Review : Retina 12-inch MacBook (Early 2016)

Apple's 12-inch MacBook is the ultimate ultra-portable Mac

MacNN Rating:

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Product Manufacturer: Apple

Price: From $1,299, as tested $1,299

The Good

  • Excellent design and build quality
  • Packed full of innovative technology
  • Outstanding Retina display
  • Ultra-portable nirvana

The Bad

  • No upgrade to USB-C port
  • Relatively minor gains in performance
Apple has given us its first Mac hardware update for the year, and it has come in the form of a refreshed Retina 12-inch MacBook. First introduced around this time last year, the 12-inch MacBook has certainly not been without controversy since its introduction with Apple heralding it as its vision for the "future of the notebook." What makes the MacBook unique in Apple's Mac lineup is that it is the first all-new MacBook the company has introduced in the past few years, and it takes many of the lessons that Apple has learnt in making its mobile devices and applied these in making what it believes is the ultimate ultra-portable notebook. The new model continues with the all-new Apple-designed keyboard with butterfly mechanism, and single USB-C port, but has some new Intel silicon in tow. So how does it perform?

Design and build quality

The Retina 12-inch MacBook is the very definition of a lust-worthy notebook design. It is ultra-compact, ultra-slim, is made from aluminum, and has a stunning edge-to-edge glass-covered Retina display with narrow bezels and a backlit keyboard. It just screams "premium" and, naturally, carries a price to match. Perhaps some of the angst that this notebook has caused is that it is just so damn attractive that everyone wants one, even though its use case is not suitable for everyone, and it is on the expensive side. It's sleek lines, narrow profile and four color options (silver, space gray, gold and now rose gold), are designed with Apple's theme of making technology personal, and more engaging by being more accessorizable. It's compact, iPad-like footprint, and light weight at just two pounds, is easy to carry around and use on the go.



The build quality is immaculate, as you would expect from Apple, and for a device at this price point. You could comb this device with a magnifying glass and would be hard-pressed to find and flaws in its construction. You can tell that Apple has taken particular care, for example, with color-matching the glass track pad for each model, and that screws are only used as a last resort. This is an ultra-portable that road warriors can hit the road with and feel reassured that they are going to get a long run out of it. The anodized aluminum finish is the best in the business, and we found it highly resilient. There are few, if any, PC makers that are able to design and build notebooks the way that Apple does.



Display

The refreshed 12-inch MacBook continues with the ground-breaking, ultra-thin 2304x1440 IPS LCD Retina display Apple introduced last year. It is the thinnest display package Apple has ever fitted in a MacBook, at just 0.88mm, and the most power-efficient as well. Apple increased the pixel apertures on this Retina display by 30 percent, which means that 30 percent more light passes though from the LED backlight at any level of brightness. This has resulted in a 30 percent improvement in its overall efficiency, and is a major contributor to the excellent 10 hours of battery life that you can get out of new latest MacBook. The size provides an adequate work space for someone looking to do Office-style productivity, but doesn't want the added bulk and/or footprint of a 13-inch device. Viewing movies, web and other content on its display is simply a fantastic experience that is very well complimented by its immersive speaker system.



Performance

Apple has updated the 12-inch Retina MacBook (Early 2016) with the latest sixth-generation Intel "Skylake" Core M chips. Like the fifth-generation "Broadwell" Core M parts that they replace, the new chips are built on Intel's advanced 14nm process, and draw just five watts of power in normal use. Such a low thermal design profile means that this MacBook, just as with last year's model, offers a fanless design. The tiny logic board, which is 67 percent smaller than the logic board in the 11-inch MacBook Air (and which builds on lessons learnt from the iPhone and iPad logic boards), is seated on top of an anisotropic graphite sheet that helps to disperse heat out to the sides.



The new Core M chips get new names as well, bringing them into line with Intel's Core family nomenclature. As such, the three new chips available to MacBook customers pick up the Core m3, m5 and m7 designations, to signify their relative performance. The Core m3 part is clocked at 1.1GHz, with Turbo Boost up to 2.2GHz; the Core m5 part is clocked 1.2GHz, with Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz; and the Core m7 part is clocked at 1.3GHz, with Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz. The LPDDR3 RAM is now also faster, clocked at 1866MHz, up from 1600MHz previously.



