Can the netbook's ashes help the Chromebook grow?

By Nathaniel Mott , written on February 4, 2013

From The News Desk

HP has announced its first laptop using Google's Chrome OS, the 14-inch HP Pavilion 14-c010us Chromebook. (We'll go with the "Pavilion Chromebook" for short.) The laptop is available from HP's online store for $329.99, continuing the trend of Chrome OS' low prices and allowing Google to push the netbook's beaten corpse aside and take its place at the bottom of the laptop market.

Chrome OS assumes a few things about its users: That they care about their computer's price, that the browser is all the "computer" they need, and that they would prefer a laptop to a desktop (Google sells just one, Samsung-built "Chromebox"). So I wanted to know how Chromebooks from Samsung, Acer, and HP stacked up against Windows 8 devices from the same manufacturer, Apple's MacBook Air line, and tablets.

Late last year we covered the experience of living within Google's ecosystem, with former PandoDaily writer Trevor Gilbert leaving his iPhone, MacBook, and iPad behind in favor of a Chromebook, Chromebox, and Android-based smartphone. Gilbert wrote six posts on the subject, discussing the syncing of data, music streaming services, the legacy of other operating systems, patents, thoughts on Chrome OS, and whether or not people should "go all the way" with Google. He wrote:

The great thing is that users don’t need a Chromebook to take advantage of all of the great things about Chrome OS (minus the security part, as that’s only truly available on a Chromebook). Just download the Chrome browser. Like flipping a switch, you have all of the capabilities of Chrome OS, without all of the drawbacks and limitations. There is nothing that you can do on a Chromebook that you can’t do in the Chrome browser.

The fact that the two overlap completely is also the biggest reason why I wouldn’t recommend buying a Chrome OS device. Why spend a few Benjamins on a device that does one quarter of the operations that a normal computer does, when you can spend a few more for a computer that does everything? It’s probably the biggest flaw in the Chrome OS system, and although it can be remedied by letting go of the past (as I mentioned in this post) in the same way that iOS let go of OS X, there’s no evidence that such a change is even in the works. All of that is to say that we've covered our bases with Chrome OS as an operating system. It's changed since Gilbert's post, and may continue to change and add more features, like Google Now, but on the whole the operating system is still mainly a blown-up browser. So I wanted to compare one of the areas that Chrome OS devices may have an advantage, due to their lower specs and simpler goals: Battery life.

Being able to hold a charge is a universally important feature, whether the device is a laptop, smartphone, tablet, phablet, or any other device that doesn't rest on a desk or entertainment center.

First I compared the battery life and price of the the Acer C710-2847 (Acer's Chromebook), the Acer V5-571P-6499 (an ultra-thin Windows 8 laptop), the Samsung Chromebook, the Samsung Series 5 13.3" (another ultra-thin Windows 8 laptop), the Pavilion Chromebook, the HP ENVY Sleekbook 6z-1100 (winner of the "Windows 8 laptop with the worst name" prize), the MacBook Air 11", and the MacBook Air 13".

Battery life and price data were taken from the company's own web page to remove pricing discrepancy among retailers. I chose one laptop from each Chromebook-producing company to control for the product pool; comparing an HP-built Chromebook to an HP-built Windows 8 device seems more fair than comparing a Chromebook from HP and an ultra-thin from Dell.

Here's how this first comparison worked out:

The ENVY Sleekbook (I won't make you guys read through all of those ridiculous product names again) and its 9.5-hour listed battery life towers above the competition, beating both the Samsung Series 5 13.3" and the MacBook Air 13" and their 7.5 hour and 7 hour listed lifespans, respectively. HP's ultra-thin device is also the only non-Chromebook to offer the most charge for the buck.

I then divided the devices up by operating system, took the average (mean) of both price and battery life, and ended up with this comparison:

Apple's OS X had the largest discrepancy between cost and battery life. There are other factors at play – OS X's exclusivity to Apple's platform, the famed "Apple tax," device internals, etc. – but if the only thing a customer cares about is battery life (a key factor in that whole "ditching the desktop" thing) on a budget, Apple might not be the first stop.

Let's get crazy for a second and consider another product category: The tablet. Google's assumption that Chrome OS users can get by with low prices and limited functionality is the same assumption behind the rise of the tablet. Who needs crazy-powerful hardware, extra weight, and a few hundred dollars less in their bank account to check Facebook, take notes, and play "Temple Run 2"? And, since Farhad Manjoo credited Apple's MacBook Air and iPad products with killing the netbook, it's only fitting that they have a shot at the Chromebook as well.

So here's the first graph again, with the iPad and iPad mini included:

(We'll get to why Android tablets aren't on there in a bit.)

Here we see that the ENVY Sleekbook is no longer the king of the battery life hill, with both the iPad and the iPad mini beating the Sleekbook by an extra half-hour. The iPad mini also knocks the ENVY Sleekbook from its perch atop the "more battery life for the price" throne, costing a full $170 less than HP's ultra-thin laptop.

Here's the revised operating system comparison:

iOS takes the cake, again.

Now, a word on why Android devices don't appear on these charts. It's not because Android is inferior to any of the other operating systems or because of some personal vendetta – it's because neither Google nor Samsung disclose how long their 10-inch tablets will hold a charge.

Google makes this information readily available for the Nexus 7, which has the same 10-hour battery life as the iPad but costs just $199 from Google's Play store. But the company doesn't include this information for the Nexus 10, the Nexus 7's big brother. Samsung doesn't include this information on its pages for the Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 10.1" or the Samsung Galaxy Note 10.1" either.

Assuming battery life on the Nexus 10 isn't abysmal – which doesn't seem to be the case, according to The Verge's review of the device – Android would almost certainly trounce both of Apple's tablets and every other device listed. The tablet costs $399, a full $100 less than the base-model iPad and just $70 more than the iPad mini.

There's no doubt that Chrome OS devices are often cheaper than Windows 8 and OS X  products. Hell, Acer and Samsung's Chromebooks are cheaper than even the iPad mini, and cost a fraction of what most of the other laptops cost.

But it seems that HP is shooting itself in the foot with its Pavilion Chromebook. The ENVY Sleekbook, horrible name aside, offers twice as much battery life as the Pavilion Chromebook for just $170 more. There isn't anything that the Pavilion Chromebook can do that the ENVY Sleekbook can't do better, faster, and for a longer period of time.

If a consumer is operating on a tight budget, refuses or is unable to work with a 7-or 8-inch tablet, can accept that Chrome OS relies on a constant Internet connection for most of its functions, and plans to use the device sans-charging cord in rare circumstances, the Chromebook is the way to go. But that's a whole lot of "ifs" for a product category that channels the worst of the newly-buried netbook.