The potential of the Chromebook franchise

February 13, 2013
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The Chromebook has been discussed quite a bit lately. With leaked videos, Android mentioned in the code, and a website domain reserved, it looks like we’ll see something amazing at Google I/O this Spring. Even with all that speculation, is the Chromebook ever going to be a viable platform? Are you ever going to consider a Chromebook like you consider your current computer, a standalone platform?

 A brief history of the Chromebook

As much as the Chromebook has been talked about and scrutinized, it’s actually pretty new. The first prototype, a Google CR-48, was available in December of 2010. The purpose was to have a platform which bypasses traditional OS and operates almost entirely in the cloud. There were no programs to download, or software to update. It was as if your Chrome browser took over your computer, and it took people by surprise.

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The first commercially available Chromebooks were announced at Google I/O 2011. The two offerings, from Samsung and Acer, ranged from $300-$450. The Chromebook was meant as a slim, lightweight alternative to a normal notebook computer. With specs like a 1.6Ghz processor, 2GB of RAM and 16GB of onboard storage, the Chromebook was fit for its main purpose, which was light web surfing.

The platform

The subtle brilliance of Chromebook is the fact that the browser is the platform. It isn’t a layer to Windows, or a boot-up action. when you open a Chromebook, you’re presented with a very stripped down experience. There aren’t any heavy background programs running, or time consuming security updates. Everything you need is available on the web, and icons simply link to a webpage rather than a program. It accomplishes quite a bit for what it is, and in our increasingly online world… Chrome OS is actually a bit ahead of its time.

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What is the purpose?

To put it simply: simplicity. The Chromebook is meant to get you to where you want to go, which is online. Google has created a world inside of Chrome to do just about anything you need. While the Chromebook isn’t for everyone, it will suit a great number of people very well. Web apps have come a long way, and the Chrome Web Store has an app for just about anything you need.

The Chromebook is great for schools, as it gives kids a very accessible and familiar way to learn. Given the online nature of the Chromebook, it is much easier for an administrator to limit where the kids go online and what they do. Google makes the devices affordable for schools, limiting the financial impact. In fact, it helps with many financial issues schools face, meaning more resources go towards the kids.

Going Google

Many businesses are switching to Chrome OS and Chromebooks, or as Google likes to call it, “Going Google”. Is Chrome Os and the Chromebook the right option for your business? We’ve discussed that in depth recently, and while it does lack in certain areas, chances are your business will find everything needed and more. Taking a quick spin through the features and cost structure may give you reason to question your current system.

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Why we like the Chromebook

For starters, it puts the “mobility” into computing. A Chromebook is so light and easy to transport, and it gives a nice alternative to lugging around a notebook computer. Sometimes you need a real computer, but not the headache of dragging one around with you. It boots quickly, and the battery life is amazing.

Security

Chrome OS is extremely secure, and each tab in Chrome is its own operation. Everything is segmented, meaning an error on one page doesn’t necessarily mean it will affect anything else. Very rarely does malware do more than make Chrome shut the page down, which is a nice feeling. Not having to concern yourself with security is a big weight off your shoulders, and probably puts a little cash in your pocket.

It’s Google!

If, like me, you are fully invested in Google and Chrome, a Chromebook is perfect for you. There is nothing other than all the services you’re used to enjoying, meaning you can skip the Windows messages and other OS nonsense and get straight to the good stuff. Many services you use in Chrome are fully integrated in the machine itself, meaning there is no more logging on to Chrome before you can check your calendar or Google+ messages. You jump right to it from the start screen.

It plays well with others

There is nothing better than when devices work well together, speaking to each other when needed. With a Chromebook, you work entirely in the Google ecosystem, which means everything you do is available across all platforms. Start a spreadsheet in Drive on your Chromebook, then tweak it while on the train to the doctors office. Start reading this article on your Nexus 7, then pick it up later on your Chromebook. When the services are available across platforms, it makes switching devices a lot easier and more convenient.

The price is right

The Chromebook is also priced right. After a few machines that were simply overpriced for what they were, the new breed of Chromebooks are coming down to earth. A $250 price tag is much easier to take than a $450 one, and it’s good that Google realized that when they did. Now that Chromebook competes directly with traditional computers in terms of pricing, we can expect much more adoption. Having them available in Best Buy stores is also a boon for the franchise.

HP Pavilion Chromebook

What’s not to like?

