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Chrome OS gets sticky, as new Chromebooks emerge

Apr 2, 2015 — by Eric Brown 3,323 views

Google announced an Asus “Chromebit” HDMI stick running Chrome OS, plus four new low-cost Chromebooks, and opened its Android-to-Chrome OS app porting tech.

Google took the Linux and Chrome browser based Chrome OS a step closer to a potential convergence with Android as it announced the first embedded form-factor Chrome OS computer, as well as the most affordable touchscreen Chromebook yet. Google also opened up its App Runtime for Chrome (ARC) technology for porting Android apps to Chrome OS to all Android app developers, and revealed a beta Chrome Launcher 2.0 with greater integration of Android’s Google Now application (see farther below).

All the new Chrome OS devices run on Rockchip’s quad-core, 1.8GHz Rockchip RK3288. a Cortex-A17 system-on-chip that also features an ARM Mali 760 GPU. The Rockchip based Chromebooks are significantly more affordable than earlier models.

Haier Chromebook 11 (left), Hisense Chromebook, and Asus Chromebook C201
(click images to enlarge)

The Haier Chromebook 11 and Hisense Chromebook — two 11.6-inch models aimed at educational and emerging markets — each go for $149, down from a previous Chromebook low of $199. The convertible, touchscreen-enabled Asus Chromebook Flip sells for $249, which is $30 cheaper than the touch-ready Acer C720P-2661 and $50 less than the $299 HP Chromebook 14 G3.

Asus Chromebook Flip in pure touch mode, with its keyboard flipped to act as a stand
(click image to enlarge)

The Flip’s 10.1-inch IPS display rotates 360 degrees, convertible style, to fold flat into a tablet form factor. Asus also announced a more traditional, 11.6-inch Chromebook C201 laptop notable for its claimed 13-hour battery life.

Two views of unflipped Chromebook Flip in action
(click images to enlarge)

All four Chromebooks integrate the HD-ready RK3288SoC, as well as 2GB of DDR3 RAM, 16GB of eMMC flash, a microSD slot, an HDMI port, dual USB 2.0 ports, 802.11ac, and Bluetooth 4.0.A front-facing 720p camera is also available, as well as 100GB of free Google Drive storage for two years.


Introducing the “Chromebit” — a stick computer running Chrome OS

The most novel of the new Chrome OS devices is the Asus Chromebit stick computer. Relatively few details are available on the device, which will ship this summer for under $100.

Asus Chromebit
(click image to enlarge)

This is no Chrome OS version of Google’s $35 Chromecast — there was no mention of casting, although that may turn out to be available. Instead, it’s a full Chrome OS based HDMI stick computer more akin to the many Android media player sticks on the market. Other recent models that have adopted the Chromebit’s Cortex-A17 based RK3288 include Rikomagic’s $110 MK903V, a stick version of its MK902II mini-PC.The Chromebit can also be considered as a smaller, stick alternative to Chromebox mini-PCs like the $179 Asus Chromebox.

The Chromebit shares the same features as the other Chromebooks, but only has one USB port and lacks a microSD slot or camera. Once plugged into your TV’s HDMI port, the device is designed to fold up so it doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.

Android-to-Chrome app ready for porting

The Chromebit, as well as the more affordable touchscreen Chromebook, accelerates an inevitable (but probably only partial) convergence between Chrome OS and Android. Even Google’s original touchscreen Chromebook — the high-end Pixel — has dropped in price in its new second generation Pixel model, but only to $999.

Right now, there are only about 30 touch-ready Chrome OS apps available, but there should be many more in the coming months. As reported by OMG!Chrome, Google has opened up its App Runtime for Chrome (ARC) this week from a previous limited release. Any Android developer can now download the ARC Welder software and start porting Android apps to Chrome OS. ARC is said to run Android with near-native performance via a sandboxed Dalvik virtual machine.

Another sign of Android convergence arrived last week in the form of a beta Chrome Launcher 2.0 that overhauls the Chrome OS UI with a more Android 5.0 like Material Design appearance. The key enhancement is greater integration of Android’s Siri-like Google Now engine.

Chrome Launcher 2.0 (beta) screenshots
(click images to enlarge; source: Google)

Chrome OS remains a primarily browser-driven environment, somewhat similar to Firefox OS, while Android is app-driven. However, along with Google’s other gradual retreats from its original network-only vision for Chrome OS, the new hardware and software moves are bringing the Linux based platforms together.

It’s only a matter of time before the first Chrome OS tablet hits the market. That prospect seemed more breathtaking when it was prophesied several years ago. Today, however, tablet sales are declining as the market moves to 5- to 6-inch phablets, which will likely remain Android territory.

Meanwhile, Chromebooks have helped to resuscitate the netbook market, thanks in part to growth in educational and emerging market sales. Google also announced three new Chrome OS partnerships with Nexian (Indonesia), True (Thailand), and Xolo India, aimed at emerging markets, suggesting that Chromebooks may be heading for a low-cost Android One sales strategy.

Although over half of all Chromebook models, which now total over 20 if you include Chromeboxes, have larger screens, all four of the new models have screens under 12 inches. Other low-priced netbook sized Chromebooks have enjoyed strong sales, as well.

The original netbook boom of 2008-2010 also had a significant Linux flavor, with more than 20 percent of units running Ubuntu and other Linux distributions, albeit only for a year or two. That may not sound like much when you consider Linux’s dominant share of smartphones and tablets (via Android), and its substantial role in embedded devices. Yet, according to Statista’s 4Q 2014 estimates, even with booming sales of Chromebooks, Linux still represents only 1.4 percent of the global PC market share, or 2 percent of the U.S. market. NetMarketshare puts the global Linux figure at 1.5 percent.

While the original netbooks almost all ran on Intel Atom processors, the latest Chromebooks use ARM-based Rockchip SoCs. Intel still owns a big, and possibly the biggest, chunk of Chromebook sales, but all of the currently available systems run Core or Celeron processors instead of Atoms.

Intel may yet be able to interest PC vendors in upcoming Chromebooks running its new 14nm “Cherry Trail-T” Atom x5 and x7 SoCs. If not, it can at least turn to its old WinTel pal Microsoft.

A Mar. 27 Digitimes report says Microsoft is taking the new wave of low-cost, Rockchip-based Chromebooks seriously, and is working with partners on similarly priced Windows 10 systems that run on quad-core Intel Atom Z3000 (Bay Trail-T) SoCs. This summer, a company called 3 Nod will release a consumer model, and Elitegroup Computer Systems (ECS) will work with Intel to release an education-focused Chromebook sold through the two companies’ Classmatechannel, says Digitimes.

Further information

The Haier Chromebook 11 is available for pre-order for $149 at Amazon, and the Hisense Chromebook is open for pre-orders at at Walmartfor the same price. The Asus Chromebook C201 will be available in May for $169, and the touch-enabled Asus Chromebook Flip will sell for $249 sometime this spring. The Asus Chromebit will be available this summer for under $100.

More information on the Chromebit and four new Chromebooks may be found in the Google blog announcement and on the Google Chromebook product page. More may eventually appear on the Asus, Haier, and Hisense websites.

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