postheadericon TECH TALK: Chromebooks Now Shipping, but Do You Care?

I’ve been holding off writing about Chromebooks ever since I played with a prototype about a month ago, but seeing as they actually started shipping today, I guess now is a good time to let you know what they are, and then let you decide if you even care. I know that after using one for a few minutes, I found the Cromia AC761 from Acer to be intriguing. (As in, how would I ever use it?)

But what is a Chromebook? Or more importantly, what is it not? Well, a Chromebook is not a laptop, netbook, or tablet - but instead, something in-between. Netbook in size and battery life (well, perhaps a bit better) and traditional software app-less like a tablet, a Chromebook is more of an Internet appliance then anything else. Like a refrigerator door that displays webpages...

But unlike a high-tech fridge door, you can easily put this device in a small bag and take it everywhere you go...providing there is 3G or Wi-Fi coverage where you want to use it. Unlike a modern laptop, the Chromebook cannot be loaded with any data, software or hardware you might have around the house or office. For example, you cannot install MS Word or upgrade memory in one of these puny beasts.

But you can load apps from Google itself, whose operating system (Chrome OS) is more like what you would find running your smart phone than anything else. On this Linux-based kernel, you can run any of Google’s web-based apps via the included Chrome web browser: Google Docs, Gmail and Picasa are a few featured. But die-hard Office users will find Microsoft’s cloud-based Office 365 out of the cloud and into shops soon, where theoretically you will be able to Word and Excel away until the cows come home.

In essence, if you buy a Chromebook, you are buying a web browser with all the fix in’s, plus some (depending on model): a decent keyboard (vs. the virtual one found in tablets and on smartphones), a few USB ports for connecting, say, an external hard drive for your data, a 4-in-one card reader for transferring your photos and videos from your cameras to the web, and a display-out port for connecting the Chromebook to a larger monitor or display then the on-board 12” one.

The Acer I played with was hooked (ironically) to a large-screen Samsung TV and looked gorgeous when running Angry Birds. Chromebooks have HD audio support with tinny speakers as well – they are about the size of your thumbnail, so don’t expect hi-fidelity there. But hooked to a new LCD TV, the birds sounded angry and the pig’s grunting was realistic enough.


I say ironically that the Acer was hooked to a Samsung TV because there are only two brands of Chromebooks out on the market today (not counting Google’s own prototype, the Cr-48): the Samsung
Series 5 and the Acer Cromia. Both the Samsung and the Acer differ slightly in internal hardware, as both are cast from the Google prototype’s mold.

Looking at the specs, if I were to get one of these not-tablets not-netbooks today, I would go with the Acer, only because it has HDMI output that would allow my wife to play Cityville on a large screen TV, instead of overtaxing her overloaded MacBook (whose fan I can hear right now dying in agony and in Flash (that software long-hated by even Steve Jobs himself).

Both the Acer and the Samsung run on the same processor, an Atom dual-core N570 @ 1.66 GHz, which while is not going to be very zippy playing HD movies, it will rip through YouTube videos just fine. They both have similar HD webcams, if Google Chat is what you are into, and both have the same size SSD (hard drive on a chip); both weighing in at 16GB. They also have similar batteries rated at 8.5 hours, but since they are inside the book’s body, swapping out during long periods of loadshedding is not going to happen.

Leaving specs aside, you are probably wondering by now “Well, what good is it...if you cannot put in more memory or run your favorite apps that your already use on your Microsoft or Apple PC, AND it weighs TWICE as much as any good tablet on the market today? Good question. That is the question that Google Corp. is hoping the market finds an answer for.

For example, large corporations could replace all their employees laptops with these, as they cost just USD $399 or so, and then have less stress over virus attacks. Or large numbers of light-computer users, who could get by with their smartphone in reality, might buy Chromebooks in droves – as these devices do seem a bit better at doing “just web work” then a netbook or a tablet - much less hassle and a bit of flexibility to boot.

But for myself, I see no need - because of my needs! I want a powerful device that works all day on a battery, but can do Photoshop, Office apps, and media editing - yet weighs less then 3 pounds so it can fit into my man purse and leave room for my bike keys. But I guess I will have to wait for the next incarnation (or two) for something that looks like that.

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Jiggy Gaton
lives in Kathmandu and is an aging technologist - has been since the days of Woodstock - so in the words of Roland The Gunslinger "he is from a world now gone by." However, Jigs is extremely up-to-date on all things tech and is also available for hire.
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