Chromebooks challenge netbooks

by Rick Merritt , TechOnline India - May 12, 2011

Lookout Windows and hard-drive makers, the Chromebook is here. The Google notebook named for its Chrome Web browser hopes to make good on the long sought concept of the thin-client network computer.

Lookout Windows and hard-drive makers, the Chromebook is here. The Google notebook named for its Chrome Web browser hopes to make good on the long sought concept of the thin-client network computer.
Google officially announced at its annual developer conference that Acer and Samsung will begin shipping in June the systems that use only Web-based apps and services. The systems do not need Windows or hard disk


Google will even act as a data carrier, selling to business and education full packages of hardware, management software and services for $28 and $20 a month, respectively for a three-year contract. In the US, Verizon will provide a data plan for up to 100 Mbytes/month for free, charging extra only for users who want more data. Retailers will sell the systems direct to consumers for prices ranging from $349 to $499.

The Chromebook aims to boot faster (eight seconds), be more secure, easier to manage and lower cost than traditional notebooks. All the system initially use a dual-core Intel Atom processor.

Google founder Sergey Brin, on hand for a press Q&A here, said in the next year he expects the majority of Google's employees will use Chromebooks. Today they mainly use Windows 7 PCs, he said. In an effort to limit the number of chips it must support, Google qualified each chip in the two Chromebooks which had to pass a performance test for the targeted OEM systems. Google has not yet decided whether it will make its list of approved chips available.

Right now the systems only use a dual-core Atom processor. However, the partners are considering an Intel Core i3 chip for a higher performance desktop box being designed by Samsung and an ARM SoC for a future

lower power, ultra-thin mobile system.

The partners are concerned many current ARM SoCs may not meet performance requirements. They are currently aiming to test a quad-core Nvidia Tegra3 as a leading candidate.

One way the current Chromebook hardware differs from a conventional notebook is that they require support for a hardware root of trust as part of the boot process. They also use a unique, secure fast path for boot transactions.

One of the selling points of the systems for business users is their higher level of security than conventional PCs.

The Chromebooks also have a protected file system which by design prevents download of malware.

For years, computer executives from Sun's Scott McNealy to Oracle's Larry Ellison have pursued the dream of a simpler client computer. Whether Google can succeed where they have failed remains to be seen, but Google

appears to be covering all the bases and the technology has matured to the level where a Web-only system is becoming viable.

"The complexity of managing your computers is torturing all of us--it’s a flawed model and Chromebooks are a new model that doesn’t put the burden of managing your computer on yourself," said Brin. "Companies who don’t use that model won't be successful," he said. "This model doesn’t say just 'Trust Google'" with your data, Brin said, answetring a question about privacy and control. "You are using Google's Chrome browser, but you can go to any Web site out there and they can provide you great functionality--you can go to Bing search or

Yahoo," he said.

At a press event, one Samsung marketing manager said the partners hope to sell a total of as many as a million Chromebooks in the first 12 months. But other execs said that such a figure would exceed their expectations.




Specs of Samsung's Chromebook

Samsung published few specs of its Series 5 Chromebook, a device Google said it will provide free in June to an estimated 5,000 attendees of Google I/O where it was launched. More details of the bill of materials of the
Samsung system came out at a press event after Google I/O.

The Samsung Series 5 packs an Intel Atom N570 1.66 GHz processor (aka Pine Trail) with Intel embedded graphics. For communications, it uses an Atheros 2x2 MIMO 802.11n Wi-Fi chip and a Qualcomm Gobi 3G modem in the US or a Samsung 3G module in Europe. Most of the other major components are all from Samsung.

They include a 12.1-inch display, 2 Gbytes RAM, a 16 Gbyte flash drive and an eight-hour Samsung battery. Samsung designed the motherboard and makes it in a Shuzhou, China plant.

The system also sports two USB ports, a high def Webcam, support for removable flash cards and a full-sized keyboard. A version with Wi-Fi only will cost $429 in the U.S., and one also with 3G will cost $499.

Acer will ship a smaller system with a 6.5-hour battery life, an 11.6 inch display and 16 Gbytes flash starting at $349 for a Wi-Fi only version. A 3G version is expected to cost $429. Both company's systems will be
available in June in the U.S. and Europe. Samsung and Acer are expected to host their own product
introductions closer to the product roll outs. More details of their specs, such as use of flash, are expected then.

The initial systems are uninteresting from an industrial design perspective, looking like generic notebooks. Google has conducted tests of an early version of the system, the Cr-48, with thousands of users worldwide. "We fixed some issues, revamped the track pad, worked with Adobe on flash and upgraded to a dual-core processor," said Pichai.

The company has also enabled a wide range of programs—including Gmail and Google Docs--to work when the system is not connected to the Web.

Many non-Google apps also work using local cache memory including Angry Birds and many news services.
Chromebooks also support an API that lets Web services register as file handlers. Thus, for example, when a user plugs in a USB drive with pictures, the folder showing the pictures can also show a button linking to the user's online photo site.

"We're trying to open up your files to the world of the Web," said Pichai.

Chromebooks aim to end management issues related to full blown operating systems, BIOS, antivirus software and the regular upgrades they require. "Most companies spend $3,000 to $5,000 per computer per year--it's
really complicated," he said.

Several large companies are already piloting Chromebooks. Google's service will come with a unified Web management console IT managers can use to manage Chromebooks. The Google three-year contracts will even
include support, warranty and hardware replacement services.

Brin said he is delighted both Android tablets and Chromebooks could compete in similar markets. "It’s a great dilemma to have two fantastic successes on our hands," Brin said. "Chromebooks is venturing into a really new
model of computing that I don’t think was possible even a few years ago," he said.

"I use an Android smartphone, a tablet and a Chromebook--they will coexist," said Pichai. "The Chromebook is a very different model, and if we didn’t do a model like this someone else would," he said.

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