Over the past few weeks, I've noticed a lot more chatter about Chromebooks than I usually do. I've spent the last few years actively ignoring them after getting a bad taste in my mouth from the first batch of Chromebooks in 2011, so maybe that's finally wearing off and my inner gadget nerd is starting to surface again? I began to wonder if maybe it wasn't time to take a look at them again. I mean, now we have offline Google Drive which, according to Jack, works ok most of the time (I'm paraphrasing there, but the response I got when asking if it worked wasn't one of complete satisfaction), and that was one of my biggest hanging points in my last trial. I swore they'd have to fix that and address the lackluster hardware before I took a look again.
The Chromebook Pixel came out earlier this year, and while it certainly addressed the subpar hardware, it came with a price tag that was more than the cost of my MacBook Air despite having much less of just about everything but screen resolution. Granted, the specs are more then enough to run ChromeOS, but the idea that someone (especially a company) is going to pay ridiculously high prices for a piece of hardware just for the pleasure of running a browser-only computer is laughable. Despite looking good and working quite well (within the Chromebook frame of reference), it was panned.
On the other end of the spectrum you have the craptops, or the cheaply made wannabe-netbooks that have made up most of the Chromebook lineup. This is type of machine that I bought, tested, and actually returned (I'm not known for returning gadgets) because of its ineptness. Even in 2011 the hardware was overpriced for what it was, which was essentially an underpowered netbook running a clunky OS that didn't place enough focus on the user experience.
So that's why I tuned out Chromebooks for a while, but now that I see HP is still in the game, and apparently pushing hard, I wonder if it's not time to check things out again. I'm still not sold on Google Drive as my Office alternative, and I still need Windows apps here and there (mostly Visio) that I can't access unless I'm online, but perhaps it's still worth investigating.
Both ExtremeTech and Ars Technica have reviewed HP's new Chromebook 11, and both speak about it in what is best described as a "not negative" way (Ars calls it "a non-terrible cheap laptop"). Ars' title gives both a pat on the back and a slap to the face by saying "HP's $279 Chromebook 11 raises an admittedly low bar." They follow it with the tagline "But beware: even a pretty nice Chromebook is still a Chromebook." The reviews laud the build quality over past devices, saying that it no longer feels cheap despite the fact that it's made from plastic (as most laptops still are, so that's not necessarily a bad thing). The screen, too, earns high marks for it's IPS display and increased clarity on par with higher end systems available today.
This amounts to a good job by HP for making a Chromebook where the device itself doesn't suck. At the end of the day, though, all that is good about this Chromebook comes with the caveat that it's still a Chromebook. You've still got the fact that it needs to be online to truly do anything, you need to rely on Google Drive (which is still miles away from Office in terms of end user experience), and if you're in an organization that needs to deploy Windows apps, you have to do that with an HTML5 client. Thankfully, Ericom, Citrix, and VMware are pushing the limits in that space, but what is a company supposed to do when faced with the decision of buying an underpowered, limited-functionality device for $279, an over-powered, limited functionality device for $1299, or a $500 Windows laptop (or Surface RT tablet, even!) that can do every single thing a Chromebook can do while providing the experience the end user is used to having?
Ugh…there's a question for the next time I play "Would You Rather?" Would you rather use a Chromebook or a Surface RT as your daily driver?
You could make the argument that Chromebooks are not for companies, which would have been a fine argument five years ago. But today, if an end user scoops one of these up at Best Buy because it was cheap, IT has to deal with it. It does't matter if it was made for companies or not. I'd like to meet the end user that is 100% happy with their Chromebook and uses it for everything they do without having access to a more traditional computer.
Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should. I'm of the opinion that this whole thing should have ended when one engineer said to another, "Look, I put a browser on a laptop! How crazy is that, bro?!" Maybe I'm wrong, or maybe the device is still ahead of its time, but after this thought exercise, I'm left wondering why it is that Chromebooks continue to exist when there are so many more flexible options out there.