72 Hours With the New MacBook

Courtesy Apple

Most laptops show up without much fanfare. Like desktop computers, they’re what many would consider a mature product category, with such a wide variety of models available, that the only choice that matters is how much you want to pay (and maybe which operating system you prefer). But during Apple’s last, watch-centric press event, the company spent precious minutes extolling the innovation behind the new MacBook. To accommodate its tablet-like 0.51-inch-thick body, the battery had to be split up into multiple, tiered packs scattered through the computer. When you press the trackpad, you get the same responsive click across its entire surface.

And its the first laptop from any manufacturer to use the new USB-C port, which can transfer data or power. That helps keep the total number of ports down to two — there’s a headphone jack on the opposite side. Would all of that minimalist, ultra-streamlined design make up for the relatively low-powered Intel Core M processor, a CPU more suited to tablets? We don’t try out many laptops, but this one demanded a thorough test drive.

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Day 1: The joys of unboxing a new piece of tech might be a YouTube cliché, but our first few minutes with the MacBook were giddy to the point of embarrassing. We showed it to everyone, made them feel its astonishing lack of weight for themselves, becoming the exact kind of Apple proselytizer that Cupertino no doubt hoped we would. Setting it up was as painless as can be expected of the company’s current crop of products, and particularly easy, in our case, because of existing backups of an older MacBook stored on an Airport Time Capsule. The entire contents of that defunct laptop transferred wirelessly to the new one in around three hours. This wasnt a surprise, since the seamless transition from Apple product to its successor is one of the company’s specialties. But it’s worth noting just how effortless the process still is.

Actually using the MacBook wasn’t quite so painless. The trackpad is as responsive as advertised, and the laptop’s genuinely shocking form factor makes it as easy to cart around the house as an iPad. It’s the keyboad that imposes a learning curve. This is true of many keyboards, but the MacBook’s keys are thin even by modern laptop standards, recessing into the frame with each press. Everything we typed was a mess, which encouraged us to simply stop trying. Maybe this computer isn’t just tablet-like in its dimensions, but just as difficult to use for writing stories, long emails, or anything else that requires a lot of input. This was troubling.

Day 2: After finding ourselves drifting to other products to type anything longer than a sentence or two, we forced ourselves to stick to the MacBook’s disconcerting keyboard. It’s not that the keys are small, in terms of surface area. They’re full size, just remarkably thin. The typos persisted, but the laptop’s other merits started to kick in. One of its selling features is a supposed 9-to-10-hour battery life, a number that rivals even full-size tablets, and that helps justify the lack of a dedicated power port (since you can’t, for example, keep it connected to an outlet while also attaching an external drive or similar device). That number seemed right on the money. An all-day mix of Web browsing, writing, and watching streaming video wasn’t enough to kill the battery. Having already kicked the bad habit of keeping our laptops plugged in at all times — since that’s a surefire way to shorten the total lifespan of your computer’s battery — we’re used to regularly plugging and unplugging over the course of a day. That wasn’t necessary with the MacBook. By the time it needed a charge, it was time for us to call it a night. This was troubling, for a very different reason. Going back to most laptops after the MacBook is going to feel like being shackled to the wall.

Day 3: The keyboard still didn’t feel perfect, but the learning curve was definitely surmountable. Our typos were now under control, and the prospect of typing exclusively on the MacBook wasn’t so daunting. When you look at other laptops, as well as laptop-like products like Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3 (with its keyboard case attached), it’s clear that keyboards are both destined and doomed to get thinner, and more unpleasant to use. Miniaturization has its drawbacks.

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By now, it’s also clear that the MacBook’s Intel Core M processor and Intel HD Graphics 5300 GPU are up to the task of everyday computing. Netflix and YouTube videos played without issue — and looked frankly amazing, on the 12-inch Retina display — browsing wasn’t noticeably slower than on more powerful machines, and the computer showed no signs of being hobbled by its chipset. Image and video editing were sluggish, but that’s to be expected of the average, non-premium laptop. The MacBook doesn’t supplant more powerful Macs or PCs, but then, Apple never claimed as much. Like the MacBook Air before it, the MacBook is designed to perform well enough for the majority of users, while being truly, even amazingly portable. We never ran into a task that ground the computer to a stammering halt, with the notable exception of games. But who in their right mind plays graphics-intensive video games on any Mac?

Ultimately, we can’t recommend the MacBook for everyone, because that’s not how laptops work. At $1,299 for the base model, this is a bona fide luxury product for most people. All of that component compression and redistribution comes with a premium. But if you travel regularly, and want or need to get actual work done while on the road, the MacBook is well worth the price. It’s also a far better video streaming device — because of the screen dimensions and resolution — than a tablet. While the performance won’t blow you away, it also won’t disappoint, the way many ultrabook PCs and Chromebooks inevitably will. And finally, if you’re unapologetically well-heeled, the MacBook is calling your name. Along with being light enough to replace your tablet for around-the-home use, this machine is a genuine showstopper. As the old cliché doesn’t actually go, sometimes it’s not what’s on the inside that counts, since you can read blogs and post to Twitter and Facebook on any computer. It’s how artfully you can condense what’s inside, into the thinnest, and prettiest outside possible.

If that sounds horribly shallow, head to the nearest Apple store, and hold this laptop for yourself. The MacBook doesn’t come cheap, but beauty rarely does.

[From $1,299; store.apple.com]

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