For the majority of my life I have been a proverbial power user with computers, primarily in love with speed and specs more than practicality. If a computer was not equipped with the fastest processor, most amount of RAM, or largest storage, then I would not consider it for purchase. After traveling all over Tokyo with a laptop attached to my back for the past few years, I have a newfound appreciation for mobility, and my desires have evolved – dare I say – with both old age and pragmatism.
When Apple released its most recent new laptop design in 2015 – the Retina MacBook, simply called MacBook – I laughed at the single USB-C port and thought there was no way in hell I could ever live with a single port. One port? Seriously? WTF Apple?
Fast forward to a couple months ago when Apple released an update to the MacBook lineup, equipping it with a refreshed set of Intel m3, m5, and m7 chips. Apple opted to stick with the single port and same design, much to the dismay of the power user crowd. Initially I rebuffed the new models until I took a closer look at my more recent usage patterns, as well as long-term computing desires.
Late last year my wife purchased a MacBook Air 11” and she loves its portability. Not only does it have a small footprint but it is lightweight, and packs a fairly decent performance punch. It is, by no means, a MacBook Pro – nor is it meant to compete with one – but it demonstrates essentially no discernable lack of power in everyday tasks like web surfing, email, PowerPoint, Word, and other standard business applications. The MacBook is ultimately meant to replace the Air in the Apple laptop lineup, and this was obviously their goal: make the most mobile yet usable Mac possible.
The noticeable lack of weight, and thus extreme portability, are what attracted me to the idea of the MacBook. My back was tired of carrying around a heavy MacBook Pro on the train and foot to customer meetings all over Tokyo. My desire to be more productive while on-the-go was overcome by the strain the weight added when mobile, so I yearned for something like the MacBook. I had thought of buying an Air but was uninterested in using a non-Retina screen. This was a tough decision, and one I weighed very carefully over the course of a couple weeks, visiting the Apple Store almost daily to play around with the MacBook and the Air.
About the MacBook
Let me get this out of the way upfront: the 2016 MacBook m5, w/8GB RAM and 512GB SSD is my favorite Apple laptop ever. I say this after having used nothing but PowerBook and MacBook Pro models since 2003. I migrated to the MacBook from a Retina MacBook Pro 15” w/16GB RAM and 512GB SSD. The screen and weight alone are the perfect combination for someone like me, who is constantly taking the train, bus, and walking all over Tokyo.
Having moved from a rMBP, which still functions as my mock-desktop replacement, I was only slightly concerned about the USB-C port. I use my rMBP for streaming video to my Apple TV via Plex. The majority of my media is stored on an external 1TB USB3 HDD. I had contemplated retiring the rMBP and using the MacBook for streaming, but then realized my goal with the MacBook was portability. I rarely ever use the external HDD when I am mobile, and quickly dismissed the notion of the single USB-C port being a barrier for my use case.
Let me just dive right in the deep-end and breakdown the pros and cons of the MacBook, as I see them:
- Weight. I can barely even feel the machine in my backpack, therefore it does not bother my back in the least. Unlike the MacBook Pro, which is noticeably heavy, the MacBook is light as a feather.
- Screen. Having moved from a Retina MacBook Pro, I had to stick with the Retina display. The Air, while a nice laptop, still has old display technology. The MacBook’s screen is simply gorgeous.
- Battery. I use this thing constantly, for likely 6-8 hours a day, on wifi, streaming music. Never once have I needed to charge it during the day even though I bring the charger just in-case. It is unreal how well this battery holds up. At the end of the day, I usually have approximately 35% battery remaining, even after heavy daily use.
- Speed. While there are some minor noticeable speed issues, by and large the MacBook launches applications immediately. I have not had issue with lag yet for one exception: Microsoft Office. Launching Word, Excel, and PowerPoint takes a noticeable amount of time, with the icons bouncing on the dock for a couple seconds before the window finally appears. For me, it is a non-issue, however if you are impatient, this could be problematic.
- Speed. While listed as a Pro, it is also a con. Sometimes you expect and want apps to launch immediately. That Microsoft Office apps take a noticeable amount of time to launch can sometimes be a tad frustrating. As I just mentioned, if you are impatient, this could be a potential deal breaker. I challenge you to reconsider your notion of speed and why it would ever be so necessary to have a bloated Microsoft application appear instantaneously. But I digress …
- Resolution. I am getting old, and my eyes are not what they used to be, and thus the 12” screen is tough to see at times. Nothing glasses will not solve, but I generally do not want to resort to pulling out my reading glasses just to see my MacBook screen. Call me vain.
- Cost. At almost $2000 total, you really need to consider the justification for a purchase of this magnitude.
- Ports. The MacBook only has two ports: a single USB-C port, and a headphone plug. The USB-C port doubles as the charging port, therefore the only way to use USB devices and charge the laptop simultaneously is by using a hub. This is a huge con for a lot of people, although in my practical yet anecdotal use of my own MacBook, this has never been an issue.
I hesitate to put the keyboard in either of the above even though it seems to be a huge debate topic. Overall, I am satisfied with the keyboard and the small travel distance of the keys. The only part of the keyboard I can say I utterly hate is the arrow keys. They are so weird, and I have yet to get used to the layout. Otherwise, for me, the keyboard is a non-issue.
Being in the industry I am in, often times I need to run VMware and have a VM or two open at a time. I have done this while keeping Safari open with about 15 tabs, Mail, Slack, Tweetbot, PowerPoint, and Word, and the MacBook hums along without any lag or issues. I often times even have VLC playing a video in the background or I am streaming music, and I have yet to see the machine stutter.
Generally 8GB RAM does not sound like a lot, and the m5 seems like it would be underpowered compared to its i7 cousin in my rMBP, but it performs mostly flawlessly. It is amazing how tight this laptop is compared to its on-paper specs.
Finally, I do not count the single USB-C port a con. The vast majority of people, myself included even though I am techie and geek, rarely need to plug in external peripherals. In the unlikely event it iss necessary, I did pick-up an Anker USB-C hub. It was 2000JPY and has two standard USB-3 ports, HDMI-out, and a USB-C port for either charging the MacBook or for using another USB-C device. All-in-all, I have used it twice in two months.
I consider that hardly a necessity nor a problem.
As I said at the very beginning, this is a wonderful laptop, and my favorite of all I have ever owned. I have never been so enamored with hardware, Apple or otherwise, until now. I feel much more productive being able to move around Tokyo, barely noticing a laptop is hanging off my back. It is refreshing.
The biggest question on my mind about the MacBook is this: longevity. How long will the machine last? I have a 2009 MacBook Pro that continues to hum along without issues. Will a MacBook last that long? I suspect not, but you never know. As a costly investment, I really hope the MacBook is capable of handling future macOS updates without any noticeable performance degradation. Only time will be able to answer this question.
If you value portability over expandability and raw power, the Retina MacBook is likely just what you need. I find myself falling in love with it all over again, each day I use it, simply because I can use this laptop anywhere and everywhere without ever thinking twice. Even if you value power over portability, this little engine that could will surprise you.
However, if you are unable to get passed the lack of expansion ports, this is decidedly not for you in its current incarnation. Remember, the first two years of the MacBook Air’s life, it had limited expansion ports, and then the third year saw it slightly redesigned into its current form, complete with plenty of expandability.
This is my machine, and the only computer I need on a daily basis. For me, the MacBook is almost the holy grail of computers – the perfect combination of iPad-like portability yet with a full-fledged operating system where I can be, and feel, productive.
Thank you Apple for catering to my needs.