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Apple's New MacBook: Making a Sacrifice for Ultrathin Design

Here's why you might not want to buy a new MacBook just yet.

Garrett Hubbard Studios

In a famous “Saturday Night Live” sketch from 2005, Steve Jobs, parodied by Fred Armisen, announces that current iPods are obsolete. He replaces them with the all-new iPod Micro, which immediately gets replaced by the iPod Pequeno. That gets replaced by the iPod Invisa, which is so small that nobody can see it — except Jobs.

It’s still funny because it’s still true: The modern-day Apple keeps introducing new products that are thinner, lighter, smaller and better-looking than the ones you own.

This week, the company has done it again with its new $1,299 MacBook. It measures thinner and weighs less than any Mac before it. (Sorry “SNL” fans, it’s not quite invisible.)

This laptop — simply called the MacBook — manages to make the svelte MacBook Air look almost chunky, which is saying a lot. A better point of comparison is the original iPad. That was 13 millimeters thick and 1.5 pounds, and this MacBook is 13.1 millimeters and two pounds.

It comes in silver, gold and space gray — the first time Apple has brought any color other than aluminum to the laptop since its white MacBook in 2011. I tested the gold MacBook, which matches the iPhone’s bling-tastic golden hue.

But I think this MacBook is too extreme — and too expensive — for a lot of people right now. It goes on sale Friday, starting at $1,299, which is $100 more than the high-end MacBook Air with a standard configuration. It eliminates all standard USB ports and the SD card slot, replacing them with a single, smaller USB-C port, which must also be used to charge your laptop.

To make the USB-C work with other device plugs, you’ll need an adapter. Putting one of these on the MacBook is like getting a supermodel to wear headgear.

And in my harsh battery test, the MacBook pooped out on me after just over five hours.

Garrett Hubbard Studios

The new MacBook isn’t the first laptop to use a USB-C port: Google’s new $999 Chromebook Pixel, which I reviewed last month, does, too. Much like the way Apple positions the MacBook, Google sees its Pixel as advancing laptop technology.

But the Pixel has two USB-C ports, so one port could potentially work for charging and another could be used for data transfers or connecting to a monitor or TV. These ports use fast-charge technology, giving the laptop close to two hours of juice after just 15 minutes of charging. The Pixel also has two traditional USB ports and an SD card slot.

The new MacBook has none of these extra ports or fast-charging functions. Then again, the Pixel doesn’t break any records for thinness or weight, and Chromebooks lack significant internal storage, relying primarily on the cloud for nearly everything.

Apple emphasizes that this MacBook is the third line in Apple’s family of notebooks, along with its MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, so you can still buy those if you’re longing for more ports or longer battery life.

That’s not to say the new MacBook isn’t a stunning piece of hardware. The gold tone alone earned a thumbs-up from my family.

Aside from its astonishingly thin build, you’ll quickly notice some other physical differences on the MacBook. The glowing Apple logo that used to be standard on the laptop’s lid has been replaced by a shiny Apple, a lot like the one you see on the iPhone. The MacBook’s speaker grill is now positioned between the keyboard and screen. And that screen is now edge-to-edge glass, a 12-inch Retina display.

Garrett Hubbard Studios

After a week of use, I finally got used to the new keyboard on this MacBook. It is redesigned to use a more stable butterfly mechanism, which translates to flatter-feeling keys. I’m a touch typist, so the feel of the keys really matters to me. At first, this new keyboard felt kind of cheap compared to the cushiony support under the MacBook Air or wireless Apple keyboards. But after a few days I was typing faster with it.

The trackpad on this MacBook is also new, though you won’t notice it as much as the keyboard. It uses Force Touch technology (also found on the Apple Watch, reviewed here by Lauren Goode), so you can tap and press on the trackpad to perform an extra navigational step. This step was previously accessible in many cases via a drop-down arrow — think of adding a date from an email in Apple Mail to your calendar — but Force Touch makes it simpler.

I used this pretty rarely, but I can see how someone might like it over a longer period of time.

Garrett Hubbard Studios

The MacBook’s trackpad also boasts new technology: It uses Apple’s Taptic Engine, meaning that it doesn’t physically move, but feels like it’s moving. If you turn the laptop off and press on the trackpad, you’ll see what I mean: It’s like pressing against a tabletop; nothing happens. But when you turn the laptop on and press, the same action gives tactile feedback.

Under the hood, the MacBook uses the Intel Core M processor, which handled my general-purpose tasks with no problem. This is the first Apple notebook without a fan, so you’ll never hear anything whirring inside of it.

The base $1,299 MacBook, while pricey, starts with a respectable eight gigabytes of memory and 256GB of flash (the 512GB model costs $1,599). The MacBook Air entry-level model comes with 4GB of memory and 128GB of flash for $899.

The thin build of this MacBook forced Apple to rethink its battery, which now uses a terraced design to take up as much space as possible inside the laptop’s build.

Apple estimates that the MacBook battery will last for up to nine hours of Web browsing and 10 hours of iTunes movie playback. In my off-and-on use of checking email, browsing the Web and writing with power-saving features turned on, the battery lasted throughout the day.

 Apple’s MacBook in Gold has a retina display but no back-lit apple logo.
Apple’s MacBook in Gold has a retina display but no back-lit apple logo.
Garrett Hubbard Studios.

But my harsh battery tests — screen at full brightness, power-saving off, Wi-Fi on to collect email in the background and a loop of video playing on iTunes — got only five hours and 23 minutes before dying. A similarly draining test on the 13-inch MacBook Air got more than 10 hours of life (reviewed here by Walt Mossberg).

The overall weight and feel of this new MacBook may change the way you use it. In a few instances, I easily fit it into my work bag and brought it with me. The two pounds of extra weight were noticeable, but nothing like carrying a full-size laptop.

If money is no issue for you, you want a significantly smaller laptop and you don’t mind being limited by a lack of ports, then maybe upgrading to the new MacBook makes sense for you.

But if you rely on USB ports and SD card slots, this MacBook’s single port for charging, storage transfers and other functionality will really bug you.

In a few years, we may look back on this laptop’s missing USB ports like we look back on the original MacBook Air’s absent Ethernet port or missing optical disk drive (here’s that 2008 review by Walt Mossberg), thinking, “Who needed that?” We’re just not quite there yet.

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