Google's cheaper Chromebook: enough of a computer

The cheaper Chromebooks that Google introduced last month don't deserve credit for being a cheap way to read e-mail and surf the web: any smartphone meets that specification. But the $249 Samsung model I've been testing for the past two weeks also plausibly replaces a low-end laptop.

The cheaper Chromebooks that Google introduced last month don't deserve credit for being a cheap way to read e-mail and surf the web: any smartphone meets that specification.

But the $249 Samsung model I've been testing for the past two weeks can do those things and also plausibly replace a low-end laptop.

Like an iPad or an Android tablet such as Google's Nexus 7, this Chromebook demands no special setup, provides an excellent window on the Web and updates itself almost automatically. But Samsung's WiFi laptop adds a physical keyboard and a bigger, 11.6-in. screen and then welcomes other digital devices without needing adapters: Like any other laptop, you can plug in a USB flash drive, SD Card, digital camera or HDTV.

It's a better computer than I expected after last summer's disappointing Samsung Chromebook--much less my dismal experiences with older attempts at the cheap, simple Internet terminal like the Sony eVilla, the 3Com Audrey or the AMD Personal Internet Communicator.

The basic Chromebook formula hasn't changed since 2011: This machine and Acer's heavier, $199 C7, a Chromebook with more storage announced Monday, still amount to a frame for the Google Chrome browser in which nearly every app runs.

But Chrome OS is now a little more welcoming to Windows or Mac users. Instead of being dumped into a full-screen browser window, you see what looks like a simplified version of the Windows taskbar, with the Chrome browser in a window above that strip of shortcuts to Web sites and apps.

You can use that as you would any other copy of Chrome, but Google's Chrome Web Store (available in other releases of Google's browser) lets you add apps that don't need an Internet connection.
Gmail Offline ranks foremost among them, enabling you to read and write messages away from WiFi--and without Gmail's usual ads. You can also now work on Google Docs offline, although doing so requires not an app install but changing a setting in the same page as usual.
Some name-brand developers, such as the New York Times, have also shipped offline-capable apps. But many others, such as Evernote, only offer overdressed bookmarks on the Store. (Netflix did worse by not including video playback; publicist Joris Evers said the company is working to fix that.) And the Store's interface doesn't distinguish between these categories of app.
It's confusing to figure out that the Alt key takes on the role of the Ctrl or Cmd key, and the occasional system freeze can be upsetting. But hold in the power button briefly, and you snap back to the same Web pages  in about the time it would take to check e-mail on a phone.
In practice, using this laptop feels little different from spending a workday inside Chrome, Firefox or Safari on another computer. Even Flash animations worked as usual, courtesy of Chrome including that plug-in. As somebody smarter than me once noted: Yes, a browser can grow up to challenge the traditional operating system.
Samsung, meanwhile, contributed light and efficient hardware. The 2.4-lb. model loaned by Google lasted through 5 hours and 37 minutes of nearly continuous Web browsing fueled by my obsessive Election Day interest.
But having its two USB ports and one HDMI output huddle on the back makes for extra work by the user. And on the right side of the review unit's display, I can barely crack the plastic bezel open with a thumbnail.

I still think I prefer this to the new, $199 Acer. That model's Intel Core processor and 320-gigabyte hard drive, instead of the Samsung's ARM chip and 16 gigabytes of flash memory, limits its battery life to an estimated 3.5 hours and requires the addition of a cooling fan. (It's also unclear how you'd use that extra storage, since Chrome OS's view of local space stops with your downloads folder.)

Even in a house with more computers than people, I could see this filling in as a backup machine. (I've used it all day at a tech-policy conference and haven't missed my MacBook Air as much as I thought.) "Road warriors" and "prosumers" probably won't go for it, but home users who don't throw around that kind of marketing vocabulary just might.

Published 6:20 am Mon, Nov 19, 2012

About the Author

Rob Pegoraro tries to make sense of computers, consumer electronics, telecom services, the Internet, software and other things that beep or blink through reporting, reviewing and analysis–from 1999 to 2011 as the Washington Post’s tech columnist, now for a variety of online and print outlets.