Although this represents a new architecture, the new Intel Core m3 part does not offer much of a performance gain over the previous equivalent Core M component from last year's 12-inch MacBook. This can be seen in our performance benchmarks, suggesting that Intel really is having some troubles making those bigger performance jumps that it has been able to achieve with its x86 architecture than in the past. That said, there are some gains made in multi-core performance, and bigger gains with Turbo Boost in these new components. Interestingly, as you will note, Apple's A9X ARM-based chip in the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is still appreciably more powerful than the latest Intel Core m3 x86-based processor.



The same can be said for the gains made with the new Intel integrated HD 515 GPU, which supersedes the Intel HD 5300. As you can see from the GPU-intensive Cinebench R15 benchmark, the new Intel chip makes for an approximately 20 percent gain. It seems like a lot on paper, 20 percent, but when you are starting from a low base, it only amounts to around about a 2fps improvement. It is still good enough to play a game like Minecraft in your downtime, but nothing too graphically demanding. The HD 515 GPU in the Core m5 and Core m7 models deliver some step changes with clock speed, but again this might only add another few percent in performance. The real gains with these new Intel parts are in battery efficiency.

Storage

The overall system architecture is very important when it comes to the total performance of any computer. As we found with our review of the 4K iMac, it's nice having a fast CPU/GPU and fast RAM, but if your storage is slow, it acts as a significant performance bottleneck. On this occasion, while Apple might have been limited somewhat by the gains that Intel has been able to achieve with the latest Core M chips, it has upgraded the already fast PCIe-based flash storage found in the original MacBook with a much faster type. According to Apple, the new flash storage on the 12-inch MacBook (Early 2016) delivers sequential read gains of 20 percent, while sequential write performance is up to 90 percent faster. This is a huge gain, particularly when it comes to write performance. Most boosts like this typically come in the area of reads, rather than writes.



As you can see in the BlackMagic Design Disk Speed Test below, the new 12-inch MacBook does indeed perform much better than last year's model. So while CPU and GPU gains might be relatively limited, the combined overall gains -- when disk speed is taken into account -- make for a more responsive overall experience. Apps will launch faster, software updates will download and install faster, while other tasks like encoding iTunes files, for example, will also be noticeably faster.

While we don't know what internal benchmarks Apple is using to provide estimates of these performance gains, it is certainly quite clear that there are dramatic gains in the performance of the Toshiba NAND flash storage in the latest 12-inch MacBook. As before, storage capacities on offer remain the same, with the entry model equipped with 256GB of flash storage, and the high-end model equipped with 512GB of flash storage.



Keyboard and trackpad

The keyboard in the 12-inch MacBook has been a sticking point for some since it was introduced. Apple designed this keyboard from the ground up, developing an all-new butterfly mechanism with short travel and low profile, but exceptional stability. With 30 percent larger keys than normal, it also makes it much easier to hit your target, and type accurately at speed. It definitely takes some adjusting to, no question; however, we have come to find typing on it second nature.



Its new precision backlighting, with an individual LED light dedicated to each key, is also much improved and less intrusive for people who might be sitting nearby on an airplane, for example. We are not suggesting, though, that Apple should include this keyboard on its next generation of MacBook Pros -- for this class of notebook, something similar to the new Magic Keyboard, with its refined scissor mechanism, is probably still preferable.



The Force Touch trackpad remains a marvel of technology. Apple has always excelled when it comes to trackpad performance and feel. It has eschewed multi-touch notebook displays in favor of larger trackpads that support multi-touch gestures instead, with excellent results. The Force Touch trackpad is highly innovative, and leads the competition by a long way. As the notebook has such a low profile, particularly at the front, a traditional dive-board mechanism would not work. As a result, Apple's engineers transferred the Taptic Engine technology from the Apple Watch over to create the Force Touch trackpad.



It still blows the mind that what feels to like two levels of physical clicking is actually haptic feedback creating the illusion of a "clicking" sensation through the ultrafast lateral movement of the trackpad towards you. Yet, in addition to the new functionality offered by Force Touch, the trackpad also works as an accelerator in apps like iMovie, and offers the ability to accept pressure-sensitive drawing input, which comes in handy when signing documents, for example. It is a very versatile piece of technology, and one that is now across all the major notebooks in Apple's MacBook line up.

