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The Chromebook’s New Ambitions

New hardware and software from Google’s computing project.
May 30, 2012

Google, together with hardware partner Samsung, just announced the next iterations of Chromebook. Samsung’s putting out a new Chromebook laptop, as well as a “Chromebox”–essentially a desktop device.

You could be forgiven for forgetting what exactly a Chromebook is. Though they launched last year with much hype, Chromebooks did not become wildly popular, in a year dominated by the rise of the tablet computer. But to refresh your memory, the Chromebook is Google’s new vision of the personal computer–one that realizes that much of our actual computing is done in the cloud, and that our devices therefore might as well just be terminals feeding into that cloud.

Chromebooks don’t have hard drives, in the traditional sense. Rather, they have flash memory and USB ports that can connect to an external hard drive, if you’re one of those old-fashioned folks who insists on having storage offline. It’s no coincidence that Chromebooks share part of their name with Google’s popular web browser, Chrome; the idea is that the browser itself is, in a sense, your hard drive.

Google put out a new video touting the next step for Chromebooks.

Some headliner specs on the new devices: The revamped Chromebook, called the “Series 5 550,” is said to run over twice as fast as the original Chromebooks; it also features HD video, offline docs editing, and a new focus on the Chrome Web store, which has 50,000 apps. It runs $449 for a Wi-Fi only model, $549 for a 3G-enabled one. (This is more or less on par with the pricing of the original Chromebooks.) The Series 5 550 has a 12.1” display, weighs 3.3 pounds, and runs on an Intel Core processor. Its battery life is 6 hours.

As for the Chromebox, it has certain similar specs (though naturally issues like battery life and screen size are no longer relevant), and starts at $329.

Google has clearly been affected by the tablet revolution in designing this new version of the Chromebook experience. Google’s blog post announcing the Chromebooks touts an “app-centric interface.” And any PR that spotlights an ability to play Angry Birds clearly has an eye on mobile market share.

The products are available online-only for now, but interestingly, Google plans a brick-and-mortar push shortly (stay tuned to learn just which Best Buy locations will be selling Chromebooks and the Chromebox). As the AP’s Michael Liedtke rightly puts it: “The expansion beyond Internet-only sales signals Google’s determination to attract a mass audience to its Chromebooks, just as it’s done with smartphones running on its Android software. More than 300 million mobile devices have been activated on Android since the software’s 2008 release.”

If Chromebooks are going to take a real run at tablet computing–the iPad, specifically (versions of which still are priced lower than the Chromebook)– then now indeed is the time to go after that mass audience. It’s interesting to compare the most recent Chromebook video with the one Google put out when the first devices launched last year. There was a quirkiness to original ads that I personally find more endearing, but that may have been more suitable for a niche, rather than mass, market.