NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Public perception typically lags reality. As such, there are still a lot of people who don't know anything about Google's (GOOG) - Get Alphabet Inc. Class C Report PC operating system, Chrome OS.
They don't know what it is, or why they would want it. They haven't tried it.
Yet, at the same time, Google's laptops -- made by Samsung and Acer -- are now the two top sellers on Amazon.com, and six out of the top 14 are Google Chromebooks. Talk to many schools and you'll see them either throwing out Microsoft (MSFT) - Get Microsoft Corporation Report and Apple (AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. Report products already, or plotting to replace them with Chromebooks in the next year or two.
The overall market impact is clear: Windows PCs have been in decline for over a year, perfectly mirroring the increase in Chromebooks sales. Mac PC sales have ceased to grow, and can barely stay flat even with the "halo" drag effect from iPhones and iPads.
In other words, whatever one's personal opinion about the quality and suitability of the product, the rapid rise of Chrome OS from a non-entity to material sales success is undeniable -- and you're not a denier, are you?
Still, to many Americans, Google's PCs are a mystery. They've never used one. It's a little bit like Tesla (TSLA) - Get Tesla Inc Report: What's the big deal? "You're telling me that it's better, but I don't get it."
While there is no substitute for actually trying the product, I will try to sort out the two main questions most people tend to have about Chromebooks:
1. Why would I want a Chromebook when I can just run Chrome on my Mac or Windows laptop?
2. Why is Chrome OS better than Google's other operating system, Android?
Let's start with the first one: Why is Chrome OS better than Mac and Windows?
It all comes down to simplicity. Over the years, a Windows and Mac PC have proven too complicated for most regular consumers. There are so many things you have to think about, from viruses to updates and configurations. Too many things to manage. Who has time to do it properly, even if one knew how?
It starts when you unpack a Windows or Mac PC from the box. Just getting it set up can take 30 minutes or more, depending on your individual situation. Over the last 25 years, every time I got a new laptop I probably spent the better part of a weekend getting it set up to my liking.
I know some aspects of Windows 8 and the latest Macs have gotten better about the initial setup time, but it still pales in comparison with a Google Chromebook. Why? Because on a Google Chromebook you are fully set up in barely 30 seconds. After that initial set-up, you boot up from cold in approximately 10 seconds.
That's for one user. What if you want lend your laptop to someone else, say a child or a friend or a co-worker? Getting set up for that takes some effort on a Windows or Mac PC.
On a Chromebook? No effort at all. You can have anyone use your PC on a moment's notice, without co-mingling any data or other files. That's a key reason Chromebooks are taking over the education market: Several kids can share one laptop without risk or bureaucracy.
The key point is this: A Chromebook is the right kind of device for a child or elderly person -- or just someone who isn't a full-time computer geek or expert -- because it makes the whole experience around basic maintenance into a big zero. It's like having a car that never needs maintenance and doesn't break down -- other than if it's beaten-up physically, of course.
You can give a Chromebook to grandma or your 3-year-old and you won't have to be on tech support standby. Give them the computer and you never hear from them again. No needing to spend Thanksgiving troubleshooting Cousin Griswold's laptop anymore.
Life on a Chrome OS PC is pretty simple: On a Chromebook, you optimize your activities using Google's services, with a simple sign-in:
- Type your emails in Gmail.
- Write your stuff in Google Docs.
- Create your spreadsheets in Google Docs.
- Surf the web, Facebook, Twitter, book your airline tickets in Chrome.
All without the headache of maintaining an old-fashioned PC.
That's what the vast majority of regular people do on a PC, and for those people a Chromebook is the ideal tool. There remains a small cadre of folks who need to do other things on a PC. Perhaps they are engineering jet aircraft or editing movies in Hollywood. They'll still need a Mac or Windows PC, but for the other 99% of us a Chromebook is a much better solution.
So what about Android? Doesn't Google already have an operating system? Why not just use that one?
It all sounds so good -- until you start to think about it. What's the purpose of a laptop -- or other form factor PC?
What I absolutely need from my laptop are these basic physical ingredients:
1. A screen that's at least 12 or 13 inches diagonally.
2. A keyboard that's as good as the best available in any Windows or Mac laptop.
3. A trackpad that's likewise as good as the best available in any Windows or Mac laptop.
Why do I need these basic physical accommodations? It should be basic knowledge, but here goes:
What I do on my laptop is type and edit text. Compromising on the typing experience is not an option in any shape or form. It's like defeat in war -- simply not an option. The tools of this trade are the keyboard, the screen and the trackpad. They conform to my eyes, palms and fingers.
How many Android devices conform to these basic requirements? As best I can tell, almost none. I say almost because some new device may have recently snuck under my nose in a bewildering array of newly announced devices. There sure wasn't one until recently.
Let's bring this description down to Earth: I wouldn't type this article on any Android-anything that's available in the market, at least until recently.
Android is great -- on a phone and on a tablet -- and perhaps elsewhere, too. But aside from being harder to manage in terms of multi-user scenarios and general maintenance, it also doesn't do what people tend to do on a PC: enable me to type and edit as well as any regular laptop. That could be an email, an essay or a comment on a Facebook post or tweet.
Yes, you can do all of these things on an Android device, but not as well as on any of the Chrome OS laptops available today. I love Android, but it's for different things. Android is great on a smartphone, almost as great on a tablet -- but at this stage not available in a competitive laptop or other PC form.
The fact that Android isn't as suitable on a $200 laptop today doesn't mean that it couldn't be in the future. Things change. But it isn't today.
So there you have it: A Chrome OS device -- for most people, a Chromebook laptop -- is a device that accomplishes what most people do on a laptop, but without all the headaches, and at low prices starting at $200.
For all the hoopla about how much we also love our smartphones and tablets, there is also a robust market for such solid productivity devices. The smashing success of Chromebooks proves it.
Stay tuned for more Chrome OS device reviews in 2014.
At the time of publication the author was long GOOG and AAPL.
This article represents the opinion of a contributor and not necessarily that of TheStreet or its editorial staff.