Early reviews of Apple’s MacBook (Retina, 12-inch, Early 2015) have framed it as an expensive prototype from the future — a notebook that will someday be the standard, but one most people aren’t ready for yet. Despite that classification, the new MacBook is extremely tempting if you’re in the market for a new computer: it’s more portable than even the MacBook Air, it’s the first Mac available in gold and space gray finishes, and it has a trackpad with a new feature called Force Touch.
But can you actually do work on the 12-inch MacBook? That’s the $1300 question everyone is asking. I’ll unpack my experience below …
Performance & Battery Life
The new 12-inch MacBook won’t beat the rest of the MacBook lineup in any benchmark tests, but it’s still a fast performer. The answer to whether or not the new MacBook can be used for work depends on two things: what tasks the MacBook is capable of performing, and how long the MacBook can perform those tasks on a single charge.
The short answer to whether or not the new MacBook can actually be used for work is that it depends on what you plan to do, but for a lot of people the answer is probably yes. It’s not a machine optimized for performing power intensive tasks, but it can do a lot of low- to mid-level jobs well.
My Mac is typically running a couple dozen apps at a time during the typical workday including multiple constant Twitter streams, 20+ Safari tabs, quick photo editing, frequent downloading and uploading, lots of messaging and email, and music or video playback … all at the same time.
During my evaluation in an actual workday under typical conditions, I only noticed a performance issue when a particular Twitter app would demand more memory than usual — an issue experienced on every other Mac I’ve owned and tested.
The new MacBook is powered by a low power Intel Core M chip — a first for Macs — which helps it achieve a fanless design. That means the Mac isn’t as powerful, but it is completely silent and has a much smaller footprint. It also means the new MacBook shouldn’t get warm enough that it needs a fan to cool off.
— Dom Esposito (@macmixing) April 18, 2015
As Dom mentioned when using the new MacBook to edit and export short video files, it did stand up to piecing together a 1080p clip, but working with a 4K footage resulted in dropped frames. But does the MacBook get too hot? Chrome (which includes Flash) was the culprit of an unexpected heat warning during Dom’s use. I’ve tried to achieve the same warning myself, and while I’ve managed to get the bottom of the MacBook uncomfortably warm especially during a Time Machine backup, I’m still waiting for my first heat warning.
Ripping and encoding a DVD in HandBrake using Apple’s SuperDrive ($79) and USB-C to USB Adapter (more on that later) resulted in the biggest performance hit compared to other Macs I’ve owned and tested. The job took several minutes longer on the new MacBook than it did on my mid-tier 2012 Mac mini; it also noticeably slowed down system performance until the job was done. Not an impossible task on the new MacBook, but not ideal if you have better tools.
In terms of battery life, Apple promises up to 9 hours of wireless web usage and up to 10 hours of iTunes playback. In my actual (multitasking-heavy) usage, I measured 4 hours 35 minutes between 100% to 2% during continuous usage. Under the same use, the system said to expect 3 hours 57 minutes until a full charge was reached from 2%, although in practice only required 2 hours 22 minutes to reach 100%.
A typical workday usually spans 8 hours at least so 4.5 hours of battery life during typical usage won’t get the job done, but I’ve always had to connect to power with previous MacBooks so this is no different. The new MacBook can handle heavy multitasking and quick data input as it runs OS X and is very much a notebook with a keyboard and trackpad (both of which are different than previous MacBooks). An iPad with greater benchmark results may be more powerful with greater battery life, but it can’t yet run apps side-by-side or multitask between dozens of apps like a Mac. I can’t yet do my actual work on an iPad even if I wanted to, but the new MacBook got the job done right out of the box.
I mentioned in the previous section having the expectation of always relying on connecting a power supply to get through a typical workday with any MacBook. All other MacBooks have a dedicated MagSafe port for charging, and separate USB/Thunderbolt ports for transferring data and using external monitors. The new MacBook combines data transfer and charging in a single USB Type C port. You’ll have to pick up an adapter for now if you want to use your existing USB accessories, connect an HDMI or VGA display, or ever charge the MacBook while simultaneously using any USB accessory.
I typically use AirDrop or Dropbox to move files between various devices during the typical workday, but moving data from my old Mac to the new MacBook on day one meant using an adapter. Wireless solutions were available including restoring from a Time Machine backup, but I wanted a fast and reliable way to move data. Ultimately, I used a USB 3.0 external hard drive to carry data between Macs, which meant I needed Apple’s USB-C to USB Adapter ($19) for connecting the drive to the new MacBook.
Aside from the DVD rip test (which I never actually do; I had to blow the dust off the SuperDrive) and setting up the new MacBook, I haven’t needed to use any adapter again. The overly expensive $79 USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter ($79) from Apple is the most practical if you foresee needing one, though, as it offers both a power option and a traditional USB port. Google has some nice options available now and Belkin has some coming soon. If you foresee frequently relying on any adapter, though, the new MacBook probably isn’t the best machine for you as the hassle trumps the convenience of portability.
