We got some hands-on time with Apple's new battery-packed, taptically-enhanced, Retina-quality laptop after Monday's Spring Forward event, and boy, is it pretty. Here's what Rene and I thought about Apple's newest Mac — where it's going, what it's doing for the laptop space, and the accuracy of that Force Touch trackpad.
So, about that trackpad...
Ren: Let's get this out of the way first: I was incredibly skeptical over the MacBook's Force Touch trackpad. There are no vertical mechanics at play here — no BlackBerry Bold-esque glass depression, just touch-based brain trickery. As I said to Rene during the event, these kinds of inventions can either be fantastic or terrible: It all depends on the execution.
I don't know why I was so worried: The MacBook's execution is excellent. It feels so natural and physically present that it's hard to believe there isn't some sort of mechanical underpinning hiding in that millimeters-thin casing. I had an Apple representative describe the trackpad's pressure ramp-up like a gas pedal, and it's an apt metaphor: It feels like your finger is sinking ever-deeper into the trackpad as you ramp up fast forward on a video, for instance. It's a bizarre sensation, but one I imagine we quickly won't know what to do without.
This technology will also be available for third-party developers to integrate into their apps, which opens up a whole avenue of more intricate gesture control. Multitouch swiping opened up the horizontal surface of the trackpad; Force Touch opens up a whole new level of vertical interaction.
And that's not even talking about the potential for drawing or stylus interaction: Because the trackpad is pressure sensitive, you in theory can draw atop it without the need for external graphics tablets like Wacom's Intuos line. The precision of that pressure sensitivity is another matter entirely: Apple wouldn't say exactly how many levels were present, only that there were enough to properly simulate anything you might want to accomplish. But a quick test with Preview's signature field proved very fruitful, with me very easily able to create a nuanced signature with variable line width just by drawing my name on the trackpad.
Finally, I'm psyched that the trackpad's sensitivity is adjustable: You can customize the click pressure level for your finger to end up with a Force Touch result for your comfort level, just as you can change your cursor tracking speed.
Rene: The Taptic trackpad messes with your brain. Intellectually, you know that it doesn't work the way the traditional trackpad works. Yet when you press it, it feels like it does. What your finger experiences does not match your understanding. It makes you think physics was a big fat lie.
But go with it. Give into it. You really can't feel the difference.
And then you start to Force Touch. You press in. And you press in a little more. And you press in a lot more. It's a different kind of multitouch gesture — one that uses depth rather than horizontal space.
It took me a couple tries to get used to it, and I'm still not sure how many distinct levels of sensitivity it has. Yet its potential is intriguing. It's like having second, third, and fourth click options on a mouse — but without the mess of extra buttons. It's also hinting that Wacom-like sensitivity might finally be coming to multitouch.
Apple took both Taptic and Force Touch from the Watch to the Mac in six months flat. What could they do in a year?
Ren: An iPad Pro with a Force Touch keyboard and Apple Pen pressure-sensitivity, Rene. I can feel it in my bones.
The Retina screen
Ren: Unsurprisingly, the MacBook's 226 pixels-per-inch Retina display is gorgeous. When Apple CEO Tim Cook brought it out on stage, we could see the colors brightly and crisply from halfway back in the theater, and up close and personal the screen didn't disappoint. The demonstration models had HD video and photographs available for comparison, with a phenomenal nature-based desktop picture.
Fun fact: the MacBook we looked at wasn't running OS X 10.10.3 and Photos for Mac — we had to preview all those stunning HD photographs in Preview or iPhoto.
Rene: Gorgeous. Stunning. I'm running out of platitudes for Apple's Retina displays.
The new MacBook looked every bit as good to my eyes as the Retina 5K iMac, even though the laptop's assembly is so thin that it's almost two-dimensional.
Visible pixels are almost extinct on Apple devices, and this is a good thing. So are non-black glass bezels — and that's a great thing.
The keyboard revolution
Ren: The MacBook's keyboard is going to take some getting used to, I think — but not because the keys are too small, or the typing too cramped. It's the force you use against the keyboard. For me, the first thing I noticed when typing on the MacBook was how hard I was banging against the keys; after focusing on making my key presses lighter, the entire writing experience improved tenfold. I don't know if I'm used to pressing so hard because of my MacBook Air's scissor-based key design and the improper key balance, but it's a distinctively bizarre feeling moving to the MacBook keyboard. After typing for awhile, it almost started to feel like I was gliding across the keys — close to the feel of typing on an iPad, in a way, but with the speed and haptic feedback of physical keys. It's weird! But I like it.
The individually-lit keyboard is also something rather special: By backlighting each key rather than a uniform backlight, the keys are brighter and leak out less light around the edges, making for an overall better experience typing.
Rene: The new keyboard is almost as big of a mindfrak as the trackpad. It's bigger, but flatter. And instead of teeter-tottering around the edges, it's flat and smooth across the entire surface.
