The 2015 MacBook and Why You Shouldn’t Buy It

Earlier this year in March, Apple released a 2015 refresh to its old MacBook lineup of computers, the ultra-portable form factor that’s situated below that of even the MacBook Air.

While the device itself is very striking aesthetically, it’s unfortunate that other aspects don’t back this up. In this article, I’m going to explain to you why you shouldn’t bother buying the MacBook.

 

The Specifications

Before I begin, let’s go through the specifications of the MacBook. To keep this section within a certain size, I’m only going to list the entry-level model, and the highest configurable top-level model.

Entry-Level 2015 MacBook Top-Level 2015 MacBook
This configuration includes the very basic options for all components. This configuration includes the best options for all components.
Processor
Intel Core M-5Y31 (2C/4T) @ 1.10 GHz
Turbo Boost up to 2.40 GHz; 4 MB L3 cache
4.5 W TDP; 6 W configured TDP
Intel Core M-5Y71 (2C/4T) @ 1.30 GHz
Turbo Boost up to 2.90 GHz; 4 MB L3 cache
4.5 W TDP; 6 W configured TDP
System Memory (RAM)
8 GB DDR3-1600
Display
12″ LED-backlit IPS Retina display
2304 × 1440
226 ppi pixel density
Graphics
Integrated Intel HD Graphics 5300
300 MHz, with 850 MHz maximum turbo frequency
Integrated Intel HD Graphics 5300
300 MHz, with 900 MHz maximum turbo frequency
Storage
256 GB PCIe-based SSD 512 GB PCIe-based SSD
Connectivity
802.11b/g/n/ac Wi-Fi
Bluetooth 4.0
1 × USB 3.1 Type-C (5 Gb/s) port for data transfer, video output and charging
1 × 3.5 mm audio jack
Webcam
640 × 480 (VGA) FaceTime camera
Battery and Battery Life
5,263 mAh / 39.7 Wh Li-Po
9 hours web surfing; 10 hours iTunes movie playback
30 days stand-by time
Price
$1,299 USD / $1,499 CAD
£1,049 GBP / €1,499 EUR
$1,799 AUD / $1,999 NZD
$1,749 USD / $2,079 CAD
£1,419 GBP / €2,009 EUR
$2,409 AUD / $2,639 NZD

 

Issue 1: The Processor

Let’s kick things off with the processor. While it’s good that Apple took Intel’s ultra-low-power Core M processors and boosted their performance slightly by utilizing the thermal headroom of their configurable TDP feature (up to 6 watts, rather than 4.5 watts), the performance increase from doing so is very much negligible.

In fact, in most of the Core M-powered products on the market, it’s the lower-end M-5Y10 and its variants that seem to be outperforming the higher-end models. The answer as to why this is the case is because of how the Core M processors handle thermal management. Of course, the cooling solutions of third-party vendors also have a large impact in this, and while Intel has tried to market the Core M as a fanless passively-cooled design, many vendors are still equipping their devices with a fan to actively cool the system.

In the case of the MacBook, Apple has chosen to approach the Core M with a passively-cooled design. Combining this with the fact that you’re given three options between the M-5Y31, M-5Y51 and M-5Y71, and thermal throttling is definitely going to be an issue.

Therefore, that 2.40–2.90 GHz Turbo Boost frequency? You may as well forget about it as you’re unlikely to reach those kinds of boosts. In the best of cases, the Core M-5Y71 is a decent match in performance to a Penryn-based Core2 Quad Q8400, but it would be unrealistic to expect such performance here. It will fluctuate drastically.

 

Issue 2: The Integrated Graphics

The lack of a dedicated graphics card in such a small form factor product isn’t the issue. Instead, the issue is rather closely related to the first; thermal throttling and lack of raw power.

The integrated Intel HD Graphics 5300 is based on exactly the same graphics core as the higher-tier HD 5500 and HD 5600 solutions that Intel offers in its other Broadwell-based processors. This means an identical feature set — DirectX 11.2, OpenGL 4.1 (on Mac OS X) and OpenCL 2.0, while supporting Intel’s Wireless Display, Quick Sync Video, Clear Video HD and InTru 3D technologies, as well as Intel Insider.

