On second thought, the idea of a Google laptop isn’t so dumb, after all.
In June 2011, I trashed Samsung Corp.’s Chromebook, an early effort to build a machine running Google Inc.’s Chrome operating system. For $429, you got an attractive, well-built machine, but one that could not run programs written for Microsoft Corp.’s Windows software and that only worked when it was connected to the Internet.
The costly gadget was often little more than an illuminated placemat.
But a lot has changed over 18 months. The newest Chromebook is more attractive than its ancestor, but also a lot more useful, with features that keep working even when it is offline. After several days of testing, the latest Chromebook became my go-to device for Internet surfing, e-mailing, and banging out documents on the fly. And while I’m impressed by the performance, I’m awed by its $249 price.
Not long ago, $249 would have gotten you a “netbook” computer with a 10-inch screen, a barely usable keyboard, and just enough computing power to run a stripped-down version of Microsoft’s Windows 7.
Instead, the Chromebook delivers 11.6 inches of video real estate and a big, comfy keyboard. It comes with 16 gigabytes of flash memory for data storage, eliminating the need for a noisy, bulky hard drive.
It’s also got a low-end but serviceable webcam for videoconferencing, surprisingly decent stereo speakers, a flash memory card slot, a couple of USB ports, and an HDMI connection that will pump videos to a big-screen TV.
It’s all packaged in a sleek plastic case that’s roughly as thin as Apple Inc.’s $999 MacBook Air, and only a few grams heavier.
The MacBook is a full-fledged laptop powered by a high-end Intel processor; the Chromebook uses a chip originally designed to run smartphones. It’s such a low-powered chip that the Chromebook doesn’t need a cooling fan, so it’s dead silent. But even with heavy use, the base of the laptop barely gets warm.
Of course, the Samsung machine doesn’t need as much horsepower as other laptops, because it doesn’t run a big beefy operating system like Windows or Mac OS X. The Chromebook is designed for the simple tasks that take up 90 percent of our computing time: surfing the Internet, checking e-mail, generating documents, watching videos.
Google’s Chrome operating system manages all of this through a Web browser interface that connects to Internet-based services. This idea appeals to me far more than it did when I last tested a Chromebook. Since then, I’ve begun writing a book in my spare time and doing virtually all of it on Google. I store notes and files on the Google Drive cloud storage service and compose chapters using the Google Docs online word processor. This lets me write, edit, and do research on any Internet-connected device, even my iPhone. Suddenly an Internet-centric Chromebook seems pretty appealing.
But one day you climb onto an airplane without Wi-Fi and the Internet is lost. What then?
With the newest upgrades to Chrome, you just keep on working. Google has developed offline options for its key services, so they can run from the Chromebook even when there’s no Internet connection.
You can back up copies of Google Drive files onto the Chromebook and keep on writing by launching Google Docs as a local app, similar to the kind on an iPad. Work is saved in the Chromebook’s flash memory. When the computer is in Wi-Fi range of the Internet, just log on and your most recent jottings are pumped into the Google cloud.
Between home, the office, and Starbucks, few people are out of Wi-Fi range for long these days. And during those brief periods, they can still get a lot done with a Chromebook.
No, it’s not a perfect machine. It runs a bit slowly at times. And as big as it is, the keyboard lacks three of my favorite keys: Delete, Page Up, and Page Down. I can live without them, but I’d rather not.
Others will resist the idea of a laptop that can’t run Windows software. But thanks to smartphones and tablets, millions of people have learned to shrug off this trivial concern. Google’s software tools are more than adequate for basic productivity tasks. These tools work even when you’re not connected to the cloud. And you can access them through a stylish, well-built device that sells for half the price of a basic Windows laptop.
The Chromebook isn’t for everybody.
But for those who’ve learned to love cloud computing, it’s one of the best bargains in the digital world.
Hiawatha Bray can be reached at email@example.com.