Does a stripped-down computer need a budget price tag?
This week Google unveiled the US$1299 13-inch touchscreen Chromebook Pixel, looking similar to Apple's slender MacBook Air and the slick new Windows 8 ultrabooks. Unlike its rivals, the Chromebook Pixel comes with a cloud-focused version of Linux which does little more than run Google's Chrome browser. You can't install traditional desktop applications on the Chromebook Pixel. Without internet access, it's little more than an expensive paperweight.
The Chromebook Pixel's US$1299 price tag is a big ask when you can buy a decent Windows or Mac notebook for a similar price and install the Chrome browser, while retaining the flexibility of a full desktop operating system. We're yet to see Australian Chromebook Pixel pricing but, if it does make it to Australia, it's reasonable to assume that pricing will also be on par with Ultrabooks and the MacBook Air.
It might not be right for you, but you shouldn't completely dismiss the Chromebook concept. History shows that there is a market for stripped-down devices designed to rival computers running Windows and Mac. Almost six years ago Asus kicked off a budget computing push with the tiny Eee PC netbook running Linux. It was inspired by efforts to build cheap computers for the developing world. In terms of specs and performance it was no match for its Windows and Mac rivals, but at US$399 the Eee PC was less than half the price of its Windows competitors. The idea of a cheap computing device to meet your basic needs was incredibly popular and forced the tech industry to change direction.
The early Eee PCs presented the opportunity for desktop Linux to gain a mainstream foothold, but Microsoft fought back. The netbook models running Windows soon turned out to be far more popular than the Linux models, even though the Windows models were a little more expensive. In the end even Apple released a cheaper 11.6-inch MacBook Air to compete in that space.
Whether you love Windows or loathe it, the fact is that most people find Windows on the desktop far more comfortable and useful than Linux. They don't want to abandon their Windows desktop applications, even if there are Linux alternatives. They don't want to learn a new operating system. Whether or not it's easy to make the switch to Linux is irrelevant, the average punter just doesn't care and isn't prepared to put in the effort. It was only the initial significant discount that saw Linux netbooks gain a foothold in the fight with traditional Windows and Apple notebooks.
Netbooks have fallen by the wayside with the rise of Apple and Android tablets, once again offering less functionality than a Windows/Mac notebook but also costing significantly less. The Microsoft Surface falls somewhere in the middle. The travel-friendly tablet form factor is obviously part of the appeal, but these new consumer tablets would have struggled to make their mark if the entry-level models started with a four-figure price tag like a decent notebook.
Google didn't give up on the idea of a budget notebook and had another crack at the market back in 2011 with the cheap Chromebook running the Linux-based Google Chrome OS. You can't install desktop apps, although Google's collection of in-browser apps is growing and some offer limited offline features. Even so you'll often be dead in the water without internet access, but that's a sacrifice you might be prepared to make for the early Chromebook's US$200 to US$400 price tag which undercuts the Windows rivals. Following it up now with the US$1299 Chromebook Pixel seems like a mistake.
For triple the price of the original Chromebooks, the Chromebook Pixel offers a 2560x1700 hi-res touchscreen display, backlit keyboard, a more powerful Intel Core i5 processor and the option of 4G connectivity. Google also throws in a larger 128GB or 256GB solid state drive along with a whopping 1 terabyte of free online storage to sweeten the deal. Yet under all those frills it still lacks the full functionality of a traditional Windows/Mac desktop. It's the equivalent of loading up a Toyota Yaris with a V8 engine and mag wheels, then trying to sell it for the price of a Holden Monaro.
So the Chromebook Pixel is basically the perfect computing oxymoron -- an expensive, high-end budget computer. It might appeal to a handful of people, but at these prices most will see more value in simply running Chrome on Windows or Mac. What do you think, does the Chromebook Pixel sound right for you?