The uphill battle facing the Chrome tablet

This Chromebook user is not sure Google will be able to pull off a successful Chrome tablet.
Written by James Kendrick, Contributor

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.

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