From Netbooks To Desktop Replacements – The History Of Chrome OS

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Chrome OS may only hold 5.04-percent of the US computer market and 1.17-percent globally according to the January 2019 StatCounter Global Stats latest count but it has managed to become a relatively mainstream product nonetheless.

That success is thanks in part to its current standing in the US and world education markets, where Google has pushed the operating system on a steady climb. According to the most recent report from Futuresource Consulting, by the end of the first half of 2018, the gadgets accounted for no fewer than 58-percent of institutionally-purchased education laptops and tablet shipments in the US and 9.2-percent globally.

The gains are based on a foundation of steady growth and rapid development for the platform itself but also to the wide array of tools Google offers to make the devices more useful. Over nearly an entire decade since development started, refinements, new features, and advances in computing components themselves have pushed Chrome OS well beyond its origins as a comparatively basic browser in a box netbook.

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Chrome OS stands today as a viable alternative option for business and enterprise, education, and entertainment as well as creativity-driven and general users.

Getting started in the cloud

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Chrome OS has been around for some time now but it may be surprising even for long-time tech fanatics to learn that the operating system isn't much newer than the Chrome browser itself. The browser was initially launched in September 2008 and Google announced the project associated with the operating system just a few months later in the summer of 2009. Chrome OS was demonstrated for the first time in November of the same year.

The premise of the OS was to create a machine for operations heavily centered in the cloud. That carries several connotations but, at first launch, the general sentiment was that Chrome OS devices would be computers aimed at those who use their devices chiefly to access the internet and websites rather than hardcore gamers or spec enthusiasts.

That doesn't mean that Chrome ignored productivity. Google Docs and Sheets have been around since as early as 2007 and Google Apps for Education was first introduced the year prior to that. The company had already been focused in the leadup to Chrome OS, offering a number of services and web-based cloud alternatives while Chrome itself began receiving Chrome Web Apps in the leadup as well.

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So most of the tasks that the vast majority of users would want to do on a computer were already in place when Chrome OS was announced.

As early as 2010, Google also launched a pilot program centering around a completely unbranded Chrome OS laptop, the Cr-48 Chromebook but it wasn't until May of 2011 that the first commercially available devices landed. Those first gadgets weren't made by Google, with the search giant waiting back in the wings preparing something a bit more special.

The honor of launching the world's first commercially available Chrome OS device fell to the now prolific Chromebook manufacturer Acer and Samsung. Interestingly, the two devices were nearly identical with key differences including display size and pricing. Both launched with a 3G variant as well, although that trend toward mobile-connected options went away relatively quickly.

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The first Samsung Chromebook, the 5-series, launched with a 12.1-inch, 1280 x 800 resolution panel and started at $429 for the Wi-Fi only model. The 3G model cost $499. Acer's offering packed in a 1366 x 768 panel at 11.6-inches, which would become the defacto standard for budget-friendly Chromebooks going forward. Pricing started at just $349.

Both Samsung and Acer's first Chromebooks featured an Intel Atom N570 and 16GB of storage, although Acer's offering did include a 4GB RAM option in addition to the 2GB variant. The performance aspects of Chrome OS hardware would effectively follow that same pattern for the next several years, with only marginal improvements to the processors.

At that point, progressive web apps, touchscreen Chromebooks, and other advances to enable more activity were still a long way off, with the OS effectively being a browser brought to life in a hardware format. The reception was lukewarm as reviewers in the tech community and the wider public struggled to understand the concept and either loved the devices or hated them.

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Universally praised aspects of Chromebooks, right from the very beginning, have included their exceptionally fast boot times and battery life. The first-ever Samsung Chromebook 5-series devices were rated at over 8-hours per charge while Acer's came in at over 6-hours, with the lower figure likely tying into its use of a higher resolution, better-performing display panel.

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The sentiments have continued through today with Chrome OS devices consistently beating out almost every other computing platform in terms of boot-up time and battery life but that isn't by accident. The characteristics stem from the cloud-based nature of Chrome OS. At the time, Windows machines could feel as though they took forever to boot up — something Microsoft has improved extensively on in the meantime.

