I’m still not entirely sure when it actually happened, but at some point over the last couple of years the crossover between tablets and laptops stopped being an idea and became a real thing. Perhaps it was Microsoft’s Surface Pro 3, which came out as an x86 Core architecture tablet that was finally thin enough to no longer be an awkward laptop without an attached keyboard. Or maybe it was the more recent release of Intel’s Core M family of CPUs, which brought the Core architecture to a sub-5W design for the first time while making the overall SoC thinner than ever before.

But either way you cut it, the line between tablets and laptops is blurrier than ever before. The performance of tablets is continuing to improve through faster CPUs and unexpectedly powerful GPUs, all the while laptops and high-performance x86 tablets are getting thinner, lighter, and lower power. There are still some important differences between the devices, and this is a consequence of both current technological limitations as well as design differences, but clearly the point where traditional tablets end and traditional laptops end is no longer a well-defined one.

This brings us to today’s review and today’s launch of Apple’s latest ultra-thin laptop, the simply named MacBook. Though Apple’s device is distinctly a laptop in terms of form factor and design, you’d none the less be excused for mistaking it for a large form factor tablet if you took a look at its overall size and internal configuration, both of which are far closer to a tablet than a laptop. Apple may not be doing any kind of wild 2-in-1 transforming design, or even pushing the concept of a touchscreen OS X device, but they have clearly tapped their immense experience with tablets in putting together the new MacBook.

The 2015 MacBook is an interesting take on building a Mac, one whose outward appearance hides just how much Apple has done under the hood to make it possible. Ostensibly the MacBook is an ultra-thin, ultra-light laptop, pushing beyond even the standards for Ultrabooks as first established by the MacBook Air. Retaining many of the qualities of Apple’s MacBook Air and Retina MacBook Pro lines, the MacBook delivers the Mac laptop experience in a device that is at its largest point just 1.31cm thick, and whose overall footprint is even smaller than the 11” MacBook Air, despite the fact that it includes a larger 12” screen.

From an end-user standpoint then the focus on the MacBook is going to be on its size, especially its thinness. It’s how Apple is choosing to promote it and it’s by far the laptop’s most distinctive attribute. At the same time however is the story of how Apple got to this point, and what trade-offs and sacrifices they had to make to get a laptop into this form factor. The laws of physics enforce a pretty clear trade-off between size and performance, so in creating the MacBook Apple has not only created a new size category of Macs, but a new performance category as well. It’s smaller than even the MacBook Air, but it also follows a different performance curve, and ultimately is targeted at a somewhat different user base than the now-traditional ultrabook.

2015 MacBook Lineup
  MacBook
Base
(Model Tested)
MacBook
High-End
MacBook
Max Config.
MacBook Air 11" (2015)
Dimensions
H: 0.11-0.52" (0.35-1.31cm)
W: 11.04" (28.05cm)
D: 7.74" (19.65cm)
H: 0.11-0.68" (0.3-1.7cm)
W: 11.8" (30cm)
D: 7.56" (19.2cm)
Weight 2.03 lbs (0.92kg) 2.38 lbs (1.08kg)
Base CPU Clock 1.1 GHz Core M 1.2 GHz Core M 1.3 GHz Core M 1.6GHz Core i5
Max CPU Clock 2.4GHz 2.6GHz 2.9GHz 2.7GHz
GPU Intel HD Graphics 5300 (GT2) Intel HD Graphics 6000 (GT3)
RAM 8GB LPDDR3-1600 4GB LPDDR3-1600
SSD 256GB PCIe SSD 512GB PCIe SSD 512GB PCIe SSD 128GB PCIe SSD
Display 12" 2304 x 1440 IPS LCD 11.6" 1366x768 TN LCD
Ports 1 x USB 3.1 (Gen 1) Type-C, 3.5mm combo jack 1x Thunderbolt 2, 2x USB 3.0 (Type-A), 3.5mm combo jack
Networking 2x2:2 802.11ac 2x2:2 802.11ac
Battery 39.7 Wh 38 Wh
Price $1299 $1599 $1749 $899

We’ll get back to the MacBook’s design in a bit, but first let’s talk about specifications and pricing. With the MacBook Air having transitioned from Apple’s ultra-premium ultra-portable laptop to their entry-level ultra-portable laptop over the last few years – killing the original MacBook in the process – there has been a lot of demand for a premium MacBook Air, particularly one implementing a Retina display. In releasing the new MacBook Apple looks to be addressing at least some of those demands by finally putting together an ultra-portable laptop with just such a Retina display, but in the process they have also re-established the MacBook as a line of premium laptops, along of course with all the differences that come from making such a thin and light laptop.

