Chromebooks: Not much room for competition

Chromebooks: Not much room for competition

Summary: Major laptop makers are scrambling to build Chromebooks. They'll soon discover there is no good way to distinguish them from the competition.

TOPICS: Mobility, Google, Laptops
Acer C720 Chromebook (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Like them or not, the Chromebook is here to stay, at least for a while. Google's lightweight OS makes them run well on very cheap (underpowered) hardware. These cheap laptops, some under $200, are attracting buyers with thin wallets.

Major laptop makers are paying attention and are adding Chromebooks to their product lines. They require basically the same production methods as their Windows laptops, so it's a low-cost effort to build them. The Chromebook doesn't require big hardware, so the component inventory is not too heavy.

The problem these OEMs face in the Chromebook space is differentiation from the competition. The entry-level hardware is the same for all players, and it doesn't leave much room for specialization. Chromebooks are basically the same across the board, and that makes it hard to stand out in a growing crowd.

Hardware options

Chromebooks don't require heavy hardware, and that's across the board. The primary options for the processor are currently limited to ARM technology (as used in most tablets) and the Intel Celeron. The latter is a low-end mobile processor but it packs more than enough punch for a Chromebook. Any heavier Intel solution is just overkill and too expensive.

Acer 720P Chromebook (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

Most Chromebooks come with two GB of memory, with four GB an option. While the lesser amount of two GB of RAM works, four GB really makes a good difference in performance. This should be the standard for Chromebooks to provide the best user experience.

With the processor and memory choices limited, the internal storage is an area that OEMs can push to set their products above the rest. Many Chromebooks come with 16GB of storage. That choice is largely to keep the unit price down as low as possible, something vital to sell them.

The problems with bumping storage capacity up are twofold: price as mentioned, and the fact that more storage is not really necessary. Chrome OS used on Chromebooks is tightly integrated with cloud storage, and for most buyers that's going to be enough.

Google and some Chromebook vendors with their own cloud storage offerings have been giving one or two years free storage of varying capacities with the purchase of a Chromebook. This is something players should consider when trying to be competitive with new models.

Chromebooks have used SSD storage since the first one, but using a spinning HDD is an option. This could appeal to the buyer who wants to keep a lot of files locally. Of course, this takes a big hit on battery life.

Design and display

That leaves unit design and the display as the only real areas that OEMs can try to differentiate. A thin, sleek laptop design can go a long way to appeal to buyers. Everybody likes an attractive laptop. Of course, ultrathin design creates a possible situation with heat dissipation. ARM processors have a big advantage over Intel in this regard.

To set their Chromebook apart from the crowd, OEMs can vary the size of the display. We already have models ranging from 11 inches to 14 inches, but usually only one or two in a particular size. The laptop maker will have to decide on the market segment they want to appeal to, and make a Chromebook sized to fit.

The display can have touch operation or not. Most Chromebooks lack a touch screen, so the inclusion of one will give OEMs a leg up. Chrome OS can handle touch operation, but is not very optimized for it. Buyers will get a limited benefit from paying extra for the touch screen.

Battery life

Chromebooks are mobile devices, and buyers will find long battery life in such a cheap laptop to be a big selling point. The first OEM to produce a Chromebook with battery life much longer than the competition, say 12 hours, will have a big advantage over the competition. This is the best area to stand out from the crowd.

This is more easily done on larger units, so a big display Chromebook would be a good one to go for long battery life. It would allow using a bigger battery than a little Chromebook.

Price is everything

So you've designed an attractive, thin, and light Chromebook with lots of storage, a good processor, and long battery life. You're poised to bring your baby to market and expect it to stand head and shoulders above the rest. All you need to do now is price it right.

This is where the Chromebook market is hard to crack for OEMs. The prevailing price point that generates sales is between $200 and $250. That's it. There are models selling for higher prices, but Chromebooks that make the top of the sales charts are in that cheap price range.

When you take it all in, it's clear that it is a difficult proposition, near impossible, to make a Chromebook that stands out from the crowd. Even if you get innovative, you must sell it dirt cheap to get buyers to jump onboard. A high price is not the way to make your new Chromebook different from the rest.

Additional Chromebook coverage: 

Topics: Mobility, Google, Laptops

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  • How about a touch screen ChromeOS/Android hot switching combo?

    Running on an i3 with hot switching between ChromeOS and Android, a touch screen laptop may be a differentiator. I would not mind buying one of these if available. Android should sync across all your devices including GoogleTV.
  • Kaibosh

    It looks like the US Court system is about to put the kaibosh on the sale of Chromebooks outside the USA, with their decision that US law trumps local data protection laws, where the cloud data is stored.
    • Chromebooks are fine.

      Naa that is as it has been forever. Nothing has changed. Its not the local laws its physical as in by court order. In other words I hand you an order to do this you say naaa my server is in wherever land and I say you body is here and it is in contempt. We put people in contempt in jail until they comply as long as it takes. Very simple has always worked that way and always will.
      • But

        If they hand over the data, I face prosecution for breach of data protection laws, if it is a cloud provider.

