The Real World 12″ MacBook Review for Power Users

12-inch MacBook

Apple’s all-new MacBook has been reinvented in a compact 12-inch form factor that closely resembles an iPad Pro at first glance. It’s the first Mac laptop that sticks to the basics and sacrifices a few features for ultra portability. Weighing only 2.03 lbs., it’s roughly 17% lighter than an 11″ MacBook Air and 30% lighter than a 12.9″ iPad Pro with Smart Keyboard, all while featuring a beautiful Retina screen and redesigned keyboard. Having relied on Mac Pros, iMacs and MacBook Pros in the past, I am by no means a light computer user. I’ve pushed this ultrabook to its limits every single day for a month and now I’m going to tell you what it is and isn’t capable of in the real world.

New MacBook, Less Fat

There’s no denying that the 12″ MacBook is thin. Even a smaller 11″ MacBook Air looks rather thick and dated next to the new MacBook. Apple is still using their traditional tapered design, so while it’s definitely an ultrabook it is by no means invisible. Featuring new colors never before offered on a Apple laptop, it’s easily one of my favorite computers. I wish they would’ve brought back the black MacBook, but I’ll settle for Space Gray. This isn’t a computer you hide behind your external monitor at work. It screams to be seen, and it’s quite the looker.

Keyboard & Trackpad

Not only does the MacBook’s keyboard look and feel a little different, the trackpad is hiding another all-new feature in plain sight: Force Touch. Much like 3D Touch for iPhone and iPad, there’s a second click when you press on the trackpad a little harder than normal. This allows for quicker access to information, instant previews, and additional features within applications. It’s less of a gimmick after the first week of use, and I hope to see it on every new computer Apple releases from here forward. The new keyboard has less travel and almost feels like you’re typing on a touchscreen if you regularly crank out 100+ WPM. It’s slightly louder than you’d expect, but can accept softer pressing. With a bit of practice typing quickly on it, going back to Apple’s more traditional wired keyboard keys feel alien to me. You either love it or hate it; there’s no in between.

One Port To Rule Them All

Dongles. The word sounds funny when I say it often. And I’m definitely saying it more since the 12-inch MacBook features a single, very special USB-C Port. That’s right, one USB port on one side, and one headphone jack on the other side. The 3.5mm audio port is probably the most normal thing about the 12″ MacBook. Charging this ultrabook while doing anything else requires a dongle, or two, or five. You won’t be traveling light if you need a lot of options on the go. The one USB-C port is also an all-new charging port, kicking Magsafe to the curb after 10 years. Forget about quickly plugging in your laptop.

I had to purchase an Apple USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter immediately after realizing I couldn’t restore my Time Machine backup, plug in my iPhone, or connect my IPS LED Monitor to it without an adapter. On the go, it’s a pain in the ass to juggle adapters. Do you want wired internet on this trip?. When I’m at my desk, however; it’s a different story. I simply plug in the one USB-C dongle and it connects my USB 3 hub with Time Machine, my external monitor (HDMI or VGA), and the power cord all in one motion. No more digging through my nest of wires to plug in each item individually.

General Performance

There’s no denying the 12-inch MacBook is likely slower than the last computer you used. Clocking in at a starting 1.1 GHz, the Intel Core M draws so little power and stays so cool, it allows the new MacBook to run completely fanless. That’s right, no noise or vibration. It gets noticeably warm under load (like most Apple laptops) although never to the point that I worry it’s going to pull a Samsung and explode. The base model’s M-5Y31 processor includes a turbo boost up to 2.4 GHz and its saving grace is that you boost often. For 70% of my tasks, it feels faster than the Intel Core i5 processors included in 13″ MacBook Pros from a year or two ago. It’s not stellar, nevertheless, I’ve managed to run a great deal of my most important applications on it without much fuss. And remember, I’m on the base model first generation Early 2015 MacBook.

