It’s common knowledge that Apple makes products that are extremely polarizing. The original iPhone, for example, was very polarizing. More recently, the original MacBook Air and Apple Watch became polarizing products. Add to that list the new 12-inch MacBook. I recently bought one to use as my primary personal computer. Why would I do that? Well there’s a story here.
Let’s go back a couple of months, and please, bear with me while I share a little personal history. It started when I gave up my 2011 MacBook Pro (13-inch) to a family member who broke their even-older 17-inch MacBook Pro. I recovered the disk and transferred it to the 13-in MacBook Pro and sent them away, happy. Fortunately, I had other computers to use. Unfortunately, none of them was a Mac.
I got a decent backup of my MacBook Pro before I gave it away, but to help my transition to using Windows as my primary OS, I saved my huge (1TB) iTunes library to a Windows NTFS-formatted external USB drive. I then set up iTunes on the Windows-based laptops I had and pointed the library to the external USB drive so that I could continue to watch my movies and listen to my music. Now despite the fact that both my PCs were decent Windows PCs (a Surface Pro 3, and an HP Spectre x360) and despite the fact that I do like Windows 8 (and 10) and I use them regularly, the overall experience wasn’t as satisfactory as I’d hoped.
To start, iTunes on Windows just isn’t as good as it is on a Mac. As I mentioned, I have a large iTunes library – around 1TB – and even though both Windows laptops have better processors than the MacBook Pro I left, iTunes was really sluggish displaying the library and movies often froze or stuttered. I put the blame primarily on Apple for not optimizing their Windows app, but both these devices sometimes had occasional issues with other media apps. But I do use iTunes a lot and I really need it to work well. (And don’t get me started on the challenges Apple puts you through to try and deactivate a computer if you no longer have access to the computer – not really very friendly!) I even tried looking at other apps to manage my media library, and despite iTunes flaws, I never found anything nearly as functional.
Another issue I ran into was Windows trackpads. I haven’t cared for ANY Windows laptop trackpads I’ve used compared to Apple trackpads. I don’t know why, but they are never as precise and seem to register more false clicks than their Apple counterparts. Just my experience – your mileage may vary. I really missed my Apple laptop trackpads.
So after a lot of thought, I finally decided to go ahead and get a new Apple laptop. I originally thought of getting another 13-inch MacBook Pro, but I found myself really intrigued by the new MacBook 12-inch because of the small size. I should point out that I’ve had issues with my arm going numb and staying numb from pinched nerves in my shoulder caused by carrying too heavy a backpack, so I’m sensitive to laptop weight these days.
Now one of the recent developments in laptops has actually created a problem for me. The move most manufacturers, including Apple, have made away from traditional hard disks and toward SSDs may make devices faster and possibly more reliable, but it means that it is difficult to get a decent amount of storage space anymore. To get an SSD bigger than 512GB is really hard to do and really expensive if you do. So it looked like I was going to have to rethink how I handed my 1TB iTunes library no matter what I choice I made, but more on that later.
So I did a lot of online research as the new MacBook hit the market, and I was definitely concerned about some of the compromises that reviewers were bringing up. I was especially concerned about the slower Intel Core M processor and the single USB-C port. But were they going to be deal-breakers?
I’ve given you a whole lot of background information because I think it’s all relevant and important to understanding my thoughts going forward. Reviewers often try to pretend to be non-biased, but the reality is that we view these things in the context of our own needs and use cases, so it’s useful that I share mine to help explain what’s driving my opinions so that you, dear reader, may decide if those same things are or are not important to you as well.
In this case, you know that I decided that I could probably live with the compromises and I ordered the MacBook 12-inch. I got the 512GB drive and I upgraded the processor to the 1.3GHz version. Too expensive? Possibly, but I gambled that it would meet my needs and my particular use case. So let’s take a closer look at how it’s worked out so far.
The MacBook is a pretty new model and still heavily in demand. My version was a build-to-order so I had to wait nearly a month for it to arrive. The MacBook finally got here and I managed to unbox it without destroying the packaging or the device. I powered it up, followed by hours of using a backup to restore what I could from my old MacBook Pro and updating the OS and apps as needed. I didn’t migrate my iTunes library because it was too big to fit on the new device, so, as I mentioned previously, I had to come up with a strategy for dealing with my iTunes library.
