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Chromebook arrives as Netbook checks out

As the Chromebook arrives at stores, Lenovo's president, coincidentally, sees the demise of the Netbook and the rise of the tablet.

The Google Chromebook has arrived at stores. You might call the timing uncanny. PC giant Lenovo signaled this week that it sees no future in a similar design--the Windows Netbook.

The Samsung Chromebook is now available online and at stores.  A better Netbook?
The Samsung Chromebook is now available online and at stores. A better Netbook? Samsung

Samsung's Chromebook, now available at stores and sales sites like Best Buy and Amazon, runs Google's Chrome operating system on top of an Intel dual-core Atom processor. Like its cousin, the traditional 10-inch Netbook, it is light at just over 3 pounds and about three-quarters of an inch thick.

A Wi-Fi-only Chromebook costs $429, while the 3G version is priced at $499. Other hardware features include a 16GB solid-state drive and a 1,280x800 display (which Samsung states has a brightness of 300 cd/m2).

But as CNET Reviews points out, a slick design doesn't necessarily translate into an across-the-board great experience. The review cited problems with the minimalist Chrome operating environment when dealing with common file formats like ZIP and doing simple tasks like editing photos. And challenges when doing productivity work in the Chrome OS environment, which demands a connection to the Web.

Which brings us back to the Netbook, which has been plagued by the opposite problem. The Netbook tried to do too much with too little hardware. Windows 7--designed for more powerful Intel chips--never ran well on the Atom processor. And Netbooks have always been overshadowed by more powerful but inexpensive Windows laptops and, more recently, tablets like the iPad.

Lenovo, for its part, sees a future in tablets. "Netbooks are pretty much over," Lenovo president and chief operating officer Rory Read said when speaking (subscription required) to Dow Jones this week. In the Netbook's stead, the PC giant will launch two Android tablets and one Windows tablet later this year.

And recent market research from Gartner supports the rise of the tablet and fall of the Netbook. "Mini-notebook [Netbook] shipments have noticeably contracted over the last several quarters, and this has substantially reduced overall mobile PC unit growth," Ranjit Atwal, research director at Gartner, said in a statement earlier this month.

Will Chromebooks with a more robust Chrome OS--i.e. able to do more local tasks (sans Internet) and better at handling some of the gotchas cited above--succeed? An interesting question because an improved Chromebook may actually provide a decent alternative to a tablet.