Hewlett-Packard joins Chromebook fray with 14-inch browser-based laptop

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Hewlett-Packard on Monday said it’s officially jumping into the Chromebook fray after persistent rumors about the company launching one surfaced in late January. HP joins Samsung, Acer, and Lenovo selling PCs loaded with Google’s browser-as-OS.

The HP Chromebook features a 14-inch display with 1366-by-768 resolution, step up from most Chromebooks that feature 11.6-inch displays. You also get a 1.1GHz Intel Celeron processor, 16GB solid-state drive, 2GB RAM, and 802.11a/b/g/n Wi-Fi. For ports, the device offers 3 x USB 2.0, HDMI, Ethernet, headphone/microphone combo jack, and a media card reader.

HP is promising a paltry 4 hours and 15 minutes for battery life, and the laptop is also a little heavy at just under four pounds, and measures 0.83 inches thick. The Chromebook 14 is available now from HP and sells for $330, but you also get 100GB of free Google Drive storage for two years--usually an extra $120.

It’s not clear how well Chromebooks are selling overall, but there are indications that the concept is catching on with American PC users as more people move their digital lives online. Acer recently told Bloomberg that Chromebooks have, since November, accounted for 5 to 10 percent of Acer’s U.S. shipments . Samsung’s 11.6-inch Chromebook is currently the top-selling Chromebook laptop on Amazon , and Lenovo believes its $429 ThinkPad-branded Chromebook will appeal to schools looking to make bulk purchases.

Even though most of us use our computers primarily to get online these days, I still find it surprising that Chromebooks are gaining in popularity. Samsung and HP sell their Chromebooks for around $300-$400, which is the starting price for lower-tier Windows notebooks. The advantage of a desktop notebook is that you have the best of both worlds. You can get online with the browser of your choice, including Chrome, and if you need desktop functionality for applications such as Skype or Spotify, you have the option.

But the counter to that line of thinking can be best summed up by my PCWorld peer Jared Newman who recently used a Chromebook as his workhorse PC during CES in January. “It always booted up quickly, was light on my shoulder and was a pleasure to type on,” Newman said. He also noted that many sub-$500 Windows machines don’t hold up in terms of quality and performance compared to Samsung’s Series 5 550 Chromebook.

If Chromebooks are the next big trend in PCs, that has to be concerning for Microsoft even if Windows devices still account for the majority of PC sales. There’s little doubt that many people spend a big chunk of their daily PC time in a browser. And Web applications such as Google Docs and Adobe Photoshop Express make it easier than ever to “live in the cloud” and turn away from desktop apps.

Microsoft is trying to make the jump to the Web too, but the software giant is taking a different approach by merging desktop applications with the cloud, most notably with Microsoft Office 2013 and Office 365 Home & Student. The new version of Office still includes desktop applications, but Microsoft encourages Office 365 subscribers to save their work to SkyDrive, the company’s online storage service. That way, your documents are immediately available to you on other PCs running Office installations. Office 365 users can even download “throwaway” versions of Office, dubbed Office on Demand, that can be quickly downloaded and used from any public PC running Windows 7 or later.

Even the ability to quickly download a desktop app, however, isn’t quite as seamless and instantaneous as logging onto a Website, such as Google Docs or Microsoft’s own Office Web apps.

Perhaps if Chromebooks gain even further popularity, which is still far from certain at this point, Microsoft will have to move more aggressively into the cloud and let go of its desktop-bound focus. For now, Chromebooks are an interesting trend to watch, but until I can get Samsung Series 5 quality for under $200, I’m sticking with Windows (and Linux).

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