Another year, another Apple refresh. Given the first generation 12" MacBook's exciting but controversial release, some of you might have expected more than a refresh of internals--say a second USB-C port or a higher resolution webcam. Sorry, that didn't happen. Apple did their usual first cycle refresh: update to the latest Intel CPU and chipset, employ faster PCIe storage and for an unexpected treat they increased battery life by an hour. The price remains the same, starting at $1,299 for a decently equipped model with 8 gigs of RAM and a 256 gig SSD. There's not enough change to make a 12" MacBook owner upgrade, but there's enough improvement to keep it interesting and tempting for those who were considering buying one.
The MacBook runs Mac OS X on 6th generation Intel Skylake Core M CPUs. It's available with 8 gigs of RAM (your only option and it's not upgradable) and a 256 or 512 gig SSD. It has a lovely Retina 2304 x 1440 IPS display that's unchanged from the previous model. Apple's added rose gold to the color selection, which is the model we have in for review. As ever, it's also available in space gray, silver and gold.
Some of you might wonder what took so long; Intel Skylake 6th generation CPUs have been available since last fall. Apple is rarely as aggressive as Windows PC makers when it comes to refreshing models, which is good if you don't want to alienate those who bought the product mere months ago, but bad if you want to keep tech junkies happy. When Skylake launched late last fall in the world of Windows, there were issues... big ones. Particularly with Intel display driver crashes and glitchy sleep and hibernate behavior. Perhaps Apple preferred to wait? On the Windows side, those glitches have finally been fixed, so it is an interesting coincidence.
Design and Ergonomics
There's nothing new to say or see here. This is the exact same casing as the last gen Retina MacBook, with the only change being the new rose gold color. This is an extremely rigid and robust machine despite the very low 2 lb. weight. The lid doesn't flex, the keyboard deck doesn't bounce and the display doesn't show pools of light if you press on the back of the lid. Compared to the also very thin and light LG Gram laptop it's a weapon of mass destruction. Compared to the 13.3" Samsung Notebook 9 (a 13.3" laptop with a Core i5 that weighs just 1.9 lbs.), the MacBook has a stiffer lid that's harder to torsion and the bottom panel won't deform if you put serious pressure on it (one could ask why you'd put serious pressure on an expensive piece of consumer electronics). The 13.3" Samsung is much more rigid than the LG Gram, but it has a little bit of lid flex and the bottom will deform if you put significant pressure on it. The 15" Samsung Notebook 9 doesn't budge.
The MacBook is still an extremely good looking little laptop, and that's an understatement. It's clean, minimalist and expensive looking, which is fitting since it is quite expensive. The laptop tapers toward the front and in many ways is a modernized MacBook Air. The excellent trackpad looks absolutely huge on the small keyboard deck, and the backlit keyboard (each key has its own LED) uses every bit of horizontal real estate with just a tiny bit of metal deck flanking the sides. The keyboard with its butterfly keyboard mechanism is weird as ever, with some tactile feel and very little travel. Yet somehow, it works well and I typed at length with accuracy, though it never quite feels "normal" or comfy. Even though I type nearly as well on the 12" MacBook as the Samsung Notebook 9, I much prefer the comfort and feel of the Samsung keyboard.
Again, nothing is new here, and I don't think Apple needs to change a thing. This is a really lovely display with full sRGB coverage, 80% of Adobe RGB, strong brightness and excellent color accuracy out of the box. The Retina IPS display is leagues ahead of the MacBook Air's TN panel for color saturation, viewing angles and contrast. I do wish Apple would get around to updating the aging Air. The display has an oddball 2304 x 1440 resolution that works out to 226 PPI. That's competitive with the best Windows tablets and laptops in this size range as well as the bigger Retina MacBook Pro models. The display is every bit as good as larger MacBook Pro models, so you're not giving up anything here by going with Apple's smallest Mac other than screen size.
Since we're talking Mac OS X, there's no touch screen or active digitizer for digital pens. Look to Windows 10 machines like the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 or the iPad Pro if you need those features.
