Apple MacBook (2016) review: MacBook still short on ports, but this improved minimalist laptop is more tempting than ever

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The Good The 12-inch MacBook gets a decent boost to performance and battery life, while keeping the same slim, light premium body. The high-res display and responsive trackpad remain the gold standard. Color options add a fun bit of personalization.

The Bad The single USB-C port will continue to be an inconvenience for many. The shallow keyboard isn't ideal for long-form typing. Other super-slim laptops manage to fit in more powerful processors.

The Bottom Line With a handful of subtle improvements, the updated 12-inch Apple MacBook is more of a mainstream machine, but remains a few tweaks away from being the best laptop on the market.

8.4 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Performance 8
  • Battery 8

Editors' note (June 27, 2017): At this year's Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple gave its laptop line a modest makeover. The $1,299 12-inch MacBook and $999 13-inch MacBook Air have been updated with faster, more powerful Intel processors. The new MacBook Pros -- the $1,299 13-inch, $1,799 13-inch with Touch Bar, and $2,399 15-inch with Touch Bar -- have those new chips, too, along with upgraded graphics hardware. 

Otherwise, aside from a RAM bump here and a slight price drop there, the 2017 batch is very similar to the one from 2016, with the same enclosures, ports, trackpads and screens. But be forewarned: Buying a new MacBook Pro may require you to invest in a variety of adapters for your legacy devices. Also note that the 13-inch MacBook Pro from 2015 has been discontinued, though the $1,999 15-inch model of that vintage remains available for those who want all the ports and fewer dongles.

Now playing: Watch this: Apple's MacBook Pro gets an early upgrade

Fall 2016 update

In October 2016, Apple updated its laptop portfolio, delivering an overdue refresh of its 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros. Considerably slimmer and lighter than their predecessors, the new models come equipped with larger Force Touch trackpads and Apple's new, dynamic Touch Bar. (A 13-inch model without the Touch Bar was also announced.) And the Touch Bar is very cool: the mini touch strip contextually changes to icons in different apps and sliders, hot keys, and function buttons emerge on the fly as needed.

The new models make some potentially difficult tradeoffs, however. Perhaps the most significant one is that the new MacBook Pros have fewer ports than the older ones. The previous generation had a total of 7: Two USB, two Thunderbolt 2 (in the form of Mini DisplayPort jacks), HDMI, SD, MagSafe and headphone. Besides a headphone jack, the new 15-inch model has four -- and they're all of the Thunderbolt/USB-C variety. The new 13-inch Touch Bar model also has four (all Thunderbolt) but the 13-inch model without Touch Bar has only two!

Be warned: Buying a new MacBook Pro will likely force you to invest in a variety of adapters for all your legacy devices. (Ironically, you won't be able to connect Apple's own iPhone 7, with its Lightning Connector, to any of the new MacBook Pros without an adapter.)

The new 13-inch MacBook Pros have Intel Core-i processors that are faster than the older 12-inch model's Intel Core-m series; they also support Thunderbolt 3 and come equipped with more USB-C ports. But they're a full pound heavier and cost at least $200 more. The new 13-inch model with the TouchBar starts at $1,799, £1,749 and AU$2,699; the 13-inch model without it starts at $1,499, £1,449 and AU$2,199; and the new 15-inch model starts at $2,399, £2,349 and AU$3,599. The older MacBooks, which remain available, start at $1,299, £1,249 and AU$1,999 (12- or 13-inch Pro) and $1,999, £1,899 and AU$2,999 (15-inch Pro).

The Apple laptop portfolio still includes the 13-inch MacBook Air -- with specs unchanged -- but the 11-inch MacBook Air is now available only to the educational market; to buy one, you'll need to be associated with a school or university or find one online somewhere. Not sure which one is right for you? Consult CNET's full head-to-head comparison of the entire lineup of MacBooks, including the Pro and Air models, as well as Apple's new MacBook lineup: What you need to know.

Editors' note: The review of Apple's 12-inch MacBook Pro, originally published in April 2016, follows.

The modest updates to Apple's 12-inch MacBook laptop don't go far enough to make it the new must-have machine for everyone. At the same time, there's a sizable enough boost to performance and battery life that the system can no longer be considered an outlier only suited for a very limited audience that values portability over productivity.

