Review: Google's All-New Laptop Saves Time and Money

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- What was the biggest cost of owning that laptop or personal computer you've had for the last three years? Was it the price you paid ($500 or $2,000), the software you bought or was it that $299 warranty?

Most likely it was none of the above. It was time.

Let's add it all up, shall we?
  • 1. Updates and upgrades: How many times do you update or upgrade the software on your PC? Once a month? Once a quarter? Most likely, you will have some update at least once a month. How long did it take?
  • You have to figure out which updates to do versus which to decline. Then download them. Then install. Then reboot. You probably spend at least 15 minutes per week doing this. That's 13 hours per year.
  • 2. Rebooting: When you buy a new laptop, it often takes perhaps around 30 seconds to reboot it -- the first day you use it. Once you have installed everything, it always seems to slow down a lot. I don't know many PC users where a full reboot -- until everything has "settled" -- takes less than two minutes. Often it's a lot more.
  • Let's say you reboot once a day. That's two minutes. 730 minutes per year. Again, that's about 13 hours.
  • 3. Security issues: Sometimes, you click on a link in an email or download something that causes trouble. How often does this happen and how long time does it take to resolve? The swing factor here is obviously gigantic, but let's say that it happens twice a year and takes three hours to resolve each time. That's six hours per year.
  • 4. General tech support and troubleshooting: Things just go wrong for reasons unrelated to security breaches. Applications just don't work. There is a blue screen. The computer freezes. Over the last 20 years, how many times did I call Dell (DELL) for general tech support, and how many hours did I spend over the phone for that?
  • On average, I may have had at least two such major tech support events per year, each taking at least three hours. That's six hours per year.

    Now let's add up the points shall we? That's 38 hours per year, 76 hours over a two-year period, 114 hours over three years -- almost a small European vacation.

    How much is your time worth? 114 hours, at $20 per hour, that's $2,280. At $100 per hour, $11,400. What this means is that for most people, by far the biggest cost of owning a PC over three years is the cost of time wasted on things such as tech support.

    The Samsung Chromebook, based on Google's ( GOOG) Chrome OS, saves you from all this.

    With a Chromebook, your laptop boots in less than 10 seconds, and you never spend any time on security issues, general troubleshooting or updating the software. You pay $449 or $549 for the laptop up front, no software or warranties to buy. Just... work. No wasting thousands of dollars in time and aggravation over the next two to three years dealing with problems and lost time.

    The Actual Laptop: It's A Samsung!

    Let me turn to the actual hardware for a moment. One year ago, Samsung launched its first Chromebook. It had a good 12.1-inch screen and keyboard, and under the hood was a dual-core Intel ( INTC) Atom central processing unit. The only serious problem with the device was that the CPU simply didn't have the horsepower for audio/video processing beyond a certain -- too low -- level.

    With this new Chromebook, this has been fixed. The new Intel Celeron dual-core processor handles all audio/video processing I threw at it. The only downside is that it appears to have reduced the battery life from 8.5 hours to 6 hours, which is too bad but not devastating.

    The fan is also not as extremely quiet as its predecessor, but then its predecessor had the quietest fan I have heard to date. Finally, the screen shares a key negative trait with Apple's ( AAPL) MacBooks -- it doesn't bend all the way forward, like a Lenovo ThinkPad does.

    The keyboard and trackpad are now at least on par with Apple's best laptops. I go forth and back numerous times every day, and I give Samsung the slightest edge over Apple here, a first for any laptop to date. The screen is a matte 12.1 incher, which does its job superbly. Yes, an Apple MacBook will give you higher resolution, but the Apple screens have horrible reflections given the glass. Unlike the MacBook Air, the Chromebook has an Ethernet jack.

    This Is One Stellar Piece Of Hardware

    Of note is the new high-quality build of the actual laptop body. The previous Chromebook from a year ago was hardly a cage rattler, but it did not feel as "tight" or "expensive" as an Apple MacBook. This new version ups the ante and feels as bullet-proof as any laptop in the market to date. As icing on the cake, it also looks great with a steel gray color and no cheap design gimmicks. It's a nice variant to contrast with Lenovo's ThinkPads.

    There are two versions of this laptop, and the difference is similar to what it was with the previous model a year ago. $449 buys you the WiFi-only model, and $549 buys you one with a Qualcomm ( QCOM) cellular data chip. The latter version includes 100 Mb per month for two years, on Verizon Wireless. You can "top off" with additional non-contract a-la-carte data as needed: 1 Gb, 3 Gb, 5 Gb, whatever. Do yourself a favor and get this version; the extra $100 will come in handy when you need it the most. It is money extremely well spent.

