The PC industry is adapting to new form factors and consumer tastes. Consumers no longer want traditional PC form factors, but are instead interested in the ever growing tablet market. iPad, Surface, Transformer, Galaxy Tab. All different classes of the same device: a mobile computer that is more personal and more mobile than anything that precedes it. So, in a world where laptops are slowly being replaced by tablets and desktops are becoming more relevant as local mass storage, how can Google even hope to make the case to consumers for using Chromebooks? I don’t think Google can make the case, but bloggers like myself might be capable of doing so.
Tablets replicate much of the functionality of traditional laptops, but in a device that is slimmer and more portable. The touchscreen interface, however, makes it very difficult to do precise input or manipulation. As an example, someone who does a lot of word processing (regardless of whether you use Word, Google Docs or Pages) most likely prefers editing documents on a traditional PC with a touchpad or mouse, as the indirect pointing device is far more precise than one’s fingers. While typing on tablets isn’t a horrendous experience- touchscreen keyboards are improving all the time and Bluetooth options are available- it certainly isn’t suitable for long form text input, like one may need for a blog post or term paper. When one who works with text frequently encounters these issues, many would opt to purchase a laptop for productivity in addition to or instead of a tablet.
Windows 8 convertible devices, such as the Surface or the Samsung ATIV Smart PC, aim to fix this problem by offering a tablet that can double as a laptop, or vice versa. However, disappointing screen quality, high prices and an immature app ecosystem combine to make these devices poor choices for both the tablet and laptop roles. So, what devices are left? Desktops, traditional tablets and the Chromebook. Traditional tablets, as I’ve stated above, are not quite suited to the task at hand, and desktops are immobile machines, making them unsuitable for mobile productivity. Chromebooks, however, are suited for precisely this task: mobile web browsing and mobile productivity.
Ponder for a second just how much time you spend doing general computing tasks outside of the browser? Most consumers today spend most, if not all, of their time on the web using services like Facebook, YouTube and Google Drive. Even the popular music streaming service Spotify is introducing a web interface for streaming music to any device with a competent web browser and an internet connection. If you don’t need a keyboard and mouse and simply want to do everything mentioned, tablets are excellent choices. They are designed, from the start, as pure consumption devices. Sure content can be created on these devices, but sacrifices must often be made in order to achieve results. Chromebooks, however, make no such compromises. So long as you live in the web, everything you need to do can be done, from writing your term paper to listening to Pandora to watching the latest blockbuster on Amazon or Google Play. For mobile productivity, nothing beats the Chromebook if you live on the web. That’s all a Chromebook is, in the end. Chrome, the browser, on a laptop, and nothing else.
Now, as a blogger, this works for me. I can write and proofread future posts using the Office Web Apps, research and source material while doing so, and then copy and paste the content for formatting in the backend of this blog. A workflow that is entirely contained within the browser. Another plus is that since Office Web Apps are just that, web apps, I can save my post to SkyDrive and then work on the post from any machine, anywhere in the world, and even continue working on the post on my desktop in Word 2013. Since Chromebooks run Chrome, however, they’re useful for so much more. Web browsing on tablets tends to be inferior to browsing on traditional PCs due to slower internals or gimped browsers. Safari on iOS and Chrome on Android do not support Flash content, meaning one must turn to their desktop or laptop to view that content. Internet Explorer 10 on Windows RT/8 does support Flash, but only if the site is on Microsoft’s white list. In order to view Flash content, one must use desktop IE10 in Windows 8 or switch to another device entirely if using a Windows RT device. Tablet browsers are good at web browsing, don’t get me wrong, and they’re getting better all the time, but they fail to provide a decent experience for certain tasks. The WordPress backend, for example, is not optimized for touch. As a result, working with it on a tablet is clunky and unintuitive and frustrating. On a laptop or desktop with a mouse, however, the backend is easy to navigate.
So, let’s take a moment and recap. Chromebooks are nothing more than laptops that act as dumb terminals for the web. They run Chrome OS, which is nothing more than the Chrome web browser with a few tweaks to support running by itself on dedicated hardware. Chromebooks startup quickly, have long battery life and are extremely affordable. If you only do basic web browsing, Chromebooks are not for you. A tablet will suffice for all of your tasks. As Windows 8 improves, both in app selection and product maturity, Chromebooks may become increasingly irrelevant, especially if the detachable form factor catches on. But the prices of these devices is hard to beat, and as someone who needs mouse and keyboard input frequently, the Chromebook slots right next to any tablet as a portable productivity machine. I can relegate my desktop to gaming and the occasional spat of productivity and web browsing, but do most of this on the Chromebook. I can then use a tablet as a media consumption and web browsing.
Who knows where the market will be in six months or a year but, for the moment, Chromebooks offer a first class web experience on extremely affordable hardware, meaning the full web and the productive power of the keyboard and mouse are just as portable as any tablet.