Please, Chromebooks, Don’t Turn into PCs

HP has produced a Chromebook, joining the likes of Acer, Samsung and Lenovo as they search for a credible Windows alternative.

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HP has produced a Chromebook, joining the likes of Acer, Samsung and Lenovo as they search for a credible Windows alternative.

The sudden uptick in interest from PC makers worries me, and I’ll explain why shortly.

First, a bit about HP’s product: Out of all the laptops running Google‘s Chrome OS software, HP’s Chromebook is the largest, with a 14-inch, 1366-by-768 resolution display. Other specs include an Intel Celeron processor, 2 GB of RAM, a 16 GB solid state drive, three USB ports, an SD card reader and HDMI output. The laptop measures 0.83 inches thick, weighs a little under four pounds and gets a measly four hours and 15 minutes on a charge.

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The device is available now for $330. That’s pricier than some other Chromebooks like Samsung’s Series 3 ($250) and Acer’s C7 ($200), but cheaper than the Samsung Series 5 550 ($450), which is far and away the best of the bunch. Lenovo makes a rugged $429 Chromebook, but it’s for schools only.

My concern is that as PC makers clamor to offer something besides Windows machines, they’ll do a disservice to what makes Chrome OS so useful. The browser-based operating system can’t install any software; it’s meant to be a fast, simple and safe way to get on the Internet, and that’s pretty much it. Accordingly, Chromebooks are at their best as lightweight, speedy machines with decent battery life.

That ideal vision is starting to fray at the edges.

Take, for instance, Acer’s $200 Chromebook. It’s desirable primarily because of its low price, but it has a few major drawbacks: At more than an inch thick, it’s on the chunky side for an 11-inch laptop, and its battery only lasts up to four hours on a charge. It also comes with a 320 GB hard drive instead of solid state storage, against Google’s own recommendations¬†for Chrome OS. Solid state is faster and more reliable, so the hard drive seems like little more than a security blanket for users who think they need lots of storage. (I’m reminded of folks who can’t imagine life without a DVD drive, but never use the one they have.)

The HP Pavilion Chromebook has its own issues. Although a larger screen is nice in theory, HP’s laptop has the same 1366-by-768 resolution as nearly every other Chromebook on the market. You won’t see any more of a given web page — or see it any more clearly — than you would on a smaller laptop. But in exchange for that bigger screen, you get a bulkier frame and weak battery life.

Samsung and Lenovo have taken a better approach, designing their laptops to suit the task at hand. Samsung’s $250 Chromebook is surprisingly thin and light for its price, while the $450 model is surprisingly solid in the keyboard, trackpad and audio departments. Lenovo’s Chromebook is made to endure the abuse of students, as it comes equipped with a rubber bumper, reinforced hinges and other specialized durability features.

The nature of Chrome OS is that it’s open to any PC maker who wants to use it, and it doesn’t cost anything to license. That means the barrier to entry is low, but the potential for PC makers to mess up the experience is great. Hardware companies can go one way or the other, and consumers, drawn by the low prices, may not realize who’s really executing on the Chrome OS concept. (Acer’s $200 Chromebook, by the way, is a surprisingly strong seller, the company says.)

The same idea applies to the PC market today. For all the great PCs you can buy, there are plenty of poorly-designed PCs as well, the latter group is what gives Windows a bad reputation — undeservedly, in my opinion. I’d hate to see the same thing happen to Chromebooks.

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