Nor is it the only player in the game. Since the 2015 original, we've seen super-thin laptops such as the upcoming HP Spectre shaving millimeters from previous versions, or tablet hybrids such as the Microsoft Surface Pro 4 and Samsung Galaxy TabPro S showing off what Intel's new Core M chips can do in a small, reasonably priced package.

Sarah Tew/CNET

But even if it's closer to the middle of the road than the it was last year, the 12-inch MacBook is still a love-it-or-hate-it laptop. It seems to inspire either fierce loyalty or intense derision, at least judging from comments on my review of the original version, and social media feedback on any follow-up stories since. A new set of updates for 2016, including new processors for faster performance and better battery life, plus a new rose gold color option, may help throw off some of that shade, but not all.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Indeed, I liked the 2015 version of the MacBook, despite its many limitations. It relied on Intel's initially unimpressive Core M processor, and its performance and battery life compared unfavorably to the bigger MacBook Air and Pro systems. The keyboard was unusually shallow, in order to fit into such a thin body. And most of all, the single USB-C port was a hard pill to swallow for those convinced of the need for separate power, video, and data ports.

It was not the perfect laptop for everyone, or even most people. But over time, I found myself appreciating Apple's exercise in strictly enforced minimalism. I turned to it more and more often, especially for on-the-go computing in coffee shops around New York, eventually declaring it as my all-around favorite (as of March 2016, at least). But, it could still get bogged down with too many programs and windows open, and the battery life wasn't at the level where it could go days and days between charging sessions. The USB issue turned out to be less serious than I feared, and only two or three times in the months after the product's original release did I find myself stymied by a lack of ports (although when I did get stuck with a USB key and a misplaced converter dongle, it was very annoying).


The 12-inch MacBook, on top of a 13-inch MacBook Pro, on top of a 13-inch MacBook Air.

Sarah Tew/CNET

With this 2016 update, Apple has addressed some, but not all, of the issues with the original. Both this system, and other computers with the second generation of Core M processors (confusingly part of Intel's sixth generation of Core chips, also known by the codename Skylake), are closer to the mainstream levels of performance seen in laptops with more common Core i3 and Core i5 processors from Intel.

Along with new Core m3 and m5 CPUs (the M series now follows the same 3/5/7 format as the Core i-series chips), the new MacBook gets Intel's updated 515 integrated graphics, which won't make you a gamer, but may help with video application performance. The speed of the internal flash memory has also improved, but I doubt that's something casual users would even notice.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Frankly, the most obvious difference between the 2016 MacBook and the 2015 model is the new addition of a fourth color option, rose gold, which is already available on iPhones and iPads. Sadly, our review sample is a rather straitlaced space gray (silver and gold are the other two options).

Note also that we're testing the step-up model, which costs $1,599 in the US (£1,299 and AU$2,199), and includes an Intel Core m5 processor and a big 512GB of storage. The base $1,299 model (£1,049 and AU$1,799) has the Core m3 and 256GB of storage.

Color aside, the body is identical to last year's model, weighing a hair over two pounds and measuring 13.1mm thick. The HP Spectre packs a 13-inch display (but only a 1,920x1,080-resolution one) into a 10.4mm body, but at the cost of more weight, at 2.45 pounds. That coming-soon HP also uses Core i5 and Core i7 CPUs, which should give it a significant performance boost. It's becoming increasingly obvious that PC makers need to balance size, weight, performance and battery life, but can usually max out two out of those four at best.

Apple MacBook (2016)

Price as reviewed $1,599
Display size/resolution 12-inch 2,304 x 1,440 screen
PC CPU 1.2GHz Intel Core M5-6Y54
PC Memory 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz
Graphics 1536MB Intel HD Graphics 515
Storage 512GB flash storage
Networking 802.11ac wireless, Bluetooth 4.0
Operating system Apple El Capitan OSX 10.11.4

A keyboard you may like, but won't love

This is still the thinnest Mac that Apple has ever made. Part of the reason for that is the butterfly mechanism under the keyboard. The nearly edge-to-edge keyboard has very large key faces, yes, but the keys are shallow, barely popping up above the keyboard tray and depressing into the chassis only slightly. It takes some getting used to, especially if you're accustomed to the deep, clicky physical feedback of other MacBooks or the similar island-style keyboards of most other modern laptops. It took a while to get used to, and it'll never be my favorite keyboard, but I found it was easy to acclimate to after a few days of heavy usage, and I've easily written more than 100,000 words on the 2015 version of this system.