When I last wrote about Chromebooks, I criticized the entire concept, asking why they even existed when there was such a gap between price and performance. Commenters (well, I think it was one snarky guy with multiple names, actually) laid into me about how it’s an appropriate device for their mom or sister, but nobody weighed in on the valid enterprise use cases. A few people cited school systems and how they love the fact that they are secure devices with just a browser and nothing to manage, which I can understand.
I recently focused my opinion on that gap in an article for SearchVirtualDesktop, and today I want to relate my experience with both the HP Chromebook 11 and the Google Chromebook Pixel devices that I’ve got on my desk at the moment. I’ve used them both extensively over the last few weeks, and here are my thoughts.
HP Chromebook 11 - $279
I chose the HP Chromebook 11 since that’s the device that got me thinking about Chromebooks again. All the reviews for it said something like “not bad for a Chromebook,” which I took as a sort of hidden slap to the platform. Still, when I asked Twitter for advice on which one to get, the only response I got was “Why would you pay $350 for a browser?,” so I went with it. I would have posted a link to the Amazon product page, but it’s been pulled due to a recall for an overheating power supply. Still, it works for me, so on with the review!
First, I want to say that my wife uses this thing every single day. The 2008-era MacBook Pro that she used to use is now collecting dust. As a portable device for web surfing, I choose it over my iPad more often than not simply because it has a keyboard. The problem is that this $279 device is woefully underpowered for all but the smallest amount of web browsing. YouTube videos play ok when in their small window, but at full screen become choppy, even at standard definition. HD videos aren’t watchable, especially when you have other devices that play them well. Websites also render slower, which is tolerable to a certain extent, until I want to work.
When trying to work on the device, I find myself constantly waiting longer for things. It might be an extra fraction of a second here and there, trying to pull up our extensive list of files in Google Drive is much slower than on my laptop. Even scrolling the files (or any other website) is glitchy. Sure, I paid five times as much for my laptop, but if a company were to take my high-performing desktop or laptop away and replace it with this experience, I’d go nuts. And, if my web apps that relied on client side resources were slower, I’d be outright mad.
Windows desktops delivered via HTML5 work all right, but no matter what the resolution of this device is so low that running a desktop or application in a browser window is less than pleasurable. Plus, if given the choice between HTML5 client and traditional client software package for remote desktops, which would you choose?
I’ve come up with a handful of use cases in and around my own life for cheap devices running ChromeOS, but all of them are for consumer use cases. One, for my 82 year old grandfather, can’t be done unless Chromeboxes become widely available, since he could never use such a small device with a small screen. I know there are 14 inch units available, but his use case is more conducive to a desktop form factor. All of use cases are centered on people that just browse the web and check email, and while that applies to many of us, only a small number are willing to put up with poor performance when there are other options that work better just one pricing tier above this.
Chromebook Pixel - $1,299
Since there are no Chromebooks in the tier above the HP device, I had to jump up a few levels and take a stab at the Chromebook Pixel. This is the top of the line Chromebook, running a Core i5 processor, 32GB SSD, and 4GB RAM in an aluminum case with a 13 inch 2,560 x 1,700 pixel touchscreen. While a bit on the heavy side, the device feels and works great, as it should for a device that costs as much as a MacBook Air. Admittedly, this is a relatively small run device that Google created to show vendors that they didn’t have to build sub-par devices, and that Chromebooks could be made to do more than bare necessities.
Google succeeded in one respect, since web site and apps load brilliantly fast. The screen is amazingly crisp, although it’s a bit unwieldy since it’s a 4:3 display. The touchscreen has proven useful, although it took a few sessions before I started using it on a regular basis. Now it feels so natural I was I had one on my daily driver MacBook Air. All that horsepower adds up to a drastically better experience across the board, and I can begin to see how a stripped down OS that only does what you need without all the other BS can be useful. Yes, you need a web service to do everything you previously needed an application for, but if you can find a replacement, you would have no problem using this device.
The biggest problem, and my biggest point from the first article, is that the price for good performance is way, way too high. The Chromebook Pixel doesn’t do anything fundamentally different that the HP Chromebook 11, yet it is a full $1000 more ($1200 more if you want the device with a 64GB SSD and LTE connectivity). If someone asked me today if they should get a Chromebook, I’d still have to say no. Perhaps if you only have $300 and a consumer-oriented use case it’s worthwhile, but for enterprises it just doesn’t make sense. If you’re spending more than $300, on up to $1300, you have better options. Even if you’re planning on using them as thin clients, which is possible, you have better options.
This has been a bit of a learning experience for me. I no longer hate the devices, and I find myself using them occasionally, but in no way are they replacing anything I already have. If I did aim to replace laptops with Chromebooks, it surely wouldn’t be with the low-end device, and I’d challenge any company to come up with a cost-benefit analysis that says a $1300 Pixel is the better solution compared to whatever they’re currently doing today.
As I wrote for SearchVirtualDesktop, what we really need is time. We need time for the cost of the hardware to come down. We need time for companies to continue to move away from Windows applications. And, we need time for companies to embrace unmanaged endpoints (or for Google to add management capabilities to ChromeOS). Perhaps in the next few years more pieces will come together to make it a more broadly viable solution. That doesn't mean there aren't use cases for them today, but it does mean that we're not currently dealing with a disruptive technology.