When Google’s Chrome OS debuted in 2011, it was more of a curiosity than a serious competitor to Microsoft or Apple. (“Look, Google has its own desktop OS; isn’t that cute?”) Since then, the platform has improved quite a bit, and it’s been successfully pushed to schools, in large part because these machines are so much cheaper and easier to manage than Windows PCs or Macs.
We think it’s finally ready for your home, too.
I recently looked at two boxes running the Chrome OS: LG’s Chromebase all-in-one desktop and Samsung’s Chromebook 2 notebook. Despite running the exact same software, there are key differences in hardware, processor speed, and quality of support.
Remember the family PC? Back in the early 2000s, computers were still so expensive that most families had only one that everyone had to share. Waiting to use the computer was no fun, but at least it was easier for Mom and Dad to keep a closer eye on what the kids were getting up to online.
LG’s all-in-one Chromebase is like a throwback to that old family PC but with a few key differences. One is that it costs only $350, making it one of the most affordable all-in-ones around. The other (obviously) is that it runs the Chrome OS.
At my house, the Chromebase looked promising. Setup couldn’t be simpler. Opening the box and placing the 22-inch unit on its base did take six screws and 10 minutes, but moments later, I had connected to my WiFi network, synced my Google account, and was surfing the Web. If you don’t already have a Google account, you’ll need to set one up, which makes the process slightly longer. (You can also surf the Guest account, which doesn’t allow you to sync your data or install apps.)
These days, you kind of expect all-in-ones to come with touchscreens — I do, anyway. But this one comes with a standard, otherwise-unexciting 1920 × 1080 widescreen display. That helps to make it $150 to $200 cheaper than its touchy cousins, but it also makes the LG feel like yesterday’s news, despite the Chrome OS.
The computing hardware is not exactly top-shelf. The keyboard is solid and responsive, but the mouse feels flimsy. Audio is worse. Even at full volume, the tiny speakers located behind the screen are anemic. If you want to use the LG as a music or movie machine, you’ll need to connect USB or Bluetooth external speakers.
A bigger problem is support — or the lack thereof. Initially I was able to set up the machine, add different accounts, and switch easily among them. Then, for no apparent reason, I could no longer add new users.
So one evening around 5 p.m., I called the toll-free tech support number listed in the LG manual. After waiting more than 30 minutes on hold, I hung up. I called the next morning and got connected with a tech relatively quickly, who then proceeded to put me on hold for 10 minutes to research the problem. When he came back, it was clear that I knew more about the Chrome OS than he did. A lot more. After another 10 minutes on hold, he punted me to Google’s support site for Chrome (which is here), saying that LG provided support only for the hardware, not for the OS. A search of the Google support site and forums for an answer to my question proved fruitless.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think if you pay $350 or more for a machine, you should be able to reach a live human who can answer questions about it. But if you want a bargain kitchen computer for the family, this is a reasonable option.
Samsung’s Chromebook 2
For my second dive into Chrome, I looked at the $400 13.3-inch Chromebook 2 (Samsung also sells an 11.6-inch model for $320). This handsome 3-pound machine is easy on the eyes and the arms. Clearly designed with students in mind, the CB2’s faux stitched case looks and feels like a leather-bound notebook, and the full HD display is pretty sweet.
The sequel to Samsung’s original Chromebook, the CB2 claims to offer a faster processor (the ARM-based Exynos 5 Octa), a longer-lasting battery, and enhanced audio. But specs aren’t everything. The CB2 might be faster than its predecessor, but it was noticeably slower at displaying webpages than LG’s Intel Celeron-based Chromebase over the same WiFi connection. Battery life is more than adequate, though, and the audio is not bad. It definitely blew the LG’s barely audible speakers out of the water, though you’re not likely to use it to power your next rave.
Interestingly, I ran into the same problem as I did with the LG — my ability to add new users suddenly disappeared after I updated the OS. But here my experience with tech support was radically different. When I called Samsung, a tech answered almost immediately. He was knowledgeable and articulate, and ran me through a range of troubleshooting options apparently alien to LG’s support team. When they didn’t work, he gave me a toll-free number for Google support. (Did you know that Google offers phone support? I didn’t either.) That Google tech was even sharper and more polite, and ran through another range of solutions. After 30 minutes of trying, however, he still failed to isolate the problem and recommended that I nuke the OS and download a fresh copy off the Web.
Me, I’m 90 percent certain that I discovered a bug in the Chrome OS, but I was unable to confirm this with Google before posting this.
You could make a strong case for using Chrome at home, especially if the kids are already using Google Apps in school. I think a Chrome desktop would make a fine affordable family PC, though I’m not convinced that the LG Chromebase is the one. There’s nothing especially compelling about it besides the low price, and the support is abysmal.
As I’ve written elsewhere, a Chromebook laptop is an excellent choice for students and people who don’t need to do any heavy lifting with their machines, such as edit photos or play graphics-intensive games. The Chromebook 2 is a fine machine, though a bit pricier than other models in its class.
Bottom line: The Chrome OS is a serious alternative to those who are frustrated with Windows, tired of paying through the nose for Apple products, and can’t be bothered to spend weeks struggling with Linux. And these two new hardware options for Chrome OS are almost up to the promise of the software.
Questions, complaints, kudos? Email Dan Tynan at ModFamily1@yahoo.com.