HP Makes Its Chromebook Play

As HP tries to stabilize its business, it joins a growing group of Google hardware partners.
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HP last week declined to comment when word leaked that it would begin selling laptops running Google's Chrome operating system. But on Monday, the company acknowledged that it will indeed offer a Chromebook of its own.

In so doing, it joins a growing list of hardware makers that are looking for signs of life in an otherwise moribund PC industry. Last month, Lenovo announced a ThinkPad Chromebook hardened for the rigors of school use. Acer and Samsung have been producing Chromebooks since mid-2011 and recently refreshed their offerings, to moderate acclaim.

Acer even went so far as to hint at the number of Chromebook devices it actually sold last quarter. It confirmed that its C7 Chromebook accounted for 5-10% of its U.S. computer sales during November and December, which suggests unit sales somewhere between 26,900 and 92,314, based IDC and Gartner PC market estimates.

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Having lacked data to demonstrate Chromebook demand, Google has largely remained silent on the subject. Even CEO Larry Page during the company's recent Q4 earnings call could only muster the vague assurance that Chromebooks were "a holiday highlight."

But that may be changing as Chromebooks find their stride in the market. On Friday, Jaime Casap, global education evangelist at Google, said in a blog post that Chromebooks were now in 2,000 schools, twice as many as three months earlier.

The Chromebook value proposition -- low-cost, low-maintenance, manageability and security -- may not appeal to power users, but it is turning heads in settings like schools and small businesses where administration and cost-of-ownership matter more than processor prowess. And it's enhanced by Chromebooks' ability to access Windows applications through third-party software, Ericom's AccessNow HTML5 RDP Client.

For HP, weathering layoffs and trying to recover after a year and a half of turmoil, entering the Chromebook market may be a sign that company management finally has a plan to address changing market realities.

But the HP Pavilion Chromebook doesn't break any new ground. It lists for $329, more than the $199 Acer C7 or the $249 Samsung Chromebook, but less than the $449 Samsung Chromebook 550 or the $429 Lenovo ThinkPad Chromebook, scheduled to be available February 26. It has the largest display of any current Chromebook model, a 14" BrightView backlit LED with 1366 x 768 resolution. It's also the heaviest, at 3.96 lbs/ 1.8 kg.

The Pavilion Chromebook offers only 4.25 hours battery life, 15 minutes more than Acer's model, but 105 minutes less than Samsung's 550, and 135 minutes less than either Samsung's third-generation Chromebook or Lenovo's model.

Beyond the larger screen, the Pavilion Chromebook's most distinctive hardware difference appears to be three USB 2.0 ports rather than two. The Samsung Chromebook has two USB ports, but one is USB 3.0. The Lenovo model has three, two of which are USB 3.0.

And therein lies a problem for Google's hardware partners: Differentiating inexpensive hardware can be difficult, particularly when the Chrome OS value proposition is based more on what's not there -- the PC management burden -- than what is. How do you sell what's missing in a way that fellow Chromebook makers cannot?

Chrome OS does have features, but those features -- Google's online services -- are largely independent from hardware. That may change if hardware ends up making a major difference in the performance of Web-based applications and games. But the responsiveness of online Web services tends to be more dependent on network speed and on the presence of flash-based storage than on processor power. In the meantime, the challenge HP and other Chromebook markers face is finding a way to add value through hardware without adding cost.