Chromebooks: Stuck between a rock and a cheap place

Chromebooks: Stuck between a rock and a cheap place

Summary: Laptops running Google's Chrome OS are coming from all the major players, and most are much the same. That's because the very thing that makes them appealing prevents one from breaking out.

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

We’re seeing new Chromebooks announced at a steady pace, as major laptop makers are racing to get them to market. The inexpensive laptops running Google’s light Chrome OS are appealing to consumers and educators, and even the enterprise is considering the low-cost laptops.

Chrome OS is a lightweight platform which is one of its major strengths. It runs well on hardware that is not the most powerful, and that may end up impacting its success over time.

The typical cycle for laptops and other mobile devices involves refreshing the hardware with each generation. First, relatively low power processors will be used, and each iteration gets better and better. This keeps the product lines appealing to buyers over a few years.

It's not clear how the Chromebook will play out over an extended period. They all have lesser hardware because it keeps the prices low, plus it's all they need for Chrome OS. That's why most Chromebooks being sold are much the same, and OEMs are having trouble making their models stand out from the crowd.

The problem will get even worse over time, as Chromebook makers can't bump up the hardware without risking raising the prices. That would push them out of the market over time as buyers are attracted to the Chromebook largely due to low pricing. The standard refresh method for laptops is not viable for Chromebooks.

If this scenario sounds familiar it’s because we saw it with netbooks. Those low-cost Windows laptops used cheap hardware to debut pricing never seen before. They were under-powered, but buyers picked them up in droves given how cheap they were. That wasn’t enough to keep them around for very long, and the Chromebook may see the same fate over time. On the plus side Chrome OS is easier on the hardware than Windows on the netbook, so perhaps the Chromebook will escape the same fate as the netbook.

Chromebook makers will be faced with making other changes with each product iteration, instead of internal hardware improvements. Perhaps they'll have to keep improving the design to keep the products moving off the shelves. The internals won't need improving much and they'll have to do something with each new generation of the product line. It’s not clear what improvements will keep the lowly Chromebook from the same fate as the netbook.

Additional Chromebook coverage: 

Topics: Mobility, Google, Laptops

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  • I'd like to see higher specs

    Specifically, more with Ivybridge (etc) processors.

    There's very little I need Windows for these days, but when I do - I need it. Windows to go works very very well, and (occasionally) booting to it from a decent spec Chromebook would pretty much be my Nerdvana :-)
    • I Agree

      None of the recent swath of Chromebook releases really stand out. The Samsung Chromebook 2 with HD screen looked promising, but early reviews are heavily critical of the Arm chip inside.
      I know the old Sammy 550 was more expensive, but the whole package of that machine makes it great to use - 1.3ghz dual core deleron, 4gb RAM 16:10 screen - 300nit, easily replaceable SSD.

      So glad an extra year has been added to the EOL. Maybe by then there will be something worth upgrading too.
    • Re: Higher Specs.

      I have been saying this of Chrome based machines specifications for some time now.

      Specifically the LG Chrome Base which on the face of it is a compelling product..

      Intel Celeron although with the Haswell it is lacking as with all Celeron Processors. It would cost little extra to bump it up to an Intel i3 Ivy Bridge.

      16GB SSD. Why not an HDD with considerably more capacity.

      2GB RAM. This could be bumped up to 4GB although not that essential.

      USB 2.0 Ports are simply not acceptable these days. All Ports should be USB 3.0 by default.
      • RAM

        If you're only running Chrome and don't have dozens of tabs open at once, 2GB is more than sufficient. OTOH, if you're doing many things offline, more RAM starts to matter.
    • bigger screen

      I'd like to see 17" chromebook. I don't really need an i7 cpu or 16 gig of ram. Just a bigger screen.
      • A Chromebox, perhaps?

        Then you can have as big a screen as you want. Or course, it's no longer portable.
        Rabid Howler Monkey
    • Higher specs Chromebook

      There is one with Intel Core-i5 inside:
      • for the money-is-no-object set

        The Pixel is cool (aside from the keyboard's top row), but it's way too expensive.
    • No need for anything much faster except....

      The thing is that there really isn't much need for a faster device provided that movies and audio, video/audio chat, and low end games play without stutter. We have got to that stage now with Chromebooks.

      The next step in Chromebook evolution will happen when someone comes up with a local Linux apps which run on the Chromebook without having to switch to dev mode. This could be done by running Linux apps in a Portable Native Client environment using a modified GTK3 Broadway HTML5 display interface running on the local loopback interface, and connecting to the apps via a Chrome browser tab. Since Chrome Apps are sandboxed, the PNaCl app would need to allow configuration of a custom Linux application set in a cloud repository, and generate and download a customised Linux PNaCl image on the fly if common libraries are not to be duplicated in each app.