    As for those who object to Chromebook laptops, there are three arguments against them. Let me deal with them in turn:
  • 1. "Chromebooks can't run the apps that I use."
  • You got me there! It is true that some people need to run apps that don't operate on a Chromebook. Two examples that come to mind are Skype and iTunes. That's just the way it is. Another example is Microsoft ( MSFT) Word, Excel and PowerPoint, but for those there is a counter-argument -- many people are now fine automatically converting those into Google Docs. I have undergone that transition myself and it worked just fine. It may not be for everybody, but for some people it's actually an improvement.

    Google Chromebooks are mostly for those who live mostly inside the Google cloud, using Gmail and Google Docs. There are hundreds of millions of people who fall into this category. Yes, the world is a lot larger than hundreds of millions of people, but that's still a large market.
  • 2. "Why pay $449 for a laptop when I can pay $100 less for a Windows laptop?"
  • There are two counter-arguments to this charge:

    A) The simple hardware quality alone of this second-generation Samsung Chromebook is not on par with a $450 Windows laptop, let alone one for $350. I just told you that the keyboard and trackpad is at least on par with an Apple MacBook, which starts at $999 and goes all the way up toward $2,000. Then consider battery life, weight and so forth and it's clear that strictly based on just the hardware, I think $449 is a bargain right there.

    B) The more important argument is the one outlined at the beginning of this article: Cost is about the time wasted on all sorts of things, not what you put on your credit card the first second of ownership. A Chromebook will save you thousands of dollars over three years that you would have otherwise wasted fixing stuff, talking to tech support and waiting for things to happen.
  • 3. "Why not just use the Chrome browser on any Mac or Windows machine?"
  • Now this is the most devious argument in this whole debate, against which very few people know to argue. I do! Here it is: The fact that a Chromebook uses the Chrome browser (duh!) is irrelevant. The case for the Chromebook would be no different if the Chromebook ran Firefox or Internet Explorer.

    Yes! Contrary to what everyone seems to assume, it's not about the browser! What's the difference between this or that browser anyway? Nothing vital or relevant to the case for or against the Chromebook, as far as I can see.

    The key here is it's about the operating system, not about the browser. Google may even have made a mistake here, in calling the product a "Chromebook." Users are almost led to believe that they're buying a "more limited" PC because this laptop "only runs a browser, after all."

    It is the operating system, not the browser, that yields the management and security benefits of the Chromebook. That's what generates the savings in aggravation and time.

    In other words, you don't buy a Chromebook in order to run the Chrome browser. If it ran Firefox or Internet Explorer, it wouldn't have made any difference. It's the operating system that makes this product into a zero-maintenance, high-security, instant-boot computer.

    If you buy a Windows or Mac laptop, you don't get any of these benefits. Sure, you can of course use the Chrome browser, but so what? Can most people really tell the difference between the three major browsers anyway? My contention is that they cannot. But they can tell the difference between a computer booting up in eight seconds instead of two minutes, and whether they have to waste an hour or two every week on maintenance and troubleshooting, versus never having to waste a second on fixing it -- ever.

    Chromebook vs. iPad

    Some want to make a Chromebook into an iPad alternative. This comparison is almost completely irrelevant, like comparing any motorcycle against any car. A motorcycle and a car are both in the transport business, but they can't really be compared fairly on any level. Likewise with Chromebook versus iPad.

    The iPad is the superior device for leisurely consumption and mobile apps. The Chromebook is a tool you use to get work done -- typing, working with productive documents. Web surfing on the Chromebook is vastly superior compared to an iPad.

    IPad and Chromebook are both outstanding devices in their own right. But in almost no way do they meaningfully compete. I carry both most of the time.

    Chromebox: Chromebook as Desktop Computer

    For $329, you can buy a desktop version of the Chromebook. There really isn't much to say about the Chromebox because once you understand the laptop version -- the Chromebook -- the Chromebox becomes a self-evident proposition.

    Physically speaking, the Chromebox is as close to an identical copy of the Mac Mini as you will realistically get. It can be hooked up to a couple of large displays, keyboards, mice -- the usual stuff. Depending on your computing needs, this would be the ideal computer for fixed work environments such as Wall Street trading desks or anyone else requiring much larger display area, for example, two 30 inch displays with 1080x1920 resolution.

    Bottom Line: Most Highly Recommended

    If what you do is Gmail, Google Apps, Google Talk, Google Voice and everything else inside a browser, the Chromebook and Chromebox are the right computers for you. Over two to three years, they may save you thousands of dollars worth of time otherwise wasted on tech support and other aggravating things such as simply waiting minutes for reboots.

    The most important recommendation I can give is the Chromebook is the computer I give to relatives. I decided I never again wanted to spend another Thanksgiving being Mr. Tech Support or get those calls about something not working right. I give a Chromebook and I never hear about computer trouble again. A Chromebook just works. Isn't that how it should be?

    The only question is: With Google having such a superb product on its hands, will it -- along with its partner Samsung -- bother marketing it?

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