My Favorite Mac: The New 12″ Retina MacBook

After three weeks with the new MacBook, I can easily declare it as my favorite Mac, and none of the details that left some of the tech press wailing and gnashing their teeth have actually been a problem. Only one port? A minor annoyance at worst. Performance? It works great for everything that I need to do. Keyboard? I absolutely love it and can’t imagine switching back. In hindsight, the only regret I have is spending all that money on an iPad Air 2.

Hardware History

Since there is no way to avoid comparing the new MacBook to other Macs, let me give you a short history of my Mac hardware lineage. In 2004, I bought a PowerBook G4, which turned out to be one of the last PowerPC laptops that Apple made. I bought one of the first white plastic MacBooks once the switch to Intel happened, but ended up selling it relatively soon to a friend whose son was leaving for college and really wanted a Mac. I replaced it with a black MacBook. Around 2007 or 2008 I bought a 24" iMac. In 2011, I bought a MacBook Air. A couple of years ago, my friend Tom Bridge gave me a 2008 MacBook Pro which had belonged to his wife Tiffany Bridge. Last but not least, I bought myself a quad core i7 Mac mini as a graduation present and upgraded it to 16 GB of RAM. I also have a Macminicolo machine where I run my various websites, etc.

The PowerBook stopped working because the power port was damaged and it could no longer be recharged. The “BlackBook” can’t run anything newer than Lion and needs a new battery. I put an SSD in the iMac so it still runs really well, but I really need a portable Mac. The MacBook Air developed a problem where the “R” key seems to be dead, so it can only be used with an external keyboard, plus, it’s limited to 4 GB of RAM, which doesn’t seem like enough these days.

I didn’t think I’d ever love another Mac laptop as much as I loved my 15" MacBook Pro: I had been able to upgrade the RAM; it had a nice big screen; I had removed the SuperDrive and replaced it with a second hard drive which allows me to create a 768 GB Fusion Drive; heck, I had even replaced the battery. I knew that no future MacBook Pro would ever be as repairable and extensible as it was. Unfortunately, it recently developed a problem which appears to be related to the logic board, and it no longer made any sense to keep putting time and money into it.

It’s important to understand that background because it contributes to how I made my decision to buy a new Mac. I had been hoping to wait until the new MacBook Pros come out with the next generation Intel chips in them, but Intel has apparently had trouble getting them to market, and the next-next generation Intel chips are supposedly coming out this fall. Apple recently did a spec-bump on the MacBook Pro, but it was fairly modest. When my MacBook Pro could no longer go more than 30 minutes without kernel panics, I knew it was time to start looking for a new portable solution. (When is it time to buy a new Mac? “Wait as long as you can, but no longer.”)

I went to the Apple Store with really only one question in mind: “Will I buy a 13" or as 15" MacBook Pro?”

“If you already have a powerful desktop Mac, why not just use an iPad Air?”

Last year, I replaced my iPad 3 with an iPad Air 2. I splurged and went for the 128 GB cellular model. It’s a very capable portable computer, and it can do a lot, but it can’t do nearly all of the things that a Mac can do. Even with the new multitasking features coming in iOS 9 (which look fantastic), there’s no way an iPad can replace my Mac.

Obviously that isn’t true for everyone (Hi Federico!) but it’s definitely the case for me. Even after spending about a week without a Mac laptop, and knowing enough to try to re-create some of my OS X workflows in iOS, I found it to be frustrating, and not something I wanted to keep trying to do.

The Plan: Buy a MacBook Pro

When I realized that I definitely needed a new Mac, I spent some time configuring both the 13" and 15" MacBook Pro models on Apple’s online store. However, since I had never seen a Retina display Mac before (a very intentional decision to avoid wanting to have one before I was ready to buy one), I knew I had to go see them in person. Would I be willing to downsize to a 13" Mac from a 15" if the 13" was Retina? The only way to tell would be to test one.

