Apple is an interesting beast. Often considered king of design, its MacBook cut up the rulebook when it first appeared in 2015, ditching full-size USB ports and, well, almost any wired connectivity for the sake of a single USB Type-C port. Controversial as that was for some people's workflow, its 12-inch format was so compact, slender and lightweight that it became the on-the-go laptop of choice for many.
Now in its third-generation, with amped-up Intel Kaby Lake chipset options, the MacBook has already made a lasting impression - notable because the competition has been taking it on by offering wider feature sets, such as including more ports and touchscreen control.
Apple, as is traditional in its laptop ranges, has stuck fast with its design. The 2017 model sports an updated keyboard mechanism, but otherwise boldly sticks with the single Type-C port, while ramping up the UK price to a lofty £1,249 starting point. Is it worth it?
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Apple MacBook 2017 review: Design
- 1x USB Type-C port (doubles-up as power charger), 3.5mm headphones jack
- 12-inch, 2304 x 1440 resolution LED-backlit IPS LCD display
- 280 x 197mm footprint; 35-131mm thickness; 920g weight
- Colours: Rose Gold, Space Grey, Gold, Silver
There's no denying the latest MacBook is a looker. It's small, slender and sub-1kg, which makes it a cinch to carry around. With four colours available - including the ever popular rose gold - there's everything bar jet black to match with your iPhone, if you're that way inclined (we're Mac users with an Android phone, as it happens).
There's no space for full-size USB, given the thinness of the design, so it's the smaller USB Type-C here (albeit it's not Thunderbolt 3 speeds - it's USB 3.1 speeds only (5Gbps)). However, the ongoing choice for a single port remains controversial as it also doubles-up as the charging port. We had hoped that Apple would introduce a second port for the second-gen model - but even for this third-gen one, that's not the case.
Does it matter? Put it this way, port free is likely to be the future. We lamented the optical drive when that vanished, but haven't looked back in recent years. It'll be the same for full-size USB.
Plus, with content heading towards the cloud and via wireless connections, plus a 256GB SSD to pull content from, it's only going to be an issue if you're used to slotting in an Ethernet cable, an SD card or such like. Unfortunately there's not adaptor included, but you can buy one - although it looks a bit of a beast when poking out the side of the MacBook.
One particularly attractive aspect of the MacBook is its screen. When manufacturers started to make small-scale notebooks, 11-inch was the format - which typically felt a little too small in our opinion. The 12-inch panel in this Mac is a great size, has stacks of resolution, is plenty bright and the viewing angles are solid too. It doesn't have ultra-trim bezel to compete against the likes of the Dell XPS 13, but it still looks neat and tidy.
Apple MacBook 2017 review: Typing experience and trackpad
- Second-generation butterfly mechanism keyboard, backlit keys
- Force Touch trackpad for pressure-sensitive action
- No fingerprint scanner, no touchscreen option
Despite its small footprint, the MacBook doesn't scrimp on key size. They might looked cramped together in images, but it's because they're slightly larger than the keys you'll find on, say, an ageing (and altogether larger) MacBook Air.
This considerable size means they're easy to tap away on, but it's the feeling that's likely to be most different if you're used to keys that depress significantly. With the first- and second-gen MacBook the butterfly mechanism keyboard meant the keys barely travelled at all, which some found taxing when typing ("did I just press that key?"). The 2017 MacBook uses Apple's second-generation butterfly mechanism, which gives slightly greater travel - it is, in our view, a better overall balance.
The trackpad is the same large scale as it's always been in this series, with a decent quality finish that ensures smooth multi gestures and control. It goes one step further than a standard trackpad, too, including Apple's Force Touch control, which means there's a secondary "deeper" press for additional controls.
Is Force Touch actually useful? Well, it has promise, but we've never found it to be an always useful feature. Maybe a harder press to drop a pin in Maps will be your go-to action. Or to add contacts in Mail. But if you don't find it useful then, well, you can just forget it's even present as it doesn't interfere with standard operation.
Apple MacBook 2017 review: Performance
- 1.2GHz Intel Core m3 processor, 8GB RAM, Intel HD Graphics 615
- 1.3GHz Intel Core i5 processor option also available
- 256GB SSD, no SD/microSD expansion/reader
The third-generation MacBook comes in two skews: our review model features the Intel Core m3 processor; an Intel Core i5 is also available if you want a bump in power. Neither of them use a cooling fan, as this is a 5W processor, which means next to silent operation. We can't stress enough how good silence is - especially after seeing some really noisy Intel Core i7 convertible laptops this year - and we've not found that metal body to get hot either.
With 8GB RAM as standard and Intel HD Graphics 615 integrated, the MacBook's power levels aren't off the charts by any means. But that's not stopped us operating just as we usually would with our MacBook Air (which, at three years old and having used the 12-inch MacBook, is showing its age!). That means browsing, emails, Photoshop, video playback and editing, even some low-spec gaming if you're keen.
Given its small proportions and high screen resolution, one area we didn't anticipate the MacBook to be a great success was with its battery life. But the third-gen model proved otherwise: as we anecdotally do with other laptops, streaming a 1440p video from YouTube saw the battery go on for a solid nine hours. That's very good innings for Wi-Fi streaming - and testament to the latest processors and good thermal design. In the week we've been using the device, we've been easily getting eight hours or more per charge.
The 2017 Apple MacBook is one gorgeous looking, capable and long-lasting laptop. The second-gen butterfly mechanism keyboard is a notable improvement over the previous generation too.
It's still a controversial laptop, however, given its single USB Type-C port (please Apple, at least double-down with two so there's a dedicated charging port), but if you can get over that then its slender build and small scale makes it a great on-the-go companion.
The biggest issue is just how pricey the MacBook has become. At £1,249 for the m3 processor model (or £1,549 for the Core i5), you could easily go down the Windows route and purchase a Microsoft Surface Book or Surface Laptop (either option for sub-£1,000), or boost the power and trim down the screen bezel with a Dell XPS 13 (for around £1,200).
That said, if you're a Apple head and used to MacOS then the latest MacBook is a very enticing proposition. When it's time to lay our ageing Air to rest, this is the model that we'll be putting on our shopping list.
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Alternatives to consider
Microsoft Surface Laptop
One of the more exciting laptops we've seen for some time, the Surface Laptop is Microsoft's first Windows 10 S outing. We prefer the non-S version, which allows for full EXE app installs, but that can be easily put on this machine. And what a gorgeous looking one it is, too.
Read the full article: Microsoft Surface Laptop review
Apple MacBook Pro 13
The obvious Apple competitor is, um, Apple. If you're looking to go a step above, want those full-size USB ports and even more power then the MacBook Pro is an obvious choice. We think the 13-inch model without the Touch Bar represents good value too.
Read the full article: MacBook Pro review
Dell XPS 13 (2-in-1)
We're featuring the versatile 2-in-1 XPS model here, as its screen can be turned through 360-degrees for laptop, upright, tent and tablet-style use. Not only that, it's cheaper than the Core i5 MacBook, has touchscreen controls and looks great too.
Read the full article: Dell XPS 13 2-in-1 review