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
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  • Jaybus - Thursday, April 16, 2015 - link

    No. It is a form factor issue and has nothing to do with performance. Do you call a mid-tower case with keyboard, mouse, and monitor a PC? Even though the first mid-tower PCs had 80286 processors? With any form factor, performance increases over time (hopefully). Call it an ultrabook, then. The point is, it is a small form factor with focus on small size, battery life and wireless connectivity. It is a commodity device with zero expandability and limited i/o. Reply
  • zhenya00 - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    'Tech evolvolves.'

    That's exactly right. So don't get stuck on the fact that the only possible form that technical evolution may take is based on speed improvements. In this case, evolution is taking the form of better efficiency - doing more work with less. That's what's really important in computing today; not merely making everything faster.

    Your argument is basically like saying that LED lightbulbs aren't an important evolution - we should just be making ever brighter incandescent instead.
    Reply
  • Wulfgardr - Sunday, April 26, 2015 - link

    I wonder how anyone is supposed to write unbiasedly, Jesus we are human beings not robots, we actually answer to higher laws than electric ones. Opinions, you can form your own idea by surfing, reading and comparing stuff. You "shouldn't" need a place where you pay for someone to take care of your criticism. Reply
  • Death666Angel - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    This used to be subnotebooks. The below 13" category with outrages battery life, performance and price for its size (typically dominated by Sony back in the day iirc). Then came the First netbooks and stuff like the Acer 1810 with Core architecture CPUs, decent performance with decent battery in the below 1000$ price bracket. Current Atom stuff is netbook like, current Pentium-U stuff is like the Acer 1810 - meaning above netbook, below subnotebook - and current Core-M stuff like UX305 and MacBook is subnotebook territory. There, all the terms you need available even 3 years ago! :D Reply
  • darwinosx - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    No you still don't get it. Try reading the review. Reply
  • melgross - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    We know you're trying to be cute and dismissive, but obviously you know nothing about netbooks.

    Netbooks, by Microsoft's definition, had a maximum screen size of 10", a maximum resolution of either 1024x768, or 800x600, I don't remember which right now. It also couldn't have more that a certain, small amount of RAM or storage, and an Atom CPU.

    Any more than the maximum couldn't qualify for the $15 XP, and later, win 7 Starter edition.

    Really, if you don't know any of this, you know nothing.
    Reply
  • Impulses - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    They bumped that up to 11.6" pretty quickly. RAM was limited by the x86 Atom as much as anything else. They all shipped with 160GB HDDs... Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    Truth be told I was tempted to drop the term "netbook" in this article, but ultimately decided not to for that exact reason. Netbooks were ultra-cheap Atom powered computers; the MacBook is neither cheap in price or build quality, nor is it Atom powered.

    The successor to the Netbook is for all practical purposes the Chromebook. The MacBook on the other hand doesn't easily compare to other small laptops since this is the first time Core has been available at such a low wattage.
    Reply
  • nathanddrews - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    I would probably lump Bingdows 8.1 devices in that category as well. I can't wait to see how Braswell/Airmont/Cherry Trail impacts that category. Reply
  • Impulses - Tuesday, April 14, 2015 - link

    The spiritual successor is probably a Chromebook, tho I'd argue the functional successor for anyone that bought a netbook as a second/third device would be something like the Surface 3 (non-Pro)...

    The first Atom netbooks weren't as cheap as some people seem to think, I'm pretty sure I paid something in the mid $400s for my Aspire One, it's still banging around the house (with a RAM bump to 2GB and a 40GB X25-V).

    I never really replaced that thing per se... I actually bought an OG ASUS TF to "tide me over" until ultrabooks, eventually realized I didn't really want to manage a laptop in addition to my desktop, and just made do with tablets on the go (N7 replaced TF).

    Been a while since I used the old netbook, but Surface 3 is looking awfully appealing. Hopefully MS will deliver one to AT pre launch. Btw, does Apple intend to sandbag the Air with crappy TN screens forever now that there's a new MB?
    Reply

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