MacBook 2016 review: Ultraportable laptop satisfies with speed gains

It's not a desktop Mac replacement. The MacBook is ideal for on-the-go use.

When it comes to hardware, Apple isn’t afraid to force its uses to adapt, to change habits. Longtime Mac users remember when Apple stopped including floppy and optical drives, or when FireWire was discontinued. More recently, Mac users have had to accept the inability to upgrade hard drives and RAM, or that the Magic Trackpad 2 is the preferred input device, with its support for gestures that can’t be performed on a Magic Mouse 2.

The MacBook is one of those game-changers. When it was released last year, it was pretty obvious that Apple wanted to push its users in a certain direction, to a place where there are no wires, where you depend on the cloud, where you can carry a laptop effortlessly and never worry about the battery running out.

The push was more like a big shove. Apple’s thinnest and lightest laptop has only one port for connecting devices, and it sports a processor that sacrifices performance. And Mac users pushed back, especially about the single port. It wasn’t hard to find someone who wished that the MacBook was more like the MacBook Pro or that Apple would do something with the MacBook Air. (Apple did do something with the MacBook Air, the 13-inch model specifically. It now comes standard with 8GB of memory instead of 4GB.)

macbook backpack Roman Loyola

The 2016 MacBook is just as thin and light as its predecessor. All the changes in the new version are inside the aluminum case.

When Apple announced that it was updating the MacBook, Mac fans clicked on news links in anticipation. Will Apple add another port? Or maybe upgrade from USB-C to Thunderbolt 3? How ‘bout an HD FaceTime camera instead of the 480p camera that was on last year’s MacBook?

Nope, sorry. None of those features were added. But Apple did upgrade the processors and graphics. That’s certainly nothing to scoff at. In fact, the MacBook closes the gaps between itself, the MacBook Pro, and the MacBook Air, so much so that for general use, the speed should satisfy most users.

The MacBook also has longer battery life. Apple’s battery specification is now an hour longer than the previous MacBook; ten hours for “wireless web” and 11 hours for “iTunes movie playback.” Apple told me that the longer battery life is due to better battery chemistry. The size of the battery is the same as before.

And, oh yeah, the MacBook is available in Rose Gold now, in addition to Gold, Silver, and Space Gray. You won’t find those color options with the current MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, for what it’s worth.

A better performer

Everything on the outside of the MacBook is the same as before, so I won’t dive into my thoughts on things like its size, weight, and construction; the 12-inch, 2304x1440 Retina display; the Force Trackpad; or the keyboard. For more details about these parts, see our review of the 2015 MacBook by Jason Snell. His thoughts on those parts still hold up and jibe with my thoughts, though maybe I dislike the keyboard more than Jason does.

macbook keyboard Roman Loyola

Apple didn’t change anything on the exterior of the newest edition of the MacBook. It has the same screen, keyboard, and trackpad found in the 2015 version.

The major changes are internal, so let’s focus on those. The MacBook now has Intel Skylake processors, an upgrade over the Broadwell processors used when the MacBook was introduced last year. Apple uses the Core M version of Intel’s processors in the MacBook, which are designed for mobile devices.

Apple offers two standard configurations: the $1,299 MacBook features a 1.1GHz dual-core Core m3 processor with Turbo Boost up to 2.2GHz, and the $1,599 MacBook has a 1.2GHz dual-core Core m5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz. (Both models have 4MB L3 cache and 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 RAM.) For an additional fee, you can upgrade the processor to a 1.3GHz dual-core Core m7 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz. (This review focuses on the $1,599 MacBook.)

How much of a speed improvement does the 2016 MacBook offer over last’s year’s version? Using Geekbench 3, the 1.2GHz Core m5 offers an increase ranging from 11 to 30 percent, depending on the older processor that it is being compared to. For example, in Geekbench’s 64-bit multi-core test, the 1.2GHz Core m5 is 11 percent faster than the 1.3GHz dual-core Core M processor that was an upgrade option for the 2015 MacBook. Another example: In the same test, the the 1.2GHz Core m5 is 30 percent faster than the 2015 MacBook’s 1.1GHz Core M processor. Generally speaking, the speed increase isn’t unusual; we’ve seen similar increases in past Mac laptop upgrades. Faster is always better.

64-bit Geekbench 3 results: 2016 and 2015 MacBook

geekbench macbooks only

Longer bars/higher scores are better. Click to enlarge.

Now let’s compare the performance to the MacBook Air. Last year’s MacBook was about 9 percent slower than the current 1.6GHz MacBook Air (which was released in March of 2015 with a Broadwell processor). That speed difference threw a wrench into a shopper’s decision making: Pay $1,199 for a faster 13-inch MacBook Air or spend $1,299 or $1,599 for a slower MacBook? (Sure, there are other differences to consider, like the display and ports, but I’m simplifying here for argument’s sake.)

Fortunately, with the new MacBook, you feel like you’re getting performance that better justifies the price difference. The 1.2GHz Core m5 MacBook is 12 percent faster than the 1.6GHz MacBook Air in Geekbench’s single-core test; that’s a nice boost compared to last year, where the 2015 MacBook was as fast or slower (depending on which processor you pick) than the MacBook Air. In Geekbench’s multi-core test, the new MacBook was just 1 percent faster than the MacBook Air. But to put that in perspective, last year’s MacBook was slower than the MacBook Air by a range of 9 to 20 percent.

