I'd been having trouble with my nearly three-year-old MacBook Pro since the holidays. Last week, the problem elevated from occasional to frequent as my writing days were suddenly overrun with forced restarts called "kernel panics."
A visit to my local Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) Store confirmed my fears: I'd need to leave the machine for repair, with the likely fix either a new hard drive, new logic board, or both. A two-year-old Chromebook, given to me at Google's (NASDAQ:GOOGL) early 2011 developer conference, would become my primary tool for getting work done.
Two reasonably productive days later, I think it's fair to say the Chromebook is a useful machine but a lousy Mac substitute.
3 reasons the Mac still rules
This isn't the new Pixel we're talking about. Rather, I use an original Samsung 500 series Chromebook with just 2GB of memory and 16GB of storage. A lightweight machine in every sense of the phrase, you might say. Comparing it with my full-fledged MacBook Pro was always going to be unfair.
Thing is, I didn't start the comparisons: Google did when it introduced the Pixel and priced it as if it were a Mac substitute. Unfortunately, its dual-core 1.8 GHz processor clocks in much slower than newer Macs. Even my old Pro and its single-core 2.66 GHz processor hold up well thanks to 8GB of RAM, important when you're working with lots of open tabs connected to cloud-hosted software.
Now imagine how the Series 500 might perform under the same conditions, and you'll get a sense of what my days were like. Every task took longer. Writing. Research. Just the act of switching between tabs forced the built-in Chrome OS to reload pages made idle in order to save on spare memory.
I'd need a USB adapter before plugging into the wired Ethernet network, only to find it faster to stick with Wi-Fi. And finally, try as I might, I'd fail at connecting my Chromebook to an external monitor. Samsung built a custom VGA adapter port into the Series 500 that a service rep I spoke with said was obtainable only via mail order.
So what's the good news, sparky?
For all the 500's drawbacks, it's important to note that I still got a lot of work done. Support for USB peripherals such as my external mouse and keyboard made writing easier, while the Chromebook's built-in Wi-Fi radio consumed bandwidth almost as fast as I needed.
As an investor, I draw three lessons from all this:
- The Chromebook is a decent alternative but not a substitute. Bring me a machine that's so loaded with memory and CPU power that there's never a need to idle a page. Performance matters on the Web, and constant loading and reloading make the Chromebook less a workhorse and more a luxury machine. Alter the equation, Google, and profits will follow.
- Google Drive and Dropbox are disrupting storage. Computer makers are displacing high-capacity magnetic hard drives in favor of power-friendly flash drives. That's good news for the likes of SanDisk (UNKNOWN:SNDK.DL) and Toshiba. But that's not the end of the story. I'd have been lost if all I had done was back up my Mac to Time Machine, since the Chromebook doesn't use the Mac OS. Fortunately, I store most of my work in the cloud using a combination of Google Drive and Dropbox. Microsoft has a similar service called SkyDrive for those who prefer to work online but within the Office suite of products.
- Chips and memory will be the next big breakthrough areas. Flash won't be the only benefactor. Cloud services that execute scripts -- i.e., tiny snippets of code -- directly in a browser have a way of taxing even the most advanced processors. Expect Intel (NASDAQ:INTC) to push the boundaries of efficiency in its newest designs as ARM Holdings (NASDAQ:ARMH) brings its own finely crafted chips to newer laptops.
There will be a day when the Chromebook is every bit as good as the laptops it hopes to displace. But we're not there yet, and it probably won't be for a few years. Do you agree? Disagree? Please share your thoughts in the comments box below.