Google today announced a new Chromebook from Samsung with refreshed specs and a $249 price point, pitching the computer as an additional laptop for people who do their primary computing on a Windows or Mac computer. Think of it as a computer for your kitchen counter. The new device is the first Chromebook to use an ARM chip rather than an Intel one, which may well prove to be a better fit for what has historically been a niche device.
Google’s Chromebook has its fans, and it has seen adoption in school settings, but it hasn't achieved any sort of mass success. But Google has steadily improved both the software and hardware, earlier this year introducing the Aura interface that made viewing multiple windows at the same time possible. A few months later, the company announced software tweaks to the OS and the Chromebox, a desktop running Chrome OS. This time, though, it hopes to move away from the school-and-business market to users who want a simple extension of their home network.
The Samsung-made device is designed to be cheaper, faster, and easier to use than other comparable laptops. The company says the laptop will be much more widely available in brick and mortar stores starting next week (and you’ll start seeing jazzy new commercials from its new ad campaign tonight). The new laptop—which SVP of Chrome and Apps Sundar Pichai says will be simply called “the new Samsung Chromebook”—will be available in the US and UK only.
The $249 device is the first consumer-oriented laptop to ship with the A15 ARM chip from Samsung, the Exynos 5250 or "5 dual" chip. (This was designed to show great performance in smartphones and tablets.) Google went to lengths to differentiate its offering from Windows RT devices. Pinchai speculated that most Windows RT devices will be more expensive than the new Chromebook, while not operating on the newer A15. “Certainly some [Windows Devices] will be on A9," he noted.
The “New Samsung Chromebook” is Wi-Fi-only, weighs 2.5 pounds, and is 0.8 inches thick. The laptop also supports 1080p video at 30 fps for an 11.6” display. Google claims it has 6.5 hours of battery life. While previous Chromebooks have come with built-in 3G connectivity and a limited amount of free access from Verizon Wireless, the low price of the laptop makes the decision to include only Wi-Fi a lot more tolerable.
The computer comes with 16GB of flash storage, 2GB of RAM, and a free 100GB allotment of cloud storage on Google Drive for two years with the purchase of the new Chromebook. Google’s Pichai said, “We really want people to rely on keeping their information in Google drive so they have access to their information everywhere,” and naturally, extend Google’s reach to improve search.
The Chromebook will have a full-size keyboard and trackpad. It also lacks a fan—so it will be nice and quiet. The device comes with one USB 3.0 port, one USB 2.0 port, and an HDMI port.
The software updates
Google reminded the press that it updates its OS “every six weeks.” The newest iteration emphasizes one-click access to Google Play, as well as much-needed one-click access to a Windows or Mac machine (an improvement over previous remote-capabilities that were more difficult to use).
“We’ve really made it easy for consumers to remote into a Windows or a Mac machine,” Pichai said, referring to Chrome OS's remote desktop service. Google also noted it was making integration with Android phones and tablets more seamless, with a single sign-in to access various Android devices from the Chromebook and vice versa. For example, if you look up directions to a restaurant on the Chromebook, Google Now assumes that you’re going there and sends a notification to your phone. If you use your Chromebook to wirelessly print a flight boarding pass, Chrome OS can send that boarding pass to your phone.
Offline capabilities are somewhat improved in this version of Chrome OS as well. Any game or movie downloaded from Google Play can be accessed offline, and there’s a shortcut to editing and viewing Docs offline (an activity that has previously been slightly more difficult than it should have been). An offline version of Gmail is similarly available with one-click access.
Will it catch on?
Ars was able to play around with the new Chromebook, and it seems snappy and easy to use (look for a longer hands-on in the coming weeks). Samsung's casing does feel about as expensive as you'd imagine for a $249 laptop; the cheap plastic doesn't feel flimsy but it doesn't feel sleek either. The screen also leaves a little to be desired if you're used to an iPad, Kindle Fire, or something in a comparable market and price range.
As the SVP of Chrome and Apps noted, “people who actually live in the cloud have a really good experience.” That’s pretty consistent with how the Chromebook has always presented itself to its audience. But this time, the more robust offline capabilities and a slicker way to remote into a user’s primary desktop(s) will make the pitch for your dollars more respectable.
When asked whether the low-priced laptop can compete against tablets that do essentially the same thing, Pichai said the Chromebook does address a lot of the same needs a tablet does. But “students really need a device with a keyboard.” So how well would this laptop fare against a Macbook Air? That’s like "taking a Nissan leaf and comparing it to a Tesla Model X," Pichai said.
And, Pichai said, using it should be dead simple for even the least technical people: “You start using the computer, you sign in, [and] there’s pretty much nothing else you need to do. The only thing you need to do is charge the battery.”