Just a little while ago, Google announced that Chrome OS will finally be coming to devices that users can buy. Starting in the middle of next month, Acer and Samsung will have Chromebooks, as they’re called, on the market for between $350 and $500. You can read all about it, if you care.
If you’ve read my Google Cr-48 review from a few months back, you’d remember that I actually kind of liked it at the time. Since then, the novelty wore off…a lot. The notebook has become very good at collecting dust except for some occasional times when I needed to look up some stuff while working on my Amahi server and my MacBook Pro and iPad were downstairs. The problem became that the computer was just too sluggish and cumbersome to use for anything more than some web browsing. Even when it came down to typing up some blog entries, I preferred my MacBook Pro because of the better keyboard, more responsive user experience, and better trackpad.
I still consider it to be a sleek little machine and it has come in handy a couple times, but at the end of the day, it doesn’t present anything to compete against my iPad or a full-blown laptop. It’s really only worth owning because it was free and is sort of a collector’s item. The iPad, or any tablet, I would presume, provides a much better browsing and reading experience. I can get more comfortable while browsing and reading on my iPad. I can lay in bed, get comfortable on the couch, you name it. It’s more like reading a magazine or book. Just great. The iPad is also smoother and faster. The iPad only loses to the Cr-48 on the typing front. Typing on an iPad is not really as bad as you would think, but a “real” keyboard is always better. But that brings us to something else, if I want to type something longer than a few sentences, I’m going to grab my MacBook Pro. It’s got a better keyboard and having different applications and sites on the screen at the same time in windows makes it easier to reference other things. The Cr-48 simply can’t compete here. And unfortunately for the Cr-48, there’s no room in between, for me at least. I don’t want anything between a tablet and a notebook. And that is very different from where the iPad comes into play. I did want something between my iPhone and my notebook.
And to just drive one more stake into the Cr-48, it’s not even that useful as a cheap computer that I can bring on the go. For some, it will be, but not me. People who blog a lot or just do any kind of writing a lot may find a Chromebook better than a laptop because it’s lighter and still offers a decent typing experience. But for me, when I’m on the go and away from home and not wanting to bring a full-blown laptop, I want my iPad. I can dump RAW files from my DSLR to an iPad. At 22mb each and numbering in the hundreds or thousands (depending on how long of a time-frame we’re talking about), the RAW files are too much for a Chromebook with limited local storage and it’s not very realistic to be instantly uploading gigabytes of data to the cloud. Not only does this take too long, but any mobile datacaps would be destroyed before I finished. At home, when I want to work with my photos and edit them, a Cr-48 is useless. I need my MacBook Pro’s power. Hell, even the iPad can get me started with the use of Photosmith or Filterstorm Pro. An iPad 2 can actually edit RAW files, you can’t do that in the cloud yet. It’s just not feasible. Even my cheap netbook beats the Cr-48 here, it’s got local storage and costs the same as one of these Chromebooks will. But, computers are for way more than photography stuff so this whole paragraph doesn’t apply to everyone, I’ll admit that.
Okay, so about these new Chromebooks in general and off of the specifics of the Cr-48. They should be a bit faster, but they still have Intel Atom processors and if owning a Cr-48 and a netbook has taught me anything, it’s that even newer generation ones are going to be slow. There’s just no way around it, they’re underpowered chips. And at the price points that they’ll be hitting, they’re a bit too expensive to beat out tablets. If they came in at $200, I think they’d have a fighting chance, but for the general consumer, $350-500 for a web-only computer that is barely useful when not connected to the internet is a bit much. There is some offline capability, but it’s only a few Google apps right now and it won’t be able to compete with tablet apps.
When comparing a $500 Chromebook to a $500 tablet, the tablet wins…not to say that there isn’t merit to having a physical keyboard, but the tablet is more versatile, I think. I even think a $500 tablet is a better buy than a $350 Chromebook. The tablet will almost certainly get a lot more use. A netbook is a better deal and those things are crappy as hell (I really have a vendetta against them after owning one). Besides, once you hit $500, you’re into the territory of good enough cheap laptops that the Chromebook has another competitor that it can’t really beat unless you need that instant on functionality. You can run Google Chrome on any Mac, Windows, or Linux laptop so you could just use that. A Chromebook really doesn’t offer much over a netbook or full-blown laptop, you actually get less.
If you change the price to $200, the Chromebook beats tablets, netbooks, and full-blown laptops, but that’s not reality.
Where I think a Chromebook can compete is in schools and in businesses. People’s data not getting lost when the Chromebook is lost/damaged (it’s all in the cloud), just about zero maintenance, and prices starting at $20/month and $28/month, respectively, are big pluses, but that monthly cost isn’t for the general public (they just get the lumpsum price). These are places where you need a physical keyboard too. A tablet won’t quite be up to task for writing lots of emails or school papers. I just don’t think this same thing applies for a general consumer though, I think the tablet wins.
So to sum it all up, I do like the idea of Chrome OS, but I think it came to fruition too late. Mobile OSes are good enough now where a web-only OS doesn’t have much of a place outside of a few specific sectors. For the money and what it offers, I just don’t think there’s a bit market for the Chromebook. There’s not enough of a place between the tablet and the full-blown notebook to fit in.
I think there was a time when it looked like the future of the computer was something like Chrome OS, but that was 3-5 years ago. Since then, an alternate reality actually happened where data does live in the cloud, but is accessed through apps as much as it is through the browser. The app may prove to be a temporary idea that will die out in a few years once HTML5 and such completely invades the internet, but right now, it’s king. Google Chrome and Chrome OS do bring apps to the table in the form of webapps that can be “installed,” but they’re not nearly as good offline (or even online) as iOS and Android apps. The form factor of computers and the way we interact with them is changing too. Out is the mouse and keyboard, in is touch. Touch isn’t a trend. Touching things on the screen to interact with them in the future of computing and the Chromebook isn’t that. The Chromebook really has one foot in the present and future (the cloud) and the other in the past (traditional form factor). Chrome OS may have touch support built-in/coming, but it won’t be able to touch Android and iOS. Those who need more than touch and actually need a keyboard and mouse/trackpad often need more than just a browser window in front of them too. Bloggers and writers may be the one exception to that, but I don’t think that’s a big enough segment to sustain the Chromebook, it’s only real hope is schools and business and they’re not a given either.
Oh, and don’t forget, Google has said that they think Chrome OS and Android will eventually merge into one project. So what kind of future are you buying into? Just get an Android tablet now and save yourself. Or get an iPad and get a tablet that’s actually useful today (I think Android tablets need another generation or two before they can really compete with iPads).