Google's Chromebooks are great—if you're the right audience: Peter Nowak

At $300, the price couldn't be better


Our next stop on the road to Black Friday is a curious one, since it’s as niche a product as there is. One wouldn’t think a laptop would be a specialized device – they are pretty much the definition of ubiquitous – but Google’s latest Chromebooks fit the description.

Chromebooks have taken their share of heat from reviewers and even from competitors such as Microsoft, some of which is deserved. As relatively inexpensive laptops powered by Google’s Chrome operating system, it’s perhaps fair to say there’s more they don’t do than what they do do. You wouldn’t want to do video editing or intensive CAD processing on them and they’re not really suitable for proper gaming either.

But they are pretty good for basic document work, email and other web uses – better than tablets, in many ways – and the real selling point is price. Most Chromebooks simply can’t be beat in that department.

I’ve been using the HP Chromebook 11, which is a case in point. It’s perhaps the best $300 laptop you can get, which is ironic because you can’t really get it currently – it was recently recalled because of a faulty power cord. That’s ironic in and of itself because it uses a standard micro-USB cable, so unless you live in an all-Apple household, you’ve probably got at least one of those lying around. HP says third-party cables are fine to use.

In any event, other 11-inch Chromebooks such as those from Samsung and Acer are selling for even less, which is an appealing proposition, especially to the sorts of people who will find them useful.

I’m in just about the exact target market for these devices since I travel a lot and need to do a lot of writing, both email and stories, plus a little bit of photo work. The Chromebook 11 covers all that, plus it has a few things going for it otherwise.

Did I mention the price? It’s about half that of the cheapest Windows-based Ultrabooks and a third of the equivalent 11-inch Macbook Air. Moreover, it weighs in at just over a kilogram, which is a shade lighter than the Air. HP’s device also has a nice, reflective white plastic body – it may not survive repeated drops, but it sure looks good, which is important these days, right?

If there’s one worry I had before trying the laptop out, it was its offline functionality – can it do anything if it’s not connected to the Internet? It turns out you can. Some of the core Google apps, such as Docs and Photos, do work in offline mode – you just save your work and then sync it with your online Drive account once you have a connection.

Speaking of Drive, Google is clearly pushing people to use it with Chromebooks, all of which have relatively minuscule hard drives. The HP model has only 16 gigabytes, which in this day and age is peanuts. Google hopes users will store most of their documents and files in the cloud, where it offers premium paid-for services. Given the simple word processing and email that I’d use it for, I’d say that’s an okay expectation.

Nevertheless, the Chromebook’s killer offline app is Gmail, which works the same way. You download your email when you do have a connection, whereupon you can answer it till your heart’s content. The app saves your work, then syncs and sends it when you’re online again. This way, you can use that long plane ride to finally get caught up on email – it’s the best solution we’ll have for this sort of thing until airlines implement ubiquitous Wi-Fi. (It’s worth noting that offline Gmail is available for other, regular laptops too, so it’s not like it’s endemic to Chromebooks.)

It’s true that a tablet with a bluetooth keyboard covers off most of the Chromebook proposition, but I’ve never been a fan of toting around an extra peripheral. It’s just inelegant and inevitably complicates the situation with extra connections and chargers or batteries. I normally carry a laptop and tablet with me when I travel, so the Chromebook doesn’t add anything extra to my regular setup.

While I can afford a more expensive and higher-powered Ultrabook/Air (the continuing and never-ending cuts in the journalism industry notwithstanding), I can see Chromebooks’ appeal to budget-conscious users. It strikes me as something that students might like quite a bit, since it’s an inexpensive and relatively elegant way to take notes in class.

Sure, the Chromebooks don’t do everything under the sun, but they do a decent job of catering to the tasks they’re intended for at a very reasonable price. I’ve written before about how singular, converged devices are not necessarily the best options; that specialized products may be becoming more relevant than ever. I joked the other day with some acquaintances that if that weren’t true, we’d all be driving carboats by now.