Apple's New MacBook: Great for Some (But Not All)

Dr. Mac’s Rants & Raves
Episode #128


A year ago, Apple had two notebook lines — the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air. If you needed a powerful, desktop-grade laptop with a Retina display, you got a MacBook Pro; if size and weight mattered more than horsepower and screen resolution, you chose the smaller, lighter, somewhat less powerful non-Retina MacBook Air.

Earlier this year Apple threw a monkey wrench into the equation, introducing a third product family called just plain MacBook (not Pro nor Air). This new MacBook is thinner and lighter than the 11- or 13-inch MacBook Air — 2.02 pounds vs. 2.38 and 2.96 pounds respectively. But unlike either MacBook Air, the MacBook has a Retina display with nearly twice the resolution of the Air.

In addition to size, weight, and Retina display, four “firsts” make the new MacBook unique:

  • First Apple notebook with new Force Touch trackpad.
  • First Apple Notebook with new ultra-thin Apple-designed keyboard with butterfly mechanisms.
  • First Apple notebook with new low-power Intel Core M processor.

Finally (and this is the big one):

  • First Apple notebook with only one new USB-C port used for input/output and charging.

I’ve been using a base model MacBook (1.1GHz Core M processor; 8GB RAM; 128GB SSD; S.R.P. $1,299) for the past few weeks and while I’ve found a lot to like, the single USB-C port wasn’t my bucket of bits.

I like almost everything else about the new MacBook, though. Its size and weight are amazing (see photo); the new keyboard feels more precise than the MacBook Pro or MacBook Air; Retina displays are great; and it comes in three tasty colors — Gold, Silver, or my personal favorite, Space Gray.

The new 12-inch MacBook (left) is 24% thinner than the 11-inch MacBook Air (right)!

The new MacBook's Intel Core M processor, while slower than the Intel Core i5 and i7 processors found in the MacBook Pro and Air families, was responsive and reasonably peppy for most tasks. I found it more than adequate for common stuff like email, web surfing, and word processing, and it ran even my most resource-hungry apps like Photoshop CC and Final Cut Pro acceptably, though they run noticeably faster on my MacBook Pro, (which, to be fair, sports a 2.6GHz Core i7 processor and 16GB RAM).

I’m not a fan of the built-in keyboards in my MacBook Pro or Apple’s external aluminum keyboards (wired or wireless). I prefer a bigger keyboard with bouncier keys, like the Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 that's been my main squeeze for years. So I was surprised to discover that I like the new MacBook keyboard much more than any Apple keyboard since the ADB Extended Keyboard (aka battleship Saratoga) way back in the 1980s.

Next: Force Touch Trackpad and My Problem With the USB-C Port

Page 2 - Force Touch Trackpad and My Problem With the USB-C Port


The new Force Touch trackpad didn’t do much for me. The two levels of pressing/clicking are disconcerting at first and the new Force Click gesture — a click followed by a deeper press — isn’t supported by many apps yet. Furthermore, in the handful of apps that do support it — the Finder uses it for QuickLook, for example — I kept Force Clicking when I meant to just plain click. The other new touchpad trick is haptic feedback, which is interesting but only works in Preview (as far as I could tell), vibrating gently when objects are dragged into alignment.

That being said, the new trackpad is responsive and feels at least as good as the old trackpad. I'm sure I'll like it more when more apps support Force Click and haptic feedback.

The Trackpad System Preferences pane for a MacBook with Force Touch (top) and a MacBook Pro without it (bottom).

The deal-breaker for me was the single USB-C port. See, USB-C is brand new and there aren’t (m)any other devices that use it yet. So, to use an existing device, you’re gonna need an adapter. Apple has one for $19 — the USB-C to USB Adapter — which lets you use any USB peripheral. What it doesn’t let you do is charge your MacBook when a peripheral is connected.

For that you want Apple’s $79 USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter, which not only lets you connect a USB device and an HDMI display, but also has a USB-C pass-through port so you can charge your MacBook and connect devices simultaneously.

Apple sent me both adapters for testing, but since I didn’t know better, I started a long migration using the $19 adapter. The new MacBook battery is rated up to 9 hours, which is the same as the 11-inch MacBook Air and 15-inch MacBook Pro, so I was pretty sure I’d have enough juice for Migration Assistant to move my data from the MacBook Pro to the MacBook. But Migration Assistant doesn’t display a battery indicator, so I was afraid I’d run out of juice and mess up the migration. 

That didn’t happen but I learned a lesson. The next time I migrated I used the $79 USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter and kept the MacBook connected to power the whole time. So here's my new MacBook tip:  If you want to charge your new MacBook while using a USB peripheral, buy the more expensive AV Multiport Adapter not the cheaper USB-C to USB Adapter. The pass-through port for charging makes it worth having even if you don’t need HDMI.

After a few weeks of testing, the MacBook is winging its way back to Cupertino. But a funny thing happened while I was testing it. Due to trickle-down economics in my family, I found myself down to a single Mac, my MacBook Pro. Since El Capitan is on its way and I’m starting work on OS X El Capitan For Dummies RealSoonNow™, I needed another Mac to run El Capitan. I briefly considered the new MacBook because I do like its keyboard and who doesn’t prefer a Retina display, given the choice. But I ended up buying a refurbished 11-inch MacBook Air instead. It’s got a 1.4GHz Core i5 processor, 8GB of RAM, and only a 128GB SSD, but it suits my needs and cost just $759, which saved me $540 over the least-expensive MacBook ($1299). Sure the MacBook has a bigger SSD (256 vs. 128) and a Retina display, not to mention a better keyboard and trackpad, but $540 is $540 and money doesn’t grow on trees.

I’m pleased with my decision but the new MacBook is worth considering if you are in the market for a MacBook Air. It’s a nice (albeit pricier) alternative with attractive features, but it’s only appropriate if you don’t rely on USB peripherals or resource-hogging apps.

There is one last thing…every Mac and most other Apple devices I’ve bought in the past 10 years came from the Apple Refurbished Store online. Apple’s refurbished products look brand new and feature the same warranty as new products, but priced at 10 to 30% less than new. I will only buy a new product if what I need isn’t available in the Refurbished Store or I want something built-to-order. Other than that I only buy Apple refurbs.


12-inch from $1,299

MacBook Air:
11-inch from $899

13-inch from $999.

And that’s all he wrote…