      Higher end 3D graphics may generate more WebGL Games and remote CAD/Video editing apps, which will also run on PCs and Macbooks with the appropriate spec. The problem is that the apps will need to target the Chromebook spec level. For example a base level app which would run on all Chromebooks, a level 1 Chromebook app which would run on an HD 5000 class or higher graphics Chromebook, a level 2 Chromebook app which would run on an Iris Pro class or higher Chromebook, and a Steam level Chromebook/box which would be able to run on a Steam class machine with a Chrome browser installed. To achieve this, Google would have to ensure compliance of Chromebooks to specifically defined classes and also have them classified in the app store accordingly. Presumably this is why the complaint by the author about Chromebooks all being pretty well identical arises - the current Chromebooks being the base level.

      There is one other option for Chromebooks - include a headless companion brick PC device with a WiFi interface and a battery. At home, the office or a hotel, this would be plugged into a wall socket, and would have Windows or Linux installed (or both), and you would connect to it via the local WiFi interface from the Chromebook to run Windows or Linux apps, or connect to it from a Chromebook via the Internet (this will be slower) if you are not at home. If you are going to use it for local apps on the move and you need to run Windows or Linux apps with demanding graphics or in an area with no connectivity, you would take it with you in your briefcase, and use your Chromebook to connect to it directly via WiFi.
  • "Chromebook makers can't bump up the hardware"

    "Chromebook makers can't bump up the hardware without risking raising the prices"

    Prices will remain static as faster hardware becomes available at the same price point.

    The netbooks were ALWAYS under powered for their primary purpose: browsing and email.
    They were also burdened with a bloated OS.

    The Chromebook is much more suited for the task, having hardware AND software optimized for browsing from day one.

    The biggest limitation is the ram included with many of them. 2GB ram is insufficient in my opinion.

    I own a 14" Chrome book with 4GB of ram and a 16 GB SSD and I've NEVER has a slow down. (even with a paltry 1.1 ghz processor)

    "Perfection is attained, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing more to take away."
    • Re: without risking raising the prices....

      So are you saying that the Chrome OS belongs only on budget Hardware ?
      • No

        Simple reading comprehension.
      • Chromebook specs are determined by Google.

        Google supports and maintains OS images for Chromebooks including hardware drivers for 5 years. If the Chromebook OEMs bump up the device to specs and features that are not supported on Google's OS images and Chrome Store apps, then it may simply stop working, or may work but not take advantage of the new specs.
    • I was thinking the same thing

      Over time, the production costs of higher spec hardware comes down, so it's only a matter of time before faster CPU/APU's are used in Chromebooks.

      The real question is why would you need anything faster than say the new Haswell chips or AMD's Kamini chips (hope the soon are adopted for Chromebooks)?

      Chromebooks are NOT intended for gamers or high end 3D AutoCAD software.

      Why should someone pay for more than they will ever need? I'm speaking of those millions of general users who simply use a computer for content, browsing, FB, and some office productivity ( Word-processing, spreadsheets, PowerPoint, etc.)?

      The right tool for the job is all that's needed and the low HW cost of Chromebooks fits a growing number of consumers needs, as they better understand the tools/specs.

      ~Best wishes on everyone's choices.
      • But that also applies to competing hardware

        in that over time, the production costs of higher spec hardware comes down, the competing Windows and Linux machines will take advantage of that cost savings, too.
        • Re: But that also applies to competing hardware


          That seems to be the current trend for most all computing devices. Although Chromebooks do have the advantage of a smaller footprint. Google is working to give Chromebooks more off-line computing abilities and it will be interesting to see if that ups the need for more computing power.
    • Netbook Burden

      The original netbooks came with Linux, and were not overburdened; unfortunately, most manufacturers used a crippled, terrible Linux distro, which led to a switch to XP. A few days ago,I replaced XP on a friend's 6-year old Acer AA1 with Linux Mint, and performance is quite acceptable — hardly a barn burner, but 50-second start up time and
    • CrimsonEclipse: "The netbooks were ALWAYS under powered

      for their primary purpose: browsing and email."

      Netbooks were tiny notebooks. They were underpowered because Microsoft and Intel wanted it to be so in order to avoid cannibalism of more expensive, larger form factor kit. The netbook definition, primarily consisting of CPU, RAM, drive size and screen size, was provided to Microsoft' OEMs as limits not to be exceeded:
      Rabid Howler Monkey
  • OK,

    We've now had 2 comments from people who actually use Chromebooks, commence the windows fans who have never used one slagging them off.................
    • Then let them

      The Windows based blogs are full of people who never tried Windows 8.1, but are more then willing to tell everyone how slow, buggy, and unfunctional it is.