70 Responses to “Google's cheaper Chromebook: enough of a computer”

  1. Crashproof says:

    So for approximately the price of a low-end notebook, this can approximately replace a low-end notebook?  Fair enough. :)

    • v says:

       where can you buy a low-end notebook for $250 (new) ? You can find tablets and in the past, netbooks ( which are all but disappearing and are awfully spec’ed anyway).

      I think that beyond the price, the low maintenance and the security that this offers is a radical change from a conventional windows based notebook that requires well, more maintenance. So, regardless of initial cost, the TCO of windows based notebooks is much higher. Not to mention you have to shell out subscriptions for windows, office, anti-virus etc.

      • royaltrux says:

        Only 16 gigs of local storage is kind of an awful spec. (The idea that this is meant to be more of a cloud computer isn’t lost on me, but still…)

        • dragonfrog says:

          A “cloud computer” – or, to use the two year old buzzwords that mean the same thing, a “netbook”.

          • Carney3 says:

            No.  A netbook can and often does run Windows or Linux, with the abiliity and intention of running local apps and storing data locally.

          • ZikZak says:

            Uh, the chromebook is running linux.  What did you think, google wrote a whole operating system from scratch just for Chrome?
            And you can install other popular distros on it, just like any netbook.  The only thing that makes this netbook different from any other is that it comes preloaded with a cloud-based distro.

          • Carney3 says:

            Yes yes it has a Linux kernel. But it doesn’t run “Linux” as the term is commonly used. Don’t be pedantic. And Grandma is not going to install Slackware or even Ubuntu on this. It’s a whole different paradigm.

          • royaltrux says:

            I agree with you, I don’t see this as a netbook. For starters, it’s one or two sizes larger. And the lack of significant internal storage speaks volumes.

            I’m not knocking this thing, I see it’s purpose, I just don’t live in the cloud.

          • Dlo Burns says:

            I have one of the prototypes and the only file things you can comfortly do is download some images and move them to dropbox or a usb stick. It really is like the ultimate example of modern minimalist computer use.

        • Carney3 says:

          It’s meant to be a cloud computer, period.

        • SPM says:

          Well the $999 Apple Macbook Air 11.6″ comes with 64GB fast SSD.

          You get 16GB fast SSD plus 100GB cloud free storage with the $249 ARM Samsung Chromebook 3, and for $50 you can add another 64GB of SSD in an SD card to take local SSD storage  to 80GB. Surely you are not suggesting that you need more local storage on a cloud computer than on a high end Apple Macbook Air?

          You will find it very difficult to fill up the 16GB SSD on a Chromebook. First Chromebooks don’t use local storage – that is just for downloads and uploads. Then you don’t need to allow for OS and bloat as you do with Windows, as you can’t install local applications, drivers, or OS components on a Chromebook, and so the space required by the OS never grows.

        • SPM says:

          And dirt slow as well. They are only slightly faster than the painfully slow Atom powered netbooks, but sip quite a bit more power.

      • atlouiedog says:

        Windows comes with just about every notebook computer not made by Apple. If you can get away with using a Chromebook, you’re not likely to be the kind of person who needs to upgrade to the next version of Windows when it comes out. In my experience, the one that comes with the computer will continue to be supported as long as the hardware keeps being useful. Microsoft and others provide good free anti-virus. There’s no reason to pay for one. If you feel that you can use the document editing applications on the Chromebook, I’m not sure why you would need to buy Office. Web based solutions work just as well in the Chrome browser on Windows and you also have the option for free office suites like Lotus Symphony and LibreOffice.

        I understand the usefulness of these machines and I’m thinking about buying one, but your points about the cost of ownership for Windows make no sense to me.

        • SPM says:

          If you are a consumer, Windows costs you (or a friend you ask to fix it for you) time wasted on maintenance, configuration, troubleshooting etc. compared to Chromebooks which are zero maintenance devices. 

