2015 has been an interesting year for Apple in many ways, but one of the most interesting to me is that it marks a rare place in Apple’s recent history where they’ve released not one but two controversial and polarizing products in two completely different categories. The first, of course, being the Apple Watch, but the second being the new 2015 MacBook. While these products are completely different in nearly every way, they are similar in the sense that the initial reviews were mixed, the use-cases of either were not exactly clearly defined, and people’s opinions on them both could divide a nation.
I could write for hours about the Apple Watch and its purpose (or lack thereof) in my life, but this is about the new 12 inch MacBook — Apple’s second polarizing product of 2015, and possibly the most controversial product in the Mac category since the original MacBook Air in 2008.
Before I dive into the details, let me get this out of the way: I absolutely love the new MacBook. If that’s all you needed to know, then you can stop reading right now. I will also add, however, that I love it way more than I even expected to, and I intend to explain exactly why, and also why most of the criticisms you’ve likely read about this computer simply don’t matter (at least for me).
Even those most critical of the new MacBook have a difficult time denying how beautifully designed this computer really is. The MacBook is a perfect example of Apple doing what Apple does best — building gorgeous hardware. What is difficult to convey in pictures, however, is just how damn small this thing is. I use the word small instead of thin because the size of this laptop is about so much more than just thinness.
Every piece of it feels like it was carefully reimagined with the goal of making it smaller, lighter, thinner, and as close to being invisible as possible. The screen, for instance, has done away with the iconic glowing Apple on the rear and has replaced it with a reflective mirror-like Apple, all in the name of reducing the thickness of the nearly paper-thin lid.
While the styling is all-new, its roots as an Apple portable are undeniable. The lines are perfect, the machining is flawless, and the proportions seem just right. It’s a unibody Mac at its core, and it feels just as much like one as its older siblings. There’s no flex in the body, the new all-metal hinge is smooth but reassuringly sturdy, and every piece of this machine just oozes quality. Again, this is what Apple does best, and the new MacBook is a fine example of that.
It’s a Retina Display on a Mac. What else is there to say about it?
It’s stunning to look at, very bright, and never felt too small. It’s perfect.
The Keyboard & The Trackpad
This is where things get a little bit more complicated.
In order to make the new MacBook so thin, Apple had to reinvent the way they made keyboards. This one had to be thin, but to make it thin, they needed to invent a new switch mechanism called the butterfly switch. This switch is thin and very stable, but doesn’t allow for nearly as much travel as previous Apple laptop keyboards. That’s a shame, right? After all, the keyboard is one of the main things that we all loved so much about the unibody MacBooks of recent years.
Upon first typing on the new MacBook keyboard, it felt horrible to me. The keys have very little travel (as expected), but they’re clickier than I imagined and feel almost more like a button than a key. Despite the size of the actual keycaps being enlarged, I was mistyping, slow, and generally terrible at doing the very thing that I had become so comfortable with with on the more conventional Apple keyboards. The keys require a harder and more deliberate press to activate, so when I did finally start to feel like I was making progress, I also felt like I was pounding on the poor keyboard harder than I should have been. Admittedly, there were more than a few times on day 1 when I felt that this just wasn’t going to work.
Fortunately, as with just about anything in life, things changed with time. By the end of the first day, I was improving. By the end of the first week, I was not only completely comfortable with the keyboard, but I had a sneaking suspicion that I might actually prefer it to the original. To test this, I linked up my Apple Bluetooth Keyboard which uses the very same layout and key style as the ones built into the older MacBooks. Strangely enough, typing on that keyboard felt like I was typing on something from another century. The keys felt wobbly and unstable, the travel and clicks felt mushy and unresponsive, and I was equally as slow and inaccurate on it as I was when I first began typing on the new MacBook. This major paradigm shift occurred over the course of just a couple of weeks — so I guess my point is, if you’re skeptical about the new keyboard, give it time and you’ll likely come around. It’s not perfect, but it is very good and a fair compromise to get this machine as thin as Apple wanted it to be.
The trackpad is of Apple’s new “Force Touch” variety — that is to say that it has no physical button underneath like a conventional trackpad would. It is simply a stationary slab of glass with a vibrating “taptic engine” beneath that delivers perfectly calibrated micro-vibrations to simulate the feeling of a click. It works brilliantly; so well in fact that I had completely forgotten that it even had a special trackpad until several hours into my testing. I don’t understand how they did it, but it feels just like a click. It really does.
As far as the “force touch” goes, I don’t have much to say as there aren’t many applications utilizing this feature just yet. I toyed around with it a little bit — for instance you can “force press” on a word and it will bring up the dictionary definition. It works well and exactly as expected, but I haven’t found myself using it often. It’s a function that requires muscle memory, and building that muscle memory requires a reason to actually do it. I’m certain it will become more prevalent in OS X El Capitan, and I’m very curious to see what third party developers are able to do with this capability.
Ah yes, the single port — the “feature” of this machine that caused a shockingly unreasonable amount of outrage — as if Apple had removed our basic right as humans to attach multiple devices into our laptop at once. The backlash was intense, and Apple scoffers and disbelievers came out of the woodwork to mock the very idea that someone could even function with just a single port. It would be like driving a car with a single wheel, or playing a guitar with just a single string! Absurd! Blasphemy! Right??
