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

The 12-inch MacBook gets a better battery and faster performance, but it's still a one-port-wonder.

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 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
Expertise I've been testing and reviewing computer and gaming hardware for over 20 years, covering every console launch since the Dreamcast and every MacBook...ever. Credentials
  • Author of the award-winning, NY Times-reviewed nonfiction book The Tetris Effect; Longtime consumer technology expert for CBS Mornings
Dan Ackerman
11 min read

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. 


Apple MacBook (2016)

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.

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.

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.)

Apple's new entry-level MacBook Pro loses the Touch Bar -- but still looks sweet

See all photos

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.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The touchpad retains the Force Touch feature found in both the previous MacBook and the current 13-inch MacBook Pro. (A version of this migrated to the iPhone 6S and 6S Plus as 3D Touch.) A set of four sensors under the pad allow you to "click" anywhere on the surface, and the Force Click effect, which combines the sensors with haptic feedback (or, as Apple calls it, "taptic"), allows you to have two levels of perceived clicking within an app or task. That deep click feels to the finger and brain like the trackpad has a stepped physical mechanism, but in fact, the movement you feel is a small horizontal shift, which, even when fully explained, still feels like you're depressing the trackpad two levels.

Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm more of a tapper than a clicker, and the first thing I do on any new MacBook is turn on tap-to-click in the settings menu (which is still inexplicably turned off by default), so I have not given Force Touch much thought since it was introduced, with the exception of deep-clicking on addresses occasionally to bring up a contextual map pop-up. Here's another Mac trackpad tip: besides the tapping feature under the trackpad preferences menu, you should go to the accessibility menu and look under Preferences > Accessibility > Mouse & Trackpad > Trackpad options to turn on tap-to-drag.

A small but sharp screen

The 12-inch Retina display has a 2,304x1,440-pixel resolution, which gives you a very high pixel-per-inch density, as well as an aspect ratio that sticks with 16:10, as opposed to the 16:9 aspect ratio found on nearly every other laptop available now, and in HDTV screens.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The slightly glossy screen works from wide viewing angles and is very clear and bright. On-screen icons, text and images all scale well to be very viewable despite the smaller size and higher resolution. While the bezel around the display is thin, it's nowhere as minimalist as the barely there bezel on the excellent Dell XPS 13.

Audio remains thin, best suited for YouTube videos or single-viewer Netflix experiences. While Apple has owned the Beats brand for a while now, there's no sign of any kind of Beats-enhanced audio in any Macs yet.

Another issue carried over from the previous version is the webcam, which is still just a low-res 480p model, which leads to generally soft images when using FaceTime, Photo Booth, or other camera apps.


Dan and Joe in the CNET Lab, via the MacBook's 480p webcam.

CNET/Dan Ackerman

Still the elephant in the room

If you ask 10 people about the 12-inch MacBook -- assuming they know enough about this product to differentiate it from other MacBooks -- and they'll all say something along the lines of: "That's the one with just one USB-C port, right?"

There were hopes that we'd see a second port, either USB-C or something else, in this updated model, but that was not to be. The use of a single port for data, video and power -- and a not-quite-mainstream one at that -- remains the most bedeviling thing about this laptop.

And yet, using the 2015 MacBook fairly heavily over a course of months, I also found it wasn't nearly the deal breaker some had feared. The battery life was long enough that I didn't need to worry about taking up the power port to connect an external peripheral, and frankly, so many things have migrated to the cloud, that I've even removed the once-ubiquitous key-shaped USB drive from the keychain, where it hung for many years.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Yes, if you need a wired Ethernet connection on a daily basis, use sneakernet-delivered USB keys every day, or need to send a video output to an external monitor, it can be a real pain. There are USB-C dongles and adaptors 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 $80.

Through hands-on testing, I've concluded I can mostly survive in a single-port world, but that won't be true for everybody.

Core M, take two

The original pitch for Core M was that it enabled laptops to be very thin and light, but still powerful and long-lasting. That was an appealing idea, but the first-gen Core M chips found in premium-priced systems such as this and the Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro didn't live up to the hype in terms of performance and battery life. Of those early models, the MacBook was the most impressive, likely because Apple was able to tune both the hardware and operating system to work optimally with that still-new CPU. Despite that, the 2015 MacBook could slow down at times, with too many windows and tabs open, and with very large documents and files in use.

Sarah Tew/CNET

The handful of systems we've tested with the newer, second wave of Core M chips, including the Samsung Galaxy Tab Pro S and HP Spectre x2, have all felt zippier, even if still lagging behind full-size laptops with Core i5 processors. With this updated MacBook, you can get a new Core m3 or Core m5 processor. We're testing the better Core m5 version, so it's not going to be an exact comparison to the original 12-inch MacBook.

So far, in a couple of days of use, this Core m5 system feels faster than the older model, not so much in terms of minute-to-minute responsiveness or opening apps, but in that there were fewer moments where the system seemed to slow down or lag when pushed. The benchmark results reflect this, and while it felt like you'd be pushing your luck to use the 2015 MacBook as your mission-critical, all day, every day computer, I feel more confident in this more powerful update, although we'll need more extensive hands-on use to say for sure.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Battery life in this new version is, by Apple's account, about an hour longer than a system with the first-gen Core M CPU would get. In an online video streaming test, the MacBook ran for 10:33, which is about a half hour longer than the most-recent 13-inch MacBook Pro. We're continuing to run other battery tests, and will update this review with additional results.

An even better laptop, but still with caveats

In hands-on use, the new MacBook feels almost exactly like the previous version. If you've got the 2015 MacBook, there's no need to upgrade, but if you were holding off to see what the second generation looked like, the potential boost to performance and battery life makes me feel even more confident about using this as primary laptop, especially for frequent travelers. However, the lack of ports and the feel of the keyboard will still be enough to discourage some, especially those who are looking for a laptop that will stay tethered to a desk for all day, every day.

Keep in mind, too, that we'll almost certainly see updated MacBook Pro laptops later in 2016, possibly as early as Apple's WWDC event in June.

Multimedia Multitasking test 3.0

Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) 505Microsoft Surface Pro 4 519Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 702Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) 830Samsung Galaxy TabPro S 856
Note: Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Geekbench 3 (Multi-Core)

Microsoft Surface Pro 4 6775Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) 6729Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 5879Samsung Galaxy TabPro S 4722Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) 2838
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance

Streaming video playback battery drain test

Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) 633Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016) 608Samsung Galaxy TabPro S 563Microsoft Surface Pro 4 298
Note: Longer bars indicate better performance (in minutes)

System Configurations

Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016) Apple El Capitan OSX 10.11.4; 1.2GHz Intel Core m5-6Y54; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1866MHz; 1536MB Intel HD Graphics 515; 512GB SSD
Apple MacBook Air (13-inch, 2015) Apple Yosemite OSX 10.10.2; 1.6GHz Intel Core i5-5250U; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 1536MB Intel HD Graphis 6000; 128GB SSD
Samsung Galaxy TabPro S Microsoft Windows 10 Home (64-bit); 2.2GHz Intel m3-6Y30; 4GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 515; 128GB SSD
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015) Apple Yosemite OSX 10.10.2; 1.1GHz Intel Core M-5Y31; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM 1600MHz; 1536MB Intel HD Graphics 5300; 256GB SSD
Microsoft Surface Pro 4 Microsoft Windows 10 Pro (64-bit) 2.4GHz Intel Core i5-6300U; 8GB DDR3 SDRAM TK; 128MB (dedicated) Intel HD Graphics 520; 256GB SSD

Apple MacBook (2016)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Performance 8Battery 8