          If you run a business, school, library etc. Windows laptops cost you three times as much in total cost of ownership than Chromebooks. This cost difference is mainly on IT staff wages you have to pay for provisioning, maintaining, and supporting Windows desktops and server authentication. With Chromebooks you can manage with very few or none, and user productivity also increases as a result of reduction in user maintenance requirements. These are real figures produced by schools, libraries etc. that implemented large scale Chromebook an Windows laptop deployments. The reason why the Chromebooks have such a low cost of ownership is because nowadays, the cost of computer hardware is dirt cheap nowadays, but the cost of labour is sky high, and Windows require a very high labour overhead compared to Chromebooks which are Zero Maintenance, Zero Touch devices. 

      • mappo says:

         http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16834246490

        OK, so it’s $300 rather than $250.  But the extra $50 gets you an actual PC with a 15″ screen, 300GB hard drive and DVD burner.   A $250 almost-a-laptop just isn’t a good deal compared to where entry-level laptops are today.

        • Chip says:

          On the other hand, the chromebook is half as thick and less than half the weight, and the battery will last 3x as long as a budget laptop.

          If you need a laptop, then a real laptop is always going to be the better bet. But if you need an appliance for ultraportable web browsing, the chromebook is cheaper and more portable.

          • Dlo Burns says:

            Yeah, unlike a tablet the chromebook can do ‘real’ browsing.

          • Brandon Rinebold says:

            It has a much larger screen than tablets so if you’re doing major research and need to read two windows in splitscreen then you’re out of luck with a tablet. It can also do some ‘real emailing’ and document editing without the need to carry a separate keyboard in your bags. There are a few tablets with easily carryable keyboards but the keyboards are much smaller and harder to type on. Said tablets also cost $200-$300 more.

        • SPM says:

          All three Chromebooks – the $449 Samsung Chromebook 550,  the $249 AMD Samsung Chromebook 3, and the $199 Acer Chromebook C7 haver faster CPU than the AMD E300 processor on the $300 Lenovo laptop you are quoting.

          http://www.cpubenchmark.net/cpu_list.php

          Lenovo AMD E300              passmark 674

          Acer C7 Chromebook – Intel Celeron 847     passmark  1016

          Samsung Chromebook 550 – Intel Celeron 867     passmark 1271

          Samsung Chromebook 3 – ARM A-15        passmark 739 (estimated from a basket of CPU benchmarks).

          The Samsung Chromebook 3 and Samsung Chromebook 550 also have SSD drives as found on high end ultrabooks and these are twice as fast as the slow mechanical hard drives found on the Acer C7, $300 Lenovo.

          So basically you are paying $50 extra than the ARM Samsung Chromebook 3, and $100 more than the Acer C7 Chromebook for a slower computer, and it will run even slower than that suggests because it is running a bloated Windows operating system on it. Not really a good deal at all.

  2. ssam says:

    can you use the hard disk to store music/videos locally and play them while offline?

    • fuzzyfuzzyfungus says:

      http://www.google.com/intl/en/chrome/devices/features-learnmore.html#offline

      Yes. A variety of built-in and third party applications support local storage in order to continue to function offline. They include media playing, document editing, and offline email shuffling.

      Certainly not a replacement for a ‘full’ computer; but it doesn’t just turn into a brick when it loses the connection.

      • SPM says:

        Certainly replaces a Windows PC for main usage. Google is advertising Chromebooks as an additional computer. It should be the other way round – there are some niche uses and applications that you might want your heavy, hot, cumbersome, and noisy Windows computer for, but it is a niche. What I have found is that once you buy a Chromebook or Chromebox, it becomes your main computer because of its convenience and ease of use, and your Windows or Mac machine becomes an occasionally used niche device.

        • Dlo Burns says:

          I have one of the prototypes and the only reasons I don’t use it more is 1) that I cracked the hinge and it’s become a bit wibbly 2) I work a lot on photos and throwing an sd card into the thing gets to be a pain (and the few time I work film I need a cd tray).

  3. atlouiedog says:

    This is all the computer that my mom needs. Other than simple word processing I don’t think there’s a single thing she does with her computer that’s not in a web browser, and obviously the former can be moved to the latter.

