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Review: The New MacBook Is The MacBook Air, Taken One Stylish, Minimalist Step Further

Apple isn’t trying to reinvent the notebook. It’s just making it thinner, lighter, and simpler–and as close to cable-free as possible.

For the past few years, the PC industry has been busily trying to reinvent the venerable laptop computer. It’s added touch screens. And displays that fold into different orientations like a piece of origami, or break free from the keyboard altogether. And pressure-sensitive styluses.

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Okay, let’s just say it: Hardware makers have been trying to turn the notebook into something that is almost, but not quite, a tablet.

Except for Apple, that is. Alone among major laptop manufacturers, its vision of the future has been remarkably consistent. It involves Macs that get ever sleeker and simpler–but are still recognizable as conventional notebook computers running an operating system optimized for a keyboard and track pad.

That evolution continues with the new MacBook, which was announced as an appetizer at the Apple Watch event in March. It goes on sale this Friday, April 10, at 12:01 a.m. PT. (I’ve spent a week with a prerelease unit provided by Apple.)

The new MacBook in gold, one of three available colors.

The name “MacBook,” unadorned by a modifier such as “Air” or “Pro,” might suggest that this is a general-purpose machine for the masses. Not true. The starting price–$1,299 for a unit with 8GB of RAM and 256GB of solid-state storage–is $400 more than the cheapest version of Apple’s cheapest notebook, the 11-inch MacBook Air. Price aside, this MacBook is a computer for a particular type of person: someone who prizes portability and elegance over screen real estate and raw computing power, and is willing to make the leap to a cool new feature–in this case, the USB-C connector–when its coolness is still more about potential than immediate benefit, and might even be a short-term drawback.

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Even if this computer isn’t for you, it portends good things to come for Mac lovers. While other manufacturers have been fooling around with breakaway screens and touch input, Apple did something less flashy, but at least as useful: It applied new technology to the design of its keyboard and track pad, making both of these seemingly mature input devices strikingly better. As Apple updates its product line, the updated keyboard and track pad will presumably roll out to its other notebooks, along with at least some of the other design cues that are debuting in the MacBook. They’re going to be worth the wait.

Air Apparent

Though Apple chose not to call this MacBook an Air, its looks are very much reminiscent of the MacBook Air–only more so, and with enough refinements to add up to the slickest mobile Mac that the company has ever built.

The machine still sports a wedge-shaped unibody design. But now that aluminum wedge is even skinnier, starting at .52 of an inch and tapering down to just .14. The weight is 2.03 pounds, down from 2.38 pounds for the 11-inch MacBook Air.

Several little things about the Air that were less than perfectly polished have been addressed. As with MacBook Pro models, the screen isn’t slightly recessed from its bezel–it’s just one flat surface of glass. The clunky black plastic sheath on the hinge, formerly required for reasons relating to Wi-Fi reception, is gone. That freed up space for a speaker grill above the keyboard, which, compared to the 11-inch Air, makes the MacBook’s maximum volume more, well, maximal. (On the Air, audio has to sneak out from vents hidden near the hinge.)

The new MacBook is slightly narrower than the 11-inch MacBook Air, and just a smidge deeper. But by reducing the amount of border around the the display, Apple managed to squeeze in a 12-inch display. There’s so little border that there was no room for an HD FaceTime camera; instead, the computer makes do with a lower-res 480p model.

Real-estate-wise, the screen feels pretty much like you’d expect: a tad roomier than 11 inches, a tad tighter than 13. But the significant thing about the MacBook’s display isn’t its measurements. It’s the fact that it’s the first ultra-high-resolution “Retina” screen that Apple has built into a super-portable Mac.

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The new MacBook (left) has a bigger screen, wider keyboard, and roomier track pad than the 11-inch MacBook Air–all in a thinner, narrower, and lighter case.Photo: Harry McCracken

At this point, that news is more of a “finally!” than a “wow!” Apple started the ultra-high-res race in 2012 with the groundbreaking Retina-screen MacBook Pro. But many makers of Windows PCs shipped thin-and-light laptops with gazillions of pixels long before Apple did, leaving the MacBook Airs’ low-res screens feeling increasingly anachronistic.

The new MacBook’s resolution is 2304-by-1440–about 2.5 times as many crisp, bright, and generally beautiful pixels as on the larger display of the 13-inch MacBook Air. It’s not a breakthrough, but for many people, it’s the single most compelling reason to opt for this computer over a MacBook Air.

