Apple says the new MacBook is the ultimate in portable computing. To test that, I took it on a week-long vacation to see my family. Here’s what happened.
Laptop as fashion accessory (May 8, 10:02 a.m.)
A young woman sits across from me as I wait for my flight out of Portland International Airport. She’s wearing a loose blue blouse belted across the waist, a maroon skirt, and matching high heels. A tattoo of a dragon runs all the way down her right arm to her hand, which grasps an iPhone 6 Plus. Over the half-hour we’re waiting for boarding she uses it for several lively conversations; her friend has cancer, her research is dragging, her work looks like it could turn into a career. I imagine that she’s a student, an entrepreneur, or a writer for Jezebel. Possibly all three.
Forget the Watch, forget the iPhone; this notebook beats them all.
I feel an unexpected tinge of jealously. She gives off an aura of importance, direction and connectedness. There’s even a smartwatch dangling from her wrist, a Pebble, no less, proving she was into it before it was cool. But I do have one advantage.
I have a MacBook, and she has the Air.
Apple’s Air is arguably the original computer-as-fashion-accessory. Overnight, everyone realized that whether or not a notebook fits into a manila envelope is actually quite important, paving the way for Intel’s Ultrabook initiative and today’s selection of super-svelte systems. But as time has passed the Air’s influence has deflated; it’s been downgraded from icon to door buster for buyers who want a Mac but don’t have much to spend.
A new notebook worthy of Apple’s design reputation was long overdue, and the new MacBook is indisputably that system. From the moment it comes out of the box it demands the same reverence given a museum piece. That’s not just because it’s insanely thin, but because its thinness bestows a unity of design found nowhere else. There’s exactly one visible seam –- the bottom panel – and only two small ports to break up the system’s razor-sharp lines. The MacBook is almost too beautiful to use.
My self-satisfaction is justified an hour later, on the way to Los Angeles International Airport, when we ascend above 10,000 feet and I pop out the MacBook. The youngest stewardess breezes by, stops, take a step back. “Wow,” she exclaims, “I didn’t know they made those in gold!”
Size matters (May 8, 5:36 p.m.)
The MacBook is small. I don’t just mean thin, though as mentioned, it’s certainly that. I mean it’s small, in every dimension, by every measurement. Viewed alone, it seems no larger than an iPad. In reality its 12-inch display is somewhat larger, but holding the notebook makes those crazy iPad Pro rumors seem a little more sane. A super-svelte slate with a screen this size just might fly.
Speaking of flying, that’s where the size of the MacBook really becomes an advantage. I’m sitting in economy, so space is limited, but Apple’s latest feels right at home. It fits on the tray with enough room left over to recline the display at the angle I’d normally choose. That means I can push the system further back, which means my arms are at a more natural position, which means I don’t have to contort myself to use the keyboard. An Apple rep described the MacBook’s design goal to me as “ultimate portability.” Right now, I’d say it hits that mark.
There’s one thing worrying me, though. The battery. I haven’t used the notebook more than a couple hours since this morning, but the gauge says I’m at 60 percent. It also claims I have six and a half hours left. I’m curious how accurate that will prove.
Not everyone is impressed (May 9, 11:16 a.m.)
My mother is an Apple devotee, ever since I bought her an iPad Mini for Christmas. I took breakfast as an opportunity to show off the MacBook. The color intrigued her; while she loves her iPad and iPhone, she doesn’t keep up on the latest and greatest, and didn’t know gold Apple products were “a thing.” Past that, she loved how small it was.
But then she placed it down in the kitchen, and conversation turned back to a local bridge, which is apparently about to fall down. She was enchanted for no more than half a minute.
My mother’s brief encounter with the new MacBook encapsulates the challenges facing Apple, and the PC industry has a whole, as neatly as any single moment can. It doesn’t seem to matter how nice the new MacBook is; people like my mom, who has a four-year-old Dell that works without issue, just don’t care.
OS X is great, if you have an iPhone (May 9, 8:45 p.m.)
Like everyone, I text a lot. Especially right now, when I’m far away from home. After wrapping up the day’s family festivities, I’ve spent a good part of an hour texting my girlfriend, as my phone lies on the other side of the room, charging.
Honestly, I just adore OS X Yosemite.