    • Carney3 says:

      I tried to talk my own parents into getting a ChromeBox and ChromeBook.  Instead they spent far more on an iMac and MacBook, and experience endless hassles synchronizing, updating, etc.  Especially my Mom with two different iPhotos.

  4. Ezequiel Gonzalez says:

    This is the resurrection of the Mainframe—-Terminal model of the past where you used a terminal to access a Mainframe computer. Now the MainFrame is replaced by the Internet Cloud and the text terminal is replaced by a Chrome Browser sitting on top of a Linux Operating System distro configure and optimized to run Chrome.

    The lack of powerful locally installed applications is a minus, but in practice most of us never run local applications. Instead we access the internet and do most of what we do there. 

    So if this were to be a $1000 laptop meant to be your only computer, then the lack of local applications would make it prohibitive.  But this is a laptop with a Manufacturer Suggested Retail price of less than $300. Great for all of us as a second computer.  For me it has become my primary machine.  Of course my desktop is sitting around waiting for the next release of my favorite disto, Debian 7, to be released.

    • sdmikev says:

      Only problem is that this thing isn’t ready for prime time with Citrix yet, which is kind of weird to me.  I was going to get one to try it out and discovered the problems people are having with that.

    • Rob Pegoraro says:

      Indeed. One comparison I had in mind while writing this was Sun’s vision of the Network Computer (but that had even less home-user visibility than the obscure Sony and 3Com examples I threw in there). 

    • Dlo Burns says:

      The only common things I can think of that require ‘big’ programs are music making, video editing, photoshop (although pixlr makes for a damn fine stopgap), and 3D modeling.

  5. regeya says:

    For another $150, I can get a laptop running Windows 8 that has 4GB of RAM and a 500GB hard drive.

    • atlouiedog says:

      And if you’re the person who only uses their laptop for Netflix, Facebook, email, and online shopping you’ve wasted $150. This isn’t for people who will use the 4 GB of RAM and a 500 GB hard drive.

      • regeya says:

        More to the point, this is the same amount of money I paid for a netbook, three years ago.  A netbook that came with Windows 7, 80gb of LOCAL storage, and was perfectly fine for Netflix, Facebook, email, and online shopping. 

        The great thing about BoingBoing is that I can read a review filled with fawning praise for the sort of device Cory Doctorow warns people against.

      • regeya says:

        (doing a new reply because I clicked “Edit” and nothing happened)

        These are not only things I could do with a $250 netbook three years ago, they’re things I can do with a $200 tablet, or can already do with my phone.
        Basically, imho, this is yet another device in the War Against General Purpose Computing:  http://boingboing.net/2012/08/23/civilwar.html

        • TheKaz1969 says:

          I can type faster on this keyboard than I can on the touchscreen on my phone…

          Sure. I could add a keyboard to my phone or tablet, but that’s an extra cost.

          I would say this is perfect for someone like my 73 year old mother, but… well, she likes her Pogo.com Java games, so…

          • BillStewart2012 says:

            “Extra cost of a keyboard” is about $10, unless you need one that’s shiny and Bluetooth-enabled.  (Assuming there’s a non-crippled USB port on your tablet, of course.)

          • TheKaz1969 says:

            I understand your point, but it is still an extra cost…

        • Alexander Somma says:

           While in some ways it is, ” yet another device in the War Against General Purpose Computing” in other ways it is not. Linux is just underneath the Chrome and it’s window manager Aura.  http://www.chromium.org/chromium-os/poking-around-your-chrome-os-device you don’t have to jailbreak a chrome book.

        • Rob Pegoraro says:

          Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Two thoughts:

          * The netbooks I tried back in 2009 now all look pretty bad compared to this, in terms of things like battery life, responsiveness and even keyboard layout. And by virtue of running Windows, they required more effort in terms of setup, maintenance and backup.

          * If you see the Chromebook as a machine that takes a place of a general-purpose computer, your critique is valid. It’s a less functional device that is closed in some important ways. But if you see it, as I do, primarily as an addition to the current computing ecosystem–and makes the open platform of the Web more accessible to more people–it seems a reasonable trade-off. 

          (Cory Doctorow, whose opinions on DRM I respect a lot, may feel different. Were he to show up in this thread to say so, I would feel chastened and flattered at the same time.) 

