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Apple MacBook (2017) review: Apple's mini MacBook gets it right

In its third incarnation, faster processors and a much better keyboard finally make the 12-inch MacBook a contender.

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Dan Ackerman
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Dan Ackerman

Editorial Director / Computers and Gaming

Dan Ackerman leads CNET's coverage of computers and gaming hardware. A New York native and former radio DJ, he's also a semi-regular TV talking head and the author of "The Tetris Effect" (Hachette/PublicAffairs), a non-fiction gaming and business history book that has earned rave reviews from the New York Times, Fortune, LA Review of Books, and many other publications. "Upends the standard Silicon Valley, Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg technology-creation myth... the story shines." -- The New York Times

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Full disclosure: I've had a strong affinity for the 12-inch MacBook since it was originally introduced in 2015. Sure, it was underpowered and had an annoyingly flat keyboard. And it had only a single USB-C port -- then still something of an exotic novelty -- for both power and data connections. But I loved how slim and lightweight it was, its excellent high-resolution display, and how I could get all the useful features of OS X (now called MacOS) in something so easy to pick up and carry around.

apple-macbook-pro-12-inch-2017-4181
8.5

Apple MacBook (2017)

The Good

The new 12-inch MacBook adds the improved keyboard mechanism from the MacBook Pro line. New processor and RAM options mean better performance.

The Bad

Little else has changed, including the lack of ports beyond a single USB-C connection. You still can't get more-powerful mainstream Intel processors.

The Bottom Line

With a subtle tweak to the keyboard and better component choices, this cult favorite mini MacBook suddenly feels like it can be your everyday laptop.

However, it wasn't for everyone. Longform typists would be turned off by the lack of tactile feedback from the shallow keyboard, its Core M processor could chug even when just running a bunch of web browser tabs and everything from USB keys to HDMI cables now required an armful of dongles to use. 

Apple Macbook 12-inch 2017
Sarah Tew/CNET

Still, I persevered. In early 2016 I realized just how much I had grown to like this unusual laptop. I wrote:

The second generation from early 2016 added little more than a slightly faster processor to essentially the same machine. Still good, but still a niche product for those who could live within the boundaries of its mechanical limitations.

Apple Macbook 12-inch 2017
Sarah Tew/CNET

Now, in the third version of the 12-inch MacBook, introduced at Apple's WWDC 2017 conference, the MacBook confidently moves from cult favorite to mainstream machine. A series of internal upgrades make a world of difference, and should make it easier to choose the MacBook over the bigger MacBook Pro or the still severely outdated MacBook Air

Apple MacBook (2017)

Price as reviewed $1,300
Display size/resolution 12-inch 2,304 x 1,440 display
PC CPU 1.2GHz Intel Core m3-7Y32
PC Memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz
Graphics 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 615
Storage 256GB SSD
Networking 802.11ac Wi-Fi wireless; Bluetooth 4.2
Operating system MacOS 10.12.5 Sierra


The more things change

Let's get a few things out of the way first. The body of the MacBook is unchanged, along with the size and resolution of the display. If that didn't work for you before, it's not going to work now. A more in-depth exploration of the MacBook's design can found in my review of the 2016 version, which is physically identical to this one.

Apple Macbook 12-inch 2017
Sarah Tew/CNET

Slightly bigger elephant in the room: The only port is still a single USB-C one (and it's not Thunderbolt-enabled), so if you regularly connect USB keys, an external display or any other outboard gear, it's still a hassle. There are USB-C dongles and adapters available for each and every eventuality, but they're inconvenient and often expensive. A simple USB-C to USB-A adapter is $20, while Apple's big multiport dongle that gives you HDMI, USB-A and USB-C (the latter for pass-through charging) is $70.

But, USB-C is much more mainstream now than it was a couple of years ago, with Dell, HP, Samsung and other PC makers adopting it, albeit not to this extreme. Apple's MacBook Pro models are also USB-C only, but they offer between two and four total ports.

Apple Macbook 12-inch 2017
Sarah Tew/CNET

More clack for your keys

The biggest complaint I heard over and over again about the 12-inch MacBook in its first two incarnations was that its superflat keyboard just never felt entirely right. It lacked tactile feedback, and the keys were too different from the standard island-style keys found on nearly every other laptop in existence.

When the MacBook Pro series adopted a similar flat keyboard in 2016, it at least had an improved butterfly mechanism (the x-shaped trigger under the individual keys on the keyboard), which made the typing experience feel more substantial, even if some people still preferred the old-style traditional MacBook Pro keyboard.

