Review: 12" Retina MacBook

I can't think of a better place to start this review than on a train, using this machine. It's doing exactly what it was intended to do, which means this review isn't grounded in a sense of charity or remorse. Rather, it's an exam at the end of the first month of school for this device.

So, the 12" Retina MacBook. I was not interested. I've got a 13" Retina MacBook Pro that I bought with my own money. It sits on a little hanger/shelf gadget behind my Thunderbolt display and pretends to be a desktop machine. In theory, if I needed to travel I would dismount the external drives it's connected to, put it in my bag, and head out. I'd be bothered by that, though, because it's my primary computer and I'd worry about it. I don't like to travel with it.

A new job came with a budget for a new computer, though, and I thought about my last travel experiment in portable computing, which was using an iPad Air 2, an Apple wireless keyboard, and an Incase Origami folding case/stand to act as a portable workstation. The verdict on that was "pretty good," but I keep coming back to the thing I hate about those arrangements, which is that it doesn't feel good to have to touch the screen when you're typing on a keyboard. It feels weird and fiddly. Worse, I had to do some poking around with Google Hangouts in a meeting when a conference room video display broke, and that was awful on an iPad.

So I thought to myself it might be nice to just make work pay for something that would get me closer in size and weight to "iPad Air 2 with a bluetooth keyboard and a little foldy stand thing," but would give me flexibility in the direction of a more computery computer, and wouldn't involve me risking my personal computer for work travel.

The Competition

i looked at a few Linux laptops (the Dell XPS 13, and the Linux-friendly-ish ThinkPad Carbon X1) and also briefly considered a high-end Chromebook. I considered the 11" and 13" MacBook Airs. The 12" Retina MacBook won out for these reasons:

  • The Linux laptops always involve some sort of uncertainty. It's not just "do they run Linux," but "do they run your particular kind of Linux, and with which kernel and which drivers and which little tweaks."
  • I had to review a Chromebook with a sub-standard display and I was feeling pretty sensitive about lower resolution laptops.
  • The apps I need are: Emacs, Dropbox, git, Ruby, and a browser. In other words, the Air is (and this is hilarious to me as I type it) overpowered for what I need.

I spent a lot of time at the Apple Store and Best Buy fiddling around with the MacBooks on display. The keyboard has been discussed elsewhere, and I wasn't sure how I'd feel about the 12" display. In the end, the thing I kept finding myself doing was closing the floor model, picking it up, and just hefting it.

How Does It Feel?

It's present. There's heft. You're holding a thing. But when you tuck it under your arm – provided you even bother holding it that way – it seems to disappear. If the Apple product continuum starts at the iPod, winds its way through the iPhone, iPad, MacBook, MacBook Air and MacBook Pro, the MacBook feels like it really wants to be an iPad. The closest thing to it is, in fact, an iPad Air 2 with a ClamCase Pro keyboard case. The big differences between those two are:

  • No touch screen
  • The MacBook doesn't feel like it will tip over backwards when open
  • You can install Homebrew on the MacBook.

I began to understand the value of OS X's fullscreen mode with a 13" MacBook Pro. With the 12" MacBook, I completely get it. The screen is just small enough that I don't want whatever I'm doing at the moment to share space with anything else. There's just not quite enough room. I resisted running Emacs full-screen for years. It felt like I'd be acknowledging modernity just a hair too much. Now I do.

So, from a design point of view, I really love it. It occupies just the right amount of space. It doesn't want to be my "real" computer. It just wants to come along when I have to go somewhere, or when I'd like to answer mail or write a comment on MetaFilter in the living room.

Keyboard and Touchpad

People have made a lot of the shallow keyboard and force-touch touchpad. I guess I can say this:

The keyboard didn't hurt my fingers, but I know exactly where peoples' fingers hurt when they reported using the keyboard. I think it might be because it's so easy to use any part of the finger to activate a key. You just learn that it's easier to let the corner of a finger or thumb graze the key and skip off of it, rather than committing to a full, shallow-angled strike with the tips of the fingers. After an hour of steady typing, I get this vague feeling of there having been rubbing on parts of my fingertips.

In terms of typing fluency, it didn't even take a day to get used to the keyboard, and it's still fine. I recently decided to add a WASDv2 keyboard with Cherry MX Brown mechanical switches to my desktop machine, and moving between the two keyboards hasn't been bad.

If you're worried about it, just do what I did: Go to Best Buy on a Tuesday night, hang out in the sad little simulacrum of an Apple Store they have set up in the back – the one with all the smudged up iPads – open up the notes app and start typing. It'll be weird because you're doing it at a bad angle, but go with it and get over the initial "this is a weird angle" thing, and keep typing. It took me about five minutes of that to finally say to myself, "this is fine, I don't know what I was scared of."

The force-touch touchpad is a fascinating bit of technology, but it just works. I'll probably get a Magic Trackpad 2 for my desktop machine because I like the added dimension of expressiveness, and don't like the shear between desktop and laptop with my trackpading.

The Power Question

Is it underpowered? I mean, yeah? Kind of? It's got a 1.1 GHz mobile processor. It runs a browser, Emacs, and stuff like that just fine. I was feeling perverse and put StarCraft II on it, and that runs well enough for me to visit the arcade and play vintage StarCraft maps against AIs, which I did to take a break from writing this review. A peek at Star Craft's video settings, chosen by the game, shows that everything is set to low quality and any extraneous effects are turned off. I haven't tried anything heavier.

