Is the 11-inch MacBook Air a little too small, but you can’t quite bring yourself to lug around the beefy 13-inch MacBook Air? Yes, I’m being facetious, but Apple has announced a new MacBook model with a 12-inch Retina display that’s even lighter than the 11-inch MacBook Air. With a price tag starting at $1,299, it’s equivalent to the 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display, but may not even stand up to the MacBook Air in terms of performance. Don’t get me wrong — the 12-inch MacBook is a stunning feat of engineering, but on a purely technical standpoint, the MacBook line is looking a little crowded.
The 12-inch MacBook sets new marks for Apple’s portable Mac history. It weighs in at 2.03 pounds (0.92 kg), making it the lightest Mac ever made. Even the 11-inch MacBook Air hits the scales at 2.38 pounds (1.08 kg). It’s also the thinnest Mac ever, at least on the thick end, tapering up from 3.5 mm to 13.1 mm, whereas the MacBook Air ranges from 3 mm to 17 mm. It’s slightly narrower (11.04 inches, or 28.05 cm) than the 11-inch MacBook Air (11.8 inches, or 30.0 cm) as well, though just a hair deeper, where the 11-inch MacBook Air wins out at 7.56 inches (19.2 cm) compared to the 12-inch MacBook’s 7.74 inches (19.65 cm).
The case size is determined by the full-size keyboard, which goes all the way to the edge of the 12-inch MacBook’s aluminum unibody case. That case is entirely metal, with no plastic bits to allow radio waves through. Apple embedded the wireless radio antennas for dual-stream 802.11ac and Bluetooth 4.0 into the case. We’ll see if that decision hurts range at all.
Apple also reengineered the keyboard, coming up with a new butterfly switch mechanism with a stainless steel dome switch that distributes the force of each key press evenly — Apple claims the butterfly switch is four times more stable than the common scissor switch. That stability enabled Apple to increase the size of the key caps by 17 percent, which will hopefully make typing even easier. Finally, the keyboard is backlit in dim lighting conditions by individual LEDs behind each key, making for more even lighting.
More interesting yet is Apple’s new Force Touch trackpad, which uses four force sensors to provide an even click response across the entire trackpad. The Force Touch trackpad is also adjustable, so you can customize how much pressure is needed for a stiffer or softer feel. Plus, the addition of the Taptic Engine from the Apple Watch development enables the Force Touch trackpad to provide haptic feedback as you click — we’re not sure how else Apple might employ the Taptic Engine, or if developers will be able to access it for custom feedback.
The Force Touch trackpad, as you might expect, is pressure sensitive, and Apple has added a new force-click gesture — it’s basically a matter of clicking harder. Apple showed a number of uses of this, such as force-clicking a word to look it up in Wikipedia, but it’s unclear how force-click actions are supposed to differ from Control/right-click actions. I hope that Apple will provide usability guidance to developers so we users don’t have to guess which action is necessary. I’m also interested to find out how the Force Touch trackpad can be used with a stylus for pressure-sensitive drawing. Apple said nothing about bringing the Force Touch technology to the standalone Magic Trackpad.
Although the rumored Retina MacBook Air was nowhere to be found, the new MacBook does boast a 12-inch Retina display in a 16:10 aspect ratio. It offers a native resolution of 2304 by 1440 pixels at 226 pixels per inch, but you’ll likely end up using a scaled resolution of 1440 by 900, 1280 by 800, or 1024 by 640. Apple made a big deal of the fact that the panel has a larger pixel aperture as well, which enables it to use 30 percent less energy at the same brightness. The display relies on Intel HD Graphics 5300, which can run both the built-in Retina display and an external display at up to 3840 by 2160 pixels.
The 12-inch MacBook’s unibody case is not only all metal, it’s nearly solid, with no vents. Apple got away with eliminating both vents and a fan by reducing power consumption (and thus heat) significantly. Along with that, the company’s engineers shrank the logic board to be 67 percent smaller than the one in the MacBook Air. That leaves more room for batteries, which Apple is now making in sheet form so they can be contoured and terraced to occupy all the remaining available space within the case — this technology enables Apple to put 35 percent more battery in the same space. Battery life is rated at up to 9 hours for “wireless Web” and up to 10 hours for iTunes movie playback (in case you want to watch Andy Warhol’s 1964 silent black-and-white film “Empire,” which consists of 8 hours and 5 minutes of continuous slow motion footage of the Empire State Building).
