Considering the 12-inch MacBook as a laptop for students

I’ve been using the 12-inch MacBook with Retina display since its debut. Is it a good laptop for students? Yes — but only if the student, or the person buying it for him/her, is willing to pay top dollar for its incredible svelteness and gorgeous screen, while overlooking its shortcomings. 

The entry level, 13-inch MacBook with Retina display offers more oomph for the same price, while you can save money with either model ($899 or $1,099) of the MacBook Air or the non-Retina display MacBook Pro. 

That said, here's no denying the Retina display is gorgeous and the small design of the MacBook is an incredible feat of engineering. The laptop's display (with a 16:10 aspect ratio) is stunning and pops with clarity. The MacBook's physical resolution is 2304 by 1440 pixels. This means that, at standard “2x” retina resolution, it’s the equivalent of a 1152×720 display. For some folks that’s going to be too small.

That’s why Apple ships the laptop with its default resolution scaled to emulate a 1280 x 800 display, which is about the same screen area as you’d find on an 11-inch MacBook Air. However, I prefer the More Space setting, which emulates a 1440×900 display (think 13-inch MacBook Air pixel size).

It will probably take a while to acclimate yourself with the new keyboard and trackpad. The MacBook’s keyboard is 34% thinner than those on other Mac laptops. It uses an Apple-designed butterfly mechanism that’s 40% thinner than a traditional keyboard scissor mechanism.

Apple says the keyboard is four times more stable, “providing greater precision no matter where your finger strikes the key.” New stainless steel dome switches located beneath each key deliver a responsive feel when typing with no “give” on the sides of the keys.

Since other keyboards wiggle a bit on the sides, this takes some getting used to. However, after about an hour, the new tactile experience had won me over. Also, every key on the new keyboard is individually backlit with its own single LED, which comes in handy in low (or no) light situations. (Alas, the Apple logo isn’t backlight like with other Macs. You’ve been warned if that’s important to you.)

The MacBook also features the all-new Force Touch trackpad that features built-in force sensors that allow you to click anywhere and haptic feedback that provides a responsive feel. This also requires a bit of adjustment, but it’s a pleasure to use once have. Unlike the hinge-based multitouch trackpad it replaces, Apple’s Force Touch unit doesn’t move, but the effect of simulated clicks is so convincing that you’ll think it’s moving.

You can even customize the feel of the trackpad by changing the amount of pressure needed to register each click. The Force Touch trackpad also enables a new gesture called Force Click. That’s a click followed by a deeper press, and can be used for tasks like pulling up the definition of a word, quickly seeing a map or glancing at a preview of a file.

With no moving parts or vents, the new MacBook was designed from the ground up to be the first fanless Mac notebook. I expected it to get warm with long use. However, in work stretches of an hour or so, it’s remained comfortable enough that it can sit on my uncovered legs without discomfort.

The MacBook features the new fifth-generation Intel Core M processor that runs at just five watts and Intel HD Graphics 5300. This makes it very energy efficient, but  means it’s no powerhouse.

I can work with Pages, Safari, Mail, Pixelmator, and Calendar open simultaneously with no performance hits. iMovie also chugs along reasonably well. However, if you're a student, or are buying a laptop for a student, who's a serious gamer, Final Cut Pro X user, or Photoshopper, move on along, cause the MacBook isn’t for you.

The new laptop features a terraced battery design layered in individual sheets contoured to fit the MacBook’s sleek, curved enclosure. Apple says the new portable has 35% more battery capacity than would be possible with traditional battery cells and delivers all-day battery life with up to nine hours of wireless web browsing and up to 10 hours of iTunes movie playback. I found the company’s estimates to be accurate.

Unfortunately, other things aren’t so seamless with the MacBook. For one thing I miss the MagSafe connector that comes with all other Mac laptops. The connector is held in place magnetically so that if it’s tugged — for example, by someone tripping over the cord — it will pull out of the socket without damaging the connector or the computer power socket, and without pulling the computer off the surface on which it’s located.

Perhaps Apple thinks the MacBook will run long enough on a full battery charge that folks generally won’t use the power cord when working with the MacBook. I think that’s a poor assumption, but Apple has made the move because of the next-generation USB-C port. A new industry standard, USB-C supports higher wattage charging, USB 3.1 Gen 1 (5Gbps) data transfer and DisplayPort 1.2 all in a single connector that’s one-third the size of a traditional USB port. 

It’s the word “single” that’s the key here. Sharing a single port for all accessories as well as the power cord will be frustrating if you’re using the MacBook as your main computer.

Which is what it all boils down to: the MacBook is a fine (if pricey) secondary Mac, but won’t work as the main computer for anyone who does tackles more than basic computing chores.

If you’re looking for a laptop to complement your desktop, the MacBook is a reasonable choice. My primary computer is my 27-inch iMac (the best computer ever made, in my opinion), but when I’m making a road trip or simply want to work in the sunroom at home, the tiny Apple laptop comes in handy.

However, for most students I'd recommend one of the other Mac laptops mentioned at the beginning of this article.