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hiawatha bray | tech lab

High prices take the shine off Chromebooks

For Chromebooks, the next big thing is the price tag. And that doesn’t bode well for the future of these slick little machines.

Chromebooks are stripped-down laptops that run Chrome, a super-simple operating system developed by Google Inc. These machines can’t run the full-featured software designed for Microsoft Corp.’s Windows computers or Apple Inc.’s Macs. Instead you can use Google’s free suite of software for jobs like word processing and spreadsheets, or install third-party apps that run inside a browser and let users look at movies, listen to music, or play games. And though Chromebooks contain no hard drive and limited data storage, they let you stash gigabytes of data online on the Google Drive cloud storage service. It’s a minimalist approach to computing, at a minimal price. Back in 2011, the first wave of Chromebooks were priced as low as $200.

Chrome 2

Chrome 2

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But now comes a new generation that will sell for nearly twice as much. I’ve been testing two of them — the Chromebook 2 from Samsung Corp., and the C720 by Acer. They’re good computers too, but not twice as good as their cheaper brethren. And as Chromebooks head toward the $400 neighborhood, they’re going to run headlong into full-fledged Windows laptops moving in the other direction. Spooked by respectable sales of Chromebooks, PC makers like Dell and Hewlett-Packard are introducing sub-$400 machines equipped with Microsoft software. Most users will pick a cheap and familiar Windows machine over an equally costly Chromebook.

I gave the original Acer C720 a rave review when it premiered last year. It offered solid performance at a tasty price of $249. One reason for its low cost was Acer’s choice of processor -- a low-end Celeron chip from Intel Corp. It’s a mediocre chip for running Windows, but the Celeron is more than adequate for Chrome. At least, I thought so.

Acer plainly disagreed. Enter the new, improved C720, with a price of $379.99. This version runs an Intel Core i3 chip, similar to those found in standard Windows laptops. Acer’s quite proud of the upgrade, insisting that they’ve created a true high-performance Chromebook.

Acer C720

Acer C720

However, I saw no significant speed boost as I watched movies and scoured the Web. Such tasks don’t need much computing muscle; today’s smartphones handle them with ease. A power user -- somebody who opens 10 browser windows at the same time, while crunching numbers inside a spreadsheet and running YouTube videos -- would likely benefit from the i3 chip. But people like that shouldn’t be buying Chromebooks.

In other respects, the C720 is little changed from last year. It’s got a compact, adequate 11.6-inch screen that’s a little grainy and washed-out but okay for video viewing if you position it at just the right angle. There are two USB ports, a slot for SD memory cards, and an HDMI jack for hooking up to a TV set. Throw in last year’s processor, and last year’s $250 price, and it would be a pretty good deal. In fact, Acer still sells the cheaper model. That’s the one to pick.

Meanwhile, from Samsung Corp. comes the Chromebook 2, priced at $378. Powered by Samsung’s own eight-core processor chip, this machine boasts a bigger 13-inch screen with higher resolution, and a wider keyboard to match. Like the Acer, it includes HDMI, USB, and SD memory ports.

The bigger, brighter screen is welcome, but not essential. Streamed video looked only slightly better than on the Acer. But the broader keyboard makes for more comfortable typing. And the larger case made room for a larger battery, so the Samsung handily beat the Acer in my favorite endurance test -- streaming Internet video over Netflix. After four hours and 15 minutes of Sergio Leone and Sherlock Holmes, the Samsung’s battery reported a 46 percent charge, compared to 33 percent for the Acer.

But what’s the point of paying $400 for a Chromebook anyway? Nowadays you can get a decent Windows machine for not much more than that. Matter of fact, Dell’s been running a promotion on a two-in-one laptop that converts into a tablet and runs Windows 8. Just $400. Such machines are underpowered and short on features. But so are Chromebooks. If you’re going to buy a stripped-down computer anyhow, you might as well choose one that can run Microsoft Word.

Unless you can find something else -- a sleek, simple machine that’s good enough for real work and cheap enough to purchase for the kids. I’ve seen a few. They’re called Chromebooks, and they sell for around $250. At least, they ought to.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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