A year after unveiling Chromebooks to the world, Google and Samsung today are announcing two new devices, including the first "Chromebox" desktop PC. Google is also rolling out several major software improvements, including a new window manager for Chrome OS, better trackpad support, upgrades to a remote desktop access tool, and offline editing for Google Docs.
The new Chromebook has a slicker, more attractive design than previous models, and both the new laptop and desktop take a big step forward in memory and CPU. Instead of Intel Atom processors, Samsung's latest Chrome computers use Sandy Bridge-based Intel Celeron CPUs, and double the RAM to 4GB. Both devices will be on sale online today and in Best Buy stores soon.
The Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550 has a 12.1" display with resolution of 1280x800, starts up in about 7 seconds, weighs 3.3 pounds, is rated for six hours of battery life, and costs $449 for a WiFi-only edition and $549 for one with WiFi and 3G cellular access. Google says it's about 2.5 times faster than last year's models, while the Samsung Chromebox Series 3 will be 3.5 times faster. The Chromebox, which costs $329 and has roughly the same size and shape as an Apple Mac Mini, runs faster because with battery life not being a concern, it can use a higher-wattage version of the Intel Celeron processors.
The new Samsung Chromebook runs a dual-core Intel Celeron Processor 867 at 1.3GHz, compared to last year's Chromebook which ran a dual-core Intel Atom N570 at 1.66GHz. The Celeron architecture is more advanced, and the laptop certainly seems zippy in our limited testing so far. We'll have more to say on performance in an upcoming article, which will include some benchmarking. The Chromebox has an Intel Celeron B840 running at 1.9GHz.
The Chromebox has a good number of ports, including six USB 2.0 ports and two DisplayPort++ slots that are compatible with HDMI, DVI, and VGA. Chrome OS is optimized for screens up to 30 inches and can support multiple monitors, Sengupta said.
Oddly, the Chromebox has no SD card reader, but USB devices that can read SD cards are common anyway. The new Chromebook has two USB 2.0 ports, DisplayPort++ output, and an SD card reader. Both the laptop and desktop have a Gigabit Ethernet port. Because the laptop is quite thin, the Ethernet port opens up and juts out a bit to fit the cable.
While the computers are cheaper than any Mac and many Windows PCs, we still think they're a bit pricey for devices designed to run just one application: the Chrome Web browser. But Chrome devices are fast, and extraordinarily easy to use. Google and its hardware partners haven't revealed sales figures, and significant market share doesn't seem to be forthcoming any time soon. However, Google is offering support packages to businesses and education customers ($150 for businesses, $30 for schools, in addition to the device cost) and says the Chromebooks are proving quite popular in educational settings.
Acer and Samsung both released Chromebooks a year ago, but Samsung is the only hardware maker doing so this time around. However, Chrome OS Director Caesar Sengupta says Google is working closely with Intel and expects to have "a few more OEMs shipping later this year."
Samsung has done well in delivering strong hardware, with a very responsive trackpad. But ultimately, software improvements are needed to give Google any shot at gaining significant market share from Windows and Mac OS X. New features being rolled out today and over the new few weeks provide a good start.
Offline Google Docs editing at last, Google Drive integration
Google used to allow offline editing of Google Docs through a Google Gears extension, but killed the project with the promise of delivering offline functionality natively through the browser. Offline viewing capabilities were brought back last September and editing is coming sometime in June, Sengupta told Ars. Any changes made while offline will sync with the Google server once a user gains an Internet connection.
"Offline viewing has existed for a while, but the Docs team is readying the release of offline editing," Sengupta said. "We are using this internally at Google right now and we are going to gradually migrate users over the next several weeks."
Offline editing of Docs will be available in all versions of the Chrome browser, not just the one for Chrome OS devices. No other browsers are supported just yet, but Sengupta didn't rule it out as long as competing browsers use similar HTML5 technology. Google is using IndexedDB to store files locally when an Internet connection is severed.
