Apple 12in MacBook review (2016)

Welcome to our hands-on review of Apple's new 12-inch MacBook for 2016. If you'd prefer to read about the original model, head over to our 2015 12-inch MacBook review. Our review is based on two models we've spent time with: the £1,299 model (1.2GHz m5 processor, 512GB of flash storage) in Rose Gold, and the £1,049 model (1.1GHz m3 processor, 256GB flash storage) in Space Grey.

Also see: Best Black Friday Laptop Deals

Apple finds itself in a simultaneously difficult and enviable position in 2016. Having cast its spell over the laptop, the smartphone and the tablet, it has run out of things to revolutionise, things to invent. It seems that Apple is starting to plateau, in both creative and financial terms, but (perhaps unfairly) it must live up to its own hype every time it releases a product. Such as this amazing MacBook, an update to the original 12-inch MacBook unveiled in 2015.

Much like the original MacBook Air caused outrage among tech hacks by having only one USB port (Apple later relented and added a second), so the 12-inch MacBook courted controversy by featuring a lone USB-C port which also serves as the power connector: the world promptly decided it wasn't ready for a single-port laptop with a slightly different keyboard. We feel this is the wrong way of looking at this laptop - in a simpler world it is one of the best laptops you can buy. But it isn't that simple, and it will be compared to not only the rest of the world's computers, but also the incredible track record of the company that has made it.

There's no intended niche audience for this product - it is a laptop for everyone, a computer in its purest form that surely will shape the future of the portable computer.

If only it weren't so darned expensive.

12-inch MacBook review (2016)

12-inch MacBook (2016) review: Price and availability

For a laptop that is marketed heavily as the future of computing, the price and specs are both slightly confusing and undeniably high. It's available in two base models, their differences as follows:

£1,049

  • 256GB PCIe-based onboard flash storage
  • 1.1GHz dual-core Intel Core m3 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.2GHz) with 4MB L3 cache
  • Configurable to 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core m7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) with 4MB L3 cache

£1,299

  • 512GB PCIe-based onboard flash storage
  • 1.2GHz dual-core Intel Core m5 processor (Turbo Boost up to 2.7GHz) with 4MB L3 cache
  • Configurable to 1.3GHz dual-core Intel Core m7 processor (Turbo Boost up to 3.1GHz) with 4MB L3 cache
  • Both models come with 8GB of 1866MHz LPDDR3 onboard memory as standard

Perhaps the price jars because of the way consumer technology has fallen over the past 20 years. You may remember the days of the first family PC costing well over £1,000, but you can now pick up a Windows laptop with higher specs than the MacBook for around half its price. Then again, this high price buys you an incredible feat of laptop engineering that weighs about as much as a tablet, yet (despite Apple's iPad Pro marketing) can do a tad more.

The 2016 MacBook is available in Space Grey, Silver, Gold and, oh yes, Rose Gold. More on that never.

12-inch MacBook review (2016)

12-inch MacBook (2016) review: Performance

We've been using the standard 1.1GHz model which has an Intel Core m3 processor. The 2015 MacBook's legacy has been, and will remain, that it wasn't very powerful. So far we have no complaints against the 2016 model in day-to-day use - it zips along very nicely for all your everyday computing needs. Geekbench 3 benchmark tests gave the MacBook a multi-core score of 5053. Compare this with the 2015 model's 4618 and the 2015 13in MacBook Air's 5821 and you get an idea of power. 

There won't be any tech snobbery here, incidentally, against the idea of 'everyday computing', as though all tech journalists and specialists actually need and frequently use the power of the MacBook Pro they probably own. The 2016 MacBook, even in its lowest-spec model, is more than adequate for the needs of most - although video editors and gamers should look elsewhere.

It's the first Apple MacBook to ship with Intel's latest generation of processor, 'Skylake'. Along with Intel's HD Graphics 515 card, the MacBook has faster performance and storage speeds across the board. It's fair to say that these aren't extremely noticeable in use compared to the 2015 model, but the laptop is agile and responsive. 

The standard 8GB of RAM helps, as does the flash storage - there are no moving parts in this laptop, and therefore no fan. It barely runs warm, even when put under a bit of pressure with multiple programmes running. A laptop that doesn't scald your lap is always a plus. 

Bonus points: pleasingly for a laptop this small, the speakers are outstanding.

12-inch MacBook (2016) review: Design

Our attractively grey (Space Grey, because space is grey) review model in particular has picked up many compliments on its short travels. (The Rose Gold model is more of an opinion divider.) There's no denying this is a beautiful product.

12-inch MacBook review (2016)

Instead, we are drawn to notice, and potentially criticise, the one sole port on this computer. (Bar the headphone port. First name on the team sheet.) It's USB-C, a relatively new standard of USB connection. The bundled charger connects to the port, which is also able to transfer data and act as a video output port. You'll need an adapter to do all three at once. 

But so what? If you know you'll want to attach several USB sticks to your computer every day, then you just won't consider this laptop - much like those who will want to connect an external monitor. The MacBook doesn't support Thunderbolt 3, so the best option for second screening is with an HDMI adaptor to connect to a compatible monitor

But if you really think you'd want to connect this particular MacBook to an external monitor, why would you plump for a 12-inch screen laptop in the first place? A 15-inch MacBook Pro with a plethora of ports is surely your preferred machine, negating the need for an external display. The point here is that the design of this laptop should not be judged harshly by what it cannot do in relation to its price. This is to misunderstand its excellent combination of form and function.

Unfortunately, for the next couple of years, the one USB-C port thing is probably going to affect sales of this laptop. Given that Apple has gone with it again for the second generation, we think Apple is sticking with this strategy for the long haul - we'll have to wait and see what the next MacBook Pro brings. Some users will feel they might need to suddenly plug in two USB sticks and the SD card for that point-and-shoot camera that's lying about somewhere. The MacBook Air is now considered a design classic used by several generations of person, and indeed allows these plug-ins - but in 2008 it was actually laughed at by many for being overpriced and only having a single port. Sound familiar?

12-inch MacBook review (2016)

Here's one final point of potential interest: the USB-C ports on our test machines were both a very snug, very firm fit: we had to give them a good old yank to get the cable out. By which we don't mean that you'll ever be unable to get it out - just that, unless it loosens up significantly over time, it will never ever come out inadvertently. And while that sounds good, it does mean that tripping over the wire is going to bring the MacBook crashing down instead of pulling out the cable. We miss MagSafe.

(If you miss MagSafe too, there are options. Griffin makes an accessory called BreakSafe - available from Amazon or Griffin itself - a USB-C power cable that incorporates a battery segment and will separate and unattach itself when placed under moderate pressure.)