Apple MacBook: Is this the ultimate ultraportable notebook?
Reviving the MacBook
For most of our readers, when you think of a MacBook, you are probably thinking of the white polycarbonate model that was discontinued about four years ago. The MacBook was Apple’s entry-level notebook since its introduction in 2006, but it was phased out as technology and economies of scale made it possible for Apple to offer the MacBook Air (introduced in 2008) at lower prices.
Things have changed a lot since then. The MacBook Air has now become Apple’s entry-level and most affordable notebook, which is really strange if you think about it, because it was ridiculously expensive at launch, costing around S$3,000 to S$5,000 depending on your specifications. Now, the most affordable 13-inch MacBook Air model can be had for just over S$1,300.
Pricing aside, the MacBook Air, which made its name by being ultra-thin and light, is not really that light any more by modern standards, so much so that the its Air name is becoming a bit of a misnomer. It might have taken a while, but the competition has finally caught up and there are no shortage of notebooks that are thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air.
Fortunately, Apple is not one to just sit back and in its Spring Forward event earlier this year announced the revival of the MacBook name and a brand new ultraportable notebook.
One of the reasons why the new MacBook is so thin is because it is powered by Intel’s new Core M processors. These are ultra low power processors that have a TDP of just 4.5W and require no active cooling, allowing manufacturers to design fan-less chassis that are sleeker than ever before. If Core M sounds familiar to you, it is because this is the same processor found in other ultra-thin notebooks and convertibles such as the ASUS Transformer Book T300 Chi and Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro.
For the MacBook, Apple is offering two off-the-shelf configurations, with the differences being only the processor and storage capacity. Our review unit is the entry-level model that comes with a dual-core Intel Core M-5Y31 processor (4MB L3 cache) that runs at an unusual base clock speed of 1.1GHz, and is capable of boosting up to 2.4GHz. We say it is unusual because Intel’s specifications lists this particular SKU as having a base clock speed of just 900MHz. Clearly, Apple has overclocked it for more performance (or at least qualified their CPU batches to operate faster).
The other off-the-shelf model comes with a more powerful Intel Core M-5Y51 processor (4MB L3 cache) that has also been overclocked. Apple notes that this model has a base clock speed of 1.2GHz, but according to Intel, this particular SKU should run at a lower base clock speed of 1.1GHz. More demanding users can equip their MacBooks with the optional Core M-5Y71 processor (1.3GHz, 4MB L3 cache), but at a considerable premium, of course.
All Core M processors will feature the Intel HD Graphics 5300 integrated GPU. This particular integrated GPU is significantly less powerful than the Intel HD Graphics 6000 and Intel Iris Graphics 6100 integrated GPUs found on the refreshed 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display and MacBook Air, with only 24 execution units as compared to the 48 found on the Intel HD Graphics 6000 and Intel Iris Graphics 6100.
Both models will come with 8GB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 RAM as standard, and it is worth noting that Apple will not be offering any RAM upgrades for the MacBook. As for storage, the entry-level model that we have is equipped with a 256GB SSD, whereas the higher-end model will get a 512GB SSD. There’s no option for a 1TB SSD. Here’s a table summarizing the differences between the two off-the-shelf models.
|Core M-5Y31 (1.1GHz, 4MB L3 cache)||8GB 1600MHz LPDDR3||256GB SSD|
|Core M-5Y51 (1.3GHz, 4MB L3 cache)||8GB 1600MHz LPDDR3||512GB SSD|
Like the newly refreshed 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display and MacBook Air, the SSDs in the MacBook will utilize four PCIe lanes instead of the more common two for improved storage performance. But, unlike the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, the SSD in the MacBook supports the new and faster NVME interface. The NVME interface was developed specially for SSDs and supersedes the older AHCI interface. Primarily, it reduces latency by promoting greater parallelism and allowing more commands to be executed simultaneously, which in turn increases drive performance.
What’s perhaps most amazing about the MacBook is how tiny the logic board is. All components are soldered onto the board, so there’s no chance of upgradeability, but the MacBook’s logic board is, quite amazingly, 67% smaller than that of the 11-inch MacBook Air, which also means more space for batteries. Speaking of batteries, Apple has also designed special terraced batteries so that it can fit precisely inside the MacBook's curved chassis to maximize all available space. Because of this, Apple was able to squeeze an extra 35% more charge into the MacBook.
Design and Features
Allow us to state the obvious: the new MacBook is drop dead gorgeous. It now comes in three different colors - silver, space grey and gold - and we think it looks best in gold and space grey, but this is a totally personally choice, of course. We won’t judge you if you decide silver is the one for you.
