Google's Chromebook concept holds promise for small business, but the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 still feels like "half a computer."
When Google first announced the concept behind its Chromebook notebook computers, I was excited about the possibilities for small business use. I'm still interested in the concept of a highly portable, very secure, Web-only computer based on Google's Chrome operating system, but after testing the Samsung Chromebook Series 5, I'm no longer convinced that small businesses should invest in them any time soon.
The problem isn't with the hardware or even with the operating system. It's just that as currently configured and priced, the Chromebook Series 5 isn't very useful compared to standard laptops or tablets.
The Case of the Missing Disk
First the good news: The Samsung Chromebook starts up almost instantly, the 12.1-inch (1280 x 800 resolution) screen is clear and bright, and the unit quickly connects to either Wi-Fi or the optional 3G data service.
At just 3.3 pounds and .79 inches thick, the unit is easy to carry. And with 8.5 hours of rated battery life, you can leave the charger at home for the day. I used the unit off and on for almost a week before needing to recharge, even when leaving it in sleep mode instead of powering down.
The case is attractive -- even if it is made of plastic -- and the full-size chiclet keyboard is easy to use. (I would have preferred full-size arrow keys and a .com key, but that's just me being picky.) The trackpad is relatively large, but you can't tap it to click, and I often had a hard time getting the cursor exactly where I wanted it. Fortunately, there are a couple of USB ports where you could attach an external mouse, though that makes it less portable. There's also a port for an optional VGA connector, a headphone jack, a high-def webcam, and 4-in-1 card reader. But, sadly, there's no Bluetooth support.
You get only 2 GB of RAM and a netbook-class Intel Atom N570 processor. That sounds like a recipe for sluggish performance, but the Chromebook rarely felt slow - after all, it's not running a bloated Windows OS or great big desktop applications.
The real problem, however, isn't what's there -- it's what's not there. The Chromebook doesn't include a hard disk, relying instead on a 16GB solid state disk (SSD). That's sufficient to store items like Web cookies and a browser cache, but it isn't going to provide much room for things like documents and media files. In fact, it's pretty tricky to figure out HOW to get data onto or off of that disk in the first place.
That means you're totally dependent on the Web - dependent on Google, really -- to do any real work. That's the whole idea, of course, and I get it on the conceptual level, but in practice it's kind of a drag.
If you buy a 3G model, the price includes 100MB of data per month for two years. Remember, though, you're doing everything through the Web, so you're likely to burn through that data pretty quickly. Without an all-you-can-eat wireless data plan, Wi-Fi access is still an essential part of the Chromebook's value proposition.
Half a Computer -- All of the Price
But connectivity is only the beginning of the Chromebook's problems. Today's Web-based apps are increasingly useful and reliable, but traditional desktop software still offers far more power and flexibility than online apps. That delta is likely to shrink over time - and Google's Web Store is dedicated to helping things along -- but for now, the Chromebook feels limited, like half a computer.
Consider printing. Unless you own hardware that supports Google's Cloud Print service, printing from the Chromebook requires sending the file to a "real" computer connected to a normal printer. Ugh.
Worse yet, this "half computer" comes at full price -- plus. The Wi-Fi Chromebook is $429, and Verizon's 3G version costs $499. For that kind of money, you can get a full-featured Windows laptop. Sure, it may not be as portable, boot as fast, or be as secure, but it will also do a lot more than a Chromebook.
Or you could buy a tablet, which would be even more portable and just as capable in many ways -- especially with an external keyboard.
(One Chromebook observer here at AllBusiness World HQ thought the thing was pretty cool -- until I told him the price. Then he laughed out loud. He thinks it should cost around $100, which seems low to me, but will businesses go for a limited device priced so much higher than a $300 netbook?)
A Limited Niche for Small-Business Users
Is there any application where a Chromebook makes sense for small businesses? Sure. Imagine your business has workers who need mobile Web access and the ability to create and modify office documents, but nothing else. Or imagine that control and security are critical issues for your company -- the Chromebook's lack of a hard drive and reliance on Web apps make it much easier to lock down. Or maybe there are cases when your employees need a mobile device only occasionally, and you could use a Chromebook as a kind of "loaner" model when they need to be out of the office. Since everything is online, it's easy to share the hardware.
Those scenarios could be relevant in many enterprises, but it's not likely that small businesses will embrace them anytime soon. So until Chromebooks get a lot more useful -- or a lot cheaper -- they're going to be relegated to niche status.
Actually, there is another potentially interesting future for the Chromebook. Google has promised a Chromebook "rental" plan where companies can get a Chromebook, along with support and service, for $28 per month (not including 3G service). That might make the Chromebook a viable alternative for brave cash-strapped small businesses that don't need traditional laptops.
MSRP: $429 (Wi-Fi only) or $499 (with Verizon 4G); includes Intel Atom N570 processor, 2GB RAM, 16GB SSD storage, 802.11n Wi-Fi, webcam, SD card reader
- Extremely portable
- Excellent battery life
- Fast startup
- Difficult printing
- Limited to Web-based applications
- Too expensive
THE BOTTOM LINE:
The unique Chromebook may find niche uses, but for most small businesses, it's far too expensive to justify its limited functionality.