Apple Macbook 12-inch 2017
Sarah Tew/CNET

Now the 12-inch MacBook has adopted that improved second-gen butterfly mechanism from the Pro line. While the keyboard looks the same, I can totally tell the difference -- there's a noticeable click and spring to the keyboard that was lacking before.

As someone who has typed hundreds of thousands of words across both previous generations of the 12-inch MacBook, I'm very pleasantly surprised by how good this keyboard feels. My favorite laptop keyboard of late is probably the traditional island-style one on the new Surface Laptop, and this one is still not as friendly to long-form typing. But, if you ruled out a MacBook previously because of the keyboard, it's more than earned a second look.

Apple Macbook 12-inch 2017
Sarah Tew/CNET

Power-up

New here is a jump to current-gen Intel processors -- Intel calls this generation Kaby Lake, but it's really the seventh generation of Core-series CPUs. The default is still the Intel Core m3, which is a lower-power chip designed for slim devices that need very long battery life, but that aren't designed for extreme multitasking or high-end video editing. It's not as universally useful as the very mainstream U-series Core i CPUs found in most premium laptops, but frankly it's fast enough for everyday tasks like writing, web browsing, video streaming and social media.

Dive into the configuration options offered by Apple, and you might be surprised to see low-voltage Core i5 and Core i7 Intel CPUs are now available as (expensive) add-on options.

Apple Macbook 12-inch 2017
Sarah Tew/CNET

The base 1.2GHz Core m3 model is still $1,299, while a 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 is $1,599  and a dual-core Core i7 is $1,749. System RAM can now be bumped up from 8GB to 16GB for an extra $200, and Apple says the included SSD storage is now up to 50 percent faster.

Now, before getting all excited about seeing Core i5/i7 processor options, keep in mind these are Y-series Intel CPUs. Faster than the default Core m3, but still very efficient parts designed for battery life over raw performance. In previous generations, Intel would have called them Core-m chips, but the current versions have been "promoted" to the Core-i name.

Apple Macbook 12-inch 2017
Sarah Tew/CNET

The Core m3 model is the one tested here. In everyday multitasking and performance tests, it performed as expected, faster than the previous generation of 12-inch MacBook, but still not a match for something with a standard U-series Core i5. More important for most, I suspect, is battery life. Here, there's been little movement since last year, with the new MacBook clocking in at 10:26 on a streaming video battery test. That's still near the top of the list when it comes to laptop battery life, although many Windows laptops are playing in the same ballpark now. Laptops everywhere are running longer now, and that's good for everyone.

Ready for prime time

The 12-inch MacBook has remained fairly stable over its three generations, with the same slim 2.03-pound body and high-res Retina display. You're still stuck with the same not-great 480p webcam, and there's just that single USB-C port for all your power and connectivity needs, which will be a deal-breaker for many.

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James Martin/CNET

Keeping those limitations in mind, the improved keyboard and the faster CPU options feel like a real step forward. This is, simply put, the best version of the 12-inch MacBook yet. The only thing that stops me from calling this the new default MacBook you should consider is that the more powerful, more flexible 13-inch MacBook Pro (minus the optional Touch Bar) has gotten a price cut to the same $1,299 -- though that only includes half the storage (128GB) of the 12-incher at the same price. One is a mainstream powerhouse, the other is an exercise in strictly enforced minimalism. If I had to choose between the two, as a frequent coffee shop laptopper, I'd put a thumb on the scale for this 12-inch MacBook (and yes, I'm typing these words on the new 12-inch MacBook at a Manhattan coffee shop right now). 

Multimedia Multitasking test 3.0

LG Gram 13 570Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2017) 671Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 702Dell XPS 13 2 in 1 734
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)


Geekbench 3 (Multi-Core)

Microsoft Surface Laptop 8,578Dell XPS 13 2 in 1 6,893LG Gram 13 6,647Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2017) 6,490Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 5,879
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance



Streaming video playback battery drain test

LG Gram 13 690Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 633Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2017) 626Dell XPS 13 2 in 1 536Microsoft Surface Laptop 505
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)



System Configurations

Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2017) Apple MacOS 10.12.5 Sierra; 1.2GHz Intel Core m3-7Y32; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 615; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) Apple El Capitan OSX 10.11.4; 1.2GHz Intel Core m5-6Y54; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 515; 512GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Laptop Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
LG Gram 13 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.5GHz Intel Core i5-7200U; 8GB DDR4 SDRAM 2,133MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 620; 256GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 2 in 1 Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 1.3GHz Intel Core i5-7Y75; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,866MHz; 128MB dedicated Intel HD Graphics 615; 256GB SSD
apple-macbook-pro-12-inch-2017-4181
8.5

Apple MacBook (2017)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 7Performance 8Battery 8