It’s so easy to blast Apple for sacrificing utility in the name of beautiful design. Everybody does it every time a new Apple product comes out.
The iPhone, 2007: “No keys! No memory card! No removable battery! Doomed!”
The MacBook Air, 2008: “No DVD drive! No hard drive! Doomed!”
The iPad, 2010: “No USB ports! No expansion! Doomed!”
But time passes. The tumult dies down, the product becomes a huge hit, and rival companies soon embrace exactly the same design.
This Friday, you’ll be able to buy the company’s latest product, the MacBook. Not the MacBook Air, not the MacBook Pro (both of which will remain for sale). Just MacBook.
Yes, the cycle of “Doomed!” is about to begin again. I know this cycle too well. I’ve lived through it over and over. And even so, this time, when I behold this new 12-inch MacBook, I want to shout: “This time, you’ve really gone too far!”
I mean, no jacks at all!?
That’s correct. No standard USB jacks, no video output jacks, no memory card slot, no Thunderbolt port, no Ethernet.
On top of all that, Apple has the gall to introduce another MacBook power connector. With this model, Apple has abandoned the MagSafe connector (both versions of it), the magnetic charging plug that doesn’t drag your laptop to the floor when someone trips on it.
When Apple unveiled MagSafe, Steve Jobs hailed it as a triumph of clever engineering and common sense. And now suddenly MagSafe is dropped like chopped liver.
Meet the MacBook
OK, well, that’s the bad news.
The good news is that this laptop looks amazing. It is crazy thin, light, and small. It’s available in three aluminum hues (a first for Apple) — standard silver, gold, and gray. The gray looks wicked great.
How crazy thin is the MacBook? Thin enough to make the MacBook Air look like a fatso. This laptop is half an inch thick at its thickest point — closed. Here are some comparisons:
How crazy light is it? Under two pounds. So light, you go through a momentary panic every time you leave a restaurant with your bag,because you assume you’ve left your laptop behind. No, it’s in there; you just can’t feel it.
How crazy small? The guy in the airplane seat in front of you can recline all the way, and you can still have your MacBook open at whatever angle you like, with room to spare on the tray table.
Here it is, next to the current MacBook Air:
The MacBook is a sleek, beautiful physical object that’s dangerously close to nonexistent.
The big four
Once you open the lid, you discover more good news: Apple didn’t skimp on any of the Big Four: Screen, keyboard, trackpad, and battery.
* Screen. The MacBook has one of Apple’s super-high-resolution Retina displays (226 dots per inch), appearing on a compact MacBook for the first time. (And no, you still can’t get a Retina screen on a MacBook Air.)
The resolution is 2304 by 1440 pixels, which is much greater than the 1440 by 900 on a current 13-inch MacBook Air. So many pixels in so small a space (12 inches diagonal) makes text so sharp, you could cut tomatoes with it.
* Keyboard. Apple has developed a new keyboard that it says makes the keys wobble less when you’re typing. You don’t really hear people complain about wobbly keys much, so I’m not sure what this is all about.
But the main thing is that the keys are full size. (In fact, they’re actually bigger than the keys on other MacBooks, and there’s less gap between them.) Apple created such a small laptop without sacrificing keyboard size by eliminating the pointless margin around the deck. The keyboard stretches edge to edge.
Typing feels a little different, but you get used to it quickly.
Every key now has its own LED light, too — instead of sharing a single light source inside, as in other MacBooks. That’s supposed to provide more even keyboard lighting, but I’m not sure you’d notice.
One thing you will notice is that the Apple logo on the open lid no longer glows. It’s just a silver Apple.
* Trackpad. The trackpad is new, too. It’s huge. And it’s no longer hinged at the top; now you can click on it anywhere (instead of just the lower part). In fact, it doesn’t really click at all. You feel a click, thanks to an electromagnetic fakeout underneath, but the trackpad surface never actually moves.
It’s also — get this — pressure-sensitive, a first in an Apple trackpad. This is a big deal, a whole new user-interface element. Pressing down harder makes you fast-forward faster in a QuickTime movie, or zoom in Maps.
You can also force click (click hard) on an email attachment to get a Quick Look preview of it, on a date and time in a message to create a new calendar event for it, on a word to find out what it means, or on an address to open it up in Maps.
