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Apple MacBook (2016) review: Skylake update improves performance and battery life

Written by Cliff Joseph, Contributor on
macbook-2016-main.jpg
8.0/10

Apple MacBook (2016)

Excellent
Pros
  • Sleek ultraportable 12-inch laptop weighing just 920g
  • Impressive Retina Display
  • Improved battery life and GPU performance
Cons
  • Expensive
  • Few upgrade or repair options
  • Limited connectivity
  • Editors' Review
  • Specs

The revamped MacBook that Apple unveiled last year was a quintessential Apple product. The design was impeccable, and despite its 12-inch display the new MacBook managed to be both slimmer and lighter than the 11-inch MacBook Air, which had been Apple's most portable laptop up to that point.

But, as always, Apple's uncompromising approach had its disadvantages. Critics pointed to its limited connectivity, relying on just a single USB-C port for both power supply and accessories such as a back-up drive or external monitor. Performance and battery life were also relatively modest, given the laptop's £1,049 (inc. VAT, or £875 ex. VAT) starting price.

One year on, the MacBook has received its first significant update, so we've tested the new model to see if Apple has addressed any of those concerns.

macbook-2016-main-2.jpg

The 2016 MacBook uses 6th-generation Intel Core M processors (with integrated HD Graphics 515) and is now available in Rose Gold as well as Space Grey, Gold and Silver.

Images: Apple

Lighter than (MacBook) Air

The MacBook's design is barely a year old, and so -- apart from the addition of a new 'Rose Gold' version -- that remains unchanged for this 2016 update. It might have competition from rivals such as Lenovo's Yoga 3 Pro, but at just 13.1mm thick and weighing a mere 920g, the MacBook remains one of the lightest and most portable 12-inch laptops currently available.

The build quality is excellent, and the weight is well balanced so that you can easily pick it up with one hand even when the screen is open and in use. There are no moving parts -- not even an internal cooling fan -- so the MacBook is virtually silent at all times.

Like its predecessor, the 2016 MacBook has a 12-inch Retina Display with a resolution of 2,304 by 1,440 pixels (226ppi). This provides a bold, colourful image, with good all-round viewing angles, making it a good option for presentations when you're away from the office. We also found the display bright enough that we could use it at around 50 percent brightness quite comfortably, which helps to preserve battery life.

macbook-2016-keyboard.jpg

If you like a lot of key travel when typing, you might not get along with the keyboard on the very slim MacBook.

Image: Apple

Our only minor criticism with the design is that the sheer thinness of the keyboard panel means that the keys don't travel well, and feel rather lifeless when you're typing at speed -- despite the patented 'butterfly' hinge mechanism that Apple developed specifically for the MacBook.

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Skylake update

The main reason for this 2016 update is the introduction of Intel's sixth-generation Skylake processors -- the first to be used in Apple's laptop range (and, hopefully, an indication that there's a Skylake update also lined up for the long-neglected MacBook Pro). There are two standard configurations available, with prices unchanged since last year.

The entry-level model reviewed here costs £1,049 (inc. VAT, or £875 ex. VAT) with a dual-core Intel Core m3-6Y0 running at 1.1-2.2GHz, along with 8GB of (non-upgradeable) RAM, and 256GB of solid-state storage.

The next step up provides a 1.2-2.7GHz Core m5-6Y54 with 512GB of SSD storage for £1,299 (inc. VAT, or £1,082.50 ex.VAT).

There's just a single build-to-order upgrade available: a Core m7-6Y75 running at 1.3-3.1GHz, which brings the total price to £1,419 (inc. VAT, or £1,182.50 ex. VAT).

The 1.1GHz processor delivered a multi-core score of 5,020 when running the Geekbench 3 benchmark. That's only about a 10 percent improvement on last year's model, although Apple claims that the real improvement lies in the integrated HD Graphics 515 GPU. Running the Cinebench R15 OpenGL benchmark, the MacBook achieved a score of 20.5fps: that's not going to win any awards, but is actually quite respectable for an integrated GPU.

The 2016 MacBook responded quickly and smoothly when browsing through a large collection of high-res photos, so it'll handle routine tasks such as photo-editing or running Microsoft Office with no trouble at all, and might even stretch to some casual gaming when you're off duty too.

Battery life

If last year's model had an Achilles Heel, it was battery life. There's been a fractional increase in battery capacity for the 2016 model, up from 39.7Whr to 41.4Whr, but the MacBook's slimline design simply doesn't leave much room for a larger battery. Fortunately, Skylake comes to the rescue once more, with Apple claiming that the new processor provides an extra hour of battery life for general web browsing.

Using the BBC iPlayer to stream video did show an improvement, from six hours and forty minutes last year to seven hours and fifteen minutes this year. Lighter use should allow you to get close to Apple's claimed 10 hours of wireless web browsing, but there are still rivals -- including my three-year-old MacBook Air -- that offer even better battery life when you're on the road.

Conclusion

The improved graphics performance and battery life are welcome improvements, and the lightweight design of the MacBook is hard to beat for sheer portability. Even so, there are alternatives that can offer better battery life for long journeys, or more connectivity for office use, and the less expensive MacBook Air will still hold strong appeal for many business travellers.

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