Apple’s super-thin laptop has brilliant innovation, but perhaps takes the trade-offs too far.
Forget the ‘want/don’t want’ fuss about Apple’s Watch. Another of its 2015 launches has left followers much more perplexed: the wafer-thin, super-?light laptop that brings back the standalone MacBook brand.It includes several remarkable physical and mechanical design features. But nobody is quite sure who the new computer has been made for. Have Apple’s designers maybe gone a trade-off too far?
Let’s look at the innovative design first. The motherboard is 67 per cent smaller than that for the 11-inch MacBook Air. Apple has used the extra space gained to layer in multiple-terraced battery cells.
The company has also switched from a ‘scissor’ mechanism for the keys to a ‘butterfly’ one. The result there is wider keys, but with each in an assembly that is 40 per cent thinner.
Then there’s the touch pad. It uses haptics and pressure sensors rather than a mechanical fitting when you click. More microns shaved.
Moving up to the screen, Apple has redesigned the pixels in the 2304x1440 Retina display so that they will work with an LED backlight that is 30 per cent more efficient. At the same time, the thickness is reduced to 0.88mm. The glass is 0.5mm and the space between display components has also been reduced.
At its widest point, the MacBook is 13.1mm thick, and it weighs 0.92kg. Battery life with wireless on has been independently confirmed at nine hours. And power consumption is not its only ‘green’ feature: the MacBook contains no arsenic, beryllium, BFRs, mercury or PVC in its components - and the fan has been obviated.
You must applaud the engineering. Every discipline involved has delivered something significant. Given how thin and light laptops have already become, that’s saying a lot.
But, given the physical limits these products are reaching, trade-offs become increasingly necessary. From a marketing point of view, some made for this MacBook are already proving controversial.
Foremost is the decision to offer only one input, a USB-C port. The good news is that a USB-C port can provide more power than a simple USB 3.1 connection, while maintaining data transfer speeds up to 5Gbps. The bad news is, well, how exactly do you do two things at once like connect a device or an external display while charging?
The answer is that you can, but it’s going to cost you.
An entry-level MacBook (1.1GHz Intel Core M processor, 256GB flash memory) costs pre-tax the same as the 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina: $1,299, US; £875, UK. That ain’t cheap, particularly given the processor specifications, and yet most users will need to buy peripheral adaptors.
Apple offers an $80 three-way adaptor with outputs comprising a USB-C port, a USB 3.0 port and an HDMI port.
This is an irritating upsell - it’s Apple innit. But it is at least a problem with a solution. Less easily resolved may be the decision to drop the MagSafe charger port. The easy pop-out MagSafe magnetic connector has stopped my own MacBook Air going flying on many occasions, sometimes because of my own clumsiness and sometimes when I’ve been charging on the road and a passer-by has clipped the easy-to-miss cable.
USB-C ports are a lot stickier. Apple has swapped something that was ergonomically great (and which rivals have never matched) for a hostage to fortune. This MacBook may be as light as a Frisbee, but some consumers are going to get very angry if it actually starts behaving like one.
Continuing with trade-off issues, while the logic board shrink and removal of the fan are to be applauded, they have partly been made possible by specifying a power-consumption driven processor from Intel.
The Core M CPU draws just 4.5W and is as much of a reason why the fan has gone and Apple’s claims for battery life stand up. But it has limits.
Some have dismissed the machine as essentially an iPad with a non-detachable keyboard. Not true. The new MacBook and its Core M will still comfortably handle most professional and consumer applications, and in their full OSX versions, rather than stripped-down iOS ones, though limitations may arise for users who need to run graphics, video and technical design applications.
But then look at what a 13-inch MacBook Pro Retina offers for the same price. The haptic trackpad and display carry over, but the Pro then has a 2.7GHz Intel Core i5 processor, three USB 3.0 ports, two Thunderbolt ports, an HDMI port and an SDXC slot, as well as MagSafe.
The basic new MacBook does win on memory, at 256GB against 128GB, and weight, at 0.92kg against 1.58kg. But in the second category, laptops are now getting so light that such differentials are almost more about bragging rights than real differentiation.
Finally, there is the question of repairability. The iFixit teardown team awards the new MacBook a measly 1 out of 10.
Some complaints are the same as for other Apple products (proprietary screws, components soldered to the board include the memory, the Retina display is fused and has no protective glass). However, iFixit makes two further points that bring us back to the impact of the trade-offs.
“The USB-C port is secured by tri-wing screws and buried under the display brackets, complicating replacement. Also, being the only port, it will experience more use and wear than a typical single-purpose port,” iFixit notes. “The battery assembly is entirely, and very solidly, glued into the lower case.”
Despite the MacBook brand, this laptop has undergone so much rethinking that it is a first generation product - and it is typically the second generation that really shines.