As I said before, when I gave up the old MacBook Pro, I copied my iTunes library to a 2TB USB drive. And to provide interoperability with my Windows-based PCs, I made the drives NTFS formatted. This had an unfortunate side effect that I had forgotten about, but I’ll return to that in just a moment. I was thinking about how the new Macbook was kind of being promoted as more of an untethered, cloud-friendly laptop, where portability is key, and not so much of a traditional laptop. It occurred to me that this is a LOT like how the iPad and tablets in general are viewed. So maybe it would be a good plan to treat it similarly to how I treat my iPhone or iPad and build a core iTunes library on it with the movies and music that I frequently use, and then use one of my other computers to act as a host on my home network and use iTunes Home Sharing to access the things I use less frequently. I was already doing this to share between the PCs and my AppleTV or my iPad, so the strategy seemed a natural fit. So now I just needed to build the base iTunes library I was going to use on the new MacBook.
I installed iTunes and logged it into my iTunes account. I downloaded a few movies from my Apple account just to start populating the library And now we get back to that unfortunate side effect I mentioned a moment ago. I had movies that I got from sources other than the iTunes Store, so those movies needed to be copied from the old drive manually. When I started moving movies and music from my old library, I was annoyed with how incredibly slow trying to migrate those movies and music from that old library was, but then I realized that it was slow because the media was all on a Windows NTFS formatted, not a MacOS formatted drive and not even a FAT32 drive. All Macs are slow reading from NTFS drives (and require a 3rd party driver to write to them). Ugh! The good news was that I did have a full backup of the old Mac, including a relatively recent copy of the iTunes library, so I mounted that instead and used it to restore what I wanted to the new library. Now files were flying off the MacOS drives, and my “performance problem” wasn’t a problem anymore. At one point I even had it pulling one movie down from the Internet, pulling one across my WiFi from a PC using Home Sharing in iTunes, and dozens of files being copied from the MacOS formatted backup drive and even then everything kept moving quickly and smoothly. I was pleasantly surprised.
So now I was finally ready to use the laptop and form some real opinions about whether or not I could live with this thing on a daily basis. The online reviewers and their concerns were still nagging at the back of my head as I started to work with this device. The reviews I read seemed to primarily fall into one of 2 camps: There were reviewers who absolutely hated it and felt it was a terrible value for the money, but felt that Apple fans with money would still buy it. And the other camp liked it, but kept apologizing for it’s limitations and urged people to wait for the second generation or look at the MacBook Air or MacBook Pro. I wasn’t sure that either camp had it totally right, especially since there were a couple of reviewers out there who seemed to like it but their reasoning was kind of vague and not very helpful. So that left me to kind of muddle through and see what was what for myself.
As you probably realized from my story up to this point, I am a person who believes in figuring out what I need first and then deciding if a product is likely to be a good fit for me. Apple products are often (but not always) a better fit for me because of build quality and the fact that they often align well with my needs at the time. It isn’t always true and I’m not blind to the weaknesses (and Apple has made some big mistakes over the years), but more often than not they’ve suited me well. I’ve also learned that whether or not you are happy with a product purchase is rarely about specs (unless you are a tech journalist) and rarely about a single product feature. It’s usually more about the overall use experience. It is rare that a device meets ALL your needs, so you have to ask yourself, what are your priorities? I gave you a lot of history so you could get a sense of my priorities and what needs I had. For me, the priorities were size/weight, smooth operation/use of my iTunes library, and keeping a decent baseline performance for those times when I needed to get some work done. As long as key things that were important to me were there, and as long as the compromises didn’t seem unreasonable or get in my way, then Apple did the right thing and the MacBook would be a good fit for me.
So let’s look at the new MacBook. First, it’s impossible to NOT notice that the device is absolutely gorgeous. There’s no getting around the fact that it takes that whole Apple minimalist aesthete to the absolute limit. It’s available in silver, gold, and space gray and no matter which color device you have, it looks good. In the box you get the documentation and Apple stickers and the color of the stickers even matches the color MacBook you bought. If you are into image and fashion, then this is a device that will get noticed if you use it in public. No question.
