The news is out and the Apple (AAPL) iPad mini is announced. Against this, just days ago (Oct. 18) Google (GOOG) announced the Samsung (SSNLF.PK) Chromebook, which, at just $249 is even cheaper than the iPad Mini (starting at $329).
In an article in the Motley Fool, Cecil Sales questions:
So how will the Chromebook inflict damage to both Apple and Microsoft? The Chromebook laptop is priced at $249; that's about 75% cheaper that [sic] the cheapest MacBook Air! Even the Surface tablets have been priced at $499, that's two times the cost of a Chromebook. But the million dollar question is if the MacBook or any Windows 8 machine worth the price when compared to the Chromebook?
But since it is the iPads that were all the news Tuesday, let's compare it with those instead. Let's start by talking specs.
- 11.6'' (1366x768) display
- 0.7 inches thin - 2.42 lbs / 1.1 kg
- Over 6.5 hours of battery 1
- Samsung Exynos 5 Dual Processor (ARM based)
- 100 GB Google Drive Cloud Storage2 with Solid State Drive
- Built-in dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n
- VGA Camera
- 1x USB 3.0, 1x USB 2.0
- HDMI Port
- Bluetooth 3.0™ Compatible
- iPad v4
- iPad mini
Caveat: I have not seen the Chromebook in person, nor the new iPads. Therefore, I will not be doing a full review, nor can I compare the "experience" of each. Mostly, I will be going on specs.
When you compare the specs, aside from the price, the Chromebook has three main advantages: Samsung's new Exynos 5 Dual Processor, the larger screen size and a keyboard. The built-in keyboard speaks for itself.
All computers (including smartphones and tablets) are driven by a Central Processing Unit (CPU), the proverbial "brains" of the computer. These are typically assisted by a Graphic Processing Unit (GPU) that handles the computations and memory for driving the display. Mobile devices are now run by what is called an SoC - a System on a Chip. These combine the CPU, the GPU and other necessary functional units into one integrated package - one physical chip. (They can do this more than CPUs for standard computers because they are typically smaller and lower powered.) The SoCs for mobile devices are designed to maximize efficiency since battery power is, by definition, limited. Thus there is a tradeoff. For any given technology, to get more processing power, you need more juice.
The Exynos 5 Dual Processor is the newest processor design from ARM Holdings, the company whose chip designs power most mobile devices these days. The Samsung chip is the first based on ARM's Cortex A15 design, that is to say, it is a radically improved version of the chips running most of the mobile systems - with the possible exception of Apple's new A6 chips. Which brings us to the issue here.
So now we come to the main issue: what about processing power?
Does the new Exynos 5 Dual Processor really beat out the iPads so significantly that it moves it up to the Laptop category? This, of course remains to be seen.
AnandTech has this to say about the Cortex A15 architecture:
The A15, on the other hand, is designed for devices that need higher performance, and is expected to outperform competing designs like those used in Qualcomm's Krait architecture (which powers, among other things, the US versions of the Samsung Galaxy S III). ... it isn't really intended to replace Cortex A9, which will still have a place in the middle and lower end of the markets where power draw and price are more important than high performance … Rather, it's intended to compete with Intel and AMD in performance and features as those companies look to expand into the burgeoning smartphone and tablet markets.
When they ran tests back in August, they compared the iPad chip performance of an older ARM design, Exynos 4, and scaled up for the Exynos 5 theoretically. They concluded that the Samsung chip should run (i.e. speculation at that point in time) equal to - or perhaps slightly besting - the iPad. BUT - this was the A5X version of the iPad.
Tuesday, however, as part of the iPad 4 upgrade, Apple added the A6X chip (larger graphic processing version of the A6 found in the iPhone 5). If this is as big a boost to the A5X as has been exhibited in the iPhone 5 over its predecessor, then the newest iPad may still maintain the lead.*
If you look at the specs, then the only other things the Chromebook has going for it is the larger screen and the keyboard. The iPads take virtually all other categories:
- Screen - much better quality and resolution. The iPad has about 3 times the number of pixels as the Chromebook, even though it is smaller. And we can only guess that the overall screen quality is probably much superior. The mini has only slightly fewer pixels in a screen less than ¼ the area.
- Weight - The iPad is almost half the weight, the Mini, just a fraction.
- Cameras - both iPads have front and rear of much higher quality than the CB.
- Battery life - the iPads both profess up to 10 hours, the CB only 6.5.
- Design quality: iPads metal unibody - Chromebook plastic. [assumed!]
- Ports - here the CB wins with plenty of built in ports.
If all this is so regarding the processor, then basically the Chromebook is really just a non-touch tablet attached to a keyboard. It sounds nice being called a laptop, but in reality it has no more power than an iPad, perhaps even less. You can buy a Bluetooth wireless keyboard for your iPad and run office type apps on it, even connect to Google Apps, and you will have the equivalent of the Chromebook. The screen may not be as large, but it will be much clearer and you will be able to walk away with a light, and powerful handheld tablet. Of course the price will be higher. So the choice will be up to you.
The specs of most full laptops (i.e. not "netbooks") are much higher than that of the Chromebook. Whether they run Microsoft (MSFT) Windows OS or Apple's Mac OSX, most of these offer higher processing power, especially as you get off the bottom tier of machines.
Still, the Chromebook will offer an interesting alternative, particularly to the netbooks. The Chrome OS provides many advantages to the "traditional" OSes (Mac, Windows, Linux). Here the apps mostly reside in the "Cloud" where they are accessed by the client machine. This provides a certain degree of security over the others. The selection, however, is somewhat limited, but there should be enough to please the average user.
Microsoft's Windows 8 may offer a satisfying alternative to Chrome OS. That remains to be seen.
The Chromebook is a new addition to the marketplace - a first entry into the ARM driven laptop. It may be powerful enough for everyday activities for many people, but will assuredly fall flat for any pro-type functions. Even for personal video editing it will probably fall far short of even a modestly priced laptop.
The Cecil Sales article mentioned above says:
The Chromebook is a product for the mainstream; that being said, I don't think everyone will require this product, but this is an item that can help start a new sector in the market. I feel that with all of these features, the Chromebook could bite into the market shares of both Apple and Microsoft
I do not think it is for the mainstream. It appears to me to be a cheap product designed for those who cannot afford a better one. This is a notable achievement in its own right - all people should have access to computing and the educational value of the Internet.
That said however, the Chromebook is hardly a replacement for a real laptop, much less for the higher end MacBook Air. These, I am sure, will feel no effect at all from this new entry.
* Techie note: According to yet another story at AnandTech, Apple does not use the ARM Cortex A15 as the basis of its new A6 chips. It appears that it has custom designed the CPU processor cores. This gives them the ability to fine tune the CPU for the system it will drive. The A6X probably, like the A5X before it, uses an extra GPU and more data paths to the display to handle the much larger screen resolution.
See more at: "iPhone 5 is a Screamer".
Disclosure: I am long AAPL.