When Google introduced its Chromebooks a year ago, tech reviewers were pretty dismissive of the low-cost computers running Google’s Chrome operating system and browser and which are intended to be used while connected to the Internet —specifically, to cloud-based services like Gmail, YouTube and Google Docs. Price cuts on the machines in November didn’t help. Michael Gartenberg, an analyst with Gartner Inc., called that first generation an “interesting science experiment,” saying that the Samsung and Acer Inc. machines were lacking in power and storage and that it was an open question whether the world needed yet another desktop operating system in the form of Chrome.
That’s still an open question, but Google at least has taken criticisms of the devices and its software to heart and is unveiling today two new models from Samsung that, among other things, lets users work offline with Google Docs and Gmail, removing the need to be connected all the time to access files and mail. The new generation also gives users remote access to Macintosh and Windows PC computers, adds more storage, boots faster and will soon integrate with Google Drive for storing a wide variety of file formats (such as Word docs and PDF files) and photos, the Mountain View, California-based company said. They include Intel Core processors (rather than the Atom used in last year’s machines.)
“Google has made the Chromebook a lot more usable from a consumer standpoint,” said Gartenberg, who calls the new versions a “pretty big upgrade. It becomes much closer to something that could be used by the mass market. In a world that’s being driven by personal cloud services, these become great devices. For a certain user scenario and for certain business cases, this will be a viable choice — certainly more viable than they were last year.”
And while Gartenberg was enthusiastic after hooking the Chromebook up to his TV and using a wireless keyboard to access mail, Hulu and browse the web (it’s a better experience than Google TV, he notes), the new and improved “hardware design isn’t going to set the world on fire — its not as slim as the MacBook Air or an ultrabook.”
Samsung is selling two new models online starting today in the U.S. and starting tomorrow in the U.K. The Series 5 550 notebook, with a 12.1-inch display and weighing in at 3.3 pounds, is $449 for the WiFi version and $549 for a model that supports 3G networks. The Chromebox Series 3, a mini desktop computer, is $329. While Samsung and Acer Inc. were the original providers of the Chromebook last year, Google says Intel is expanding its support for the Chromebook specification and that other manufacturers will offer models by the end of the year. The machines, which have been sold online up until now, will also be available in some Best Buy stores in the U.S. next month.
For its part, Google says the Chromebook boots up in a few seconds, is much faster at loading web pages, and gives users the choice of thousands of apps at its Chrome Web store. Its biggest selling point is the fact that the device automatically receives new updates to the Chrome software every six weeks (there have been eight updates in the past year), eliminating the need to manually install updates, security fixes and other patches. “Chromebooks is more of a service rather than hardware,” Caesar Sengupta, director of Chrome OS, said in an interview at Google’s Mountain View, California, headquarters. “When you’re buying into the Chrome OS, you’re buying into a service.”
Google says its devices are winning over buyers who understand the use case for the machines. New users include retailer Dillard’s, which is planning on using “hundreds” of Chromeboxs in more than half their U.S. stores; Kaplan, which will be using Chromeboxes in its New York call center; and Mollen Clinics, which will deploy 4,500 machines to its mobile immunization clinics at Wal-Mart and Sam’s Clubs stores. California also plans to distribute 1,000 Chromebooks to libraries across the state for lending out to patrons, Google says.
“The new Chromebooks and Chromebox I think are now good enough to carve out their own little niche in the market,” said Frank Gillett, an analyst with Forrester Research. “The example use cases about retail, mobile medical workers and call centers all sound like credible use cases where the simple technology of these devices is very appealing.”
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