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

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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.

8.5 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 7
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 8

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.

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:

"Despite testing and using nearly every new laptop or 2-in-1 hybrid released over the past year, I find myself returning again and again to the 12-inch MacBook. It's become my default go-to for those times when I need a laptop that's quick and easy to pick up and use. The MacBook has that same magic quality as the iPad did, which is that it makes for a perfect living room couch device, as it's lightweight, springs to life the moment I lift the lid, and is small enough that it doesn't get in the way."

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.