Apple: Best and Worst Laptop Brands
Apple remains the top laptop brand overall in 2016, thanks to its high-quality products, industry-leading tech support and helpful warranty. The MacBook line continues to be one of the most attractive, and the new 12-inch MacBook raised the bar for portability. Although Apple's notebooks command a premium, the company has the best collection of laptops and top-notch service backing them.
When you picture a MacBook or a MacBook Air, you immediately think of a light-gray aluminum chassis with a backlit half-eaten Apple logo on the back. While most of Apple's notebooks retain the same old design, in 2015, the company finally stepped out of its comfort zone and gave us something different in the 12-inch MacBook with Retina display (2015). Available in space gray, gold or traditional silver, the anodized aluminum chassis weighs an astonishing 2 pounds, making it a full pound lighter than the 13-inch MacBook Air. The company even took the bold step of eliminating most of the ports, save for an audio jack and a USB Type-C port. That's just enough to put Apple back on the design radar.
Once again, this year, Apple's laptops collectively received our highest ratings. Of the five models we reviewed, only one received less than 4 stars, while another system, the 15-inch MacBook Pro, earned a perfect 5-star rating. Consistency was key, as all of the products offered long battery life, good keyboards and accurate touchpads. The new 12-inch MacBook brought up the rear with a lower, yet still strong, score of 3.5 stars because of its single port and relatively high price.
Tech Support (19/20)
With a score of 92.75 in this year's Tech Support Showdown, Apple again set the high mark for phone support and helpful online resources. Apple's phone service, which is one of only two customer support hotlines to have an average call time of less than 10 minutes, is driven by knowledgeable and enthusiastic agents. It's nice to see Apple finally on Twitter for support (which happened after our survey), but we wish Apple would make it easier to locate the live-chat feature on its site.
Apple's standard coverage is the same yearlong, limited warranty that most vendors offer, but the Cupertino, California-based company stands out by offering several convenient ways to service a malfunctioning laptop. If you live near an Apple store, you can bring your system to the Genius Bar for repairs. Or, you can mail your laptop back to Apple, and the company will pay for shipping. Also, in some cases in which the repair is easy to make, Apple may send you a part with instructions on how to install it yourself. Adding RAM or swapping out the storage drive does not void your warranty.
Apple's software offerings have continued to be strong, though they're not all that different from last year. The 12-inch MacBook, the MacBook Air and the MacBook Pro all come with the iWork suite and some multimedia software. The iWork package includes Pages, Numbers and Keynote — free, solid alternatives to Microsoft Office. The iLife suite's branding is gone, but iMovie and GarageBand are still OS X mainstays, while iPhoto has been replaced with the simply named Photos.
In 2015, the company's OS X El Capitan desktop operating system introduced some long-awaited features, including the ability to display windows side by side. Public transit directions were finally introduced to Apple Maps, and the Spotlight search feature was updated to show information such as stocks, news and weather.
In 2015, Apple released its most innovative notebook in a long time: the 12-inch MacBook, plainly dubbed "MacBook." This 2-pound laptop uses contoured battery cells to provide more than 8 hours of endurance, a unique butterfly keyboard mechanism that provides good feedback for otherwise shallow keys, a sensitive Force Touch trackpad and a USB Type-C power port, all of which are innovations. The company also updated its OS X operating system, adding a host of new features, including natural language search, a split-screen view and a new graphics API.
Value and Selection (5/15)
Apple keeps its lineup simple, offering just five laptops. The 11.6- and 13.3-inch MacBook Airs are extremely light and long-lasting, but they lack high-res displays. The 13- and 15-inch MacBook Pros cost and weigh a bit more than the Airs but offer sharp, Retina displays and the powerful performance that creative professionals need. The 12-inch MacBook is the lightest of all, weighing just 2 pounds, and sports a high-res display. However, that machine has the weakest battery life and performance of the bunch.
MORE: Best Apple Laptops
The company doesn't offer the option to choose a laptop with the latest Intel 6th-Generation "Skylake" CPU. While every other manufacturer refreshes its laptops as soon as the leading chipmaker comes out with new processors, Apple waits six months or longer to release models based on a new platform.
The word "cheap" isn't in Apple's vocabulary: The lowest-priced MacBook, the 11-inch MacBook Air, starts at $899, while all the other systems are $999 and up. If you're not wedded to the OS X ecosystem, you can find some better values in the Windows world. The Dell XPS 13, for example, weighs even less than the 13-inch MacBook Air, has a 1080p display and starts at $799.
How Apple Can Improve
It's way past time for Apple to tweak its standard laptop chassis design, because the most current MacBook Pro and MacBook Air look identical to their predecessors from 2010. The company has never been about offering cheap systems, but adding some lower-priced options would help its Value and Selection score.