Overall, though, the new USB-C port is a very interesting addition to the Mac. While it’s more difficult to connect and disconnect than the MagSafe charging connection found on the rest of the MacBook lineup, it’s also more resistant to accidentally unplugging during use. USB-C also allows you to charge the new MacBook in new ways not previously easily possible.
For instance, you can use a portable charger to re-juice your MacBook without needing a wall adapter. As the new MacBook packs in a 5263 mAh battery, I can achieve more than two additional charges with my Anker A7 13,000 mAh external battery pack ($29) and a USB-C to USB cable ($12.99). You can also charge the 12-inch MacBook… from another 12-inch MacBook. Connect the included USB-C Charge Cable ($29) from one 12-inch MacBook to another, and whichever Mac was connected first will charge the Mac you connect next.
Trackpad & Keyboard
The new MacBook features a Force Touch trackpad first made available on the MacBook Pro (Retina, 13-inch, Early 2015). The new trackpad includes a second depth of clicking called a Force Click which can perform tasks that previously required three-finger taps or weren’t available at all.
Both a regular click and a deeper Force Click give the illusion of an actual button click, but the new trackpad is indeed buttonless. The illusion is created using haptic feedback which can be applied in other applications like iMovie and QuickTime as well.
In terms of how this impacts using the new MacBook for work, you likely won’t notice any loss of features (aside from three-finger dragging which has moved to the Accessibilities panel), only new ones like pressure sensitive drawing and new menus. Many of the features you can access with Force Touch were previously available through other gestures; its biggest impact, for me, is allowing the the notebook to be as thin as it is.
The new MacBook’s keyboard is immediately obvious, and whether or not you can do actual work on the 12-inch MacBook likely depends on how you adapt to typing on it. The new keyboard is much tighter as it has almost no travel, or depth, found on other MacBook keyboards. Personally, I find the tightness feels more efficient and less sloshy, but it still takes a period of adjustment even if you’re optimistic. I can understand why other testers have written off the new keyboard as a compromise to achieving a thinner MacBook, but I’m personally finding that my Apple Wireless Keyboard is the one I don’t want to use now… except for the arrow keys.
I saw the arrow keys mentioned in multiple MacBook reviews and couldn’t understand how the design change could be that big of a deal. Then I started using it. The change is that the left and right arrow keys are now full sized while the up and down arrows are half of a full key. While the up and down keys are unchanged, I’ve found myself needing to look to use any arrow key now as the left and right keys feel like the nearby Option key.
The backlighting has also changed on the new keyboard. Apple says each key now has its own individual LED for backlighting. Between this and the general shallow design, you no longer see as much stray lighting when viewing the keyboard at an angle. The backlighting isn’t as perfect as Apple’s marketing material, however, as certain keys consistently have uneven lighting, an issue new to this MacBook. This means the escape key may read like ‘sc’ rather than ‘esc’ at night, and each Command key is noticeably dimmer than the letter keys.
On a trivial level, I find that the new keyboard font (San Francisco as found on the Apple Watch) is nicer to look at than the previous keyboard font (VAG Rounded). While it won’t impact your typing for work, it is refreshing to see all day long as a personal preference.
You can see how similar the Lightning port on the iPhone and iPad is compared to the new USB-C port. While the iPad has a smaller footprint and is still thinner than the thickest part of the new MacBook, its portability feels very similar. Pair that with OS X, a trackpad, and a good, full-sized keyboard and the new MacBook gives the iPad a real run for its money. The iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus haven’t quite felt like iPad Air replacements for me as they have for other people, but the new MacBook is in close proximity. Carrying it closed feels very similar to toting an iPad Air around; aside from using the iPad Air as a second display, I can’t foresee toting both on a quick trip.
If you foresee having to rely on the available adapters or find the keyboard unfavorable, you won’t want the new MacBook as your work machine. It’s also not the powerhouse that creative professionals and developers need to get the job done, but it can certainly juggle a dozen or two important tasks without hiccups if they’re not too taxing. You can pick up a MacBook Air for less or a MacBook Pro for the same price or more, but it will be the ultra thin design (and new color options) that make the trade-offs worth it for early adopters.
It can do actual work in cases where an iPad wouldn’t be feasible. My only real concern about the new MacBook is its display size: 12-inches is not a generous amount of screen space. I preferred to run the 13.3-inch Retina MacBook Pro at its ‘more space’ option, but the text is uncomfortably small for me in the new MacBook’s ‘more space’ option.
I’d be envious of a similarly powered 14- or 15-inch MacBook with the same design: you could easily include another USB-C port with the longer body, and the larger but still thin footprint could pack in a few extra hours of battery life as well.
As someone with a desktop Mac setup to fall back on, though, the new MacBook is a phenomenal portable solution. I can rely on it for work, and it’s as comfortable as an iPad to use on the weekends and evenings. It’s a more difficult decision to make if you don’t have a more powerful Mac to do the heavy lifting from time to time, but it’s not out of the question in the least to rely on the new MacBook for doing actual work.
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