Chromebooks took less than 10 seconds to get started and the battery life was similarly impressive due to a lower level of strain on the overall hardware. As Google's dedicated operating system began to pick up traction, those aspects and others only improved and exploration began well outside of the standard laptop format in earnest.

Jumping forward just a few years, by 2015 there were a total of four hardware formats available. Those haven't necessarily been highly successful, being relegated primarily to enterprise use. They're also often found in business kiosks and similarly industry-focused thin-client hardware, where most of the processing occurs in the cloud.

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Regardless of the popularity of the devices, by that year users could now buy a laptop, desktop, all-in-one, or dongle running the universal OS. Those were dubbed either by the media or by OEMs as Chromebooks, Chromeboxes, Chromebase, or Chromebit devices.

The appeal of the OS on those devices stemmed chiefly from the fact that it didn't matter which style was chosen. The user experience would be the same across the board and accessing a new device would immediately download users' synced settings, files, and other cloud-oriented data.

The Chromebox was the first of the new devices to appear and landed in 2012 just a year behind the first Chromebooks. That was the same year that manufacturers such as Lenovo and HP began to show interest in the platform.

Chromeboxes seem to have been designed explicitly to prove that the OS wasn't only good for portable form factors. While a relatively tiny category for the operating system, the first Chromebox was launched by Samsung. Sold as the Series 3 model XE300M22-A01US, the gadget had an Intel Celeron B840 processor and 4GB of RAM and measured just 1.3 x 7.6 x 7.6-inches.

That was revised just a few months later and launched with an Intel Core i5 2450M processor and cost just $400 since the platform doesn't include a display or similarly expensive components. Although a commercial failure in terms of general consumers, that market has seen steady releases from Samsung, ASUS, HP, Acer, CTL, and others with increasingly powerful hardware for the enterprise space. Those ultimately led to a much larger expansion in the education sector, which led to wider mainstream recognition of the devices.

A departure from the mundane and the netbook

In addition to the launch of a new Chrome OS platform, 2013 also saw indications that Google didn't intend its operating system to be just another option for users in need of a simple netbook. The software underlying everything had, admittedly, not grown beyond those roots yet and wouldn't for a few more years. That didn't stop the search giant from putting forward its Chromebook Pixel anyway.

The Google Chromebook Pixel was kicked off in February 2013 as a top-tier premium Chrome OS device with an Intel Core i5 3427U processor. That was backed up by a staggering — for the time — 4GB of memory and either 32GB or 64GB storage space. It's nearly 13-inch display, set in an uncommon 3:2 ratio that almost perfectly provides a "full-screen" experience for the browser, was set at a resolution of 2560 x 1700.

For connections, the Chromebook Pixel came in a Wi-Fi only model with an LTE-enhanced model launching just a couple of months later. A couple of years on, slightly less powerful models with better RAM options were released.

None of those devices were necessarily a success outside of the enthusiast category of consumers despite their 2-in-1 all-metal, premium design language. That's likely due to the cost-value ratio of a device that is, for all intents and purposes, still just a browser. The gadget pricing started at just shy of $1,000 and ran all the way up to $1449 for the LTE model.

Chromebase & Chromebit fail to excite in the consumer space

Following the initial launch of Google's own self-branded Chrome OS laptops, and possibly inspired by the bold step forward that device represented, manufacturers took another turn away from standard laptop models.

Chromebase was launched first, arriving as another desktop-like iteration for the platform but in an 'all-in-one' format. That means it contained all necessary hardware to power the OS, speakers, and webcam installed inside of a more traditional-looking computer monitor and shipped with a Chrome OS-specific keyboard and mouse.

The first such device was unveiled in January 2014 by LG and started out at $350, with an Intel Celeron 2955U processor backed by 4GB RAM. The display was set at a comparatively great 1920 x 1080 resolution, stepping toward following the premium example set by Google's Chromebook Pixel.

