TIME Computers

(Not Very) Bold Prediction: $200 Laptops Aplenty for the Holidays

Inside a Best Buy Store Ahead of Earnings
Customers look at laptop computers at a Best Buy store. David Paul Morris—Bloomberg / Getty Images

For years — years! — we’ve been waiting for the $200 laptop.

Sure, laptops dip down to the $200 during super sales like Black Friday. And snagging a $179 Chromebook — Chromebooks are laptops too, you know — is now a relatively easy feat to achieve. Remember netbooks? Those things were known to flirt with the $200 price point toward the end of their collective lifespan, occasionally breaking through it entirely.

But the holidays this year will look different. Instead of searching, waiting, hoping — stampeding! — for a $200 computer, you’ll actually have a fair amount to choose from, and they’ll likely be in stock and regularly priced around $200 or less.

Over at GigaOM, Kevin Tofel passes along news of the so-called HP Stream 14, which was supposedly leaked to German blog Mobile Geeks. The Stream is apparently a 14-inch Windows laptop with very Chromebook-like innards that comes with 100 gigabytes of storage for two years, just like Chromebooks.

Microsoft doesn’t want to see Chromebooks continue to erode its share of low-end laptop sales. That’s straight from the horse’s mouth: As the Verge reports, Microsoft COO Kevin Turner recently said, “We’ve got a great value proposition against Chromebooks, we are not ceding the market to anyone.”

If that sounds aggressive, get this: Turner alluded to 7- and 8-inch models in this HP Stream line going for around $100 during the holidays. Aggressive indeed.

While ever-falling component costs lead to cheaper and cheaper computers, Bloomberg reported earlier this year that the licensing fee Microsoft charges hardware makers to use Windows on their machines has reportedly dropped exponentially for systems in the sub-$250 price range. It apparently dropped from $50 down to just $15, which of course paves the way for lower retail prices as well.

It’s the perfect storm: Chromebooks are popular low-end machines, and Microsoft wants to stem the tide. These aren’t going to be the most powerful computers in the history of computing, but if you’re looking for something that can handle simple tasks like email and web surfing on the cheap, you’ll have plenty of options later this year.

Vintage Computer Ads

TIME Computers

Need a Cheap Chromebook? Here’s How to Pick One

Let's make sense of all these sub-$300, browser-based laptops.

If you’re shopping for a cheap laptop, there’s a good chance you’ve crossed paths with a few Chromebooks.

Instead of running Windows, these lightweight, inexpensive notebooks are based entirely on Google’s Chrome web browser. So while you can’t install traditional programs such as Office and Photoshop, you can use web-based substitutes like the free Office Online and Pixlr. In exchange, you’ll get a computer that boots up quickly, is safe from viruses, doesn’t have any obnoxious bloatware and is optimized for browsing the web.

Although inexpensive Chromebooks have been around for a couple years, we’ve seen a lot more of them lately, and from a wider range of vendors. With so much competition among these sub-$300 laptops, here’s some help picking the best one for your needs.

The Cheapest Chromebook: Acer C720 (2 GB RAM)

Acer

This Acer Chromebook originally had a sticker price of $199, but for some reason the price has recently gone up at most stores. Fortunately you can still snag one at Best Buy for $179, which is the cheapest price I’ve seen for any Chromebook.

Compared to other low-cost Chromebooks, the Acer C720 is a bit heavier, and its fan will produce some noise as you work. Its build quality is also on the chintzy side, and the 2 GB of RAM isn’t great for keeping lots of browser tabs open at once. Still, for basic browsing, it gets the job done at a (currently) unbeatable price.

The Prettiest Chromebook: HP Chromebook 11

HP

I called this one a “vanity laptop” when I reviewed it last fall. It has, by far, the most gorgeous display you’ll find on any Chromebook. We’re talking MacBook quality in terms of viewing angles and contrast, while most other Chromebooks wash out when you tilt them just slightly away from you. The keyboard is also solid, the speakers are loud and you’ve got to love the blue accents on the shiny white chassis.

