In the summer of 2017, I got my hands on an (almost) brand new Early 2016 12" Macbook. I got it through a part exchange with a late 2011 13" Macbook Pro which served as my backup laptop. I fell in love with the 12" Macbook ever since Apple announced it at WWDC 2015 when I looked into it and read the specs, I was shocked.
My mind was flooded with questions:
- How does this laptop perform? Can a Core M processor run Mac OS efficiently?
- Is is possible for applications such as Logic and Final Cut Pro X run efficiently on such a low spec-ed configuration?
- How does the new keyboard feel and is it any different than an iPad smart case keyboard?
- Can this thing handle my typical workflows and applications I use and what is the overall experience using the Macbook?
- Can you run XCode on this tiny thing and if so, is it practical to do so?
- How long does the battery last?
- Is it another fashion statement item from Apple, trying to entice more people into carrying this tiny thing instead of an iPad, in order to boost laptop sales?
Let's get into it then.
1. How does this laptop perform? Can a Core M processor run Mac OS efficiently?
The new Macbooks use the Intel Core M series of processors. This is the configuration of my laptop. I honestly have no idea how this laptop performs this well. Apple's engineering team has done something trully impressive with how well MacOS is optimised. They have also created a laptop not much larger than an iPad that, for all intends and purposes, can run every software that its larger siblings can, in almost the same way. By almost, I mean that there are slight speed disadvantages like for example changing workplaces doesn't feel equally snappy on the tiny Macbook as it does on my 2013 15" maxed-out Macbook Pro, but that doesn't mean that it hinders my workflow in any way. I tend to have Google Chrome open at all times, often having upwards of 20 tabs open and this little thing doesn't seem to mind it at all. On top of that I have Spotify running in the background, along with a couple of text editors (Sublime Text 3 and Visual Studio Code) and based on whether I am doing any design work I will have Affinity Photo and/or Affinity Designer open at the same time too. The only noticable lag is during the first four-finger swipe up, to reveal all application windows and only then. If I swipe down and up again the operation is smooth as butter.
2. How can applications such as Logic and Final Cut Pro X run efficiently on such a low speced configuration?
Again, I have no clue. I do have to give great kudos to the Apple engineering team. I have used Final Cut Pro X to edit a very lengthy 1080p project (an hour and a half documentary-style video), that had 2 color grades on it and the tiny Macbook had no problem scrubbing through the footage or making any edit. I suspect that if I rendered the final project on the Macbook, It would take a few minutes more than my Macbook Pro, but at the end of the day I don't consider that to be anywhere near any performance I would classify as bad.
As for Logic Pro X, well, it's a similar story. I have worked on EQing and mixing some of my recordings and encountered no problems whatsoever. A word of caution though: The Macbook has only one USB-C port and that makes it unusable with anything that requires a normal USB-A port (like a sound card for example). You need to purchase an adapter that allows you to connect multiple USB-A devices and power to the Macbook. It's a bit of a hassle right now but it's a quite understandable step in the change of generations in USB peripherals.
3. How does the new keyboard feel and is it any different than an iPad keyboard?
Apple decided to develop a new type of key switch for the new Macbooks. Scissor switches are a thing of the past and the newer Butterfly switches are (allegedly) here to stay. Based on my personal experience and the reviews I've read online, I can say that the new switch system is a mixed bag. The keyboard is one of the most important things for a tool that you use on the daily, so I really paid close attention to this one. I do love the fact that the new keys don't have any side-to-side wiggle (which is something that still annoys me about my Macbook Pro keyboard) and it feels responsive and quite springy. It reminds me of the way that my Cherry-MX Blue equiped keyboard feels but having significant less travel (Disclaimer: I am not comparing the Macbook keyboard to an actual mechanical keyboard. I am only comparing the springiness factor of the keys).
It does takes some getting used to for sure, but that is true most any type of keyboard that you come accross that is different from any other you have used this far. The keys also make a very interesting clicking sound too. Not too loud but definitely audible, especially in quieter places (such as a library). The person sitting next to you in your local Starbucks, won't probably notice you typing away like a madman/woman though, so you should be fine. I do love the sound that the keys make though. It feels almost exactly like typing on a mechanical keyboard, while wearing headphones and being able to listen only to the keys bottoming out with a sure click noise. When it comes to comparing it to a software based keyboard such as that of an iPad, I have to say that the keyboard on the Macbook is a lot more real (year I know, no duh...) and you can type for much longer periods of time. It feels much better than the Apple Smart Keyboard as well, with the smart keyboard feeling very rubber-y and not springy enough.
I think I can summarize the keyboard in this sentence: if you have a light touch when typing and don't bottom out the keys (or don't mind bottoming out the keys), you are probably going to like the new keyboard. If you need your keys to have significant travel distance, then maybe this keyboard (and perhaps this laptop) is not for you.
- Beginning of PSA -
I have read and heard of users returning their brand new Macbooks (Pro models included) because they couldn't get along with the very short key travel. Their hands were getting very fatigued. If you use a newer Macbook and feel fatigued by using it, please stop. Either get a bluetooth keyboard and use that or return your macbook and get an older one, if you wish to stay in the Apple ecosystem. In not there are companies like Dell or HP, that make great laptops. Do not compromise your health in order to use a specific piece of equipement.
- End of PSA -
4. What are some of your typical workflows and applications you use and how is the experience using the Macbook?
I work as a CTO in a non-tech organisation in which we mainly use enterprise software (Microsoft technologies for the most part). In my tech startup I develop web (mainly) and iOS applications. I have also founded a tiny creative studio called devWorks that develops websites, mobile and web applications and when (or if) I have any spare time, I like to edit photos and videos, record and mix music and occasionaly play games.
