12-inch MacBook review: 2016 Skylake update

Rene with gold 12-inch MacBook
(Image: © iMore)


MacBooks (Image credit: iMore)

2016 update

The 2016 MacBook has a new rose gold finish, Intel's new Core M "Skylake" processor, and faster flash storage. Rather than simply list out the changes, I'm updating the original review to include them. That way, if you're thinking about buying a 12-inch MacBook today, you still get the full picture. If all you want is the updates, though, you can jump right to them:

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When The Terminator first arrives in our time, it's naked. The lesson learned is this — you can have the future right here, right now, You just can't have anything extraneous along with it. So too, the new — and now newly updated — 12-inch MacBook.

Every few years Apple likes to redefine what it means to be a laptop. The company has done it with plastics and metals, by passing around unibodies and pulling them out of envelopes. Drives have come and gone and so have ports. With this latest 12-inch MacBook, even the constants of screen, keyboard, and trackpad have changed. They've gone Retina, butterfly, and Force Touch respectively. Each of the changes represent a relentless desire to drive technology forward. The only question is whether or not those changes, and the MacBook itself, are suited for you today?

12-inch MacBook Video Review

Rather watch than read? Give us just under three minutes and we'll give you the newly updated 12-inch MacBook.

For people who want:

  • Simplicity and ultra-portability.
  • Fanless, noiseless operations.
  • Tomorrow's technology today.
  • Premium experience over price.

Not for people who want:

  • High-performance processors or graphics.
  • A large number and variety of ports.
  • Deep, clackity keyboards.
  • Low, low pricing.

In brief

For years people have been asking for a Mac that was more like an iPad. Well, here it is. Still not a touchscreen, still running OS X, and with a price as cutting edge as its technology. But as mobile as an iPad in all the ways that matter.

12-inch MacBook Design

Picking up the new 12-inch MacBook makes one thing instantly clear — you're holding something new. It's not the first time Apple's pulled this trick, and we really should have come to expect it by now, but when you see how clean the lines are, how gorgeous the finishes look, how strong and yet light the unibody feels, it resets the bar and makes everything else instantly feel chunky, wobbly, and old.

It does take some getting used to, though. The first few times I picked up the new MacBook I found myself accidentally depressing keys — there's almost no bezel on the sides. After a few stray deletions, tabs, quotes, and slashes, I switched to grabbing it lower down, at trackpad level, or from underneath.

When you do hold it, you get a palpable sense of just how small the new MacBook really is. It weighs 2 pounds. That's about the weight of the original iPad with a case on it. It's also only 13.1 mm thick. That makes the MacBook the lightest, thinnest laptop Apple has ever sold, and for everyone who remembers Steve Jobs sliding the original MacBook Air out of an envelope, that's saying something.

More remarkably, the thinness and lightness doesn't come at the price of solidity. The new MacBook is still a unibody, like the last major MacBook redesign, and still comes with all the structural benefits of being formed from a single piece of aluminum. It is, however, a new and improved unibody.

Here's how it looks compared to Apple's 13-inch MacBook Air and Pro.

It's smaller than both those machines, obviously, but the 12-inch MacBook also manages to look smaller than the 11-inch MacBook Air as well.

The differences are easy to see. Gone is the plastic that used to cover the hinge on the back, for example; it's metal now all the way up. That makes the MacBook feel even more like a singular object.

The all-new anodized aluminum finishes make it look that way as well. They're available in all the same colors as iPhone and iPad, including space gray, silver, gold, and — new for 2016 — rose gold.

All the rose gold

Rose gold debuted with iPhone 6s and Apple Watch sport and this spring came to the 9.7-inch iPad Pro and MacBook as well. Depending on the light, it can look more rose — read: pink — more gold, or even more copper or silver. And it stands out, considerably against the drab plastics that continue to plague laptop cases everywhere, but even against other Apple finishes.

Maybe we'll see metallic blue or purple one day as well. For now, though, if you want everyone to know you have the latest and greatest MacBook, you want rose gold.