Sharp Retina icons on the new MacBook (top) vs. blocky MacBook Air ones (bottom).Photo: Harry McCracken

Input, Evolved

Nice though this 12-inch screen is, Apple didn’t set out to design a MacBook with a display of any specific dimensions. Instead, it started with the keyboard, with the goal of building the smallest notebook it could with full-sized keys. They are indeed jumbo-sized, reaching almost all the way to the case’s left and right edges, with less space between each key than on previous Mac notebooks.

But to say that the keyboard is full-sized doesn’t adequately cover the changes Apple made. It scooped out the key caps more for increased fingertip-friendliness, and sat them atop a new type of mechanism that makes each key press less wobbly. It also evened out the backlighting by giving each key its own dedicated LED. (On most laptops, the illumination feels like it’s provided by a gnat wielding a flashlight from beneath the keys.)

A clip from Apple’s video showing off its new “butterfly” key mechanisms.Source: Giphy

The end result is . . . different. Compared to other laptop keyboards, it’s less about how far the keys travel as you jab at them–they come to a stop relatively quickly–and more about how large, stable, and generally comfy they are. It only took me a few minutes of typing before I decided I liked the feel; persnickety touch typists might require a longer period of adjustment.

Then there’s the track pad. It looks exactly like the ones on the MacBook Air, except slightly more spacious. But the technological underpinnings are radically new.

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With Apple’s old design, the entire pad was hinged, so that pressing the lower portion let you click it like a giant mouse button. The new track pad scraps that approach for two technologies that Apple first showed off in use in the Apple Watch last September: the Taptic Engine and Force Touch.

Taptic is a new sort of electromagnetic-based vibration that is nothing like the jittery buzz produced by all smartphones, including the iPhone. In the case of the MacBook, it simulates the clicky feedback you get when pressing down on Apple’s old track pad. It’s an uncanny impression–but better, since it works equally well no matter where you press and lets you adjust the sensitivity to your taste (light, medium, or firm).

The technology also provides feedback in other scenarios: Drag shapes around on a PDF in Apple’s Preview app, for instance, and your fingertip will feel a gentle nudge when they come into alignment.

Force Touch, meanwhile, uses four sensors to introduce the concept of pressing harder on the track pad to accomplish beyond things what a simple click can do. When you sign your name in the Preview app, for instance, pushing down thickens the line. Doing the same while watching a QuickTime video speeds it up. In the Finder, a hard press provides a pop-up file preview; in Safari, it shows dictionary definitions of words on web pages.

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Although the Force Touch capabilities that Apple has implemented in its own apps are clever, none quite feel like the technology’s killer app. But third-party app and game developers can add Force Touch-enabled features to their software. As they do, it could get really interesting, really fast.

One Port in a Storm

For years, Apple has been as likely to remove features from its computers as add them. It’s eliminated floppy drives, DVD burners, dial-up modems, Ethernet networking, removable batteries, and more, usually before everybody is ready to say goodbye to them. And then it turns out that it’s possible to live without such items, and the rest of the industry eventually falls in line.

But the MacBook’s port-reduction diet may be Apple’s most radical move yet. The 13-inch MacBook Air has a power connector, two USB 3.0 ports, a Thunderbolt port, a headphone jack, and a slot for SD memory cards. The new MacBook, by contrast, has just two connectors: a headphone/microphone jack on the right side, and a USB-C one on the left.

Like Apple’s Lightning, the USB-C connector is tiny and reversible.Photo: Harry McCracken

It’s that single USB-C connector that’s one of the MacBook’s defining characteristics. Along with Google’s new Chromebook Pixel, this is one of the first computers on board with USB-C, a industry-wide initiative intended to replace USB as we’ve known it since the 1990s.

USB-C may be a joint effort, but it’s an awfully Apple-esque one, and the only reason the MacBook’s whisper-thin design is even possible. Its connector is closer in size to MicroUSB than it is to a full-size USB jack. Like the Lightning port on the iPhone and iPad, it’s reversible, eliminating the normal possibility–no, probability–that you’ll try to plug a connector in the wrong way at first. It also can handle video output, which is why the MacBook doesn’t have Thunderbolt or HDMI ports.

The connector is also the first flavor of USB designed to carry enough power to replace bulky, proprietary notebook power bricks. The MacBook’s power adapter is a small square, similar to the one Apple supplies with the iPad. You plug it into USB-C port rather than its own dedicated port.

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By adopting USB-C as the MacBook’s charging technology, Apple ditched MagSafe, the unique, patented technology that snaps power cords to their ports using a magnetic connection. MagSafe ensures that if someone trips over the cord, it will disconnect gracefully rather than yanking the whole machine off a table and onto the floor, a trauma that has been known to destroy laptops.

