Astonishingly thin and light. 15+-hour battery life. Retina display offers crisp text and bright colors.
Connectivity is limited to a single USB port and a headphone jack. Components are not upgradeable after purchase.
- Bottom Line
The ever-slim Apple MacBook gets a faster processor and remains a battery life champ, but a persistent dearth of connectivity ports makes it unappealing compared with the similarly priced MacBook Pro and Windows competitors.
The Apple MacBook ($1,299), once an entry-level polycarbonate laptop, has gone decidedly upmarket in recent years. A 2017 refresh brings Intel's seventh-generation Kaby Lake processors to the 12-inch ultraportable, but little else has changed from last year's version. That includes its price and single USB-C port, which means that even though the MacBook has some appealing features—including a high-quality Retina display, astonishing thinness, and silent fanless cooling—it still falls short in overall value for the dollar. You'd do well to consider competitors like the Microsoft Surface Laptop, the Asus ZenBook 3, or Apple's own 13-inch MacBook Pro, all of which offer more connectivity options or better computing power.
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Extremely Thin and Light
Our review unit is Space Gray, an attractive finish that will make the aluminum notebook look at home in the classroom, board room, or pretty much anywhere in between. The color is uniform across the entire laptop, with the exception of the thin black bezel that surrounds the display and the black keyboard. If you'd like a little more flair, you can order it in Rose Gold or Gold—the MacBook is the only Apple laptop to come in these colors. Or you can chose Silver for a more traditional color scheme that evokes the MacBooks and MacBook Pros of previous generations.
Dimensions are the same as last year's model: 0.52 by 11.04 by 7.74 inches (HWD) and 2.03 pounds. Half an inch is already very thin, but the MacBook takes a design cue from the MacBook Air, sloping from back to front in a wedge shape that is even slimmer—0.14 inches—at its narrowest point. The 0.41-inch-thin HP Spectre 13 has the MacBook beat in terms of thinness, but at 2.41 pounds, it also weighs significantly more. Meanwhile, the LG gram 13 has a comparable weight to the MacBook, but its 13-inch display means it is a bit larger. At a very slight 1.97 pounds, the ZenBook 3 is the lightest of this bunch.
The MacBook's backlit keyboard comes with butterfly-style switches, which result in extremely shallow key travel that requires some getting used to. The sensation is similar to typing on a smartphone or tablet screen instead of a keyboard. The butterfly switches made their debut on the 2015 MacBook and were redesigned for the 13-inch and 15-inch MacBook Pros last year. This is the first MacBook to get the new version of the switches, and while they don't offer increased travel, they have a more satisfying sound that evokes the virtual clicking sounds of the iOS keyboard (as you'd expect from Apple's relentless pursuit of product synergy).
The large glass trackpad fills the space between the keyboard and the front edge, although it's nowhere near as large as the gargantuan pads on the MacBook Pro. The Force Touch trackpad has no physical buttons, instead employing haptic feedback to simulate clicks. Unlike the keyboard, however, Force Touch requires little acclimation if you're used to more conventional trackpads with physical clicking mechanisms, since its unique pressure-sensing capabilities can be turned off in macOS Sierra's System Preferences. Speaking of the operating system, you'll be able to upgrade to macOS High Sierra when Apple releases it this fall.
Despite the fact that it's not the highest-resolution 12-inch display you can buy, the MacBook's LED screen impresses with its brightness and clarity. Its native resolution is 2,304 by 1,440, which results in a 16:10 aspect ratio. It's an IPS panel, which means that the remarkable picture you see while sitting in front of it doesn't degrade much if you turn it to show a colleague what you're working on. Still, it didn't seem quite as bright as the screens on the 13-inch or 15-inch MacBook Pro (likely because the screen here is 340 nits, compared with 500 nits on the MacBook Pros), nor does it provide the wide P3 color gamut that you'll get from those screens or offer the 4K resolution of the 12-inch New Razer Blade Stealth.
The speakers are especially loud and clear for such a thin system, thanks in no small part to their placement in an upward-facing configuration above the keyboard. In testing, we didn't notice any distortion at the highest volume setting, but neither are they as loud as the larger speakers that flank the sides of the MacBook Pro's keyboard.
The single storage option for the $1,299 base unit is a 256GB SSD, while the memory can be doubled to 16GB for an additional $200. As with other Mac laptops, the storage, memory, and CPU aren't upgradable, which means you'll want to carefully consider the configuration you select if you plan to keep your MacBook for more than two years. The $1,599 model comes with a 512GB SSD and the same memory options.
