Apple MacBook: Is this the ultimate ultraportable notebook?

Apple MacBook: Is this the ultimate ultraportable notebook?

Reviving the MacBook

For most of our readers, when you think of a MacBook, you are probably thinking of the white polycarbonate model that was discontinued about four years ago. The MacBook was Apple's entry-level notebook since its introduction in 2006, but it was phased out as technology and economies of scale made it possible for Apple to offer the MacBook Air (introduced in 2008) at lower prices.

Things have changed a lot since then. The MacBook Air has now become Apple's entry-level and most affordable notebook, which is really strange if you think about it, because it was ridiculously expensive at launch, costing around S$3,000 to S$5,000 depending on your specifications. Now, the most affordable 13-inch MacBook Air model can be had for just over S$1,300.

Pricing aside, the MacBook Air, which made its name by being ultra-thin and light, is not really that light any more by modern standards, so much so that the its Air name is becoming a bit of a misnomer. It might have taken a while, but the competition has finally caught up and there are no shortage of notebooks that are thinner and lighter than the MacBook Air.

Fortunately, Apple is not one to just sit back and in its Spring Forward event earlier this year announced the revival of the MacBook name and a brand new ultraportable notebook.

The Hardware

One of the reasons why the new MacBook is so thin is because it is powered by Intel's new Core M processors. These are ultra low power processors that have a TDP of just 4.5W and require no active cooling, allowing manufacturers to design fan-less chassis that are sleeker than ever before. If Core M sounds familiar to you, it is because this is the same processor found in other ultra-thin notebooks and convertibles such as the ASUS Transformer Book T300 Chi and Lenovo Yoga 3 Pro.

For the MacBook, Apple is offering two off-the-shelf configurations, with the differences being only the processor and storage capacity. Our review unit is the entry-level model that comes with a dual-core Intel Core M-5Y31 processor (4MB L3 cache) that runs at an unusual base clock speed of 1.1GHz, and is capable of boosting up to 2.4GHz. We say it is unusual because Intel's specifications lists this particular SKU as having a base clock speed of just 900MHz. Clearly, Apple has overclocked it for more performance (or at least qualified their CPU batches to operate faster).

The other off-the-shelf model comes with a more powerful Intel Core M-5Y51 processor (4MB L3 cache) that has also been overclocked. Apple notes that this model has a base clock speed of 1.2GHz, but according to Intel, this particular SKU should run at a lower base clock speed of 1.1GHz. More demanding users can equip their MacBooks with the optional Core M-5Y71 processor (1.3GHz, 4MB L3 cache), but at a considerable premium, of course.

All Core M processors will feature the Intel HD Graphics 5300 integrated GPU. This particular integrated GPU is significantly less powerful than the Intel HD Graphics 6000 and Intel Iris Graphics 6100 integrated GPUs found on the refreshed 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina Display and MacBook Air, with only 24 execution units as compared to the 48 found on the Intel HD Graphics 6000 and Intel Iris Graphics 6100.

Both models will come with 8GB of 1600MHz LPDDR3 RAM as standard, and it is worth noting that Apple will not be offering any RAM upgrades for the MacBook. As for storage, the entry-level model that we have is equipped with a 256GB SSD, whereas the higher-end model will get a 512GB SSD. There's no option for a 1TB SSD. Here's a table summarizing the differences between the two off-the-shelf models.

Like the newly refreshed 13-inch MacBook Pro with Retina display and MacBook Air, the SSDs in the MacBook will utilize four PCIe lanes instead of the more common two for improved storage performance. But, unlike the MacBook Pro and MacBook Air, the SSD in the MacBook supports the new and faster NVME interface. The NVME interface was developed specially for SSDs and supersedes the older AHCI interface. Primarily, it reduces latency by promoting greater parallelism and allowing more commands to be executed simultaneously, which in turn increases drive performance.

What's perhaps most amazing about the MacBook is how tiny the logic board is. All components are soldered onto the board, so there's no chance of upgradeability, but the MacBook's logic board is, quite amazingly, 67 per cent smaller than that of the 11-inch MacBook Air, which also means more space for batteries. Speaking of batteries, Apple has also designed special terraced batteries so that it can fit precisely inside the MacBook's curved chassis to maximise all available space. Because of this, Apple was able to squeeze an extra 35 per cent more charge into the MacBook.

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