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TUAW Smackdown: Google Chromebook vs. Apple iPad, MacBook Air

The Google Chromebook, the Samsung-built subnotebook designed for the Chrome browser-only OS, appeared on the market about a month ago. As soon as the MacBook Air-lookalike device showed up online, the TUAW newsroom erupted in discussions about whether or not it would make a good low-cost computer.

Several bloggers were attracted by the price, which at US$249 is half the price of the least expensive 10-inch iPad, though not that much less than an iPad mini. I took that as a challenge and contacted Samsung to get a loaner Chromebook to test.

TUAW readers might point out that this is not an Apple product, and suggest that we shouldn't be writing about it. But we feel that it's worth pointing out alternatives to our readers that might provide the same or better functionality at a lower price. Also, there's nothing that prevents iPhone or iPad owners from picking a non-Apple desktop OS, or pairing a low-cost notebook with a home Mac.

For a couple of weeks, I used this device, running the most current stable version of Google's Chrome OS, for everything from writing my NaNoWriMo novel to editing photos. I've had plenty of experience using Apple's iPad and 11" MacBook Air, so this smackdown compares the Chromebook, MacBook Air and iPad based on a wide range of criteria. Let's take a closer look at the Chromebook first.

Google Chrome OS and the Chromebook

The first interesting thing about the Chromebook is that if you're familiar with Google's Chrome browser for OS X or Windows, you'll be immediately familiar with Chrome OS. Essentially, the browser is the OS. It's a Linux-based operating system designed to work exclusively with web applications, and the OS is designed for people who spend the majority of their time on the Internet. Essentially, the only application on the device is a browser with media player and a file manager. That dramatically limits its utility when you're disconnected from the Internet -- you're limited to the offline versions of the Google Drive productivity apps, the notepad, and a few other offline-enabled tools -- but when you're connected, it works smoothly.

That file manager givers the Chromebook some advantages over the iPad. For example, when using AOL Tech's content management system directly from Safari or Chrome on the iPad, I cannot easily browse for and upload a picture; in iOS 5 there's no file system to upload from (and no Flash plugin, which the CMS uses for some image uploads). [This situation is improved in iOS 6, where you can in fact use the standard file upload HTML hooks; our CMS needs some tweaking courtesy of our resident mad scientist Brett Terpstra before we can truly post from the iPad in style. –Ed.]

One of my first tests with the Chromebook was to see if I could log into the TUAW CMS with Chrome, write a post and insert photos. To insert the photos, I took the SD card out of my Canon DSLR and stuck it into the slot on the side of the device. The images were immediately visible in the file manager and could be uploaded to the CMS. Google Drive also becomes available in the file manager.

If you use the Google ecosystem, then moving to the Chromebook is incredibly easy. I have a Google account with a Gmail address, a Google Drive with a number of spreadsheets and documents, a Google+ social sharing account, and more. Immediately after turning on the Chromebook, I was led through a simple setup process that had me sign into that Google account. Once that was done less than two minutes later, I had immediate access to my email, Google Drive and more.

This gallery shows the Chrome operating system and a number of applications at work:

"Applications" for the Chromebook are actually web apps, purchased or downloaded free from the Chrome Web Store. Anyone with the Chrome browser can see and use those apps, and they run identically in Chrome on the Mac or PC.

Which apps are available? Well, there are some familiar apps and services: Dropbox, Instagram, Angry Birds, Cut the Rope, Evernote (Web version), Autodesk Homestyler, Pulse, and HootSuite. For productivity, you have the free and very good Google apps. Those include Docs (a Word workalike), Spreadsheet (replacement for Excel, with an excellent forms capability), and Presentation (something like Keynote or PowerPoint).

You can get third-party remote access to the "real Office" Microsoft applications via InstallFree. Scratchpad is similar to Apple's Notes app, and Google Play Music can handle your audio needs. A few key web services like Netflix don't work yet on the new device, but some surprising ones do: both Chrome's cloud printing and its remote access tools are enabled, so you can print from your Chromebook to devices that are connected to a Mac or PC with Chrome, or control the screens of those other computers.

But while all of the Google and third-party web apps can substitute those apps that you normally purchase from the App Store or Microsoft, the target market of the Chromebook seems to be those people who are primarily Web workers. If you're a designer or developer, you're probably not going to be happy with a Chromebook because the tools that you're used to using just aren't available.

However, if you use a computer primarily to write, send and receive email, use Web applications, play some games, and browse the Web, then maybe the $249 Chromebook is for you.