Enterprise Applications - Windows Environments
When it comes to using Windows Applications on the Macbook, unlike my larger Macbook Pro, I rely on using Remote Desktop in order to access the tools I need for managing and working with our enterprize applications. Microsoft has an official Remote Desktop Client (available from the Mac App Store) that you can use and log in to every Windows Server or Desktop environment. The experience is excellent and the only difference between this laptop and my larger one is the display size. Aside from that I have not experienced any issue when using the Macbook.
When it comes to Web Development, I develop applications based on Ruby on Rails or Express for the backend and React and Vue for the frontend. I do not need to run multiple virtual machines because my environments are quite simple and straightforward (which is another way of saying that I'm not a lead developer for Facebook, LinkedIn or AirBnB (or any other huge organisation)). My needs are relatively simple as my applications have small user bases and my requirements for a development platform are quite modest. I use Sublime Text 3 and Visual Studio Code to write my code and iTerm2 as my terminal of choice. I use PostgreSQL, MySQL, MongoDB and Redis for my databases needs, and I have not experienced any issues running them all (sometimes at the same time too). I also use Docker to containerize my applications and so far I have not experienced any real performance issues (aside from the inherent issues that Docker for Mac has).
I develop iOS applications, so my tools of choice are XCode and Sketch and/or Affinity Designer. You can read my detailed opinion in the next section.
Photo & Video Editing
I use Affinity Photo to edit my images and Affinity Designer to design vector graphics. Both these applications were developed to be run on OS X and they are an absolute joy to use. I haven't had a single crash yet and I haven't experienced any slugishness either. I do not heavily edit my images using myriads of layers so I'm guessing that it is an important contributing factor too.
When it comes to video editing, I use Final Cut Pro X as my main NLE. I used to use Adobe Premiere until a few years ago, but I stopped mainly because of the pricing model that Adobe enforced and because of the speed of Final Cut. There are a number of quality of life features that Final Cut has, that make it my preffered NLE. I was shocked to see that this tiny computer can run Final Cut perfectly, but also export files in a timely and swift fashion too.
My DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) of choice is Logic Pro X and I have to say that it runs perfectly on this laptop too. I don't write any orchestral music, so I have no need for myriads of channels and plugins and that is probaby why my usage experience has been this problem free. One caveat here is that the Macbook has only one USB-C port, so in order to use an external sound card (like the Focusrite Scarlett I use), you need to invest in a USB-C adapter.
I know what you're thinking. This looks like a beautiful computer but, does it run Crysis?! To be perfectly honest, I do not think so, but that is not something that i'd be concerned with (FPS games on a 12" screen are almost universaly a no-no). You wouldn't want to game on a 12" laptop, using the trackpad and shallow travel keyboard now, would you? For my needs though, this laptop is almost perfect. I love playing point-and-click adventures and Role Playing Games that don't have insane hardware requirements, and this little thing delovers on that front too! My playthrough of Thimbleweed Park was very smooth and enjoyable and games like The Binding of Isaac are also very enjoyable, although the shallow key travel isn't exactly helping with finger fatigue or responsiveness.
5. Can you run XCode on this tiny thing and if so, is it practical to do so?
6. How long does the battery last?
As with most things in life, one of the most appropriate answer is: It Depends. Joking aside, it actually depends on what your workflow is and how you get around it. When developing a web application I tend to have a text editor (such as Sublime Text) open as well as a number of terminal windows running various servers (rails server, redis, rails console, webpack, etc). I have the display's brightness at around 40% (or even lower) since the Macbook's screen is very bright and the battery lasts me around 10 hours. I have WiFi and Bluetooth on at all times too, and more often than not, I have my Macbook connected to my iPhone that is serving as a Mobile Data Hotspot. I haven't done any heavy iOS development lately on the Macbook and I can't really contribute a valid number, but based on previous workloads I have to guess that it would last around 7 to 8 hours (depending on how often you build your project).
7. Is it another fashion statement item from Apple, trying to entice more people into carrying this tiny thing instead of an iPad, in order to boost laptop sales?
As with any new Apple product, there's always going to be someone that says: Well, this is just another attempt by Apple to sell it to bozos who like to be SEEN in public using Apple products! It is a fashion statement and nothing else! It's severely underpowered and can't play [Insert latest trendy multiplayer game here]. People should be ashamed for shelling out the cash for such a thing! They are nothing but Apple zombies!
Well, everybody's entitled to their opinion. For some this is nothing but a fashion statement, for others its a productivity tool. One thing is for certain though: products like this laptop are the source of polarization. I do have to say that the pricing of this laptop definitely makes sense on Apple's side, but not on the consumer's side but I also have to admit that this tiny thing has been a godsent for me. I can take this thing with me at all times (unlike my larger 15" Macbook Pro), shaving off a number of pounds off of my backpack and it has allowed me to function almost as if I was using a larger laptop. In a lot of ways it reminded of a quote by Chase Jarvis, a fantastic creative director that popularized iPhone photography, stating that the best kind of camera, is the one that you have available. In the same sense I feel like this could be the greatest laptop for me, based on the fact that I can have it available.
Would I have paid the full price that Apple is asking? Most probably not. For that kind of money it would have been a better choice to buy the 13" Macbook Pro, that has a bigger screen and beefier processor. But trading my older Macbook Pro and paying a small difference for this thing was a no-brainer.