This makes the new MacBook more expensive than the larger MacBook Airs, with the entry level MacBook starting at $1299, versus $899 for the 11” MacBook Air. What that $1299 gets you is access to the first of Apple’s laptops based on Intel’s Core M processor, which in turn is a big part of what has allowed Apple to make such a little laptop.

With Core M rated for a TDP of just 4.5W and only being 1.04mm thick, Intel geared their smallest Core processor towards larger format tablets and fanless laptops, with Apple tapping Core M specifically for the latter. Core M in turn is a reality through a combination of Intel’s new 14nm fabrication process and some very tight power and thermal controls to ensure that the processor doesn’t exceed the tolerances of the laptop it’s built around. Compared to Intel’s mainline Core i family, Core M is a very fast processor in short bursts but over longer period of times has to live within the confines of such a small device, which we’ll explore in greater depth in our look at the MacBook’s performance.

Core M/Broadwell-Y (left) vs Broadwell-U (center) vs Haswell-U (right)

Overall Apple is offering 3 different versions of the Core M within the MacBook lineup. The $1299 base configuration utilizes a 1.1GHz Core M-5Y31, while the $1599 utilizes what we believe to be a 1.2GHz 5Y51. Finally, both configurations offer an optional upgrade to a faster processor, a 1.3GHz version of what’s likely the 5Y71, which is the fastest of Intel’s current Core M lineup. However to put a twist on things Apple has gone and clocked these processors slightly differently than Intel’s original specifications; all 3 MacBooks have a base clock higher than Intel’s specs, and in the case of the faster two these don’t even match Intel’s faster “cTDP Up” configurations. As a result the Core M processors in the new MacBook are somewhat unorthodox compared to the regular processors - and perhaps slightly more power hungry - though there’s nothing here that other OEMs couldn’t do as well.

Ideally Core M will spend very little time at its base clockspeeds, and will instead be turboing up to 2.4GHz, 2.6GHz, or 2.9GHz respectively. This vast divide between the base and turbo clocks reflects the performance-bursty nature of the Core M design, but it is also why the base clockspeeds that Apple advertises can be deceptively low. In light workloads where Core M can quickly reach its top speeds to complete a task, a 2.4GHz+ Core architecture processor is nothing short of zippy.  However in sustained workloads these base clockspeeds become much more relevant, as Core M has to pull back to lower clockspeeds to keep heat and power consumption under control.

In any case, Apple has paired their first Core M laptop with some other very solid hardware, and thankfully in configurations much more befitting of a premium laptop than the MacBook Air’s anemic base specifications. No model of the MacBook comes with less than a 256GB PCIe-attached SSD, a welcome development for a company that has traditionally skimped on SSD capacities. Similarly the one (and only) RAM configuration is 8GB of LPDDR3, which all-told is not a massive amount, but is more than plenty for the kind of device Apple is building towards.

Compared to the 128GB SSD and 4GB of RAM in the base MacBook Airs, this is the first ultra-portable Mac in a while where I can say even the base model feels properly equipped. At the very least users shouldn’t be struggling with RAM or SSD capacity for some time. Meanwhile given the fact that the equivalent upgrade of an 11” MacBook air would be $300 – bringing the total price to $1199 – this means that while the MacBook is still more expensive than a MacBook Air, the difference isn’t nearly as wide as it would first seem.

Rounding out the MacBook’s build are a few firsts for Apple. The MacBook’s 12” 2304x1440 Retina IPS display is the first Retina IPS display in an Apple ultra-portable, and quite the sight to behold. Meanwhile the MacBook is also the first Mac to come equipped with the new USB Type-C port, similarly small and fully reversible. Both of these help to cement the MacBook’s place as a cutting-edge Mac, similar to the Retina MacBook Pro’s position in 2012 when it was launched.

The MacBook's Design
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  • RT81 - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    The presence of "no touch screen" complaints, as few as they are, is interesting. There's a whole demographic of Mac users (creative professionals, mostly) that are sweating bullets about the possibility of iOS and OS X converging. A touch screen Mac would probably give them a heart attack.

