Apple MacBook Retina 12in (early 2016) review

Apple’s latest ultraportable laptop didn’t quite tickle us pink

Price
£1,083
  • Very lengthy battery life; Large and very responsive touchpad; Light yet sturdy; Sharp, bright and non-reflective screen
  • No Thunderbolt 3; Keyboard and wireless-centric design won’t suit everyone

Apple has always taken an iconoclastic approach to hardware design and last year's 12in MacBook Retina was no different. The ultra thin laptop's radically redesigned keyboard and the presence of only one port - a lone USB Type-C socket - made it quite unlike any ultra portable laptop we'd seen before.

Given that the MacBook's design has only been on the market for a little over a year, it was always unlikely that we'd see a radical redesign in this latest version. What hasn't changed is thus just as interesting as what has.

What's changed

The 12in Retina MacBook was the first of Apple's laptops to become available in a range of colours - the same range of colours that are available for iPhones and iPads. This year's MacBook is now available in pink alongside the previously available grey, gold and silver. The pink and gold will be especially divisive options - you'll either love them or hate them. They're not garish though, to our eyes at least, and are nothing if not distinctive and eye-catching.

Last year's MacBook came with a Broadwell-class Intel Core M processor. This year's model has Skylake-class Intel Core M chips which give a relatively modest 20% speed boost over its predecessor. They're fast enough for the vast majority of everyday office productivity tasks, but they're not well-suited for demanding tasks such as video editing.

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The underside can become noticeably warm when the processor is tackling strenuous tasks, but never hot enough to become uncomfortable. This is all the more notable given the totally silent fanless design of this laptop.

There are two configurations available - a 1.1GHz Core m3 (which can turbo boost to 2.2GHz) with 8GB of RAM and a 256GB SSD for 1,049 inc VAT (874 ex VAT). The 1,299 (1,083 ex VAT) option has the same amount of memory, but has a 1.2GHz Core m5 that can turbo boost to 2.7GHz and a 512GB SSD.

totally silent fanless design

The performance jump from the Core m3 to the Core m5 is negligible, but we think it's still just about worth paying for the Core m5 variant if you can. It not only gives you a measure of future proofing, but larger local storage - you can't upgrade the SSD yourself or even choose a larger option for the m3 variant when ordering from Apple

Bafflingly, the m5 variant is almost as limited - you can't specify more memory or a larger SSD when ordering although you can choose a faster Core m7 processor. If you want the benefits of more storage and memory, then you'll need to step up to Apple's slightly heavier but more generously equipped MacBook Pro Retina range.

Apple claims the increased efficiency of both the new Skylake Core m processors and its tweaked screen backlighting lead to an extra hour of battery life. We were a little sceptical about this, so we were pleasantly surprised to see an extra hour of battery life across all of our tests compared to last year's MacBook. Both the Core m3 and m5 variants managed just over ten hours when playing video on a loop and just over 12 hours when scrolling through a web page repeatedly, while occasionally playing a video. You shouldn't have any trouble getting through a working day on a single charge.

Last year's MacBook come preinstalled with MacOS X 10.10 Yosemite, while this year's model comes with MacOS X 10.11 El Capitan. It's actually an effective non-difference though as El Capitan is available as a free download for existing Mac users anyway.

We've already covered most of the major new El Capitan features in our review of the 4K 21.5in iMac, but one feature that's particularly relevant to the 12in Retina MacBook is the ability to have two full-screen apps on screen simultaneously, side-by-side. That might sound and look silly, but it helps squeeze every pixel of usable space out of the relatively cramped 12in screen.

What hasn't changed

Aside from the new pink colour option, the MacBook's metal casing is otherwise unchanged. It's still thinner than most magazines and newspapers, yet remains remarkably rigid and robust with only the lid flexing under pressure. It weighs a waif-like 920g.

The slenderness of the casing does mean a dearth of ports, with only a single USB-C port and a 3.5mm headphone jack. USB-C is used not only for connecting external devices, but also for video output and for recharging the battery.

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Apple may have a vision of totally wireless computing, but for now most of us will need a gaggle of adapters to use existing peripherals with this MacBook or just for the ability to connect a USB drive while also charging the battery.

We still miss the MagSafe magnetic charging connector from the MacBook Air and Pro laptops. With the USB-C charging cable, there's always the possibility that someone could possibly trip over it and drag your laptop crashing down to the floor. On the other hand, you can recharge this laptop on the go using a USB power bank with the appropriate adapter cable.

Oddly, the USB-C port isn't also a Thunderbolt 3 port - the latest version of Thunderbolt uses the same Type-C plug and connector design as USB-C, instead of Mini DisplayPort like previous versions of Thunderbolt.

This means Thunderbolt 3 ports are also USB-C ports and Thunderbolt 3 on the Retina MacBook could've been a boon to users who need to connect very high speed storage devices while on the go or at multiple workplaces. Given that Thunderbolt 3 is natively supported by most Skylake processors, either the Core m chipset controller doesn't support it or Apple deliberately decided to exclude it. Whatever the reason, it's a notable absence and a blow for the Apple-designed and supported connection standard.

The 12in Retina screen is just as dazzlingly bright as ever with great colour accuracy, contrast and wide viewing angles. Although it has a resolution of 2304x1440 pixels, by default it only displays the same amount of text as a 1280x800 screen. That text is razor sharp though, which makes for easy reading. Graphics in Retina-compatible apps are displayed at their full resolution.

You can change this default Retina behaviour using third-party utilities and opt for more conventional resolutions - 1440x900 is a good compromise, giving more working space while still retaining a measure of the Retina-level text crispness while still remaining legible. Regardless, the screen is remarkably good at keeping glare at bay - even when used under office strip lighting which usually causes distracting reflections and glare on many other laptop screens.

As with last year's model, it's likely you'll need to acclimatise to the keyboard. Although the backlit keys are large and give plenty of feedback when pressed, the keys have very little travel compared to most standard laptop keyboards. It takes getting used to, especially if you have a heavy, pounding typing style, but after a short adjustment period we were able to type as quickly, comfortably and accurately as we could on any other good laptop keyboard.

The MacBook's touchpad is as great as ever and remains one of the best we've used. Its smoothness, accuracy and the high responsiveness of its slick multitouch gestures will be a revelation if you're only used to some of the truly dire and mediocre Windows laptop touchpads available.

Conclusions

The 12in Retina MacBook isn't for everyone. If you value portability and battery life above all and predominately use wireless peripherals as well as cloud apps and storage, then this MacBook will be a great fit. If you use lots of demanding applications, need to connect lots of wired peripherals or just can't get on with the low-travel keyboard, then one of Apple's more conventional MacBooks will be a better choice.

The MacBook is a great ultra-portable laptop, but it's designed for an all-wireless future that most of us just aren't living in yet.

Verdict

As expected, the latest 12in Macbook is a mild iteration of last year’s model. It’s a good ultra portable, but if you didn’t like last year’s version then you won’t like this one either

ProcessorDual-core 1.2GHz Intel Core M5 (Turbo Boost to 2.7GHz)
RAM8GB
Dimensions280x197x13.1mm
Weight920g
Screen size12in
Screen resolution2,304x1,440
Graphics adaptorIntel Graphics 515
Total storage512GB
Operating systemOS X 10.10 El Capitan
Parts and labour warrantyOne year RTB
Detailswww.apple.com/uk
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