A year ago, I wrote that the first Chromebooks felt more like a science project than a strategic product. They were interesting but of little practical value. A lot has changed since then, and while I wouldn't say that Google has developed a truly compelling device, it has shown that the Chromebook and its underlying Chrome OS are evolving.
Chrome OS is Google's attempt to create a new class of Web-based operating system, designed to work on special devices, the first of which were last year's Chromebooks. Since then, Google has refreshed Chrome OS (the actual version number is 19) and with partner Samsung has introduced both a new Chromebook and a desktop device called Chromebox. After using both for the last few weeks, my impression is that Google did a nice job of polishing Chrome in ways that help it shine much better than it did a year ago.
The new Chromebook, called the Series 5, has a 12.1-inch display and 16GB of built-in flash storage. You can add a Verizon Wireless 3G radio, with 100MB free per month for two years. There's a much-improved trackpad (the trackpad on the first Chromebooks was all but unusable), and the device is now powered by an Intel Celeron processor, which dramatically improves performance, especially for things like streaming high-definition video. Pricing is $449 for the Wi-Fi-only version and $549 for the 3G models.
The Chromebox Series 3 is a small, sleek box that takes some design cues from the Mac Mini. It has the same CPU and memory as the Chromebook. It doesn't include a monitor, keyboard or mouse, but it has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support for keyboards and mice, along with DVI and HDMI output. It costs $329.99.
Both devices are good-looking and solid pieces of hardware, though I'd argue that 3.3 pounds is too much weight for a laptop that isn't really a laptop at all. I could give you more specs, but specs don't have that much to do with what you're buying here. What really matters is the updated Chrome OS experience, and the newest version shows just what a difference a year makes.
One of the biggest drawbacks of Chrome OS was that an offline Chromebook was pretty much a brick with a monitor. Google has worked to address that, adding offline access for Google Docs and Gmail. Both are a little rough around the edges, but they do work. Originally, Google eschewed the idea of a file system in its operating system, but it has now abandoned that stance. The current version of Chrome OS is integrated with Google Drive, giving users a convenient way to access, store and sync content across devices, including PCs, Macs, smartphones and, of course, Chrome.
Chrome OS can't do everything a PC or Mac can do, and I doubt that Google wants it to. But in the past year, the company seems to have recognized that users who invest in a Chromebook (or now a Chromebox) are going to expect to be able to do the same things they do on PCs and Macs. Google's response to that problem has been to integrate remote PC access directly into Chrome OS. This feature is still in beta, but I was able to test the latest version and had no problem connecting to my office Mac and working with it remotely. This feature amounts to a big deal, since it removes a major impediment to adoption.
Because the Chromebox supports HDMI output, I thought it might be fun to connect it to my TV set. It worked rather well. Unlike Google TV, none of my browser content was blocked, and I had full access to sites like Hulu, Netflix and all the major networks. As far as those sites were concerned, there was nothing to block. I'm a skeptic when it comes to Web browsing on a TV set, but the Chromebox does make it easy if that's what you want to do.
As they stand now, the Chromebook and Chromebox are transitional. They point toward potential that could eventually make them good choices for a lot of people who have embraced the concept of the personal cloud and for whom a PC is but one device among many. It's a lot easier now than it was a year ago to see how a Chromebook or Chromebox could become a user's additional screen.
But the price of these machines is going to have to come down for that to happen, and the hardware probably has to move even beyond the slimmed-down aesthetics of ultrabooks. The current versions of both hardware and software do suggest, though, that Google is going to keep trying to get there.
Michael Gartenberg is a research director at Gartner. The opinions expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter @Gartenberg.