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Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) review: A minimalist MacBook that proves less can be more

Sarah Tew/CNET

The new MacBook has a 12-inch Retina display with a 2,304x1,440-pixel resolution. It, too, has a new design -- it's the thinnest ever built into a MacBook, at 0.88mm -- with a larger aperture for light and individual pixels in red, green and blue. The slightly unusual resolution is a combination of Apple's drive for a very high pixel-per-inch density, as well as an aspect ratio that sticks with 16:10, as opposed to nearly every other laptop available now, all of which use the same 16:9 aspect ratio as HDTV. (The 11-inch MacBook Air remains the only 16:9 MacBook.)

The screen looks clear and bright, and works from wide viewing angles. There's a glossy overlay, but I've seen much worse offenders when it comes to screen glare and light reflection. The screen bezel, that dead space between the actual display and the outer edge of the lid, is thinner here than on a MacBook Air, and the screen glass goes nearly edge to edge, giving the MacBook a seamless look much like the current Pro models. Thin bezels are definitely an important style note these days, although Dell does it much better with its current XPS 13 laptop, with an eye-catching barely there bezel.

The speaker grille above the keyboard is predictably thin-sounding -- this is a very small laptop after all, with little room for speaker cones to move air -- but it'll suffice for casual video viewing. With Beats Audio as part of the Apple family we may see a greater emphasis on audio in Macs in the future, just as Beats and HP had a successful partnership for several years.

480p-webcam.jpg
Joe Kaminski/CNET

One spec that many feel was shortchanged in this new laptop is the built-in webcam. It's a simple 640x480 camera, and not as high-res as the 720p camera found in the Air or Pro laptops. The image above is taken from an iPhone 6, and shows my image, being transmitted from the 12-inch MacBook, via FaceTime. Note the softness of the image, which is an issue with viewing the 480p transmission on a much higher resolution screen.

Ports and connections

Video USB 3.1 Type C
Audio 3.5mm audio jack
Data USB 3.1 Type C
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Optical None

Connections, performance and battery

While testing the new MacBook, I found myself frequently plugging and unplugging accessories. Starting with the power cable connected to the single USB-C port, I pulled the power out to plug in a short USB-C to USB-A cable (sold by Apple for $19, £15 or AU$29), and connected the USB dongle for a wireless mouse. When I wanted to use a USB data key, I had to disconnect the mouse, and use the same adaptor cable to connect my key.

Shortly, you will be able to connect video the same way, using a USB-C to HDMI, DisplayPort or VGA adaptor. Apple has two connections blocks that include either HDMI or VGA for $79, £65 or AU$119, but neither was available at the time of this review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The official pitch is that MacBook users will use wireless connections for just about everything. Bluetooth for a mouse, Wi-Fi for Internet access, AirDrop for file transfer, and so on. Most of these assumptions are correct, but there's something to be said for being able to use a full-size USB or HDMI port to connect to any USB key or HDTV with minimal hassle.

One potentially very useful benefit of USB-C is that, because it's used to power the laptop battery, it can also draw power from the portable backup battery packs that so many people have lying around in drawers and laptop bags. Take a USB-C to male USB cable (we tried a $10 one sent by Monoprice), and you can get some extra battery power on the go without having to bring the whole power brick or have access to a power outlet. It won't fully charge the laptop, but it could offer enough juice to get you out of a jam.

Sadly, MagSafe, truly one of the great developments in the history of laptops, is gone, and the new USB-C power plug has no magnetic connection at all. It simply slots in. The connector is fairly shallow, so it may very well just pop out if you yank the cable by accidentally stepping on it, but it certainly doesn't feel as accident-proof as the MagSafe version does.

The new 12-inch MacBook also breaks from the rest of Apple's computer line in that it does not use a processor from Intel's Core i series. Mostly Macs use Core i5 chips from either the current fifth generation of those chips, or the previous fourth generation (although the professional-level Mac Pro desktop uses an Intel Xeon processor).

Instead, this laptop uses the Core M, a new entry in Intel's laptop family. The pitch for Core M is that it enables laptops to be very thin and light, but still powerful and long-lasting. That's an appealing pitch, and Core M chips are so far only found in premium-priced systems (the least expensive being the $700 Asus T300 Chi).

Sarah Tew/CNET

But, in the first three computers we've tested with Core M chips, the results have not lived up to the hype. Lenovo's Yoga 3 Pro had sluggish performance and weak battery life. The Asus T300 Chi did a little better, but still ran for less than 6 hours in our battery test. The Samsung Ativ Book 9, a 12-inch laptop very similar to this one, did a bit better both on performance and battery life, coming close to 8 hours.

