I like Chromebooks. I’ve owned 2 of them. But there’s a big problem with all of them. And it’s not the fact they have small SSDs or only run Chrome OS or have a ridiculously high price (hello Pixel!).
The problem is that all Chromebooks on the market in January 2014 stink in one or more ways. Each may have its good points, but there are always more downsides than upsides, and that means as a user you have to contend with both the downsides of Chrome OS (it’s not a traditional laptop) as well as the downsides of your particular Chromebook (poor hardware features A, B, and C).
We need a new Chromebook — perhaps from a new manufacturer — and it needs a tightly-defind set of specs that fix all the problems of the current crop of the delightfully-limited machines. With the hardware fixed, users can focus on adapting to the new world of Chrome OS as a solid low-cost, low-hassle computing experience.
Don’t believe me about the busted hardware? Check out my analysis on this live, public Google Sheet. The bright green boxes highlight the hardware elements the manufacturers got right. Everything else is either just okay or may be downright bad.
What current Chromebooks get wrong
Where do we start? Processor, for one. Consider the Chromebook 11 that HP launched, un-launched, then re-launched this past fall. It uses a processor that’s basically 2 years old (!) and severely under-powers the current generation of Chrome OS (which is getting more capable and complex with each release). It also has the meager 2GB of RAM all too common to Chromebooks, and a weak trackpad and keyboard. I bought it and returned it (and I never return electronics). That said, it has an awesome — albeit small — IPS screen, and it comes in a small, light package with attractive styling. Sigh.
What about the current market sales leader? That appears to be the collection of Acer C720 / C720P Chromebooks. There are literally 10 models out there as of this posting. These beat the HP Chromebook 11 mostly because Acer fixed the processor issue by using a Celeron processor built on the Haswell architecture. Yay! Except Acer makes chintzy hardware. The screen — with our without touch features — is small, dim, and lackluster to say the least. The keyboard is tiny and cheap, and every reviewer despises the trackpad. The exterior look of the unit has improved over past Acer efforts, but it’s still cheap Chinese plastic by nature. Double sigh.
Maybe Toshiba can save us with the launch of their CB30 Chromebook next month! Starting February 16 you can buy the first-ever 13.3″-screen Chromebook — a big improvement over the 11.6″ screens without incurring the weight penalty of the HP Chromebook 14. The case looks nice, with a dimpled silver plastic covering and a clean interior appearance that’s a cross between the old Samsung Chromebook and a MacBook Air. So what’s wrong with it? Not too much — this design comes closest to being the best non-Pixel Chrome OS machine. However, it’s still crippled with 2GB of RAM and has a screen that reviewers have said is a bit dull, with limited viewing angles. Toshiba gets the most “green boxes” in my Chromebook analysis sheet, but it’s still not enough to get me to drop $280 on a pre-order.
So that’s the problem in a nutshell — every Chromebook exacts one or more penalties on buyers that will either get the machine returned to the store or will relegate them to casual machine status on the couch instead of primary computer status everywhere.
Time to build the Chromebook Awesome
But here’s the good news: All the corner-cutting on the current generation of Chromebooks can be fixed. We just have to stop cutting corners, without going nuts and ending up in Pixel territory ($1,300+). So that’s what I’ve done with my Chromebook Awesome design.
In the next-to-last column on the comparison spreadsheet I’ve included what I call the Chromebook Awesome. This is the Chromebook that gathers all the best elements of the other Chromebooks and makes a proper machine. It’s more expensive than the rest at an estimated $450 (except the Pixel, of course), but it fixes everything that’s broken with the other models. In reality, it’s a better Chromebook than the Pixel because it’s accessible to a broad audience, and it’s got everything needed for a very good cloud-based and Google-based experience.
What’s to like?
- A price that’s lower than an iPad Air.
- A screen that’s big enough to be comfortable but not too big to be portable. It also has higher resolution than the cheaper units, at 1,440 x 900. It’s also an IPS screen that’s bright, clear, and sharp, with great color reproduction.
- A great keyboard and trackpad, so using the Chromebook for long periods won’t infuriate you.
- A solid 8 hours or more of mobile life away from an AC outlet, but a weight that won’t make you break a sweat.
- A quick-enough processor and enough RAM to allow for lots of tabs without painful slow-downs.
- All the ports you really need — USB 3, HDMI, and an SD card slot.
- A 720p or better webcam that makes you look good in those Google Hangout sessions. Plus a good microphone and some solid (but not audiophile) speakers.
So who’s gonna build it?
At the moment, Toshiba is closest to the Chromebook Awesome finish line. All they would have to do — it appears, because there aren’t any detailed reviews yet — is improve their screen quality (IPS) and resolution (1,440 x 900), add 2GB of RAM, and add enough battery to cover the increased screen power requirements. Then they can raise the price by $170 and watch the orders roll in.
But really, any major electronics manufacturer could build this machine. Sony could do it. Lenovo could easily add this to their Chromebook lineup (of 1). LG could go beyond their overpriced and underpowered Chromebase and make the Chromebook Awesome. Google could stop showing off with the Chromebook Pixel and hire one of their partners to make this machine. The parts are all off-the-shelf and ready to go. The only really hard part is the industrial design — it has to be attractive, with clean lines, great usability, and good durability. They also have to ensure the hardware components have excellent drivers (e.g. for the trackpad).
For now, all we can do is hope some product manager out there makes the same spreadsheet I did, and takes action to build the Awesome.
Because until the Chromebook Awesome appears, I’ll be sitting on my wallet.