Hats off to Google (GOOG) and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) for coming out with the new $279 HP Chromebook 11. The lightweight and inexpensive new device is a welcome addition to a growing number of Chromebooks that serve as an alternative to traditional laptops and tablets.
The new Chromebook 11 looks like a typical 11-inch "ultrabook" with a very nice screen that's an upgrade over previous low-price Chromebook screens. It's bright and -- perhaps more important -- has a wide (176 degree) viewing angle. It also has a full-sized keyboard which, to me, is essential because as a touch typist, I make more mistakes if the keys aren't exactly where my fingers expect them to be.
On a Web page, Google pitches the new Chromebook to "everyone." But despite its value, Chromebooks are not for everyone, because they don't run off-the-shelf Windows or Mac programs. If you're accustomed to a particular piece of software -- like Microsoft Office or your favorite photo editing program -- you won't be able to run it on this or any other Chromebook. Chromebooks don't' run off-the-shelf software. Instead they boot directly into the Chrome browser, pretty much the same Chrome browser that many people use on PCs and Macs. Within Chrome you can access any website, view most streaming video and run just about any Web-based app, including those from Google like Gmail and Google's free online word processor, spreadsheet and presentation program.
There are also a growing number of often free third-party apps that run on the Chromebook or on any PC or Mac within the Chrome browser. These include a nifty tool called Publish5 for creating your own Android and Chrome apps, business tools like Invoice2go and Wave Accounting and plenty more. The education section of the Chrome app store has all sorts of free apps for use at home and school, including language training, anatomy games and a virtual planetarium.
I don't use it that often, but I have an old Chromebook in my living room that I sometimes use to access the Web while watching TV. It's a luxury but -- at $279 -- it's not a budget buster for many people. Sure, I could use a tablet or even a smartphone to dash off an email from my living room or tweet about the shows I'm watching or access a website while I'm watching TV or chatting with others. But given a choice, I prefer a real keyboard to typing on glass.
I can see people buying Chromebooks to take on the road -- assuming they don't need Windows or Mac software when they travel -- or use around the house or around town. Personally, I prefer writing in Microsoft Office and it's hard for me to live without a couple of programs that run on Macs and PCs, but not on Chromebooks. But these days, I spend most of my time within a browser, so a Chromebook would do the job.
Another big market is education. Many schools now have Wi-Fi networks and there are plenty of useful apps for students that can run within the Chrome browser. Considering the low price of Chromebooks, it's an ideal solution for classes that require multiple devices. In a blog post, Google said that more than 3,000 schools worldwide have employed Chromebooks and that Malaysia has adopted Google apps for 10 million students.
The new Chromebook also has a webcam and a nice tapered design. The case is plastic (I got a white one that reminded me a bit of those old white MacBooks). It weighs only 2.3 pounds, about the same as an 11-inch MacBook Air. Even though it's light and small, it has a solid feel to it.
There is only 16 gigabytes of onboard storage, but the device comes with 100 gigabytes of free Goolge drive online storage for two years (along with 12 free Gogo Inflight Internet sessions). Of course, most people will be using cloud-based apps that have their own storage, but it's also possible to run some Google apps, including Gmail in offline mode. Other apps, including a music player, a graphics editor, and some games can also be played in offline mode. While offline, the only storage you can access is the 16 GB on the device itself, although you can also add additional USB storage. The HP Chromebook comes with two USB ports.
One of my favorite features of the new Chromebook is its microUSB charger. Instead of a proprietary charging cable like most laptops, the new Chromebook uses the same standard microUSB connector as all Android phones and most other phones, except iPhones. Not only does that mean that you don't have to carry separate extra chargers and cables for your phone and Chromebook, but if you lose your charger or leave home without one, you can easily find an inexpensive replacement.
I'm not about to give up my Windows desktop PC or my MacBook Air, but I am nonetheless glad that there is a new option at an affordable price.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is co-director of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit Internet safety organization that receives financial support from Google.