The truth is: it doesn’t matter.
Apple’s vision with this laptop is clear — it’s a machine meant to be used wirelessly. Wireless peripherals, WiFi internet access, all-day battery life, and a size small and light enough to take places where there are no plugs or gadgets to plug in. That makes perfect sense to me, but I don’t think that’s the whole story, at least not right now.
We’ve gotten to a point with most modern computers where they’ll all pretty good. You can walk into a Best Buy, twirl around in circles with your eyes closed and point to any machine on the showroom floor and you’ll end up with a computer that is mostly capable enough for most things. That’s the mindset we’re all in, and I welcome it with open arms. All computers are good, all smartphones are good, all cameras are good, all cars are good.
The problem with the MacBook is that its use-case is targeted, and our brains aren’t accustomed to thinking like that. If a computer isn’t perfect for what I need it for, then it must be a piece of junk.
That’s not the case here though. No, it’s not a machine suited for 4K video, managing massive photo libraries, heavy graphic design work, or playing video games. It’s a perfectly capable machine for those that value compact size and simplicity over power and expandability. This is why the single USB type-C port doesn’t matter. It’s a concept machine built for the kind of person that would rarely plug anything into it to begin with. It’s not that it’s a crippled computer — it’s just a computer for a different kind of person.
That being said, I’ve actually come to really like the USB type-C connector itself. Yes, it’s reversible, and yes it’s very sturdy and confident feeling. Moreso however is just how damn flexible it is. I use the MacBook with an external monitor and a USB external hard drive when I’m at work. With my MacBook Pro, that required three cables sticking out of my laptop. Now all three things attach to the USB AV Multiport adapter, and when I get into work I attach the single USB type-C and I’m ready to go. It’s a small nicety, but I’d be lying if said I didn’t absolutely love it.
I thought I’d mourn the loss of MagSafe. That wonderfully clever connector has saved me from having to pick up the pieces of a freshly smashed MacBook Pro off the floor on more occasions than I care to admit. In practice though, I haven’t noticed or really cared. Maybe I’ll have to come back to this and eat crow when I’m taking my dented MacBook to the genius bar to be overhauled after kicking it off the dining room table; but as of now it doesn’t really bother me. I run the MacBook on battery most of the day when I’m not at work, so it’s truly a non-issue for me.
It’s a slow processor, and I bought the very slowest one they sell. Much like the single port though, it just doesn’t really matter. If you’re editing 4K video or spending a lot of time in Photoshop, you’ll probably care. That’s not what this machine is for though, so if you’re interested in buying one and the single port and crappy (?) keyboard hasn’t turned you off by now, then this probably wont either.
It’s got 8 GB of RAM and very fast SSD storage, so in day-to-day use, it feels just as fast as my 13" MacBook Pro Retina did. I honestly can’t tell the difference, and if there is any it is negligible. I do run Lightroom and Photoshop on it and use them both very lightly, but they seem to run just fine. Lightroom has no problems ingesting and editing the 24mp RAW files from my Leica. It’s not buttery smooth like it is on my monster 5K iMac, but it works fine and I’m never left waiting.
The Little Bits
Battery life: As good as Apple’s 9-hour claim. Gets me through a day no problem.
Speakers: Surprisingly powerful and pretty damn good sounding. Better than most laptop speakers I’ve heard.
Webcam: 640x480 garbage. Don’t ever use it unless you absolutely have to. It’s surprisingly bad.
Colors: I’m a MacBook purist, so I needed to go with the classic silver. That said, both the Gold and Space Gray look awesome, and if you’re hell-bent on having all your devices match, then you’d be a happy camper with either of them.
MacBook Logo: I cannot fathom why Apple has decided to put the word “MacBook” at the bottom of the screen. I thought for sure they were done doing that. It would look much better without it, and I truly hope that it’s gone in the next revision.
Fanless: Yep, no fan. It’s great. It gets warm, as does any laptop, but I haven’t ever felt it get hot. I love knowing that I’ll never hear that annoying whirring ever again.
Escape Key: Why is it so big?
It’s easy to understand why this is such a polarizing product. Sacrifices had to be made to make it as small, light, and beautiful as it is. It’s simply not a computer for everybody, but it also shouldn’t be ignored, even by those who are adamantly against the concept. Just as the original (albeit crippled) MacBook Air in 2008 was a glimpse into what the future of notebooks were going to look like, this MacBook is an exciting look at where we’re headed in the next 5–10 years. We didn’t know it in 2008, but it sure didn’t take long before things got a lot more powerful, a lot more flexible, and cheap enough to become today what is Apple’s least expensive (and most popular) portable. Every computer manufacturer in the world has their own version of the current MacBook Air, but you wouldn’t have thought that was where we were headed just 7 or 8 years ago.
The new MacBook is a brilliant piece of hardware. Truly brilliant, and I have no issue with saying that. Despite its shortcomings, it’s a wonderfully designed machine that feels as much to me like the future of computing as using my iPhone or iPad Air 2 does. It has become so frictionless that it simply disappears during use, allowing me to focus deeper on my task at hand. It weighs nothing in my bag, it lasts all day, and best of all it just works.
Hey, that was 2,300 words. Typed it all on the MacBook keyboard. Felt great.