Turning to more functional matters, let’s start by looking at the display. The display is a 12-inch 2304 by 1440 pixel display. The DPI is 226. The colors are vivid and it is just stunning. I like it better than any laptop display I’ve had before it. Everything is just crisp and gorgeous. Apple did not compromise on this display. It is better than the displays on the 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Airs (although I suspect those will be updated at some point too). It is a pleasure to watch movies or work on this display. No complaints, only praise here.
Next is the newly engineered keyboard. Apple engineered a new butterfly-type mechanism in order to make the keyboard as thin as possible. This has drawn sharply mixed reviews online. Some reviewers have complained that it is difficult to use, but some say “you get used to it”. I guess I fall into the latter camp, because I never found it difficult to get used to. I’m an older guy and I remember making the transition from manual typewriters to electric, then to early PC keyboards (which still had very heavy key switches), then to laptop keyboards, and so on, each getting progressively thinner and lighter and needing less of a heavy-hand to type effectively. Recently I was using the much-lauded MS Surface Pro 3 with the type cover keyboard, and I for one have not been impressed with that keyboard. The keys are a bit mushy and the trackpad is difficult and the whole keyboard gives a bit, making the typing experience a bit less precise for me. This new MacBook has a keyboard feel that I like a lot. All this proves is that there is a lot of variation in what people are looking for in a keyboard, and while I like it a lot, if you have an interest in the MacBook, you should head down to your local store and play with it a bit and see if it suits you or not. For some it will be great, but for others, the travel is going to seem too short and uncomfortable.
So now, let’s talk about the trackpad. I have to say I love the new Force Touch trackpad, especially after having used a variety of poor PC trackpads. On an interesting note, the new Apple Force Touch trackpads have no physical switch anymore, so you can press wherever you want and the experience is the same. The haptic engine simulates the clicks so you think you are physically pressing a button, but it’s an illusion – you aren’t. The pad never moves. And the “force touch” aspect of it is that if you press harder, you feel like you are pushing through layers. In QuickTime this is implemented as fast forwarding or rewinding a movie faster as you press harder. In Safari this is implemented as bringing up a definition of a word (rather than simply selecting). There isn’t that much out there that utilizes the force touch yet, but I’m sure we will see more apps making use of it going forward, and again, it works really well. Apple stepped up the game on trackpads once again. Very impressive!
One surprising thing was the speakers. They are now up front, right under the screen and they are amazingly full-sounding. I was very surprised to hear sound quality this good in a laptop this small. So much better than the audio in my Windows laptops and even better than the MacBook Pro I gave up. Again, I found myself surprised and impressed.
Now let’s look at some of the weaker aspects of the MacBook. To start, there’s the web cam – used for FaceTime or Skype, etc. and it’s only 480p. This isn’t bad, but it isn’t great, so why didn’t they go with a higher resolution? Supposedly, it’s because of the thinness of the screen. It would have been very difficult to get a higher resolution camera into that space. The funny thing is that I was talking to family on Skype today and they didn’t even realize I was on a lower resolution camera than the last time we spoke. And I think that will be the case for most people. You won’t be able to shoot hi-res video on this camera, but for most people, including me, I think it’s going to be perfectly useable.
So now let’s talk a bit about the processor. This is another area in which this device has been criticized. The MacBooks use the latest Intel Core M Processors. There are 3 variations available: 1.1 GHz (M-5Y31) dual-core (Turbo Boost up to 2.4 GHz), 1.2 GHz (M-5Y51) dual-core (Turbo Boost up to 2.6 GHz), and the 1.3 GHz (M-5Y71) dual-core (Turbo Boost up to 2.9 GHz). This means that they will run at their base speed most of the time, but boost up to the Turbo Boost speed when needed. The whole point of the core M processors is to use less power and be more efficient. If you are looking for processing horsepower as opposed to efficiency, computers based on these processors are NOT for you. Most reviewers looked at the base unit, the 1.1GHz version of the chip, which gave them the lowest processing speed possible and certainly didn’t help their opinion of the computer’s processing speed. I bought the 1.3GHz version, because I planned to keep the unit for a while. Yes, it added to the cost of the computer, but for me the performance has been decent. My normal “daily” things, of writing in MS Word, using MS Excel, browsing the Web, checking email, and using iTunes have all worked very well. I use MS OneDrive as my cloud solution and I haven’t had any performance problems getting my files to/from there as needed. Additionally, the WiFi (802.11AC) has been good as well. Yes, the device is a bit slower occasionally, but I have no complaints about the performance of the MacBook. It’s actually handled all the tasks I’ve thrown at it very well.
