The MacBook Pro with its small sidekick, the Mintbox. (Staff photo)

A little over a year ago, I updated the never-ending search for the perfect laptop, settling on the Google Chromebook Pixel, awed by its almost perfect cloning of the MacBook look and feel and willing to settle for the limitations of a Web-based operating system.

A couple of other laptops got kicked to the curb because of various shortcomings, but I noted that the MacBook Pro had not been tested for the simple reason that everyone who has one seems to love it, so who am I to doubt the wisdom of the crowd?

But time passes and experience sometimes trumps initial impressions. After 6 months or so with the Chromebook, I grew impatient with the limitations of the cloud-driven operating system and the resulting lack of an adequate image manipulation program and the inability to run multiple browsers, among other things.

The work I do is very similar to what millions of other content slaves and knowledge workers (pick your term) do each day. It requires sifting through many information sources more or less simultaneously, preferably in different browsers, while quickly collecting and editing graphics and photos and assembling all the parts into stories.  It's hard to do all of this on a Chromebook and, in fairness, it's not really made for that.

The Chromebook is perfect, if you ask me, for students, casual web browsers and business users whose usage consists mostly of email and simple documents. Some would argue that any high-end machine running Windows 8 would be the answer but my experience with Windows 8 leads me to avoid it whenever possible. Tablets are also quite adequate for those whose Web usage involves mostly social and entertainment applications.

But for the millions of people who rely on laptops for daily use in business and professional environments, laptops remain an essential tool.

Give it a try

So, a few months ago, I decided to give the MacBook a try, not having used a Mac on a daily basis for several years. I went to the Apple online outlet and, being a cheapskate, ordered a reconditioned MacBook Pro Retina for about $1,200 (roughly the same price as a comparably equipped Chromebook Pixel).

A day or so later, I got an email saying the item I had ordered was not in stock. But instead of canceling my order, Apple informed me it was substituting a new MacBook (with a faster processor) for the agreed-upon price -- the first time in decades anyone has offered me a better deal than I had agreed to.


The thing showed up a day or two later. It initially booted up into some kind of disability-related program apparently intended for visually impaired users. I called tech support and got a human on the line within a few minutes, who apologized for the error, which he said had been popping up lately.

A few keystrokes got me booted into the normal interface and things went swimmingly from there, as expected. What wasn't expected was that the tech support guy called me the next day to follow up and make sure things were still working properly -- marking the second "first" associated with this purchase. When's the last time Microsoft called you to make sure everything was working properly?

Once the interface issue was squared away, I loaded Google Chrome, Mozilla Firefox and several open source programs, logged into my Google cloud accounts and was happily writing and editing away in no time. 

Apple products sometimes suffer from excessively high consumer expectations but except for a few issues, I'd have to say the MacBook has done what its fans say it does -- it disappears. After a few hours, the thing becomes transparent, simply helping you get your work done without constantly calling attention to itself, as Windows insists on doing. 

The keyboard is excellent, the trackpad intuitive, the Retina screen comparable to the Pixel, the polished metal case a thing of beauty and, thanks be to Steve Jobs, there is no fan noise. Battery life is excellent; I routinely get five hours or more of use with lots of windows open. Viruses are not a problem.

A few quibbles

PhotoHaving said all that, there are a couple of oddities. The machine in question has 8 gigs of memory but still runs out of memory and has to be restarted every day or two. This might seem normal to Windows users but to a dedicated Linux user it seems odd. I don't remember every running out of memory doing normal workaday tasks in similarly-outfitted Linux boxes.  

More perplexing is what I would call slow I/O functions -- meaning it takes forever for the thing to digest a large image, something that happens instantaneously in my various Linux machines. Edit a large photo, for example, and you'd better be prepared to wait several seconds for it to be saved on the MacBook's solid-state drive. 

Apple machines have always felt a big sluggish to me, so this actually comes as no surprise and is not really an issue except to those with a perceived need for speed. 

PhotoI should throw in some specs. The MacBook is running a 3 gHz Intel Core i7 -- a very fast processor. My Linux Mintbox -- a miniature desktop the size of a wifi router -- has a 1.80 gHz Intel Core i5 and a physical hard drive instead of the much faster SSID drive found in the MacBook. And yet, the Mintbox saves images so quickly the action is indetectable. In fairness, the Mintbox has 16 GB of memory, the MacBook only 8, which could help explain the slow transfer speed under some circumstances.

More is more 

Conclusion: The MacBook Pro delivers a nearly-perfect marraige of software and hardware, enabling it to do just about everything most consumers want without undue commotion.

I continue to use Google Docs, Gmail and other Google cloud programs but the ability to store files locally and the flexibility of being able to install and run programs on the local drive tips the scale away from the Chromebook and towards the MacBook.

Students and casual users could probably buy one of the less expensive Chromebooks for $300 and be quite content, not to mention $1,000 richer. There are also Windows machines that sell for around $600 that are suitable for those willing to put up with a little extra aggravation. 

Those who need an ultra-fast, ultra-small desktop might want to look at the Linux-driven Mintbox. It takes up very little space yet does everything the typical desktop does, except it's faster, more secure and more reliable thanks to its Linux operating system. The Mintbox goes for about $600. A memory upgrade to 8 or 16 GB will make it blazing fast. Oh, and like the MacBook, the Mintbox has no fan (its case is a heat sink) so it is amazingly quiet and energy-efficient.  


All of the products mentioned and linked to in this review were purchased at retail, with no promotional considerations requested or received. 


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