But the HP Chromebook falters on performance, as it can lag when switching between heavy web pages, and it only gets around five hours on a charge. (You can top it up with a MicroUSB cable, which is kind of neat.) If you can deal with those shortcomings and prefer something thin, light and easy to look at, this is your Chromebook. Best Buy has it for $229.

The Best All-Around Chromebooks: Asus C200 and C300

Asus

Asus’ C200 ($229 at Walmart) and C300 ($229 at Amazon) are part of a new wave of Chromebooks hitting the market this summer, with a fanless design made possible by Intel’s latest Bay Trail processors. That means they won’t make any noise as you use them, and they’re both quite light, at 2.5 pounds for the 11-inch C200 and 3.1 pounds for the 13-inch C300. Best of all, both laptops get about 10 hours of battery life on a charge.

As a trade-off, these laptops can’t quite keep up with the processor in the cheaper Acer Chromebook, but it’s probably not something you’d notice in most cases. Asus’ two Chromebooks are solid all-around performers, and your best options if you’re willing to pay more than bottom dollar.

The Sub-$300 Workhorse: Acer C720 (4 GB RAM)

This Chromebook used to be a solid choice at $250, but now I can’t find it anywhere at that price. Still, even at $271 from Newegg, it’s the cheapest Chromebook available with 4 GB of RAM. You’ll want the extra memory if you’re planning to juggle dozens of browser tabs at once. It seems that Acer has discontinued this laptop in favor of a Core i3 model that’s probably overkill for most users, so get it while you can.

Whatever you decide, don’t fret over it too much. I’ve used a lot of Chromebooks over the past few years, and they all offer the same basic benefits in terms of speedy startup times, security and ease of use. As long as you’re not expecting a full-blown operating system like Windows or Mac OSX, chances are you’ll be satisfied with your choice.

These prices and configurations are good as of August 18, 2014.

TIME

Acer’s New Chromebook Goes Where Windows PCs Won’t

acer chromebook 13
Acer

The Tegra-powered Chromebook 13 is another stab at the ideal mid-range Chromebook

If you try to buy a laptop for around $400 these days, something weird happens.

You’ll find lots of lightweight notebooks with 11-inch or smaller screens, and plenty of 15-inch clunkers with terrible battery life. What you won’t get is anything in between, combining decent screen size, power and portability at a reasonable price.

That means Acer’s Chromebook 13 is more unique than it ought to be. At $380 for the most expensive model, it has a 13.3-inch 1080p display, weighs 3.3 pounds, measures 0.71 inches thick and lasts for 11.5 hours on a charge. It also has 4 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage. (You can downgrade to 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB for $300, or get a 1366-by-768 variant with 13 hours of battery for $280.) It’s hard to find a Windows laptop or another Chromebook with the same mix of battery life, performance and screen quality.

The thing that makes Acer’s Chromebook 13 possible is its Nvidia Tegra K1 processor. It’s an ARM-based chip that’s mainly intended for high-end tablets, but in this case it allows for long battery life, high screen resolution and no cooling fans.

Typically, these ARM-based Chromebooks take a performance hit compared to their Intel-powered rivals, but SlashGear notes that Acer’s model outperformed Intel’s Bay Trail chips while juggling multiple browser tabs and playing video. Nvidia also claims that its chip offers three times the graphics performance of Bay Trail and other ARM-based Chromebooks.

The Chromebook 13’s closest competitor is Samsung’s 13-inch Chromebook 2, which also uses an ARM-based processor and has a 1080p display. Samsung’s model is a bit lighter at 3.1 pounds, but it only lasts about eight hours on a charge.

I mostly liked Samsung’s Chromebook, but its viewing angles were terrible and its performance was occasionally sluggish. While I haven’t seen Acer’s Chromebook up close, I’m hoping it can do a little better on those fronts.

In any case, I’m happy to see another shot at a mid-range Chromebook that focuses on portability, because that’s what Google’s browser-based operating system is made for. The $400 laptop market needs devices like the Chromebook 13 more than it needs another wave of 15-inch monstrosities.

The Chromebook 13 is available for pre-sale from Amazon and Best Buy, but there’s no word on an exact release date yet.

