My iPhone is my favourite computer.
That probably seems like an odd way to start a laptop review, but I think it’s a telling example of how a lot of people use computers today. They’re not running heavy applications or rendering video. They’re browsing Facebook, checking email, and watching videos on YouTube. I can do all that and more on my iPhone, which fits nicely in my pocket and lasts more than a day on a charge.
On paper, the future of laptops looks disappointing, especially to those who concern themselves with specs above all else. Apple’s newest laptop, the ultra-thin MacBook, has gotten more attention for what it can’t do, it seems: It’s about as powerful as a four-year-old MacBook Air, it lacks multiple standard ports like USB, and it has a low-resolution front-facing camera. All that for $US1,300. Sounds like a bad deal.
But I’ve been using the MacBook as my primary laptop for several days and was able to do everything I needed to do. I didn’t miss having ports, and the processor was plenty powerful for day-to-day tasks.
It also helps that this thing looks really nice.
That doesn’t mean the MacBook is for everyone, and it has enough limitations to keep me from recommending it as a top choice for most people. Still, I can tell Apple is onto something.
What is it?
The MacBook looks more like an iPad bolted to a keyboard than a full-fledged computer. It has a 12-inch, high-resolution Retina display, weighs just a tad over two pounds, and measures 0.14 inches at its thinnest point. Yet it can still run full desktop apps and Apple’s newest operating system called Yosemite.
When you open up the MacBook, you can see Apple packed a lot of screen into a small body. Even though the MacBook’s display is only an inch smaller than the largest MacBook Air screen and has a full-sized keyboard, you’d never guess it from its tiny footprint. Its size is closer to the netbooks we saw in the mid-2000s, but it doesn’t feel that small when you use it.
That’s the most important thing about the MacBook. Apple crammed a full PC into the lightest, thinnest, and most portable frame it could. It’s not about out-performing other computers, but creating a gorgeous new option for casual computing. And if you need more power and ports, the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro are still great options.
The MacBook’s design and ultra-portability comes with some concessions and tweaks to the typical laptop experience, however.
The MacBook only has one port, a new standard called USB-C that you’ll start seeing in more computers and tablets over the next few years. USB-C does everything from letting you charge the MacBook, plug in accessories like external hard drives, or attach an external display — but there’s only one USB-C port on the MacBook, so you can only plug in one thing at a time.
If you’re in desperate need of a charge but also need to pull in something from an external drive, you’re out of luck. Plus, USB-C is so new that almost all of your current accessories from thumb drives to monitors will need an adaptor.
The MacBook also has a new processor from Intel that’s powerful enough to run a full PC operating system like Yosemite, but doesn’t need much battery power or generate enough heat to require a cooling fan. That’s the key reason why Apple was able to build such a thin and light computer.
Like I said earlier, the MacBook is for casual computing, and it handles stuff like web browsing and managing your picture library in the new Photos app perfectly. But I did hit some slowdowns when I tried heavier tasks like editing a movie in iMovie or opening too many tabs in the Chrome browser. It’s best to think of the MacBook as a Chromebook competitor — something for the basics — than a replacement for your desktop PC.
Battery life is also worse than my MacBook Air, which can last up to 12 hours on a charge, but I was able to squeeze about nine hours like Apple advertised. And because you charge the MacBook through the USB C port, you can use standard external battery packs when you’re on the go.
The future of computers
But the real story with the new MacBook is we’re getting a taste of what the future of computers will look like. External drives won’t matter as we store more stuff in cloud services like Dropbox. Zippy processors won’t matter as we do more and more tasks in a web browser instead of desktop apps. It’s a similar vision to what Google has for desktop computing, and one of the reasons why Chromebooks continue to get more and more popular. The new MacBook may not be ideal now, but soon it will be all you need.
Despite the limitations, there’s a lot about the MacBook I enjoy.
The first is the new keyboard, which Apple engineered to be incredibly thin so it can fit the new svelte design. The keys don’t press down all the way, so it feels closer to typing on glass than a normal keyboard. It took some getting used to at first, but I now prefer this keyboard to the one on my MacBook Air since the keys don’t wiggle around as much.
The trackpad has been improved too with a new feature called Force Touch that can detect how hard you’re pressing down. Right now, only a few Apple-made apps take advantage of Force Touch. You can do a hard-click on a word in Safari to get its definition, or pause and play a clip in iMovie, for example. Developers will be able to add that kind of functionality to their apps too.
Then there’s the Retina display, which is something MacBook Air owners like me have wanted for years. It’s just as sharp and clear as the Retina displays on the MacBook Pro, iPhone, and iPad, and great to finally see on an Apple laptop designed for everyday users.
Who’s it for?
If someone asked me today which laptop they should buy, my answer wouldn’t be the new MacBook. It’s still a little too expensive and a little too limited for the price. I think the MacBook Air, which you can get for as low as $US900, is a much better choice.
But I have a feeling that will change soon. As I wrote when the new MacBook was first introduced, Apple is following a similar path it did with the MacBook Air, which seemed hilariously underpowered when it first launched in 2008. Now it’s the best laptop you can buy.
The new MacBook will get better over time, but you’re going to have to pay up for the chance to try the future of laptops now.
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