Google has unveiled five new computers running its Linux-based Chrome OS, including the first Chrome OS stick computer and the lowest priced touchscreen Chromebook to date.
The new models move Chrome OS closer to the mobile embedded realm of Android, a trend underscored with Google now opening up its technology for porting Android apps to Chrome OS to any Android app developer. Google also showed off a beta Chrome Launcher 2.0 that switches the UI to a more Android-like Material Design look and feel, as well as Google Now.
All five new Chrome OS systems run on Rockchip's quad-core, 1.8GHz RK3888 system-on-chip, helping to reduce prices to as low as $149 for the Haier and Hisense Chromebooks, both of which are available for pre-order. Other common features for the four Chromebook laptops include 2GB of RAM, 16GB of eMMC flash, a microSD slot, a 720p front-facing camera, and two USB 2.0 ports. You also get 802.11ac WiFi and Bluetooth 4.0.
Here's a quick look at the new models, with more details and photos in our slide show of new Chrome OS devices (click on Gallery link below):
- Asus Chromebit -- Coming this summer for under $100, the tiny HDMI stick Chromebit plugs into your TV's HDMI port, turning the TV into a Chrome OS computer.
- Asus Chromebook C201 -- The C201 has an 11.6-inch display and a battery said to last up to 13 hours. It ships for $169 in May.
- Asus Chromebook Flip -- At $249, this most affordable of touchscreen Chromebooks features a 10.1-inch IPS flip display that rotates to look like a tablet. It ships this Spring.
- Haier Chromebook 11 -- Available for pre-order for $149 at Amazon, the Haier Chromebook has an 11.6-inch display and a 10-hour battery. An 11e model focuses on the educational market.
- Hisense Chromebook -- The $149 Hisense Chromebook is similar to the Haier model, but is slightly heavier at 3.3 pounds with an 8.5-hour battery, and can be found at Walmart instead of Amazon.
Although relatively few details have been released about the Chromebit, it appears to have less in common with Google's $35 Chromecast dongle, which casts your Android phone content to a TV screen, than with a host of similar HDMI stick computers that offer full Android OSes of their own. These include some models such as the $110 MK903V, which use the same Rockchip RK3288 SoC.
While most Android stick computers target the consumer media player market, the Chromebit will focus primarily on educational and kiosk applications, according to The Verge. The Chromebit form-factor is essentially a miniaturized dongle version of Chromebox mini-PCs.
There have yet to be any Chrome OS tablets to date, but the convertible Flip could certainly be mistaken for one. At $249, the Flip is $30 cheaper than the Acer C720P-2661 and $50 less than the similarly touch-ready $299 HP Chromebook 14 G3. Google's recently released second generation version of its high-resolution, touch-enabled Chromebook Pixel, meanwhile, has been reduced to start at $999.
Google also tipped three upcoming Chrome OS partnerships with Nexian, True, and Xolo, aimed at emerging markets. As AndroidNewsIndia reports, Nexian is an Indonesian smartphone vendor, while True is a Thai communications giant. Xolo is an Indian subsidiary of Lava International that sells a variety of phones and tablets. Xolo is also planning to release phones base on Google's Android One, a Nexus-like program for affordable Android phones sold in emerging markets. Low-cost Chromebooks may soon be entering the same channels.
Microsoft preps Chromebook killers
Until now, the lowest priced Chromebook was the $199 Acer C720, which we covered last July in our report on the surge in Chromebook sales. The new $149 Chromebooks are a serious challenge to Microsoft, especially in the education and emerging markets where Google is targeting the Haier and Hisense devices.
According to a Mar. 27 Digitimes report, Microsoft is already working with 3 Nod and Elitegroup Computer Systems (ECS) on similarly priced consumer- and education-focused Chromebook competitors, respectively. The 11.6-inch Windows 10 notebooks will run on quad-core Intel Atom Z3000 (Bay Trail-T) processors and debut this summer for $149 to $179. The ECS model will be "sold mainly through the education channel that Intel and ECS built for their Classmate PC products," says Digitimes.
Google's new Chrome OS computers also challenge Intel, whose chips have run on the majority of Chromebooks. While more ARM-based models have appeared in recent years, including the popular, first generation Samsung Chromebook, this is the first multi-product Chromebook announcement where Intel was entirely absent.
Considering the Rockchip RK3288's relatively novel Cortex-A17 and ARM Mali 760 GPU foundation, it's unclear how well the quad-core SoC will compete with the Bay Trail Atoms. It's certainly not competitive with the 4th Gen Intel Core "Haswell" processors found on high-end Chromebooks like the HP Chromebook 14, although battery life will no doubt be longer. In any case, the new wave of Chromebooks is a coup for China-based Rockchip, a company that has partnered with Intel on some of its Sofia Intel Atom SoCs.
Netbooks, part II?
The Intel Atom first emerged as the processor of choice in the short lived netbook boom of 2008-2010, both for Windows, as well as the Linux (mostly Ubuntu) based models that once owned 20 to 30 percent of the netbook market. Netbooks, which are roughly defined as low-cost notebooks with under 12-inch displays, never really went away. However, once Microsoft pressured Linux out of the market, the company joined with Intel and PC manufacturers to downplay netbooks in favor of more lucrative, higher-margin and slightly larger Ultrabooks, as well as the new tablet and convertible form factors that were emerging at the time.
Now, as tablet sales have started to fade, netbooks appear to be enjoying a bit of a rebound, driven by Chrome OS and the emerging nation market. Many Chromebooks have larger 13- and 14-inch displays, but the netbook-like 11-inch models have enjoyed strong sales. Once Microsoft chips in with its new $149 Chrome OS killers, it may be game on for netbooks once again.