Com Tech: The Chromebook at 10 stripped-down computers scene

No one expected a great deal from the first Chromebooks, announced 10 years back on May 11, 2011. After all, they arrived on the heels of this Netbook era, when cheap, low-power laptops were seen as a panacea for overpriced technology, but ended up overselling their limited functionality. And after spending several years fighting to acquire Windows-running, Intel-Atom-powered Netbooks to do much of anything useful, I was not optimistic about a personal computer system that seemed even more constrained out of the box.

ChromeOS declared earlier in 2011, didn’t seem like much of a working system at all to me at the time. It was basically just the same Chrome web browser in wide use, with a keyboard and display wrapped about it. The platform’s biggest glaring omission was the ability to install and operate applications.

A decade later, Google’s cheap laptop notion remains kicking — and thriving. Throughout the COVID-19 crisis, Chromebooks assisted students and workers stay connected while stuck in the home. It looks like the Chromebook was ahead of its time, and it took a pandemic for its entire potential to be realized.¬†

A brand new budget challenger
The very first Chromebook versions were announced exactly 10 decades back, May 11, 2011, at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco.

Surprisingly, $350-$450 is still pretty common for an entry Chromebook a decade later, making this one of the few tech products which have not measurably increased in price over the previous 10 years.

As a long-time proponent of budget-priced laptops and desktops, I often say people buy too many computers for their needs, particularly if those needs heavily skew toward basic web browsing, online shopping, social networking, email, and video viewing. Living life completely from the web browser makes sense today, but it turned out to be a difficult sell back in 2011 if there were fewer cloud-based software tools.

A decade later, iPads and Chromebooks are still battling for your everyday computing attention. Both can nevertheless be found for under $400, and superior versions of both top $1,000. The largest change is that Chromebooks have become a bit more iPad-like, including accessibility into this Google Play app shop, while iPads have become more laptop-like, adding mouse and touchpad support.

The first flavor of ChromeOS
It wasn’t until I started going down the decade-long bunny hole of Chromebook history that I recalled the one Chromebook which predated this May 11, 2011 launch. It was Google’s very own Cr-48 Chromebook, a prototype system provided in 2010 to select pilot program invitees. All these plain-looking black boxes had a 12.1-inch, 1,280×800-pixel screen, 3G mobile broadband, and an Intel Atom N455 CPU.

The most fascinating footnote is that a surprisingly forthright admission from Google to potential Cr-48 testers: “The Pilot program isn’t for the faint of heart. Things may not always do the job just right.” Paradoxically, Chromebooks have become successful by exhibiting the opposite behavior. They are the perfect laptop for the faint of heart and items usually work right.

This classic gallery shows you precisely how generic the Cr-48 looked and yes, it had a VGA port.

But what did we think of the first consumer Chromebooks? The first Samsung Chromebook won compliments from my colleague Josh Goldman to be compact, in comparison to Windows notebooks of the time.

We also reviewed an early Acer model called the C7, which dropped its price to an astonishing $199. But our 2012 review stated it did not compare favorably to funding pills and noninvasive Windows laptops: “The Acer C7’s advantages are a physical computer keyboard and touchpad, which larger hard disk, and also the price. The disadvantages? Seriously short battery life and Chrome’s quite odd, streamlined operating system.”

Turning the corner
Things continued like this for some time. Chromebooks ate a great deal of the budget notebook mindshare as more and more companies got into the act, but those machines continued to feel just like backup or secondary laptops at best.

It had a forward-looking 3:2 aspect ratio screen. But the major move that assisted Chromebooks to go from niche product to mainstream was the then-new ability to get the Google Play app shop. Having the ability to run nearly any Android app on a Chromebook took away the largest objection ChromeOS skeptics had — the inability to download and run local apps. Yes, they had been the mobile variations, but it was enough for a lot of tasks.

Today, it’s a Chromebook world
The world changed in March 2020, as offices and the¬†school shut because of COVID-19 and so many items moved online. Many families, between distant faculty and distant work, found they needed one laptop per person and cheap Chromebooks found a brand new audience. These were relatively inexpensive PCs that we’re able to access the online programs that offices and schools were using, such as Zoom and Google Classroom.

During 2020 and 2021, the Chromebook was emphasized among the best tools for pupils and remote employees, and laptop reviewer Josh Goldman currently claims that a Chromebook is his default recommendation for most people right now.