Connectivity

Another sticking point for some is that the 12-inch MacBook was launched with just a single USB-C port that also does double duty as a method for charging the device, and Apple hasn't budged on this approach. Why? Because the 12-inch MacBook really needs to be thought of more as the first all-wireless MacBook -- a device that happens to have a power port that, as a bonus, can be used as a data port in a pinch.

With fast wireless 802.11ac connectivity, users are meant to take advantage of all of Apple's wireless protocols, including AirDrop (for sharing data), AirPlay (for sharing presentations), AirPrint (for printing), and Time Machine for wireless back ups and recovery. With Continuity built in, making it easy to switch between your iPhone, iPad and Mac for your workflow, why do you really need a data port? Traditional Mac users are often befuddled about this, but we think those who choose the MacBook already "get it."



We ask this question slightly in jest, as the reality, of course, is that people still rely on USB thumb drives for transporting and sharing files, even if those in Cupertino have moved on with all of their high speed Wi-Fi connections. So, yes, it still can be a small pain to have to carry around the USB-A to USB-C adapter, as we do still need to use it from time to time. SanDisk, for example, offers a nifty thumb drive that supports both a USB-A and USB-C connector, which drops the need for the adapter; but if you can keep track of all your thumb drives, you're better people than us.



Still, it would have been nice if Apple had upgraded the USB-C port beyond the USB 3.1 gen-one spec, which is capped at a 5Gbps throughput. It would have been even nicer if it could have found a way to include Thunderbolt 3 as well, as some were hoping, although it is unclear whether Intel's Core M chips can indeed actually support the standard. Again though, we wonder whether this is really the right way to think about this MacBook -- are we guilty of trying to fit its rectangular form factor into a round hole? Given that it won't be the primary device for most of its customer base, does it really need this sort of wired connectivity anyway, when it has been built for an increasingly-wireless world?

Software and built-in apps

One of the things that is easy for customers to fail to factor into the value proposition of Apple's products is that you get free software updates when it comes to each new major release, and with Macs in particular, fairly extended support at that. While not everyone is absolutely delighted with each of these updates (the dumbing down of Disk Utility in OS X El Capitan, for example), at least you know that you are running on the most secure and stable mainstream desktop operating system on the market. With the Mac App Store in tow, there is not a lot that Mac users miss out as they once did, when compared with PC users.



Speaking of apps, the collection that Apple includes as standard on any Mac is still the best in the industry as well. While people might have a personal preference for Microsoft Office over Apple's Pages and Numbers apps, for example, it is nice to know that you can pick up your 12-inch MacBook and start using it productively straight out of the box. Even today, there are still few, if any, PC apps that match Apple's iMovie, GarageBand, and Photos apps, which are not only powerful, but very easy to use. Did we mention that these are included free? So while the 12-inch MacBook might look a little pricey for some, you really need to factor the software experience into the equation (not to mention Apple's outstanding customer support), before you think you might be getting a better deal elsewhere.

Conclusion

There is a lot more to the Retina 12-inch MacBook (Early 2016) than the addition of the rose gold color. Apple has given just about every key component in the overall system architecture an upgrade, from (slightly) faster chips, to (notably) faster RAM and faster storage, all while adding an extra hour to battery life into the bargain.

The changes introduced for this generation are, admittedly, not earth-shattering -- if you already own the first-gen model, there is nothing here that screams you are due for an update. Let's not forget, however, that the original 12-inch MacBook introduced just last year introduced many firsts for Apple and the industry, including an all-new keyboard, an all-new trackpad, an all-new terraced battery design, while it is also the first all-aluminum MacBook, and the first fanless MacBook. So, to expect something revolutionary out of the box for this update is just not realistic.

The only disappointment, perhaps, with the 2016 iteration of the MacBook is that Apple didn't find a way to add Thunderbolt 3 support, or boost the USB-C connector beyond the gen-one 5Gbps spec. As we have pointed out, however, the 12-inch MacBook is really all about wireless connectivity -- for all intents and purposes, the physical port is there primarily to keep it charged, and with the 10-hour normal-use battery life, you'll barely even need it for that.

The 12-inch MacBook is still not for everyone, which is much like the MacBook Air when it was first introduced. That alone shouldn't warrant criticism -- it is built with a particular audience in mind. For that group of users, those who want an ultra-light traditional notebook reengineered for the post-PC age, the Retina 12-inch MacBook is very close to ultra-portable nirvana.

-- Sanjiv Sathiah