I went to an Apple Store and spent a long time using both MacBook Pro models, comparing the specs of the various test models, and looking them up to see what other “Build To Order” options were available. The problem was that I wanted the size of the 13" but I wanted the 15" for its better processor. I really wanted an SSD, and since it was never going to be upgradeable, I figured I should go for the 1 TB SSD. By the time I was finished, I had a $2700 MacBook Pro configured. Plus tax and AppleCare. So…$3,000.

Yikes.

That made me stop and ask “OK, but do I really need a $3,000 MacBook Pro?” Not really. It was very easy to get into the mindset of creeping up the “Build To Order” charts, but when I stopped to think about it without focusing on the specs, I realized that I definitely preferred the size of the 13" to the 15".

I spend a good deal of time with my MacBook on a lap-desk while I’m watching TV with the family, so lighter is better. Do I really need a 1 TB drive? Honestly, no. Sure, I had a 768 GB drive in my MacBook Pro, but there was a lot of extra space on it. I keep movies, etc. on my Mac mini and music will be delivered either by Spotify or Apple Music, so I knew I could get away with a 512 GB SSD.

Do I need a quad core i7 processor in my laptop? This was my biggest hurdle. I have always thought that the best way to buy a laptop is to buy the best one you can afford and keep it as long as you can. But buying a laptop has changed a lot over the past 10 years, and I had to think differently about what I really needed.

When it came right down to it, I realized that (by modern standards) I don’t do much that is processor-intensive, and if I find something that I really do need to do, I can always do it on my Mac mini.

All of those thoughts were part of the decision to go home and configure a middle-of-the-road 13" MacBook Pro instead of a top-of-the-line 15" MacBook Pro.

The Plot Twist

As I turned to leave, I happened to see the 12" MacBook. Since I listen to a bunch of Mac podcasts and read a bunch of Mac websites, I knew that I didn’t want a 12" MacBook because it is way underpowered and only has one port although maybe the next version will have two, but I was intrigued to try the keyboard, as I had heard it described as either “terrible” or “not bad but an obvious compromise.”

I went to look at the MacBook mostly because I wanted to see how the keyboard felt, and maybe leave a note to Marco that I could take a picture of and post to Twitter.

But a funny thing happened: almost immediately I found myself really liking the keyboard. A lot. I loved that I just had to tap them lightly in order to have the keypress recognized. It felt great, and the larger keys seemed a lot easier for me to use.

Then I picked up the MacBook and said aloud, “Oh, come on.” An Apple Store employee was standing nearby to greet people as they entered the store. When he heard me, he turned to look, saw what I had done, and laughed. “Kinda wild, right?” he said. Compared to my 2008 MacBook Pro, even the 2015 MacBook Pro is amazingly light. I still remember unpacking my 2011 MacBook Air and being amazed at its lightness. But nothing could compare to the new MacBook.

Whereas a moment earlier I had been asking “Do I really need all of those high-end specs?” now I was thinking “Why would I ever want something bigger and heavier than this?”

But I am not easily swayed, and reminded myself that the MacBook was not nearly as powerful as what I needed. So I set out to find its flaws, but everything I tried seemed to work fine. Finally, I asked myself, “What would I want to do on this that I don’t think I could do (given its processor)?” Nothing came to mind. The vast majority of thing I do on a computer simply do not require a heavy-duty processor.

A Cooling-Off Period

I left the Apple Store because I had to meet someone, and decided that I probably needed a break from my Apple Store showroom experience with the MacBook. I assumed that once I left the store and found some reviews online, I would no longer be captivated by the new MacBook.

When I returned home, I started reading actual hands-on reviews of the MacBook to see how it would handle various tasks. I was disappointed to find that most of the reviews weren’t really reviews, but seemed more like “thought pieces” about whether the changes in the new MacBook will come to other MacBooks, or articles from people who tried the MacBook briefly but didn’t like it almost as quickly as I had liked it.

Ars Technica had two reviews (an initial “hands-on” and then a fuller review, a month later). Those two articles turned out to be a significant turning point in my decision-making process. They wrote:

We’ll need to have the system in hand to examine how the laptop throttles its CPU and GPU to save power, which will be important for things like gaming, video editing, and heavy Photoshop work.

I don’t do any of those things, so I didn’t need to worry about them.

