updated 11:10 pm EDT, Wed May 11, 2011
Questioning Google Chrome OS in a tablet world
The long-in-waiting arrival of Chromebooks, Chrome OS notebooks, put Google's cards on the table. It's counting on users willing to pay a slight premium for what it sees as the best version of the web: fast, no clutter, and apps that are always up to date. But while many have wondered whether or not it's worth the cost over a netbook, the real question is whether or not the Chromebook hasn't already lost the war to tablets, including Android models, before the battle has even begun.
Put a Chromebook like Acer's next to a netbook and, while you can point to weaknesses in storage and the offline power of the OS, there are still clear reasons why you'd want the Chrome OS device. It's a bit thinner, and that solid-state drive gives you an eight-second boot and very fast load times. If you're tired of constant Windows security updates and patches, the high price for what's still an Atom-based notebook could be worth the price.
At $349, the base Acer model is even fairly competitive with a 10-inch netbook; Samsung's $430 Series 5 is less so, but it's still a fairly nimble 12-inch notebook with good battery life.
The argument quickly falls apart, though, with tablets. Portability, one of the advantages of a Chromebook over a netbook, just doesn't compare. Even the relatively hefty Motorola Xoom is still half the weight of the lightest Chromebook, and we all know that the battery life on most tablets is practically longer. The battery life of the Series 5 is 8.5 hours in its best case. Someone buying an iPad 2, a Xoom, or a Galaxy Tab 10.1 can realistically expect roughly 10 hours, sometimes more, of non-stop browsing and sometimes even video playback.
But what about the web? You have to give Google credit for making a fairly fast browser with Flash support -- which, like it or not, is still useful for sites like Hulu -- but its advantages are eroding quickly. A modern tablet like the iPad 2 or Xoom is very nearly at desktop-level speed and arguably has some advantages that a thin and light device should have. Tablets aren't as good at long-form typing but are much more organic for the web; they're designed for tall websites and even easier to use. You can certainly get to a browser sooner than eight seconds. An iPad doesn't have Flash, but it has excellent HTML5, and of course an Android 3.1 tablet makes that point moot if you care that much about Adobe's plugin.
Moreover, no matter how limited you might think apps will be on iOS or Android, it's still true that a tablet is much more useful than a Chromebook when you don't have Internet access. It's great that there are plenty of HTML5 web apps that work offline. But if you didn't save that app for use offline, you're still completely stuck. How do you tell kids they can't play Angry Birds on a four-hour flight? What happens if you're on deadline for a report and your Internet access went down before you got the latest version of your file from Google Docs? Someone with an Android tablet or an iPad can keep going, and no hardware keyboard or trackpad will make your work go faster if you can't see your file in the first place.
Even with the price gap, then, it's just too hard to rationalize a Chromebook unless you're a corporate buyer looking to rent a fleet of them to get the extra support. If you're going to pay extra to get more portability and battery life, the tablet is more your real destination. Google is offering a halfway solution for home users with a price difference that isn't that much less. The idea of the Chrome OS notebook is a beautiful thing, but it feels like an idea that was great in 2009. Especially when Google is seemingly competing against itself with Android tablets, that idea may be the only thing a Chromebook has for the everyday user.
By Jon Fingas