Getting the most out of Core M may require your hardware and software, including the operating system, to be properly tuned for it. And as Apple can control every aspect of its OS and exactly what hardware is paired with it, it's not surprising that the company is able to get some of the best results to date from the Core M. In our benchmark tests, no one will confuse this system with even the basic 13-inch MacBook Air, but it was faster in our multitasking test than the other Core M laptops we've reviewed. More importantly, in day to day use, it often felt just as responsive as a MacBook Air, with a few important caveats.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Basic Web surfing worked flawlessly, as did streaming even 4K video from YouTube or HD video from Netflix. Even basic gaming via Steam was doable, and I could play older or simpler games such as Portal 2 or Telltale's The Walking Dead series if I dialed the in-game resolution down to 1,440x900 and played with middle-ground graphics settings.

Using a browser other than Apple's Safari, which is very well optimized for the OS X/Core M combination, can lead to some slowdown, as can loading up multiple video streams at once. Pushing apps such as Photoshop with challenging filters and high-resolution files is likewise going to be slower than most Windows laptops with Core i5 CPUs.

But for many laptop users, especially those primarily interested in a laptop's size and weight, battery life is of the utmost importance. That is the one area where Apple's use of the Core M platform has caused the most angst-ridden speculation. Other Core M systems, all slim laptops or hybrids, have all turned in battery life scores that are on the low side, from about five and a half hours (for the Yoga 3 Pro and Asus T300 Chi) to seven and a half hours (for the Samsung Book 9) in our video playback battery drain test.

Meanwhile, Apple's own current MacBook Air runs for an amazing 18 hours (thanks to its recently upgraded Broadwell Core i5 CPU) and the 13-inch Pro ran for 15 hours in the same test. Two recent slim, premium laptops, the Dell XPS 13 and HP Spectre x360, both managed 12 hours.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The 12-inch MacBook doesn't last as long as those Core i5 laptops, but it does beat the other Core M systems by a large margin, running for 11 hours 3 minutes in our video playback battery drain test. Apple says it should give you at least 10 hours of video playback, so that's in line with the company's claims. Real-world scenarios, with more energy draining apps and frequent online use, will be shorter, and in a secondary test streaming online video non-stop over Wi-Fi, the system ran for 5 hours.

How did Apple manage to get better battery life from the notoriously fickle Core M? Part of it may be the optimization Apple can do as the creator of both the hardware and operating system. But a big part of it may be the large 39.7-watt-hour lithium-polymer battery crammed into the small MacBook's body. The actual motherboard and all the internal components have been shrunk down to be only fraction of the size of a typical laptop motherboard. Instead, the entire rest of the system interior is filled with a battery designed to fit into every nook and cranny of available space.

Conclusion

My initial impression of the original MacBook Air from 2008 feels timely and fitting here. Of that laptop, which was considered both groundbreaking and frustratingly limited, I said:

"The design is revolutionary, but Apple's MacBook Air will appeal to a smaller, more specialized audience than the standard MacBook, thanks to a stripped-down set of connections and features."

Sarah Tew/CNET

Likewise, this new MacBook will also be the right fit for a smaller segment of a public than the more universally useful 13-inch MacBook Air or Pro. But those who can work with the limitations -- primarily a lack of ports, shorter battery life, performance that's not suited for pro-level photo and video editing, and a shallow keyboard that takes some getting used to -- will love its sharp display, slim and light body, and responsive touchpad.

My primary caveat is this -- if history is any guide, you can count on a near-future generation of this laptop boosting its utility by doubling the number of USB-C ports to at least two. So like many new technology products, it may be worth waiting for the next version, even if having a 12-inch, two-pound gold MacBook right now will make you the coolest kid at the coffee shop.

Handbrake Multimedia Multitasking test

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)
370
Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch)
428
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015)
465
Samsung Ativ Book 9 (2015)
563
Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro
682

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Adobe Photoshop CS5 image-processing test

Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch)
263
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)
268
Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro
294
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015)
307
Samsung Ativ Book 9 (2015)
311

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Apple iTunes encoding test

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)
107
Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch)
112
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015)
130
Samsung Ativ Book 9 (2015)
130
Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro
142

Note:

Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Video playback battery drain test

Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015)
1080
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015)
747
Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch)
726
Samsung Ativ Book 9 (2015)
457
Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro
346

Note:

Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System Configurations

Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) OSX 10.10.2 Yosemite; 1.1GHz Intel Core M-5Y31; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphics 5300; 256GB SSD
Dell XPS 13 (2015, non-touch) Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 2.2GHz Intel Core i5-5200U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2,000MB (shared) Intel HD 5500 Graphics; 128GB SSD
Lenovo Yoga Pro 3 Windows 8.1 (64-bit); 1.1GHz Intel Core M-5Y60; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 3,839MB (shared) Intel HD Graphics 5300; 256GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) Yosimite OSX 10.10.2; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-5250U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 1,536MB Intel HD Graphis 6000; 128GB SSD
Samsung Ativ Book 9 (2015) Windows 8.1 (64.bit); 1.1GHz Intel Core M-5Y31; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1,600MHz; 2,005MB (shared) Intel HD 5300 Graphics; 128GB SSD

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