I’ve always been attracted by the idea of a lightweight computer that I could use on-the-go and lounging on the bed. My main computer is a 16.4 inch behemoth of a laptop with noisy whirring fans and a battery that could barely last an hour. It’s best left alone on the table.
Google has been pitching their Chromebook laptops for a couple of years now. These are not your conventional Windows laptops. Instead, Chromebooks run a different operating system called Chrome OS. It looks and feels very similar to the Chrome browser you might run on your Windows or Mac computer. Some have described a Chromebook as a hardware shell over the Chrome browser.
It all sounds very intriguing. I finally succumbed to my curiosity and purchased one of the latest Chromebooks to hit the market: the Acer C720 Chromebook.
You might be thinking about getting a Chromebook too. Here’re my thoughts on Chromebooks after 3 days from the perspective of a typical end-user.
What a Chromebook can and cannot do
The Chromebook “software programmes” are actually apps on the web. This means you need an Internet connection to do most tasks on the Chromebook (although Google has gradually expanded the number of apps you can run offline without any Internet access).
This reliance on an Internet connection is less of a deal-breaker than you might think. After all, wouldn’t you need Internet access while using Windows laptops too? When the Internet goes down, everyone in the office takes a break because no real work gets done.
But there are some things Chromebooks can’t do. They can’t run specialised programmes like iTunes for your Apple products (but that’s a lousy, bloated piece of software anyway). They can’t run multimedia suites such as Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. They can’t run professional industrial software for engineers and computer programmers. You can’t even play most popular games on them.
So what can they run? Well, what do most people use their computers for? There’re productivity tasks like email, Word documents, spreadsheets, and presentation slides. They browse Facebook and other web sites, watch YouTube, and listen to streaming music for entertainment. You can even play simple games such as Angry Birds and Cut the Rope.
Chromebooks can do all these and more. That makes it a compelling choice for many people, especially when it’s just so cheap. For a long while, there was a huge gulf between Chromebook and Windows laptops prices. The Samsung Chromebook 3 was launched last year at USD249. The cheapest Chromebooks start from just USD199. A basic Windows laptop would cost at least USD 400.
Things shifted dramatically with the introduction of Windows 8. As part of Microsoft’s marketing push, prices have started to drop significantly for the lower-end laptops. Amazon has a dedicated section devoted to Windows 8 laptops under USD 300.
I just picked up a Dell Venue 8 Pro, an eight-inch Windows 8 tablet for USD 299. It has a beautiful touchscreen display, and runs the new-style Windows 8 Modern apps and all conventional Windows software. On top of that, it can also access all the same Chrome OS software used on Chromebooks.
How about a regular Windows 8 laptop then? These are starting to drop in price too. With the Black Friday sales going on, I could pick one up for around USD250 – the same price as a Chromebook.
So why not just buy a low-end Windows laptop?
Sure, you could. It took me a while to understand the appeal of a Chromebook, and I think the mass market will continue to look past its strengths for some time to come. It all boils down to this: simplicity and speed.
A Windows laptop is a Jack-of-all-trades – a general purpose computer designed to handle many types of tasks competently. The Chromebook, on the other hand, does few things but masters them.
A brand new Windows laptop, especially the new Windows 8 laptops with fast solid-state drives (SSD) boots up quickly in 10 seconds or under. Out of the box, that’s the fastest it will ever be. Try timing it after you install your antivirus software and a dozen other background apps. And it’s all downhill from there. The Windows system gradually gets cluttered with all sorts of junk and starts to choke up. I am relatively tech savvy and do regular maintenance on my Sony laptop to combat this inevitable slowdown. But it still takes me over a minute before the computer finishes running the startup tasks and becomes responsive enough to work on.
The Chromebook boots up in just 7 seconds. You can type in your password and get working in under 15 seconds. It doesn’t slow down over time. In fact, it usually gets faster instead as Google continues to improve and refine the Chrome OS with updates every 6 weeks.
Bear in mind that Windows OS is a heavyweight software. You need a more powerful computer to get the same computing experience as on a Chromebook. Surfing the net on the Chromebook was a fresh experience – I had never seen the Chrome browser run so fast before. It was even faster than the Chrome browser on my Sony which has a second-generation Core i7 processor and 8 Gbs of RAM.
A cheap Windows laptop with a low-end processor quickly runs into performance issues, especially after getting bogged down by all those antivirus and background apps. Chromebooks cannot get infected by viruses because they run on a different OS from Windows and Apple computers.
Chrome OS strips away all the extraneous bloat of Windows and leans on the processing power on the cloud. The heavy lifting of say, editing your holiday photographs, is done elsewhere and the results sent back to your Chromebook. This is like the “thin client” concept from two decades ago, where low-end computers (“client”) depend on a powerful central computer (or the “server”) for their processing needs.
So to get a Windows laptop that offers a comparable experience to a Chromebook, you would need to spend more than you think.
Is that extra money worth it? It’s really up to you, and how you use your laptop. If you use it to play games or video editing, then a Chromebook is out.
For me, a Chromebook is wonderful as a secondary laptop, to type emails and watch YouTube videos while lounging on the bed. To bring along on short trips because it’s so light I could just chuck it into the backpack and forget about it. It has great battery life of 7-8 hours so I could get through a day without any issues. And because it’s so cheap, I won’t even mind as much if it gets broken or stolen, especially because my data is always synced on the cloud. I could just turn on another Chromebook and continue working exactly where I left off.
It’s great for kids and tech-oblivious grandparents too. No longer will you need to be their IT support guy. They won’t be able to unknowingly install malicious software or get infected with viruses.
It just works.
That’s why schools are starting to get onto the Chromebook bandwagon. Cheap laptops, easy IT maintenance, free office software – what’s not to like? And that’s the most powerful strategy up Google’s sleeve. Imagine a whole generation of school kids growing up with Google apps – what will they use when they step into the workplace? The authority of IT departments is waning with the Bring Your Own Devices (BYOD) trend. People insisted on using their iPhones and Androids over Blackberry, propelling their growth in the enterprise space.
What happens when people insist on using Google Docs over Microsoft Office, and Gmail over Outlook? No wonder Microsoft is running scared. Just look at their latest Scroogled ad:
Microsoft’s Scroogled campaign with pawn stars
The biggest flaw that Microsoft could come up with was that Chromebooks need Internet access? Well, so do Windows laptops, for most users anyway.
The price cuts of Windows 8 laptops are a powerful response to Chromebooks. Depending on the needs of the user, a cheap Windows laptop could be a more compelling choice. We’ll get a better sense of how consumers respond in 2014.
In the meantime, I’ll continue to use my Acer Chromebook together with my Dell Venue 8 Pro and report on my experiences with both products.