Late last evening, a good friend of mine called to excitedly inform me that she was going to buy a Chromebook. This surprised me, because said person is a bit of a technophobe and currently does all of her 'computing' on an iPhone. Curious, I asked why she was interested in these particular machines. The key features that caught her eye were...
1. Cost: The payment plan option. Dropping $400-$500 in cash wasn't an attractive option, but a smaller monthly fee seemed manageable.
2. Safety: No viruses to worry about, and no chance of losing your data just because you've damaged the machine.
3. Simplicity. 'If all I do is browse, why do I need anything but a browser?'
Cost: Further evidence has made it clear that subscriptions will not be available for regular customers. Only enterprise and education will be able to buy that way. And they'll have to sign three-year contracts besides, which is unlikely to appeal to any single end-user.
So now we're left to look at the actual price of a Chromebook. The WiFi models cost $429 (Samsung) and $349 (Acer) respectively. The 3G Samsung starts at $499, and I'd estimate that Acer's 3G offering will be around $400-$450. As a general rule, a Chromebook will cost you a little less than an iPad. I'll return to that point later.
Safety: In terms of security, my friend was absolutely correct to favor a Chromebook. Turning your computer into a dumb terminal that pulls all its data from the Cloud makes your info incredibly resilient. And Chrome OS is still far too small to have earned the attention of malware developers. Unless it gets very popular, very fast, that is unlikely to change.
Simplicity: This may be the major selling point of Chrome OS. Most people do not know how to use a computer, not really. Geek Squad and their ilk make millions every year playing to the fact that PCs are terribly complex to the average buyer. But Chrome OS is nothing but a browser. It's a shallow operating system, and that appeals to people who don't want to risk swimming in the deep end.
Remote Desktop Support. Sure, your Chromebook won't be able to handle an install of...pretty much any piece of software you can name. But remote desktop support means you'll be able to access the copy of Photoshop on your desktop. So when you do need to work, you can just work on your desktop via your notebook. Or, as my friend suggested, you can work out some sort of desktop-sharing arrangement.
This is doable but, quite frankly, I don't think it's very practical. Remote desktop is useful for pulling up files you need and can certainly be used to run an app like Photoshop. But the lag you'd encounter over a 3G connection would make any sort of productivity through this method very difficult. Even over WiFi, I'm not sure how practical this really is.
Should You Buy a Chromebook...or a Tablet?
This is the million dollar (or $499) question. Chromebooks are a bold, shiny, new vision of personal computing. As are tablet computers. And I'd expect to see a great deal of overlap between prospective tablet buyers and people ogling the Chromebook. Both Acer and Samsung have wisely priced all of their models under the iPad's $499 entry price.
In terms of power, the Chromebook is an absolute lock. And the battery life of both models gets very close to the iPad's 10-hour benchmark. Google even went ahead and made that button-free touchpad standard, so the Chromebooks will appeal to anyone who enjoys the control scheme of a tablet. If you've been on the fence about buying a tablet because of the cost or the lack of functionality, a Chromebook may be just what the doctor ordered.
But the tablet (a word which here means 'iPad') has a superior form-factor for browsing, and manages to be much more portable while still bragging a longer battery life. It's a toss-up for most people. My recommendation? Wait until the Chromebooks hit stores and play with one yourself. See how the browser-based OS compares to iOS or Android. Then make your decision.