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back to school

Photo illustration of the MacBook Pro with Retina display, right, with the Google Chromebook behind it.Photoillustration

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.

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.

Right now, you can't buy the Chromebook in Canada, possibly because our telecom carriers can't be bothered (or don't want) to make the 3G version available; possibly because of regulatory hurdles; possibly because Canada isn't a big enough market for Google to feel any sense of urgency. As such, if you want one, you'll have to do the same thing you already do when you want to buy smartphones at a non-criminal price or watch half-decent TV on the Web – you'll have to pretend you live in the States.

On Best Buy, Amazon and a couple of other U.S. retailers, the Chromebook starts at about $450 for the 1.3-gigahertz, Wi-Fi only model with 4 gigabytes of memory and 16 gigabytes of storage. The 3G-equipped model will run you another hundred bucks. Previous years' models, if you can find them, cost as little as $300.

The first thing you see when you switch on the Chromebook is the Chrome logo atop a calming white background. Then, like other operating systems, Chrome lets you choose a personal profile to log in with. There's also a "Guest" login, which essentially allows you to use the browser but doesn't save any of your history, cookies or similar information once you log out.

Besides the browser, there's very little going on in the screen. In the bottom-right corner you'll find the familiar desktop staples: a battery life icon, a clock, a Wi-Fi status and default language indicator. In the bottom-left corner you'll find Google's equivalent of the Windows Start button – a Chrome logo. The only thing this button does, however, is launch a new browser tab. Click on the "Applications" button next to the Chrome logo, and you'll find just three options: Launch a new browser tab, launch the Web-based Chrome app store or launch the mostly impotent file manager.

It may seem strange to have a file manager when the computer doesn't have too many files to access. But the Chromebook does come with a USB port, which means you can conceivably try to launch files off a USB key or external drive.

The key word here is "Try." When we plugged a USB key in and tried to launch a .Doc file, a notice popped up saying: "To view this file, convert it to a format that's viewable on the web."

This is a laptop designed exclusively for people who live their digital lives fully on the Web. Don't buy this thing if you want to save files locally, or if you intend to use it outside the borders of a good wireless Internet connection, or if you like to yell a lot (Google has done away with the Caps Lock key).

But if you're part of that fairly specific demographic that wants little more than a Web browser and good keyboard, this is the best laptop for you. And, hell, it only costs about one-fifth of the price of a MacBook Pro.