There are two models of the 12-inch MacBook, differing only in the processor speed and flash storage capacity. That new logic board defaults to a 1.1 GHz dual-core Intel Core M processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.4 GHz) with 4 MB of shared L3 cache on the $1,299 model; the $1,599 model has a 1.2 GHz processor. Both can optionally be upgraded to 1.3 GHz, though build-to-order prices are as yet unknown. 8 GB of RAM is standard and can’t be upgraded. The $1,299 model comes with 256 GB of flash storage; that’s increased to 512 GB in the $1,599 model. Although it’s impossible to tell until tests can be run, it sounds as though the 12-inch MacBook won’t be setting any land speed records, even compared to the relatively sluggish MacBook Air models.
Other shared specs include a 480p FaceTime camera (notably worse than the 720p FaceTime HD cameras in the MacBook Air and MacBook Pro), stereo speakers, dual microphones, and a headphone port that supports the iPhone’s headset with remote and microphone.
Here’s where I’d normally run through the standard ports, but the 12-inch MacBook has no port that you’ve likely ever seen before. No MagSafe, no USB, and no Thunderbolt. That’s because it has only a single jack (besides the headphone jack) — USB-C — which is used for charging, adding peripherals, and external displays. It supports USB 3.1 Gen 1 (up to 5 Gbps throughput) for attaching hard drives and other devices. For an external display, it offers DisplayPort 1.2 video output natively (though we’re not sure how — Apple provides neither a DisplayPort jack nor a DisplayPort adapter), and with adapters that are sold separately, it can provide VGA and HDMI output. The USB-C connector is small and reversible, like Lightning, and will be the same on both sides (there will be adapter cables for legacy USB devices).
Apple is already listing $79 adapters for USB-C to HDMI and USB-C to VGA (but oddly, not USB-C to DisplayPort). Both adapters, which are a little ungainly, offer a pass-through USB-C charging port, the video port in question, and a standard USB jack.
Despite these adapters, the USB-C port raises tons of questions. Will there be hubs that will enable you to attach multiple peripherals, or must peripherals be daisy-chained? Is there a limit to how many can be chained? Is this a general move away from Thunderbolt and MagSafe? Could Apple replace Lightning with USB-C in iOS devices as well?
For the first time since the original iBook, you’ll have a choice of colors when purchasing a 12-inch MacBook, but the colors are entirely modern: silver, space gray, and gold — exactly the same as the iPhone 6 colors. Personally, I’d be mortified to pull a gold MacBook out of my bag in public, but I wouldn’t be caught dead using a gold iPhone either.
The 12-inch MacBook will become available on 10 April 2015 in the two models previously described for $1,299 and $1,599. It sounds as though the only build-to-order option will be a slightly faster CPU.
Updated MacBook Air and MacBook Pro — Although the MacBook Air didn’t receive a Retina display, Apple did show the older models a little love. Both now have a Thunderbolt 2 port that supports throughput of up to 20 Gbps (twice the speed of the previous generation), Intel HD Graphics 6000 replaces the previous Intel HD Graphics 5000, and both ship with a 1.6 GHz Intel Core i5 processor with an option to switch to 2.2 GHz Intel Core i7 for an extra $150 (that’s up from a 1.4 GHz i5 and 1.7 GHz i7). The 13-inch MacBook Air also features flash storage that’s up to twice as fast as in the previous model.
The 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display received a number of notable updates as well. It gets the new Force Touch trackpad, two times faster flash storage, and 1 hour longer battery life. CPU options are improved as well, with a 2.7 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 standard, a 2.9 GHz i5 for $100 more, and a 3.1 GHz i7 for $200 more (previous speeds were all 0.2 GHz lower).
Oddly, the 15-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display didn’t receive any attention; I wouldn’t be surprised to see a quiet update in the near future to bring it up to snuff. The cheaper 13-inch MacBook Pro model that doesn’t have a Retina display remains unchanged as well — it’s surprising that Apple still sells it at all.
Prices remain the same for both the updated MacBook Air models ($899 to $1,199) and the tweaked 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display ($1,299 to $1,799), and all are available today.