Apple MacBook 2016 Review: Thin, light and lovely

Alex Kidman 9 May 2016

MacBook_Gold_450

Apple’s latest update to its MacBook lines scores highly for ease of use and battery life, but you’ll pay heavily for the privilege.

Put Apple’s 2016 MacBook next to its 2015 MacBook and you might be hard put to spot the differences, save for the fact that the MacBook now comes in additional colours. Alongside the traditional MacBook Air/Pro Silver, you can order the MacBook in Gold, Space Grey and Rose Gold finishes, in effect matching the existing iPhone 6s/6s Plus colour schemes.

Apple very much positions the MacBook as the luxury portable MacBook option, with a single small and light screen size on offer. The key differences in this year’s MacBook crop occur under the hood, where the latest generation of Intel’s Core M processors, faster Flash storage and claimed longer battery life are the key upgrade selling features. Here’s how the specifications of the two primary MacBook models compare:

ModelMacBook 1.1Ghz Core m3MacBook 1.2Ghz Core m5
Display12in12in
Resolution2304x14402304x1440
Pixels per inch226ppi226ppi
Weight920g920g
Camera480p FaceTime Camera480p FaceTime Camera
Processor1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core m3 processor1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core m5 processor
Memory8GB8GB
Storage256GB512GB
Battery41.4 watt-hour lithium polymer41.4 watt-hour lithium polymer
SoftwareMac OS X El CapitanMac OS X El Capitan
Price$1,999$2,449

MacBookRG_450

Upsides: Why you’d want the MacBook

  • You need a thin and light Mac OS device: The MacBook Air is no slouch in the portability stakes, but the MacBook takes it to the next level, with a very thin, very easily carried design.
  • Excellent build quality: You should expect that at this asking price, but it’s worth stating again. The MacBook feels like a quality item because it is; while you might expect some flex in such a thin laptop, there’s very little in reasonable use scenarios.
  • Good keyboard: Smaller laptops often struggle with keyboards that cram in tiny unresponsive keys. The MacBook’s flattened keyboard does have a learning curve to it, but it also has large, responsive keys that can take some high speed thumping and keep on working.
  • Great battery life: A thinner device means that there’s less space to include batteries. This has been an issue for iPhones for years -- most recently with the iPhone SE -- but nobody told the MacBook design team that. Given its relative lack of size we weren’t expecting much, but we were very pleasantly surprised with the MacBook’s battery life. Looping 1080p video at full screen brightness and with Wi-Fi enabled, the MacBook lasted a very respectable 11 hours and 15 minutes in our timed battery test. Here’s how that compares to other thin and light portable/hybrid devices running the same test:
    DeviceLooped Video Battery Life
    Microsoft Surface Pro 4 (Core i5)8:26
    Samsung Galaxy TabPro S11:10
    Apple MacBook 201611:15
  • USB C upsides: Like the previous generation MacBook, Samsung Galaxy TabPro S and a growing number of smartphones, the MacBook isn’t equipped with heaps of interfaces. You essentially get two; a standard headphone jack and a single USB C port that acts as both the power input and external device connector. USB C uses a bidirectional plug, so you can’t plug in anything the wrong way around, and it has the potential upside of significantly faster data throughput rates than USB 3.0, although compatible devices are thin on the ground right now. As it was last year, buying a MacBook is an exercise in future proofing.

MacBookS_450

Downsides: Why you might not want the MacBook

  • The coloured variants are very bright: Apple supplied us with the rose gold MacBook option, and it’s not going to be the right choice for you if you’re not relatively ostentatious. Mind you, one of our in-house fashion experts described it as "having serious sexual appeal", so clearly tastes can vary on this score.
  • Mid-range performance: The MacBook attracts a premium price, but for that money you’re still only getting mid-range performance. That’s the trade-off for the battery life being as good as it is, but it means that if you do push your laptop hard, this isn’t the right choice.
  • USB C is limited (right now): As noted, there aren’t too many USB C peripherals available right now, but the issues with a single interface can go a little wider than that. Obviously you can’t charge the MacBook and connect an external device, and some peripherals (most notably Apple’s own Thunderbolt displays) are difficult to connect properly. Connecting many devices will involve buying external connection adaptors just to get started.
  • Be ready to live in the cloud: The complexity of external storage and lack of ports means that the MacBook remains a good choice only if you’re happy storing most of your content in the cloud.

Who is it best suited for? What are my other options?

There’s no doubting that the MacBook is the "style" option in the MacBook family, as well as being exceptionally portable. If that sounds like your kind of laptop, and you’re happy with its limitations and price, it’s a superbly built machine with plenty of eye catching design for the price.

Within the Apple family, you’ve only got two other choices, both of which target slightly different markets. The MacBook Pro line is significantly heavier with larger displays and heftier processors, so if the MacBook didn’t suit your processing power needs, that would be the way to go.

If you don’t need high end performance and want a light device, Apple’s cheaper MacBook Air line, which not that many years ago was itself the pricey "premium" design over the old plastic MacBook design would be a better fit.

If Mac OS isn’t your thing, there are many ultrabook style designs to choose from, as well as hybrid designs such as Samsung’s Galaxy TabPro S or Microsoft’s Surface Book or Surface Pro 4 to consider as well.

Where can I get it?

Apple sells the MacBook directly through its online store, through its own retail outlets and selected retailers, with pricing varying from $1,999 upwards depending on internal configuration.

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