The MacBook’s Usability

But by far the biggest question however is what all of this lends towards the usability of the new MacBook. With Apple developing a smaller form factor and then charging a premium price for it, whether it’s worth it is a perfectly legitimate question. And the answer to that question is that it depends.

We’ll get to the all-important performance considerations in a bit, but I want to start with design first. For something built for a new form factor like a MacBook I think it’s important to look at the overall design and whether it makes sense in the first place before even getting to the tradeoffs Apple made to get here.

The 2015 MacBook reminds me of the original MacBook Air in a lot of ways, and in fact that’s probably the biggest knock against it. In 2008 the MacBook Air was revolutionary, it created what we now know as the Ultrabook category and was so cutting edge that it contained an Intel Core CPU in a form factor that no one else could get at the time. Consequently the MacBook Air wasn’t just smaller than the MacBook or MacBook Pro, but it was a lot smaller than its larger, heavier predecessors.

Big & Little: MacBook & 27" iMac

The MacBook, by contrast, is not the same jump in size. Calculated against their respective thickest points, the new MacBook is still 73% of the volume of the 11” MacBook Air. Similarly, its 0.92Kg weight is 85% of the weight of said MacBook Air. This means that whereas the original MacBook Air was a very important jump for the Apple’s laptop line, the new MacBook doesn’t get the same benefit.

With that said, there is still a distinct difference between the MacBook and MacBook Air, one that likely doesn’t mean as much in numbers as it does in feel. On a personal note my travel laptop of choice is an Asus ZenBook UX21A, an 11” Ultrabook that is a dead-ringer for the 11” MacBook Air in size and weight. So having toted around the MacBook for the past week working on this review, I was surprised by just how different it felt from my 11” ZenBook. The ZenBook is already towards the light-end of the Ultrabook spectrum, and yet after carrying around the MacBook the ZenBook feels heavy. It may only be 20% heavier in practice, but just carrying the two in hand it certainly feels like it’s more than that.

Left: MacBook. Right: Asus 11" ZenBook Prime (UX21A)

For work purposes I have always favored the 11” Ultrabook for its size and weight. It’s easy to carry around and small enough to hold with one hand or to balance on one knee as situations dictate. And while it’s not perfect – 11” isn’t much screen real-estate and doesn’t allow for much of a keyboard – as an ultra-portable secondary computer for someone who already has a desktop, it fits my needs very well.

Which is why I was surprised by just how much I ended up liking the MacBook’s size and form factor. It’s smaller than an 11” Ultrabook and yet if anything it feels bigger when in use – perhaps due to the 16:10 screen – and the weight difference can really be felt. Before using the MacBook if you had asked me whether I would want an even smaller laptop I would have dismissed the notion, but after using the MacBook I have to stop and reconsider that position.

Ultimately I’m reminded a great deal of the launch of the original MacBook Air, where Apple specifically touted it as a travel computer for someone with more than one computer. For most people it’s smaller than what you’d want to use day-in and day-out, but as a travel laptop it’s great. Consequently the MacBook as it stands is an interesting alternative to the MacBook Air lineup; it fills a lot of the same roles, but it does so while being even thinner and lighter.

Top: MacBook. Middle: Asus 11" ZenBook Prime. Bottom: Surface Pro 3 w/Type Cover

That said, compared to a MacBook Air these size improvements don’t come for free. There are performance considerations to be had with the Core M processor, which we’ll get to in our look at system performance. The trade-off for thin and light is a similar reduction in performance, so even though the MacBook and MacBook Air overlap at times, they are separated by size versus performance.

Finally, we would be remiss in not covering the tablet/laptop crossover factor as well. The fact that Apple takes as many design cues as they do from the iPad – the colors, the focus on size, and the limited number of ports – is telling. I hesitate to say too much about the MacBook as an iPad alternative since these devices are still so different. But for someone wanting to step up from something like an iPad into a full sized, fully capable laptop computer, this is exactly what such a device might look like.

The MacBook's Design Getting Thinner: New Keyboard, Keys, & Switches


View All Comments

  • RT81 - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    The presence of "no touch screen" complaints, as few as they are, is interesting. There's a whole demographic of Mac users (creative professionals, mostly) that are sweating bullets about the possibility of iOS and OS X converging. A touch screen Mac would probably give them a heart attack.

