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The New MacBook: Who’s It For?

Rafe Needleman
Editorial Director, Yahoo Tech
Yahoo Tech

I just got back from the Apple press event in San Francisco, where Apple unveiled a brand-new version of the Apple MacBook. This new MacBook is thin, light, and gorgeous. And it’s a bit of a puzzle in Apple’s lineup of notebook computers.

Before you buy it, you’ll have to ask yourself a few questions. For example: How much are you willing to pay for thinness, or a gold or gray computer? Can you live without any ports at all on my computer? Do you care about performance? Really? How much?

Hands-on with the new MacBook

(Photo: Rafe Needleman/Yahoo)

The new MacBook –– that’s what it’s called, simply the MacBook –– comes in only one size, with a 12-inch screen. It is dwarfed by the 13-inch MacBook Air, which was previously the gold standard in no-compromise ultralight notebooks. (The smaller 11-inch Air has a really small screen.)

The “writer’s notebook” crown must now go to the MacBook, which is so much smaller and lighter than the Air but still has a full-sized keyboard. However, the new machine contains a raft of paradoxes and sacrifices that will confuse the buyer looking for the best ultralight workhorse.

In the MacBook’s favor: That 12-inch screen is a Retina display, which means that it is unbelievably sharp and beautiful, with a resolution of 2304 by 1440 pixels. The old 13-inch Airs still have a 1440-by-900 display. The MacBook’s screen would be the ultimate portable display for graphics and video editing, except for one thing.

And that’s the processor. The MacBook is underpowered, compared with the Air. Its processor is Intel’s Core M “Broadwell,” which Apple says combines “energy efficiency with the performance needed to handle everyday tasks.” So keep your Air or your Pro for intensive work, such as serious photo and video editing. The MacBook will be fine for occasional or light-duty editing, but its performance may be annoying for pros.

The Macbook Air’s logic board, top, compared to the new MacBook’s. (Apple)

The new low-power processor, though, runs so cool that this MacBook doesn’t need a fan. And you’ll get a full day of battery life out of it, Apple says.

One more thing: The new MacBook is available in different finishes: Standard silver, like current MacBooks. Gold, which is less tacky than you’d think. And “space gray,” which, in my opinion, is totally badass and the one to get.

Another port change

Just getting used to the MagSafe 2 charger and Thunderbolt port? Kiss ‘em goodbye. The MacBook has only one data port, a USB Type-C connector. Only one. It’ll be used to charge the computer and to hook into all your peripherals that you can’t connect wirelessly. Apple is really pushing on the wireless front. The MacBook has the usual full suite of Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios, all running the absolute latest, fastest versions.

The MacBook’s sole port, except for a headphone jack on the other side. (Photo: Rafe Needleman/Yahoo)

But if you want to, say, power your MacBook while you also run an external monitor from it, or maybe charge your phone or Apple Watch, or connect to the Internet via an Ethernet cable, you’ll need a splitter or breakout box of some sort; Apple is selling a $79 add-on dongle that plugs into the USB C port and gives you slots for power, HDMI, and USB. It’s another annoying compromise you have to make for the MacBook’s thinness.

Better typing and clicking

The new MacBook also has a completely new keyboard and trackpad. The keys on this computer have a new “butterfly” mechanical construction that makes them a little less floppy than current MacBook Air and Pro keys. But they feel different –– they might not press down as far –– so it will take people a little time to acclimate. I thought they felt more solid, and therefore better, but I did not have time to work with the computer for long.

The new trackpad is also one big uniform button instead of the top-hinged button in the MacBook that you probably have. And it pushes back, under software control. Apple calls it the Force Touch: If you press it once, you get a convincing software-generated click. If you press harder, and the app supports it, you’ll get a second click for further options. Generally, the forceful touch gives you a preview or lookup function, or, in a media player, a “go faster the harder I press” function. It’s very cool and coming immediately to other MacBook models.

What price thinness?

The 12-inch MacBook is not the value leader in the Apple notebook lineup, even if it looks that way on the Apple laptop chart. It starts at $1,299 (1.1 GHz Core M CPU, 8 GB memory, 256 GB solid-state disk), or $1,599 for a more powerful model (1.2 GHz CPU) with more storage (512 GB SSD). Apple’s 11-inch Air is the lowest-cost MacBook you can get, starting at $899; the 13-inch Air starts at $1,199 but goes up quickly as you option it up.

Meanwhile, Apple’s MacBook Pro with Retina display also starts at $1,299, for the 13-inch version, with a full side panel of ports and a faster processor (although less storage in the base configuration). You can also get a non-Retina MacBook for $1,099, with an old-timey spinning hard drive … but don’t.

It looks like Apple is positioning the MacBook at the low end of its lineup, but it’s not so simple. (Apple)

It adds up to a rather confusing lineup of overlapping prices and configurations. Eventually Apple will likely clean up its product matrix and bring the same features (Retina display, USB C ports) to all its notebook computers, but for now, if you want to buy a new MacBook Anything, be prepared for instant buyer’s remorse. You’re probably going to get a great notebook that does everything you need, but for that price, you could also have gotten something else. It’s just going to nag at you.