The uphill battle facing the Chrome tablet

The uphill battle facing the Chrome tablet

Summary: This Chromebook user is not sure Google will be able to pull off a successful Chrome tablet.

TOPICS: Mobility, Google, Tablets

ZDNet’s Zack Whittaker shares the possibility that we might see the first tablet running Chrome OS soon. He surmises that from a press invite from Acer that hints that may be the case. Having received the same press invite, I agree we might indeed see a Chrome tablet. I’m just not sure if it will appeal to many.

(Image: CNET/CBS Interactive)

That’s a surprising statement from a Chromebook and tablet enthusiast and owner. I’ve used just about every Chromebook on the market and really like my Acer C720 Chromebook. Laptops running Chrome OS work well for me and they are good options for many looking for a notebook computer.

I don’t believe that holds true for a Chrome tablet, due to three areas where tablets differ from Chromebooks.

Lack of apps

The Chromebook works well for me as I tend to do everything on a laptop in the Chrome browser. I open the lid and get right to work without compromise.

It’s different with the tablet, and where I think a Chrome tablet would lack appeal. Yes, I do surf the web on tablets, but I also run apps. Lots of them, in fact. I find apps optimized for tablets to be a good way to do different things.

That will be missing on a Chrome tablet. Nearly everything will run in the Chrome browser, and even if Google gives it a much better touch interface than it has now, it won’t be the same. It will take a while to get developers onboard to write Chrome web apps that work well on a touch tablet. A Chrome tablet won’t have the proper user experience without apps, compared to the iPad or Android tablet.

Usage on a tablet is different than on a laptop. Folks tend to do a lot of different things on a tablet than they do on a Chromebook. That means apps are a requirement.

And the Chrome browser on a tablet — it will have to be a cross between the Chromebook and Android versions. The Android tablet version of Chrome is tailored to provide a good touch user experience. As a result, it's not as full featured as the Chromebook version. Without apps, a Chrome tablet will depend solely on the browser, and that means no compromises. It must be the full Chrome browser as it is on the Chromebook. And that will likely not be as good on a touch tablet. It’s a fine line Google must walk to get Chrome right for a tablet.

Battery life

Tablets are popular, and one of the reasons is the long battery life (often 12 hours) that they provide. You don’t have to give battery charge a thought most days. Unplug it and go.

Chrome tablets will have to do the same, and that means a lot better battery life will be required than current Chromebooks provide. Chromebooks with Intel processors, even low-performance Haswell technology, rarely get nine hours on a charge. That’s not enough for a tablet to compete with existing models on the market.

Chromebooks with ARM processors, the same as competing tablets, might get a little more battery life but still fall short of the tablet competition. Whoever makes the first Chrome tablet, and it sounds like it may be Acer, will have to find a way to use either Intel or ARM and stretch Chromebook battery life to last much longer. And that with a touch screen that the tablet will require.


Acer C720P Chromebook (Image: James Kendrick/ZDNet)

One of the driving forces behind Chromebook sales is price. My Acer 720 Chromebook is a prime example — it only cost me $199. The hardware of the Acer is quite good for such a low price. It’s not wanting in any area.

The Acer 720p model with a touch screen, which I evaluated, adds $100 to the cost right off the bat. It also lowers battery life (one hour) compared to the model without touch.

A Chrome tablet will have that relatively expensive touch screen so it’s doubtful we’ll see a $199 model. I wouldn’t be surprised if Chrome tablets start around $300. Shoppers have been willing to give the Chromebook a try at $200, I’m not sure that works for the Chrome tablet at $300+.

Uphill battle

As useful as I find Chromebooks, I’m having a hard time imagining that to be the case for a Chrome tablet. Google will have to do a phenomenal job with the Chrome browser touch interface, get lots of developers committed to write tablet web apps, and get partners to make good tablets at $200. That’s a big job, and perhaps one too big to handle properly.

Additional Chromebook coverage: 

Topics: Mobility, Google, Tablets

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  • Destined to fail

    It's been free out there for a while for any tablet makers to adopt and yet few took it. Why? The jury is in. No one wants this HTML-based half-butted joker.
    • I think the reasons for a lack of a Chrome OS tablet are...

      1) Chromebooks have had relatively low sales until recently, so manufacturers weren't interested in taking a chance on building all-touchscreen Chrome OS devices.

