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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.)

Back to School

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

This summer, a MacBook Pro (the sexy new one with the retina display) and a Google Chromebook simultaneously landed in our mailboxes. With back-to-school shopping season coming up, we decided to review the two computers.

What we found were two devices that, surprisingly, have a lot in common – not so much in how they behave, but in what they say about where the computer industry as a whole is going.

These are two products that, as far as laptops go, couldn’t be less alike. And yet both are purpose-built to accomplish essentially the same goal – that is, furthering the balkanization of digital content. Google, Apple, Sony, Microsoft and every other major tech powerhouse out there share the same playbook, the central premise of which involves convincing you, the customer, to purchase and consume all of your digital media from just one provider. These companies have spent years building various interconnected services for the selling and renting of music, movies, games and TV shows, as well as the hardware and software to consume that media. As such, just about every gadget you buy these days is in part designed to be a gateway drug to other gadgets from the same company. Bought an Xbox? You won’t believe how well it works with your Windows PC, your Surface tablet, etc.

The Chromebook and Macbook have very different prices, looks and functionality, but as far as the companies that built them are concerned, they serve the same purpose.

The official name of our first laptop is the Apple MacBook Pro with Retina display, which, like the recently released “The New iPad,” leads us to believe the folks in charge of naming conventions at Apple have suddenly become joylessly pragmatic. For the purposes of this article, we’re just going to call this laptop the Pro.

The web is already full of Pro reviews (such as the ones here, here and here.) In addition, the new version of Apple’s operating system, Mountain Lion has been the subject of several detailed critiques, including what is likely the geekiest, most in-depth software review ever written.

But, based on the month we’ve spent playing around with the Pro, here are some high-level takeaways: This is a beautiful, meticulously refined machine, and criminally fast for a laptop too.

The Pro is designed to fill the gap between the slimmer, less powerful MacBook Air, and the traditional (non-retina display) MacBook Pro, which is somewhat more powerful but a little clunkier.

There are two (and a half) flavours of the new Pro, both with 15-inch screens. The one we tested, which runs on a 2.3-gigahertz Intel core i7 and comes with 8 gigabytes of memory and 256 gigabytes of storage, will set you back $2,230 – and that’s the low-end model. The 2.6-gigahertz, 512-gigabyte model will set you back $2,830 (You can bump it up to 2.7-gigahertz for about $300 more).

There’s all kinds of benchmarks for testing system performance, and the Pro does incredibly well on all of them. It’ll run pretty much any everyday program – stuff like Safari, iTunes, iPhoto and the like – simultaneously with no perceptible lag. High-definition video, processor-hogging video games, professional media-editing software – it all runs just fine. And for almost three grand, it damn well better. Every now and then, when you really step on the gas, you’ll hear a slight wheezing sound as the Mac’s cooling systems kick in to prevent the machine from becoming too hot for your lap. Otherwise, there’s little sign that the Pro is ever really struggling.

Battery life is also pretty outstanding. Although it’s difficult to recreate tests, given that different uses siphon different amounts of power, we regularly got eight-hour shifts from the Pro, which is stellar, given that the computer has to light up that brilliant, pixel-heavy screen the whole time.

And that screen, really, is why you’re buying the Pro. By now, you’ve probably heard all about Apple’s retina displays: screens that contain more pixels than there are atoms in the universe, producing images so clear and sharp that they’re completely wasted on the puny, evolutionary jokes that are your eyeballs.

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