For general-use tasks that don’t peg the processor, the oversimplified version is that Core M performs a lot like the Ivy Bridge Core i5 and i7 CPUs in the 2012 MacBook Airs. If you’ve got a 2013 or 2015 MacBook Air, it will be a step down. If you have a 2012 MacBook Air, it’s a step sideways at best.

I have a 2011 MacBook Air, but I have been using a 2008 MacBook Pro. The new MacBook obviously would not be as much of a leap forward as I could have gotten with a MacBook Pro, but would it be sufficient for my needs?

Ars’s full review lists these as negatives:

Performance is a step or two behind recent Broadwell-U Macs.

But compared to what I have been using, it will be a step forward, and for what I actually do the vast majority of the time, it will be an improvement. Plus I have the Mac mini as a safety net if I suddenly need to start rendering video.

In 1440×900 mode, the integrated GPU sometimes struggles to keep up with the high-res screen.

“Sometimes” wasn’t enough to convince me this was a real problem versus a problem that one might see when doing a series of benchmark-like tests on a new computer. (In my actual use, I haven’t seen this at all.)

Upgrades are impossible. Everything from the RAM to the SSD is soldered to the tiny motherboard.

All of the MacBooks are now pretty much sealed boxes with very little possibility of being upgraded later, so this isn’t really a significant downside.

Mediocre webcam.

I use my Mac’s webcam approximately never.

Life with one port is a compromise, whether you decide to go all-in on new dongles and cables or not.

This struck me as potentially the most annoying part of the new MacBook, and something I needed to think about further.

“How often do I use USB?”

If you asked me how often I need to use USB, I would have answered “All the time.” That was one of the reasons why I “knew” the MacBook wasn’t for me. If two USB ports never felt like enough, so how could I live with one USB-C port?

However, once I started to think about it, I could only come up with two things that I actually do on a regular basis which require a USB port:

  1. Update SuperDuper.
  2. Copy a file from a CD (once a week).

Backups are important. My friends know that I can be a little bit obsessive about backups. I think a bootable backup is an important part of a backup strategy, but it is just a part.

My first line of backup defense is a Time Capsule which runs hourly to backup all the important files on my Mac. I also use CrashPlan because it runs anytime I am connected to any network, and gives me an off-site backup. (I have also used Backblaze which seems just as good, but I have a “family plan” with CrashPlan which allows me to backup all of my computers to one account.)

A bootable backup of my Mac is an important third-leg of my backup system, but since everything is getting backed up in at least two different places in addition to my bootable backup, I can get by with updating it once a week without worrying that I am going to lose anything.

Copying a file from a CD is something that I can do fairly easily on several other Macs, such as my iMac or Mac mini (which has an external attached to it). In fact, using Hazel and BitTorrent Sync, I can automate the entire process, so that all I need to do is put the CD into the Mac mini’s drive and the file I need will end up on MacBook. Or I could hook up my Apple USB SuperDrive if I really need to.

When else do I use my USB ports? Not often. I have a USB thumb drive on my keychain, but I stopped carrying it because I realized that I never actually found myself needing it. Occasionally, I plug in my iPhone or iPad to use PhoneView or just to charge it, but not nearly enough to consider this a deal-breaker.

Apple sells a USB-C to USB Adapter for $20 and an $80 USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter which does USB-C (for power), HDMI, and “regular” USB. Also, since USB-C is not an Apple-specific connector, other companies are likely to come out with connectors and adapters in the future.

After thinking through all of these things, I realized I could seriously consider the new MacBook. I decided to return to the Apple Store for a more thorough test, especially of the keyboard. It seemed impossible that I would like it as much in the long-term as I did initially. The only way to find out was to sit down and use it for an extended period, and I was determined to do that before buying it rather than getting it home and discovering it afterwards.

A More Careful Testing Experience

When I arrived at the Apple Store the next day, I asked for permission to borrow one of the stools from the One-To-One area and put it in front of a demo MacBook unit. I suspected that they might not want someone sitting in front of one of the demo units for an extended amount of time, or perhaps they would not want someone sitting on a stool in the front part of the store close to the door, but they were very accommodating.1

I don’t have a terribly great fear of looking odd in public, especially compared to how much I dislike returning things after buying them, so it didn’t take long to settle in to my perch and start my more thorough test.