TIME video

VIDEO: Here’s What’s Next for Google (in Two Minutes)

Wherein we smoosh Google's 2014 developer conference keynote from 2.5+ hours down to just under two minutes.

TIME Computers

Samsung Chromebook 2 Review: Almost Worth the Price

Jared Newman for TIME

I really thought this would be the one.

When Samsung announced the Chromebook 2 a couple months ago, it seemed to be the mid-range device that we’d been missing since Samsung discontinued its Series 5 550 last year. The 13-inch version is currently the only Chromebook with a 1080p display, and it comes in a slick package that mimics Samsung’s most expensive Windows-based laptops. I was hoping these features would justify the $400 price tag.

After using Samsung’s 13-inch Chromebook 2 for several weeks, I’m conflicted. The Chromebook 2 is a solidly-built machine with an impressive balance of weight and battery life, but it also has a couple of problems that keep me from giving it a wholehearted recommendation.

Let’s start with the display. On paper, the 1920-by-1080 panel should be the Chromebook 2’s strongest selling point. Not only does it make everything sharper, it allows the taskbar and icons to be smaller, leaving more room on the screen for actual webpages.

But like so many other laptops that cut corners on price, the viewing angles on the Chromebook 2 are atrocious. As you shift your position, you have to constantly adjust the screen to avoid having the colors wash out. The screen looks especially bad when watching videos or looking at dark webpages. It’s by far the biggest problem with this laptop, and a huge letdown for what should be a killer feature.

One other minor complaint about the display: By default, the high pixel density made text a little small for my liking, and I have pretty good vision. Increasing page zoom to 125 percent in Chrome settings made things more readable; it should probably be set this way by default.

Aside from the display, the build quality of the Chromebook 2 is superb. The island-style keys have just the right amount of travel and snappiness, and the keyboard hardly flexes at all under heavy pressure.

Below the keyboard is a spacious trackpad that’s smooth to the touch. You can click on the trackpad almost all the way up to the top without having to apply too much pressure, and it supports two-finger scrolling and clicking. (You can also tap the trackpad instead of depressing it.) Overall, it’s fantastic.

The Chromebook 2 is fairly light for a 13-inch laptop, weighing in at 3.1 pounds. That’s 0.2 pounds lighter than Toshiba’s 13-inch Chromebook, though it’s the same weight as Asus’ 13-inch Chromebook that’s due out later this month. (Both of those laptops, however, have 1366-by-768 resolution displays.)

Jared Newman for TIME

Samsung’s Chromebook 2 is also one of the slimmest Chromebooks around, at 0.65 inches, and its bottom half has the same contoured edges found on Samsung’s Ativ Book laptops. Aesthetically, I’m not crazy about the “titan gray” finish–I’d prefer the white or black color options of the 11-inch model–and the faux-stitching makes less sense on a laptop cover than it does on Samsung’s Galaxy phones.

Unlike most other laptops, the Chromebook 2 uses an ARM-based octa-core Exynos processor, a lot like what you’d find in a high-end tablet. This allows it to run quietly with no fan, and despite the high-resolution display it still lasts for more than eight hours on a charge.

That processor does have a downside, in that it’s less powerful than your average laptop. Depending on your needs, this might not be a major issue. I generally didn’t have a problem scrolling through webpages, editing Google Docs or juggling a bunch of browser tabs. But I did notice occasional sluggishness when loading heavy pages and switching between tabs. Compared to Samsung’s original Exynos-based Chromebook, which had a slower processor and just 2 GB of RAM instead of 4 GB, the Chromebook 2 is still a big step up.

For connectivity, the Chromebook 2 has two USB ports–one on each side–along with HDMI output and a headphone jack. There’s also a microSD card slot, though I wish Samsung had included a full-sized SD slot instead. The speakers are loud and clear enough for video, but like most laptops, you won’t get much bass when listening to music.

