Nadella's nightmare

Google and Samsung just unveiled the first Chromebook you might actually want to buy

March 3, 2014
Obsession
The Cloud
March 3, 2014

Google has slowly but very deliberately encroached on territory previously claimed by Windows PCs: low-cost notebooks. Now its latest Chromebook may pose a threat to Apple’s dominance of the higher-end market.

Previously, Google’s Chrome operating system has mostly been confined to sub-$300, bare-bones notebooks, aimed at schools, students, or people looking for a simple laptop for basic tasks like email and light web-browsing.

The problem with most of Chrome OS-powered laptops put out by Google’s hardware partners (which include HP, Lenovo, ASUS and just about all the other PC makers) is that they weren’t really suitable for more intensive users as a primary PC (because of limited memory, small or low-quality screens, or slow processing speeds). The one exception was Google’s own Chromebook Pixel, which costs $1,300 and hasn’t been updated in over a year.

It’s clear, however, that Google is determined to make Chrome a full-fledged OS on par with Microsoft Windows. When I visited Google’s Mountain View headquarters last year, I noticed that everyone working at Google who wasn’t a developer was using a Chromebook Pixel.

Samsung’s Chromebook 2 delivers

For the first time, it appears that one of Google’s hardware partners is ready to offer the low-cost but full-fledged notebook that would be required to deliver on that ambition. As Wired put it, this new notebook is “almost a real laptop.”

The new Samsung Chromebook 2 comes in two sizes: a $400 13.3-inch model with a screen of the same resolution as a true high-definition TV; and a $320 11.6-inch version. Both run on a fast mobile processor, Samsung’s Exynos, which will also appear in some models of the company’s flagship Galaxy S5 smartphone.

These notebooks don’t have much storage—just 16GB—but that hardly matters, because the point of a Chromebook is that you’ll probably access the vast majority of your data and apps in the cloud (whether Google’s or elsewhere). Importantly, both models have 4GB of RAM, which is probably the minimum you’d want to have a bunch of browser tabs open without the Chromebook slowing to a crawl.

Will a smartphone processor do the trick?

It’s easy to look at Samsung’s new Chromebooks and say “well, they’re not that powerful compared to their Windows and Apple Macintosh equivalents”—and that’s absolutely true. But Google’s Chrome OS is also a much more lightweight operating system than either Windows’ or Mac’s. This means (according to my own testing and numerous reviews) that Chromebooks don’t require that much horsepower to function at more or less the same apparent speed as competing operating systems on more powerful notebooks.

Overall, the trend in how people get things done is moving away from PCs and towards tablets and phones. But the Chrome OS has the potential to capture a significant portion of the laptop market even as the total size of the pie shrinks—after all, most of us still prefer a keyboard and a trackpad for getting “real” work done.

In other words, if a $400 13-inch Samsung Chromebook is, for most everyday users, just as functional as an $1,100 13-inch Macbook Air—but the Chromebook has a better display—Google and Samsung could have a hit on their hands.

Chrome OS is outgrowing its dependence on the cloud

There’s one other thing that Google is just starting to implement that’s going to be very important to the future of Chrome OS—applications that live on the Chromebook itself, and run locally, instead of running from the cloud. This is a shift in direction from Google’s original cloud-only strategy for the Chrome OS, but it’s a reflection of the reality that we’re not always on a fast connection to the internet, and constantly re-downloading apps in our web browser is a waste of precious (and often metered) mobile bandwidth.

These “packaged apps” are not unlike apps on mobile devices or any Mac or Windows PC. And with their introduction, Google has made it possible for developers to create software that works much more like the kind of (mobile and desktop) apps most people are accustomed to.

Chromebooks represent only 1% of all PCs sold in 2013. But the more missteps Microsoft makes, and the more Google comes to dominate mobile computing in general, the more competitive Chromebooks could become. If nothing else, Google has, through constant improvement of both the hardware and software sides of the Chromebook, demonstrated a commitment to the platform. And Google, with its massive revenue from other businesses, can afford to be patient.

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