For grins, I decided to put World of Warcraft on there and see what happens. It was a little slow on my old MacBook Pro (2011 with a 2.3GHz processor), so I wasn’t expecting much. Surprisingly it ran at least as well as it did on my old MacBook and frame rates weren’t that bad if I turned down the texturing, etc. That said, I still wouldn’t recommend using this device for gaming. First, I’m running on the 1.3GHz processor which means I’m getting the best you can get out of it and even then it wasn’t great. Second, after only about 10-15 minutes of game play the MacBook got hot enough for me to see a notification warning me that it was about to slow the processor down to reduce the heat. That means it was running in Turbo mode for a lot of that time and that made it hot. Unless you want to attach some significant cooling to this device, you aren’t likely to have a very good experience gaming on this computer. This is definitely not a gaming computer, except in some limited ways.
So again, with the exception of gaming, the MacBook has been performing extremely well for me. I’ve even read that editing 1080p video runs pretty well (although rendering at the end is a little slow), but 4K video is a bit laggy to edit. Since I don’t edit video very often, for me this is a non-issue, but if you are a power user or a heavy gamer, I’m guessing this is NOT the device for you! But by way of example, I’m watching movies on iTunes while I am writing and editing this review, so the performance for my daily tasks is definitely more than acceptable!
Again, I think that it’s important to reiterate that, for me, the device has been very good and very responsive. Much more so than I initially expected. I think there is one more thing that has helped make this device feel more responsive in normal use and that is the fact that Apple is using its own custom controller for the SSD drive. That drive screams. This means that the whole machine “feels” faster because it can do decent things with program load times and caching data. To me this means that the machine rarely feels sluggish (if at all) and I really have to push it to get it to lag or stutter. Once again, rather than focus on specs, Apple did a little thing that most people won’t realize to make the overall experience more pleasant.
Let’s turn now to the last point of pain for some folks – the single USB-C connector that supports both data and power. My work computer is a MacBook Pro-15 inch and it occurs to me that I carry a LOT of adapters and dongles with me to convert from mini DisplayPort/Thunderbolt to HDMI or VGA or Ethernet, etc. With the MacBook, I have one big adapter with USB, USB-C, and HDMI on it. So, in many cases, won’t this actually be easier? And with some of the new hubs coming to the market I began to realize that the situation really may not be any worse than what I have now on my work MBP. Again, I think for many of us this might actually be a non-issue, and the continual move toward the cloud will continue to make this less and less of a concern, but I also think that our overall thinking isn’t quite there yet so a lot of reviewers keep bringing up situations where it might be an issue. But I would likely argue that for some people, those that plug in a lot of accessories, this might be an issue, but if you are really needing to attach that many devices, portability is probably not your primary priority and so this computer, whose whole focus is around portability and efficiency, is probably not the computer for you.
So clearly, I like this computer. It’s got a decent combination of the features I want and it meets my needs of portability and supporting my iTunes library better than my PCs did. I take and use this thing all the places I used to take my iPad. It’s my main personal computer now and it’s been great for me. The longer I use it the more I like it. And yes, I recommend it if you don’t consistently need heavy-duty data crunching or gaming. If you need a decent general-use computer and would appreciate the incredible amount of portability this device offers, and you can get past the price tag, then this might be a good fit for you as well.
By way of comparison, the new MacBook is thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air and it has a better screen and a better trackpad, but it is a bit slower and it costs more. I do think this is the direction Apple is moving in and that may be important to some folks. But above all, I think this device is for people who value portability and efficiency and appreciate the latest technologies, while limiting the sacrifices that go along with that portability. Is it for everyone? No. Does it completely replace the MacBook Air? No – it’s a product with a slightly different focus. And I sometimes hear “why didn’t they put a regular i5 or i7 in it? The answer is simple – heat and battery. Those processors would have made the device bigger and thicker and Apple was clearly shooting for portability above all. And I, for one, appreciate that. Is it less computer for more money? Not at all. You are paying a premium for size, convenience, and for being on the bleeding edge. And for my needs, that works just fine.