      2) Google probably didn't want chromepads negatively impacting Android tablet sales, or to have manufacturers release inferior chromepads that creates a negative reputation for Chrome OS touchscreen devices.
      • I think Acer might release a touch enabled Chromebook

        But not a tablet at this stage.
        James's assessment is sound, and for the reasons he states, a ChromeOS tablet would be a mistake (at present).
        If they are keeping the 2 platforms separate, then keep them on the form factors they were designed for.
        • Chrome with Touch!

          Because of Windows 8, this probably needs to happen, anyway.
          Google needs to work on a version of Chrome that isn't just barely usable on a touchscreen
        • Acer's touch-enabled Chromebook already exists.

          It's called the Acer C720P. t's been available for about 5 months. It sells for about $300.

      • The reason Chromebook tablets will find it is Android's phenomenal success.

        Google hasn't been pushing ChromeOS for tablets and small screen devices so far - why should they when they have a runaway success in Android? Even Microsoft 's recently purchased Nokia smartphone division is adopting Android with Microsoft's blessing - which casts doubt on Windows Metro's future as a tablet and smartphone OS. Google's strategy currently seems to be to put a Chrome browser and runtime into Android, and to allow HTML5 packaged apps on Android rather than replace Android with ChromeOS. Maybe further in the future Google will make the transition.

        I think the push for ChromeOS tablets and hybrids (and probably touch laptops) is more from OEM's desire to push out something that uses this type of hardware which they have poured a lot of money into because of Microsoft's Windows tablet, hybrid, and touch laptop fiasco which failed to take off and left manufacturers with a lot of unwanted hardware they need to offload.

  • Chromebooks are an utter waste of money

    Chrome on a tablet will be a colossal failure...
    With Win 8.1 finally free of cost, Android tablets are doomed.
    • With Windows 8.1 not working on some platforms

      Windows will be a colossal failure..

      And Android has always been free. In addition, vendors can configure it exactly how they want it, unlike Windows where vendors have to depend on Microsoft to make the right decision for them.
      • You are both wrong

        Windows 8.1 is only free on tablets that are 9 inches or less.

        Android isn't free either, all major Android tablet OEM's pay Microsoft due to patent licensing issues and they pay Google for access to it's services.

        Not sure if the vendors adding stuff to android is a positive, to me it is actually a big negative.
        • Windows 8.1 free on ( inch or less

          Sounds like an bad nightmare of Netbooks Deux.

          Oh please tell us Owlie how Windows 8.1 (free) will save the world, cure cancer, while crushing the US National Debt, none of which are more absurd than some of your other predictions.
          Claude J Greengrass
        • No, they don't

          Only OEMs that also make Windows equipment bother to pay the BS patent fees, and NOT because they are legit, but for obvious reasons.
          Nor do all OEMs afford themselves of Google services.
          Many Android OEMs outside the U.S. market forgo these things entirely.
  • The biggest of the three factors mentioned is the first one

    As James noted, how people access the internet is fundamentally different on a touchscreen-only device than on a keyboard-only device. In fact, I think pre-packaged apps are absolutely critical for touchscreen devices because for most people it is too hard to type on touchscreen devices. Providing those shortcuts (and let's be honest, that's what many apps on touchscreen devices are - pre-packaged shortcuts) will be critical for Chrome OS, Firefox OS, and all other browser-based operating systems to thrive on touchscreen devices.

    The other two factors are also important, but I think are more surmountable. One of the primary advantages of chromebooks over tablets is browser performance, and I think that factor directly is related to battery performance. A real break-through will occur when processors are created that 1) can operate in touchscreen devices (i.e. don't need fans), 2) can provide desktop-class browser performance, AND 3) provide all-day battery life. For various reasons, I think it is more likely that Chrome OS devices, particularly all-touchscreen Chrome OS devices, will drive that innovation than current desktop/laptop operating systems or mobile operating systems, with the possible exception of Windows 8 or Windows 9.