Apple’s new theory is that you shouldn’t bother to plug in the MacBook at a coffee shop or other environment where it’s at risk of getting murdered by a power-cable mishap. Instead, you should just charge it up at night, as you would a phone or tablet, and then rely on its battery–which Apple rates as being good for “up to” nine hours of Wi-Fi web use and ten hours of iTunes movie playback, the same as the 11-inch MacBook Air–to get you through the day.

It’s not a crazy proposition, and in my informal tests of the MacBook, I was able to use it for a busy day’s productivity without needing to recharge. Still, if the company gradually eliminates MagSafe from its other laptops, it’ll be one of the niftiest technologies that ever existed . . . and then didn’t.

My Verizon LTE modem, looking precarious as it dangles off Apple’s $19 USB adapter cord.Photo: Harry McCracken

Replacing a bevy of connections with one diminutive port makes for a more attractive-looking computer, no doubt. The problem is that plugging in devices gets complicated fast, especially since virtually no accessories designed for USB-C are available yet. Apple is selling an adapter that lets you connect gadgets that use old-style USB connectors ($19), as well as ones that let you connect an HDMI or VGA display ($79 apiece). The latter two also include one USB-C and one full-size USB port, allowing you to connect a more generous display, a power adapter, and one standard USB device simultaneously.

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But Apple’s vision with the MacBook’s solitary USB-C port doesn’t involve getting rich on adapter sales. Instead, it’s taking the stance that cabled connections of all sorts are of diminishing importance. You don’t need a cable to get on the Internet. Printers, scanners, and even hard disks are often wireless these days. And both Apple services such as AirDrop and third-party offering like Dropbox make once-indispensable USB drives a little more dispensable. With so many ways to shuttle data around without wires, the reasoning goes, why overload a computer with ports?

SanDisk’s upcoming Dual Drive Type C–a USB storage device with both standard and Type-C connectors–will be mighty handy for MacBook users.

The world is indeed increasingly wireless, but USB-C makes a fresh case for cables. The new format has a good chance of catching on in a big way. There’s going to be a cottage industry of compatible accessories from third-party manufacturers–cables, adapters, chargers, and various means of connecting multiple devices off one port. As they arrive, the MacBook’s USB-C port will grow more useful.

It still seems a shame, though, that Apple didn’t give the MacBook a couple of USB-C ports–maybe one on each side, as Google did with the ChromeBook Pixel. If the company comes out with a second-gen MacBook a year from now that sports two such connectors, we’ll know that its feature-removal instinct was a little less prescient than usual.

Style vs. Speed

Rather than using an Intel processor built for performance, such as the Core i3, i5, and i7 chips that Dell uses in its XPS 13 notebook, the MacBook sports a Core M processor designed with efficiency in mind. That let Apple cram the chip into the MacBook’s ultra-low-profile case without resorting to the use of a fans or vents–both of which the Dell has–to keep it cool.

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Some observers have fretted that by choosing such a chip, Apple doomed the MacBook to slow-poke status. It’s true that the 1.1GHz MacBook Apple provided me for review is no rocket: When I ran the Geekbench benchmark, it reported a single-core score of 2210 and a multi-core score of 4299, results that fall short of every other current Apple laptop.

Benchmarks can’t tell you all that much about what it’s like to use a computer, though. As I used the Macbook to perform general-purpose tasks in software such as the Microsoft Office apps, Photoshop, iPhoto, and Skype, it felt more than adequately snappy. The only evidence I ever spotted that the Core M was wheezing to keep up was when the MacBook’s underside got toasty-warm after a long Skype video call.

The new MacBook–seen here hiding beneath an iPad Air–is the closest thing yet to an iPad-sized Mac.Photo: Harry McCracken

Now, if you perform industrial-strength computing jobs such as serious video editing, you might well crave more performance than the MacBook provides. Then again, you’d also likely want a larger display, more copious built-in storage, and the ability to plug in external hard drives based on the ultra-zippy Thunderbolt technology. What you’d want, in other words, would be a MacBook Pro.

That’s the thing about the new MacBook: It doesn’t cater to exactly the same audience as any existing Mac. It’s a really good laptop–assuming you can figure out how to make USB-C make sense for you–and yet its size, weight, and overall minimalism give it an iPad-like persona. The thinking behind it is a different, more subtle way of mixing PC and tablet than all those other devices that try to be both at once. But like the original 2008 MacBook Air before it, this specialty Mac could also be a blueprint for the next generation of mainstream notebooks.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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