          - RP

    • Carney3 says:

      With slower setup, slower bootup, slower wakeup, slower overall performance that gets slower over time, far greater vulnerability to malware, far greater likelihood of catastrophic data loss, much bigger hassles involved in updating the OS and various apps, much bigger hassle involved in backing up user data, much bigger hassle involved in moving to another machine, much bigger hassle in synchronizing user data and app installs between multiple machines.

    • SPM says:

      That would be a waste of $150!

    • Dlo Burns says:

      Ugh, I could see running Xp or lubuntu or mint but Win8 would be slow as the asses of moles.

  6. Dimmer says:

    Over the weekend we picked up a Lenovo laptop with a dual core Pentium CPU, 4GB RAM, 500GB hard drive and (shitty) Intel integrated graphics. Cost was $288. Works just fine as a “regular” computer, and as a browser based computer. Sure, it’s not a killer rig, but the price to functionality is great.

  7. Russell Letson says:

    I suppose statements such as “in practice most of us never run local applications. Instead we access the internet and do most of what we do there” might be technically, statistically/ demographically true, but there are certainly *some* of us whose work habits and history are rooted in particular applications and who are strongly averse to depending on somebody else’s servers, services, and storage to operate. Especially a somebody whose business model is based on selling information about users’ behavior. It’s bad enough having to maintain a toolbox of stuff I prefer to work with in the face of Microsoft’s relentless hegemonic drive–but at least there’s still some wiggle room left in their environment.

    • nixiebunny says:

      We are the customers who Microsoft is busy abandoning in order to bring themselves in line with Google and Apple. I don’t love Windows, but all the useful engineering software I use depends on it.

    • Brandon Rinebold says:

      You are not the target market for ultraportable devices of any kind. This is a good device for people who want a bigger screen and easily carryable keyboard for their browsing and tablet apps instead of a tablet’s touchscreen keyboard.

      PS: once you boot Win8 into the desktop by default, most power users like yourself are quite happy with it.

  8. Thorzdad says:

    But, does it qualify as a general-purpose computer?

  9. Andrew Singleton says:

    I was lucky enough to get into the Pilot Program and. Honestly? I love these little things, especially for people like my brother, or mom, or anyone else where this will be ‘just enough’ without making everything confusing and maintenance *powerbutton* or worst case flick switch to reload the OS image and you’re good to go again.

    The fact we /finally/ got offline office is a sort of Godsend for people like me.Now if only it would work without lagging on things longer than twenty or so pages….

  10. If you really needed more local storage it does have usb ports after all.

  11. fran farrell says:

    Where else can you fill a Drive with 5G of your stuff and find what you want quickly. Search your stuff and find out what you think associated with what’s on the web goes beyond an algorithm change. All that for $249.

    At the self named ‘Fair Search’ conspiracy to stop progress, they are calling for Google to download this and every new Google algorithm to the FTC.

    Given billions and billions of years, the FTC will never figure it out, so of course it will leak the search-algorithm-code to MS who won’t figure out what it means until the PC and MS Windows meet Atari in bit-heaven.

  12. BillStewart2012 says:

    Can it run TurboTax?  No?   Then it’s not yet a replacement computer for my family.  Sure, 95% of what we use computers for except at work is web browsing or media playing, but there are some applications that we really need to run at home, not in some untrustable cloud system.  I don’t care if it’s running natively on the metal or popping up some virtual machine or WINE emulation, but it does need to run software sometimes.

    • sdmikev says:

       you use TT locally?  why?  the web version is better.  been using that since like 2001.

    • SPM says:

      Not sure about TurboTax, but you can run Quicken and a a lot of other apps online (you pay a subscription). The added advantage is that you can’t lose your tax returns if your laptop drive crashes or if the laptop is stolen.

      If you want to run tax or accounts applications on a light portable device which you carry around with you, Chromebooks are the best option if you value your data and don’t want to lose your accounts or have them stolen.