I do wish that Apple would offer a larger screen model. 13.3" is still the sweet spot for ultra-portables, and a 13" or 14" version of the MacBook would likely have wider appeal. The default scaling is equivalent to what you'd see on 1280 x 800 display, and that's a bit low. I raise that to 1440 x 900 (the standard 13.3" MacBook Air resolution) to have a bit more screen real estate. At the default scaling, there's room for just one program's window. Change the scaling to 1440 x 900 and you can at least fit one and a half program windows on screen at once (or two if you resize them down sufficiently).
Horsepower and Performance
Apple updated the second generation 12" MacBook with current generation Intel Skylake CPUs. You can select from 6th generation Intel Core m3, m5 and m7 CPUs. The Core M family sits far above the lowly Intel Atom and closer to the Intel Core i CPUs used in the MacBook Air and Windows Ultrabooks in terms of pricing and performance. Intel's Core M has improved in terms of performance with each generation, though battery life improvements have been smaller. It's designed to be the lower heat, fanless counterpart to the Core i series of CPUs rather than a budget part. This is not a netbook folks--those run on sluggish Intel Atom CPUs and are much, much slower. They also have low resolution displays and plastic casings to fit the bargain basement price.
Skylake brought a noticeable 15 to 20 percent bump in CPU performance for the cooler running, power-sipping Core M compared to Skylake Core i CPUs. This is due in part to the move to the 25% faster Intel HD 515 integrated graphics, and overall CPU improvements. The benchmarks show improvement that I wouldn't call earth shattering, but the actual experience in daily use is noticeably peppier (OS X El Capitan also helps). I found the first generation base model with the Core m3 to be a bit sluggish at times, and the new 1.1 GHz base model feels very responsive and doesn't leave me tapping my foot and looking at the ceiling when I push multitasking in productivity, social networking and photo editing tasks. If you're coming from a recent MacBook Air model, the 12" MacBook will feel responsive. The Core m5 version (bundled with a 512 gig SSD for $1,599) benchmarks as fast as the 2015 Core i5 MacBook Air. The base model benchmarks a bit slower, but not enough to make a noticeable difference unless you're using a stopwatch when applying Photoshop filters or are compiling large programs in Xcode. The second gen is a surprisingly fine main machine unless your daily routine is very demanding. Software development with very large programs, VMs, Adobe Lightroom for photo pros and daily commercial 1080p or 4K video editing is better done with a MacBook Pro 13 or 15 inch model if you can swing it. MS Office or iWork, Photoshop, light to moderate software development with Xcode and streaming 1080p video are perfect chores for the base MacBook. If you want a bit of future-proofing or have heavier workloads, go with the Core m5 or m7 options. You can custom order the notebook with the base 256 gig SSD and the Core m7 1.3 GHz model for $1,549.
Speaking of SSDs, Apple has moved to a faster PCIe SSD storage protocol for the latest generation MacBook. Honestly, SSDs are fast enough that mere mortals won't notice the speed improvement immediately, but it does help when loading large image or video files from the SSD and programs launch a wee bit faster. According to Blackmagic's disk speed test, it's 200 to 250 MB/s faster for writes and reads.
Deals and Shopping:
12" MacBook 2nd Gen Review
12" MacBook vs. iPad Pro 12.9" Comparison
12" MacBook vs. HP Spectre Comparison
Apple increased battery capacity just a little to 41.4 Whr from 39.7 Whr. That's not enough to account for the 1 hour of added runtimes according to Apple--the new Skylake platform and further Apple engineering improvements are likely the (good) culprits. Apple claims 10 hours of use from the Lithium Ion battery that's sealed inside, and though their claims are usually fairly accurate, in the case of the 12" MacBook (both generations), the claim is a bit optimistic for real world use. we averaged 6 to 7.5 hours with brightness set to 50% in a mix of productivity, web, social networking, streaming video and photo editing sessions.
