If you're like most small business owners, you don't need a laptop when you're out of the office, you just need a computing device to augment your smartphone. That's when most people turn to a tablet. But let's face it: the screen's only slightly larger than your phone. You need a device with an even bigger screen, a usable keyboard and access to both local apps and all those cloud services that help run your business. You need a Chromebook.
As Google watched the computing world move to the Web—nudging it in that direction, of course—it noted the growing dissatisfaction with laptops running bloated, crash-prone operating systems. Its solution: An inexpensive device with the creature comforts of a laptop that you use primarily to access the Internet and a growing universe of cloud-based applications.
The company built the operating system, dubbed Chrome OS, and a few prototype devices for hardware makers to use as a guide, and the Chromebook was born. However, the first generation of devices took their cue from the dying "netbook" craze, with small screens, cramped keyboards and a toy-like feel. They were suitable for elementary schools, which bought them by the pallet, but not for everyday business use.
A Chromebook Built for Business
That's why we're excited to see the latest entries, like the ASUS Chromebook C300. Built with the business buyer in mind, it has the solid-build quality of a high-end ultraportable notebook, a roomy 13.3-inch screen and a full-size keyboard. The keyboard and screen in particular make the C300 much more usable than a tablet; and at just $249, you won't have to worry about losing or breaking that $1,000 laptop.
The ASUS Chromebook C300 looks like any high-end ultraportable laptop. But at $249, it sure isn't priced like one.
Wrapped in an understated matte-black chassis—or the more noticeable yellow, red or blue if you prefer to stand out—the ASUS C300 weighs just 3 pounds, which makes it easy to carry as part of your everyday arsenal. Open the lid and the 13.3-inch screen springs to life. It delivers very good image quality, and the panel's 1,366 x 768 resolution delivers crisp, legible text. (Yes, more expensive laptops will employ a higher-res screen, but that can make on-screen text hard to read.)
The C300's full-size keyboard is better than any snap-on keyboard you pair with a tablet, giving the firm, comfortable typing feel of a "real" laptop. The C300 even has a decent set of stereo speakers built in, which deliver audio that's good enough to share with a few people around a conference table.
We also appreciate the row of keys above the number row to control actions such as volume/mute, screen brightness and so on. In a traditional laptop, those keys are typically reserved for "Function" actions—such as F2, F3 and so on. But you don’t need those MS-DOS holdovers for Chrome OS. We also appreciate the C300's oversize touchpad, which makes cursor control fast and precise.
If you need to share data with a larger group, the C300's HDMI port lets you connect to an external display. All recent-vintage TVs and most newer projectors have an HDMI port, and for those that don't you can get an HDMI-to-VGA adapter easily enough. The C300 also delivers a USB 3.0 port, a USB 2.0 port, a headset jack and an SD/SDHC memory card reader. Wireless connectivity comes by way of the internal 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi chipset, and the machine can connect with Bluetooth device like smartphones, headphones and more.
A Chromebook Compromise
The C300's pricing starts at a mere $249, so you have to expect some tradeoffs compared to a more expensive traditional laptop. For starters, the C300 comes with a relatively small amount of internal storage: either a 16GB or 32GB solid state drive (SSD), depending on the model you pick. That's because Google assumes that most of your files, like your applications, will reside in the cloud. (Conveniently, Google includes 100GB of Google Drive storage for 2 years with any Chromebook purchase.)
Also, the C300 comes equipped with a fairly meager Intel Celeron processor. That's usually not a big issue, since most of your computing will take place in the cloud on other people's servers. But for the times when you do run apps locally, you may notice a difference. That said, in our day-to-day use we had no problem with the speed of running apps, and streaming video worked just fine. The upside is battery life: We ran the C300 for almost 10 hours—including the heavy lifting of watching a streaming video—without having to plug in.
While the C300's physical attributes closely resemble a typical laptop, the lineages diverge when it comes to the software side of things. Chromebooks take a Web-centric view of the world, and in particular a Google-centric view. Click on the App Launcher (the Chrome OS equivalent of the Windows Start button), and you can open Gmail, Google Calendar, and Google Hangouts. You'll also find icons for Google's online office suite apps: the the Google Docs word processor, Google Sheets spreadsheet program, and Google Slides presentation package.
But just because those icons are preloaded doesn't mean you are locked into using Google's online applications. The real beauty of a Chromebook is that you can use it to access any cloud service—accounting, CRM, storage/collaboration and a zillion other online apps. So if you prefer Microsoft Office 365 to Google Docs, point the C300's browser to it and get to work.
In addition, Google's Chrome Web Store has thousands more apps that run under the OS, including apps targeted at small businesses. No Internet connection? No problem. There are a range of offline apps—most notably Google's office-suite programs—that you can use when you don't have access to the Web.
And rumor has it that Google is working on an Android emulator for Chrome OS, which will let you run and sync Android apps on the C300 and other Chromebooks.
Will the ASUS C300—or any Chromebook for that matter—replace your office PC? Well, not yet. But you are likely to find it much more useful—and usable—on the go than a tablet, especially if you've committed your business to the world of cloud-based applications.
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