Acer was, unsurprisingly given its history, another manufacturer who jumped into the all-in-one side of the Chrome OS desktop market. Unfortunately, as with the Chromebox segment, neither company saw much success outside of the enterprise space.

The world's first and only Chromebit launched way back in 2015 and has since fallen into near-complete obscurity. In large part, that's down to the massive changes Chrome OS has undergone that we'll discuss momentarily but it can summarily be attributed to the hardware itself.

The ASUS Chromebit was a relatively strong device for its time but swung in the opposite direction of the Chromebase. It featured an OP1-rated Rockchip RK3288 processor with 2GB RAM and the standard 16GB storage space. What it lacked was a keyboard, monitor, or mouse. Instead, the Chromebit was an HDMI dongle, similar to Google's Chromecast but in a stick form.

Stick format computers aren't typically widely popular, to begin with. It might seem like an almost perfect blend of portability and capability for the time and platform, complete with Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, a USB port, and a 3.5mm audio jack. It simply hasn't panned out, and may never at this point.

The introduction of apps and the convertible

The landmark change in the premium and usefulness direction for Chrome OS began with the introduction of Android applications and hardware more well-suited for that software. Apps from the massively popular mobile operating system began making their way to Chromebooks and other Chrome OS hardware just in time for a couple of other major developments on the platform in early 2016.

In that year, touchscreens and devices with a higher level of RAM began to become much more commonplace. The 2-in-1 design really started to take off as well with the launch of the Samsung Chromebook Plus and Pro alongside HP's Chromebook 13 G1.

Touchscreens were introduced back with the Chromebook Pixel and began to become more mainstream as early as 2014. Android apps finally gave those screen's purpose and the introduction of a 2-in-1 design allowed users to access those in a more tablet-like way.

The apps got a slow start but, in the same month that the two above-mentioned devices were launched Google announced that all future Chromebooks would support the appropriate Linux Kernel and API for the apps to run.

Applications are still not all very well optimized for Chrome OS or any large screen, for that matter, but Google has made strides in that area. In the meantime, longer battery life and other aspects of Chromebooks began to make the use of resource hungry apps more feasible.

The HP Chromebook 13 G1 launched in mid-2016 with up to 8GB RAM and 32GB storage, with a 13.3-inch display panel set at 3200 x 1800 pixels. Battery life fell in at up to 9-hours and buyers could expect exceptional performance thanks to its sixth-generation Intel Core m5-6Y57 processor. It could, in many ways, be looked at as the first Chrome OS laptop to push the boundaries of what a third-party OEM could do on the platform and it cost less than Google's Chromebook Pixel at $499.

Samsung's Chromebook Plus went in a slightly different direction in early 2017 for $449, bringing the benefit of the brand's enormous reach in a 2-in-1 package with a multi-touch 2400 x 1600 screen and a garaged S-Pen stylus. An OP1-rated processor ensured a smooth experience with the OS and apps while it shared the 4GB RAM and 32GB storage in common with the HP Chromebook 13 G1. Up to 10-hours of battery life were promised.

Samsung doubled down on the Chromebook Plus just a few months later for around $100 more, using its brand power to launch a more powerful sister-device in the Samsung Chromebook Pro. That was powered by an Intel Core m3-6Y30 rather than the Rockchip-built processor found in the Samsung Chromebook Plus but was identical in nearly every other regard.

Each of those devices was launched ready to put Android applications and Chrome Web Apps at the forefront of Chrome OS, enabling a more diverse user experience. In fact, considering their relatively low entry cost, the two gadgets could be viewed as the first devices to really push the idea that Chromebooks could compete at the same level as Windows, macOS, or other Linux Systems.

Pixelbook joins the fray

In late 2017, at its annual hardware conference, Google unveiled its vision for the true potential of Chrome OS in the form of its then-unrivaled Google Pixelbook.

