Thursday, 27 August 2015

The standardisation of Chromebooks

Chromebook specifications, generally, tend to be standardised; the current batch, with some exceptions, adopt the Nvidia Tegra K1 and Celeron Baytrail-M processors (with the recent addition of Rockchip), 16GB SSD, 2GB RAM and a TN panel display. Dell offer something different with their Chromebooks by allowing some choice for the user to configure their device. The latest Dell 11 Chromebook, for example, can be configured in regards to RAM and touch screen. The 4GB version retails for a reasonable £189 and comes with a Baytrail-M processor; the previous generation sells for an identical price but comes with a more powerful Celeron Haswell processor. The plus side, with the newer generation, is that it comes, in the words of Dell, with a "Mil-spec tested for drops, spills on the keyboard and track pad, vibration, heat, humidity, dust and dirt" (the military spec is due to the device primarily being directed at schools). Other manufacturers do offer variants, e.g. 2GB and 4GB, but these are different models and the 4GB version is often difficult to find and when available, retailers can hike prices significantly (Dell, by selling devices direct to users, control the retail price and only increase the price of the 4GB version by £20). In general, Dell offer the best Chromebooks and their new 'mid-range' Chromebook 13 further expands options beyond the present standardisation of Chromebooks.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Chromebook specs comparison chart

This website has an excellent overview of Chromebook devices since their initial release in 2011. It shows a stark increase in battery life, with some Chromebooks now reaching up to 13 hours. In regards to performance, then 2013 saw a performance spike with Octane scores figuring between 11000 - 12000 due to the release of Haswell based Chromebooks, though only a few Chromebooks were released late that year. It is an oddity with Chromebooks that prices fluctuate more with RAM and display, then with performance (this probably due to the relative scarcity of Chromebooks with an IPS display and/or 4GB RAM). For example, the HP Chromebook 11 with an IPS display, powered by an Exynos processor, retailed at a similar price to the Acer C720 that came with more than a 50% performance increase.

Friday, 21 August 2015

The problem of underpowered Chromebooks

The main advantage of Chromebooks is in cloud based web apps that require minimal maintenance by the end-user. With a stripped down and simplified computing experience, there is a mistaken assumption that Chromebooks work well with low-end hardware offering performance better suited to mobile level devices. This is further confirmed by manufacturers that market the idea of Chromebooks as a secondary device for 'basic' computing needs. Thus most Chromebooks offered by retailers  come with lower end Celeron processors bundled with a meagre 2GB of RAM that suffice for the marketed light use scenarios. However, Chromebooks can be more than this and the growing web based tools require more memory, other than an adequate processor that briskly renders and loads large documents from the cloud.

Late 2013 saw a number of Chromebooks with Haswell Celeron processors that offered very good performance, even with 2GB of RAM. Since then, however, the trend has been a move to ARM based processors (Exynos, Rockchip RK3288 and NVIDIA Tegra K1) and Celeron Baytrail-M processors (N2830 and N2840) that require no fans and extend battery life but offer near 40% decrease in performance compared to the Haswell Celeron. This move compromises the hassle free computing that Chromebooks are meant to offer with, at times, sluggish performance and longer rendering of documents through Google Docs. While Chrome OS is a stripped down cloud based operating system, it is closer to a desktop experience that can be throttled with mobile class hardware. The next step from manufacturers seems to further expand in the use of ARM based processors and low-power Celeron Braswell chips that offer no performance improvements over Celeron Baytrail-M (in fact, performance with Braswell is less than the chips they are replacing).

Seeing the continued trend with underpowered but power efficient chips, then it makes sense for Google to optimise the working of their native apps (Google Docs, Youtube, Google Music etc.) with chip-sets offered by Chromebook manufacturers. Of course, the ideal case scenario would be to complement this optimisation with more powerful processor chips that provide a performance bump to handle most web based applications e.g. Intel Celeron Broadwell based processors.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Chromebook killers & other nonsense

The new Acer Cloudbook is described as a “Chromebook killer" by some but this fails to identify the use and niche that the Chromebook fills. It also points to Microsoft's continued failure to see the Chromebook as something more than a budget device that meets light computing needs; instead of producing an alternative to Chrome OS, the response was low-end hardware partnerships with OEMs shipping full Windows (the 32 bit version) but with the license fee for Windows wavered, to keep costs low. With this step the advantages of cloud computing were ignored for full Windows, bundled with a one year Office 365 subscription (Microsoft may be ending the one year Office 365 subscription). According to Microsoft's logic, why get a Chromebook, when at similar cost there is full Windows and Office 365 (you can do more with that!). It would make more sense for Microsoft to identify what makes Chrome OS different and then develop the now defunct Windows RT as a cloud based operating system built around the snappy Microsoft Edge browser, bundled with key productivity apps from the Microsoft Windows store. In other words, this approach would rely on both the Windows store and Edge browser, with cloud based tools synced from a Microsoft account. Around these two points the tools are there for Microsoft to develop an alternative cloud based operating system, if there is only the imagination to make use of the intuitive metro interface and to bundle the Office store apps with OneDrive storage. In its own way, the Lumia phones have taken this direction and run far better with mobile hardware than Android phones.

Chrome OS, in contrast to full Windows, is a stripped down OS that is more than a browser. Chromebooks and Chromeboxes are a different way of computing and one that releases the need for maintenance of a bloated operating system from the user (there is good reason schools are increasingly adopting Chromebooks, as they significantly cut maintenance costs, other than the low cost hardware that Microsoft aims to counter). Chrome OS's virus and hassle free computing works better with low-end hardware, compared to Windows, as the end-user has less to deal with and this removes the clutter for users to then utilise tools that meet their needs (cloud computing is not ready for power-users at this moment). The misnamed Acer Cloudbook is a different computing concept to Chromebooks and meets a different need; it should also be noted that Acer is the largest manufacturer of Chrome OS devices that sell very well.