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Photo illustration of the MacBook Pro with Retina display, right, with the Google Chromebook behind it. (Photoillustration/Images courtesy of Apple Inc. and Google Inc.)
Photo illustration of the MacBook Pro with Retina display, right, with the Google Chromebook behind it. (Photoillustration/Images courtesy of Apple Inc. and Google Inc.)

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A contrast in laptop extremes: MacBook Pro vs. Chromebook Add to ...

The screen on the Pro isn’t quite as pixel-dense as, say, the new iPad. But it is absolutely amazing. The on-board Apple software that has been optimized to run on retina displays is simply gorgeous. HD video also shines. Pretty soon, every other manufacturer is going to hop on the retina bandwagon.

But for now, there is a limit to how useful that screen is. A lot of content, including lots of software that resides in Apple’s app stores, isn’t optimized for retina displays, and as such, doesn’t look so brilliant on the Pro’s screen. In time, there’ll be lots of content for retina-class screens. But for now, like the NFC chip technology built in to some new smartphones, it’s just a little bit ahead of its time.

If you buy a Mac now, you’ll get it with the newest version of the Mac OS operating system, Mountain Lion. If you’ve already used the previous version, don’t expect too many drastic changes. What you will see, however, are all those features designed to lure you further into Apple’s product ecosystem. The iCloud software, which syncs up all your various Apple devices, will quickly find and help you download all the stuff you already bought for your iPhone or your iPad. From apps to messaging to synchronization, everything works perfectly together.

Some users will complain that, over the years, the Apple computer operating system has been watered down somewhat to look and feel more like the Apple mobile operating system. And in many ways, those users are right. But it isn’t just Apple that’s doing this. Take a look at the current preview version of Windows 8, the full version of which launches this fall – it’s primarily an operating system designed for tablets and phones, with the desktop a secondary concern (Microsoft will claim Windows 8 is equally perfect for both uses, but they’re wrong). The two major consumer operating system designers are slowly but surely giving you a little less control over the inner workings of your software in exchange for a more seamless user experience. If you’re a die-hard tech-head who doesn’t like this trend, keep in mind that you’re not the target demographic any more. The real money for tech companies is in convincing technology-phobic users to pony up thousands of dollars on easy-to-use, one-touch-and-you’re-done devices.

And if the new MacBook Pro is the Ferrari of these devices – fast, expensive and beautiful – the Google ChromeBook is, well ... is there a car out there that only works when it’s connected to the Internet? Because otherwise this analogy falls apart.

Using the (Google-branded, Samsung-built) Chromebook is, at first, an incredibly jarring experience. Let’s be clear: This laptop is nothing but an Internet browser and a keyboard. Don’t try to save files on the desktop, because there is no desktop. Don’t try to access the hard drive. Don’t try to tweak any of the settings. With the exception of hardcore geeks who manage to pry the computer’s insides open, all Chromebook users are basically limited to a single function: launching the Web browser.

Everything else flows from there. Want to listen to music? Find a Web-based streaming service, or access your own songs from a cloud-based server. Want to save files? Save them to the cloud. Want to create a new spreadsheet or document? Use Internet-based software. Without Web access, the Chromebook has all the computational usefulness of a watermelon.

Now, of course, there are plenty of ways to access myriad Web services, and hence make the Chromebook a useful computer, without resorting to Gmail, Youtube or any of the countless other Google products. But it is absolutely not a coincidence that Google has created a laptop that can only function when it’s making use of Web services – the same Web services Google also provides. Google executives believe the future of all consumer technology is in the cloud, and they’ve created a computer intended to help make that vision a reality.

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