That’s something not easily accomplished on a Windows machine. With OS X, though, it’s a cinch. So is sharing browser sessions, bookmarks and even passwords between the MacBook and my iPhone. It wouldn’t be right to say there’s nothing to it, but it’s close. Click a few buttons, enter a code from the Mac on an iPhone, and you’re ready to go.
Windows 10, which I’ve used since the first technical preview, is shaping up to be a solid operating system, but Apple has built something special with OS X Yosemite. It’s just so damn simple. Want an app? Go to the app store. Want music? Go to iTunes. Looking for a restaurant? Just type in the search box, and from there open the result in Safari, or get directions in Maps, which can then be beamed to an iOS device.
Honestly, I just adore Yosemite. I wish I could use it more. As an editor and writer covering computers, I really can’t lock myself down to just one OS. But if I could, I think it’d be OS X.
Getting my game on (May 10, 3:48 p.m.)
Today is Mother’s Day. That should mean family togetherness, and it does – but my grandmother is in her late 80s, and not as spry as she used to be. There’s a lot of downtime. So I occupy it the way any geek would: video games.
I start with Prison Architect which, as the name implies, is about building a prison. After I load the title I realize it’s the perfect game for Apple’s latest notebook. Its graphics are technically simple yet artistically complex, so it looks incredible and runs smoothly. Apple’s Retina displays are no longer in a league of their own, but they’re still top-notch, especially in contrast levels. The vibrant orange jumpers of my inmates seem to leap off the harsh concrete squares they occupy.
After 10 minutes with the game, I realize I’ve hopelessly screwed up my prison. It’s been at least six months since I last played, and I don’t have time to re-learn. So instead I load a title that’s a bit more graphically demanding, but a bit more familiar: Kerbal Space Program.
While technically simple, it is a 3D game, and initially it pushed the MacBook’s Intel HD 5300 graphics a bit too far. After toning textures down to half resolution and reducing virtually every setting, except the physics model, the game was playable, even if it looked even uglier than normal.
I should mention the ridiculous white cord jutting from the left of the MacBook. Kerbal is almost impossible to play with a touchpad, but my external mouse connects through standard USB, a port this system infamously lacks. That means I have to use the adapter, and then plug in the tiny dongle. Aside from the fact it looks dumb, this arrangement means I can’t use my mouse and have the MacBook plugged into power. There’s an adapter for that, too, but I didn’t bring it along.
Can a laptop be too beautiful? (May 11, 11:01 a.m.)
The new MacBook is too pretty.
I’m sitting at the kitchen table replying to the few emails too important to wait. Or at least I’m trying too. Mostly, I’m polishing and re-polishing the keyboard and touchpad, attempting to remove the smudges. Eating a fried egg sandwich a few minutes before sitting down to type stuff wasn’t the best idea.
This is a problem many laptops have, but it’s particularly noticeable here. The keys seem to trap every spot of grease, the display shows every smudge, and the glossy Apple logo, a replacement for the backlit logo on other MacBooks, is collecting a film around its edges.
Perhaps I’m just being obsessive. You may be thinking, “who cares?” Well I care. The new-notebook look is important. And after a week of use it’s already wearing off.
Adequacy (May 11, 8:29 p.m.)
This is the fourth day I’ve been using the MacBook, and aside from commenting on its obvious lack of gaming chops, there’s been little to say about its performance. That’s a good thing.
The MacBook’s battery is adequate, but its endurance doesn’t amaze.
GeekBench’s multi-core score of 4,468 seems poor, and relatively speaking, it is. A MacBook Pro with Retina will generally score 30 percent better or more, despite the fact it sells at the same price. A Dell XPS 13 has a similar advantage. That’s a big gap. The kind you’ll notice if you do anything demanding. Want to edit a video? Well, then the Pro is the way to go.
For general everyday use, though, this tiny machine has proven surprisingly capable. It doesn’t stutter, hesitate, or hang. That’s the benefit of a super-fast, PCI Express solid state drive and 8GB of RAM. Intel’s Core M isn’t the quickest, but it’s fast enough for most tasks, especially when it doesn’t have to wait for the hard drive or RAM to feed it data.
