MacBook review (early 2015) - Tech's Message special (text and audio)
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“Why is the new MacBook better than an iPad Air with a decent keyboard, particularly when the Mac costs twice as much?”
That’s the question I’ve been trying to answer during the last two weeks of using Apple’s new 2015 MacBook. Its gold exterior, at least in the case of my review sample, works in partnership with its ridiculous lack of thickness to make you feel like the centre of attention amongst colleagues. It’s what Apple expertly demonstrates time and time again — produce products with designs that cause mouths to expand. But in this case, as is so often the case, it also lengthens the effect with price. “A thousand quid? That’s more than a MacBook Air!” some mouths ultimately splutter. “That’s enough to buy a MacBook Pro”.
In fact, the entry-level MacBook, featuring a 1.1GHz Intel Core M processor, 8GB of RAM and 256GB of storage, costs more than every MacBook Air currently on sale. And to drizzle some sodium into the proverbial gash, it’s nowhere near as powerful as the Air; nor does it offer the Air’s connectivity such as USB 2.0 or Thunderbolt to support Apple’s own Thunderbolt display. Its integrated Intel 5300 graphics are sub-par compared to the Air’s use of Intel’s 6000 series graphics, and even its front-facing camera has been reduced from 720p on the Air to standard-def 480p.
It’s a product of bizarre paradoxes: it lacks the power, connectivity and lower price of the MacBook Air; but the resulting focus on just the essentials belies its fitting comparison to the iPad Air by costing more money than them all.
It really is a difficult argument to have with yourself for two straight weeks: “How is this justified? Why would I not be better with either an iPad Air and pair it with a keyboard, or spend the same cash on a MacBook Air?” And I have no one-size-fits-all answer.
MacBook versus iPad
What two weeks of daily usage has taught me is that this 12-inch, fanless slice of aluminium feels not like what an iPad Air is today with a keyboard, but tomorrow’s oft-rumoured iPad Air Pro with a keyboard. It’s uncanny how this device feels like the screen should be detachable in order to function as a large iPad; how it should connect to the thin little golden keyboard using some sort of uniquely-named Apple magnet technology.
What sets it apart initially from the iPad Air is the two-inch larger screen, the ability to properly multi-task (something the iPad really can’t do in a work environment as comfortably as a laptop), the half-terabyte internal storage options, the full size keyboard and gesture-supporting trackpad. It’s just better with those things, and as someone who’s normally tethered at the hip to an iPad during 9-5, I can say this with confidence. It’s just better than an iPad at multi-tasking.
But so is a MacBook Air, and that costs £300 less, and is more powerful. And has better connectivity. And graphics. And is comparably portable still. Yes, all true. For me, I discovered that I didn’t need any of the connectivity while I was reviewing it: my iPhone syncs over Wi-Fi, my daily photos come from my iPhone or iPad and so sync wirelessly to the MacBook too. I also didn’t need to connect it to a larger monitor because I was deliberately using it as a portable little notebook and not a workstation replacement.
In return I had a smaller device to carry around, even versus the MacBook Air. I did away with the cooling fan, meaning I got to use a laptop that was completely silent no matter how hard I hammered its processor. I got a high-resolution Retina display, which the MacBook Air lacks currently. And I still got good battery life, lasting from 8am to 7pm on a single charge one day. During this time I used it for Evernote in several meetings, some light web browsing, a bit of Logic Pro X to review the edit of a podcast, some short audio encoding of a completed podcast edit; I was tethered to 4G all day while I used Safari, updated my Reminders app, downloaded some apps and updates, and used Final Cut Pro X for some basic single-clip edits. I also sent a bunch of emails and left the machine idle for a couple of hours in total too. In short, a decent full work day on battery power alone.
The hidden fact here is performance. There’s no way to hide it from a review: this is not a powerful computer. While it can technically multi-task, it does so at a snail’s pace. It has enough RAM to ensure demanding apps can function, but it does not have the processing power to make the function quickly.
Apps take a couple of seconds longer to load, for example. Boot-up times, while still quick, are noticeably longer than on Apple’s other laptops.
I tested the graphics performance with the Elder Scrolls Online — a relatively new fantasy video game. I could get to a playable 20 frames-per-second, but I had to set the game to play at a low resolution and with almost all graphical flourishes, such as shadows and advanced lighting, turned off. It allowed me to wander around the fantasy landscape over a lunchtime sandwich, but only the truly dedicated fantasy gamer would consider this fun. Older games, such as Half-Life 2, ran very well at even high graphics settings. If your games library hovers around 2004-era titles, consider the MacBook an adequate little gaming machine for your lunchtime escapism.
To briefly talk in numbers, the MacBook scored 4,531 in my GeekBench benchmarking test, which grades a device’s performance using a number of tests. For comparison, a recent MacBook Air gets between 5,500 and 6,300; a MacBook Pro can get above 11,000.
Here’s the fun fact: when I reviewed Apple’s iPad Air 2, it scored 4,484. Now it should be noted that we are not comparing apples to apples (so to speak); the Mac and iPad use completely different architectures, processors, graphics chips and memory. But it is at least interesting to see such similar overall performance output scores between the two systems. It made my ability to differentiate the two just that little harder.
But as the fabled short-changed gentleman once said: it’s not what you’ve got that matters, it’s what you can do with it. In this case, the MacBook’s iPad-like horsepower and fanless design gives me the ability to multi-task and be as productive as I need to be, while preventing me from thinking I’m carrying around anything bulkier than an iPad with a keyboard case attached. It comes at a price, yes, but the selling point versus the MacBook Air is the larger, higher-resolution screen, and the big trackpad that doesn’t feel cramped in the way going from MacBook Pro to MacBook Air does.
It’s an expensive machine but only relatively so while the MacBook Air stays on sale. It’s clear this model is technically superior in most ways to the Air and I would begin counting down the days to the Air’s demise. If I was a betting man I’d say we’re less than 12 months away from the 12-inch MacBook and a future 14-inch version replacing the 11-inch and 13-inch MacBook Airs respectively. A price drop is inevitable and would allow Apple to have a £899 12-inch MacBook sitting underneath the entry-level £999 13-inch MacBook Pro.
Today though it’s something of an expensive anachronism — the future of Apple’s consumer laptops that only look out of place out of place while customers breathe the final Air.