2016 MacBook Review: More Power, Longer Battery Life

What’s Not to Like? How About the Keyboard and USB Port

2016 12-inch MacBook in Rose Gold color
2016 MacBook in Rose Gold. Courtesy of Apple

Apple released the 2016 12-inch Retina MacBook with an eye on improving performance, by using faster CPUs and faster graphics, and providing longer battery life. It also added a color, offering the 12-inch MacBook in Silver, Gold, Space Gray, and now, Rose Gold.

While there have been changes inside and out, the second generation of the MacBook remains mostly a speed bump, which will likely be viewed as a nice improvement for those who were already considering a MacBook, but won’t sway those who are looking at other members of the Mac lineup.

Pro

  • New Skylake Core M processors and GPUs.
  • Improved PCIe flash storage performance.
  • Better battery life.
  • Still fanless.

Con

  • Low-res webcam (480p).
  • Butterfly keyboard feel.
  • Single USB Type C port.
  • Port still only 5 Gbps USB 3.1 gen 1, instead of 3.1 gen 2 or Thunderbolt 3.

Overall, I like the improvements Apple made in the 2016 MacBook models. The addition of the new Skylake-based Core M processors and graphics provides a nice performance boost the original 2015 MacBook model lacked, and it does so without reducing battery life; instead, it actually increased the battery run-time by a full hour, at least according to Apple’s specifications.

New Rose Gold Color

In addition, the MacBook is now offered in four colors: the original, rather boring Silver, Gold, and Space Gray, and the new Rose Gold, which is more than skin deep, at least according to the teardown photos at iFixit.

Slim and Light

Seeing no change was the basic MacBook case, which still sports one of the slimmest designs, as well as one of the lightest, coming in at 2.03 pounds.

While the small form factor and light weight are a plus for anyone who travels, they're also the reasons driving many of the compromises made in the MacBook's design.

Don’t get me wrong; you won’t find compromises in quality. The case, although light and slim, is tough, and stands up not only to what you throw at it, but also to Apple's own well-known quality standards.

No corners were cut or shortcuts taken.

Nevertheless, keeping the slim size dictated the compromises that some people object to, such as the single USB-C port, and the keyboard with the limited depth throw to the keys that will affect typing skills. ("Throw" is how far a key travels down when it's pressed.)

On the bright side, the keyboard is full size, running from edge to edge with no supporting frame visible. But while I liked the full-size keys, the actual butterfly key mechanism that allows the keyboard to be very thin didn't deliver a great typing feel.

Improved Performance

The 2016 MacBook comes equipped with new Intel Core m3, Core m5, or Core m7 processors based on the Skylake processor family. Core M processors are low-voltage processors designed for mobile devices that rely primarily on battery power. As a result, the Core M processors are very efficient, sipping from the battery and generating very little heat. The result is roughly a 20 percent improvement in processing speed over the 2015 MacBook, while still using no fan to generate noise, or heat pipes to take up space within the MacBook.

That leaves more interior room that Apple chose to stuff with its new lithium-polymer battery that is essentially formed to fit within every available nook and cranny in the MacBook case.

The end result is all-day battery life; well, at least 10 hours of use when browsing the web, or 11 hours watching movies on iTunes.

If you're wondering about battery run-time when pursuing more CPU-intensive tasks, the answer is a bit less; remember, the MacBook isn't designed for apps such as audio editing, video editing, or photo editing, which make heavy use of the CPU. If these are your primary tasks, I suggest looking to the MacBook Pro or the MacBook Air at a minimum.

On the other hand, office work, web browsing, and presentations are the forte of the MacBook and shouldn't impair battery run-time.

Storage

Storage options of the MacBook haven’t changed; depending on the model you select, it will be configured with either 256 GB or 512 GB PCIe flash storage. What has changed is the PCIe configuration; the new Skylake Core M processors support PCIe 3.0 instead of the older PCIe 2 specs.

Don’t expect a storage performance increase, though; Apple reduced the number of PCIe lanes going to the flash storage device from four to two. However, since the PCIe 3 lanes are just about twice as fast, the end result is a near wash for storage performance.

2016 MacBook Specifications

What’s Not to Like

The 2016 MacBook is indeed a speed bump that didn't address other issues that have grated on MacBook users. Perhaps the most talked about of these is the single USB-C port that is used for powering, charging, adding an external monitor, or connecting any external USB device, such as storage devices and cameras.

With just a single port, most MacBook users find themselves doing the port shuffle when they need to make use of any peripherals. You can purchase a USB C expander/docking station that provides the ability to charge the MacBook while connecting a peripheral to the Mac. The Apple version of the multiport adapter goes for $79.00; even though less expensive multiport adapters are available from third parties, it remains a bit of a mystery why Apple couldn't fit a second USB-C port onto the 2016 MacBook.

Besides the single USB-C port, the other disappointment on the 2016 MacBook update is that the single USB-C port didn't gain any additional performance; it remains stuck at a USB 3.1 generation 1 port. The generation 1 configuration means the port makes use of the USB-C physical form factor and power handling capabilities, but only operates at USB 3.0 speeds of 5 Gbps.

Apple could have gone to USB 3 generation 2, which doubles the speed to 10 Gbps, or to Thunderbolt 3, which uses the same USB-C port but allows for speeds up to 40 Gbps.

Why the USB port wasn't upgraded may come down to Apple simply not wanting the MacBook to lead in a performance sector over its existing Mac lineup. Perhaps, as rumored, we'll see Thunderbolt 3 appear on the next MacBook Pro release. Once it's established on other Macs, the MacBook may see an update sometime in 2017.

My final gripe about the MacBook is the basic no-frills 480p resolution FaceTime camera that is built in to the MacBook; even the previous generation iPhone 5 sported a 1.2 megapixel FaceTime camera.

Final Thoughts

The 2016 MacBook is geared towards those who would prefer to have a Mac with them wherever they go without having to compromise on weight and portability. To achieve the portability, the MacBook makes compromises that are geared to favor travelers over other users.

If you're not expecting the performance of a desktop Mac, or for that matter, even a current MacBook Air model, then the MacBook is a pretty good choice to meet travel needs.

Unlike other portable device options, such as the 12.9-inch iPad Pro, which is pretty close in size and performance, the MacBook stands out for the simple reason it runs OS X and all the current Mac apps you may have collected.

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