Could I use this device instead of my MacBook Air? Definitely. I use the MacBook Air for writing, showing presentations, web browsing, and blogging. All of those things can be done just as easily on a $249 Chromebook as they can on a $999 MacBook Air -- assuming that you've got a stable and speedy network connection.

If money is not an object, the MacBook Air is the better machine to get. It feels much more solid, it's possible to get three years of support (at a cost of an AppleCare subscription) at your local Apple Store, and the software available for the device is mature. There are many other advantages and a great deal of flexibility to be gained with a "real laptop" versus the Chromebook. But if money's an object, or you don't need the extensive support or software ecosystem, then the Chromebook is an excellent bargain.

Several other TUAW bloggers asked if this would be a suitable computer for a child, and my answer is a definite yes. The price makes it almost a throwaway computer. Would you be frustrated if your child lost or broke a $999 MacBook Air? Yes, you probably would. When the price tag is about a quarter of that of an MBA, you're not going to be nearly as upset.

Finally, I am also comparing the Chromebook to the iPad with an external keyboard -- in this case, it's the best keyboard I've used with an iPad, the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover. The TUAW team is pretty split over the use of an iPad with an external keyboard as a laptop substitute. In one camp are people like me, who think that the iPad is not a laptop substitute due to the lack of a file manager, the need to touch the screen for user interaction, and fewer business applications. In the other are some co-workers who are regularly using their iPads to do gainful work and who find it to be an excellent substitute for a MacBook of any sort. For the first group, the Chromebook will probably make more sense. Those who have already made the transition to a tablet as a business computer should probably stick with the iPad.

Running Apps

So, how does it feel running apps on a "Web computer" like the Chromebook? For the most part, apps are quite responsive and start very quickly. The Chrome browser on the Chromebook gave me some of the fastest Web browsing I've ever had the pleasure to do, with pages snapping to the screen very quickly.

As mentioned, one of the tests I performed was to write a significant portion of my 2012 NaNoWriMo novel on the Chromebook, using the Docs application in Google Drive. At this point, I'm up to about 30,000 words, and I did begin to notice some lagging with data entry and editing. Using the Docs app in Google Drive from my MacBook Air, I don't see that lag.

Videos ran beautifully on the Chromebook; only occasionally did I see a "stutter" in the playback. Likewise, games ran smoothly. I played Angry Birds on the Chromebook and found it to be smooth and fun. As mentioned, Netflix is not yet working on the ARM-based Chromebook, but Google says an update to enable the streaming movie service is in the works.

Multitasking is actually rather easy as well. Since each app has its own tab in the browser, flipping between them is as simple as clicking on a tab. I did a quick photo mashup using one of the free apps (PicMonkey), used another app to do a screenshot of the resulting image, and pasted it into my doc. [Commenters point out that there are screenshot keystrokes built-in for Chrome OS. –Ed.]

Offline Apps

As mentioned earlier, one problem with a "network computer" like the Chromebook is that apps have to be specifically designed for use offline. If they aren't, you're out of luck when you want to work on a document or play a game when disconnected from the network.

Although Google originally stated that the key Google Apps (Docs, Spreadsheet, Presentation) would be able to be used offline, at this time only Docs will work in unconnected mode. Even there, you have to make sure that you have synchronized the document to your Chromebook to be able to use it offline. If you're nowhere near a network, and you don't have a local copy of the document, you're out of luck. I'm hoping that Google makes Spreadsheet and Presentation available for offline use soon.

Price

Price comparisons require a bit of gearing up to match a tablet with the Chromebook. I've added a keyboard (and a good one, at that) to the iPad to make it more like a laptop; after all, the MacBook Air and Chromebook both come with standard keyboards that make touch-typing a breeze. Let's look at the base configurations for these devices.

  • iPad (1 GB RAM, 16 GB storage, Wi-Fi) $499 + Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard $100 = $599
  • 11" MacBook Air (4 GB RAM, 64 GB storage, Wi-Fi), $999
  • Chromebook (2 GB RAM,16 GB Storage, Wi-Fi), $249

Winner: Chromebook

Dimensions and Weight

  • iPad with Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover attached: 2.22 lbs., 9.5" x 7.47" x .76"
  • MacBook Air: 2.38 lbs, 11.8" x 7.56" x .68" (tapers to .11" at front)
  • Chromebook: 2.42 lbs, 11.4" x 8.09" x .69"

None of these devices are really overweight; carrying them on a daily basis is no hassle at all, and they take up very little space. However, for sheer compactness, the iPad with the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard Cover is incredible -- plus, the keyboard (and the extra weight) can be removed when it's not needed, in contrast to the laptops.

