COMMENTARY | COLUMNISTS | PHIL BAKER

MacBook 12” notebook: A fine traveling companion

Apple’s latest MacBook — introduced the same day as the Apple Watch, but with much less fanfare — is the lightest and thinnest MacBook ever. It weighs just 2 pounds and is a half-inch thick at the rear, tapering to an almost knife-thin 1/8-inch in the front.

That’s half the weight of the 13-inch MacBook Pro and two-thirds the weight of the 13-inch MacBook Air. An advantage over the Air is its very high-resolution Retina display, similar to the Pro.

I’ve been using the 12-inch MacBook (yes, that’s the official name) for about a week now, and like it a lot. It allows me to travel with the complete functionality of a computer in a package that’s the same weight and just slightly larger than an iPad.

To accomplish this, Apple made some design choices that’s raised a little controversy, which happens whenever Apple does something different. Apple is one of the few companies that can get away with such changes that often show vision a few years later.

For one, the notebook uses a slightly slower processor that eliminates the fan, saving space and weight, and lowering power consumption. While I didn’t stream high-res movies, I never encountered any speed issues during my use: mostly writing documents, surfing, emailing and viewing YouTube videos.

Apple also eliminated the many ports for connecting to a monitor, printer and other devices, and now uses a single port for digital data and charging, the new USB Type C standard that’s much better than any previous USB connector. It can be inserted either up or down, like Apple’s lightening connector, and securely clicks into place.

The charger, similar to those for other MacBooks, uses a plug-in USB Type C cable with the same connector on both ends. But unlike other MacBooks, there’s no charging light to show the state of charging, something I missed. Also missing are the convenient fold-out legs for winding up the cable.

For connecting to USB devices as well as memory cards, you need a $19 dongle with a USB Type C connector on one end and a large USB slot connector on the other. Apple was chintzy not to include this. Other more costly dongles are available to connect to monitors, and I’m sure we’ll see third-party products as well.

Surprisingly, I haven’t found the lack of a USB connector to be much of an issue, because I connect to my printer using Wi-Fi, and if I want to use a mouse or extra keyboard, those can connect with Bluetooth. I do miss an SD card slot, but can work around this by using a card reader plugged into the end of the dongle. The most serious omission is the lack of a built-in camera, something I like to use for Skype, mostly while traveling!

One of the biggest differences from past MacBooks is the keyboard and trackpad. I’m particularly sensitive to keyboards, having used ThinkPads for so many years, and having developed the Stowaway folding keyboard for the Palm.

I found this new keyboard to have a little less travel and a different force profile as my fingers pressed down. The keys also sound a little different, with a lower pitch click, but have a pleasant snap that indicates it’s registering. I rarely had mistypes and found the keyboard to be fine, if not quite as good as previous MacBooks, with longer key travel.

The trackpad is a major change from the current design and will likely be adopted on other MacBooks. Other models use a diving board design with the pad hinged at the rear. Pressing down near its front edge moves the surface downward and creates a mechanical click. But pushing down near its hinged point in the rear does nothing.

The new Force trackpad looks much the same, but you can now push anywhere on it and it will feel as if it moves down and clicks. There is also a secondary click that occurs if you press a little harder. This feature is used to bring up additional options, such as showing the content of a folder or a word’s definition. Actually, the pad surface doesn’t move down, but uses a vibration to simulate movement. I noticed a lack of clicking and moving when lifting my finger up front the trackpad after dragging and dropping, but adjusted over time.

I found the battery life to be a little disappointing, based on its rating of nine hours. Like most Apple battery ratings, I find it’s best to cut them in half. I got about five hours on a charge, running at 80 percent of full brightness and connected to Wi-Fi.

Besides its lightness, my favorite feature is the display. It’s exceptionally sharp with 220 dpi, a neutral white and very bright. It may just be Apple’s best display yet.

The MacBook offers a great alternative to carrying my standard MacBook Pro most everywhere I travel, including non-business trips. I prefer to travel with something that’s doesn't contain all my confidential information, particularly when accessing public Wi-Fi networks. For me, an iPad doesn’t come close because of its limited utility.

The MacBook works as long as I don’t load it up with all the contents from the Pro. To make it easier to use two computers, I store the information I’ll need on a trip on the iCloud drive or on Dropbox. I can then access it from either computer.

Connecting with iCloud and my Gmail account automatically syncs my address book, email and calendar. For now I set up the Pro in my office attached to a large monitor.

The 12-inch MacBook comes in three colors and two configurations with 256GB and 512GB of storage memory for $1,299 and $1,599. Both come with 8 GB of internal memory, and the computers come in aluminum, gold, and space gray, which match the iPhone 6.

Like the original MacBook Air, the MacBook represents a major change in notebook design, and it’s likely we’ll see many of its features migrate to other models over the next year or two. But, it clearly it has displaced the Air as the best Mac computer for traveling.

Next week I’ll cover another alternative for traveling with a very lightweight computer, but something that costs just $300.


Baker is the author of "From Concept to Consumer," published by Financial Times Press. Send comments tophil.baker@sddt.com. Comments may be published online or as Letters to the Editor.

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