No one expected a great deal from the very first Chromebooks, declared 10 years ago on May 11, 2011. After all, they arrived on the heels of the Netbook age, when low-cost, low-power laptops were first seen as a panacea for overpriced tech, but ended up overselling their restricted performance. And after spending a few years fighting to get Windows-running, Intel-Atom-powered Netbooks to do much of anything helpful, I was not optimistic about a personal computer system that appeared even more constrained from the box.
ChromeOS declared earlier in 2011, didn’t seem like much of an operating system in all to me at that time. It was essentially just the same Chrome browser in wide use, using a keyboard and screen wrapped about it. The system’s biggest glaring omission was the capability to set up and run applications. Who’d want what was basically a browser at a box?
A decade later, Google’s affordable laptop notion is still kicking — and thriving. Throughout the COVID-19 catastrophe, Chromebooks assisted students and workers stay connected while stuck in the home. It seems like that the Chromebook was ahead of its time, and it took a pandemic for its full potential to be realized.
A new budget challenger
The very first Chromebook versions were announced exactly 10 years back, May 11, 2011, at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco. They comprised models from Samsung and Acer, two of the larger names in Chromebooks.
Amazingly, $350-$450 is still pretty common for an entry-level Chromebook a decade afterward, making this one of the few tech products that haven’t measurably increased in cost over the past ten years.
As a long-time proponent of budget-priced notebooks and laptops, I often say people buy too many computers for their needs, particularly if those desires heavily skew toward fundamental internet browsing, online shopping, social media, email, and movie screening. Living life completely in the web browser makes sense today, but it turned out to be a difficult sell back in 2011 when there were fewer cloud-based applications tools.
A decade after, iPads and Chromebooks are still battling for your casual computing attention. Both can still be found for under $400, and superior versions of both top $1,000. The biggest change is that Chromebooks have become a little more iPad-like, adding accessibility to the Google Play app shop, while iPads have become more laptop-like, adding mouse and touchpad support.
The first taste of ChromeOS
It was only when I started moving down the decade-long rabbit hole of Chromebook history that I remembered the one Chromebook which predated that May 11, 2011 launch. It was Google’s own Cr-48 Chromebook, a prototype system provided in 2010 to pick pilot application invitees. These plain-looking black boxes had a 12.1-inch, 1,280×800-pixel display, 3G mobile broadband, and an Intel Atom N455 CPU.
The most interesting footnote is a surprisingly forthright admission from Google to potential Cr-48 testers: “The Pilot program isn’t for the faint of heart. Things may not always work just right.” Ironically, Chromebooks are very successful by exhibiting the opposite behavior. They are an ideal notebook for the faint of heart and things usually do the job correctly.
This classic gallery shows you just how generic the Cr-48 appeared and yes, it had a VGA interface.
The first Samsung Chromebook won compliments from my colleague Josh Goldman for being streamlined, compared to Windows notebooks of the time.
We also reviewed an early Acer model known as the C7, which dropped its price to an astonishing $199. However, our 2012 review said it did not compare favorably to funding pills and noninvasive Windows notebooks: “The Acer C7’s benefits are a physical keyboard and touchpad, that larger hard drive, and the price. The disadvantages? Seriously short battery life and Chrome’s very odd, compact operating system.”
Turning the corner
Things continued like this for some time. Chromebooks ate a large amount of the budget notebook mindshare as more and more companies got into the action, but those machines continued to feel just like secondary or backup laptops in the best. Looking back in the historical record, my initial “living with a Chromebook” article was in 2013 and it is safe to say that I was still a skeptic.
It had a forward-looking 3:2 aspect ratio screen. Nevertheless, the major move that assisted Chromebooks to go from niche products to the mainstream was the then-new capability to get the Google Play app store. Having the ability to run nearly any Android program on a Chromebook took away the largest objection ChromeOS skeptics needed — the inability to obtain and run local apps. Yes, they were the mobile versions, but it had been enough for a lot of tasks.
Today, it’s a Chromebook universe
The world changed in March 2020, as offices and the school shut because of COVID-19 and so many items transferred online. Many households, involving remote school and remote work, found they had one notebook per person and cheap Chromebooks found a brand new audience. All these were comparatively inexpensive PCs that were able to get the online tools that offices and schools were using, including Zoom and Google Classroom.
During 2020 and 2021, the Chromebook was highlighted among the greatest tools for pupils and remote employees, and laptop reviewer Josh Goldman now says a Chromebook is his default recommendation for most people at the moment. Why is this? I think that it’s since the pandemic-related changes have driven a lot of us to reevaluate what it is we actually need our computers to do. The first Samsung Chromebook won compliments from my colleague Josh Goldman for being streamlined, compared to Windows notebooks of the time.