Google's Chromebooks are poised to evolve in 2014 from an oddity to a viable laptop option.
When first released in 2011, Chromebooks were easily dismissed. For one thing, the laptops use Google's Chrome operating system—which means that everything you do on a Chromebook is accomplished through the Google Chrome Web browser. You can't install Windows, Mac, or even Linux apps on a Chromebook.
This was a serious limitation for most potential customers. But the list of Chromebook shortcomings didn't end there. Initially, if you didn't have an Internet connection, a Chromebook was useless—another big strike against it. (Since then, a number of Chrome OS apps let you work offline.) Early Chromebooks also tended to have short battery life and weren't terribly affordable, either. Some people saw them as less useful than the lowly netbook and nowhere near as cool as a tablet.
But that scenario is changing.
The latest generation of Chromebooks is receiving largely positive reviews for their combination of low cost, light weight, and long battery life. Case in point: Acer's C720 Chromebook, which costs $199, weighs 2.76 lbs., and has a battery lasting up to 8.5 hours (according to Acer). You won't find that combo in a traditional laptop.
HP, Samsung, Google and most recently Toshiba also offer Chromebook models, all of them $350 or less. Dell and Asus are said to have consumer Chromebooks in the works. And new models are expected from Samsung, Acer and others this year.
Figure 1: The Acer C720 Chromebook
The Chrome OS had "a fabulous year" in 2013, said Stephen Baker, an analyst with the NPD Group, in an interview with Computerworld. In an NPD Group report released Dec. 23, 2013, the research firm said that for the first 11 months of 2013, Chromebooks accounted for 21 percent of all notebook sales through U.S. commercial retail channels.
At the same time, Chromebooks (the Acer C720 as well as a Samsung model) were the two best-selling laptops on Amazon.com as of early January 2014.
Does all this mean you should consider a Chromebook in 2014? Absolutely. I've tested two different models recently (Acer C720 and HP Chromebook 14) and found them to be surprisingly useful, though noticeably inferior in build quality to my MacBook Air laptop.
We play devil's advocate and offer you the top reasons to buy a Chromebook—and the top reasons NOT to buy a Chromebook.
Top 7 Reasons to Buy a Chromebook
1. They're inexpensive
Of the nine Chromebooks currently featured on Google's Chromebooks site, eight cost $350 or less. The outlier is Google's own Chromebook Pixel, a gorgeous laptop with a high-resolution touch screen. The Pixel costs $1,299 (Wi-Fi) or $1,449 (Wi-Fi and LTE).
Coupled with lots of freebies (see no. 4 and 5, below), Chromebooks can save a small business money. Google claims you can save about $5,000 per user for three years and offers a Chromebook savings calculator.
2. They don't weigh much
Most Chromebooks weigh about 3 pounds The heaviest is HP's Chromebook 14, which weighs just over 4 pounds.
3. You can work for nearly a full day on some models
The current battery champ, according to manufacturer specs, is HP's Chromebook 14, which goes for up to 9.5 hours. Next in line: the Toshiba Chromebook, which runs for a reported 9 hours.
4. You get freebies
When you buy most Chromebooks, Google throws in 100GB of free Google Drive storage for two years. Most models also include up to 12 free passes to use Gogo's in-flight Wi-Fi service. And HP's Chromebook 14 Wi-Fi/4G model ($349) has a particularly compelling goodie: up to 200MB of 4G data service per month (on T-Mobile)—free for two years. If you paid for that service, you'd probably spend about $360 during those two years—a bit more than the Chromebook 14 itself.
5. You can get a lot of work done using free software
Chromebooks aren't just for surfing the Web. They're designed to work with Google Drive, Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and other apps. You can open and edit Microsoft Office files using Google's free Google Docs software suite, though for editing, you must first convert files into Google's formats. You may also need to export the documents back into Office files, which can cause some funky formatting issues.
Are most of your docs stored in Dropbox or a similar cloud service? No problem. Just download them to your Chromebook and get to work.
Of course, you don't need a Chromebook to use Google's cloud-based apps. And be sure to check out number one in the Top 5 Reasons Not to Buy a Chromebook section below.
6. You don't need anti-virus software
The Chrome OS has built-in security that requires no action on your part, according to Google.
7. Start working right away
Chromebooks start up and spring to life almost as quickly as a tablet.
Top 6 Reasons Not to Buy a Chromebook
1. Want to use Windows or Mac programs? Forget about it
This one's the deal killer for many people. Simply put, the Chrome OS doesn't let you use, say, Microsoft Office applications, Photoshop, QuickBooks, or other desktop software. Instead, you're limited to websites and Chrome OS apps. While you might be surprised how productive you can be with, say, Google Docs, you'll likely still bump up against some limitations. That's why you don't want a Chromebook as your only computer.
2. You may need an Internet connection
A growing number of Chrome OS apps let you work offline, such as Google Drive, Google Docs, Google Calendar, Gmail, Kindle Cloud Reader, The New York Times, and PDF to Word Converter. Still, a cross-country flight without Wi-Fi isn't the time to discover you can't edit that photo you need for a presentation.
3. You'll have to depend more on the cloud
A Chromebook will be of limited use, even as a second or third computer, if you can't access your important files. That means you need to keep those files in the cloud, whether it's on Google Drive, Dropbox, SkyDrive, Box, or a similar service, as well as on your primary computer's hard drive. (It's easy to sync a desktop folder with a cloud storage service like Dropbox, however.)
Alternatively, you can copy files to an SD card and pop the card into the Chromebook's SD slot, but that requires knowing which files you'll need in advance. Bottom line: With a Chromebook, you'll need to make some changes to your usual work habits.
4. You may have privacy concerns
Some people won't be comfortable using Google Docs and other Google apps out of concern they're helping Google learn even more about them.
5. You can't attach a printer
Even though Chromebooks come with USB ports for attaching external devices, they don't support direct printing. Instead, you must print wirelessly via Google Cloud Print. On the plus side, it's fairly easy to set up Cloud Print.
6. You won't have an optical drive
No Chromebook includes a CD or DVD drive. But not to worry: You can stream video (via apps such as Netflix) and audio (via Pandora and similar apps). You can also copy or download a variety of media files to play on your Chromebook.
Is a Chromebook In Your Future?
If you need a second or third laptop, don't want to spend much money, and already do most of your work online or would like to, consider a Chromebook. On the other hand, if your work involves a lot of time spent in specialized apps such as Adobe's Creative Suite of applications, a Chromebook will prevent you from being productive.
James A. Martin writes about mobile technology, social media and content marketing. Follow him on Twitter, @james_a_martin or Google+.
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