[Editor's Note: This is a review of the 2016 12-inch MacBook model. For our thoughts on the latest edition, check out our newly published 2017 12-inch MacBook review.]
Did you buy the 12-inch MacBook? I did, but not because I wanted one.
No, the laptop I really wanted was a new MacBook Air, or even a redesigned 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro with a sleeker chassis. Although the latter arrived eventually, neither came quite in time for Apple’s early 2016 rounds.
And like many other Air fans, I realised that another year was to pass by without one of the best Macs getting an upgrade. So I bought the next best thing.
The MacBook is all about compromise. With more pixels than the Air, its display allows me to be more productive on the move and slinging it into a backpack almost feels like cheating. While no powerhouse (editing 4K images on it is slightly painful), it handles basic tasks with ease.
- Not quite sold on the MacBook? Check out the best laptops from all brands
One year later after the first Retina MacBook, Apple has refreshed it with Intel's sixth-generation Skylake processors while introducing faster storage, memory and graphics for the same price. The most interesting change is on the outside: a new Rose Gold finish that genuinely makes me consider owning a shiny pink laptop for the first time. Gender stereotypes be damned.
But despite its upgrades, the new MacBook is not the MacBook Air replacement that rumors once again predict will arrive this summer – it’s the same unique, dazzling and challenging laptop as the one that launched one year ago. Only faster, and with longer-lasting battery life.
A new processor, coupled with faster internal storage, memory and graphics has brought tangible improvements to the MacBook’s performance. You’ll still have to somehow manage with a single USB-C port, bolting on adapters and connectors to equip your FrankenMac with vital extra limbs.
And if you didn’t get on with its super-shallow keyboard, your fingers will remain as unconvinced as they were before – especially during long typing sessions. The MacBook brings more megahertz, and I’m not talking about clock speed.
Now that the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X are both here in the flesh, the 12-inch MacBook is one of the remaining ways that you can take home an Apple product in a Rose Gold suit. But clearly, given the fact that overall Mac sales are up 10% this quarter at 5.4 million units, its glaring finish isn’t the only reason to purchase the 12-inch MacBook.
In fact, if you were thinking about buying a Google Pixelbook instead due to its use of 7th-generation Intel Core i5 and i7 processors, surely you’ll be delighted to know that there’s a comparable MacBook model out there for you. The MacBook 2017 starts at $1,299/£1,249/AU$1,899, but for 300 more in any currency, you can get the same i5 Google uses in the Pixelbook, not to mention an i7 for 150 on top of that.
However, if you’re happy with your existing MacBook or plan on buying a 2016 model in next couple of months or so, there are some improvements in tow for you as well. The latest version of the Mac operating system, macOS High Sierra 10.13.1, came out recently and decided to thwart the widespread ‘Krack’ WPA2 connectivity issue in addition to adding new emoji.
Big money Mac
Some people expected Apple to discount its refreshed MacBook to sweeten the deal. It didn’t. The entry-level model still costs £1,049 ($1,299 or AUS$1,999), around $50/$73/AUS$99 more than the 13-inch Retina MacBook Pro.
If the cost remains too high for you, then consider picking up last year’s version from Apple’s refurb store. While the 2016 refresh is technically the better machine, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between the two when undertaking low-level tasks such as surfing the web or typing up documents in Pages.
At the time of writing, the entry-level version is on there for £749 (around $1,108 or AUS$1,457) alongside eight other models of varying specs and price.
First reviewed: April 2015
Gabe Carey has also contributed to this review
Apple often shaves a millimetre or two from its laptops when they undergo refreshes, but the 12-inch MacBook leaves no room. At 11 x 7.8 x 0.5 inches (or 280 x 197 x 13.1mm – W x D x H), the MacBook has a smaller footprint than another skinny Core M-powered laptop, the Asus UX305, which spans 12.7 x 8.9 x 0.5 inches (324 x 226 x 321mm).
It also out-skinnies the MacBook Air’s 12.5 x 8.9 x 0.6 inches (325 x 227 x 17mm). The 12-inch MacBook is the lighter of the two laptops, weighing just 2.03 pounds compared to the Air’s 2.38 pounds. That’s roughly the same as holding two iPad Pro 9.7s in the hand.
In comparison, Microsoft’s Surface Pro 4 weighs 2.37 pounds with the keyboard cover attached. Other Windows machines are quickly catching up the design stakes – check out HP’s Spectre 13 for evidence of that. While the MacBook remains a fine feat of engineering that hasn’t lost its allure, strides being made by the competition means that you won’t have to choose between slick design and practicality for much longer.
