REVIEW: Google Chromebooks

A stripped-down computer which only runs a browser doesn't sound like much to get excited about, but Google Chromebooks could be the post-PC device you've been waiting for.

Not so long ago, a computer which could only run a web browser would have seemed like a laughable concept. But in this age of web apps and cloud services, you'll be surprised at how much you can still get done -- for work and play -- once you've forsaken desktop applications. Even if you can't live your entire digital life within Google's Chrome browser, a Chromebook might be useful enough to justify its place as a secondary computing device -- perhaps in place of a tablet on your coffee table or in your travel bag.

It's important to talk price up front, because for many people it will be a key part of the value proposition. Acer's $299 C710 and Samsung's $349 XE303C12 are the first Chromebooks to officially reach Australia. They're both 11.6-inch notebooks with 1366x768 LED displays accompanied by decent keyboards and trackpads considering the size. At these prices you're entitled to set your expectations pretty low but, having spent some time with Acer's Chromebook, it certainly puts your typical sub-$500 Windows netbook to shame.

Dirt cheap Windows netbooks tend to be nasty affairs with so much flex in the keyboard that it feels like you're typing on a wet sponge. Thankfully Acer's Chromebook is much sturdier. It still has that slight plastic clickety-clack to it, but the build quality feels more than acceptable considering the price tag.

Acer's Chromebook tips the scales at 1.4kg, which admittedly isn't as travel-friendly as a tablet or a slick 11.6-inch Ultrabook or MacBook Air. But the Chromebook still slips more comfortably into your average carry bag than your typical mid-range Windows notebook. If you're looking to get some work done on the road, it's certainly worth weighing up a Chromebook against these more expensive alternatives.

As a travel companion the Acer's real Achilles' Heel is its four-cell replaceable battery which will only serve you for three or four hours. If this is likely to leave you in the lurch by the end of the day you might look to the extra battery capacity of the Samsung Chromebook or investigate importing a new 6-cell Acer Chromebook from the US.

In terms of connectivity the Acer offers three USB 2.0 ports, an SD/MMC card slot, Ethernet, VGA, HDMI, webcam, headphone/mic jack and 802.11b/g/n wi-fi (supporting 2.4 and 5 GHz networks). You won't find models with built-in 3G/4G mobile broadband access, so you're reliant on wi-fi hotspots when away from the office -- either public networks or your own generated from a smartphone or standalone wi-fi hotspot.

If you're really sold on the Chromebook concept you might consider the US$1299 13-inch touchscreen Chromebook Pixel, available in the US and designed to rival slick Windows 8 touchscreen notebooks and Apple's MacBook Air. A high-end, stripped-down post-PC device which costs the same as a "real" PC seems like a massive contradiction in terms, but it's an interesting option to keep in mind.

So we've established that Acer's $299 Chromebook isn't a cheap piece of junk, but what is it actually good for?

Rather than Microsoft Windows, Chromebooks run Google's Chrome OS -- a stripped-down version of Linux designed to do little more than support the Chrome browser. You can't even install desktop Linux applications. Under the bonnet the Acer packs an Intel Celeron 1.1 GHz dual-core processor accompanied by 2 GB of RAM, which would obviously groan under the weight of Windows but is enough to keep the Chromebook feeling snappy even with a few tabs open.

Chrome's excellent resource management ensures that if it does run into trouble then individual tabs fail gracefully rather than the whole computer freezing. This Chromebook boots in 20 seconds and revives from slumber in less than 1 second, which is great when you're looking for a few minutes of productivity while you're on the road.

The Chromebook runs Linux behind the scenes but don't let this deter you. There's zero learning curve and if you're familiar with Google's Chrome browser you'll instantly feel at home. You're presented with the same Chrome interface and you can install the same add-ons from the Chrome Web Store. The Chromebook doesn't run Java, but within the browser you can run Javascript and Adobe Flash. You can also install digital certificates for accessing secure websites such as Content Management Systems. These few features alone can make the Chromebook a far more useful travel companion than an iPad.

If you log into your Google account you can even sync your add-ons, bookmarks, search history, browser history and tabs from your PC or Mac -- so when you open up the Chromebook you can pick up where you left off on your office computer.

Of course if you're looking to get some work done then you're reliant on internet access and web apps, but these days you'll find web-based equivalents for most desktop applications. You're not restricted to Google's suite of web services, but using them offers the advantage of offline caching, so you can still access your email, calendars and documents while you're offline -- automatically resyncing when you reconnect to the internet.

The Acer Chromebook packs a 320 GB hard drive for storing documents and multimedia files (Google also throws in 100 GB of cloud storage). Chrome OS offers a basic built-in media player for music and movies, but if you want to edit documents you need to upload them to a web-based Office suite. If converting documents to edit them in Google Drive becomes a hassle, you might consider alternatives such as the Office Web Apps built into Microsoft's SkyDrive. Printing from the Chromebook is also complicated due to the fact it relies on Google Cloud Print.

You might not be ready or able to completely abandon desktop applications, and that's fair enough. But at these prices the Chromebook makes a lot of sense if you think of it as your secondary computing device designed to meet most of your needs most of the time. It offers a "just works" user experience while reducing the risks from malware and other typical Windows hassles. In return you're sacrificing some of the enterprise management tools, but Google's management console may meet your needs.

Your opinion of the Chromebook obviously depends on whether Chrome alone meets enough of your needs when you're away from your desk. More than a tablet but less than a desktop computer, this glass-half-full notebook could be just the post-PC device you've been waiting for.

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