Building on the hardware-based advances of its predecessor and incorporating the best of both the HP Chromebook 13 G1 and Samsung Chromebook Plus, the Google Pixelbook was and still is a monster of a device. While those former gadgets landed earlier and really brought Android Apps to the forefront, the Pixelbook showcased how even more powerful hardware could make things that much better.

The Google Pixelbook launched in an all-metal 2-in-1 format with the option of either a seventh-generation Intel Core i5 or Core i7 backed up by either 8GB or 16GB RAM. Storage fell in at 128GB, 256GB, or 512GB.

At just 10mm thin, the device stood as a testament that a Chromebook could be as premium in design as in components too. Its 2400 x 1600 2K display was backed up by two USB-C ports, an etched glass touchpad, and backlit keyboard. Two high-quality speakers, four mics, and a 720p 60fps camera were included to round things out.

The battery life was rated high as well, in spite of the bolstered internal hardware, at up to 10 hours between charges.

All of that set a relatively high standard for forthcoming devices. Meanwhile, the inclusion of a touchscreen panel working in tablet orientation, a dedicated Google Assistant key, and the option to buy — for $100 — an active stylus betrayed Google's vision for the future.

The cost of the Google Pixelbook rang in at around $1,000 to start and went as high as $1,649.

Slipping into the mainstream through education

 

While manufacturers were beginning to shape devices in a more premium direction, Google was also working behind the scenes to push its OS more mainstream. It did that, by attacking an area of computing long-held by Microsoft's Windows and ultimately succeeding in that endeavor.

As of 2016, Chromebooks accounted for more than half of the 12.6-million "mobile" devices shipped to US schools, according to a 2017 report from Futuresource. Coinciding with that and contributing to that, Google launched its own G Suite for education, comprised of tools to help unify the education ecosystem in a single suite of software.

The trend has only continued with Google gaining additional share and popularity with the introduction of tools to help educators grade and track student progress. By ensuring access to Gmail, Drive, Classroom, Docs, Sheets, Slides, Sites, Calendar, and offering one-on-one support, Google ensured it not only captured more than half of the US market. It also gained mind share in terms of public awareness of its OS and the benefits.

The fact that Chromebooks were available at much lower prices than Windows or macOS hardware certainly helped the company achieve that goal.

Linux, web apps, and the disappearing keyboard

The focus on education was later followed by the launch of the very first Chrome OS tablet in March of 2018, made by Acer and directly aimed at that segment of the market. The OS wasn't quite ready or optimized for tablets yet but that gave educators another option for bringing technology into the classroom without spending a lot of money.

At the same time, Google used 2018 to shift its focus toward native functionality through progressive web applications (PWAs), helping its operating system to do more through innovations in the browser space. By comparison to earlier changes for the operating system, PWAs, Linux apps and further changes to the hardware heralded a monumental change at an accelerated pace.

One of the catalysts to the change was, as noted above, the rampant growth of 2-in-1 devices that could be used in tablet mode. The introduction of Acer's budget-model Chromebook Tab 10 and the later launch of the HP Chromebook x2 spurred things in a more tablet-focused direction.

Acer's Chromebook Tab 10 marked the beginning of that at the low-end of the spectrum that was still being targeted by the vast majority of OEMs at the time. Priced at right around $300, that was aimed at the education-only sector until August of 2018. It shipped with a Wacom EMR stylus, 2048 x 1536 resolution display, 8,860 mAh capacity 10-hour battery, an OP1-rated SoC, 4GB of RAM and 32GB storage.

The HP Chromebook x2 took things further, pursuing a true blend of top-level power and a much wider array of use cases.

As the first, and still only, detachable, HP's mid-2018 Chromebook x2 showcased exactly what a Chrome OS tablet could be under the right circumstances. Like Google's Pixelbook, the gadget featured a full-size pen stylus but it also centered around a magnet-enabled keyboard that could be completely removed and a sophisticated design.