When the first gen MacBook shipped, there really were no direct competitors. A year later and we've seen the not terribly successful Samsung ATIV Book 9 (also 12" with last gen Core M and an even higher price tag), The business-minded HP EliteBook Folio (12.5", Core M, $1,299 with m5/8 gigs RAM/ 256 gig SSD), the passing of the Lenovo 3 Pro (Core M, 13.3"), the upcoming Lenovo Yoga 900s (12", $1,299 for a QHD display, Core m7, 8 gigs of RAM and a 256 gig SSD), the Toshiba Portege Z20t (a 2-in-1 tablet) and the base model Microsoft Surface Pro 4. On the more affordable end, there's still the Asus Zenbook UX305 (13.3" 1080p Core M). Interestingly, few beyond the UX305 have targeted the inexpensive segment, likely due in part to Intel's pricing for the Core M being close to the Core i.
The latest, and arguably most exciting newcomers are the Samsung Notebook 9 (13.3" Core i5 and 15" Core i7 models) and the LG Gram 13, 14 and now 15. These Intel Core i5 and Core i7 Skylake notebooks (for LG, only the Gram 15 has Skylake) are obviously more powerful than the 12" MacBook. They're extremely light--in fact the 13.3" Samsung Notebook 9 is even lighter at 1.9 lbs.) and hover around the same half inch thickness as the MacBook. They're different though, and not just because they run Windows 10: they have significantly larger footprints since they have bigger screens, they have fans inside, lower resolution 1920 x 1080 displays (also non-touch to save weight and thickness) and shorter battery life. While the MacBook has the footprint of an iPad Air, the Samsung and LG models have the footprint typical of 13, 14 and 15 inch Ultrabooks. That said, if you're OK with a standard Ultrabook footprint like that of the MacBook Air, but do want the lightest and slimmest laptop you can get with modern Skylake internals, they're worth a look, particularly the Samsung Notebook 9. Oh, and for some reason only the 13.3" Samsung Notebook 9 has a backlit keyboard, the 15" model does not, nor do the LG Gram models. The 13.3" Notebook 9 lacks USB-C, but the 15" model has it, as does the LG Gram 15.
As ever, the 12" MacBook is a surprisingly polarizing little laptop. The first generation sold so well folks had to wait months to buy one, so some people obviously love it (and are willing to spend this much on an ultraportable). Others have lambasted it for lacking ports, having a Core M rather than Core i5 and for costing so darned much. The love and the hate will likely continue with this second generation model, and the hate may amplify because Apple didn't add a second USB-C port, Thunderbolt 3 or a higher resolution webcam (Thunderbolt 3 is currently architecturally near impossible). Apple doesn't do major redesigns in just a year when the product sells and works well. Maybe next year we'll see Thunderbolt 3 and there will be a 720p camera module thin enough to fit in the MacBook's super-skinny lid. Until then, it's the only laptop that's the size and nearly the weight of an iPad Air that can do serious work with desktop applications.
Thanks to performance and battery life improvements, it's a very viable machine to get "real" work done. That said, the single USB-C port must also handle charging, which means buying a USB-C hub or a collection of dongles for those who want to use it as a desktop replacement rather than a portable.
The Mac tax is alive and well, though we don't doubt that making something this tiny, rigid and light with a superb high resolution display is expensive. Add on the joy of silence (no fans), excellent speakers, and materials and build quality that are unparalleled, and I can see why this is a pricey piece. That doesn't mean it's a great buy for what you get, you can certainly buy a more powerful and larger screen laptop for less. But that's not the target market for the 12" MacBook, is it?
Display:12", 2304 x 1440 IPS Retina display. Intel HD 515 integrated graphics. HDMI and DisplayPort 1.2 via optional USB-C adapters.
Battery:41.4 Whr Lithium
Performance:1.1 GHz Intel Core m3 with Turbo Boost to 2.2 GHz. 1.2 and 1.3 GHz Core m5 and m7 CPUs also available. 8 gigs of RAM soldered on board and 256 or 512 gig PCIe NVMe SSD (also soldered on board).
x 7.74 x 0.52 (thickest) inches. Weight: 2.03 pounds.
Camera:480p FaceTime webcam.
Audio:Built-in stereo speakers, mic and 3.5mm standard stereo headphone
Networking:Integrated dual band
WiFi 802.11b/g/n/ac and Bluetooth 4.0.
Software:Mac OS X El Capitan.
Expansion and Ports:1
USB-C 3.1 Gen. 1 port up to 5 Gbps (also used to charge the laptop) and 3.5mm combo audio jack.