The battery is less impressive, and could be a real sticking point for some buyers. Everyone was exhausted today from Mother’s Day celebrations, so I had a lot of time to mess around. From my earlier entry at 11 a.m. until now, the battery has drained down to a hair over 30 percent. That entire time hasn’t been spent using the MacBook, of course, and it hasn’t been asked to do anything more demanding the stream YouTube.
There are two ways to look at this. Optimists will say the MacBook has fulfilled its promise of providing a workday of light-to-moderate use, and then some. Those who see the glass half empty might comment that a more demanding load could drain the battery dry in just a few hours.
Personally, it reminds me of the outstanding life provided by the Pro 13 with Retina, the Dell XPS 13, and the Lenovo ThinkPad X1 Carbon. Those systems surprised me constantly. I’d glance at the battery gauge and think “Really? 80 percent left? Haven’t I been using this all morning?” There’s no such moment of wonder here. The battery is adequate.
Well, time to charge. Except my external mouse is plugged in, and there’s one USB port. Whoops.
The MacBook doesn’t hold the keys to my heart (May 12, 8:05 p.m.)
There’s another important point I haven’t covered until now. The keyboard. Unlike the processor, which simply hadn’t come to mind, I’ve been thinking about the keyboard a lot. Like many elements of the MacBook, it’s a brilliant solution to a problem that arguably doesn’t need to exist.
The problem? Laptops, and the MacBook in particular, are so thin there’s literally not enough space for significant key travel. The solution? For Apple, it’s an entirely new Butterfly key switch that attempts to compact a tactile experience into just a few millimeters of movement.
It works. But not as well as the keyboards on some competitors. Typing for more than an hour leaves my fingers with a dull ache, like they’ve been holding onto something too hard, for too long. It’s workable, but it’s far from ideal, and it raises the question: Do you really need a notebook this thin?
The touchpad, as you might expect, is a different story. Apple aced this problem years ago, and the MacBook’s swiping surface is good for all the usual reasons: responsiveness, size, and plentiful multi-touch gestures. What’s new is Force Touch, with simulates tactile feedback when the surface is “clicked.” The effect is perfect. It’s a shame the keyboard isn’t as successful.
Decision Time (May 13, 6:46 p.m.)
LAX is testing my patience. Construction has left it a confusing maze of corridors, most of them poorly marked. And every edible larger than a protein bar is more than $10. Fast food sucks, but I’d kill for a six-dollar chicken sandwich right now.
The MacBook, at least, hasn’t agitated me further. I must admit its barely-there profile takes literal weight off my shoulders, and it fits as handily on a tiny airport cafeteria table as on an airplane tray. Travel brings out the best in the system. Well, except for the battery.
A stewardess breezes by, stops, takes a step back. “Wow,” she exclaims, “I didn’t know they made those in gold!”
As I look down at the beautiful gold device sitting inches from me, though, the price dominates my mind. I’ve used it for the last week, and more or less enjoyed it, but I didn’t have to pay for it. This $1,300 notebook, like every review unit, came into my hands without a word from my wallet. So I have to ask: Would I spend that much money on this laptop?
No. I wouldn’t.
The MacBook is the most forward-thinking device Apple currently sells. Forget the Watch, forget the iPhone; this notebook beats them all. It absolutely defines the bleeding edge in PC portability, and in all likelihood it’ll become the blueprint future competitors are based on. Two ports or less, passive cooling, razor-thin profile … these traits will describe the majority of laptops sold within three years.
Yet bleeding-edge hardware is rarely where the best value is found, and early examples of a breed always have flaws. Just look at the original Air. It had too few ports, a very slow processor, and mediocre battery life. It eventually overcame those issues, and is now a solid entry-level option for OS X fanatics.
That’s what the MacBook is going to become. It’s in the name. This is the MacBook. As hardware evolves it will be more affordable, quicker, and last longer. It will become better, not just because that’s the natural course of consumer technology, but because it wrangles with new problems that aren’t yet solved.
Right now, though, it offers too little for too much. It’s beautiful, well-engineered, and cutting-edge, but it’s not a good value. Go to the nearest Apple store. Marvel at its engineering. And then buy the MacBook Pro. Unless you spend most of your time working from an airplay tray, it’s the more sensible choice.
- Design that borders on art
- Thin and feather-weight
- Best-in-class touchpad
- Excellent display
- Poor processor performance
- Can’t handle most games
- Keyboard becomes tiresome
- Poor value