Throughout the day, I have the following applications running 24/7:

  • Safari (7 to 15 tabs)
  • Adobe Photoshop
  • Adobe Dreamweaver
  • Airmail
  • Skype
  • Spotify
  • Messages
  • Atom (text editor)
  • Textual (IRC)

I also manage to run a Windows 10 Pro virtual machine periodically for testing things in a Microsoft environment. I use Parallels Desktop and the VM has 2GB of RAM dedicated to it. Parallels should be the only application you run if you want to do any virtualization on this laptop. Windows 10 runs well when installed in Boot Camp (native) rather than virtualized, though it’s not going to break records no matter which Operating System you use.

There’s also a slight to noticeable lag if you’re the kind of power user that opens 30+ websites at once with multiple desktops and several things going on. When I run Photoshop and Dreamweaver together, I usually only have a handful (5 to 10) of high-res photos and maybe a dozen pages I’m working with at once. It’s no Mac Pro but it gets most of the job done even while pushing my 25″ external screen in clamshell mode.

Gaming Performance

The MacBook features Intel HD 5300 onboard graphics that isn’t going to make your jaw drop by any means. For nearly everything you’ll play on the 12″ MacBook, because of its low power onboard GPU, you’re limited to the absolute lowest possible settings your game will run. Now, that’s not to say you won’t enjoy playing it. You simply won’t be doing 60 FPS 1080p full screen action. Its performance in the graphics department is where this MacBook starts to feel like a NetBook. I play a lot of different games, and for the heavier ones I have a more powerful computer. I do manage a little gaming on this ultrabook both on the go and at my desk with an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse.

Here are some examples to give you an idea of what to expect on the lowest settings:

  • World of Warcraft (2005, 25-35 FPS)
  • Dirt Rally (2015, 30-40 FPS)
  • Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (2012, 25-30 FPS)
  • Resident Evil 5 (2009, 30-45 FPS)
  • Counterstrike: Global Offensive (2012, 40-55 FPS)
  • Sims 4 (2014, 35 FPS)
  • FIFA 16 (2015, 23 FPS)
  • FIFA 17 (2016, 5-10 FPS)
  • Borderlands 2 (2012, 15-19 FPS)
  • Alien: Isolation (2014, 20 FPS)
  • XCOM 2 (2016, 4 FPS)
  • Far Cry Primal (2016, 7 FPS)

The games that play best are usually older games, with a few exceptions.

Sad FaceTime

You might look good holding this all-new MacBook, but you won’t look good through it! Apple has included an extremely depressing 480p webcam and it’s really, really bad. If you don’t have amazing light and you’re not wearing the right colors, you’ll look shabby on this laughable non-HD cam. It’s so bad that the first generation iPad Mini actually has a front-facing camera twice as powerful. It’s no secret that a better camera would mean a thicker screen. Apple is counting on you having a smartphone (preferably iPhone) in your pocket as you use your MacBook. In a bind, you can survive with it, but it’s not even close to ideal. The microphone is decent, however.

Notable Mentions

For a laptop with so few ports, you would think it’s packed to the max with batteries, and it is. The downside is most of the battery power is gobbled up powering the stunning Retina screen. I would have liked to see at least an even 10 hours of battery life, but Apple falls a little short and rates this model at 9 hours. It’s just barely going to get you through an all-day work session, depending on which apps you need to use. If you can live with carrying around a few dongles, the sole USB-C port can be used to charge this MacBook off a portable battery pack, just like a smartphone! Even if you only carried an ultralight battery module, you could easily squeeze an extra 50% charge, bringing you to nearly 14 hours of juice without having to search for an open wall outlet.

If you need to edit 4K video on a train and have it ready when you reach your destination, you’re going to be disappointed and Apple’s okay with that; you’re not the target demographic for this Mac. If you wish the iPad Pro ran macOS instead of iOS, and you’re tired of looking at your MacBook Air, the 12-inch MacBook will quickly become your favorite computer. It’s deceivingly light and feels snappy enough with a few caveats.

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