Due to the fact that it’s integrated, it’s fighting the processor for thermal headroom to provide performance. In a passively-cooled machine such as this, that’s not good; thermal headroom is already tight. The insane ideology that everything needs to be thinner and thinner also doesn’t help with scenarios like this.

In essence, don’t expect the full 850–900 MHz from the graphics when performing processor-intensive tasks. In situations where more graphics horsepower is required, the Core M is designed to give higher priority to the integrated graphics. In such cases, the processor is going to be severely throttled.

Lastly, there’s the sheer amount of pixels the graphics chip is dealing with by default; 3.3 million of them. In the MacBook scenario, the HD 5300 doesn’t have much to give already, without taking away resources for simply displaying an image on the screen. Expect graphics performance in the MacBook to be inferior to actively-cooled Core M machines, as well as the previous generation HD 4200.

 

Issue 3: One Port for Everything

Apple decided to be brave and release the MacBook with a single multi-purpose USB 3.1 Type-C (5 Gb/s) port. While it’s not justifiable from the standpoint of usability, it makes sense given the MacBook’s slim design. Because there’s no active cooling system under the hood, and no full-size USB 3.0 or AC power ports, the machine is very thin indeed at just 13.1 mm (0.52 in) in depth at its thickest point, and incredibly light at a mere 2.03 lb (0.92 kg).

But wait a second. In shaving a couple of millimeters from the thickness, Apple practically hindered the opportunity to use a decent thermal cooling solution, nulling processor and graphics performance, and restricted the ability to have what is pretty much considered standard in terms of computer ports. There’s no USB 3.0, no DisplayPort and no HDMI. Instead, all of this is handled by the single USB 3.1 Type-C port on the left-hand side of the chassis.

Of course, Apple being Apple, there are no adapters in the box. To use your existing USB devices, you’re going to need an adapter, which you’re going to need to buy separately. This all very much seems to go against the supposed typical Apple ethos of “simplicity,” if you ask me.

 

Issue 4: Upgradability

Or rather lack of. I could leave it there, but I won’t. What you buy directly from Apple is exactly what you’re stuck with for the lifespan of the machine. This is a business model I’ve never liked, and while Apple isn’t the only culprit here, it’s often the company using it to the most extreme cases.

Once you finally get beyond the proprietary Pentalobe screws, you’ll find that the tiny motherboard is almost entirely engulfed in battery cells. On the board itself, the processor with integrated graphics, system memory and solid state flash storage are all soldered.

Cutting Apple an incredibly small bit of slack here, all Core M processors are provided in a BGA1234 package, meaning you’re not going to be performing a processor upgrade in any of the Core M-powered machines on the market.

 

Issue 5: Price

Finally, the elephant in the room. Let’s face it; Apple products are never good value for money, but the 2015 MacBook just takes the cake with that statement.

At $1,299 USD/£1,049 GBP for the base model, it’s unquestionably poor value for money. Performance-per-dollar is also going to be worse than any other model in the MacBook family of products, let alone other products from other vendors.

It’s safe to say that the majority of this price is covering the still-expensive PCIe-based solid state flash storage, but was there really a need to go that far with high-performance storage, when your system is going to be bottlenecked by other lower-end parts, such as the processor and integrated graphics? I very much doubt there was. While SATA-based solid state drives have dropped significantly in price in the past two years, PCIe-based storage is still a long way behind the gigabyte-per-dollar mark of its SATA-based sibling.

At $899 USD/£749 GBP for the base model, the MacBook Air is a better value product for the hardware you’re getting. What’s more, the $1,299 USD/£999 GBP price tag of the entry-level 13″ MacBook Pro with its dual-core Broadwell-based Intel Core i5 and integrated Intel Iris Graphics 6100 looks more compelling than any of the MacBook options — not to mention, you also get the ports you need at your disposal, and a proper active cooling solution so you’ll be getting performance that matches the hardware inside more consistently.

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