        Or, in this case, Microsoft would face prosecution for breaking data protection laws and handing data to an entity outside the EU without getting the written permission of the person affected.
  • Not there yet

    I've had a go on the HP Chromebook and the Acer C720.

    The HP was a really nice-looking laptop with good build quality. And it had a nice screen. But its processor is underpowered and the battery life isn't great.

    The Acer wasn't as nice and the the display was disappointing, to put it mildly. But it was fast, had long battery life and had a great price.

    When someone can combine the best of these two, they'll have a pretty good product on their hands. I'm awaiting reviews of the new 13" Samsung.
    Brian O'Blivion
    • Toshiba

      Toshiba 13.3" is pretty good. With an IPS screen, it would be awesome.
  • Leave the software alone

    In the consumers mind the aftercare service and levels of finish really do set machines apart. Also you might have one brand have a strong presence with lots of service centres in one country while in another it might not be. We really dont need things to set these machines apart on the software side like different skins etc. This will only make the update process a hell. If hardware vendors want to set them apart leave the software alone, focus on quality and support.
  • Old fashioned idea?

    Imagine a world where competition in any product category was based on usability, price, build quality and reliability, long term support, and customer service.

    But instead pundits clamor for differentiation (read: incompatibility), "New and Improved!" stickers, and generally try to encourage the treadmill of consumption and waste through planned obsolescence.
    • Yes, but those things are difficult and time consuming........

      ......much easier to stick on some flash go faster-stripes, and gimmicky bloatware - but you can't do that on a Chromebook - damn, damn, and damn again - how can we compete without gimmicks?
  • James has covered all the bases here

    While I'd love a Pixel-like Chromebook, I bought the Dell 4Gb/11" model a couple of weeks ago and it does everything I want and then some. Price was the great advantage since I can't use anything related to Microsoft or Apple. At $299, I can buy a new one every year and not even notice the cost. Best of all? The setup time is zero.
    • Chromebooks had no setup

      Just login and it takes seconds. You don't have to setup a thing. You don't have to worry about virus software or malware. So when say Windows has no setup time. Who is going to believe you on which has the faster setup time and with no maintenance. Windows or Chrome OS? Its obviously chrome OS running on a Chromebook.
  • are attracting buyers with thin wallets

    Including parents; kids tend to "forget" things. And get expensive stuff stolen.
    Media Whore
  • yep

    Chromebooks make a great dumb terminal for Remoting into a windows machine.
    • no need of legacy Windows

      Why do you need the past while Chromebooks are the future?
  • Chromebooks are nice but....

    There is very little that can only be done on a Chromebook. The cheap price point is nice but I can spend another $50-$100 and get a far more capable machine running either Linux or Windows.

    About the only main appeal I can think of is that with an organization full of Chromebooks is that you can centrally manage accounts and machines through Google Apps. Its like active directory lite without having to maintain servers.

    I have looked at putting these devices in a lot of places but the majority have not been able to get past the dependency on cloud services.
    • Internet at home

      Most people have Internet at home, and if going to the coffee shop they will find Internet available there as well.

      I have no idea where you will find a laptop, like say the Toshiba 13.3" Chromebook, with Windows or Linux on it for $279 or a couple hundred buck more.... Really, any SSD laptop is a lot more costly. System76 makes some nice machines with Ubuntu, but nothing in the cheaper class -- which may be a good thing. Windows will have those old 5400 spin HD, and slow poke performance, along with having to keep up with updates and viruses.

      With ChromeOS devices, you can also backup to USB devices, I would think. I do like backing some of my stuff the Cloud servers as it is available on other devices or PCs as needed.

      I am thinking Microsoft will have some sort of a WinRTbook or simply use Windows 8.1RT with cloud service, like ChromeOS by sometime this Summer. The Surface2 seems to come without a keyboard, though the trackpad is large ;) Selling at $449 is not going to cut it. At $299, they may have a winner, or $349 with keypad. A nice little 13" laptop for $299 or $349 with SSD running Windows may be nice -- seems that WinRT takes a little more space from your storage, so a 32GB SSD.
      • Totally Agree

        When the Samsung 2 13.3" comes out later this month at $399 the game is going to be upgraded even more. It is going to be the first affordable Chromebook with a nice sized screen and the only sub-$400 laptop with a 1080p full HD screen. I am not aware of any Windows laptop that can come close to that. I could buy 3 of them instead of one Apple.
    • Chromebooks work as design

      While you can do a lot of things offline, chromebooks are design to consum web and cloud services. However, when used as thin client they are still more cost efficient than any solutions based on Windows.
    • I thought so too

      Until I bought one and used it. The cloud is an asset you data is safer there than in hand where it can be lost.
    • At $50-$100 more....... get a far slower and less capable Windows machine to run stuff on.

      You can install and run Linux apps on a Chromebook/box run Linux sessions side by side under ChromeOS using the crouton install script. However, to do this you need to turn on the Dev mode to prevent the ChromeOS bootloader thinking the ChromeOS image has been corrupted and reinstalling a clean copy from the cloud on the next boot-up.