The Day My Mac Died


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 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 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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 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.

  3. 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 to push the boundaries of efficiency in its newest designs as ARM Holdings 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.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers is a member of the Motley Fool Rule Breakers stock-picking team and the Motley Fool Supernova Odyssey I mission. He owned shares of Apple and Google at the time of publication. Check out Tim's Web home and portfolio holdings, or connect with him on Google+, Tumblr, or Twitter, where he goes by @milehighfool. You can also get his insights delivered directly to your RSS reader.The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Google, and Intel and owns shares of Apple, Google, Intel, and Microsoft. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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