MacBook 2016 review: Ultraportable laptop satisfies with speed gains

When it comes to hardware, Apple isn’t afraid to force its uses to adapt, to change habits. Longtime Mac users remember when Apple stopped including floppy and optical drives, or when FireWire was discontinued. More recently, Mac users have had to accept the inability to upgrade hard drives and RAM, or that the Magic Trackpad 2 is the preferred input device, with its support for gestures that can’t be performed on a Magic Mouse 2.

The MacBook is one of those game-changers. When it was released last year, it was pretty obvious that Apple wanted to push its users in a certain direction, to a place where there are no wires, where you depend on the cloud, where you can carry a laptop effortlessly and never worry about the battery running out.

The push was more like a big shove. Apple’s thinnest and lightest laptop has only one port for connecting devices, and it sports a processor that sacrifices performance. And Mac users pushed back, especially about the single port. It wasn’t hard to find someone who wished that the MacBook was more like theMacBook Pro or that Apple would do something with the MacBook Air. (Apple diddo something with the Mac Book Air.

 

When Apple announced that it was updating the MacBook, Mac fans clicked on news links in anticipation. Will Apple add another port? Or maybe upgrade from USB-C to Thunderbolt 3? How ‘bout an HD FaceTime camera instead of the 480p camera that was on last year’s MacBook?

Nope, sorry. None of those features were added. But Apple did upgrade the processors and graphics. That’s certainly nothing to scoff at. In fact, the MacBook closes the gaps between itself, the MacBook Pro, and the MacBook Air, so much so that for general use, the speed should satisfy most users.The MacBook also has longer battery life. Apple’s battery specification is now an hour longer than the previous MacBook; ten hours for “wireless web” and 11 hours for “iTunes movie playback.” Apple told me that the longer battery life is due to better battery chemistry. The size of the battery is the same as before.

And, oh yeah, the MacBook is available in Rose Gold now, in addition to Gold, Silver, and Space Gray. You won’t find those color options with the current MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, for what it’s worth.

A better performer

Everything on the outside of the MacBook is the same as before, so I won’t dive into my thoughts on things like its size, weight, and construction; the 12-inch, 2304×1440 Retina display; the Force Trackpad; or the keyboard. For more details about these parts, see our review of the 2015 MacBook by Jason Snell. His thoughts on those parts still hold up and jibe with my thoughts, though maybe I dislike the keyboard more than Jason does.

The major changes are internal, so let’s focus on those. The MacBook now has Intel Skylake processors, an upgrade over the Broadwell processors used when the MacBook was introduced last year. Apple uses the Core M version of Intel’s processors in the MacBook, which are designed for mobile devices.

Apple offers two standard configurations: the $1,299 MacBook features a 1.1GHz dual core

 Core m3 processor with Turbo Boost up to 2.2GHz, and the $1,599 MacBook has a 1.2GHz dual-core Core m5 processor with Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz. (Both models have 4MB L3 cache and 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 RAM.) For an additional fee, you can upgrade the processor to a 1.3GHz dual-core Core m7 processor with Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz. (This review focuses on the $1,599 MacBook.)

How much of a speed improvement does the 2016 MacBook offer over last’s year’s version? Using Geekbench 3, the 1.2GHz Core m5 offers an increase ranging from 11 to 30 percent, depending on the older processor that it is being compared to. For example, in Geekbench’s 64-bit multi-core test, the 1.2GHz Core m5 is 11 percent faster than the 1.3GHz dual-core Core M processor that was an upgrade option for the 2015 MacBook. Another example: In the same test, the the 1.2GHz Core m5 is 30 percent faster than the 2015 MacBook’s 1.1GHz Core M processor. Generally speaking, the speed increase isn’t unusual; we’ve seen similar increases in past Mac laptop upgrades. Faster is always better.

Now let’s compare the performance to the MacBook Air. Last year’s MacBook was about 9 percent slower than the current 1.6GHz MacBook Air (which was released in March of 2015 with a Broadwell processor). That speed difference threw a wrench into a shopper’s decision making: Pay $1,199 for a faster 13-inch MacBook Air or spend $1,299 or $1,599 for a slower MacBook? (Sure, there are other differences to consider, like the display and ports, but I’m simplifying here for argument’s sake.)

Fortunately, with the new MacBook, you feel like you’re getting performance that better justifies the price difference. The 1.2GHz Core m5 MacBook is 12 percent faster than the 1.6GHz MacBook Air in Geekbench’s single-core test; that’s a nice boost compared to last year, where the 2015 MacBook was as fast or slower (depending on which processor you pick) than the MacBook Air. In Geekbench’s multi-core test, the new MacBook was just 1 percent faster than the MacBook Air. But to put that in perspective, last year’s MacBook was slower than the MacBook Air by a range of 9 to 20 percent.

For reference, I also compared the 1.2GHz Core m5 MacBook to the current 13-inch MacBook Pro models, which have Broadwell processors. Interestingly, the MacBook isn’t far behind in Geekbench’s single-core test. That means that for tasks like email, writing apps, spreadsheets, and basic websites, you may not notice a speed difference between the two different laptops. But as expected, the MacBook Pro blows past the MacBook in Geekbench’s multi-core test. Translation: With apps that can use multiple processing cores, like professional video, audio, or image editors, you’re better off with a MacBook Pro.

One last platform comparison: How does the new MacBook stack up against the iPad Pro from a pure performance standpoint? You might be surprised. Both the 12.9-inch and 9.7-inch iPad Pro perform in line with the new MacBook. Just another thing to consider (or to make your decision more complicated).

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