The Keyboard

I spent almost an hour typing on the new keyboard, and using the computer in “regular” usage to see how I would like it. If you’ve read anything about the new MacBook, you’ve heard about the new keyboard, how the keys are larger but the configuration is the same, and about how the “travel” of the keyboard is very shallow. I have read various comments about the keyboard from people who (at best) “didn’t love it but could accept it” or (at worst) just hated it and couldn’t use it.

It definitely felt very different when I started using it, but it did not take long for me to realize that I really, really like the keyboard. I can understand why some other people might not like it, and I can imagine that it might be difficult if you have to switch between various computers on a regular basis (i.e. work computer, home desktop computer, and laptop). But I immediately realized that as my primary computer, I would really enjoy this keyboard. (After three weeks of usage, I wouldn’t want to go back to the old keyboard even if it wouldn’t change anything else about the MacBook.)

The Screen

This was also my first extended use of a Mac with a Retina screen, and holy wow is it great. My 15" MacBook Pro ran at 1440x900, which is the same resolution that the new MacBook can achieve at its highest setting. (The in-store unit was set to the second-highest resolution setting, but I changed that almost immediately after sitting down.)

I’m 42 and my eyes aren’t perfect, but I can very happily use the MacBook at 1440x900 in Retina, which means that I have the same “space” that I had on my 15" MacBook Pro, except smaller and sharper and more awesome.

The Weight

I know I’ve already gushed over this, but I just wanted to add that I brought my iPad Air 2 with its keyboard cover with me to the Apple Store, and even that looks bulky compared to the MacBook.

I probably picked up the model unit 3-4 times in the time I was there (in hindsight I wonder if anyone thought I was going to try to steal it). Every time I thought to myself, “Yup, I was right, this is absurdly light.”

It’s hard to describe if you haven’t experienced it in person, but it really feels like if the MacBook was to get much thinner and lighter, it might actually be difficult to keep it from sliding around while you type on it.

The Fans

I have nothing to say about the fans…because there aren’t any! (insert rimshot here).

On the other hand, I have a lot to say about the lack of fans. Again, let me compare this to my previous 2008 MacBook Pro, and to the app smcFanControl which I often used to crank the fans up to full power in order to cool it down. It was heavy and it was hot and it was noisy. After putting the MacBook through a solid hour of testing, I felt the table underneath it and it was warm to the touch, but not hot. The bottom of the MacBook itself was warm enough to notice but otherwise not really noteworthy.

(While writing this article, I fired up iStat Menus and the MacBook is running about 50ºC. If I put my hand on the bottom of it, there is barely any warmth coming from it at all. That is what I would consider to be the MacBook’s usual state. Can you get it to warm up? Sure. Is it going to get so hot you worry about it? No.)

Sold!

As you already know by now, I walked out of the Apple Store a very happy owner of a new 512 GB MacBook with a 1.2GHz processor. 2

In my first day of regular use with the MacBook I was using it pretty much non-stop from 9 AM to 2 PM. I spent all of that time on battery only, and still had 33% of the battery left. I leave my charger at work during the week and keep my MacBook plugged in during the day. When I get home, I use it on battery and have plenty left by bedtime. FruitJuice tells me that I am very easily reaching the desired amount of battery usage per day, which I hope means that the battery will live a nice, long life.

Accessories… after the fact

I did buy Apple’s $80 USB-C Digital AV Multiport Adapter, more as a “safety net” in case I need it than anything else. I wish it had another “regular” USB ports in lieu of the HDMI port, but oh well. As I suspected, the Apple USB SuperDrive (which I already owned) works fine with it.

I plan to buy the AppleCare Protection Plan for Mac Laptops 13 Inches and Below for $189 at Amazon, instead of $250 from Apple. AppleCare has saved my bacon in the past, and especially considering that this is a first generation product, it seems like a good idea.

