Chromebooks are about to get a boost in exposure, with Walmart and Staples adding the cheap laptops to their stores. But the expanded availability has left me wondering what happened to the best Chromebook of all, Samsung’s $450 Series 5 550.
Walmart is only selling a single Chromebook, a $200 Acer model with 16 GB of solid state storage. Staples will sell a range of Chromebooks from Acer, HP and Samsung starting this weekend, but the lineup only includes the $550 3G version of Samsung’s Series 5 550, not the cheaper Wi-Fi model. Best Buy, which has sold Chromebooks since last year, used to sell the Series 5 550, but I’ve only seen Samsung’s $250 model and Acer’s $200 C7 Chromebook in my last several visits.
The only place to get the Series 5 550 Wi-Fi model is on Amazon’s website. Even there, it’s only available through third-party merchants at inflated prices. (The cheapest seller, CircuitCity, has the Wi-Fi model for $518.)
The Series 5 550 is the mid-range sedan of Chromebooks. When reviewing it last year, I was impressed by the solid build quality, thin and light frame, extra-large trackpad and surprisingly good speakers. While you might find a Windows laptop with comparable tech specs for $450, you won’t find one that actually feels as good to use. In fact, I was so enamored with this laptop that I bought one for myself last year, and have recommended it to other people who are interested in Chromebooks. (I’ve written about the appeal of Chromebooks several times, though I understand some folks will always despise the idea.)
I reached out to Google PR on Tuesday morning, trying to find out whether the Series 5 550 has been discontinued. So far I haven’t gotten an answer. Google’s website still lists the Series 5 550, but the “Buy now” button only links to Amazon’s general Chromebook landing page.
I can venture a guess as to what’s happened: $450 Chromebooks aren’t nearly as popular as ones that cost $200 to $250, so Samsung isn’t bothering to make the Series 5 550 anymore. Once you get into the $500 range, chances are you’ll want the comfort of knowing you can install programs like iTunes and Office, instead of being limited to web apps in Google’s Chrome browser. The higher the price, the bigger the leap of faith Google’s web-based operating system requires.
In any case, I hope this isn’t the end for mid-range Chromebooks. If people actually start buying and using Chromebooks, and get used to relying on web apps like Google Drive and Spotify instead of Office and iTunes, they may eventually want to trade up to better hardware. But right now, there’s a huge gap in quality between the low-cost Chromebooks from Samsung, Acer and HP and the luxurious but insanely expensive Chromebook Pixel. Without the Series 5 550, or something like it, there’s nowhere else for Chromebook users to go.