Chromebooks, once a niche category of affordable Internet-dependent laptops, are starting to hit the cusp of mainstream awareness.
Sales of the laptops, powered by Google's Chrome operating system, are expected to nearly triple to 14.2 million units worldwide by 2017, according to Gartner. The research firm expects global sales to reach 5.2 million this year, up 79 percent from 2013. Last year, 82 percent of Chromebooks were sold in North America.
Chromebooks got off to a slow start, hampered initially by the lack of applications and its insistence on an online connection for full functionality, but interest in the devices has accelerated due to improved features and capabilities and a low price. Google has worked to improve the offline mode, and a number of vendors have begun to manufacture and sell Chromebooks as an alternative to PCs.
With traditional PC sales falling, it's one reason why Microsoft, fearful of Chromebooks cutting into its Windows-based market share, has been so aggressive in pushing its Surface tablet as another alternative.
CNET got its hands on the latest Chromebook, Acer's Chromebook 13, which runs on Nvidia's K1 processor. CNET editor Scott Stein praised the battery life, impressive specifications, and price. The Chromebook 13 is available for presale and carries a price tag of $279.
Demand for Chromebooks has been driven by the education sector in the US, Gartner said. While businesses have looked at Chromebooks, they have been reluctant to adopt them. The firm said that it sees people in specific industries -- such as banking staff, financial services, real estate agents, and hotel receptionists -- who could use a Chromebook vs. a PC.
Samsung and Acer were the first two vendors to adopt Chromebooks, and lead the market. Samsung has an overwhelming share of the market at 65 percent, with Acer following with 21.4 percent.
Despite the growth, Gartner believes Chromebooks will remain a niche market until vendors address a few factors: faster connectivity, faster memory access, faster and larger solid-state memory drives, and stronger support in education, business, and with consumers.