If Samsung had only shipped a higher-quality display with the Chromebook 2, I could have fallen in love with this laptop. I’m a sucker for build quality, especially when it comes to the keyboard and trackpad, and I could have forgiven the middling performance, given that it’s still good enough for most basic web browsing. Chromebooks can’t do everything that a Windows laptop or MacBook can–you can’t install desktop software, which rules out programs like Office and iTunes–but the simplicity of a browser-based operating system has its own advantages. The Chromebook 2 could have been the perfect machine for users who want to spend a little more.

Instead, I’m wishing Samsung had tried just a little harder to make the ultimate mid-range Chromebook. This one is frustratingly close.

TIME Technologizer

Depending on Who’s Counting, Chromebooks Are Either an Enormous Hit or Totally Irrelevant

Dell

The numbers on Google's operating system add up to an utterly confusing picture

I went to Intel’s Chrome OS event this morning, which filled its San Francisco venue to the brim with new devices running Google’s browser-centric operating system and packing powerful Intel chips–scads of new Chromebooks from major hardware makers, Chromebox mini-desktops and even an all-in-one “Chromebase” machine from LG. It was an impressive showing, and I came away lusting after some of the models I saw. (I like my own Chromebook, an 11-inch HP with a Samsung ARM-based processor, but it can be pretty pokey when I open too many tabs.)

As usual at a Chrome OS event, part of the goal was to make the point that Chrome devices are doing well. Figures got quoted: sales rankings and user star ratings at Amazon, and the fact that 10,000 schools have adopted Chromebooks. Certainly, the platform feels viable in a way it once did not. (When Gmail creator Paul Buchheit predicted Chrome OS’s imminent demise in December 2010, it sounded like a perfectly reasonable prognostication.)

Still, the more data points you consider, the harder it is to get a grip on whether Chrome OS is booming, filling a small-but-healthy niche or struggling to matter at all.

Let’s review the available evidence:

Chromebooks took 9.6 percent of U.S. commercial sales of computing devices from January-November 2013, up from almost nothing in 2012.

That’s according to NPD’s figures for the sales channels that target businesses, and it includes the iPad and other tablets as well as laptops and desktop PCs. For a computing platform that barely seemed to be going anywhere a year earlier, that’s a huge deal. And if you count only notebooks, Chromebooks have an even more impressive 21 percent market share. In all, NPD says that 1.76 million Chromebooks shipped through U.S. commercial channels in the first eleven months of the 2013.

image

Only 1 percent of PCs sold worldwide in 2013 were Chromebooks.

In this case the numbers are IDC’s. They’re for the whole planet, not just the U.S., and cover all sales channels, not just business-to-business ones.

IDC says that 2.5 million Chromebooks were sold worldwide in 2013. At first blush, that sounds like it might conceivably jibe with NPD’s figure of 1.76 million units sold in the first 11 months of the year. Except that NPD’s number was for sales to U.S. businesses, while IDC says that “virtually zero” Chromebooks went to enterprises (i.e. corporate customers) and that it’s consumers who are buying them. I can’t reconcile these viewpoints.

Six of the top 20 laptops on Amazon are Chromebooks.

…including two of the top three models. And the single best-selling desktop on Amazon is Asus’s Chromebox. These figures are as of the moment I write this–Amazon updates them hourly–but they always make Chrome OS machines look like hot sellers. Looking at them, I can understand why Microsoft is concerned enough about Chromebooks to helpfully advise people not to buy them.

As of January, Chrome devices accounted for only .2 percent of U.S. and Canada web traffic.

Chitika released that figure in February, and it covers September 2013 through January 2014. It represents a doubling of Chitika’s previous number, but it’s still so puny that you might as well round it down to zero. And in theory, the average Chrome OS user should be online more than a Windows PC or Mac user, since the whole idea is that Chromebooks provide an entirely web-based experience.

image

Disclaimer: Except for the Amazon rankings, all of these stats are at least a few months out of date, and they don’t include some of the data I’m most curious about. For instance, you can buy Chromebooks at Best Buy, Walmart and Target, but I haven’t seen any figures on how they’re doing at these major retailers. (For what it’s worth, I checked BestBuy.com’s laptop section, supposedly sorted with the best sellers up top, and the first Chromebook came in at number 23.)

