacBook’s lithium-polymer battery pack total a nominal 39.7 Wh of energy on a full charge – around 143 kilojoules – which in our tests allowed the MacBook to run for 11 hr 12 min in our looped-video rundown test.

New 12-inch Retina MacBook review: Build-to-order options

Both the 1.1GHz 256GB model and the 1.2GHz 512GB model can be upgraded with a 1.3GHz processor at point of purchase; this increases the price by £200 and £120 respectively. The 1.3GHz 256GB version therefore costs £1,249, and the 1.3GHz 512GB version costs £1,419. 

New 12-inch Retina MacBook review: Price and availability

The new MacBook 2015 is available to order from Apple's Online Store now, after its official 10 April release. However, there's a significant delay to orders, with shipping times for all models currently estimated to be four to six weeks, suggesting that there is something slightly wrong in Apple's production line. Find out more in our new MacBook 2015 availability, price, specs and features article.

If you are interested in buying the new MacBook, follow one of the links below to view the machines and additional buying options on Apple's online store.

Configuration 1: 1.1GHz processor, 256GB flash storage: £1,049 View silver model on Apple Store | gold model | Space Grey model

Configuration 2: 1.2GHz processor, 512GB flash storage: £1.299 View silver model on Apple Store | gold model | Space Grey model

Both configurations can be upgraded to a 1.3GHz processor, as we explained in the build-to-order section above, for an additional £200 or £120 respectively.

New 12-inch Retina MacBook review: the competition

Pick up the MacBook and you'll be amazed by how thin and light it is. It weighs just 907g, and measures just 13.1mm thick. "Can you see it?" Tim Cook joked on stage when he unveiled it. "I can't even feel it!"

However, there are thinner laptops out there. The Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro is 12.7mm, for example, and the Lenovo LaVie Z HZ550 weighs just 780g.

Here are the 12-inch MacBook's full dimensions and weight:

Height: 0.35-1.31cm 
Width: 28.05cm
Depth: 19.65cm
Weight: 0.92kg

Read 8 laptops that rival Apple's new MacBook

That's it for our MacBook review for now, but we'll be regularly updating this article as we spend more time with the laptop.

You can watch the Macworld UK team discussing the new MacBook announcement in the video below.

See also: Five reasons to buy the new Retina MacBook and Four reasons not to buy the new Retina MacBook

Apple has now updated the 15in MacBook Pro, read our review of the 2015 15in MacBook Pro here

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