Chromebooks are so close.
Apple’s Mac lineup appears set for the foreseeable future, but with no refresh to the ageing MacBook Air, there’s no one up-to-date notebook that costs less than $1,299.
The momentum behind super affordable Windows laptops, meanwhile, has faded — and what is available for less than $400 is typically marked by flimsy hardware, slow processors, and ugly displays.
That means there’s still an opportunity for Google’s low-cost laptops to swoop in and attract budget buyers. Not everyone wants a tablet. And Chrome OS, the lightweight operating system at the heart of all Chromebooks, remains supremely efficient and perfectly competent for many people.
No, it doesn’t do Photoshop, but if you think about the things most people do with a laptop — read websites, watch videos, write papers — there’s little that Google’s Chrome browser doesn’t enable. I’ve used one as my main machine for the past two years, and I’ve been surprised at how little I’ve missed.
Plus, Chrome is fast here. It’s not the heavy breathing memory hog it can be on Mac or Windows; it is Chrome OS, and its commitment to the line of Chromebooks means it stays fast, even on lesser hardware. Meaning: Done right, Chromebooks can be good and cheap at the same time.
Right now, though, nobody’s really doing it right. Yes, there are good Chromebooks. The Asus Chromebook 13 has a 1080p display. The Lenovo ThinkPad 13 Chromebook has a comfy keyboard. The Acer Chromebook R11 is convertible and lightweight. And so on.
But for every aspect Chromebooks like these get right, there’s always some fundamental annoyance that’s just difficult to live with.
The Asus’ full HD screen is too dim, and the whole thing gets just a bit too slow over time. The Lenovo’s display has mediocre colours. The Acer’s 11-inch display is low-resolution, and likely too small for some. A 13-inch model can’t multitask comfortably.
Up until a few months ago, the Toshiba Chromebook 2 was the clear standout. It cost $300, and it had everything important. But Toshiba recently quit the consumer laptop game, and now that laptop looks to be gone for good.
Today, there is one Chromebook that ticks all the boxes, and that’s the Dell Chromebook 13. Its keyboard is great, its battery lasts more than 10 hours, it looks sharp, it feels sturdy, and it’s plenty fast enough.
But it’s just too expensive. If you’re ok dropping a minimum of $429 on a Chromebook, by all means buy the Dell and don’t look back. But even if Chrome OS is more useful than most people think, paying this sort of premium for a computer that cannot run desktop apps is a tough ask, no matter how nice it is.
Google is aware of this shortcoming, though, and aims to address it by porting over the app store from its other OS, Android. We tested a beta version of this in June — it’s buggy and awkward, but with some polish, it should be an easy way to add the offline (and gaming) abilities Chrome OS is lacking.
Unfortunately, it’s going to make the search for a balanced Chromebook even harder, since Android apps play much nicer with a touchscreen, and not every notebook has that. In Dell’s case, you can get one for $629. That’s too much.
There are two clouds hanging over all this.
The simple one is that CES is next month. With Android apps mostly on the horizon, it wouldn’t be a shock to see a wave of flexible, touchscreen Chromebooks pop up. Whether those will be any good, who knows; Chromebooks’ growth is still coming from schools more than the general public, so the price hike that comes with adding a touchscreen may not be worth it.
The second cloud hanging over Chromebooks is Andromeda, the long-rumoured fusion of Chrome OS and Android. Android Police reported in September that Google is working on a high-end “Pixel 3” laptop that will run that blended operating system, arrive in Q3 2017, and start at $799. That’s a lot of money, but if Google is about to combine Chrome OS and Android, rather than shove the latter into the former, that might explain why the current Chromebook market is so underwhelming.
All of that is for the future, though. Today, in the thick of the holiday season, it’s hard to point to any one Chromebook and confidently say, “put your money toward this.” You can get something good, but it’s hard to get something great. If you can wait for a great Chromebook, do that instead.
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