Sales of standard personal computers are tanking, but the new-school alternative, Google Inc.'s Chromebookconcept, seems to be doing just fine. A few days with one of the newest, Acer Corp's C720, makes it easy to understand why.
Chromebooks are designed by Google and a number of traditional PC makers, such as Taiwan-based Acer, Samsung Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. They generally sell for less than $300; the Acer C720 carries a list price of $250. For that, you get a device with a low-powered processor chip and no mechanical data storage device, like a hard drive or optical disk drive. Instead, a Chromebook runs Chrome OS, an operating system created by Google as an alternative to bulkier software like Microsoft Corp.'s Windows.
This means that Chromebooks don't run standard Windows software, such as Microsoft Office. But who cares? As we've learned from years of using smartphones and tablets, non-Windows devices are fine for most everyday computing tasks. Especially if your device is hooked up to the Internet, where you can hand off many tasks to a server hundreds of miles away.
The Chromebook was designed for this kind of Net-focused computing. Users log on to a Wi-Fi hotspot and set up a Google account to get access to the company's array of Internet cloud-based services -- Gmail, Google Docs for editing documents, Google Calendar for appointments, and Google Drive, an online file storage service. The C720 includes 100 gigabytes of Google Drive data storage for two years at no extra charge.
The earliest Chromebooks, released a couple of years ago, took the idea too far. First-generation Chromebooks were nearly useless when offline. Google and its partners learned the lesson. Today's Chromebooks carry a small but significant chunk of flash memory, enough to store important files and a few key pieces of software.
I loaded up the C720 with apps to let me read and answer Gmail messages offline. The responses are sent automatically the next time you're online. You can also store copies of your Google Drive documents, edit them, or create new ones without an Internet connection. An app for Amazon.com's Kindle e-book service lets you store your favorite titles on the Chromebook. You can also get offline versions of The New York Times and The Economist.
The C720 weighs just 2.7 pounds. It's powered by an Intel Corp. processor similar to those found in low-end Windows laptops, but fast enough to boot this machine in under 10 seconds.
The Intel chip is optimized for low power consumption; Acer claims you can expect eight hours of battery life while performing a range of common tasks. I gave the C720 my usual battery test, running a four-hour movie over Netflix. I fell asleep before the end, but next morning, the C7 still had 23 percent battery life. So I'm confident that this Chromebook could get you through a cross-country flight on a single charge.
The Chromeb00k's high-definition video screen is decent enough, but not of the quality you'd expect on a standard laptop. Still, it does have a nice matte finish that largely eliminates the reflective glare of many laptop screens. The keyboard is better -- quite comfortable and suitable for extended typing. There's a high-quality video camera for teleconferencing and an HDMI port, so you can feed video from the Chromebook to a high-definition TV. In all, it's a comprehensive set of features for $250.
The versatility of the C720 and other recent Chromebooks has made them a legitimate alternative to the standard laptop. That might explain why, as of yesterday, four of the 10 best-selling laptops at Amazon.com were Chromebooks. Market analyst Gartner Inc. said that the devices made up 5 percent of the PC market in the first quarter of 2013, compared with just 1 percent a year earlier. It's still just a sliver of the pie, but it's a growing sliver, at a time when sales of other PC types are falling fast.
Full-fledged personal computers running Windows and Apple Inc.'s Mac OS X still have their uses, so I can't see adopting a Chromebook as a primary computer. But as a cheap machine for the kids or a companion on weekend road trips, the Acer C720 is robust enough for regular work and play, and cheap enough for regular people.