Chromebooks: A Prospective Buyer's Guide

Laptops from Samsung and Acer sporting Google's Chrome OS will hit store shelves on June 15, with starting prices between $350 and $500. The devices, called Chromebooks, promise an 8-second boot time, no need for security software, background updates and access to a host of Web apps (most of which are also accessible from any other browser).

When Google first announced Chrome OS in 2009, the tech landscape was a very different place and netbooks with 10-inch screens were the popular new devices. Then in January 2010 tablets such as the iPad came along, and the new 11-inch MacBook Air featuring instant-on capabilities similar to Chromebooks appeared in late 2010.

Those devices might sport higher price tags than Chrome OS devices, but it's not clear whether the new Chromebooks will be able to woo you away from your desktop and into the cloud.

Regardless, if you're thinking about buying a Chromebook next month, here's a breakdown of everything you need to know.

What is Chrome OS?

Chrome OS is basically Google's Chrome browser sitting on top of a Linux kernel with a few tweaks to improve system performance and integrate with peripheral hardware such as external monitors and keyboards. Chrome OS also has a limited file manager so you can access cached data and files contained on storage devices such as USB sticks and SD cards.

When will Chromebooks be available?

Chromebooks go on sale on June 15 in the United States, United Kingdom, France, Germany, Netherlands, Italy and Spain. In the US, Acer is offering a Chromebook and Samsung's laptops will be called Samsung Chromebook Series 5.

Where can I buy a Chromebook?

Google says the devices will be available at many national retailers, but Amazon and Best Buy already have dedicated pages up for the new devices.

What are the specs for Samsung Series 5?

The Samsung Chromebooks feature a 12.1-inch WXGA display with 1280-by-800 resolution. Samsung claims the Series 5 display is 40 percent brighter than typical laptops. The Series 5 also sports an Intel Atom N570 1.66 GHz processor, 2GB RAM, 16GB solid state drive (mSATA), 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, 3G option with service from Verizon Wireless, a 1 MP webcam, two USB 2.0 ports, 4-in-1 memory card reader (SD, SDHC, SDXC, MMC), mini-VGA port, full-sized Chrome keyboard and clickable trackpad. The Chromebook weighs 3.26 pounds and Samsung claims the device's 6-cell battery gives you 8.5 hours of battery life. The Samsung Chromebooks come in white or silver.

What are the specs for the Acer Chromebooks?

The Acer Chromebook features an 11.6-inch LED backlit LCD display with 1366-by-768 resolution, Intel Atom N570 1.66 GHz processor, 2GB DDR3 RAM, Intel Graphics Media Accelerator 1350, 16GB SSD (mSATA), 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, 3G option, two USB 2.0 ports, HDMI port, 4-in-1 media card reader, 1.3 MP webcam, fully clickable trackpad and full-sized Chrome keyboard. Acer Chromebooks weigh about 3 pounds and the company is claiming eight hours battery life from the device's 6-cell battery.

What is a Chrome keyboard?

Google has tweaked the traditional QWERTY keyboard for a Chrome OS world. The function buttons at the top of the keyboard have been replaced by browser-centric buttons such as refresh, switch to next tab, back, full-screen mode and so on. A search key has also replaced the Caps Lock key.

How much do Chromebooks cost?

Despite the hope that Chromebooks would be super cheap, the lowest-priced device is expected to be the Wi-Fi only version of Acer's Chromebook at $350. Pricing for Acer's 3G model was not announced. Samsung Series 5 Chromebooks will cost $430 for the Wi-Fi only version and $500 for the Wi-Fi + 3G model.

Isn't that price a little high for a browser in a box?

I think so. Right now, for example, Amazon is selling an Asus Eee PC with a 12.1-inch display with 1366-by-768 resolution, 500GB hard drive, 1.8GHz Intel Atom processor and Windows 7 Home Premium for $485. There are many other similar devices for prices ranging from $485 to $550. The best part is you get the browser for free.

Is a Chromebook a rip off?

Well, let's not get carried away. There are some definite advantages to a Chromebook over a traditional budget laptop. If the Chromebooks work as promised, they should be faster in overall performance and have a faster boot time (around 8 seconds supposedly) thanks to its lightweight operating system. It's also handy that Chrome OS will update in the background just as the Chrome browser does. And the idea of using Web apps only is probably doable for many regular users who don't need professional grade software such as video editing suites. But it's not clear whether people will be lining up in droves to get their hands on a Chrome OS device.

If you want to see a Chromebook in action, check out Google's video tour below. Also be sure to read Melissa J. Perenson's critique during her hands on with a Samsung Chromebook.

Chromebook Guided Tour:

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