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Apple's updated MacBook is indeed faster with longer battery life

Engadget Engadget 25/04/2016 Dana Wollman

© Provided by Engadget

Apple dropped some Mac news last week, but it might not have been the news you were waiting for. Neither the MacBook Air nor the MacBook Pro have seen a processor refresh since last year, and both have had the same design for several years now. So, if you were hoping for the mythical Retina display Air, or an MBP with one of Intel's newer Skylake chips, you're still outta luck.

If, however, you were waiting to pull the trigger on the 12-inch MacBook, this was your lucky week: Apple updated its lightest-weight notebook with newer CPUs, faster SSDs and a Rose Gold option -- the first pink computer the company has ever made. Aside from the new color, which I am not reviewing so much as judging, the refreshed MacBook promises a 25 percent boost in graphics performance and an extra hour of battery life. I'd say those claims are indeed accurate.

Hardware

It appears that some of my fellow tech reviewers tested the new MacBook in something other than this new Rose Gold color. I happen to have the pink version, as you can see, and I'm glad for that: This is Apple's first-ever Rose Gold Mac, and there's news value there. If I'm honest, though, this is not the color I would have purchased for myself. The dusty, mauve shade we have here reminds me only of things I don't want: a Barbie Dream House, ballet slippers and Elle Woods' wardrobe in Legally Blonde. This color wasn't my favorite even when it debuted on the iPhone, but on the Mac, where everything but the bezels and keys are pink, it's just too much. When I use it in public or at the office I feel like I have to explain myself. No, I am not actually this girly, I want to say.

Luckily for me, if I were in the market for a MacBook, I could still buy it in all the usual colors: silver, gold and my personal favorite, Space Gray. Ladies (or gents, even), if you do indeed want a Rose Gold Mac to match your Rose Gold iPhone, knock yourselves out.

As I said, that new color option aside, this is, for better and worse, the same hardware Apple introduced last year. There's still but one port on the left side: a USB Type-C socket you'll use both to charge the device and attach whatever optional adapters you choose to buy. The sound coming out of the stereo speakers above the keyboard continues to surprise me, both for its loudness and relative balance.

The 12-inch Retina display, meanwhile, still combines deep contrast, bright colors and some very high pixel density (that 2,304 x 1,440 resolution comes out to 226 pixels per inch). Once again too, this is the display I really wish I could have on the 13-inch MacBook Air -- you know, the one where I can still get a built-in full-sized USB port to charge my phone.

Given that I'm used to dividing my time between a 13-inch MacBook Air and 21.5-inch iMac, the 12-inch panel here feels a little too small for me, personally -- at least for extended use. (As I type this review in a browser tab, I have one eye on Slack, so clearly this setup is usable, even if it's not ideal.) That said, it occurred to me during this second round of testing that I might be able to work this tiny Mac into my lifestyle after all. What I realize now is that in addition to being well-suited for travel, the MacBook also makes for the perfect "thing I take to meetings" device. At two pounds, it's so light that I can easily balance it in one hand, without even having to shut the lid. This makes it easy to stop what I'm doing, hurry to a conference room and immediately be ready to take notes.

I can envision a setup where I use an adapter to keep the laptop hooked up to an external monitor when it's parked at my desk. The thing is, I happened to cross paths with our company IT guy while I was working on this review, and once he heard what I was testing he just shook his head. Unless Apple adds another port, preferably a full-sized one, using the MacBook for work is a no-go. So while my fantasy is a nice idea, it's just not meant to be. Maybe you can swing it, though.

Keyboard and trackpad

I also felt more at home this time using the flat keyboard and Force Touch trackpad, even though neither has actually changed since I reviewed the first-generation version a year ago. I partly thank muscle memory for that. Even though I hadn't used the 12-inch MacBook since the week I spent with it last year, I clearly hadn't forgotten how to type on the flat keys. That bodes well for people who will actually buy this: If I can make progress on the learning curve in just a week, and still have retained the muscle memory after a year of not using it, imagine how comfortable one would get if this were their primary keyboard.

Even then, the learning curve is gentler than you might think. That's because the button only look flat. Under the surface, each keycap is propped up by what Apple calls a "butterfly" mechanism that lowers the entire key evenly each time you strike a button with your finger. This is a departure from conventional keyboards, where the common "scissor" keycap design means there's always gong to be a chance that one side of the keycap will hit the bottom before a press can actually register. That's why on other ultraportables I test, I often complain that the keyboards don't always "hear" me the first time, forcing me to either mash the buttons or frequently go back and re-type stuff.