Winner: iPad with Logitech Keyboard

Technical Specifications

iPad: 1.4 GHz Apple A6X (ARM-based) SoC (system on a chip), PowerVR SGX554MP4 quad-core GPU

MacBook Air: 1.7 GHz dual-core Intel Core i5 (Turbo Boost up to 2.6GHz) with 3 MB shared L3 cache, Intel HD Graphics 4000 GPU

Chromebook: 1.7 GHz Samsung Exynos 5 Dual (ARM-based) SoC, ARM Mali-T604 quad-core GPU

A winner will not be picked for this category, as each CPU / GPU decision is specific to the device and was chosen by the manufacturer for the purposes of battery life, computing speed, display speed, etc. However, in most situations the iPad and Chromebook seemed faster than the MacBook Air.

Construction

The Apple products beat the Chromebook hands down. They both use aluminum unibody construction and solid glass; the Chromebook is made out of aluminum-colored plastic. When you push against the lid of the MacBook Air or the back of an iPad, nothing gives. Do the same with a Chromebook, and you're going to feel the plastic moving. Of course, the Chromebook is a lot less expensive. You get what you pay for.

Winner: Tie -- Apple MacBook Air and iPad

Keyboard

For Mac users, the Chromebook keyboard is going to feel a bit awkward as you'll need to use the Control-C/Control-V/Control-X keys for copy/paste/cut instead of using the Command key. But the Chromebook has a surprisingly good keyboard with an excellent feel to it. I was able to touch-type a good portion of my NaNoWriMo novel on the Chromebook, and it took very little time to feel comfortable with its keyboard.

Of the three keyboards -- the Chromebook, the MacBook Air, and the Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard for the iPad -- the MacBook Air felt the most comfortable to me. However, I could easily use any of the three.

Winner: Tie -- Apple MacBook Air, Logitech Ultrathin Keyboard for iPad, Chromebook

Trackpad

The iPad, of course, doesn't have a trackpad. It does, however, have a full touchscreen that enables multi-touch gestures. The MacBook Air trackpad also support multi-touch gestures. The Chromebook also features a multi-touch trackpad, but it only seems to support two-finger click and scrolling at this time. In addition, I found that the Chromebook trackpad sometimes wouldn't register a tap (equivalent to a mouse click) unless I pushed a little harder than I'm used to.

One thing that I could not figure out was how to use the trackpad to zoom in on windows when using Google Maps and the Google Remote Desktop app. With the Apple devices, I used the intuitive pinch-to-zoom gesture.

Winner: Tie -- Apple MacBook Air and iPad

Display

iPad 3: 2048 x 1536 pixels (264 ppi)

MacBook Air: 1366 x 768 pixels, 11.6" diagonal screen

Chromebook: 1366 x 768 pixels, 11.6" diagonal screen

The Retina display of the iPad third and fourth generations is amazingly good. For the MacBook Air, it almost appears that exactly the same display was used on it and the Chromebook. I found the Chromebook display to be somewhat less bright than that on the MacBook Air.

Winner -- iPad with Retina display.

Camera(s)

iPad (third or fourth generation)

  • Back-facing camera: 5 MP, 1080p HD with video stabilization, face detection, flash
  • Front-facing FaceTime camera: 1.2 MP, 720p HD

MacBook Air

  • Front-facing FaceTime camera: 1.2 MP, 720p HD

Chromebook

  • Front-facing camera: 153,600 pixels, VGA (640 x 480)

Winner: Third-generation iPad with Retina display

Networking Capabilities (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, Cellular)

iPad (LTE model option)

  • 802.11a/b/g/n Wi‑Fi (802.11n 2.4GHz and 5GHz)
  • Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology
  • Available GSM/EDGE/LTE or CDMA/GSM/EDGE/LTE models ($130 extra plus monthly data plan)

MacBook Air

  • 802.11n Wi-Fi wireless networking; IEEE 802.11a/b/g compatible
  • Bluetooth 4.0 wireless technology

Chromebook ($329 3G model option)

  • Built-in dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n
  • Bluetooth 3.0
  • Verizon 3G Data service (2 years included), no monthly plan
  • 12 complimentary Gogo In Flight airline Wi-Fi sessions

The Apple devices may have the better specs, but for sheer low-cost networking, the Chromebook's two-year Verizon 3G data plan is incredible. That does require a different model of Chromebook, however: the $329 Chromebook with 3G. If you get the Wi-Fi model, you're saving money but giving up the flexibility of 3G. Of course, if we're upgrading hardware, the iPad can move to an LTE configuration for $129 more, and wipe the floor with the Chromebook's 3G speed.

