New Chromebooks and Chromebit stick start at $100 thanks to lower-power chips

After a steady two-year drizzle of Chromebook releases, Google and its partners are preparing a flood of new hardware to sway consumers away from cheap Windows laptops. Chromebooks from HiSense and Haier go on sale today at $149 each, followed by an Asus convertible in the coming months.

And if a Chromebook itself is too big and bulky, then you might consider the Asus Chromebit, a Chromebook-on-a-stick that will cost less than $100. In all, 10 Chrome products will launch over the next two months, Google executives said. Besides the HiSense and Haier laptops highlighted here, you'll see models from Acer, AOPEN, Asus, Dell, HP, Lenovo and LG ranging from $149 to $499.

"We're very happy in that we've played a part in moving computing a little bit further," said Caesar Sengupta, the vice president of product management for Google.

The secret behind these low-cost Chromebooks is the RK3288, a very inexpensive ARM processor from Rockchip, a Chinese chip maker that's little known outside of industry circles.

The Rockchip RK3288 is one of the first chips based on the quad-core ARM Cortex-A17 architecture, which was launched in mid-2014. Because the chip can draw as little as 3 watts of power, the Chromebooks based on it are designed without fans, and can last all day on a single charge--up to 13 hours in the Asus Chromebook Flip, according to Gayathri Rajan, director of product management at Google.

The story behind the story: The essential Chromebook concept relies on the premise that a huge cross-section of users will be happy with "good enough" computing, especially at rock-bottom prices. The systems aren't powerful enough to play hardcore games and Windows applications, but they're "good enough" to browse the web and tap into Google's extensive suite of cloud services--Gmail, Drive, Maps, and so on.

However, you could argue that with fewer than 25 million Chromebook sales last year (opposed to more than 302 million PC sales), Google still has work to do. And thus today's announcement. Google and its partners are lowering prices further while chasing the one commodity laptop users value most: battery life.

At their heart, they're all the same

The basic hardware specs of the Asus Chromebook Flip, the two Chromebooks from Haier and HiSense, and the Chromebit Chromebook-on-a-stick are all nearly identical. You get the aforementioned Rockchip chip, 2GB of storage, and a 16GB SSD. 

"Our general belief is that you can't get to lower-priced devices by just dropping specs," Sengupta said. "Users see through that. But if you keep the performance bar the same, but bring the price down, that's really how you need to go through it."

Many consumers might not familiar with Hisense, but the Chinese manufacturer has forged a solid relationship with Walmart, which sells its low-cost televisions and other electronics. Haier, meanwhile, is better known for washing machines and other appliances. Both the black Hisense Chromebook and the white Haier Chromebook--not the most poetic of names--will go on sale today at and Amazon, respectively, for an identical price of $149.

The Hisense Chromebook measures 11.7 inches by 8.8 inches by 0.6 inch, and weighs 3.3 pounds. Neither Hisense nor Google released the resolution of its 11.6-inch display, but it certainly looks more like the washed-out matte display of other cheapo Chromebooks than the utterly beautiful 2560x1700 display of the Chromebook Pixel. The Hisense Chromebook includes a pair of USB 2.0 ports, a 720p front-facing camera, a microSD card reader, an HDMI connector, 802.11ac Bluetooth 4.0, and a mic/headphone combo port.

The Haier Chromebook is slightly smaller, measuring 11.4 inches by 8.1 inches by 0.71 inch, and weighs 2.54 pounds. Otherwise, the specs are the same as the Hisense model. Recognizing the Chromebook's influence in education--where Chromebooks outsell all other computing devices, according to Google director of product management Rajen Sheth--Haier also plans a ruggedized version with a spill-proof keyboard and an actual drain hole for milk or juice to flow through.

The one notable difference between the two new models is battery life: the Hisense Chromebook is rated at up to 8.5 hours of battery life, while the Haier Chromebook promises 10 hours.

The Chromebit: a Chromebook on a stick

The Asus Chromebit shows off exactly how compact a low-cost computing device can be.

The Chromebit looks very similar to the Chromecast, Google's entertainment-oriented thumb computer that includes an HDMI connector to plug into a monitor or TV, a microUSB connector for power, wireless capability, and a processor--and that's about it. With the Chromebit, Asus has added a full-size USB connector for plugging in a USB hub, along with the hardware found inside the two new Chromebooks from Haier and Hisense. Google hasn't disclosed the exact price, but said the Chromebit will be less than $100.

With a Chromebit, you don't even need a notebook or netbook--you just slip the stick into the HDMI port of a display at home, work, or an Internet cafe.

"Think of the different use cases," Sengupta said. "Think of an Internet cafe, where you have a monitor, you have a keyboard, and mouse, [but] you're stuck with an old desktop. It's probably never been updated, pretty insecure. Think of a school lab, all the peripherals, but stuck to a desktop. Now you can replace that."

The Chromebit doesn't appear to be a truly novel idea, but rather a nice effort on the part of Google to market an existing concept. CNX Software reported on a similar device running Android last year, while Rockchip's own Wikipedia page lists a similar "mini PC" from Tronsmart. Dell showed off a prototype, known as "Project Ophelia," in 2013, and this later turned into an Android-powered computing stick for about $100.

Google didn't announce any new Chromeboxes or other desktop hardware on Tuesday. Nor did we see a hybrid laptop or two-in-one with a detachable tablet that can dock into a base. But with 10 Chrome products scheduled for the next couple of months, can that be far behind


Mark Hachman

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