Google Laptops: One Year Later

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- This week marks the anniversary of the first Google laptop. Yes, that first one, called Cr-48, available for approximately six months, was only given to enthusiasts, journalists and other de-facto beta-testers for free, but still it provided allegedly over 60,000 people with real-world experience of this revolutionary product.

That initial Cr-48 model in December 2010 was followed in June to Julythis year by commercially available models from Samsung and Acer. I have not seen any reporting on how many were sold, most probably from Amazon and Best Buy, the two main outlets of availability to date. Prices have ranged from $300 to $500 for different models.

After a long period of using three different Google laptops -- one for a year, and two others for approximately six months each -- I can report that all of them get a 100% reliability and 100% zero-maintenance score. Even the otherwise-revolutionary Apple iPad isn't nearly as easy to use and trouble-free as a Google laptop. And like so many tens of millions of people, I revere the iPad and give it a verdict very close to a flawless 10.0.

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The Google laptops -- often referred to as "Chromebooks" for the Chrome Operating System -- are effectively zero-maintenance and fault-free. Updates to the OS are pushed out typically once every two weeks, and take 10 seconds to install simply by rebooting. When you install a new OS on any other kind of computer, the process may take as much as an hour or more, plus some work that you may need to do after that. It's a huge pain -- but not on the Chromebook.

Some of the initial shortcomings of the Chromebook, such as the less-than-perfectly precise trackpad and the lack of offline support for key apps such as email, calendar and documents, were fixed a few months ago. Yes, one would still like faster hardware (CPU/GPU), but that's coming probably by next summer, and in the meantime the current hardware is sufficient for basic productivity tasks.

I have both Mac and Windows laptops, but when I leave my office to head to a cafe or perhaps a meeting, and I want to bring a laptop, I almost always bring the Chromebook. Why? Primarily two reasons: (1) It's faster, booting up from cold in approximately 10 seconds and no delay thereafter, and (2) It's more secure if I should need to connect to a WiFi network -- which I seek to avoid at all cost.

Speaking of connectivity, if you buy the Samsung version of the Chromebook for $450 from a place such as Amazon or Best Buy, you get two years worth of Verizon EV-DO service included, although only 100 megabytes per month. That may not even last you a day, depending on what you're doing, but is a nice lifeline in case you don't have your own separate "MiFi" (portable WiFi router) or if you want to avoid a potentially unsecured WiFi network. You can then add more Verizon data on a pay-as-you-go basis, if you want to consume above 100 mg. For example, five gigabytes is $50.

Maintenance

The Chromebooks are ideal for people who aren't capable of properly maintaining a full computer, such as a Mac or Windows laptop. Some people get caught in various malware, such as phishing, keyloggers and similarly nasty things. Most people probably fall into the category of those who do not conduct proper PC maintenance and security precautions.

The appropriate solution for all of those who are not computer security experts, is the Google laptop -- the Chromebook.

On a regular laptop, even if you don't suffer a meaningful security breach, your PC is likely to experience slower boot-up times and general sluggishness soon after you're fully set up with your new laptop. Not so with a Chromebook. The original Chromebook from a year ago remains used by me almost every day, and it's as fast or faster today than on the day I first got it. There is a "cleansing" feeling to using a Chromebook that's hard to describe. No dirt ever seems to stick, anywhere inside or out.

Google seems to have marketed the Chromebooks mostly to geeks, schools and enterprises. We have no good idea about how much it's been selling. Anecdotally, I hear school districts and various classes of enterprises buying them. I imagine Google has better marketing and distribution plans in store for 2012.

I recommend the Chromebook for many kinds of situations:Elderly people, kids, employees and people in general who are unsuited to the task of proper PC maintenance. The $450 price for a Verizon-enabled Samsung Chromebook is very reasonable, and I think it may just present the best $450 you can spend on technology in the market today.

The Future

Around the middle of 2012, I imagine we will see a new (second) generation Chromebook that runs on the more power-efficient ARM chips instead of Intel's Atom. These could be made by Nvidia, Qualcomm or perhaps even Texas Instruments. Intel will likely still support Chromebooks, so perhaps this would simply mean a broadening of the platform with much more diversity, including desktops.

As a result of these ARM-based chips from Nvidia and perhaps others,the battery life of these Chromebooks should become even better than today's eight or so hours. At the same time, perhaps those designs could eliminate most fans, and make them even thinner and lighter.

In the meantime, do yourself a favor and pick up a Verizon-enabled Chromebook at a Web site such as Amazon.com and BestBuy.com. The best model I have tested is a Samsung that's typically selling for $450.It will show you, your child, parent or employee how easy and hassle-free computing can really be. Google should not give up on theChromebooks, because they have an unusually perfect product in the market today, that will be even better with beefier CPU/GPU hardware in the coming months.

The iPad is obviously an iconic product that is already occupying a prominent seat in the pantheon of the history of computing -- deservingly so. For the last year, though, I would offer the thought that the Google laptops -- Chromebooks -- deserve to be essentially on par with the iPad in this outstanding distinction. They're that good.

At the time of publication, the author was long AAPL, GOOG and QCOM. Anton Wahlman was a sell-side equity research analyst covering the communications technology industries from 1996 to 2008: UBS 1996-2002, Needham & Company 2002-2006, and ThinkEquity 2006-2008.

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