The overall effect, at the risk of further abusing the metaphor, is something that looks even more like it was poured from liquid metal. It's practically seamless. It's like an iPad.

The screen bezel is black glass like the MacBook Pro, not aluminum like the MacBook Air. It's minimal but not as minimal as television sets and some competing laptops.

There's also a speaker grid now between the screen and the keyboard. It looks fine, as arrays of what I imagine must be laser hewn dots go, and it sounds fine too. More than fine, actually. Compared to the Air, it's loud.

The word "MacBook" appears at the bottom, something Apple has stopped doing with the more recent MacBook Pro iterations. I'm still not sure if I consider it a regression or not. It's classic but also clutter. If Apple ditched it here too, I wouldn't miss it.

Gone also is the glowing Apple logo on the back. The sight of it everywhere from coffee shops to the State of the Union to Microsoft's media events was impossible to miss, like a Bat-signal. Instead, it has an inset logo, polished like the iPhone 6s and iPad Air Pro. It looks great, and I find myself oddly unsure now if I'll really miss the glow.

Everything else about the new MacBook looks and feels great. I called it a redesign before but it's really something closer akin to a refinement. It's absolutely a MacBook in every way, but where the Air always seemed flattened out, the new MacBook seems truly distilled down. Apple isn't bumping up against the constraints of technology any more as much as they are the physical size of the human interfaces — the keyboard and display.

And for an ultra-portable, that's the ideal.

12-inch MacBook Retina display

The new MacBook sports a 12-inch, 2304x1440 pixel, 226 ppi, 16:10 aspect ratio Retina display. Apple uses the marketing term "Retina" to classify a pixel density that, when looked at from a typical viewing distance, renders the pixels practically invisible. That means the grid of dots that make up the screen disappear and only the content remains — crisp text, clear pictures, and sharp interface elements.

The new Apple MacBook

Apple introduced Retina with the iPhone 4 in 2010 and first brought it to the Mac in 2012 with the 15-inch MacBook Pro. The 13-inch Pro followed shortly thereafter and, in October of 2014, to the 27-inch Retina 5K iMac.

The Retina display on the MacBook looks stunning. It's of the new generation where it almost looks better than real life. The colors are deep and true and the blacks as inky as LCD (liquid crystal display) can deliver.

The display on the MacBook looks stunning. It's of the new generation where it almost looks better than real life.

To achieve that quality at this thinness, Apple redesigned the pixels to create a wider aperture. That allowed the company to use low power LED (light emitting diodes) backlighting for 30% better energy efficiency at the same brightness level as previous displays.

When Apple first announced the new 12-inch display, I was nervous. I've never been able to use an 11-inch MacBook Air because it's 1366x768 display simply didn't provide enough screen real estate for me, especially vertically.

With a typical Retina display, 2304x1440 pixels would work out to 1152x720 points — four Retina pixels for every point. That would be even less screen real estate, especially vertically.

But Apple's not doing a typical Retina display here. They're doing what they did with the iPhone 6 Plus — rendering it larger and then scaling it to fit the screen.

By default you get 1280x800. That's the same default as a 13-inch MacBook Pro.

Like all Retina Macs, however, you can go into System Preferences and switch to a scaled mode. Options for bigger text include 1024x640 and the truly native 1152x720. The option for more space is 1440x900.

Here's what the pixel count differences look like for the scaled modes, from left (larger text) to right (more space):

And here's what the different densities look like on screen, again from left (larger text) to right (more space):

If you have incredibly sharp vision, you might notice the scaling in either standard or more space mode. I don't and I don't. What I do notice is the real estate it gives me.

You can't scale to 1680x1050 like you can a Retina MacBook Pro, but 1440x900 is still as much as you get with a 13-inch MacBook Air. And you get them in Retina.

Here's how the 13-inch MacBook Air's standard pixels compare to the MacBook's Retina pixels:

Here's how the default pixel count of the new MacBook compares to the rest of Apple's current laptop lineup. From left: MacBook Air 11-inch, MacBook Air 13-inch, MacBook, MacBook Pro 13-inch, MacBook Pro 15-inch.