    Apple has said they don't have any intention of doing that. It didn't go over so well for Microsoft, but who knows. It wouldn't be the first time Apple has said "we'll never do that" but what they really mean is "we'll never do that until we can do it at the standard of quality we want".
    Reply
  • senzen - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Very good, thorough review. As soon as I sold my 2010 MBA 11 to get an MBPr Pro I missed the smaller size and weight, but I wanted a retina display for when I travel and take photos, so the new Macbook ticks all the boxes. My doubt was the performance, but seeing it apparently does at least as well as the first i5 MBAs is reassuring, I don't need more. I'm still tempted to wait for the second generation, which is reinforced by Apple's inability to actually show these in stores. I wonder if the upgrade to the faster (less slow) processor is worth it. Reply
  • Malac - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    I think two tests that I feel would be very interesting are missing:

    - Remote Desktop streaming
    - Virtual Machine Benchmark

    I sometimes play PC games streamed from my powerful desktop to my MacBook Air using Microsoft Remote Desktop or Steam. While this works well, the air does get hot sometimes and I hear the fans. How would the MacBook handle such a load?

    And how well does a VM work? Lets say VirtualBox + Linux with a graphical frontend?
    Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Steam in-home streaming uses H.264, so all the heavy lifting should be done by the video decode block, and the end result not much harder than decoding any other 1080p60 H.264 stream. Reply
  • jeffry - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Nice. Apples "new" butterfly mech. Thats a copy of how the japs have done it years ago in their Sony Vaio SZ Series notebooks... Reply
  • nerd1 - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Why mention tablet laptop crossover at all? This laptop is not convertible, not derachable, lacks touchscreen or pen. It is by all means just a thin, lightweight laptop (with LESS endurance and power) Reply
  • Ryan Smith - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    The short answer is because internally it's built like a tablet, not a laptop, and that's the primary point I'm trying to make when discussing its construction. Reply
  • nerd1 - Thursday, April 16, 2015 - link

    Built like a tablet? What does it mean at all? How does crippled laptop becomes a tablet?
    Some tablets are more powerful and expandable than MBA 11" (which is a LAPTOP).
    Reply
  • nerd1 - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    Oh and samsung released very similiar laptop (core m, 1600p display, 2lbs) with usb, sd slot and separate power jack months before. Reply
  • solipsism - Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - link

    1) I think it's both odd and wrong that Ryan Smith would repeatedly try to state this is some sort of Mac-iPad hybrid. It doesn't run iOS, it has an attached keyboard and trackpad, it doesn't even have a touchscreen display (something increasingly more common on notebooks). This is a notebook computer designed to run a desktop-grade OS.

    2) This is not a netbook. Even if we ignore all the low-quality, budget-focused design constraints that that made the netbook really only good* for surfing the "net", this machine has a CPU that costs more than the average notebook and that is magnitudes more powerful with a similar power envelope. If it's to be classed at anything it is an Ultrabook, sans the official branding.

    3) Apple's USB-C adapters aren't that pricey. If one wants, they can buy the adapters that Google sells for their new Chromebook Pixel or wait for other vendors (my favourite is Monoprice) to offer up their own solutions since this is, after all, USB. There will also likely be 3rd-party external displays from everyone(?) that will use a single USB-C port for both charging the device and pushing data, which will have their own variety of built-in hubs for those wanting an external display which makes the majority of these complaints for a nascent standard just coming to market moot.

    4) People are lamenting the loss of MagSafe, but is that really feasible with how small the 3rd(?) MagSafe adapter would have gotten for this machine? Also, if it's designed to be used remotely and designed to be almost always used without cabled peripherals, is it really an issue for its intended market? Personally, I love how the Chromebook Pixel has USB-C on each side and how either can charge the device. I've moved an entire office around because of how the plug on the left-hand side was causing it to wear out after about 6 months due to being plugged into the wall at the right. This was never an issue when PVC was still included in cables (speculative cause and effect). Hopefully when the MBPs get this feature it will be on both sides.

    5) So why bring back the MB and not simply call it the MBA (not unlike how they keep the non-Retina MBPs and came out with the new Retina MBPs with a new design)? Eventually I would like to see the MBA get the exact same external HW design and components (i.e.: Retina display with the same 12" design only) but running Mac OS X — or a Mac OS X-like OS — on Apple's A-series chip. This could allow Apple to move their "PC" sales to even lower end of the market by being able to drop the cost by a few hundred dollars whilst still being able to have a machine that performs well. I do think the A-series chip may need some additional revisions (but we really don't know what is possible with their bespoke design) and for Mac OS X to get another housecleaning, perhaps even rewritten in Swift.

    * Calling a netbook good at anything is a stretch, especially when even Adobe Flash would stutter on even 480p video due to its inept HW.
    Reply

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