The 12.3-inch device packed in a 2400 x 1600 display panel, Intel Core m3-7Y30 dual-core processor, 4GB RAM, 32GB storage, and up to twelve-and-a-half hours of battery. In effect, it helped push things deeper into the premium end, proving both that tablets were here to stay and that they could be used for more than simple student tasks.

Just a few months later, access to Linux applications became a standard capability of Chrome OS devices across the board, having arrived for some hardware beginning in Chrome OS 69 in October. Around the same time, Chrome OS began seeing a wider rollout of progressive web applications and changes to the underlying code with WebAssembly, Service Workers, and more.

All of that enabled Chrome OS users to utilize the previously limited hardware to much greater effect — placing the platform nearly on par with Windows and macOS. Whether drawing up business reports or scripting out some code for a programming project, Chrome OS was now capable of accomplishing the vast majority of the same tasks.

A premium explosion, even at the budget end

While the above-mentioned changes were taking place in rapid succession, yet another shift in terms of hardware was also underway. Device manufacturers had summarily discovered that with Chrome OS's new capabilities not only could use better hardware but, in some cases, needed better hardware. The drive to more powerful and more aesthetically-appealing gadgets didn't apply only to Chromebooks at the upper end of the market, either. Instead, the direction Chrome OS had been heading since Google's Pixelbook effectively exploded across the entire industry segment.

Acer may be partially responsible for that, offering up the first device to truly challenge the Pixelbook with its Chromebook Spin 13 in early 2018 before offering the device to general consumers late in the year. That device didn't stand alone at all though, with nearly every other manufacturer launching its own premium-segment Chromebook at IFA 2018 in August.

The real twist at IFA was the arrival of top-level devices from manufacturers that typically reserved their best hardware for the Windows platform. That included Dell with its Inspiron-branded Chromebook 14 2-in-1 in a traditional aluminum shell, all the bells and whistles, and an Intel Core i3 CPU starting at just $599. Lenovo joined in that trend with its Yoga-branded offering driven by an Intel Core i5-8250U Kaby Lake R processor and 8GB RAM. Pricing for the latter device was the same starting out as Dell's offering.

The premium use of metal in the build began to seep across the rest of the budget-spectrum too also seen across nearly the entire lineup of affordable devices. In fact, Acer took home the honor of being the Android Headlines best of IFA 2018 gadget in the Chromebook category for incorporating metal into its build and slimming down the bezels to just 6mm. Its modest $349.99 price tag included a 1920 x 1080 touchscreen display panel, Gorilla Glass touchpad, and all the ports a user could want in a 14-inch package.

Acer's device is not a one-off for the platform, either. Late 2018 and early 2019 have seen a swath of budget-friendly 'premium' gadgets running Chrome OS bringing the very best in aesthetics, better durability, improvements to battery life, and mid-range performance. The year, overall, represented a significant change in direction, pushing both software and hardware to new heights with prices covering a wider range for more devices from under $300 to over $1000.

Pixel Slate enters the arena

The biggest launch for Chrome OS in 2018 was a top-tier gadget that was announced in October, didn't land until nearly the year's end and is dubbed the Google Pixel Slate. Aside from being nearly as powerful as the Google Pixelbook with revamped internals and a slab configuration, the Pixel Slate validates Chrome OS as a tablet platform as well as a desktop OS.

As with the Google Pixelbook, there are some drawbacks to the Pixel Slate that we'll get to momentarily but as a tablet-first device, users probably couldn't ask for much more. Five total configurations were made available with differences mostly relegated to internal hardware. The Google Pixel Slate is a 7mm-thin tablet with a 12.3-inch 2.5D glass-enhanced display, a resolution of 3000 x 2000, and 293 pixels-per-inch.

An 8-megapixel snapper is included on both the front and back of those and Google embedded another platform first by including a fingerprint scanner in the recessed power button notch of the gadget. A 12-hour-rated battery rounded that out while the overall weight of the matte midnight blue aluminum package fell in at 1.6 lbs.

