Home > Computing > What’s a Chromebook, anyway?

What’s a Chromebook, anyway?

It’s been a year since the first Chromebooks shipped. While one might argue that it hasn’t been that long since then, and that Google has yet to release the devices’ official sales figures, we wondered whether a time might come when we could utter the word “Chromebook” in the presence of a not-so-tech-savvy consumer and not be looked at like we’re speaking in Klingon. We talked to a handful of tech analysts, as well as a consumer tech expert, to find out what exactly is a Chromebook and if it’ll ever gain traction with the general public.

Chromebook 101

You can think of a Chromebook as Internet-dependent laptop that starts up super fast (roughly 7 seconds, or a fraction of the time it takes to boot an old Windows computer). They’re relatively lightweight and powered by Google’s Chrome operating system. The device’s name gives you a clue of what kind of OS it uses, and the only app natively stored that runs on the device is a browser. Everything else is composed of Web apps (email, photos, documents), or apps that run while you’re connected to a network. Of course, this means there’s very little you can do on the Chromebook without Internet access. The high point about everything being saved on the Web is that you’ll have access to it from any computer. Plus, if your Chromebook ever bites the dust, you won’t have to worry about losing all your apps, documents, and settings.

The Chromebox, the Chromebook’s desktop computer counterpart, also requires an Internet connection to work. Clearly, a desktop computer is more likely to be connected to the Internet at all times than its mobile Chromebook cousin. 

Hindered by the need for Internet access

Most Chromebooks can connect to the Internet via both Wi-Fi and 3G, but until there’s 24/7 worldwide Internet connection with zero downtime, the fact that the Chromebook needs to be connected to fully function remains a real hindrance to its more widespread use. Unlike smartphones and tablets with apps that you can use well enough without Internet access, most of the apps on Chrome OS become useless in the absence of a connection. “I don’t see [Chromebooks conquering 50 percent or so of the desktop and laptop market] within the next five years,” said Gartner Distinguished Analyst, Ken Dulaney. “Networks are not high speed everywhere and [are] sometimes non-existent.” 

You can still use a Chromebook in the absence of an Internet connection as long as you download offline versions of Web apps, such as Gmail Offline. The offline Web apps selection, however, is pretty limited, and at this point in time, not robust enough for you to ditch your main computer for a Chromebook.

Lowered prices might not help

The first Chromebooks were priced in the $300 to $400 range. Considering there are many similarly priced Windows laptops that aren’t limited by Internet access, this sounds quite expensive. In October this year, Google released a $249 Samsung Chromebook powered by an ARM chip instead of the usual Intel processor that lives inside other Chromebook models. According to Ross Rubin, Principal Analyst at Reticle Research, “the adoption of ARM has numerous benefits, and that’s why that processor architecture has been embraced by Apple and Microsoft as well as Google for its platforms.” Rubin said other benefits include “longer battery life, slimmer form factors, and lower prices.” 

The use of ARM processors, however, doesn’t impress ABI Research Sr. Practice Director, Jeff Orr. “The addition of Intel-based Chromebooks alongside the ARM-powered Chromebooks available now will not inherently make the user experience better,” he said. “Since Chromebooks require Internet connectivity for basic operation, the performance of Web connectivity will really be the determining factor.”

More recently, Google announced an Acer Chromebook, which, in spite of being powered by an Intel processor instead of ARM, costs only $199. While already very reasonably priced, it still failed to win the hearts of our interviewees. “[The] starting price of  $200 is a boon for the budget-minded, but I tell folks to keep their expectations low along with that price,” said consumer tech expert, Jenn Jolly. Aside from pointing out the obvious limitations of Chromebooks, Jolly adds that the lowest-priced Chromebook she has handled “feels very plastic, the screen is low-quality, and the sound is subpar.” The more expensive Chromebooks, she says, are better, but their prices make them hard to sell.

Chromebook as a second computing device

With all the limitations mentioned, it’s hard to imagine people choosing a Chromebook as their primary computing device. “I would consider getting an inexpensive Chromebook as a secondary device to throw in my gym bag, or use while I’m on the road,” Jolly told us. But ultimately, she considers the $200 Google Nexus 7 and the similarly priced Amazon Kindle HD better gadgets overall.

What can Google do?

What can Google do to entice more people to spend their hard-earned money on a Chromebook instead of on a tablet or on a full-featured laptop? Rubin believes that for this class of devices to become more popular, “more Web apps, richer Web apps, and better offline functionality” are needed.

We agree. How about you? Now that you know what a Chromebook is, what feature will make you want to snatch one up?