Retina MacBook 2015 for web developers

Retina MacBook 2015

I managed to get my hands on one of the new 2015 Retina 12″ MacBooks a couple of weeks ago and have been putting it through its paces ever since. I went for the 1.1GHz/256GB base model as I knew – no, thought – I’d just be using for basic stuff – browsing, emailing, listening to music. You know, the stuff people buy iPads for, but in a more…useful…device.

I say I thought I knew what I was going to use it for, as I assumed it would only be powerful enough to handle the basics. Installing Photoshop hadn’t even crossed my mind. Well, I was wrong. The MacBook has far surpassed my expectations so far. I just keep throwing more and more at it, and it keeps on delivering. I now use it for web development and a fair bit of Photoshop too. I love it, and here’s why…

Design and portability

As with nearly all Apple products, there is no denying that this is one of the best looking devices in its genre. In the three premium colours we’ve come to know and love, there’s a design to catch the eye of any individual. Myself, I went with a Space Grey number. No regrets. It goes brilliantly with my Space Grey iPhone and iPad, and doesn’t look too shabby next to the iMac either. Worth noting that the Space Grey of the MacBook is a shade darker than the iPhones and iPads – you’ll only notice in certain lights and if you’re specifically looking for it, though.

Space grey MacBook, iPhone, iPad Mini

The MacBook is incredibly portable. It’s actually smaller than the 11″ Air, but with a 12″ screen. I can use it on a train without bumping elbows with those next to me. I can pick it up and carry it around in one hand at work. It slots into bags, fits in drawers, rests on your lap or chest and you can barely feel it. Apple went for ultra-portability and they definitely achieved that.

Keyboard and trackpad

The new keyboard is not for everyone, and was actually subject to a number of negative reviews upon first launch. Personally, it’s one of my favourite features of the product. I can type and code on it equally as fast as the older aluminium Apple wireless keyboards, if not faster for regular typing – about 110 WPM.

The only way I can think to describe it is like some weird iPad/physical keyboard hybrid. It’s almost touch, but with clicks under your fingers. It’ll ultimately come down to personal taste and a bit of ‘what you’re used to’.

“For all the talk about the new butterfly keys, the new, better keyboard, I immediately hated using the keys. There’s basically no travel, no movement. It’s not that different from tapping on a touchscreen.”

The Force Touch trackpad has been a surprisingly welcomed addition. The ability to click anywhere on the pad with ease is one of those minor but useful nice-to-haves. Other than that, it really does feel like you’re clicking, and you’ll likely struggle to tell the difference if you’ve owned a MacBook in the past. It’s equally as effective, equally as powerful for multi-tasking. I never use the actual Force Touch functionality, though. There’s very few uses for it in apps currently.

MacBook, iMac, iPad


Now let’s just be very clear about this – the performance of this MacBook is obviously limited by the 1.1, 1.2 or 1.3GHz Core M processor (turbo-boost up to 2.4, 2.6 and 2.9GHz respectively). It’s certainly no ‘MacBook Pro killer’, nor is it quite up there with the latest Airs quite yet. It’s currently built, marketed and sold as a separate product-line.

You should expect to see a maximum 15-20% increase in performance from the 1.3GHz vs the 1.1GHz. But for most tasks you should expect to do on this machine, it’s unlikely you’ll notice much of a difference in anything other than graphical performance for certain animations. Tests published online have shown mixed results, with the 1.1GHz outperforming the 1.2GHz in some situations. Essentially, very similar performance from each model and YMMV.

But here’s a bit of real-world usage for you. I typically run the following programs on my 1.1GHz model:

Safari icon
Mail icon
iTunes icon
Photos icon
Wunderlist icon
Adobe Photoshop CC icon
Coda 2
Coda 2 icon
XAMPP icon
Prepros icon

It runs them all perfectly well, with some UI lag if I have a silly number of windows open at once and use mission control. This lag can be compared to that seen on the M290X 5K iMac. A few dropped frames, but nothing unexpected. I was surprised at how well it handles Photoshop with some fairly large images. It’s a little sluggish navigating around a zoomed-in 5K raw photo, but handles the typical filters and quick-editing features perfectly well.

My main concern when I bought the MacBook was Coda, since I’ve had performance issues with it in the past on an i5 quad-core desktop processor. The good team at Panic! updated Coda with better MacBook support before I had a chance to try it, and I have absolutely no complaints. So far, so good.

The short video below (best viewed in HD on Vimeo) briefly illustrates the performance of Coda 2, XAMPP, Prepros and Safari all running at once on my 1.1GHz MacBook. I also give mission control a quick spin to show the framerate you should expect. Remember, I was also recording the screen with Quicktime – and this impacts performance on any machine.

I’d personally recommend trying to ween yourself off Chrome onto Safari if you haven’t done so already. The performance difference is fairly significant now, especially when it comes to battery life – which, by the way, seems to average 8-12 hours for me, depending on what I’m doing. For fellow devs, it does take a bit of time to get used to Safari’s webkit tools.

Should you buy one?

If you’re looking for portability and you’re completely au fait with cloud storage solutions, wireless backups, AppleTV, AirDrop, Instant Personal Hotspot, Handoff, Continuity and the other Bluetooth LE/WiFi features that have recently poured into OS X and iOS – the simple answer is yes.

If, on the other hand, you rely on wires for external monitors and peripherals, then you might want to think twice about what you really need vs. what you want. Remember, you’re not just sacrificing ports, you’re also sacrificing performance. If you’re using a MacBook Pro in clamshell mode as a desktop alternative for 300 days of the year, you’re probably best sticking with another MacBook Pro or even waiting for the rev 2 MacBook with Skylake. There are an increasing number of USB-C adapters available, but they defeat the purpose of the MacBook.

Ultimately, it’s a brilliant little machine and it does what it’s intended to do perfectly – it’s incredibly portable and a delight to use day-to-day.

  • Hudson Hornick

    Thumbs up. Good to see a real world web dev review.

  • Jin Gabrielle Foliente

    Great review! I’m gonna use it for web dev when I’m on the go. I got the silver colour, base model. It is my first Mac and I love it! It’s got great screen display and sound too for such a small laptop.