A few days ago Chrome Story shared some screenshots of a Chrome touch UI compiled by François Beaufort. I made a follow-up report, introducing another touch implementation for Chrome created by a Taiwanese programmer, penk.
Since the announcement of the Chromebook project, people have been asking why Google produced two operation systems with (possibly) overlapping markets? If Android is so wonderful and mature, then why Chrome OS (or vice versa)? If Android tablets are designed to be a convenient mobile computing device, would Chromebooks running Chrome OS ever have the chance to win (or survive)?
For customers, all we want to know is which of them is better. I want to find out the answer, so I carried out a 7-day experiment of comparing a Chromebook and an Android tablets, side by side. I tried using both to do my ordinary computing tasks on the go, in the office and at home. We’ll see if anyone could beat the other, and how customers should choose among them.
The Chromebook I used is my Cr-48. At the time of writing, only a limited number of users have got their Samsung Series 5 Chromebooks through pre-sale campaigns. I’m not one of these lucky people so I’ll base my test of Chrome OS on this Cr-48. The primary Android tablet I used was a 7″ tablet running Android 2.2.
During the 7-day testing period, I carried both devices around and did the same things with both of them. The comparison was mainly based on functionality, not speed, because different devices have varying specifications. I think a direct performance comparison is pointless. I also particularly examined the need of a touch UI.
I’m an office employee who spend around 1 hour a day on traveling to and from my office. I usually check emails and read tweets and RSS feeds in the subway. For this specific task, I think you could easily tell that a tablet is better. Despite it’s small form factor, Cr-48 is simply not good for using in a train compartment. I could barely flip open the screen, but holding and using it was not easy at all. Don’t even need to consider using the keyboard. Unless there’s a Chrome OS device as small as a Kindle e-reader, which has a screen + a keyboard underneath, tablets with touch interface is the preferred choice.
A side note about iPad: I also tested iPad in the subway. Holding it is better than holding a Chromebook, but (in my opinion) it’s still too heavy and too large. A 7″ tablet is easier to carry around. But I agree that this is a kind of personal feeling, some people may think iPad is as light as feather. You should use your own judgement to decide.
About apps. For common tasks that people do on the train (Twitter, Facebook, Reading…) both Chromebooks and Android tablets have many apps to choose from (Android 2.2 tablets are more resourceful than Honeycomb tablets, for the latter needs time to build up a collection of dedicated apps). I could not see much difference until I tried to play music and video. My tablet completely knocked down the Cr-48. Currently Chrome OS only has a weak media player to play local media files. On the other hand Android has many great apps. Besides, player control is another problem (and this is where the Touch UI won). I have seen other people listening to music on the netbook while traveling on a train, it works but I don’t think I would enjoy playing music that way.
I have regular meetings with clients. With a Chromebook joting down notes and checking information has been very convenient. Wherever WiFi is available Chromebook is just like ordinary notebooks. The keyboard was very very helpful. Unless you are specially trained to type on a sheet of glass (the touch screen), I think using a physical keyboard should be faster. I would say a touch UI would not be more useful than keyboard and mouse in a business meeting. And since my tablet does not have card slots, reading storage cards that clients handed over to me could be done with my Chromebook only.
I tried different input methods on my tablet, like the old Palm Griffiti input that could be found on Android Market. I got much improved typing speed but still not or bar with the physical keyboard. On the other hand, when I needed to sketch the tablet was quite helpful. Although the 7″ screen was not big, it’s enough to draw out simple graphics, particularly since I bought a stylus that works on touch screens. However this kind of stylus cannot be used for precise drawing since the rubber tip is too thick.
Chromebook is at its best when used for preparation of office documents like reports, spreadsheets and presentation slides. Not only keyboard and mouse gave me a smooth experience, the use of web apps brought extra convenience. A few days ago the IT staff in my company came to replace all computers with new ones. I got around 5 hours blacked-out from my desktop PC. Fortunately, I could continue with my half-done paper online. Besides, it’s so easy to share documents with colleagues.
While I’m off from business duties I use the Chromebook to work on my own blog. My first e-book, Chrome OS 101 – Beginner’s Guide to Chromebooks, was mostly created on Google Docs with my Cr-48. Sometimes I had to stop writing and later resume on other computers. Thanks to the cloud I had this Chromebook powered by cloud storage and web apps, working anywhere was made possible.
Certainly I could also run web apps and apps with synchronization function on my tablet to do the same. But when it comes to writing, a touch UI is certainly worse than a keyboard and a mouse.
It’s a draw when I came home. I enjoy using the Chromebook in the living room as much as I like laying on bed using the tablet before sleep. Some people suggested that tablets are better since there are more games. But hey I’ve got Angry Birds on Chrome as well, and for users (like me) who do not play games that much, this isn’t a serious drawback of Chromebooks.
For use at home a Chromebook and an Android tablet have their respective edges. Not all tablets support outputting to TV via HDMI or VGA ports. On the other hand tablets are lighter to hold in hands for reading books, listening to music and playing games. And the choice of apps is certainly wider.
There are certainly other things to test and comment on, like battery life, look, price, etc. but as I said these varies from one machine to another, I don’t think a direct comparison is possible. My conclusion is both Chromebook and Android tablet are great products. Both of them redefined the meaning of computing. It all depends on how you usually use your computers.
For touch UI, I could not see a critical need for it to land on Chrome OS. It’s a nice to have add-on, but not necessary. It may be quite useful (and eye-catching) to control the Chrome OS with fingers, e.g. flip opened web pages like cover-flow in Mac, but it doesn’t add much value.
To me Chromebook is a “minus” product – that takes away certain functionality of a traditional computer to obtain higher efficiency. It cannot do everything but it’s best at doing simple things. It’s a computer with less features. On the other hand Android tablet is a “plus” product – as much functions as possible are added to a PDA/phone. With so many features added to it, one could not expect it works perfectly in all aspects. For example, word processing is a bonus on a tablet, not the purpose a tablet is made for.
But the boundary between keyboard-oriented device and touch device is fading out. Attempts are made by manufacturers to improve their products. For example, there are iPhone cases with embedded bluetooth keyboard to improve the input. Motorola even released Atrix, an Android 2.2 smartphone that has a proprietary keyboard and trackpad lapdock separately sold.
Perhaps one day Android and Chrome OS may merge into one almighty platform? May be. But until the time comes, I suggest customers choose their devices according to their computing needs. If you take your device here and there and your text input demand is not high, a tablet is quite good for you. Of course, if you are that resourceful, get both and choose the one that suits you the most in different contexts.
What do you think? A vote for Chromebook or tablet? Share you views here!