New Chromebook & Chromebox Are Good Enough to Grab Minds & Market Share

Google unveils two new computers today: the latest Chromebook and a new desktop machine, the Chromebox, both from Samsung. Google says they're just the first of many new Chrome devices to come out this year from various manufacturers. Chromebooks have received lukewarm reviews so far, but these machines - and Chrome OS itself - are ready for action. There's suddenly a real, new option in desktop computers.

What's New?

We were underwhelmed with the previous Chromebooks because Chrome OS didn't feel ready to replace other PCs yet, and the cheap hardware didn't help. But Chrome OS improves over time. That's the whole point. Since Google is your system administrator, Chrome OS gets better with age. When Google speeds up its own Web services, your computer gets faster.

That works up to a point. The machine still needs to perform capably. The models released today will live up to the standards of any light-to-moderate user.

VP of Engineering Linus Upson points to four areas in which Google wanted to improve Chrome OS devices from the last generation. The first was speed, which means improving JavaScript and WebKit performance - the OS is a Web browser, remember - and taking full advantage of the hardware's graphics capabilities. "Our goal was to build a delightful product where no one ever said, 'This isn't fast enough,'" Upson says.

The second improvement had to be the touchpad. Unresponsive trackpads cause instant frustration, and the last generation of hardware wasn't good enough to be enjoyable to use. Upson believes the new one is "as good or better than any other one out there." In practice, it's still not as responsive as a MacBook, but it's definitely good enough for this laptop's price point.

Third was more filetypes, and this is a particularly interesting update. Chrome OS can now work on Microsoft Office files natively. You don't have to convert them to Google Docs. It's also better at handling photos, slideshows and offline media, including music, movies and books. As of today, the OS still relies on the "file drawer" for local storage, but in "about six weeks," the new Chrome OS build will use Google Drive as its main file system, with the local disk serving simply as a cache for files you need for offline access.

Finally, Chrome OS needed multitasking. It's no longer a full-screen browser. It's a windowed operating system that feels like any other, but it's actually easier to multitask because all windows are in the same application. For a lifelong user of another desktop operating system, this was the biggest pain point in Chrome OS, and it's solved now.

The Hardware

The Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550 is a little gray laptop, which makes you think of Apple for a second. It has a 12.1-inch, 1280x800 display, which puts it right in between the two MacBook Air sizes. It's heavier, though, at 3.3 lbs., and the case is much bigger, but the design has a little bit of a swoop to make it seem smaller. Instead of brushed aluminum, it's plastic. It feels less precious than an Apple device.

It has black chiclet keys, but they don't look or feel like an Apple keyboard. The keys aren't as smooth, and they're slightly bigger. The trackpad is also rougher and smaller. It's not as responsive as an Apple trackpad, but it's not bad at all. I found the Chromebook's hardware to be totally comfortable for a full day's work.

Google's specs give it six hours of battery life under continuous usage. It lasted about four and a half hours in my normal usage tests. It has speedy 802.11 a/b/g/n Wi-Fi, but it also has a gigabit Ethernet port, and you can step up to a 3G modem, too. It has a much nicer (or at least more Google+ Hangout-optimized) HD webcam than the MacBook Air, two USB 2.0 ports, a 4-in-1 memory card slot and a widely compatible display port. The Wi-Fi version is $449, and the 3G version is $549.

How Do I Print/Scan/Import My Photos?

Good questions! Chrome OS is ready to handle lots of peripherals. Google says that more than 70% of printers on the market are Google Cloud Print enabled, which means you can print from anywhere, not just your home network. FedEx and Kinko's stores let you print there, too, and they'll even mail you your documents.

Chrome OS treats cameras and SD cards as any other mass storage device, like a USB drive, so it's easy to copy files off of them, even if there's no software for them. It can't do much with RAW camera images yet, though, but Caesar Sengupta, director of Chrome OS, says Web applications are starting to get there.

The Samsung Chromebox Series 3 (there is no Series 1 or 2) is a similar computer in a small, black desktop package. It has two versatile display ports compatible with HDMI, DVI and VGA. With a little adapter, the Chromebox drove my 27-inch Apple Cinema Display, no problem. It has Wi-Fi, Ethernet and six USB 2.0 ports, and it's Bluetooth 3.0 compatible. It even has a DVI single link output, so you can use it as a media box for your TV. The price is right: It's $329.

Both computers have 4GB of RAM and an Intel Core processor, but Google won't say exactly how fast. The Chromebook is 2.5x faster than the last generation according to Google's own tests, and the Chromebox is 3.5x faster. I thought about clocking it somehow, but I decided not to bother. Who cares? If the computer works, it works. We know this isn't a machine for professional video editors. If it works for its intended audience, the specs don't matter.

Here are the two new Chrome computers next to an iPad for size comparison.

The Experience

Chrome OS works just fine as a standalone system, but it works best if your account is set to sync your Chrome settings. That way, everything about Chrome will be the same for you on any computer, as long as you're logged in. It easily handles multiple accounts, too. If you want your new Chromebook to launch with your entire desktop browser already loaded, make sure you turn on sync in your Chrome settings first.

