Google offers low-budget ARM-based Chromebook

The browser-based laptop, weighing 2.5 pounds with an 11.6-inch screen, is "the best computer that's ever been designed" for a price of $249, Google says.

Google hopes to tap into new markets with the $249 Samsung Chromebook, a laptop running Google's browser-based Chrome OS and built atop a Samsung A15-class ARM processor.
Google hopes to tap into new markets with the $249 Samsung Chromebook, a laptop running Google's browser-based Chrome OS and built atop a Samsung A15-class ARM processor. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google introduced a new 11.6-inch $249 Chromebook today that lowers the entry price and raises the expectations for its Chrome OS products.

Chromebooks are cloud-computing laptops use Google's Chrome OS, which is built on Linux under the covers but which actually runs applications in the Chrome browser. When Google released two second-generation Chrome OS products, the $550 Samsung Series 5 550 Chromebook and the $330 Series 3 Chromebox in May, it aimed for increased processing horsepower .

If the Chromebook Series 5 550 drew inspiration from a MacBook Pro, the new Chromebook did so from a MacBook Air. It's cheaper, thinner, has a smaller 11.6-inch screen, and at under 2.5 pounds weighs less. Google plans to promote the new Chromebook more aggressively in stores and advertising.

"It's the best computer that's ever been designed at this price point," boasted Sundar Pichai, the senior vice president in charge of Chrome and Google Apps, the closely linked suite of productivity Web apps. "We're calling it the new Samsung Chromebook." ( Click here for "Hands-on with new the Samsung Chromebook." )

There's another big difference inside: where its predecessors used Intel x86 processors, the new Chromebook uses a processor of the ARM lineage that's virtually universal in mobile phones and tablets.

Yes, that means Google has adopted the versionless brand names also seen on products like Apple's iPad and Honda's Civic.

The Samsung Chromebook uses an ARM Cortex-A15 processor built by Samsung and called the Exynos 5250, aka the Exynos 5 Dual. ARM licenses its processor designs to companies such as Samsung, Apple, and Qualcomm, and A15 embodies the ambition to push into higher-end devices where x86 chips rule the roost.

Still, Google is being a bit cautious with the product. It's not positioning the Samsung Chromebook as the be-all end-all PC, but rather as a useful, instant-on, affordable device good for those moments around the house when someone needs the Net, or for schools bringing more computing to their students.

Active Google promotion
Google believes the new Chromebook is worth pushing harder. The first-gen models were available online only, and Google did no marketing. The second-gen models that arrived in May were available in 100 Best Buy stores in the United States and select Currys stores in the United Kingdom.

The Samsung Chromebook, though, will be available in 500 Best Buy stores and more than 30 Currys and PC World stores starting next week. Staff will be trained to make sure customers know what they're getting into, Pichai said. And the models also will be available on Amazon.com and Google Play, and online pre-orders begin today, Google said.

"We are going to take more of an active presence in the market," Pichai said. "We believe we have a device for the mainstream. You'll also see us run a marketing campaign like we've done with Chrome."

The back of the Samsung Chromebook is where the ports are located: USB 2.0, USB 3.0, and HDMI 1.4. There's also a SIM card slot and power plug.
The back of the Samsung Chromebook is where the ports are located: USB 2.0, USB 3.0, and HDMI 1.4. There's also a SIM card slot and power plug. Stephen Shankland/CNET

As the troubled PC market has illustrated, a lot of disposable income these days is going toward tablets, not PCs. The PC market might be troubled, but Pichai isn't.

Tablets will sell well, but there are many situations -- notably typing -- when people prefer a device with a traditional keyboard. His daughter uses a Chromebook for school, and "she vastly prefers opening up her Chromebook and doing her homework," he said. Chromebooks also have the instant-on response that's so alluring with tablets, he added.

And in the longer term, the distinction between portable computing devices will blur, Pichai predicted. "I think the notion of what is a tablet and what a Chromebook is over time will converge," for example as tablets learn to get along better with keyboards, he said. (He didn't mention the prime example of such convergence, Microsoft Surface .)

Why use ARM chips?
The biggest reason to use an ARM processor is its low power consumption for battery-powered devices, as Microsoft also concluded when it decided to make its Windows RT operating system. Google says the Samsung Chromebook will last 6.5 hours on one battery, and it runs cool enough that like tablets, it doesn't have a fan.

The Samsung Chromebook uses a Samsung Exynos 5 Dual processor, a dual-core system-on-a-chip based on the ARM Cortex A15 design.
The Samsung Chromebook uses a Samsung Exynos 5 Dual processor, a dual-core system-on-a-chip based on the ARM Cortex A15 design. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Pichai, who's been using a Samsung Chromebook at work and home, says he can get through the day with a half-hour charge that quickly boosts the battery back up to 30 or 40 percent capacity.

The other reason to use an ARM chip is they're designed to do it all through the system-on-a-chip (SOC) approach. The Exynos S Dual chip, a dual-core processor running at 1.7GHz, can decode 1080p video at 60 frames per second; run an external monitor with 2,560x1,600 resolution; support HDMI 1.4, USB 2.0, and 3.0 ports; power a Webcam; use hardware accelerated graphics with the OpenGL and OpenVG interfaces; and run software on its graphics hardware with the OpenCL interface.

The Samsung Chromebook has a single USB 2.0 port, a single USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port, a headphone-microphone jack, and an SD Card slot. There's no RJ-45 jack for an Ethernet cable.

The Chromebook is the quintessential device for cloud computing. Developers face plenty of headaches getting Web apps to work when there's no network connection, and even Google Docs only has partial support -- for example, you can't edit spreadsheets.

An 11-inch MacBook Air is wider than the Samsung Chromebook, but it's not as deep or as thick.
An 11-inch MacBook Air is wider than the Samsung Chromebook, but it's not as deep or as thick. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Google of course is a huge proponent of cloud computing. Along with Google Docs, the company offers its Google Drive service that can store any kind of file and synchronize it across multiple devices. Google Drive ordinarily comes with 5GB of free capacity online, but Samsung Chromebook customers will get 100GB, Pichai said.

And with the new version of Chrome OS, Google has finished its integration of Chrome OS and Google Drive. That means that a person signing on to the device for the first time -- using Google account credentials, of course -- won't have to jump through any extra hoops to have Google Drive working.

Notable in Chrome OS's design is that Web apps use inherently cross-platform software written in HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. That means most software will work the same with no actions needed by programmers. That's a contrast to what Windows developers face supporting both Windows 8 on x86 chips and Windows RT on ARM chips, or that Mac programmers faced when Apple shifted from PowerPC chips to x86 chips.

There is one exception, though: Google' Native Client software. This is used to run software somewhat recrafted C or C++ in a protected memory compartment called a sandbox. Unlike with Web apps, NaCl apps are run as native instructions for the processor. That means NaCl apps -- games mostly have another hurdle to clear with the Samsung Chromebook.

Google is working on an updated version of Native Client called PNaCl, though, that adds a layer of abstraction to shield programmers from the chip complication. And that will arrive on the Samsung Chromebook with the next OS update in six weeks, Pichai said.

One Chrome OS feature that relies on Native Client lets people preview files in Microsoft Office formats. Mostly it's used for games, though. Other browser makers haven't embraced it -- on the contrary, they're mostly somewhere between lukewarm or hostile -- so you can expect the Web to thrive without it.

What computer is totally free of bugs? At least this beetle knew which key to land on.
What computer is totally free of bugs? At least this beetle knew which key to land on. Stephen Shankland/CNET
 

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