After a few years away, Apple has revived the plain MacBook (the laptop was only available as an “Air” or “Pro” model in recent years), this time with a brand new design that is thinner, lighter and has better battery life. Oh yeah, and it comes in gold.
The new MacBook is the first new design for Apple’s notebook line since the MacBook Pro with Retina Display debuted in 2012. It’s also the newest example of Apple taking an opportunity to focus its midrange notebook on portability over sheer power.
A return to the MacBook Air roots
Although the new MacBook is called a MacBook and not a MacBook Air, its design, pricing and targeted market are reminiscent of the way Apple launched the MacBook Air line back in 2008.
Back then, Apple had two tiers of notebooks: the MacBook and the MacBook Pro.
The MacBook Air sat in the middle, price wise, was less powerful than the MacBook, but offered the high-end styling and design of the MacBook Pro, along with exceptional portability and great battery life.
Over time, the MacBook Air evolved into the most popular notebook Apple sells. The MacBook Air also helped create a whole new category of “Ultrabooks” — a category it still leads to this day.
As for the MacBook brand — first launched in 2006 as a successor to the iBook — the plastic notebook (excepting the one-time 13-inch unibody MacBook from late 2008) was a popular choice for new “switchers,” students and anyone looking for a value. In 2011, Apple discontinued the plastic MacBook. In its place, the unibody 13-inch MacBook Pro became the entry-level choice.
Since 2012, that role has been increasingly relegated to the MacBook Air, while the MacBook Pro with Retina has become the choice of power users and professionals.
Still, plenty of users wanted a laptop that was as portable as a MacBook Air, but with the Retina display of a MacBook Pro. Enter the new MacBook. Essentially, the MacBook is the new MacBook Air and the MacBook Air is the old MacBook.
With the new lineup, the MacBook now sits at a higher tier than the MacBook Air, thanks to being lighter, having a higher-resolution screen and having better battery life.
Focusing on portability
The defining feature of the original MacBook Air was its svelte size. Thin enough to fit in an envelope, light enough to take almost anywhere, the MacBook Air — and the Ultrabook movement it helped launch — helped usher in new ideas of what it meant for a notebook to be portable.
Over time, that has allowed the current MacBook Air to get seven hours of battery life and weigh under 3 pounds. As time has passed, however, that size, weight and battery life have become the expectation, not the exception.
And still, users want more battery life and more portability. Tablets have increasingly started to fill the hole left by laptops — even ultraportables — when it comes to battery life and carryability.
As a result, we’ve seen a whole movement of tablet/notebook hybrid devices. Almost without exception, the approach has been to combine the touchscreen of a tablet with the form factor of a notebook. The end result isn’t a tablet that can act as a tablet, but a laptop that, in a pinch, can have a decent touchscreen.
With the new MacBook, Apple is taking a different approach. It isn’t targeting the tablet’s touchscreen, it’s targeting weight and power profile.
Rather than being a tablet that weighs the same as a laptop (with a comparable battery), it’s making a notebook that weighs the same as a tablet.
At just over 2 pounds, the new MacBook is barely half a pound heavier than the original iPad and about twice as heavy as a new iPad Air 2. And keep in mind, this is for a device that has a full-size keyboard and an integrated screen.
The new Core M processor and fanless design also mean that the new MacBook is incredibly energy efficient, with Apple touting battery life of 9 and 10 hours, depending on usage.
This is important because the future of computing is always about being lighter and having better battery life. Processor speeds have become so fast that with enough RAM and well-optimized software, a user doesn’t need the most powerful machine to get work done quickly. The success of the Chromebook proves that.
If the MacBook Air has taught us anything, it’s that what looks insane in 2015 will become the de facto weight and power standard by 2020.
The most controversial aspect of the new MacBook is Apple’s decision to eschew all peripheral ports — MagSafe, USB 3.0, Thunderbolt/mini-DisplayPort, in exchange for a single USB-C connector.
Yes, that means that there is exactly one port (and a headphone jack) on the new MacBook. Plenty of users are going to complain about this and claim that it will prevent them from buying the new MacBook, insisting that a full-sized USB 3.0 port, an SD card slot and Thunderbolt plug are necessary to get real work done.
And for plenty of users, that will be correct. Today. In a year or two? Things might be different.
Moving all I/O buses to one external port is going to be painful now — the same way it was painful for users to lose built-in floppy drives, FireWire ports and optical disc drives. But as with all of those changes, I fully expect the omnibus nature of USB-C to take off in the future.
Yes, it will mean buying a ton of USB-C cables for now — and probably even a docking station or hub for desktop use. Yes, it will be annoying to drop $19 on a special cable for your iPhone, your monitor and any other input device.
Still, I have to believe Apple is correct when it says that the future of notebook computing is without wires.
With 802.11ac and Bluetooth, technologies such as AirDrop and Handoff and Continuity and ubiquitous cloud computing, there is less of a reason to need to connect devices together to transfer files these days.
The real missing piece is a wireless display connection that can have response times fast enough to be worthwhile. The Apple TV and AirPlay mirroring show that this can happen with relatively low-end hardware. I can imagine a future generation of Apple displays having a built-in AirPlay connection that will allow flawless display sharing.
Will this be perfect at first? Obviously not. As with most things, “progress” takes time and requires growing pains. For Apple customers, those growing pains often mean putting up with overpriced specialty cables and cobbling together hackneyed solutions until the true “wireless” dream can become a reality.
But mark my words, that reality will come. The good news is that for those of us who aren’t ready to say goodbye to lots of ports, we can still enjoy every other Apple notebook, at least for now.
Try me in three years, when half the world is carrying third-generation MacBooks and we have to explain to elementary school students what a USB thumb drive was.
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