That wasn't a problem here. Though the buttons are nearly flush with the keyboard deck, they're actually quite springy and responsive. It helps too that the backlit buttons have 17 percent more surface area than on other MacBooks, which makes it that much easier to hit your intended key.

As for the trackpad, its Force Touch technology means that what used to be a clickable button has been replaced by a hard, fixed surface that uses a vibration motor to simulate "clicks" when the machine is turned on. (Power it off and you'll find the touchpad doesn't move at all.) It's also pressure-sensitive, allowing you to do things like push down extra hard to preview an image in Finder or fast-forward through a movie in QuickTime at 60x.

Even a year after the technology came out, those hard "force clicks" continue to feel awkward; I sometimes have to try more than once to pull off the trick that I meant to. That said, I've warmed up to this touchpad when it comes to everyday use: "clicking" when I'm not really clicking anything. No, it still doesn't feel the same as the trackpad on the MacBook Air, but that's OK. In my case, I have the iMac's new Magic Trackpad to thank: It uses the same Force Touch technology as the MacBook. For everyone else as well, I suspect that Force Touch will feel more normal with time. After all, the MacBook Pros already have the same touchpad, and I wouldn't be surprised if the MacBook Air one day followed suit.

Performance and battery life

OS X benchmarksGeekbenchXbenchBattery life
MacBook (2016, 1.2GHz Intel Core M5, Intel HD Graphics 515)5,271 (32-bit) / 5,844 (64-bit)4118:45
MacBook (2015, 1.1GHz Intel Core M, Intel HD Graphics 5300)3,891 (32-bit) / 4,425 (64-bit)3887:47
13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (early 2015, 2.7GHz Core i5, Intel Iris 6100)6,293 (32-bit) / 7,062 (64-bit)48711:23
13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display (late 2013, 2.4GHz Core i5, Intel Iris graphics)6,288 (32-bit)42811:18
13-inch MacBook Air (mid 2013, 1.3GHz Core i5, Intel HD Graphics 5000)6,021 (32-bit)30412:51

Though the base $1,299 model has a 1.1GHz Core M3 processor, the $1,599 one I tested steps up to a more robust Core M5 chip with a slightly faster clock speed of 1.2GHz. Either way, you get 8GB of RAM, and the PCIe solid-state drives are of the same caliber too, though the actual amount of available storage varies between the two configurations. As you'd expect, Apple promises this year's model is faster than last year's and has longer battery life. In particular, the company says we can expect a 25 percent graphics boost and an extra hour of runtime, regardless of whether you're judging battery life by video playback or continuous web surfing.

That's born out in our benchmark tests, where I saw appropriately higher numbers in tests like Geekbench and Xbench. The startup time wasn't faster -- nine seconds to the log-in screen, versus seven last year -- but I'm not complaining. Meanwhile, the PCIe SSD inside now reaches average write speeds of 845 MB/s, according to the Blackmagic Disk Speed Test. That's way up from 451.7 MB/s on last year's model, which was already more than what we see on many flagship laptops. Meanwhile, read speeds are now approaching a gigabyte per second, with the rates in my tests coming out to an average of 947 MB/s. That's up considerably from 738.2 MB/s last year.

In everyday use, I had no problem juggling all my usual apps: Slack, Spotify, TextEdit, Photos, Notes, Messages, Maps and Chrome, with nine pinned tabs and a handful of unpinned ones. Apps were quick to launch, and I thankfully didn't notice any of the hiccups that sometimes plague slower machines; it kept up as I hopped between pinned browser tabs, for instance, which not all laptops do.

Also, because Core M processors allow for fanless designs, using the MacBook is a pleasantly quiet experience -- something I can't always say about the Air or Pro. Additionally, though I complained last time that the laptop's bottom side could occasionally get a little warm, that wasn't an issue for me this year; the machine stayed cool enough for me to work with it in my lap, with shorts on.