Here is the configuration of the review model supplied to techradar:
- Processor: Intel Core m5-6Y54 Dual-Core CPU @ 1.2GHz Turbo Boost to 2.7GHz
- Operating system: OS X 10.11 El Capitan
- Memory: 8GB of 1867MHz LPDDR3
- Display: 12-inch LED-backlit IPS
- Graphics: Intel HD 515
- Storage: 512GB PCIe-based flash
- Camera: 480p FaceTime camera
- Networking: 1/10/1000 BASE-T Gigabit Ethernet (using a USB-to-Ethernet adapter)
- Connectivity: 802.11ac Wi-Fi; Bluetooth 4.0
- Audio: Stereo speakers; Dual microphones; headphone port (supporting for Apple iPhone headset with remote and microphones)
- Dimensions: 11 x 7.8 x 0.5 inches (or 280 x 197 x 13.1mm – W x D x H)
- Battery: Built-in 39.4-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery
The MacBook is offered in three configurations, starting with the entry-level model that comes with 256GB of flash storage. Apple has swapped out last year’s fifth-generation Broadwell processors for Intel’s newer Skylake variants, with the cheapest MacBook housing a lower powered Core m3 chip clocked at 1.1GHz (Turbo Boost to 2.2GHz).
Starting at £1,299 ($1,599 or AUS$2,249), the more expensive configuration doubles that model’s storage and houses a Core m5 processor with a faster clock speed of 1.2GHz (Turbo Boost to 2.7GHz). Both are equipped with faster RAM compared to last year’s MacBook (8GB of 1867MHz DDR3, up from 1600MHz), and Apple claims that the Intel HD Graphics 515 solution in this year’s models is 25% faster.
For extra oomph, the MacBook can be configured with a faster 1.3GHz dual-core Core m7 processor with a maximum clock speed of 3.1GHz for another £120 (around $175 or AUS$230).
Aside from new configurations, Apple has made a more subtle change to this year’s MacBook. In its teardown of the device, iFixit discovered that they use new hinge screws featuring heads filled with a substance that disintegrates when a screwdriver is used on them. These could be used to indicate to Apple that you’ve tampered with the machine, which may have a knock-on effect when it comes to solving warranty-related issues, though this is yet to be confirmed.
Plus, Apple’s Mac App Store has come on in leaps and bounds in recent years, proving an excellent resource with frequent recommendations on apps in multiple categories, such as Games, Productivity, Writing, Navigation and more. Here’s every app you’ll find upon booting up a New MacBook for the first time:
- Time Machine
- Photo Booth
- Mac App Store
- Game Centre
Intel’s Core M processor has, perhaps unfairly, earned itself a poor reputation since sliding under the bonnet of the Yoga 3 Pro back in 2015. The Yoga and other early machines that adopted Intel’s fanless processor (ironically, the Yoga 3 Pro wasn’t fanless) were sluggish and the performance hit wasn’t considered worth it to get hold of their sleek new designs.
However, successive generations have seen Core M’s performance increase to the point that you often wouldn’t be able to tell whether a laptop houses a Core M or Core i-series processor, depending on what it is you’re using it for.
Unfortunately for the 2015 MacBook, the Core M processors inside weren’t powerful enough to provide a smooth experience under OS X 10.10 Yosemite. I found that disabling transparency effects and animations, while taking care not to open too many apps at once, was vital to prevent applications from temporarily freezing.
So how does the refreshed MacBook fare?
Here’s how the MacBook performed in our suite of benchmark tests:
- Xbench: Overall: 394.6; CPU: 267.14
- Cinebench R15 (CPU: Multi Core: 237cb; Open GL: 21.11 fps)
- Unigine Heaven 4.0: Medium Quality (1,680 x 1,050): Score: 397; FPS: 18
- Unigine Heaven 4.0 Ultra Quality (1,680 x 1,050): Score: 397; FPS: 15.7
- NovaBench: Score: 623; Graphics: 43
- Geekbench 3 (Single Core): 2,938; Multi Core: 5,900
- BlackMagic Disk Speed test: Read: 921MB/s; Write: 838MB/s
- Batman: Arkham City (1,440 x 900, Medium): Average: 14 fps
- Tomb Raider: Medium Quality, 1,400 x 900 (Average): 17.8 fps
- Streaming 1080p video over Wi-F (75% brightness): 7 hours and 10 minutes
For comparison, here is the performance of the entry-level MacBook, configured with a 1.1GHz Intel Core m3-6Y30 processor clocked at 0.90GHz (Turbo Boost to 1.1GHz), Intel HD Graphics 515 and 8GB of 1867MHz memory.
