Google Fires Latest Laptop Missile Into Microsoft’s and Apple’s Hull

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- When I started writing about Google's (GOOG) superior laptops in December 2010, almost everyone in the tech industry and press laughed at me.

They said that Google could never match Microsoft (MSFT) and Apple (AAPL) in the PC business, and that I was insane for predicting it.

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They're not laughing at me anymore. And not at Google, either. Now Chromebooks have been Amazon's (AMZN) top seller almost every week since November 2012, and with typically at least five out of the top 20 best-selling laptops running Google's operating system.

One by one, most of the large PC hardware makers such as Dell, Acer, Lenovo (LNVGY) , Hewlett-Packard (HPQ) , Samsung (SSNLF) and Toshiba (TOSBF)   have diversified away from exclusively focusing on Microsoft's Windows OS, offering laptops based on Chrome OS. Meanwhile, school district after school district are switching out their Microsoft and Apple products, getting their students hooked on Google at an early age.

The latest entry in Google's PC onslaught is Asus, which includes an 11.6- and a 13.3-inch laptop. I tested the 13.3-inch version, which sells for $230 on Amazon, making it the least expensive 13.3-inch Chromebook on the market.

The Asus Chromebook C300 weighs 3.1 pounds, but it somehow feels lighter. It is made out of ostensibly cheap black plastic. This black plastic has a practical advantage aside from feeling unusually light: It seems like it could survive all sorts of bumps and hits without absorbing dents or scratches.

The screen is a basic Chromebook's standard 768 x 1366 non-touch panel. That is par for the course in the ultra-budget laptop category. You would pay at least around $340 for the least expensive 1080 x 1920 screen Chromebook.

The problem with all screens in this price category is not so much the 768 x 1366 resolution, but the low level of brightness. Once you are used to something like the HP Chromebook 11 or the Chromebook Pixel, a lower level of brightness just doesn't measure up. That's par for the course for anything close to this $230 price.

The keyboard is excellent. Not as good as the HP Chromebook 11 or perhaps the much more expensive laptops in the market, but one of the better nonetheless. The track pad is acceptable -- clearly not among the best, but plenty good enough for most people.

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The biggest question I had about this new Chromebook was the choice of CPU. Until now, there had been two main choices for CPUs in Chromebooks. On the one hand, you could go with a powerful Intel (INTC) Pentium-class CPU, which provided outstanding performance just as one would expect. These laptops all need a fan, however, which in ideal world you would like to avoid in a portable laptop.

On the other hand, you could go with an ARM (ARMH) -based Chromebook mostly based on a CPU from Samsung. These laptops did not require a fan. I found, however, that the performance was not good enough even for my most basic needs.

The way the poor performance manifested itself was when you navigate to a web page where lots of information needs to be loaded, such as a blog with many hundreds of long comments and replies. It would be a pain to scroll down the page. That is unacceptable.

This Asus 13-inch Chromebook is to the best of my knowledge the first Chromebook to use the Intel BayTrail M Dual-Core N2830 CPU. It is not a Pentium Celeron i3 class CPU, but rather something designed more for tablets and less productivity-focused devices. Would it hold up to my basic performance requirements?

I can tell you that for my limited needs, it does, even if barely. Where some of the first Chromebooks introduced in 2010 and 2011 did not, and the ones based on Samsung's ARM processor do not today, this one appears to handle complex web pages without freezing up. Because that is the most intensive thing I do with a laptop, it passes my test.

There are other 13-inch Chromebooks arriving soon that could challenge this Asus C300, specifically Acer's new 13-inch entry that is based on Nvidia's (NVDA) new ARM-based CPU. That device is fanless and has a 1080 x 1920 screen. On paper, it would appear to beat this Asus C300, even though all of its versions carry higher prices.

However, I have not yet tested this new Nvidia-based Acer 13 inch Chromebook. The verdict will depend on whether the Nvidia CPU performs at least as well as this Intel-based Asus C300. Stay tuned for my review of the Nvidia-based Acer hopefully very soon.

So which Chromebook to buy?

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If you need embedded cellular (LTE) connectivity, you should get the HP Chromebook 14 for $350 or the Google Pixel for $1,450.

If you don't need embedded LTE, aka Wi-Fi only, then it depends on the screen size and resolution sought. If you are okay with an 11.6-inch screen, my recommendation is the Acer C720 for only $200. This one has a powerful Intel CPU and can even be had with an Intel Core i3 for extra money.

If you need a 13.3-inch laptop without LTE, this Asus C300 rises to the top. For only $230, you get acceptable Intel CPU performance inside a sturdy physical shell.

If you need a 14-inch laptop, I recommend the HP Chromebook 14, even though it is heavy and thick. The Intel CPU performance is solid, and besides I don't know why you wouldn't order the version that's lacking embedded LTE.

If you need a higher screen resolution than 768 x 1366, you can buy the Google Pixel, which has the best screen of any Chromebook by far. It has a resolution of 1700 x 2560 and the brightness is 400 NITS. If you are using this as your primary screen all days long, pay up and invest in this Bugatti of Chromebooks.

It will be interesting to see if the Acer Chromebook with 1080 x 1920 resolution can be recommended. The price looks to be $380 with 4 megs of RAM and it should be available very soon.

In the meantime, this Asus C300 is now my top recommendation for a 13-inch Chromebook with low resolution (768 x 1366) and lacking embedded LTE. It is an outstanding value for only $230 on Amazon. At this price, buy a few of them and put one in every room.

At the time of submitting this review, the author owned shares of Nvidia.

This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.

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