Internally, buyers could choose between an Intel Celeron Kaby Lake processor backed by either 4GB or 8GB RAM and 32GB or 64GB of storage. The mid-range variants of the Pixel Slate feature either an eighth-generation Intel Core m3 Processor or Intel Core m3 processor backed by 8GB RAM and either 64GB or 128GB storage. Lastly, the top-tier version of the gadget currently ships with an eighth-generation Intel Core i7 processor alongside 16GB of RAM and 256GB of storage.

The primary drawbacks to the Google Pixel Slate are its price point and, tied in with that, the cost to make the device a full laptop. The budget model, not at all comparable to HP's Chromebook x2 in performance, costs $599. It isn't until the top models are up for consideration at $1000, or more, that the devices begin to show their potential as a powerful computer replacement in tablet form. Even then, users have to buy a secondary accessory to gain both pen and keyboard functionality at $100 and $200, respectively.

The Google Pixel Slate is, nonetheless, an important part of Chrome OS history since it could be the catalyst that promotes better and more high-value tablets from other OEMs. Historically speaking, that has appeared to be the entire point of Pixel-branded Chrome OS hardware over the entire course of events.

The biggest drawback to the Google Pixel Slate is currently a lack of full optimization for a tablet experience. While improvements have been made in the past couple of months in some regards, updates don't appear to have contained fixes for system-level lag that had been noted by Chrome OS users and there is still plenty of work to be done to make the overall experience better across the board.

So what's next?

The history of Chrome OS so far, especially considering the rapid advance since late 2016, leaves little question that Google intends its operating system to continue doing battle on an equal footing as possible with competitors. That doesn't mean there aren't still avenues to be explored or problems to solve, however.

Announcements from the beginning of this year and commits to the Chromium repository have already seen some relatively clear examples of what's in store over the next year and into the future for Chrome OS. Among the more important of those is the appearance that mobile connectivity is beginning to rise again.

Not only has LTE networking been indicated in the code behind the OS and already appeared in at least one consumer variant of Samsung's lineup — the Samsung Chromebook Plus LTE. One of two newest entrants to the platform's hardware equation, Qualcomm, will almost certainly be delivering on that front as more devices begin to utilize Snapdragon processors.

AMD has finally made an appearance in Chrome OS as well, but only on the education side for the time being. As the primary competitor to Intel in the traditional PC and laptop market, the company has a lot to offer to help push Chrome OS capabilities and to drive the OS further into the mainstream.

On the software front, Google has begun addressing issues with tablet mode now that it has its own device available to consumers, beginning with a new option for the layout in its browser. With Tablet Mode enabled, starting in Chrome 72, users will have the advantage of a browser that uses screen real estate more efficiently. The mode also scales page elements to more tablet and touch-friendly sizes.

The same optimizations are still needed for the OS level interface and to reduce lag in key parts of the interactive menus, such as in the overview screen for switching between apps and windows. Google also needs to put serious thought and effort into how developers of Android applications optimize the experience for tablet users.

Finally, the search giant has plenty of room to grow in terms of software that functions at the desktop level. Linux applications, which still need plenty of optimization alongside a better file management system, are a good start. The ability to move around Android application data to external storage such as SD cards is another.

Google's focus now needs to be on bringing software from Adobe for creative users to the platform and on gaming. The former of those will likely be implemented over time, or companies like Adobe may choose to create entirely new Android apps geared toward larger screens and more powerful components. In the meantime, Google has already begun work toward a streaming gaming platform as well, although the details about that are still slim on the ground.

Chrome OS is, for all intents and purposes, shaping up to be a true competitor for traditional desktop systems and it continues to do so at a rapid pace. There isn't, for now, any reason to think that's going to stop.

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Junior Editor

Daniel has been writing for AndroidHeadlines since 2016. As a Senior Staff Writer for the site, Daniel specializes in reviewing a diverse range of technology products and covering topics related to Chrome OS and Chromebooks. Daniel holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Software Engineering and has a background in Writing and Graphics Design that drives his passion for Android, Google products, the science behind the technology, and the direction it's heading. Contact him at [email protected]

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