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Editorial: do Chromebooks have anything over tablets?

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

by MacNN Staff



  1. ZinkDifferent

    Joined: Dec 1969



    Why are you guys simply NOT getting it?

    The target of chromebooks is NOT iPad or other tablets -- it's replacing Windows licensed OS' on netbooks, eroding yet another Microsoft revenue stream (which is all Google's goal has always been - first destroying the Windows Mobile license revenue stream, GoogleTV targeting the embedded Windows CE revenue stream on set top boxes (or rather, still attempting to); and now with Chrome, they are targeting the Windows licenses, initially on netbooks (and from the looks of it, will be successful).

  1. jahbadaboo

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Netbook market

    The last I read about the netbook market asus only sold 350k netbooks for the quarter and acer's CEO was fired for his pursuit of netbooks overtablets. Sounds to me like google is going to try again and slap it's name on anything just to get more recognition than being an android search ad company. Good luck google. I will stick with my modified Mac osx netbook thank you very much.

  1. praxis22

    Joined: Dec 1969


    consumer myopia

    I plan to write something longer on this later, (elsewhere) but, in short, "it's not all about you" Apple really has no part in this. This is not about product IMO.

    As a device the chromebooks are a tad expensive, for too little hardware, nobody who knows anything about computers (professionally) will buy one of these. A few consumers might. But this is not really aimed at them. I think this is more about Google thinking hard about the future of computing and their place within it, it's also obliquely, about the business & nature of Microsoft, both the products, and the company. Effectively, MSFT is a utility, but one that likes to think of itself as a consumer oriented business. Of the hip and happening kind they were in the 90's. As such they have resisted the commoditisiation of the Windows platform.

    What a Chromebook is, is the web as platform. for $28 a month, a business gets hardware, software & management tools. They lease it. New hardware will arrive in due course. But since it's all "in the cloud" the hardware is irrelevant. As indeed is the software. It need only facilitate the tasks you need to do. Implicit in this, (if it works for businesses and schools) is the destruction of MSFT's market, but I think this is more about showing the world what a computer can be, what the experience can be.

    Also, it's probably great for your mother, and other sundry family members you do tech support for. Give them one of these and you can manage it from home. It's a simple web appliance, that does everything somebody with modest needs, will need to do.

    IMO, this is Google showing the world what the web can be, without reference to anyone else. Certainly without reference to another device. This is about the web as platform, it's a tool, a means to an end. To see it any other way is to miss the point.

    Like Zink says, you're simply not getting it.

  1. praxis22

    Joined: Dec 1969


    comment title

    Oh, and now you can run angry birds offline in Google Chrome. Announced at the Chrome keynote yesterday :)

  1. Gazoobee

    Joined: Dec 1969



    Everyone is defending the Chromebook this morning as an attack on Microsoft and a new alternative for businesses but the jury is still out on performance for that scenario.

    In spite of all the geeky dreaming, businesses are not going to switch to Google docs overnight and forget about the last twenty years of Windows-based specialty apps in favour of some new alternatives. it isn't going to happen.

    Businesses will pick up the Chromebook and ditch the cost of the Windows licence only if the Chromebook can run Office and other Windows apps. The only way it can do that is as a Citrix client, and no one is even talking about that or testing it, or has any idea what the performance will be like.

    If you can't turn it on and fire up Microsoft Word, it's a FAIL for business.

  1. praxis22

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Yes, business.

    I'm getting modded down, clearly I'm on the right track :)

    Like I said, "obliquely" it about Microsoft's role as a rentier, and the logical progression of that, which is "computing as a service" marketed at the people who would benefit most, business users. This would dramatically reduce cost and complexity, and this will reduce the IT budget. In business, IT spending is a cost center, not a benefit.

    As for the, "it doesn't run windows apps" argument, if you're running a modern version of Chrome, (11 -13) type, about:flags into the location bar, there you will see "Native Client" which is a way of running native code directly on the processor from within the browser. So what? So all those apps that sit on your desktop, they can be recoded/recompiled as a plugin that will interface via a web browser. So, in effect, you could run Office or the citrix client, in Chrome, on a Chromebook Details:

    Of course this isn't going to happen over night, but chromebooks are a three year deal, which at $1008 for the period, including hardware & hardware and software support & updates I reckon it's a quite a good deal as compared to the cost of Windows. Admittedly, it will take a while, but a corporate replacement cycle, (three years) is long enough to show promise and functionality.

    The bottom of that makes for interesting reading if you have employees.

    A fail for business if it can't run Word? I don't think so, corporations maybe, large established companies, but I doubt this is aimed at them yet, they'll want case studies, post mortems, best practice, business continuity, the works. But for small companies, ones that are not embedded with Microsoft yet, lean start-ups, and other more mundane tasks, the chromebook will be just fine. Provided it's given a chance.

    "I think you overestimate their chances." - Governor (Grand Moff) Tarkin.

  1. EC4IT

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Access to Windows Apps

    Chromebooks are targeted to specific types of users that want an easy, portable Internet browsing device. They are not meant to replace the traditional PC or laptop.

    In addition, there are third party apps out there that can bridge the gap for Chromebook users that require occasional access to those tools found only in a Windows environment. For example, if a Chromebook user needs quick, easy, temporary access to a Windows desktop or Windows app, they can use Ericom AccessNow, a pure HTML5 RDP client that enables Chromebook users to connect to any RDP host, including Terminal Server (RDS Session Host), physical desktops or VDI virtual desktops – and run their applications and desktops in a browser.

    Ericom‘s AccessNow does not require Java, Flash, Silverlight, ActiveX, or any other underlying technology to be installed on end-user devices – an HTML5 browser is all that is required.

    For more info, and to download a demo, visit:

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