A few weeks after Samsung found surprising success with its new $249, ARM-based Chromebook, Acer launched an x86-based Acer C7 Chromebook on Nov. 13 for just $199. The latest two laptops running Google's open source Linux- and Chrome-based Chrome OS are considerably cheaper than the Windows-based competition, putting them in the same territory as low-cost Android tablets like the Kindle Fire HD.
The Chromebooks are not only much more affordable than earlier Chrome OS computers -- they're also the first to be supported with a major advertising campaign. Google's "Chromebooks For Everyone" campaign has helped make Samsung's new Chromebook the top-selling laptop on Amazon since shortly after it went on sale Oct. 18. A new $330 3G version, which like the WiFi version, is currently sold out, is ranked 11th, while the earlier, $550 Samsung Series 5 550 maintains a respectable 19th place.
In October, Google SVP Sundar Pichai claimed that Chrome OS was "really ready for the mainstream." To highlight the point, Google has expanded its Chromebook presence from 100 Best Buy stores to 500, supported with Chromebook kiosks staffed by Google-trained specialists. Despite a frustrating first year for Google's "other OS," it seems as if the mainstream may finally be ready for Chrome OS.
If so, vendors will likely follow. So far, the output has been limited to Samsung and Acer, in part due to Google's insistence on quality control. In the summer of 2011, the $350 Acer AC700 joined the more expensive and similarly Intel Atom-based Samsung Series 5. When the Series 5 was updated this spring to a faster 550 model, Samsung also introduced Chromebox mini-PC, which sells for $329.
New Choices in Processors and Storage
Like the new Samsung model, the Acer A7 Chromebook cuts costs by offering a smaller 11.6-inch, 1366 x 768-pixel screen similar to that of a large netbook. In fact, as AnandTech notes, the A7's design is almost identical to the Windows 8 based Acer Aspire One AO756-2641 netbook, except for the lack of a touchscreen, which together with the Microsoft tax, boosts the price to $330.
The new Acer C7 Chromebook runs on an Intel Celeron, while the Samsung model is the first ARM-based Chromebook, running on a Samsung Exynos CPU. Acer's Intel Core-series 1.1GHz Celeron 847 processor is slightly slower than the Series 5 550's 1.3GHz Celeron 867. However, based on a number of published comparisons between the new Samsung Chromebook and the 550, the C7's Celeron may be a bit faster than the new Samsung model's 1.7GHz, dual-core Exynos 5. Despite the Exynos' higher clock rate and the advances of its ARM Cortex-A15 architecture, the Samsung Chromebook was markedly slower than the 550's Celeron 867, according to several benchmarks, including one from Liliputing.
The ARM chip, however, brings greater power efficiency, as well as faster startups and the ability to run without a fan. The Samsung Chromebook is claimed to offer 6.5 hours of battery life compared to 3.5 hours for the C7.
While the Samsung model gets by with 16GB of NAND flash, the Acer C7 is the first Chromebook with a hard drive. This 320GB drive, however, requires a fan, and helps expand startup time to a still respectable 18 seconds compared with Samsung's 10 seconds. The drive also adds a bit to the weight and thickness compared with the Samsung Chromebook, but it's still a very reasonable 3.05 pounds and one inch thick. Both Chromebooks ship with 100GB of free Google Drive cloud storage.
Other features are fairly similar, including 2GB of RAM, an SD card reader, and an HDMI port. The A7 offers three USB ports instead of two, as well as an HD-ready 1.3-megapixel camera instead of a VGA model. The Samsung Chromebook, however, adds Bluetooth 3.0 support, as well as a 3G version. Both models feature variations on the highly-praised Chromebook keyboard and oversized touchpad.
Chrome OS Keeps it Simple
No major new Chrome OS update accompanies the two new Chromebooks, but last spring's "Aura" release addressed most concerns, such as the need for offline access. There are now over 1,000 Chrome OS applications, and recent updates have fixed various bugs and improved Adobe Flash support. Netflix streaming is still missing in action, however, along with some other multimedia goodies.
So what's next for Chrome OS? Given Google's focus on price and simplicity, probably not as much as we have been trained to expect. Google seems intent on limiting the bells and whistles on this barebones, browser-oriented OS. Judging from the mostly positive reviews of the Samsung Chromebook, most of the earlier problems have been solved.
The Aura release borrowed a number of features from Android, but any substantial integration will likely await a touch interface. A ChromeStory forum entry in August noted some work underway on touch support, which would enable convertibles and tablets. Other features under construction in the Chromium community include a dual-boot option and a secure "Public Accounts" feature for kiosk use.
Chrome OS now boasts over 1,000 web-based apps, but despite recent signs of improvements, it will not take off until more apps arrive. One hopeful sign is that Google is beta testing support for C/C++ in the Chrome browser that drives the Chrome OS experience. The goal is to develop C and C++ bindings for HTML5 that would make it easier to move native apps to the web-based platform.
For now, however, low prices alone appear to be enough to point Chrome OS toward a respectable holiday outing -- and it's no longer just techies willing to give the new netbooks a ride.