It’s also possible that all the data points above connect into a coherent story: Chrome OS devices are selling well to U.S. businesses and Amazon customers but barely matter on a global scale, and aren’t yet being used by enough people to add up to meaningful web traffic.

If Chrome OS use is growing rapidly, and continues to do so, I’d expect the picture to be clearer in the months and years to come. But for now, all I know for sure is that both Chrome skeptics and Chrome boosters can point to stats that seem to back up their respective stances. Convenient, isn’t it?

TIME Chromebooks

For Better and for Worse, Chromebooks Have Become PCs

Chromebook
Bloomberg / Getty Images

Chromebooks are no longer a small, focused selection of purpose-built machines, but a sprawling array of increasingly meaningless choices.

If you remember the days when Intel and Microsoft were an unstoppable force, you might be tickled by the former’s newfound love for Chromebooks.

At a press event on Tuesday, Intel heaped praise on machines running Google’s Chrome OS, pointing out how well they’ve been doing on Amazon’s sales charts and in schools. A long list of PC makers lined up to announce new hardware, including new Chromebook laptops and tiny “Chromebox” desktops.

I think Chromebooks are great, but as they gain support within the PC industry, they’re also inheriting the industry’s warts.

I’ve been worried about this scenario for a while now: Chromebooks are no longer a small, focused selection of purpose-built machines. Instead, they’ve become a vast lineup of computers in all shapes and sizes, meant to appeal to every niche. And most of them look pretty dull.

My colleague Doug Aamoth has the nitty gritty details, but in short, we’ve got Chromebooks with long battery life and lightweight processors, Chromebooks with shorter battery life and more powerful processors, bigger Chromebooks, smaller Chromebooks, Chromebooks with 2 GB of RAM and 16 GB of storage, Chromebooks with 4 GB of RAM and 32 GB of storage, and a couple of Chromebooks with touchscreens. It’s a dizzying array of options, and it’s reminiscent of the Windows PC market, whose sagging sales have left Intel and its partners scrambling for alternatives.

The positive way to look at this is that you’ve got lots of choices, and choice is good. Not tickled by the design of Acer’s Core i3-powered Chromebook? Maybe you’ll like Dell’s version a bit better. Not comfortable with just 16 GB of storage? Asus has you covered with 32 GB options.

Here’s the downside: Choosing a Chromebook will become needlessly complicated, as the performance gap between low- and high-end Chromebooks grows wider. Nevermind that the justification for a Core i3 Chromebook is kind of thin–Intel says you might want it for Google+ Hangouts or 3D games–or that 2 GB of RAM can be a drag on multitasking, or that 32 GB of storage is overkill for a cloud-based computer. These are all factors you’ll have to consider when buying a Chromebook now.

The old Chromebook mantra was “speed, simplicity, security,” the implication being that all Chromebooks are fast gateways to the Internet. But that message is muddier now. Instead of making hard choices about what makes a good Chromebook, PC makers are taking the shotgun approach and leaving buyers to sort through the mess.

 

TIME Computers

Here Are a Bunch of New Intel-Based Chromebooks for 2014

Intel and Google recently partnered up for an event in San Francisco that could safely be referred to as a Chrome-splosion of sorts.

See, Intel understands that Chromebooks – Google’s low-cost, browser-based laptops – are here to stay. Problem is, some of the recent crop of Chromebooks have been using non-Intel processors.

In an effort to get the pendulum to swing back in Intel’s direction, the processor giant is upping its Chromebook lineup from a paltry four models in late 2013 to a whopping 20 to be trotted out over the course of this year.

You’ll have plenty to choose from, in other words. You’ll also need to opt for a Celeron-based model or a Core i3-based model when choosing a Chromebook. The Celeron models will generally be cheaper and able to last longer on a charge – Intel is promising up to 11 hours – while the Core i3 models will be more powerful (no 11-hour battery life promises, though).

Here’s a look at what was just announced, starting with the Celeron models and finishing up with the Core i3 selections. Just to make things interesting, we’ll throw the Chromeboxes in the middle, which use Haswell-based Celeron chips (more powerful but less energy efficient than Bay Trail Celeron chips) and most closely resemble desktop computers.