Two other additions help on the offline documents and storage fronts. New viewing capabilities allow opening of Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint files in a browser tab, online or offline. The files can be viewed without Google Docs, although editing requires Docs. Chrome OS is also being integrated with Google Drive, the new cloud storage service with 5GB of free storage. Drive integration is built into the Chrome OS development release, and will hit the stable channel in mid-to-late June, Sengupta said. Because Chromebooks contain 16GB solid-state disk capacity, a user's Drive files will be cached locally.
Chrome OS, now with more windows
We recently posted an in-depth examination of Google's new Aura interface for Chrome OS, a window manager that makes Chromebooks act a lot more like the Windows, Mac, and Linux computers people are used to. When Chromebooks first came out last year, they supported viewing of only one browser tab at a time so you couldn't, for example, type in a Google Doc and view a separate webpage at the same time. Simultaneous viewing of multiple browser windows was added within a few months, and the more robust Aura interface hit the Chrome OS developer channel in April of this year.
Today, Aura becomes the standard interface for Chrome OS as part of an operating system update. For the first time, this provides Chrome OS a graphical user interface that exists outside of the browser, although it's still very Web-centric. There's an icon for a file manager, but for the most part the "applications" listed are links to websites. Users can still fill the whole screen with the Chrome browser simply by clicking a little box at the top right of the screen.
Although Aura is pleasing to the eye, it doesn't change the fact that Chrome OS's biggest limitation is still its limited usefulness when a user lacks an Internet connection.
Better trackpad software and remote desktop access
As mentioned earlier, the Samsung Chromebook has a very responsive trackpad, easily recognizing tap-to-click, scrolling, and the two-finger click. We give Samsung much of the credit for this as its trackpads are generally good regardless of which OS is running, but Google says it has improved trackpad support on the software side as well.
"Our trackpad last year was a bit fiddly," Sengupta said. With many Googlers using the Chromebooks internally, Google set out to analyze the problems that can be caused by differences in people's thumbs and fingers and how they click. Google even used robotic thumbs and fingers to duplicate unique digits.
"Some people have thumbs that have a waist in the middle. They're used to resting it on the trackpad and so they click with that and it looks like two different points," Sengupta said. "We now know more about thumbs than we ever cared to know. We realize human beings come in different shapes and sizes."
Improvements to trackpad support made their way into the open source Chromium OS as a new component.
One last software improvement announced by Google today is an upgrade to Chrome Remote Desktop, which we tested out last October and provides a remote desktop connection between two computers running the Chrome browser. This would let a Chromebook user access any Windows, Mac, or Linux machine, but it required a person on each computer to type in an access code, limiting its use for truly "remote" scenarios. Google says it is now launching a persistent connection, allowing a user to set up the remote desktop tool only once and have it be accessible from then on.
Business and school adoption
According to Google, more than 500 schools have purchased Chromebooks and are using them in curriculum. Newly announced customers include Dillard's, which will deploy hundreds of Chromeboxes to retail stores; California libraries, which will use 1,000 new Chromebooks for patron checkout purposes; Mollen Clinics, which will deploy 4,500 Chrome devices to mobile immunization clinics at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores; and Kaplan, which is using them in a New York City call center.
Google is hoping for a bigger push into businesses and schools with its $150 per-device support charge for businesses and $30 per-device for schools, which includes 24/7 phone support, a management console, and a hardware warranty. The support cost is in addition to the regular retail price of the devices. Google used to sell support to businesses and schools with a monthly subscription model. The new pricing is a one-time up-front cost with support for the lifetime of the device.
We don't know many regular consumers buying Chromebooks, but Google has a compelling pitch for businesses with employees that use only Web applications, or are satisfied with accessing Windows programs through Citrix's virtualization software. Call centers, back offices, retail stores, and other "non-mobile" scenarios are good for the Chromebook and Chromebox, said Rajen Sheth, Chrome for Business Group Product Manager.
Google has further optimized Chrome OS for businesses, allowing the devices to automatically configure applications, network settings, WiFi, VPN access, and organizational policies, Sheth said. Sheth believes businesses can take a Chromebook from a delivery truck and hand it directly to an end user without any IT involvement.
"To do that with a PC is almost impossible," he said.