Why Bay Trail makes more sense for Chromebooks than Haswell chips

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More Chromebooks are coming from companies like HP, Acer, and Toshiba, but they might not be the ultra-cheap, browser-based laptops we've gotten used to seeing over the last year.

That's because the next wave of Chromebooks will run Intel's fourth-generation Core processors, codenamed Haswell. These processors are far more powerful than the low-end Intel Atom and Celeron processors that most Chromebooks have used so far.

It's a sign that Chromebooks are trying to grow up, and to move from secondary PCs to your primary computer—but it's also a risky move. By using Haswell instead of Intel's low-powered Bay Trail chips, the new Chromebooks may be targeting a use case that doesn't yet exist.

The story so far

Chromebooks, whose Chrome OS operating system is essentially Google's Chrome browser and very little else, have been around for a couple years now, and the earliest machines hovered around a $500 price point. Not surprisingly, the earliest Chromebooks were not very popular.

Chromebooks didn't start to gain traction until last year, when sub-$300 machines from Acer and Samsung hit the market. Sure, these Chromebooks weren't as full-featured as Windows PCs, but they were fast and efficient at getting onto the Web, and the prices were hard to beat.

The funny thing is that Chromebooks don't need a lot of power. I personally use Samsung's Series 5 550, a $450 Chromebook with a Celeron processor and 4 GB of RAM, and performance has never been an issue. Some cheaper Chromebooks—those with just 2 GB of RAM—struggle with keeping lots of browser tabs open, but that's a memory problem, not a processor one. If all you're doing is checking e-mail, typing in Google Docs, browsing Facebook, and using a few Chrome Apps, your power needs are minimal, and a cheap Chromebook ends up being a good fit.

Enter Haswell, not Bay Trail

Intel's Bay Trail chips seem like a natural next step for Chromebooks. They allow for thin, light, fanless designs with long battery life, they can accommodate up to 4 GB of RAM, and they're much more powerful than Intel's previous-generation Clover Trail processors.

So why are the next Chromebooks using Haswell instead? NPD analyst Stephen Baker said that as Windows PC sales fall, hardware vendors want to move into mid-range Chromebooks, following the success of the entry-level models. (NPD estimates that Chromebooks account for nearly a quarter of sub-$300 laptop sales.)

“With the state of notebook OEMs right now, they don't have a lot to lose trying to move up market a little bit,” Baker said. “It makes sense to test the water and see what'll happen.”

HP Chromebook 14
The new HP Chromebook 14 runs Haswell and will cost $300, but a Bay Trail processor would let the company spend more on build quality while maintaining the same price.

Still, it's unclear what kind of use cases these Haswell-based machines will open up. Baker mentioned better gaming and video playback as possibilities, but Bay Trail is no slouch in these areas, especially for the kind of games you get from a Web browser. More powerful applications may someday arrive as Chrome Apps, but we've yet to see anything that really demands a huge boost in power.

In theory, a PC maker could create a premium Chromebook by using high-quality build materials and a high-res display, but could still use Bay Trail to bring the cost down. All Bay Trail processors support 2560-by-1600 resolutions, for example.

That may still happen eventually. Intel has not ruled out Bay Trail-based Chromebooks, and when asked about the possibility at a reporters' roundtable this week, Intel's Navin Shenoy said to “Watch this space.”

It's just a question of when, than if. As last year's $200 to $300 Chromebooks start to get stale on store shelves, hopefully the answer is “soon.”

PCWorld senior editor Mark Hachmann contributed to this report.

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