    Apple has said they don't have any intention of doing that. It didn't go over so well for Microsoft, but who knows. It wouldn't be the first time Apple has said "we'll never do that" but what they really mean is "we'll never do that until we can do it at the standard of quality we want".
  • senzen - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Very good, thorough review. As soon as I sold my 2010 MBA 11 to get an MBPr Pro I missed the smaller size and weight, but I wanted a retina display for when I travel and take photos, so the new Macbook ticks all the boxes. My doubt was the performance, but seeing it apparently does at least as well as the first i5 MBAs is reassuring, I don't need more. I'm still tempted to wait for the second generation, which is reinforced by Apple's inability to actually show these in stores. I wonder if the upgrade to the faster (less slow) processor is worth it. Reply
  • Malac - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    I think two tests that I feel would be very interesting are missing:

    - Remote Desktop streaming
    - Virtual Machine Benchmark

    I sometimes play PC games streamed from my powerful desktop to my MacBook Air using Microsoft Remote Desktop or Steam. While this works well, the air does get hot sometimes and I hear the fans. How would the MacBook handle such a load?

    And how well does a VM work? Lets say VirtualBox + Linux with a graphical frontend?
  • Ryan Smith - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Steam in-home streaming uses H.264, so all the heavy lifting should be done by the video decode block, and the end result not much harder than decoding any other 1080p60 H.264 stream. Reply
  • jeffry - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Nice. Apples "new" butterfly mech. Thats a copy of how the japs have done it years ago in their Sony Vaio SZ Series notebooks... Reply
  • nerd1 - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Why mention tablet laptop crossover at all? This laptop is not convertible, not derachable, lacks touchscreen or pen. It is by all means just a thin, lightweight laptop (with LESS endurance and power) Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    The short answer is because internally it's built like a tablet, not a laptop, and that's the primary point I'm trying to make when discussing its construction. Reply
  • nerd1 - Thursday, April 16, 2015 - link

    Built like a tablet? What does it mean at all? How does crippled laptop becomes a tablet?
    Some tablets are more powerful and expandable than MBA 11" (which is a LAPTOP).
  • nerd1 - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Oh and samsung released very similiar laptop (core m, 1600p display, 2lbs) with usb, sd slot and separate power jack months before. Reply
  • solipsism - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    1) I think it's both odd and wrong that Ryan Smith would repeatedly try to state this is some sort of Mac-iPad hybrid. It doesn't run iOS, it has an attached keyboard and trackpad, it doesn't even have a touchscreen display (something increasingly more common on notebooks). This is a notebook computer designed to run a desktop-grade OS.

    2) This is not a netbook. Even if we ignore all the low-quality, budget-focused design constraints that that made the netbook really only good* for surfing the "net", this machine has a CPU that costs more than the average notebook and that is magnitudes more powerful with a similar power envelope. If it's to be classed at anything it is an Ultrabook, sans the official branding.

    3) Apple's USB-C adapters aren't that pricey. If one wants, they can buy the adapters that Google sells for their new Chromebook Pixel or wait for other vendors (my favourite is Monoprice) to offer up their own solutions since this is, after all, USB. There will also likely be 3rd-party external displays from everyone(?) that will use a single USB-C port for both charging the device and pushing data, which will have their own variety of built-in hubs for those wanting an external display which makes the majority of these complaints for a nascent standard just coming to market moot.

    4) People are lamenting the loss of MagSafe, but is that really feasible with how small the 3rd(?) MagSafe adapter would have gotten for this machine? Also, if it's designed to be used remotely and designed to be almost always used without cabled peripherals, is it really an issue for its intended market? Personally, I love how the Chromebook Pixel has USB-C on each side and how either can charge the device. I've moved an entire office around because of how the plug on the left-hand side was causing it to wear out after about 6 months due to being plugged into the wall at the right. This was never an issue when PVC was still included in cables (speculative cause and effect). Hopefully when the MBPs get this feature it will be on both sides.

    5) So why bring back the MB and not simply call it the MBA (not unlike how they keep the non-Retina MBPs and came out with the new Retina MBPs with a new design)? Eventually I would like to see the MBA get the exact same external HW design and components (i.e.: Retina display with the same 12" design only) but running Mac OS X — or a Mac OS X-like OS — on Apple's A-series chip. This could allow Apple to move their "PC" sales to even lower end of the market by being able to drop the cost by a few hundred dollars whilst still being able to have a machine that performs well. I do think the A-series chip may need some additional revisions (but we really don't know what is possible with their bespoke design) and for Mac OS X to get another housecleaning, perhaps even rewritten in Swift.

    * Calling a netbook good at anything is a stretch, especially when even Adobe Flash would stutter on even 480p video due to its inept HW.

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