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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)
Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016)
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015)
Samsung Galaxy TabPro S


Shorter bars indicate better performance (in seconds)

Geekbench 3 (Multi-Core)

Microsoft Surface Pro 4
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016)
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016)
Samsung Galaxy TabPro S
Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2015)


Longer bars indicate better performance

Streaming video playback battery drain test

Apple MacBook (12-inch, 2016)
Apple MacBook Pro (13-inch, 2016)
Samsung Galaxy TabPro S
Microsoft Surface Pro 4


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