If you were a fan of the Apple Extended II, I'm sorry: This keyboard is the opposite. It's been stamped all but flat. Yet thanks to some butterfly mechanisms and stainless steel domes, it still feels great.
I say this as someone who loves, loves, loves the current MacBook keyboards — but I won't miss them one bit. The new one is better.
Light as a feather, stiff as a board
Ren: It takes a lot to make my MacBook Air feel heavy, but a two-pound MacBook will do it. Like the iPad Air 2 versus the iPad, the MacBook practically insults the MacBook Air's moniker, sliding in a few millimeters thinner and svelter than its low-cost cousin. But there's a lot of power packed in that slim space — the same nine hours of wireless web browsing as the 11-inch MacBook Air, but also while powering a Retina processor and no fan. It's a technical achievement, to be sure.
Rene: Spock might have said "nothing unreal exists" but this computer makes me doubt he really meant it. Heck, it makes me doubt the MacBook is a real computer. It's about as heavy as the original iPad plus original iPad case. It's also about as thick. And for a computer, that's insane.
If people accidentally threw away, or threw overhead, the original MacBook Air, I'm a little afraid of what they'll do to the new MacBook.
Yet it's still a unibody, it's still solid, it's still a MacBook. And that's even more insane.
Say goodbye to corded life
Ren: One of the side-effects of the MacBook's incredible thinness is port destruction: The computer is physically almost too small for traditional USB, MagSafe, and Thunderbolt ports. So Apple ditched them all in favor of one tiny USB-C port that does it all.
On one hand, I lament the loss of the MagSafe cord: I've tripped (or had others trip) over that cord more times than I can count, and the magnetic charger always saved my Air from flying through its namesake and crashing to the ground. But if the MacBook's battery life is as solid as Apple claims, you may no longer need to charge it in a setting that invites cord tripping. If I can charge my MacBook at night like I charge my iPad and phone, and leave that charger at home for everything but battery-draining video-editing, that's an advancement indeed.
There's one other port on the MacBook: a headphone jack. Much as Apple might want its customers to purchase Beats wireless headphones, it's not foolish enough to ditch the corded option entirely just yet.
Rene: USB-C is the big question mark for me right now. It does a lot, including power, but it doesn't do everything. It has DisplayPort, but it doesn't have Thunderbolt. Thunderbolt is DisplayPort + PCI. So no more PCI.
I use my current MacBook with a Thunderbolt display. Will USB-C give me enough of that kind of connectivity?
Don't get me wrong. I think wireless is absolutely the future. (I'm actually surprised there's still a 3.5mm headset jack). I'm just not totally comfortable in that future yet.
World of color
Ren: The MacBook, like the iPad and iPhone, now comes in gold, silver, and space grey. And though I was doubtful before the event, I have to admit — I'm kind of willing to embrace our shiny golden overlords. The golden MacBook is gorgeous, muted in such a way as to keep from being overly tacky, and the space grey MacBook brings me back to the days of the PowerBook in the best way possible.
Rene: The gold option is a giant Peter Cohen troll. It's also way better looking than I thought it would be. Both the specific shade and the finish make it looks classy, not crass. Likewise the silver and space gray options.
Only questions is, if you go one color, do you go all in on one color — Apple Watch, iPhone, iPad, and MacBook? Or do you mix and match?
Pricing and projection
Ren: The MacBook's $1299/$1599 price points are not cheap: The 11-inch Air starts at $899 as a more-powerful machine with more ports and only 0.3 pounds heavier, while the 13-inch Pro also starts at $1299 with a bigger screen and extra power. Where does the MacBook fit into this lineup? It's not quite a pro machine — it doesn't have the processor — but it's priced in the pro range.
Rene: I agree with Ren, but I think every time Apple does one of its radical redesigns the first version or two isn't about price or performance. It's about the radical redesign. This is the original Air all over again. If you want the future today, you'll pay a little extra for it.
The bottom line
Ren: Is the Retina screen, Taptic trackpad, and two-pound weight enough to convince Apple's customers to pick up a MacBook over an Air or a Pro? I'm not yet sure. I know I want one despite myself. I love little laptops, I'm fascinated by Force Touch technology, and I've wanted Retina on my 11-inch Air for years. I'm not sure if the Taptic trackpad alone will entice me to upgrade, but it's definitely what has me thinking about selling my Air and picking up a 12-inch space grey beauty.
Rene: Last year I switched from a 13-inch MacBook Air to a MacBook Pro because I wanted more video processing power. But now, MacBook. It's once again one of those situations where what's new makes everything current suddenly look and feel old.
I'll likely stick with my Pro for that performance, but I'm hugely tempted by the new MacBook, it's Retina display, that keyboard, and that trackpad. Dagnabit, Phil Schiller, I have #MacBookLust in my heart.