Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Comparing Chromebooks

[This is a popular post from one of my blogs that I am discontinuing, it was made on 11/16/2012. I added new material at the end.]

Two Chromebooks were just released in the sub-$250 range. In this price range, Chromebooks make sense for a lot of people that read this blog. If you do much of your work on the web and especially if you use Google Docs, a Chromebook may be for you.

First, what is a Chromebook. Well, it is a lightweight laptop that ONLY runs the Chrome web browser. It boots in seconds. It resumes nearly instantly. Many people blanch at that idea of it only giving you a web browser, but at least for me, I very rarely use a laptop for anything else. Both personally and professionally almost all of my work is in Google Docs. The only time I might use a laptop beyond that is for software development, but that generally would require more laptop than I like lugging around, so that is done mostly on the desktop. Look carefully at your own usage, it may surprise you how little you do beyond the web.

Another good usage for a Chromebook is secure browsing. The Chromebook contains special hardware that makes it nearly impossible for you to get a virus or have your keystrokes logged.

For more information about Chromebooks see:

Here is a summary of what is available:
ModelProcessorPriceMemoryBattery (hr)Boot (sec)Weight (lb)
Samsung 500Intel Atom N570$3992Gb6.5123.3
Samsung XE303C12ARM A19 (Exynos 5200)$2492Gb6.5102.4
Acer C7Intel Celeron 847$1992Gb3.5203
Samsung 550Intel Celeron 867$4494Gb683.3

One very interesting thing about the new Chromebooks is that one of them is based on an ARM chip, which is a different architecture than the Intel chips found in most computers. ARM chips are commonly found in tablets like the Nexus 7 or the iPad, but this may be the first time one has appeared in a commonly available laptop. The particular ARM chip is Dual Cortex A19s inside a Samsung Exynos 5. Let's see how it stacks up using some common Javascript benchmarks:

ModelSunSpider 0.9.1% bestKraken 1.1% bestV8 7% best
Samsung 500996.441%15269.530%212540%
Samsung XE303C12759.254%10766.343%344061%
Acer C750181%700065%477285%
Samsung 550408Best4581.8Best5631Best

I used the original Samsung 500 daily when it was first released and can say it was perfectly adequate. It had trouble with small amounts of stuttering on some HD videos. I suspect all models will work fine for most purposes. I have currently the 550 and it really has no issues but cost. Were I to buy today, I would likely buy the Samsung ARM-based (XE303C12) Chromebook. It might have some small amount of lag when pushed, but it's price + quick boot time + the fact it needs no fan (and is lighter and thinner) wins me over. All three of the non-ARM models have fans and will heat up your lap when you use them. The Acer C7 boots too slowly, has a shiny screen (the others are matte) and only has 3.5 hours of battery life. The C7 has a 320 Gb standard hard drive, instead of the 16Gb SSD present in the others. They theory is you could store files there... but why would anyone want to do that on a Chromebook? The slow boot time of the C7 is caused by this drive and further, that drive is much more fragile than the SSD drives. Its pluses of price and performance are not enough to forgive its other issues.

UPDATE: Since I first wrote this post, it has been discovered that the ARM version of the Javascript engine is not as well optimized as the Intel one, so expect the ARM figures to improve as Google releases new versions. [In fact on 1/9/12, I reran them and got: 704.8, 10329 and 3887, so Google has clearly already made things better.] Google often makes things better on Chromebooks, for example boot times are all faster now.

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