Friday, May 20, 2011

Should you buy the Google laptop?

A few weeks ago its yearly I/O developer conference, Google announced that it was finally going to release a general consumer device based on the ChromeOS. For those of you who don't know, ChromeOS is Google's experiment at creating an operating system that is nearly completely web based. In ChromeOS, the web browser (Chrome) is the desktop and most (if not all) of your applications live on the web.

Two companies, Samsung and Acer, will manufacture the initial ChromeBooks, as Google is calling them, and they will be fully optimized for living on the web.

General specs for the notebook are:

* 11.6" HD Widescreen CineCrystalTM LED-backlit LCD
* 3.19 lbs | 1.45 kg
* 6 hours of continuous usage 1
* Intel® AtomTM Dual-Core Processor
* Built in dual-band Wi-Fi and World-mode 3G (optional)
* HD Webcam with noise cancelling microphone
* High-Definition Audio Support
* 2 USB 2.0 ports
* 4-in-1 memory card slot
* HDMI port
* Fullsize Chrome keyboard
* Oversize fully-clickable trackpad

Notice that the specs say nothing about hard drive size or memory. Why? Because they don't matter. Since everything you do on these devices are on the web, memory requirements and hard disk space are really inconsequential.

Is the ChromeBook right for me?

Deciding whether the ChromeBook is right for you is really a matter of looking at how you already use your computer and determining if what you do could be easily shifted to the web without loss of productivity.

Most people use their computers for pretty basic things: email and chat, web browsing, watching videos, creating documents, managing photos, and listening to music. That's about it. Sure, some users will do 'heavy lifting' on their systems like writing software or editing video and audio but the majority of users do the six things listed above nearly exclusively. For those users, the ChromeBook is an excellent alternative to a traditional PC and provides an automatic backup of their work without the hassle that comes with backing up a regular PC. And, because everything is stored in the cloud, the data is accessible anywhere there's an Internet connection.

As for applications, cloud based software has become very nice. From editing documents to manipulating videos or doing email, web applications are available today that easily meet or exceed the needs of most users. And with the coming of HTML5, the new standard in HTML, these applications will get a tremendous boost in functionality and become even better as developers and manufacturers push us deeper and deeper into the cloud.

That said, this won't be the computer for everyone. Some power users won't be satisfied with doing everything in the cloud and there's some things that, even while they're technically doable, just don't work well within cloud based software. Video editing is an example. Even the most advanced web based video editor doesn't really even come close to a basic on-system one and the technology isn't likely to change that any time soon.

There's also the question of what happens when there's no Internet? Google says it's building in a fail-safe that will allow you to work offline but that's just for using the apps. Your data, which is safely tucked away on Google's server on the Internet, will be wholly locked away from you. Hardly a good situation for a business professional who suddenly finds she can't access the presentation she's giving in 30 minutes because there's no Internet where she's working.

Of course, there's always the privacy issue. Google knows a lot about us just by analyzing the things we do on their services now. Many of us use Google services for blogging, email, sharing videos, listening to music, hosting our websites, handling out financial transactions, documents, and, of course, plain old search. Do we really want to hand over even more control of our data over to a company with a questionable agenda? I'm not comfortable with it and I know a lot of other people who aren't comfortable with it. Are you willing to let Google know just about everything about your life?

Is there another option?

If you're like me, you have a love/hate relationship with the cloud. I love how convenient it makes accessing my data from anywhere. I can edit a document at home, walk over to my local Starbucks or McDonald's and continue right where I left off without missing a beat. And it doesn't matter if I'm using different computers at each location because my data is centralized in the cloud and easily accessible.

At the same time, I'm concerned about handing my data to a corporation. What will they do with my data? Will they sell it? Profile me? The truth is, I don't really know. I only have their 'promise' to be good to go on and we all know corporations always keep their promises, right?

My growing concern with cloud services has prompted me to begin investigating alternatives over the last few months and, I have to say, I was quite surprised by what I found. For only a few hundred dollars (including the cost of a computer and an Internet connection), I could move the cloud indoors and bring all of the convenience that services from Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and others offer right into a closet in my home.

By setting up a basic web server in my home (which takes 5 minutes most of the time), I can set up a little 'mini-cloud' for me and my family and friends where my data con be accessed from anywhere but I retain full control and have zero privacy worries.

Now, why go through all this trouble when you can just go buy a laptop from Google and have it all done for you?

A few reasons:

First, the Google laptop doesn't really cost any less than a regular laptop does. At about $350, you can go and buy a fully functional laptop that lets you do a lot more than the Google system does and doesn't rob you of your privacy.

Second, what Google is doing isn't really for your benefit or anything that's so difficult that you couldn't do yourself; maybe even better. Make no mistake, the software that Google is offering you is not free. It doesn't cost you money, true, but it does cost you something. That cost is allowing Google to have full control of your data. Using freely available software you can download off the Internet, you can keep control of your data and not rely on anyone but yourself.

So, all-in-all, am I saying don't get a ChromeBook? No. I'm saying consider your options. ChromeBook will appeal to a broad segment of the computer buying public. Why? I don't really know, but it will. But whether ChromeBook is the right fit for you is something only you can decide. At $350, though, it's a decision you should make very carefully.

ChromeBooks go on sale on June 15th.

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