Are Chromebooks from the Past or the Future? I Still Can’t Tell

By  |  Wednesday, May 11, 2011 at 11:48 am

A year and three-quarters ago, Google announced that it was working on Chrome OS, an operating system that was just a browser (or, if you prefer, a browser that had evolved into an operating system). That was a long, long time ago. In mid-2009, netbooks were trendy. The iPad didn’t exist. Android was merely a phone operating system, and one that was still just getting started at that.

This operating system thing turned out to be tricky: Chrome OS-based computers were supposed to hit the market by the end of 2010, but the schedule slipped, so the only one that met that deadline was Google’s own experimental CR-48. At today’s Google I|O keynote, however, Google laid out the basic info of the first two “Chromebooks” (a term I’ve been using for awhile and which Google is now championing) that will go on sale.

  • Samsung’s Series 5 will have a 12.1″ screen, a claimed 8.5 hours of battery life, an Atom dual-core CPU, Wi-Fi, optional 3G, two USB 2.0 ports, a VGA port, a Webcam, and a memory card reader. It’ll weigh 3.26 pounds and will cost $499 with 3G, and $429 without.
  • Acer’s model–I’m not sure if it has a name just yet–will have an 11.6″ screen, a supposed 6 hours of battery life, an Atom dual-core CPU, Wi-Fi, optional 3G, a Webcam, an HDMI port, two USB ports, and a memory card reader. It will weigh 2.95 pounds and will “start at $349.”

Both machines will be available starting June 15th from Amazon and BestBuy.com.

Google also announced that it will have package deals for businesses and schools that will outfit everybody in the organization with Chromebooks, service and support, and free upgrades to new models for $28 a month and $20 a month, respectively. And Samsung is working on a Mac Mini-like tiny Chrome OS desktop.

When I wrote about the CR-48 in December, I guessed that it might cost about $449 if it were a commercial device. A bunch of folks thought I’d estimated too high But the Samsung sounds very similar to the Cr-48 in most respects–it does have a better processor–and it’ll be $449 with 3G broadband, a feature I had thought was supposed to be standard on all Chromebooks. So if anything I was a bit on the low side.

These prices are only a tad less than you might pay for a Windows 7 computer with roughly comparable features. So I don’t think many folks will rush to buy Chromebooks based on price alone–they’ll only do it if Chrome OS-based computers deliver a noticeably better experience, with the fast boot times, lack of security and management hassles, long battery life, and general pleasantness that Google is claiming. And if they’re confident they don’t need any programs that won’t run on a Chromebook, and can live with the systems’ limited functionality when the Internet isn’t available. (At this morning’s keynote, Google said that Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Docs will all work offline starting this summer–and large quantities of apps from the Chrome Web Store already do.)

Oh, and there’s the issue of support for external devices. Google said today that Chromebooks will support USB devices such as cameras. But as far as I know, you won’t be able to sync your iPod Touch or connect a mobile scanner, or do any of a bunch of other tasks that require the existence of drivers.

Even after plenty of hands-on time with the CR-48, I’m befuddled by Chrome OS. In some ways, its 2009 roots are showing: I have a hard time believing that if Google wouldn’t simply use Android if it decided to tackle this project today. (Actually, I attended an Android session here at I/O during which the presenter was bragging about Honeycomb as a notebook OS.) But Chromebooks also assume the existence of plentiful, affordable wireless Internet access, a scenario that still isn’t quite here–especially if you try to save a few bucks by buying a Wi-Fi-only Chromebook.

I get the virtues that Google is touting as Chrome OS’s reason for being. They sound appealing. But most of them are ones that the iPad has today, with a wealth of apps and without the downside of limited offline functionality. And Honeycomb isn’t that far from being able to match them either.

So is the Chrome OS concept an artifact of an era that ended when the iPad arrived? Or is it a very early incarnation of a device that will make perfect sense once cheap Internet access is truly pervasive? I’m still trying to figure that out–I think the answer may be “both,” but I’d love to hear your opinions.

