Chromebook Awesome: The Chromebook no one’s built yet

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.

How about a Chromebox for patient web access?

In the run-up to building our new health center in Anchorage, we had plans to buy and deploy kiosk-style computers in the facility. These would be made available for patients to access a patient portal or our web site. But three things got in the way:

  • True kiosk hardware that’s hardened against public tampering is very expensive, and we needed other stuff more
  • We hadn’t yet launched a patient portal, so the value was diminished
  • Configuring, deploying, managing, and supporting kiosk PCs is a hassle we didn’t want eating up valuable IT staff time

So no kiosk PCs for us. At least not yet. Someday… someday…

But you? Maybe you’re ready to make a few Internet PCs available for the public to use in your facility, but it needs to be safe and low-impact. How about trying out a Chromebox as a great alternative to a locked-down Windows or Linux PC?

Running Chrome OS, the Chromebox (like the Chromebook) is basically a stripped-down custom Linux that runs a Google Chrome browser and a few plugins (like Flash) that makes the web work fine without all the Windows cruft. It also retails for just $330. It auto-updates to the latest Chrome build every so often, staying current both in features and security. If you haven’t used Chrome OS lately, you may not know that it now includes a Guest mode that doesn’t save any information between user sessions. I’ve been a Chromebook user on and off since last summer and I like the OS for a lot of web work.

Why mention all this now? Well, Samsung is releasing a revised Chromebox soon, as reported yesterday: Meet Samsung’s new Chromebox, same as the old Chromebox (Updated).

However, this news comes at a time when Chrome OS devices are largely unavailable. The new ARM-based 11″ Chromebook is sold out as of this writing — and it sold out pretty much at launch back in November. The Chromebox is now only available used through Amazon, and is sold out at Staples, sold out at TigerDirect, sold out everywhere. Google and Samsung have not announced when Chromeboxes will be available again — but you know they’re coming, given the redesign.

Whenever you get your Chromebox going, you’ll need to bring your own monitor, keyboard, and mouse. And you might need a kiosk or desk. Finally you might also want to get a Kensington lock to tie down the Chromebox.

While you’re waiting for Chrome OS device stock to appear, consider a few resources. First up, a review video from mid-2012 when the major revamp of Chromebooks and Chromeboxes came out. Some things have changed then in the OS since this video was shot, but on the whole this is a good intro:

The written review at The Verge is also good.

Meanwhile, there’s yet another alternative if you want an Internet PC for the public without the hassle of rolling your own Windows or Ubuntu box. HP now makes the sexily-named HP Passport 1912nm 18.5-inch Internet Monitor. It’s a custom Linux build that puts users into a browser space with no configuration options. One wonders how serious HP is about this product (although the same could be said about Google, really). But the good news? Just $200 gets you the screen, the OS, keyboard, and mouse all in one box.

If you’re using Chrome OS devices in your healthcare organization, I’d love to hear about it.