Hands on: The $149 Hisense Chromebook succeeds at being incredibly affordable

31 Mar 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Google Unveils Chrome Stick That Turns Any Display Into a PC.

A few weeks ago Google made headlines with the launch of the new Chromebook Pixel, the highest-end Chromebook on the market (and with a price to show for it). That’s right: The device before you is ASUS’ Chromebit, a new sub-$100 dongle you can plug into any display and turn it into a full-blown computer running Google’s Chrome OS.The Mountain View-based tech giant said it believes the affordability of the laptops will resonate among consumers and its clients in the education industry. Today, the Chrome OS laptop ecosystem is launching two products that are the exact opposite: the Haier Chromebook 11 (now available online at Amazon) and the Hisense Chromebook (now available at Walmart). To a lot of people the imposing sum suggested that this is a machine for those other guys, the folks who can afford a pricey premium notebook that’s meant to live (most of the time) in the cloud.

On Tuesday, the search giant also teased a dongle, dubbed the Chromebit, which—for still less money—will bring the Web-browser-centric Chrome OS to any TV or monitor with an HDMI input. The HDMI port is for connecting to external displays, while the USB helps with attaching a keyboard and mouse — and the Chromebit has Bluetooth, too, making that even easier. These new Chromebooks, available for pre-order Tuesday and set to ship in April, run on quad-core ARM processors from Chinese semiconductor company Rockchip, with 2GB of RAM and 16GB of local storage. In addition, Google today announced that Asus plans to launch a $249 convertible Chromebook/tablet soon, as well as the Chromebit, a fully featured Chrome OS-based computer on an HDMI stick, similar to Intel’s Compute Stick.

We could easily criticize this Chromebook for everything it doesn’t have for $149, but we can’t ignore the benefit of that price point for people or schools on a tight budget. If you plug it into an LCD display or a TV, you can run the sort of software you typically run on a personal computer, from word processors and spreadsheets and email to online video. With that price, Google is “basically establishing themselves way ahead of everybody else in the market,” said Gurpreet Kaur, an industry analyst with Gap Intelligence. “It’s kind of like, ‘Sorry Microsoft.’” Google also previewed two products. Using the Chromebit and a decent Internet connection (Chrome OS relies heavily on web access), you could turn any aging computer into a lean, mean processing machine on the cheap. The device is a bit like the Google Chromecast—the digital stick that plugs into your television and streams video from the internet—but it does more.

Google also announced a thin, sub-two pound Asus Chromebook Flip, billed as a premium, all-metal convertible.Coming this spring for $249, Google says Flip has Meantime, Asus will be bringing out a new product in the summer called Chromebit. Instead of upgrading every computer in every school, a cost-strapped district could just buy a whole bunch of Chromebits, plug them in to classrooms’ old computers and essentially turn them into lean terminals for running web apps like Google Docs. Based on the Google Chrome web browser, the OS is designed for use with internet-based applications such as Google’s Gmail email service and its Google Docs word processor, reducing our dependence on the bulky local software that traditionally runs on PCs, moving tasks onto a cheaper breed of hardware as a result, and, ostensibly, improving security. Over the past several years, Google has pushed its Chromebook laptops and other Chrome OS machines into schools and, to a lesser extent, government agencies and businesses. At $149, these machines are relatively disposable as well—a consideration for parents who want something their kids can destroy with minimal fiscal impact.

Google believes the product could be used in places like Internet cafes and school computer labs in developing countries such as India. “The goal is to get as many people online that they can sell ads to,” said Tim Bajarin with advisory services firm Creative Strategies. “You have to get the devices down to the cheapest possible prices in order to do that.” Previously, the cheapest Chromebook you could buy was a $200 model from Acer. (There’s a $200 Windows laptop, too.) Hisense and Haier aren’t well known brands in the U.S., but the companies are hugely successful electronics makers in their home market of China, now seeking greater visibility in America. Today, Google is unveiling several of these laptops, including two $149 models, from manufacturers Haier and Hisense, that will sell through Amazon.com and Walmart. The company, which was founded in 2001, is one of the leading fabless semiconductor firms in China and recently signed a strategic agreement with Intel to incorporate its Atom cores into some of its products.

But the Chromebit is the most intriguing play—if only because it shows how small and how inexpensive PC hardware has become in recent years, how much the line has blurred between PCs, TVs, and mobile devices such as phones and tablets. This month, Intel will start shipping a similar device called the Intel Compute Stick, which brings Microsoft’s Windows operating system to TVs and other displays. Besides the $149 version, Haier will also offer a second version of its Chromebook with a larger — and removable — battery that promises 10 hours of battery life. With tiny, inexpensive sticks, you can transform older televisions into so-called smart TVs, streaming movies and shows from internet services such as YouTube, Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video. Hisense, for example, has added a metal palm rest to its machine, which should make it feel better than some of the more expensive plastic Chromebooks (we should get a review unit soon).

Also included are results from Google’s new Pixel, which we’re calling Pixel 2 in our chart to make it easier to read. [Note: We didn’t get a chance to update the Pixel 2 to the latest OS, so we’re reusing previous results. Rajen Sheth, another Google VP who has helped lead the company’s push onto business hardware, says that the price of PC hardware and displays has dropped so low, it may now be cheaper to built digital signage than a traditional paper sign. The Pixels are much higher-end, but we’ve included the results for reference.] In general, the quad-cores Cortex A17 can be somewhat competitive with Intel’s budget Celeron N2840, which powers the vast majority of new Chromebook models.

If you print out a 42-inch paper sign at a place like Kinkos, it’ll cost about two hundred dollars, he says, and that same price will eventually get you a 42-inch LCD and a Chromebit. Gownder, an analyst with research outfit Forrester, who has closely tracked the rise of Google’s Chrome OS business, rightly points out that there other things to consider.

There’s audio processing, image filtering, and cryptographic tests in the test, and the RK3288 falls far behind the Nvidia Tegra K1 and the Celeron N2840.

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