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
(Model Tested)
Max Config.
MacBook Air 11" (2015)
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
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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  • xchaotic - Monday, April 20, 2015 - link

    They won't let you do that due to planned obscolesnce by both Apple and Intel. 16GB RAM and 1TB SSDs will be the max for quite some time.
  • shompa - Friday, April 24, 2015 - link

    One point about Intel/ARM. Intel Core-M 82mm2 1,3 billion transistors. Cost about 280 dollars + you have to buy Intel motherboard chips. Apple A8X is 132mm2 3 billion transistors. It cost Apple about 20 dollar to manufacture that. (on the market 130mm2 ARM SoCs cost about 50 dollars unsubsidized). When will the techpress and IT experts point this out? How can something that cost Intel 50% less than A8X cost the customer 20times more?

    The Macbook have an insane price but Intel is at least 400 dollar of that problem.

    This is why we need to move away from X86 to ARM. (and Apple will move to ARM because they controll the OS/Hardware = they can add anything they want into the SoC. Huge parts of the A class SoCs are Apple specific stuff like Siris DSP, the visual processor, security enclave/TouchID and so on. About 30% of die area today. Imagine if Microsoft started to do custom ARMs/(or AMD X86) for their Windows. That would add value to the customer and make people buy MSFT hardware because they want to (not because they are forced to, like today with their OS)

    One of the main problem is "capitalism". A good (older) company have 10-12% profit on what they sell. Simple math: 10% on a 500dollar intel is more than 10% on a 25 dollar ARM.

    Intel is however a monopoly today. If I want a fast laptop: They are the only choice. But Intel is doing the same mistake as Sun, IBM, PA-RISC, PPC, DEC-Alpha, MIPS and all other fun CPUs have existed in history. (Because: let me tell you a secret: X86 have never had the fastest/best CPU in history. They had Windows + where cheap/good enough. Thats why Intel almost had no share in the server market. 2005/6 intel slashed Xeon prices to sub 300 dollar = why buy a RISC chip that is twice as fast for 4000 dollars? In under 3 years intel managed to get over 50% of server revenue. Today its about 80%. But its because Intel charges 4000 dollar for their xeons. History is repeating itself)
  • ixproval - Monday, April 27, 2015 - link

    Anyone else notice that the article implies a comparison to the current 11" MBA (2015, Broadwell), there are no performance numbers for that model (or the 2015 13" MBA for that matter)? The latest comparisons on the majority of the performance graphs are the early 2014 13" MBA and the mid-2014 rMBP? At first I was wondering about release dates but they were announced at the same event. Did you guys just not have a 2015 11" MBA available for comparison? I apologize if I missed a reason for the omission in the article text.
  • tipoo - Saturday, May 2, 2015 - link

    So the UX305 uses a lower end cheaper Core M, but since it throttles less it ends up performing better than the Macbook...That's a bit disappointing. If they gave it a bit better cooling it would have had the better performing chip all around.
  • HooDude - Sunday, May 3, 2015 - link

    I bought one of these with the 1.1 ghz CPU. The fit and finish of the laptop is great, it's a beautiful device. However, it is terribly slow and the keyboard is awful. It lagged hard when I would try to scroll PDF files in preview, and typing on it was fatiguing to my hands and felt like I was typing on a table top instead of a keyboard. I ended up returning it because of these faults.
  • Agrou - Tuesday, May 5, 2015 - link

    Any news/details about the MVNe controller ? Does anyone knows on what it is based ? I want to run natively a linux distro on my macook air but the SSD is not seen. I want to try to load the controller's driver apple used to integrate on the ship.
    Remark : they also put this controller on the 11 inch model with core i7 I do have APH0128 in OSX HW informations.
  • Clorex - Monday, May 11, 2015 - link

    Regarding the display's white point:
    "The goal here is 6504; the MacBook hits 6828, reflecting the fact that it’s just a bit too red and just a bit too light on blue."

    I think it should be the other way round: the display should be bluish with a colour temperature of 6828 K.
  • EOL - Monday, May 11, 2015 - link

    About the shallower keyboard: the keyboard MacBook Air (mid-2011, at least) does have a problem that the new butterfly keyboard might solve: key corners can quickly become imprinted onto the screen. This is a slightly annoying when watching videos, as the marks are quite visible, with a black background. Hopefully the new keyboard will prevent keys from damaging the screen, this time.
  • birowsky - Tuesday, May 12, 2015 - link

    can i just buy a force touch trackpad somewhere? i wanna put this beauty in my 15" rMBP
  • AnthLC - Saturday, June 13, 2015 - link

    I think it a great review and very helpful.

    I am planning on buying either this MacBook 12" or HP XPS 13". I do prefer Apple cause will work better together with my iPad and iPhone. Apple do make good solid devices and provide frequent updates. I need something similar in size to my iPad and light.

    My concerns with the MacBook relate to performance, first gen fanless, the one USB-C port and the keyboard. While with the HP by all reports the fan can be irritatingly noisy, lack of HP fixes, updates, device driver issues and priced $100 more then the MacBook.

    I primary use the IPad as my stock home computer and like a lot of people it is all I need. But I have hobby that require a PC application software. I don't have a real preference Mac or PC will do. But windows 8 is a turn off. Luckily for me the software works on both platforms.

    The review has help me realise the performance should be fine to run standard PC applications. The single USB-C port was a concern because the software I plan to use requires a USB dongle.

    But I haves learned there are solutions such as Infiniteusb which will actually overcome the single port problem. (http://getinfiniteusb.com) actually mean one port will probably be better.

    Some people say well you have to carry the dongle, but the thing is if you have the need to plug in accessories well you will be carrying more then just the laptop whether there is one or more ports. Which to my mind makes the whole point mute. The daisy chaining of USB-C is cool too.

    I like the idea of fanless. On the Internet and HP's own website user reviews suggest the HP XPS has some design fault, a noise that can be quiet annoying. I don't believe has been addressed.

    In Australia the base HP XPS is about $100 more then thie base MacBook 12".
    So I plan to get the MacBook 12".

    I was thinking maybe the MacBook Air 13" but when you add on the upgrade to 8gb and 256gb HD equivalent of the base MacBook 12", there only $100 difference. I would rather a a Retina display. I also looked at the old MacBook Pro 13" but same price and I prefer the smaller footprint of the MacBook 12".

    So I thought it may be interesting to post why I decide to buy the MacBook over the HP.

    For me and a lot of people we don't want a high powered laptop with all the bells and whistles. Apple have squarely filled the gap for users like me who primarily use a iPad but have a need for a portable PC.

    I did find it telling that I could buy a 15" laptop from Dell cheaper then their own HP XPS and 15" had better specs. It does suggest this is what people are buying and wanting. I mean a couple of years ago bigger laptops were the expensive ones.

    Lastly there is a premium in price for these small laptops which is to say a opportunity for other manufacturers to come along and deliver similar device at a cheaper price point.

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