    Regarding the cost issue, removing the keyboard should help reduce the cost (though that cost reduction will be offset by the higher costs associated with higher-quality screens and touch functionality). Really though, the cost issue goes back to what I said in the last paragraph - the key for chromepad adoption will the creation of processors that don't require fans, provide desktop-class browsing performance, and all-day battery life. I think such processors are likely to be created in the next few years, and their costs will likely fall in price as they are used in higher quantities.
    • Slow processors

      I think Android queers the pitch here. I read a review of an Android tablet running on an Atom Z2760 processor. It was running much slower than equivalently fast ARM based tablets, running Sunspider. Intruiged, because I found Internet Explorer running on my Windows ARM2760 tablet to be more than fast enough, I ran Sunspider on my device, it was more than twice as fast as the Android Atom tablet and faster than all but one of the ARM based tablets and smartphones on the list.

      That tells me that Intel and Google have a lot of optimizing to do.
    • Some points

      First, full Windows tablets running Baytrail have achieved pretty good speeds with IE and long battery. Update 1 and the later W9 (or whatever Threshold is called) will further decrease resource requirements. Intel will also be moving toward 14nm Atom processors soon to further speed things up and improve battery.

      The second point is on price. The base of a clam shell lets OEMs hide a lot of sins as far as optimizing space. Try and pack all of that in a slate with battery and will touch... you do not really get much cost savings as more money needs to be spent on optimization. Plus modern tablets are expected to be thin and light.
      Rann Xeroxx
      • In my experience...

        ...the Surface RT, which is admittedly the first generation model, isn't fast at all most of the time. I see the five scrolling dots when I'm trying to perform most functions on it way too often.

        Incidentally, the Surface tablets (both Pro and RT) aren't exactly thin.

        Having said the above, if someone wants a Windows tablet right now, buying a version with full Windows 8 on it is the way to go IMO. The Asus Transformer Book 100 is definitely a good deal, though I've never used it and don't know about its performance.
        • Legacy Windows apps aren't at all fast at all on a Windows 8 tablet.

          Most Legacy Windows (aka traditional Windows) apps are slow on a Windows 8 tablet, and disk space is also a problem for Legacy Windows - tends to run out too often. Metro apps (aka Modern Windows apps) runs fine on Windows 8 tablets, but there are next to no decent apps, and if you want to just run Metro apps, you might as well go for Windows RT. Small screens are also a problem for Legacy Windows. Basically Legacy Windows, and Legacy Windows apps aren't designed to be used on tablets or devices with small RAM or disk storage space, or touch screens.
  • As it is now

    I doubt chromebook is good for tablets. I don't know what Acer is trying to achieve, but I've a hard time to understand why a chromebook tablet would be better than an android tablet.

    I'm still in doubt that Acer will release such device.
    • Android Tablet

      Logic would say "why have Chrome on a tablet when you can have Andriod". And yet you could easily say "why have Chrome on a laptop when you can have Andriod".

      The logic is the same - and frankly I agree - but they are selling lots of Chrome Laptops.

      Maybe people just want a browser - logical or not!
      Maybe people think they are saving money - maybe they are!
      • I think the easy response to "why Chrome and not Android" is...

        ..."why have serious lag with Android when I don't have lag with Chrome"?

        IMO, Android doesn't work very well on smartphones and tablets (based on owning three mid-to-high end Android devices that were released between 2010 and 2012, including a "pure" Android, i.e. Nexus, device, in addition to owning iOS, WP8, and BB10 devices) and I certainly don't want it anywhere near my desktop or laptop. Though Windows 8 is annoying on laptops (just default me to desktop mode and make it harder for accidental gestures in desktop mode to register Microsoft!), I'd much, much rather use that (and other desktop/laptop versions of Windows) on a desktop or laptop than Android. (I haven't owned a MacOS device up to this point so I can't comment on that OS.)
  • It struck me some time ago that the browser is not the right tool

    to launch web apps that replace locally installed apps. Chrome and other current browsers as implemented on tablets and phones look pretty much the same as Netscape Navigator twenty years ago: a thick frame of buttons and sliders that is functionally irrelevant to a properly optimized web app's operation. In most cases I would prefer to run a mobile optimized web app that would avoid the nuisance of constant local updating and registers my configuration online.

    But we haven't seen enough of those mobile optimized web sites or the "anti-browser" that will focus on direct launch from icons into the app-developers full screen interface and doesn't waste so much screen or user time getting rid of the browser frame. If web apps and the anti-browser are done right, Chrome OS can launch them and they'll work on a tablet or even a phone.