- Xbench: Overall: 347.54; CPU: 228.25
- Cinebench R15 (CPU: Multi Core: 213cb; Open GL: 21.03 fps)
- Unigine Heaven 4.0: Medium Quality (1,680 x 1,050): Score: 292; FPS: 11.6
- Unigine Heaven 4.0 Ultra Quality (1,680 x 1,050): Score: 256; FPS: 10.2
- NovaBench: Score: 489; Graphics: 41
- Geekbench 3 (Single Core): 2,535; Multi Core: 5,025
- BlackMagic Disk Speed test: Read: 929.7MB/s; Write: 620.2MB/s
- Batman: Arkham City (1,440 x 900, Medium): Average: 13 fps
- Tomb Raider: Medium Quality, 1,400 x 900 (Average): 18.2 fps
The good news is that the spec bump has turned the MacBook into a machine that runs much efficiently under more stress. I tried both the entry-level and the mid-spec version, and found that both machines provided a smooth experience out of the box without any tweaking of OS X ‘s settings.
Running my usual load of office applications, which includes multiple Firefox browsers, GIMP image editor, Skype, Evernote, Filezilla, Wunderlist, Ulysses, Slack, Echofon, Reader and Spotify (they’re all essential, alright?), the MacBook didn’t so much as stutter. I still wouldn’t be confident opening another few FireFox windows and loading 30 tabs into each of them, but that’s more of a criticism of the browser than it is of the MacBook’s performance.
The 2,304 x 1,440 pixel-resolution display remains one of the best I’ve seen on a notebook, and is the best on a MacBook. It brings incredibly rich colors and excellent 170-degree viewing angles.
There’s another advantage: you can scale it up to get more desktop space and go far beyond Apple’s default scaled resolutions. By adding a custom resolution, I managed to soar all the way up to 1,920 x 1,080 in High-DPI mode using SwitchResX, which allowed me to see the same amount of spreadsheet rows and columns as a 27-inch monitor. Sure the text was tiny, but I could still make out the numbers and edit the spreadsheet without any trouble.
I might not be doing it all the time, but compared to my old setup, which was an 11-inch MacBook Air connected to a portable USB DisplayLink monitor, I now have enough desktop real-estate to switch to see more on the screen at the same time. That’s been possible on high-resolution Windows and Apple machines for some time, but having all that desktop space is even more impressive on a 12.1-inch machine as thin as a pencil.
The 2016 MacBook isn’t going to win any new converts, but it leaves no excuse to pick one up if you’re already swayed by what Apple’s machine has to offer. Better yet, its new Rose Gold option is gorgeous.
Now that there’s more horsepower under the MacBook’s bonnet, you won’t have to tweak OS X El Capitan’s settings to get hold of a smooth experience. As the old Apple motto goes: it just works. The increase is marginal, but it undoubtedly makes a difference. That doesn’t mean you’re suddenly going to be swapping your MacBook Pro for one to undergo heavy computing lifting.
Apple didn’t tweak the MacBook’s chassis because it didn’t need to. It still can’t be matched even by its Windows-based counterparts, though I wouldn’t be confident of saying that six months down the line. Its color-packed display is as vibrant as it was on the previous model, and you just try finding a 12- or 13-inch laptop with better speakers. It’s a near-impossible task.
That single USB-C port remains the biggest problem with the 12-inch MacBook. It’s simply too much of a compromise to use it as your main machine, and even if you’re on the move you’re forced to make a decision between connecting a peripheral or charging a device if you don’t have a dongle to hand. It would have been nice to have seen a price drop too, if only because it feels like the MacBook should have come with sufficient power to deliver a smooth experience in the first place. If new MacBook Air and Pro models appear this summer, you can count on it taking a price dip then.
Should you buy the 12-inch MacBook? The question is a little more complex with the possibility of new MacBook Air and MacBook Pro models arriving at WWDC. One way of thinking of it is that neither are likely to be as thin and portable – it would take a near-impossible engineering feat for that to happen. On the other hand, if you’re happy to wait for a machine with more power, hanging on may be the way to go.
If you do decide that Apple’s mini marvel for you, buying this year’s MacBook is less of a risk than getting the previous version. With faster internals, it’s capable of zipping through lesser-demanding tasks without complaining and leaves you with more confidence when slinging it into a bag to take on the road.