Bay Trail Celeron

Asus C200 Chromebook

ASUS_C200
Asus

Asus C300 Chromebook

ASUS_C300
Asus
  • 13.3-inch screen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available in June
  • Price unknown (C200 starts at $250; C300 likely around $300 to $350)

Lenovo N20 Chromebook

N20_Chrome_Standard_03
Lenovo
  • 11.6-inch screen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available in July
  • Price starting at $279

Lenovo N20p Chromebook

N20p_Chrome_Hero_01
Lenovo
  • 11.6-inch convertible touchscreen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available in August
  • Price starting at $329

Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Chromebook

  • 11.6-inch screen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available “this spring”
  • Price starting at $349

Lenovo ThinkPad 11e Yoga Chromebook

Lenovo
  • 11.6-inch convertible touchscreen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available “this spring”
  • Price unknown (11e starts at $349; 11e Yoga likely around $400 to $450)

Toshiba Chromebook

Toshiba
  • 13.3-inch screen
  • Intel Celeron CPU
  • Available “over the next few months.”
  • Price unknown (current model starts at $300)

Haswell Celeron

LG Chromebase All-in-One

LG
  • 21.5-inch full-HD (1920×1080) screen
  • Intel Celeron CPU (Haswell)
  • Available May 26
  • Price starting at $349

HP Chromebox

HP
  • Dual-display support (you supply your own) via HDMI and DisplayPort connections
  • Intel Celeron CPU (Haswell)
  • Available in June
  • Price unknown

Core i3

Dell Chromebook 11

Dell
  • 11.6-inch screen
  • Intel Core i3 CPU
  • Available “later this year”
  • Price unknown (current model starts at $279)

Acer C720 Chromebook

Acer
  • 11.6-inch screen
  • Intel Core i3 CPU
  • Available in June
  • Price starting at $350

Press Release [Intel.com]

TIME Security

Chromebooks Could Let You Skip the Login Screen When Your Phone’s Nearby

Google

A non-working feature in Chrome OS hints at a way to sign in without a password.

For a while, Google has been talking about killing the password with help from some physical object, whether it’s a phone, a ring, a tattoo or even a pill that you swallow.

The latest developer version of Chrome OS suggests that Google is putting those plans in motion.

Android Police has discovered a hidden setting, called “Easy Unlock,” that claims to let users sign into their Chromebooks without a password. As long as users have their phones nearby — and presumably paired via Bluetooth — they’d be able to skip the usual login screen.

Unfortunately, the feature isn’t actually working right now. Enabling it in the chrome://flags menu causes a notification to appear, and you can click on that notification for a basic explanation of what Easy Unlock does, but that’s as far as you can go. On my Chromebook, clicking the “Find your phone” button only caused the browser to crash and restart.

We’ve seen some similar approaches to device-based sign-ins before. Motorola’s Moto X, for instance, allows you to skip the PIN lock screen when the phone is connected to a Bluetooth device of your choosing. (When I reviewed the Moto X, I loved using this feature in conjunction with my Pebble smartwatch.)

But if Google adds device-based authentication for Chromebooks, it’d be the first time that such a feature was baked directly into a major computing platform. Neither Apple nor Microsoft have built anything similar into their operating systems, though Apple’s iPhone 5s does have a fingerprint sensor for unlocking the phone without a PIN.

Easy Unlock wouldn’t kill the password entirely, but it could encourage users to set stronger, more complex passwords that wouldn’t need to be entered as often.

There are also a lot of other directions that device-based logins could go. Instead of replacing the password, a paired phone could be the second step in two-factor authentication, eliminating the usual hassle of entering a code sent to the phone via text message. The paired device could also become a way to automatically sign into websites that are tied to your Google login.

Beyond the smartphone, it’s not hard to imagine Google adding other Easy Unlock devices, starting with Android Wear smartwatches, and maybe some day moving on to those crazy tattoos and authentication pills. The early work spotted in Chrome OS brings us a small step closer.

Your browser, Internet Explorer 8 or below, is out of date. It has known security flaws and may not display all features of this and other websites.

Learn how to update your browser
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 45,781 other followers