 
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6 Comments For This Post

  1. GadgetGav Says:

    Never mind the iPad, if you're not going to buy a Chromebook on price, what virtues does it have over a real laptop? The MacBook Airs are way more expensive, but they have better processors, better screens, better batteries and they weigh less. I don't know how Samsung and Acer managed to make these plastic netbooks heavier than the aluminum Airs, but they did.
    Windows laptops can be had for around the same price as you point out, and they can do anything a Chromebook can do and much more besides. Surely the Chromebook's only advantage could have been price, and they haven't used it.

    I can't see corporations getting behind it in a big way either. Sure, lots of companies have intranets but how many do *all* their business in web apps? IT support may be less, but it only shifts the burden if the company now has to put a lot more effort into corporate web apps.

    I think this will remain a novelty item or a basic student item, maybe at the high school level. Once students are in college, they're going to want a real computer.

    Maybe my reaction is just in line with the late, great Douglas Adams' prediction – that anything invented after you reach the age of 30 is just 'against the natural order of things'… :-)

  2. Busterone Says:

    I agree, it just doesn’t seem to have place at home, school or work. What is it better as? This was the same question asked by Steve Jobs when he asked about the netbooks. How is it this better than an ipad/xoom or the current crop of netbooks? DOA, and android will come in and pickup the pieces left by Chrome OS.

  3. ravipatnam Says:

    Chrome book may have a limitation of being used only for "chrome" purposes. I mean it's an ingenious object but just a browser and everything from documents to pictures on the web doesn't sound quite pragmatic…because it's not a tablet. It's not a complete PC/Mac either. Perhaps integrating a touch screen would make it have it's own category.

  4. Hamranhansenhansen Says:

    I can’t see why you would get a ChromeBook instead of an iPad. Even for office work, iPad has a better presentations client, spreadsheet, and word processor, and you get mobility, less than half the size and weight, and can choose your favorite Bluetooth keyboard.

    A key thing is the Web was made for touch. Every Web app is a new set of buttons. We called them buttons the whole time and then Apple added the fingers. And other than pressing buttons, you scroll (flick) and zoom (pinch). I don’t even use Web apps on my Macs anymore … they have gone back to being Macs only: production systems.

    When you consider the heart of Chrome OS is the Apple WebKit browser engine that is also in iPad, why would you turn down iPad’s WebKit plus App Store C apps for WebKit alone?

    If you put an iPad in a case with a keyboard next to a ChromeBook, the iPad/keyboard realizes Google’s original vision for Chrome much better, and is about 5-10 years ahead because of native C apps in addition to HTML5.

    And somebody was writing today that ChromeBook means no more security software, but a vulnerability has already been found, in ChromeBook’s FlashPlayer. So FlashPlayer has already blown all the work Google did with boot ROM’s and so on to move the user away from the problems of the Windows PC … Google pit FlashPlayer in there and brought the problems along. So even there, iPad is ahead.

  5. Omar Says:

    I really wanted to like this. I was looking forward to getting a cheap laptop that isn’t Windows (all Windows I’ve got were regretted). I just don’t see the point though. If you drag down the toolbar on a Windows, voila! Chromebook!
    Google needs to differentiate its browser from its OS so that it will succeed. But I still trust Google will make a success. For the first year, the Android was equally crude and useless, but now it’s the industry standard, so there’s still a chance for Chromebook, but just not yet.
    I’m actually thinking of getting the Samsung because it’s the nicest sub-500 case out there, and installing on it Google TV Honeycomb. In the snapshots of I/O, I noticed that even it uses Chrome. Would anyone tell me if that is possible?

  6. newdriv Says:

    Chrome OS is already an artifact. It's just there because of the google futile efforts just like google+ (just little worse than google+ as the chrome OS is literally done)