There are a few drawbacks that tend to keep the average user away. While a lot of people will get the Chromebook to toy with it and use it to screw around with, most consumers simply don’t want or need to do that. We are considering the Chromebook as a standalone unit and platform, not something adjunct to your current setup.

Services

Google Drive just doesn’t have enough bells and whistles to get people away from Microsoft Office. I happen to love it, but if we’re talking about power users, it just won’t work for them. Some very simple things are just not available with Drive, and it keeps people from switching. The same goes for the lack of Skype support. I love Google Hangouts, but more people use Skype, so it would be nice to see that available. Try watching a Netflix video, and you’ll be redirected to a big ‘ol “sorry” screen.

No toys

It may seem like a minor issue, though for many it’s a deal breaker. The lack of support for peripherals such as mice and keyboards is an annoyance some can’t handle. If we are really expected to make a Chromebook our daily-use computer, this will have to change. A mouse may technically work, but is often jerky or lacks complete functionality.

Interface

The interface is just plain different. Everything happens in the cloud, and people aren’t accustomed to that. It isn’t much of a switch, but taking people away from their comfort zone when it comes to computing is a tall order. While many users access the web for quite a bit, they don’t consider using it for everything a viable first option right now.

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No guts, no glory

If you stack up what you can do with a “regular” computer to the Chromebook, it’s just no contest. The Chromebook is terribly under-powered  even struggling to handle multiple Chrome tabs. When watching a 720p video on YouTube, it would be nice if frames didn’t drop, or worse, turn into a picture slideshow when another tab is opened. With no expansion available on the better Samsung model, you’re stuck with the 2GB DDR3 RAM, which simply doesn’t cut it. If we’re expected to drop our current OS for Chrome, the hardware needs to step up dramatically. This is the real Achilles heel, and one that is widely pointed to as the reason Chromebooks haven’t gained more ground.

Squinting hurts

In a world of small screens getting larger, we simply aren’t happy with one on our computer. We want a computer to have a 15-inch screen, not 12-inch or worse. The screen size definitely helps to keep the device slim and light, but it hampers usability. Again, if Chromebook is going to really take over, it has to improve on hardware, and the screen size is a major drawback.

Offline

While you can do some things offline, the fact is that a Chromebook needs internet access to be a viable daily-use machine. You can create a Drive document offline, but to take full advantage of all Drive can offer you’ll need to be online. This isn’t a problem for most, as we use our computers at home, but when mobile this can present an issue. More offline usability would be a great addition to Chrome OS.

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The future?

We’ve heard a lot lately about the Chromebook Pixel, and all it is rumored to be. If it is what it seems to be, we are in for a real treat. Any computer has its drawbacks, Chromebooks included, but the Pixel potential is just too sweet for those of us who have been waiting for Chromebooks to round into form. The rumors about the Pixel seem to be aimed at solving the issues we have with the Chromebook, which would be a timely fix for Google. Chrome OS will always be exactly what it is, but a machine that can handle what we throw at it will be a real step forward for Chromebook.

A Chromebook like the Pixel would also mark the first time people actually consider the Chromebook to be a standalone computing solution, rather than a secondary device. The reason we don’t get away from our Windows machines is because they can handle tasks, and multi task really well. I don’t consider Chrome OS to be the issue with adaptation. Chrome is a breath of fresh air in the OS landscape, hampered by the hardware it runs on.

With more manufacturers jumping aboard the Chromebook express, it seems this train is ready to go full steam ahead. Since inception, the two-horse race of Samsung and Acer has tethered the Chromebook market. Forget the low-end, high-end makeup of the Chromebook landscape with these two… we can’t get hold of one! More variety also means more availability, and if consumers can get one, they will.

Chromebook Pixel Jellyfish

Conclusion

What does Chromebook need to really be a viable contender? Guts. We need better hardware, plain and simple. While the Chromebook is currently good as a secondary device, we don’t need two devices. We are all looking for Chromebook to take over, to give us reason to jettison all this Windows weight.

Once Chromebook steps up the hardware specs we need, Google will see a wave of adopters. The software is exactly where it needs to be, but Chrome is notorious for eating memory up during use, making the hardware on a Chromebook much more susceptible to failure. Once the hardware catches up with Chrome OS, Google will have a real contender on their hands. Right now, the Chromebook is just a pretender.

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