At the same time, there's an interesting feeling of insecurity with this machine that I haven't felt with other Macs I've owned. My history of Apple purchases has gone something like:

  • Early years of OS X: Refurbished mid-range G3 and G4 machines
  • Middle years: The new Intel machines at lower specs (but maxed memory)
  • Later years: New machines at middle specs

With the exception of the early years, when I think OS X probably ran poorly on everything and there were no games to speak of anyhow, I've always just bought software for my machines and run it. Maybe I've had to turn down the details on a game, but most of the time that stuff sorts itself out in the background: Accept the defaults and go, if you're feeling frisky maybe turn up the shadow quality!

On this machine, the sense of a performance floor is much more acute. You catch it struggling to open an app if you've got a bit too much going on. When you close a window and the machine's under load, the window holds on for a moment longer than you're used to on a better provisioned system, and you realize "under load" is a bit more easy to get to. Given that behavior, you begin to understand why they included 8GB of RAM even on the lowest model: It's essential. A 4GB version of this machine would tip over into a feeling of trailing-edge skittishness almost immediately.

I think I might be noticing this even more because I've kept up with iPads a bit more than I do with computers. When I buy a more demanding game, like XCOM, it's because I've got something pretty current and I know it will run well. When the iPad I've got begins to trail, I avoid things that come with "runs best on" warnings that aren't what I own. When the iPad stutters or hiccups a little, the device is so oriented to "what are you doing right now?" that I just go kill a few apps in the background and it settles back down. That's because my expectations have come up from phones to tablets. I am happy, I suppose, that the bear is dancing at all when I get to play XCOM on a tablet. On a laptop, my expectations are coming down from other "full" computers.

On the other hand, I kind of don't care. I didn't buy it to play games or even multitask. I can write Ruby, prose, and email. I can browse the web. And … this is what really motivated the purchase:


I'm stay wired into the Apple ecosystem. Apps I bought for the iMac two years ago? I just suck them back down via the app store. Alison sends me a text? I get it via Messages and can respond from a real keyboard instead of pecking something into my phone. My reminders sync, my shopping list stays up to date, and I don't have to deal with weird finger memory issues like I did when I spent a week trying to get to like the Dell Chromebook 11.

It's a little machine that suggests a pale child who struggles in the depths of the winter months, but it prevails and behaves consistently if a little put out now and then.

That's hard for a certain kind of reviewer to deal with. They're right when they say the specs don't compare favorably to other ultrabooks like the XPS 13 or ThinkPad Carbon. They are completely correct that the Google ChromeBook Pixel smashes this thing on every meaningful performance metric in its quest to run nothing but a browser really, really well. And if those folks are equally tied into their Linux or Windows or ChromeOS ecosystems, the consistency factor is there for them as well. Me? I like Macs as my desktop machines. I've got Linux on two servers, a Chromebook I use now and then for highly random environments like coffee shops if I think I'll just be typing into a windows, and I've been using Macs for general utility computing for over a decade now.

At the same time, I've been ruthless with underpeformers. That one Mac mini that was just awful? It went back and I just didn't buy anything until I could save longer because no amount of consistency was worth how bad that machine was – and Apple really needs to get its head on straight with those things or just kill them. The 12" MacBook skates on the right side of that line. It does what I need. If I'd thought it wasn't, I'd have taken it back in the return window and picked up a 13" Air, living with the lower quality display in favor of n percent more smoothness.

Bottom Line

I guess you should just ask how much computing power you need in the house.

I wouldn't have this thing as a primary machine, because I think it would be pretty bad with a lot of photo retouching and other stuff that tends to tip lower end machines into the red. I can't imagine it would be able to drive a large display. The Retina MacBook Pro I've got handles that admirably.

I wouldn't bother with this if I didn't have work travel to do, either, and even then it was kind of a "well, if you insist" purchase. I could make do, given the kind of things I do these days, with an iPad Air 2 connected to an Origami folding case and Bluetooth keyboard.

The compelling parts to me, in the end, are that it is so tiny and light that I don't mind carrying it, I get to stay in the Apple ecosystem, and it gives me a bit more "real computer" flexibility than an iPad. It's just much easier to unfold and use on my lap than the iPad with any combination of case and keyboard I've yet used (and I've tried several).

If you don't need a lot of horsepower for photo editing or things like that, but do a lot of writing, it's also a pretty nice bet. The display is gorgeous and much easier on the eyes than the lower-res Air displays. At the same time … seriously … iPads can fill the utility writer role now, and this thing in "distraction free" fullscreen mode is only slightly more capacious than an iPad.

If you don't need a lot of power and like to play games but are not A Gamer, maybe consider the iPad/keyboard combo.

If you like to code, this is probably fine unless you can't cope with the keyboard. Again, a Bluetooth keyboard and ssh client on an iPad will get you a long way if you're a vim or Emacs person.

It feels weird to end a review with a bunch of "sure, why nots" and "maybe consider an iPad or something," especially when I claim to like something. But I do like it. I'm glad I have it. I like using it and enjoy having a reason to use it. Without the work subsidy? I'd either pass or consider one of the new Dell Chromebook 13s in the mid-range, which are probably great machines for simple productivity, quite sturdy, and overpowered for what they need to do. Since you can stick a stripped down Crouton on them, you can fulfill the "thing to code on" requirement, too.

About the 12" Retina MacBook

Summary: Apple's tiny MacBook with a single USB C port, a retina display, and a mobile processor.

Date bought: September 15, 2015

Good buy? With qualifications.

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Things is © 2015 Mike Hall.