Almost exactly 6 months ago, I wrote up my first impressions of the Google CR-48 Chromebook, the first dedicated hardware device to use the Google Chrome operating system. In the intervening time there have been tons of software upgrades to ChromeOS, and true to their word Google launched the first commercially available Chromebooks in cooperation with Samsung and Acer.
Last week I received a tweet asking me what I thought:
So it seemed worth revisiting, especially as I think one part of the Chromebook is particularly interesting for libraries. I’ll get to that in a second.
One of the things that is easy to overlook is exactly how much better refining software makes the hardware that you use. The CR-48 itself hasn’t changed in 6 months; I’ve added no RAM, changed no hardware, done nothing to tweak the machine itself at all. But it is a much, much better laptop than it was in December, entirely because of the improvements that Google has pushed to it. The trackpad issues that I mentioned in my original review are completely gone, and the rendering and performance feel is actually faster somehow than when I unboxed it. It is a rare computer that feels faster 6 months into using it than the day you open it.
Google has fixed so much about the Chromebook, I almost feel bad about saying that they just aren’t ready for the consumer market. It isn’t because they OS isn’t there, and it isn’t that the consumer hardware from Samsung and from Acer isn’t good...it’s all about price. The breakdown of the available models looks like this:
It’s a really hard sell when you can get a laptop for the same price that would run Windows or Linux that fits into the current computing paradigm. ChromeOS is a completely different way of thinking about computing, and I’m not sure that these prices are going to push people in that direction. When I first got the CR-48, I made a guess that the consumer model would retail for less than $200 (clearly I was massively wrong, I’ll eat that crow). At < $200, these would be an easy sale for any number of second-computer users, students, and more. There is a market there for these, but not at more than $300.
Which is not to say that these are dead in the water. Google made another announcement this quarter that may bouy the Chromebook in a narrow set of Enterprise uses. With Chromebooks for Business and Education, Google launched what is effectively the option to lease Chromebooks for your population at $20 per computer per month with a 3 year contract. Clearly this is above the cost of the hardware at retail (total cost per computer over the 3 years = $720).
But for that $720 you get a complete web-based management solution, including inventory management, and complete control over user policy. You get the stop worrying about backups (nothing is stored locally), stop worrying about viruses, stop worrying about updates (all updates trickle in the background and are applied automatically). Google also handles all hardware fixes, promising a simple replacement for any damaged chromebooks over the life of the contract. Break one, they just send you a new one.
I don’t know about your IT setup, but as the Head of IT for an Academic library, this sounds like a great deal to me. That is, if your users can deal with doing everything they need in the browser. Looking at software usage stats for my library, 90+ percent of all software use on our computers is a browser, so it is tempting idea.
So what’s my conclusion? I think there’s a business case for these in narrow markets, but for the average consumer...I’m not sure they are really there. I love mine, but would I have paid $400+ for it? I don’t think so. Do you need a web browser that is capable of 8+ hour runtime? If so, a chromebook is a great idea...but I’m guessing that these will have to be significantly cheaper before I can really recommend them to the average user.