I bought the Anker USB-C to 4-Port USB 3.0 Hub but I plan to return it. The MacBook does not seem to provide enough power over the USB-C port to recommend plugging in 4 USB devices at once. I tested this by plugging in a bus-powered USB hard drive and my Blu-Ray drive (which can use 2 USB plugs to ensure it gets enough power). The end result was…not pretty. The Blu-Ray drive failed to read a DVD, and the USB hard drive was corrupted so badly that I had to completely reformat it. Yikes. That’s not a test I’ll be trying again any time soon.

Anker also makes a USB-C to 3-Port USB 3.0 Hub with Ethernet Adapter which I might consider, although the times that I need to plug in to Ethernet are few and far between.

I also bought a Anker Ultra-High Capacity 20800mAh 3-Port 4A Compact Portable Charger hoping that might be enough to power the MacBook “on the road” but it does not seem to, at least when actively using it. I’m sure it would re-charge it overnight, but that isn’t what I really wanted it for.

Last but not least, I bought a Photive 50 Watt 6 Port USB Desktop Rapid Charger and USB 2.0 Type C to Type A. Now I can plug in my iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Bluetooth headphones, iPhone battery pack, and the MacBook next to my bed at night, and in the morning the MacBook will be back to full-charge.

It seems worth noting that if you want an extra MacBook charger, Apple’s 29W USB-C Power Adapter is $50 and does not come with a USB-C cable, which seems absurd considering that almost no one will have one.

Even more absurd is that Apple’s USB-C Charge Cable (2m) is $30. I don’t know who decided that every accessory in an Apple Store has to be at least $30, but it’s beyond ridiculous at this point. Monoprice has a 6ft USB-C to USB-C for $13.

That said, even if you buy a $50 Apple charger and a $30 Apple cord, that’s still the same price as the Apple 60W MagSafe Power Adapter, so you’re no worse off than you would be with a different MacBook. On the other hand, the option to use a non-Apple power cord/charger is something Mac users haven’t really had since the dawn of the MagSafe era, almost 10 years ago.

Speaking of MagSafe, that’s another change that I wasn’t sure about. Between 4 dogs and 3 people in the house, tripping over a cord has happened in the past. However, with this MacBook, I have avoided that (so far) by only leaving the MacBook plugged in on my desk at work, or in its overnight recharging spot at home. Instead of spending $80 on an Apple charger, I’ve been recharging it overnight using a $9 USB-C to USB-A cable plugged in to a USB charger I already had. So far that has worked for me.

Conclusion

After three weeks of use, I can say with absolute certainty that I regret absolutely nothing about this MacBook. I don’t even mind the fact that I didn’t get the Space Gray model, since I have a lot of other silver-colored accessories, like the SuperDrive, and my external USB drive. I have FileVault 2 running and haven’t noticed any slow-downs. I have over 300 GB free on my internal drive, so there’s plenty of space. I have used Apple’s new Photos app and performance is good, at least so far with my “test” library. The most CPU-intensive stuff I have done is some very light audio editing using Fission and Audacity (basically trimming, applying a few effects, and exporting) and performance has been fine. I can watch 1080p video in VLC without any issues.

And all the while the MacBook runs smooth, cool, and quiet. The screen still amazes me every day. I still love the keyboard every bit as much as I did the first time I tried it. The size and weight (or lack thereof) are both very impressive. Grabbing my laptop to go with me is no more of a problem than grabbing my iPad would be, and I get all of the advantages of having OS X with me wherever I go.

If you are in the market for a new portable computer, make sure you test the new MacBook. You might be surprised.


  1. My thanks to the folks at the Apple Retail Store at Solomon Pond Mall in Massachusetts for their indulgence. Oh, and in case anyone is wondering, they had no idea that I might write about my in-store experience with them. ↩︎
  2. Mine is silver. I wanted a Space Gray model, but they seem to be out of stock everywhere, and it felt silly to wait for 3-4 weeks versus walking out of the store with the model I wanted, just because of the color. If my previous MacBook Pro had not become completely unreliable, I might have considered trying to wait. ↩︎

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