What is a Chromebook?
Chromebooks are laptops that run on Google's Chrome operating system, Chrome OS, instead of the widely used Microsoft Windows or Apple Mac OS X operating systems.
A number of manufacturers have built laptops that come with the Chrome OS preinstalled, including Samsung, Acer and HP. At the time of writing there were five Chromebooks for sale on the Chrome store, priced between £199 and £1049; the Samsung Chromebook has been in the top five best selling laptops on Amazon for several months.
Chrome OS is essentially the same as the Chrome web browser that can be installed onto laptops running Windows or OS X as their operating system. In a nutshell, Google has turned the web browser into an operating system.
How are they different to normal laptops?
Chromebooks come with several Google apps pre-installed that allow users to do things like create documents, listen to music and edit photos. Instead of a conventional Windows 'Start' button, Chromebooks have an Android-like app menu that pops out of the bottom task bar but most of the tiles just lead to online tools or websites.
More apps can be downloaded from the Chrome Web Store and they will be kept up to date automatically, avoiding the need to download and install time-consuming software patches.
Chromebooks come with an online file storage service called Google Drive, which allows users to save up to a set amount of content, typically 100GB, for free over the first two years. Chromebook users can access their content and files from any device when they are logged into their Google account and share it with others.
As a result of the web-based operating system, Chromebooks encourage people to use cloud-based tools that can be accessed over the internet and within the browser. For example, photo editing can be done using the Pixlr app (available for free the Chrome Web Store) and Google Docs can be used for word processing tasks.
Chromebooks come with most of the standard ports and hardware features that other laptops have but they tend to have considerably smaller hard drives. This is because Google envisages that users will store the vast majority of their content on the Google Drive online storage platform.
There is no need to install security software separately as they already come with security built in. When they are turned on they do an automatic self-check to make sure the system hasn't been tampered with and security updates are automatically downloaded.
Are they better than conventional laptops?
The main thing that Chromebooks have going for them is their price. By removing all the hardware needed to run and store demanding operating systems and software packages they can be built and sold at a fraction of the cost.
Meanwhile, storing files online, or in the cloud, means data should remain safe even if the device is damaged or lost. It also means that users can access all of their data from a different machine by entering their Google logon credentials.
Chromebooks are designed to boot in a fraction of the amount of time that it takes for traditional laptops to get up and running. For example, the Acer C7 Chromebook takes less than eight seconds to boot up and the Samsung Chromebook takes less than ten seconds to boot up, while laptops running on Windows or OS X often take more than 30 seconds, according to Google.
What are their limitations?
Chromebooks need an internet connection to achieve their full potential and that is why several models are available with a 3G connection for those willing the pay that bit extra or a standard 4G connection in the case of the Chromebook Pixel.
Without an internet connection you won't be able to use many of the Chromebooks web-based applications.
However, there are now several offline apps available in the Chrome Web Store for Chromebooks that allow users to continue working without an internet connection. In August 2011 Google added offline capability to its app suite of cloud-based software, including Gmail, Calendar and Docs. However, many of these lack the functionality of their online equivalents. And many would argue that Google's apps can't compete with the depth and functionality of software such as Office or Photoshop.
Printing is also a bit of an issue on Chromebooks as it must be done through an online service called Cloud Print. If the user does not have a 'Cloud Print' printer then they have to go onto a different Windows or OS X machine and connect the printer to the Chromebook from there.
How popular are they?
Both the Samsung Chromebook and the Acer C7 Chromebook are positioned in third and seventh place respectively in the UK Amazon store's list of best selling laptops.
They are proving to be fairly popular in schools due to their almost instantaneous start-up and the fact that multiple children from different classrooms and year groups can log into their account and have access to all their work. Google claimed in February that there are now 2,000 schools using Chromebooks and has even launched one Chromebook that is exclusively for schools, the Lenovo ThinkPad X131e.
However, web analytics firm NetMarketShare recently monitored worldwide usage of Google's Chrome OS and found that the percentage of web traffic from Chromebooks was roughly 2/100 of one percent, a figure too small to earn Chromebooks place on its reports.
What options are there?
There are five different Chromebooks listed on the UK's Chromebook store, with prices starting from £199. The include:
- Acer C7 Chromebook (£199): The 1.4kg Acer C7 Chromebook has an 11.6 inch display and a four hour battery life. It boots up in less than 20 seconds and is 25mm thick. 16GB SSD or 320GB hard drive
- Samsung Chromebook (£229): The 1.1kg Samsung Chromebook also has an 11.6 inch display and over six and a half hours battery life. It boots up in less than 10 seconds and is 17.8mm thick.
- HP Pavilion Chromebook (£249): The 1.8kg HP Pavilion has a 14 inch display and a battery life of four hours and 15 minutes. It boots up in less than 10 seconds and is 21mm thick. 16GB SSD
- Chromebook Pixel (£1049): The 1.5kg Chromebook Pixel has a 12.85 inch high resolution display and a battery life of five hours. It boots up in a few seconds and is 16.2mm thick.
- Samsung Chromebook 550 (£330): The 1.4kg Samsung Chromebook 550 has a 12.1 inch display and a battery life of over six hours. It boots up in less than eight seconds and is 25.5mm thick.
Sam Shead is at his happiest with a new piece of technology in his hands or nailing down an exclusive story. In the past he's written for The Engineer and the Daily Mail, covering emerging technology in electronics, energy, defence, materials, aerospace, automotive and healthcare. These days, he is particularly interested in web start-ups, social media and security. A one-time Apple refusnik, he's now seriously considering an iPhone5 and has always had a Mac at home.