Unfortunately, no MacBook configuration includes extra USB ports, which means you'll have to connect everything—including the charging cable—to the single USB Type C port on the left edge. The port shortage will likely require buying and carrying additional adapters, an inconvenience and additional expense for many different types of users, from travelers in hotel rooms with few electrical outlets who use their computers for phone charging to videographers who have multiple external hard drives. One of the better options is Apple's $69 USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter, which offers a port trifecta of USB-C, HDMI, and USB 3.0 Type A. The MacBook's USB-C port lacks Thunderbolt 3 support, which also means that you won't be able to use your legacy Thunderbolt and Thunderbolt 2 drives, even with an adapter. The only other connection is a headset jack on the right side.
We're sure that Apple's mechanical engineers have their reasons for including only one USB port, and one of its closest Windows competitors, the 12.5-inch Asus ZenBook 3, also includes just one. But if you don't mind a slightly larger screen, the HP Spectre 13 includes three USB-C ports in an even thinner chassis.
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Wireless connectivity options include Bluetooth 4.2 and 802.11ac Wi-Fi, and you'll find a 480p FaceTime camera above the display. The MacBook comes with 90 days of complimentary technical support and a one-year limited warranty.
A Battery Built to Last
The base model MacBook comes with a 1.2GHz Core m3 processor with integrated Intel HD Graphics 615 and 8GB of RAM. Along with the extra storage mentioned previously, the upgraded $1,599 model has a 1.3GHz Core i5 CPU with the same graphics. Various CPU and memory upgrades are available for both models for an additional charge.
While we can't run our suite of Windows-based tests on the system, the MacBook's Core m3 CPU did see it come up toward the back of the pack in our multimedia tests, which include timed video encoding and Photoshop filter runs. It completed our Handbrake video-encoding test in 2 minutes and 38 seconds, a bit slower than the Core i5-powered Microsoft Surface Laptop and the Core i7-powered ZenBook 3 which both had scores of 2:13. The MacBook completed the Photoshop image manipulation test in 3:46, a marked improvement over last year's Core m5-powered model, which took 5:24. That score was within a second of the Zenbook 3, but more than half a minute behind the Surface Laptop. For processor-intensive tasks like image or video editing, you'll want to choose an upgraded Core i5 or Core i7 processor.
Like most laptops with integrated graphics, the MacBook isn't conducive to gaming. It achieved an average of 17.3 frames per second (fps) on the Heaven gaming benchmark with medium graphics quality settings, and 19fps on the similar Valley test. Thirty frames per second is generally regarded as the minimum standard for an enjoyable gaming experience, although you'll still be able to play Minecraft and other less-demanding titles.
MacBooks have long excelled at battery life, and this year's is no different, lasting 15 hours and 36 minutes on our rundown test. That's five hours longer than last year's model, and among the best of any laptop we've tested recently. It's comparable to the LG gram 14 (15:40), and Microsoft Surface Laptop (16:44), and significantly longer than the New Razer Blade Stealth (9:27). If you do opt for the more power-hungry Core i7 or Core i5 processors and tax them frequently with demanding applications, though, be aware that you could see significantly shorter battery life.
Portability Above All Else
A long-lasting battery is a nice thing for watching movies on long flights, but on the MacBook, it becomes a necessity regardless of how far you are from a power outlet if you don't want the added expense and hassle of adapters. Now that the 13-inch MacBook Pro looks similar to the MacBook but adds an additional USB port and a better screen (not to mention a more powerful Core i5 processor) for the same $1,299 price, the reasons for choosing a MacBook instead are dwindling.
Unless you are a Mac user who values portability above all else and are fine with shelling out the extra cash for a dock or adapter, we recommend taking a look at the 13-inch MacBook Pro, which we'll have a review for in the coming days. If you don't mind hopping the aisle over to a Windows machine, the HP Spectre 13 is thinner and offers more connectivity, and our ultraportable Editors' Choice, the New Razer Blade Stealth, has a high-resolution touch display and costs $300 less.
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Tom is a hardware analyst. He previously covered the consumer tech beat as a PCMag news reporter in San Francisco and Silicon Valley. Before that, he got his start in tech journalism at Computer Shopper, reviewing the latest hard drives, keyboards, and more. In his spare time, he's written on topics as diverse as Borneo's rain forests, Middle Eastern airlines, and big data's role in presidential elections. A graduate of Middlebury College, Tom also has a master's degree in journalism and French Studies from New… More »
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