Winner: Chromebook (an asterisk for the 3G model), iPad LTE (same asterisk, different model)

Cold boot

  • iPad: 45.0 seconds (timed on iPad 3, could be faster with iPad 4)
  • MacBook Air: 17.3 seconds
  • Chromebook: 9.1 seconds

Winner: Chromebook, although you are far less likely to truly "cold boot" the iPad in normal operation.

Wake from sleep

iPad: instantaneous

MacBook Air: 1 to 15 seconds depending on the length of time it has been asleep

Chromebook: instantaneous

Winner: Tie -- iPad and Chromebook

Expandability

iPad: RAM and Storage not expandable

MacBook Air: RAM and Storage not expandable, can use flash RAM drives for extra storage

Chromebook: RAM and Storage not expandable, has built-in SD card slot for extra storage

Winner: Chromebook, simply because no extra card reading device or flash RAM stick is required

I/O

iPad: Audio, Bluetooth, dock connector/Lightning

MacBook Air: USB 3 (2 ports), Thunderbolt, audio

Chromebook: USB 3 (1 port), USB 2 (1 port), HDMI,

Winner: The MacBook Air's Thunderbolt port, with its flexibility to drive video or storage devices of all sorts, edges out the Chromebook's HDMI-only video setup. USB 3 speeds on both notebooks mean that external storage will be fast and readily available.

Battery Life (stated by manufacturer)

iPad: 10 hours

MacBook Air: 5 hours

Chromebook: 6.5 hours

Winner: iPad

Conclusion

When I first got the idea of doing an "Apples and Oranges" comparison of Apple devices against the Chromebook, I have to admit that I thought there was no way that I'd be impressed with the Google device. It took only a fraction of the two week review period to realize that for a growing number of people, the Chromebook or something quite close to it might be the perfect bargain machine.

Out of all three devices compared, the iPad seems to be the most perfect "really portable computing device." But as Engadget's Myriam Joire said in her first hands-on look at the Chromebook, "Ultimately, this is a phenomenal device for the price. If you're used to working in the cloud, you're basically getting 80 percent of the entry-level MacBook Air experience for a quarter of the price." I'd be willing to expand her statement to say that you're also going to be able to do about 80 percent of what you can do on an entry-level iPad for half the price -- although that last 20 percent may include a lot of your favorite games or photography apps.

I also recommend that you read the full-on Chromebook review by Dana Wollman at Engadget, who brings up the point that there are "some people who couldn't be paid to use a laptop where everything is done in the browser."

In my opinion, Apple doesn't do a very good job of developing stellar Web services or applications -- Google does. If Apple is moving in the direction of cloud computing with apps "in the cloud," better get there quickly since the Chromebook really shows how it's done at a low cost. If Google can get the Chromebook experience into its Android tablet OS, then Apple's dominance in the tablet market might be at risk.

Ultimately, though, it's all up to consumers. My recommendation to anyone who is interested in the Chromebook as an inexpensive, lightweight portable machine is to use the Chrome browser on a Mac or PC, and load it up with the Chrome OS apps. If you find yourself spending a lot of time using those apps, then chances are pretty good that you're going to be very happy with a Chromebook and you'll have a lot of spare change in your wallet.

On the other hand, if your use cases tend toward using specialty apps that run on OS X, you'll probably shy away from Chrome OS and the Chromebook. Really indecisive folks can make a $249 gamble and give it a try; you can always return, resell or give away the device if you don't like it.

Would I replace my iPad with a Chromebook? No. But I use the iPad in places and situations where a computer without a keyboard is more appropriate, and I rarely use it with the Logitech Keyboard described in this post. Would I replace my MacBook Air with a Chromebook? To be honest with you, there I'm quavering a bit. I don't use my MBA as my main computer, but as a work travel companion. A Chromebook might just be a replacement for my MacBook Air the next time around.

One final word: Google is making 100 GB of cloud storage available to Chromebook buyers for two years, free of charge. Couple that with the limited, low-cost $80 two-year Chromebook 3G data plan, and this device becomes even more attractive.

This post was edited post-publication to clarify some feature comparisons.

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