  13. Cowicide says:

    If Google’s  Chrome Remote Unendingbeta Desktop (CRUD) worked much more reliably, I would be far more interested in this thing and use it on the road while still having access to my more powerful laptop running at home.  But, unfortunately, CRUD consistently has trouble with various setups including Windows to Windows access, Mac to Windows, etc.

    Google needs to get CRUD fixed and out of perpetual beta if they want to sell these Chromebooks.  I’d love to have a little laptop that doesn’t cost me much money when it gets lost, broken or stolen on the road, but it’s GOTTA do remote desktop perfect or no sale.

    • SPM says:

      I have one of these things, and they are far more reliable than Windows, and free of viruses and malware. They are certainly not beta, although Google tends to label its products beta long after they would be categorised as stable by Microsoft. 

      The CRUD you know and love and are talking about is Windows. Windows fanboys like yourself assume that because Windows behaves in that way, every other OS must as well. That is simply not the case. 

      • Cowicide says:

        They are certainly not beta … The CRUD you know and love and are talking about is Windows.

        What the?  I think you misread just about everything I said above.  I clearly referred to Chrome Remote Desktop Beta (with a link to it I provided above nonetheless) and said nothing against Chrome OS. And, Chrome Remote Desktop certainly IS in beta according to Google.  You know, the people that made the thing?

        And it certainly performs like a beta if you actually attempt to use it professionally (as I have) in various professional setups over the years.

        Windows fanboys like yourself

        What the?  I’m typing this from a MacBook Pro with Mac OS X, boy.  I’ve also professionally used Chrome with Google Docs (Drive), etc. since its inception which is basically the Chrome OS, along with Windows XP/7 and sometimes Linux.  M’kay, boy?

        • SPM says:

          Sorry, I have gotten used to so many of Microsoft’s trolls, shills and ranting fanboys on Chromebook blogs, and I didn’t read the the post in detail. I guess they must feel really threatened by the Chromebook

          I presume you are aware that Chrome Remote is no longer beta. I have used Chrome Remote for a while, and it works well for me. There is also an installable service for Windows and Macs which allows you to connect without someone at the other end to pass you a pass number.

          • Cowicide says:

            Chrome Remote is no longer beta

            It still performs like a beta and Google still lists it as a beta. It still can’t handle multiple displays for any platform and doesn’t do sound at all for Mac Chrome. When I use other Remote Desktop software, it works as expected. I’ve used Chrome Remote Desktop on many different setups including Win XP, Win 7 and Mac OS and it’s been increasingly sketchy to use. Won’t connect with errors that cannot be resolved… Will connect, but cannot see the cursor, etc. — It’s just not the performance I expect as a professional. For example, LogMeIn simply works every time on all platforms that I’ve used it over the years.

      • Alpacaman says:

        Nah, he stated pretty clearly what he was talking about.

  14. edkedz says:

    I can live with any of the limitations mentioned so far except the lack of an ethernet jack. For various reasons that I don’t feel like going over (ie your suggestion has likely been considered already and ruled out), my threaded-through-curtain-rods-and-bookshelves 50ft. ethernet cable is the only currently-going-to-happen solution for the household wi-fi dead zone that is my bedroom.
    A chronic issue with all stripped-down budget laptops lately.

  15. jeffyablon says:

    The Samsung Chromebook rocks. That is all: http://answerguy.com/2012/11/05/google-chromebook-desktops-browser-business-change/

  16. Adam says:

    I expect Chromebooks to start taking off after a bumpy start.  Most computer users spend most of their time on the internet anyway, and the Chromebook is an ideal device for that, especially at the lower prices.

    But some users will still need access to Windows applications, especially it they want to use the Chromebook for work.  But there are solutions for that.  Ericom AccessNow is an HTML5 RDP client that enables Chromebook users to securely connect to any RDP host, including Terminal Server and VDI virtual desktops, and run their applications and desktops in a browser.

    AccessNow does not require any client to be installed on the Chromebook, as you only need the HTML5-compatible browser.  So this fits the Chromebook model of reducing IT support costs.

    Check out this link for more info:
    http://www.ericom.com/RDPChromebook.asp?URL_ID=708

    And yes, I work for Ericom

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