I had never used Chrome OS before testing these devices. I had used Chrome, though. Chrome is the most popular browser in the world at this point, which secretly gives the new Chrome OS devices a huge install base. Getting started was absurdly easy. I basically entered my Wi-Fi password and Google ID, hit 'Enter,' and I was done. All my bookmarks, passwords, extensions and history filled in before my eyes. I wasn't even logged out of anything.

The default Chrome OS desktop:

Even if they don't use Chrome, there are hundreds of millions of Gmail and Google Docs users whose first Chrome OS experience will be mostly complete from Day One. And it's no big deal to start fresh with a new Google account. Honestly - and this is coming from a lifelong, unwavering Apple-only person - I set my Gmail-using grandma up with a new iPad a couple weeks ago, and this Chromebook would have been easier.

The biggest difference between Chrome OS and the desktop you're used to is that it uses browser-based apps instead of native apps. But frankly, only geeks would care about the difference, and they might not even notice. "The distinction between a Web app and a native app for most people is very blurry if it exists at all," says Caesar Sengupta, director of Chrome OS. I wouldn't go that far, especially on mobile, but in my tests of Chrome OS for the desktop, he's mostly right. The Chrome Web Store even has a section dedicated to apps that work offline now.

The biggest difference between Chrome OS and other desktops is actually an advantage: When I launched Chrome on my Mac after testing the Chromebook, all my new apps were already there.

I use Chrome for work, and my major test case was to see if I could log a day's work for ReadWriteWeb using nothing but the Chromebook. The only thing missing was Skype, although there are at least browser-based apps for Skype IM. Otherwise, I didn't feel the least bit restricted. In fact, the constraints were kind of nice.

Blogging is a good test case for most kinds of text-based office or school work, so if most of what you do on your computer involves typing and making documents, you'll have no problem at all. It's impossible to overstate how much more user-friendly Google Docs is than Microsoft Office, and the best part is that you can now merrily edit your colleagues' Office docs without them ever knowing the difference.

When I needed a clean plain text editor to write my posts in Markdown, I found Just Write in the Chrome Web Store. When I needed to crop and convert images for my posts, I used Aviary. They worked great. I barely even had to learn how to use them, and they both floated right to the top of my simple Chrome Web Store searches for what I needed. They appear in your browser as usual and can be launched from the new tab page, but the icons also show up in the Chrome OS launcher screen.

There are quick-launch icons for the Web, Gmail, Docs and so on in a strip along the bottom of the screen, and there's also a grid view identical to the new Launchpad in Mac OS X. But they're all just different shortcuts to get you to the same places.

Outside of work, there are HTML5-built Chrome apps for light video editing, audio recording and even casual 3D adventure games like Bastion. On the Chromebox, these can run on huge displays without a hiccup. Let's be clear: The software and hardware are not as powerful as on a Mac or many Windows PCs, but these things will smoke your typical netbook.

If you're a hardcore gamer or professional musician, this won't be your main machine. But if your computer use is mostly casual, Chrome OS doesn't lack anything.

The Verdict: Look Out, Windows

Chrome OS is dead simple. It's simpler than a Mac. It's arguably as simple as iOS if not simpler, but it has the true multitasking of a desktop. As intuitive as iOS is, a new user still has a lot to learn. Ask my grandma. But someone who uses Chrome or even just Gmail on the desktop hardly has to learn to use a new Chromebook at all.

The price cuts right across the iPad market. For people who were hesitant to buy an iPad because they thought they might need desktop capabilities, this new Chromebook is right there waiting. It won't replace a Mac, unless you really feel that your Mac is too much computer, but it might convert some first-time buyers. It seems like a lifesaver for students.

For consumers, the Chromebox is pretty strongly positioned as well. It's $150 cheaper than a Mac Mini, and it's faster than many compact Windows PCs in the same price range (although without the spacious internal storage). A Chromebox might make sense as a home PC for people who use Chrome elsewhere.

For enterprises who are tired of fighting with their Windows IT environment, the Chromebox is awfully tempting. You'll read more about that in Joe Brockmeier's review on ReadWriteCloud.

The manufacturers of cheap netbooks should be worried unless they have Chromebooks coming out. Upson says that the goal of Chrome OS is explicitly to "get rid of the annoying bits of Windows." Since Google manages the OS for you, you don't have to fight anymore.

"We've spent so much of our lives fighting with computers," Upson says, "and there are five billion more people coming online. We don't want them wasting their lives fighting with computers."

There will be more big Chrome news this year, too. As far as the OS itself, Upson says "you're going to see improvements every six weeks, and we're far from done." The first six-week update will make Google Drive the primary place to store files in Chrome OS, so that will be a big one to watch for.

But there are more devices on their way, too. Upson says there are more OEM partners coming in this year, as well as "a number of different form factors." We know that tablet-ready versions of Chrome OS have been in the works for years, but let's not get carried away. The point is, Chrome OS is ready for the market.