Pressure sensitivity is also an element on the Apple Watch’s screen, and I’ll bet it’ll come to iPhones and iPads soon enough. Apple just updated its 13-inch MacBook Pro with this trackpad, and it will likely come to other models eventually.
* Battery. Incredibly, the new MacBook really does get the 9-hour life Apple promises. To pull that off, Apple had to shrink the guts down to a tiny circuit board huddled at one edge — surrounded by an entire ocean of batteries.
To fit into the MacBook’s tapered case without wasting any space, Apple designed them in thin slices, terracing them. Crazy.
About those jacks
And now, back to the painful part: the MacBook’s appalling lack of jacks.
There’s a headphone jack on the right side. Good.
On the left, there’s only one connector, a new one called USB-C.
USB Type C was concocted by a consortium of Google, Apple, and others. It’s tiny — about the same size as a micro USB, so it’s small enough to be built into tablets and phones as well as laptops.
Unlike today’s USB, there’s no wrong side up to these connectors (just like Apple’s new Lightning connector), and the cables are the same on both ends (which is completely new, even for Apple).
Even more amazing: USB-C can conduct power, and video, and data. This single jack, in other words, can accommodate your power adapter, your external monitor or projector, and your hard drives and flash drives. With the right adapter, it can even do all of that simultaneously.
And once all companies’ laptops move to USB-C power cords, they’ll all be interchangeable, no matter what brand or model you have.
OK, that’s all fantastic. But if USB-C is so great, why does Apple give us only one of them?
Without buying a splitter/adapter, you cannot connect this MacBook to a monitor, hard drive, or flash drive while it’s plugged in.
I’ll wait here while you let that sink in.
I mean, hasn’t Apple finally gone too far with this streamlining business? Isn’t this a stripping-down that the public will finally reward with hostility?
Apple cheerfully points out that if you live exclusively in an Apple world, you don’t need any physical connections — everything can be wireless. Why would you need a hard drive when you could buy space on Apple’s Internet-based iCloud Drive, or back up wirelessly to a Time Capsule? Why would you need a flash drive when you can use AirDrop to send files to another Mac? Why would you need a video-output jack when you can send video wirelessly to an Apple TV?
If you foolishly choose to live in a world where non-Apple devices occasionally appear, well, then you can buy USB-C-to-USB-A adapter cable ($20 from Apple), or a splitter that let you connect to power, a monitor, and one standard USB device simultaneously ($80).
But what about people who routinely pop cameras’ memory cards into the SD slots on the other MacBook models? What about people who regularly give presentations on a projector? What are you going to do the next time someone hands you a flash drive?
If you have the new MacBook, you’ll do a lot of fumbling for adapters from your laptop bag.
What else is lost
To keep its battery life up and its heat down (the MacBook contains no fan), the new computer comes with a slower processor than other MacBook lines: the Intel Core M.
You can certainly be productive reading, typing, spreadsheeting, and watching videos. But you pay a speed penalty when you open a program. In a series of app-opening races against my year-old MacBook Air (Core i7), the new MacBook lost every time, and sometimes by a lot. A program that opens on the Air in 4 seconds might take 7 or 8 seconds on the newer laptop.
You’ll also notice the difference in labor-intensive tasks like applying Photoshop filters and exporting video.
And the price for all of this beauty, sparseness, and slowness? $1,300 (1.1 GHz processor, 256 gigabytes of storage) or $1,600 (1.2 GHz processor, 512 GB of storage).
For the same $1,300, you can get a MacBook Air with the same memory (8 GB) and storage (256 GB), but a much faster processor (1.6 GHz Intel i5) and a full array of ports.
The new MacBook is really small and thin and great-looking. I mean, you could practically fold it into a paper airplane. And when the FedEx man arrives, he can slip it under your front door.
But unless you’re a well-heeled executive who doesn’t do much besides write, email, and surf the Web, the price you pay — in speed, utility, and, yes, price — is just too high.
We know what this is: This is the 2008 MacBook Air. Today, the MacBook Air is frequently cited as the best laptop on the market — but the first model, in 2008, was also called overpriced, underpowered, and amazing-looking. In the same way, the 12-inch MacBooks of 2016 and 2017 will lose their flaws, enter a new era of USB-C compatibility, and seem much more at home in a more wireless world.
Even Apple is allowed to start with a 1.0 version. But you don’t have to buy it.