Battery life

Apple MacBook (2016)8:45
Surface Book (Core i5, integrated graphics)13:54 / 3:20 (tablet only)
HP Spectre x360 (13-inch, 2015)11:34
Surface Book (Core i7, discrete graphics)11:31 / 3:02 (tablet only)
Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display (13-inch, 2015)11:23
iPad Pro (12.9-inch, 2015)10:47
HP Spectre x360 15t10:17
Chromebook Pixel (2015)10:01
Lenovo Yoga 9009:36
Microsoft Surface 39:11
Samsung Notebook 98:16
Apple MacBook (2015)7:47
Dell XPS 13 (2015)7:36
Microsoft Surface Pro 47:15
Microsoft Surface Pro 37:08
HP Spectre x26:43
Razer Blade Stealth5:48
Dell XPS 15 (2016)5:25 (7:40 with the mobile charger)
Toshiba Radius 125:12

This year, the MacBook's 41.4Wh battery is rated for up to 10 hours of web browsing, or up to 11 hours of video playback. That's up an hour across the board from last year, when Apple promised nine hours of browsing and 10 hours of video. Indeed, I saw the MacBook notch almost exactly an extra hour in Engadget's rundown test, which involves looping video in iTunes and setting the screen to 10 bars out of 16, with no dimming. It's also hours better than one of its most similar competitors, the 2.9-pound Toshiba Radius 12, whose bright 4K screen helped bring the battery life down to around five hours.

Like last year, though, the MacBook's battery life fell short of Apple's promise, even when I attempted to replicate the company's own testing conditions. The battery life also still trails the thicker and heavier MacBook Air, which is rated for 12 hours. Don't get me wrong, an extra hour of runtime is a step in the right direction; it's just that when it comes to battery life claims, Apple usually exceeds, where here it slightly missed the mark. And for people who know they want a Mac, but aren't sure which one, it will be tough to discount the fact that the Air lasts hours longer on a charge.

Configuration options and the competition

Unlike some of Apple's other computers, the MacBook is offered in two versions, each of which has very few upgrade options. The base $1,299 model has a 1.1GHz, dual-core Core M3 processor and a 256GB PCIe solid-state drive. Then there's the $1,599 edition, which has a 1.2GHz Core M5 chip and a 512GB SSD. Either way, both have the same Retina display, 8GB of RAM and Intel HD 515 graphics, and both are upgradeable to a 1.3GHz, dual-core Core M7 CPU.

If you're looking for something like the MacBook -- a super small machine that emphasizes portability and screen quality above all else -- you can find a couple alternatives running Windows. I have to warn you, though, that the most promising option isn't actually out yet. That would be the just-announced HP Spectre 13.3, which, at 10.4mm thick, claims to be the world's thinnest laptop. Although it's a little more blinged-out than the MacBook, with copper accents inspired by women's jewelry, it has a similarly light 2.45-pound frame.

Unlike Apple's offering, though, it has higher-powered Core i5 and i7 processors, while still offering 9.5 hours of battery life. (The lower-res 1080p screen helps there, I'm sure.) Additionally, the Spectre has more ports than the MacBook: three USB Type-C connections, two of which support Thunderbolt. We'll be testing that soon, though you'll probably be able to buy one sooner: It's slated to go on sale this week for $1,170 and up.

There's also the aforementioned Toshiba Radius 12 ($1,000 and up), which, despite its less-than-stellar score of 77, actually has a lot of redeeming qualities. Chief among them: a Technicolor-certified 4K display, fast performance, comfortable keyboard, generous port selection, decent audio and a lightweight design. That said, the short battery life and frustrating touchpad are both significant knocks against it.

Really, though, given the MacBook's inherent compromises, I suspect that many shoppers will look not necessarily toward competing Windows machines, but elsewhere in Apple's lineup. I'm talking about the MacBook Air, which, despite suffering from an aging design and frustratingly low-res (read: non-Retina) screen, still offers a lot of the things people want: longer battery life, faster performance and ports. Even if the Air better suits your needs, though, you'd be smart to wait for Apple to refresh it with newer Intel processors, as it just did with the 12-inch MacBook. Separate from the Air too, you might consider the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which performs well and offers longer battery life, though the lack of mouse support in iOS might be a killer for people who want a laptop they can use, you know, as a laptop.

Wrap-up

How similar is the updated MacBook to last year's model? Put it this way: I was strongly tempted to assign it the exact same score. In the end, I decided it deserved a slightly higher number as a way of acknowledging the extra hour of battery life and considerably faster disk speeds. Other than that, this is the same machine I reviewed 12 months ago. It keeps everything I enjoyed the first time, including that crisp Retina display and comfortable keyboard. But it also has the same problems -- namely, a lack of ports and battery life that, while decent, still trails other thin and light laptops, including Apple's own MacBook Air.

Basically, then, if you were turned off last year by what the MacBook had to offer, this year's incremental changes won't be enough to change your mind. If, however, you've always wanted a pink notebook, or take more comfort in buying a second-generation product than a first-gen one, at least you know what you're getting.

Photos by Edgar Alvarez.

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