Last December, Google started shipping the Cr-48 -- a lightweight notebook running Chrome OS -- to select people across the U.S. This pilot program was meant to test the experimental "Chromebook" platform under real-world use, helping Google work out any kinks. About 60,000 Cr-48's were given away by the company. Acer and Samsung released their own Chromebook models for sale to the public on June 15.
HISTORY: Rise of the netbooks
Since then, there hasn't been much news about Chromebooks or Chrome OS. Depending on how you choose to look at things, the platform turned out to be a flop or another Google project in beta for an indefinite duration. (As of this writing, Google has yet to publicly release figures of how many Chromebooks have been sold.)
I was sent a Cr-48 by Google a year ago and I've found myself using it almost every day since. Here are my thoughts on the strengths, weaknesses, and mixed aspects of the Chromebook platform -- one year later.
BAD: THE PRICE
The Cr-48 came at a great price: Free. But those who weren't lucky enough to get one had to buy a Chromebook made by either Acer or Samsung, and the price wasn't cheap. They started at $349 for a low-end model by Acer, which dropped recently to $299.
Unfortunately, and obviously, $299 is still not a significant price differential when compared to a basic Windows 7 netbook with comparable or may be even better hardware specs. And a low-end Windows notebook can be had for less than $400 now.
So the price for a low-end Chromebook simply needs to go down lower (to $250 or even $200) in order to make the platform a more compelling consideration by potential buyers.
GOOD: BUILT-IN 3G
The Cr-48 came with a built-in 3G modem, which I found really handy whenever I was on the road, or when the Wi-Fi connection in a coffeehouse or office I was in was flaky or down. The 3G service is with Verizon, and all Chromebook models with 3G include 100MB of data per month that you can use for free for two years. (If you use up this monthly 100MB quota, you can then pay a monthly rate, with no contract, for more data.)
Currently, the lowest price for a 3G-enabled Chromebook (by Acer) is $399, compared to an Acer or Dell Windows 7 notebook with a built-in 3G modem that has similar hardware specifications to a Chromebook. Each sells for $650. (This price is for the notebook without the buyer having to sign up for a long-term 3G contract with either AT&T or Sprint.)
GOOD: BATTERY LIFE
Depending on the particular model, Chromebooks are rated to run from 6 to more than 8 hours on a full charge. My Cr-48 could run for up to 8 hours when I first received it. A year later, its battery manages to last a little over 6 hours, which is pretty good considering I've been using the computer almost every day.
UGLY: FORM FACTOR
All Chromebook models are light (a bit under or a bit over 3 pounds) and small (with a thickness of 1 inch or slightly less).
However, the new Ultrabook platform, a hardware specification established by Intel for super-slim and light notebooks that compare to the styling of the MacBook Air line, underscore that the Chromebooks are just not as sleek looking -- despite costing less than a low-end Ultrabook which starts at $899.
Should new Chromebook models be introduced, they will likely have to match the look of Ultrabooks, and maybe MacBook Airs, to better grab the attention of future buyers.
MIXED: CHROME OS
This Google operating system is, for all intents and purposes, the Chrome Web browser bolted onto a stripped down Linux distro. When using a Chromebook, imagine trying to do all of your computing tasks through the browser. (There are some applications in Chrome OS -- notably a media player, an image viewer, and a simple file manager -- which are integrated into the browser.)
Perhaps this is a psychological factor, but when I first started using my Cr-48, Chrome OS felt confining since you are "locked" into a Web browser. It took getting used to the notion that you cannot "exit out" into a main menu or traditional operating system desktop.
MIXED: CLOUD COMPUTING
Related to the above, Chrome OS relies on the notion of cloud computing. A Chromebook mostly must have a continuous Internet connection in order for you to be able to use it effectively. So if you have no access to Wi-Fi, or there's no 3G signal where you're using your 3G Chromebook, you're out of luck. Your Chromebook is useless, unless you use it to view images, listen to music files, or videos you have stored on it.
To its credit, Google started to remedy this problem in late summer by releasing apps and functionality for Chrome OS (and the standard Chrome browser) that let you work offline with Gmail and Google Docs.
BAD: PUBLIC DISINTEREST
Google has been pitching Chromebooks as an ideal platform for educational and business institutions where low maintenance requirements for multiple computers could be desirable, but sales to the general public appear to be anemic.
Along with the negative reasons cited above, the biggest reason why the public has not warmed up to the notion of the Chromebook concept may be beyond Google's control: People have been wooed over by tablets (mainly, the iPad, of course).
RECOMMENDATIONS: LOWER THE PRICE AND EMPHASIZE 3G
My suggestion is that Google at this point needs to focus on lowering the price further for a low-end Chromebook model.
Or, the company should greatly emphasize the 3G models, pitching their lower cost -- without the buyer needing to sign a long-term 3G contract with a carrier -- compared to a Windows notebook with built-in 3G. Google also should build on the idea of extreme mobility, pitching Chromebooks as delivering the user Internet access almost wherever they are.
Maybe Google should even require that any new Chromebook models released must come with 3G. And they should partner with more mobile data carriers. (It would be great if future versions of Chromebooks featured 4G/LTE.) Chromebooks could even be provided for free or at an extremely low, subsidized cost if the buyer signs up for a data plan with a carrier.
Not only is this the way the majority of smartphones, including those running Google's Android, are sold, but there are also a number of 3G-capable netbooks and notebooks running Windows 7 that are sold or essentially given away by the major data carriers -- AT&T, Sprint and Verizon -- when a buyer signs a long-term agreement for 3G service.
Ultimately, free could be the magic price that Google may need to give the Chromebook platform a fighting chance in the market. This is ironic (or appropriate?) considering that the Cr-48 was given away for free.
Otherwise, I wonder if the Chromebook platform, and Chrome OS, will live long enough to celebrate its second anniversary, and if my trusty Cr-48 will become an orphan.
Wen is a freelance writer. He can be reached at [email protected]
Read more about anti-malware in Network World's Anti-malware section.