And if you haven’t already heard, it is wonderfully thin and light, measuring just 13.2mm at its thickest point, and tapering down to just 3.5mm at the opposite end. It is also one of the few notebooks around to weigh under a kilogram, tipping the scales at just a scant 920g. To our knowledge, only Lenovo’s Lavie Z notebook weighs less at 840g, but this notebook can’t match the MacBook for thinness and overall compactness. There's also no comparison with the MacBook Air. After using the MacBook for a week or so, the MacBook Air feels cumbersome, heavy and unwieldy.
The MacBook was designed for extreme portability and to achieve this design required Apple to completely re-engineer many important components. To ensure usability, Apple has decided to go for a 12-inch Retina display that outputs an atypical resolution of 2,304 x 1,440 pixels (16:10 aspect ratio), giving it also a pixel density count of a very respectable 226 pixels per inch - comparable to both the 13 and 15-inch MacBook Pros with Retina display.
The Retina display on the MacBook is also Apple’s thinnest ever, and measures just 0.88mm thick. This was achieved by using a special manufacturing process that forms the glass closer to the display itself. Apple also took the chance to improve the power efficiency of the display by redesigning the individual pixels with larger apertures, thereby allowing more light to pass through. According to Apple, the same brightness can now be achieved using 30% less power, and this power savings will contribute towards a longer battery life. Apple’s Retina displays have always been gorgeous and the MacBook's is no different. Images are sharp and colors are bright and vivid. Viewing angles are also very good.
The other key component that had to be re-engineered was the keyboard. Apple determined that its traditional design, while tactile to use, was far too thick and imprecise to be implemented. The keys on Apple's traditional keyboard tended to wobble, especially at the sides, because of the way the key caps were mounted to the underlying scissors switch. Apple wanted a thinner keyboard, and if users were to hit the key off-center, the wobbling would have resulted in the sides of the key caps hitting the bottom before the stroke registered. Hence, Apple created a new switch using a butterfly design, that is thinner, stiffer and more stable and uniform in its motion. This way, even if users were to hit the key off-center, the stroke would still register and the feel would still be consistent. At the same time, Apple also made the key caps larger and gave it a deeper curvature to make typing more intuitive and pleasant.
In the real world, the first thing that strikes you about the keyboard is how thin it is. The key caps look as if they are flushed against the chassis. It’s also hard to tell that the keys are actually larger, unless you put the MacBook next to a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. Crucially, the keyboard is certainly usable and it’s actually quite fun to use once you get the hang of it. There’s almost non-existent travel in the keys but it has a nice click action that reminds us of popping bubble wrap. On the whole, we think that in the pursuit of extreme thinness, it’s a fair compromise.
Along with the keyboard, the touchpad has been redesigned too and the MacBook features what Apple calls the Force Touch trackpad. This new trackpad is present on the refreshed 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display too, and you can read more about it in that review so we won’t go into too much details here. But very briefly, it doesn’t actually click and uses sensors and electromagnets to generate a haptic feedback when it is being interacted. However, it does not feel like any haptic feedback we have experienced before. At the risk of sounding crazy, the feedback generated feels like an actual click. Our advice is to head down to an Apple Store near you and try it out for yourself.
Because the MacBook is so thin, it does not have standard USB ports nor a MagSafe 2 port. Instead, it uses a single USB Type-C port which is markedly more compact than your typical USB (Type-A) port for data, video and power. It is also reversible, which means up/down orientation is not an issue when attempting to plug compatible accessories. More important however, is the fact that it supports the new USB 3.1 standard, which increases data throughput and power delivery. Theoretically, USB 3.1 will offer up to 10Gbps of data transfer rate, but Apple is capping the port in the MacBook at 5Gbps for now, which is equivalent to regular USB 3.0. As for power, the USB 3.1 standard can deliver up to 5A and 100W, which is more than sufficient for the MacBook’s needs. If you are wondering, Thunderbolt 2 still reigns supreme when it comes to outright bandwidth - the newer Thunderbolt 2.0 standard offers up to 20Gbps. However, the Thunderbolt connector is probably too large to fit into the chassis of the MacBook.
We will elaborate more about the realities of just having a single port in our conclusion, but it is obvious at this point that this could a problem for some users - especially those who rely heavily on USB external devices. Apple sells a USB Type-C to USB Type-A adapter as an optional accessory, but will this be enough?
The only other “port” on the MacBook is a 3.5mm headphones jack. Speaking of audio, the built-in speakers of the MacBook, which are located just above the keyboard is surprisingly strong and loud, and definitely of an above average quality where notebook speakers are concerned.
With only a USB Type-C port and headphones jack, the MacBook will have to rely a lot on wireless connectivity. So it's a good thing that the MacBook supports the latest 802.11ac wireless standard. Specifically, it supports up to two spatial streams so a maximum wireless data transfer rate of 867Mbps is possible. Wireless-AC aside, the MacBook also supports Bluetooth 4.0.