Thoughts On The Latest Chromebook And The State Of Chrome OS

I’ve watched Chrome with much interest over the years. While lately I’ve been generally harsh on a number of Google products, there’s still no doubt in my mind that when it comes to the browser — at least on the desktop — Google is winning. That’s a big part of why Chrome OS fascinates me.

Chrome OS is Google taking their best product and broadening its reach. The aim isn’t just to erase the stain that is Internet Explorer (which sure seems to be working), it’s to go after one of Microsoft’s legs: Windows. So far, it doesn’t appear to be working.

When I looked at the first Chromebook, the Cr-48, 18 months ago, I praised the idea, but bashed the product. It simply wasn’t ready for primetime. And Google obviously knew that, as they only shipped it in limited quantities to brave testers.

6 months later, we saw the first true Chromebook, the Samsung Series 5. It was a definite improvement over the Cr-48, but again, not good enough to compete with the big boys: Microsoft and Apple. Sales seemed to reflect this.  

Now we’re here a year later with Google’s second (or third, if you count the Cr-48) wave of Chromebooks. Knowing my interest in Chrome, Google was nice (brave?) enough to send me both a Samsung Series 5 550 (awful name) and the new Chromebox, a Mac mini competitor that, let’s be honest, looks like a full-on copycat device. I haven’t yet hooked up the Chromebox to an external monitor (I must obtain the right adapter), but I wanted to post some thoughts on the new Chromebook.

First and foremost, it’s a huge improvement over the last version. And it’s a colossal improvement over the Cr-48. While the trackpad was garbage on the Cr-48, it more or less sucked on the first Series 5. Now it’s better. It’s still not MacBook-grade, but it’s usable. I mention this first because that was the one thing that made the previous Chromebooks complete nonstarters for me. 

The hardware of this new Samsung Series 5 550 (again, that name is ridiculously bland and long, so I’m just gonna call it “550”) is okay. Like pretty much every other laptop on the market, it seems to want to replicate the look and feel of an aluminum MacBook Air, but it fails. Instead, it feels like a plastic knockoff. But again, it’s much better than the last two versions!

Unlike the Air, the 550 still has visible vents (three different sets) on the bottom. And they’re there for a reason. With moderate usage, the fans kick on quite often. They’re not exactly loud, but they’re not silent in the way that the MacBook Air is almost always silent. It would be nice if Samsung figured out how to copy this from Apple as well. Some day. 

The 550 is heavier than the MacBook Air (both the 11 and 13-inch), but only slightly (3.3 lbs versus 2.96 lbs for the 13-inch Air). It’s a good size, very portable.

The battery is rock-solid. Google says it will get 6 hours of continuous usage and that’s not a lie. It may even be an understatement, depending on the circumstances.

Also awesome are the start and wake times — both seem faster than the MacBook Air, which is not an insignificant accomplishment. 

The 550, like the Chromebooks before it, also has a built-in 3G radio which can come in handy, though everyone will wish it was LTE. The 100 MB of included 3G data usage per month is also nice, but puny. Still, it’s hard to complain about that option if you’re in a pinch and need to get online.

The real key to the 550 though is Chrome OS itself. The OS has come a long way in the past year. In my mind, this is by far the most significant advancement of the device. 

Technically version 19, Chrome OS now looks and acts more like a cross between Windows and OS X. This is smart — it should be more familar to new users. Chrome OS is still basically just a browser, but they’ve moved things around to make it look more like a traditional OS. 

Essentially, there are now “windows” that you can now seamlessly switch between, even though these are all just web pages and/or web apps. The concept of files is also a bit more clear now.

On one hand, all of this seems like a bit of a cop out, but honestly, this is the only way this was ever going to work. People are too terrified of buying a computer that only has a browser even if they shouldn’t be. Google has now figured out a way to trick those people, and I mean that in a good way. Chrome OS is getting to be very solid.

One thing Google won’t be able to trick people on though is the price. At $449, the 550 is significantly cheaper than a MacBook Air, but there are plenty of Windows-based laptops out there in that range or cheaper. (And the version with 3G is actually $549.) And let’s be honest, that’s what this thing is actually competing with. In my mind, it’s still going to be a hard sell.

The older Series 5 is now $349 and the Acer AC700 is $299, which is great, except that they’re cheap for a reason. And it’s not a good one. Google needs to work with the OEMs to get these prices down (sounds like they have some options they’re thinking about). A $449 computer isn’t expensive, but it’s also not “Windows-killing” cheap. 

While the OS is pretty much where it needs to be, at first, these Chromebooks are still going to be secondary options for people. And $449 isn’t going to cut it as a secondary option. Those people are going to buy iPads.

The bottom line is that the 550 is clearly the best Chromebook yet, but that’s not saying a lot. It’s fine, but it’s too expensive for what it’s going after. Chrome OS is getting very solid, but it still deserves better hardware. 

If Chrome OS is on a road to somewhere, my sense is that it’s right smack dab in the middle of it now. Things still could go either way.

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    MG Siegler does a thorough examination of Samsung’s new Chrome OS devices (well, not Siracusa thorough, but you know...
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    Samsung didn’t...or Tablet??? Soon?
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