12-inch MacBook (2015) review: Lighter than Air, but at a cost

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Is this the MacBook we've been waiting for? Gizmag reviews Apple's new 12-inch MacBook (Photo: Will Shanklin/Gizmag.com)

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After more than four years of identical-looking MacBook Airs, Apple finally made a next-generation MacBook that ticks all those boxes we've been asking for. The "new MacBook" is lighter and thinner than the Air, but also has a Retina Display like its bigger "Pro" sibling. But is this laptop ready for primetime? Join Gizmag, as we review the new 12-inch Retina MacBook.

The new MacBook is a stunningly light and thin notebook. Remember how you felt the first time you picked up a MacBook Air? Prepare to experience that level of shock all over again. This is a MacBook that feels a bit like an iPad Air 2, which is to say it's lighter than any full-blown computer has any right to be.

But there are also some big asterisks attached to this exciting new MacBook. Your minimum US$1,300 investment doesn't just get you this gorgeous machine, it also gets you a membership in the wireless-first early adopter club. Like the iPad, the new MacBook is geared towards a future where wired accessories are only used when absolutely necessary.

That's because the new MacBook's only port is the new reversible USB Type C. USB-C isn't a problem: it's fast, convenient and – once accessory-makers jump onboard and support it with an affordable ecosystem of products – the best port you could ask for on any portable computer.

Apple's desire to push us all away from USB 3.0 and towards USB-C isn't the issue. It's that the new MacBook only has one USB Type C port.

What this tells us is that Apple is more invested in a wireless future than it is in a USB-C future. If it were the latter, the company could have simply put two USB-C ports on here. But that lone port means Apple is nudging us towards a world where wireless comes first, and only on those few occasions where you do need a wired connection (including charging) does USB-C come into play.

Depending on who you ask, this is either a bold move by a visionary company or a mind-bogglingly stupid move from a company that sometimes lets minimalist design run amok. We can see both sides, but you do have to go into this knowing that your purchase doubles as a membership into this all-wireless club.

That means you'll probably want your Time Machine backups to be wireless from now on (either through an Apple router, or a third-party one that supports Time Machine through NAS drives). It also means that if you use a DSLR for photography, and it isn't Wi-Fi capable out of the box, then this is probably the time to grab a Wi-Fi-enabled SD card like the Eye-Fi. And this also means that if you like to charge iPhones or other mobile devices through your laptop's USB port, then you'll need to buy and lug around a $79 adapter.

Of course you could just use a $20 USB-C to USB 3.0 adapter for these scenarios, but we found that experience to be clunky. Transferring photos from an SD card meant having a 6-in noodle hanging out of the MacBook's lone port. You also can't charge the MacBook while using any accessories through that cheaper adapter.

So why even consider going through all this rigmarole? Because this is a damn sexy device, and Apple knows that people like its damn sexy devices. What better time for Apple to nudge us in the direction it thinks we should be going, than when it finally gives us the hardware we've been longing for, that we'll inevitably lust after?

If you aren't sure whether that last statement is earnest or sarcastic, that's because it's a little bit of both. Before getting our hands on the new MacBook, we were prepared to hate it: for its last-gen performance, shallower keyboard travel distance and, most of all, for that single port. But after using it, we find ourselves gravitating towards it despite all of that, looking for excuses to jump from USB 3 to USB-C, and from wired to wireless.

It's a device that has some expensive annoyances right now, but points towards an inevitable future that could be here faster than you think.

Of course where you fall on that scale is going to depend on what you're looking for. If you care the most about power, versatility and screen size, then the 13-in Retina MacBook Pro is going to be more up your alley. This new MacBook is for those who care more about Apple's three favorite deities: Light, Thin and Gorgeous.

Though it isn't branded as a MacBook Air, the new MacBook is, nonetheless, the next step in that trajectory. It takes what the MacBook Air started and pushes it all forward a little further.

Remember when Apple announced the first MacBook Air, and everyone freaked out about its missing optical drive? And remember how quickly many of us learned to live without optical drives soon after that? Well, that may be what we're looking at here, only the new big omission is a full set of ports.