For reference, I also compared the 1.2GHz Core m5 MacBook to the current 13-inch MacBook Pro models, which have Broadwell processors. Interestingly, the MacBook isn’t far behind in Geekbench’s single-core test. That means that for tasks like email, writing apps, spreadsheets, and basic websites, you may not notice a speed difference between the two different laptops. But as expected, the MacBook Pro blows past the MacBook in Geekbench’s multi-core test. Translation: With apps that can use multiple processing cores, like professional video, audio, or image editors, you’re better off with a MacBook Pro.

One last platform comparison: How does the new MacBook stack up against the iPad Pro from a pure performance standpoint? You might be surprised. Both the 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch iPad Pro perform in line with the new MacBook. Just another thing to consider (or to make your decision more complicated).

For a look at the numbers and how they compare, we’ve posted several bar charts on the next page. You’ll also find a set of benchmarks for Cinebench OpenGL and Blender.

Port of contention

Of course, there’s more than performance to consider when picking a Mac laptop. As I mentioned earlier, much of what the MacBook offers hasn’t changed from last year and was covered in our previous review. But the single USB-C port is a serious point of contention for shoppers, so I feel I should address it.

Apple positions the MacBook as the laptop for the wireless world, with “wireless” meaning more than just your Internet connection. It also applies to external input devices (there’s Bluetooth for that) and external storage (the cloud). (There is an audio-out jack on the opposite side of the MacBook, so you can still use wired headphones and speakers.) You shouldn’t really need to use the USB-C port, except when you need to charge the laptop.

macbook usbc port Roman Loyola

The MacBook’s USB-C port is for charging and connecting peripherals. If you want more ports, you either need to connect a USB-C hub, or consider a MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.

Why didn’t Apple upgrade the port to Thunderbolt 3, which uses the same port type and is compatible with USB-C? When I posed this question to Apple, a representative said that Thunderbolt 3 has chip and thermal considerations that don’t fit with the MacBook’s fanless design. It’s not as simple as slipping in a Thunderbolt subsystem in place of USB-C, so if Thunderbolt 3 ever does make it to the MacBook (if it’s possible), it’s going to take some re-engineering of the internals.

The MacBook’s single USB-C port is a deal-breaker for some. You’ll have to go with a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro. But you really want the size and weight of the MacBook, you say? You could wait another year and see if Apple finally relents and adds another port. It’s not unprecedented. The first MacBook Air in 2008 had only one USB port, and then Apple added a second USB port two years later.

Another option is to wait and see what Apple does with the MacBook Pro. Apple’s Worldwide Developers Conference is in June, and the current MacBook Pro is a year old. Seems like the time is right for a MacBook Pro update between now and WWDC. The rumors say that Apple is working on “ultra-thin” 13- and 15-inch MacBooks, so if you’re waiting for a MacBook Pro, you need to hold on for a few more weeks.

What about the MacBook Air? I think some people still think of the MacBook Air as the ultra-portable laptop; after all, that’s how it was position when it was released. Longtime users even remember the previous MacBook line, which was positioned as the affordable laptop. But the MacBook is now the ultra-portable. The MacBook Air is Apple’s affordable laptop, à la the Mac mini. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it was treated like the Mac mini, with an update cycle that’s much longer than other Macs.

The iPad Pro option

Maybe one of the reasons why some don’t understand the purpose of the MacBook is because the MacBook is being considered from a laptop user’s point of view. But if you think about it from iPad user’s point of view, the MacBook starts to make more sense. iPad users are used to not having to connect devices to their tablet and relying on wireless connections, so having one port on a laptop isn’t that big of a deal.

Now, I get that the notion of iPad-first may not seem practical, but I don’t think it’s unrealistic. Kids are using iPads in school, and people do use smartphones and tablets as a primary computing device.

If available ports are not an issue, then the iPad Pro could be an option over the MacBook. The 12.9-inch iPad Pro weighs 1.57 pounds, and with a keyboard case, you approach 2 pounds. So when it comes to weight, there’s not really an advantage. There is one with the smaller iPad Pro; even with a keyboard case, the 0.96-pound 9.7-inch iPad Pro will have a cumulative weight under 2 pounds, though you end up with a smaller screen.

64-bit Geekbench 3 results: 2016 MacBook and iPad Pro

geekbench macbooks ipadpro

Longer bars/higher scores are better. Click to enlarge.

In Geekbench testing, the iPad Pro doesn’t disappoint against the MacBook. So what it comes down to is iOS versus OS X and the apps. Can you do what you need to do within iOS? That requires a close examination of the software you use, and the tasks you perform.

Bottom line

For a lot of people, the MacBook is the ideal laptop. It’s light, small, easy to carry, and offers good performance for productivity software, though it can handle pro apps fine (you’ll just have to wait a little longer on some tasks). The MacBook is meant to serve for the user constantly on the go, and it serves that purpose well.

If what you want is the MacBook Pro feature set in a MacBook body, you’ll need to either wait and see what Apple does in the near future, or bite the bullet and buy a MacBook Pro. If you want more ports but at an affordable price, the MacBook Air is your laptop and you’ll have to accept the its compromises.

Next page: Benchmark charts

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Roman Loyola

Macworld.com
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