Make no mistake: you aren't crazy for hating on the new MacBook. Right now it's a $1,300 compromise. But it's also a beautiful machine that's an absolute pleasure to use. That last part is what we weren't completely prepared for.

Pick it up and it's startlingly light. Ditto for thinness. Specifically, it's 15 percent lighter and 23 percent thinner than the 11-in MacBook Air. Even more so than the Air, you can carry it around as if it were an iPad. Throw it in a backpack, and it feels like the bag is empty.

I find it incredibly comfortable to type on. It feels practically weightless on my lap, and we don't think its new keys are a concern. They do have a shorter travel distance than other MacBooks do, but it took all of five minutes to adjust. They have a crisp feel, and I can type as fast here, with no more mistakes, as I can on a MacBook Pro or Air.

Its Force Touch trackpad is very nice too: it's a non-moving pad that feels like it's moving (courtesy of sensors and haptic feedback). You can hit up our 2015 Retina MacBook Pro review for more detail on the new trackpad, including the new Force Click gesture.

The new MacBook's Retina Display is outstanding. It looks every bit as sharp as the Retina MacBook Pro's screen, and its 12-inch size with 16:10 aspect ratio makes it 13 percent bigger than the 11-in MacBook Air's display. We think it hits a nice balance of size, with a razor-sharp display finally making an appearance on an ultra-portable MacBook.

Performance is far from what you'll get on a 2015 MacBook Pro or Air (it benchmarks about the same as a 2011 MacBook Air or 2010 iMac), but this doesn't matter nearly as much as we thought it might. I spend a lot of time in Photoshop, often running advanced filters, and I have absolutely no problem with how the new MacBook performs there. If I use the latest Retina MacBook Pro and immediately switch to this one, I can notice a slowdown. But otherwise I don't notice any performance hiccups or concerns. This was the most pleasant surprise with the new MacBook.

Battery life is very good too. In our battery benchmark (streaming video over Wi-Fi, with no major apps running in the background and brightness at 75 percent), it only dropped 6 percent per hour. That's a little surprising (perhaps confusing), because the new Retina MacBook Pro is supposed to have longer battery life than this one, and it dropped 9 percent per hour in the same test.

During regular use, we haven't found any cause for concern with its battery life. My workflow includes lots of typing, Photoshopping and web browsing, and I haven't noticed a major difference between its uptimes and those of the Retina MacBook Pro.

To say the new MacBook isn't for everyone would be an understatement. For starters, it probably has an early adopter premium built-in. Remember the first MacBook Air launched at $1,800 and the first 13-in Retina MacBook Pro had a $1,700 price tag at launch. Within two years of launch, the Air refreshed at a $1,000 price point, and just six months after the 13-in Retina MacBook Pro launched, its new version only cost $1,300.

The moral of the story: Apple knows you want the hot new sexiness, and it will be happy to take your money for it. Once the company is ready to take off the training wheels and move the new MacBook from niche into the mainstream, that price will drop.

If you buy it now, prepare for one of those "I paid what???" moments – whether it's in six months or two years. And don't forget to add the adapters, wireless SD cards or other accessories into that cost, when you're cursing at it.

Is the new MacBook a smart practical purchase right now? Not really. You're paying for the combination of its form factor, that gorgeous display and OS X. The Retina MacBook Pro gives you two out of three – and adds faster performance and a 23 percent bigger screen. You have to really want that ultra-light, slim and sexy build, to opt for the new MacBook.

But we learned that it's much easier to dismiss that from a distance. If you don't want to be tempted by this not-completely-practical purchase, we'd recommend you stay far away from the new MacBook. Get your hands on it, carry it around, type on it a little ... and your defenses might soften just enough that you start to ask yourself how much of an all-wireless world you're willing to dive into today.

The new 12-in MacBook is available now (though supplies are constrained), starting at $1,300 for 256 GB of storage. It's available in space gray (pictured in this review), silver and gold colors.

Product page: Apple

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