Most Chromebooks on the market are pretty similar — they’re inexpensive, 11-inch laptops meant for doing basic tasks. But Google and its OEM partners are slowly starting to expand the definition of what makes a Chromebook. The 15-inch Acer Chromebook is a good example of a new market Chromebooks are entering — and today Google and Asus are announcing another new Chromebook that takes aim at another popular Windows form factor.
The new Asus Chromebook Flip is unlike any other on the market. At 10.1 inches, it's even smaller than most Chromebooks on the market, but the all-metal chassis is much stronger and premium-feeling than most of its plastic-built relatives. And like a number of Windows laptops, the Flip’s hinge can bend all the way around so the device can be used in tablet mode. Of course, that means the Flip’s screen is a touchscreen, something only seen on a few other Chromebooks thus far. The onboard accelerometer means you can easily use the Flip in either portrait or landscape; the preproduction hardware and software made the switch without any trouble.
Chrome OS still isn't really designed with touch in mind, but those touchscreen features should get a lot more use soon — Google says that as of today, any Android developer can start using the App Runtime for Chrome (still in beta). That means those developers will be able to port their Android apps right over to Chrome OS with minimal hassle, something Google first announced back at I/O last year.
Chrome OS is slowly but surely becoming more suited to touchscreens
Until now, though, Google has only let a handful of developers (including Evernote and Vine) launch their Android apps on Chrome. We should soon start to see a lot more Android apps running on Chrome OS, which will make the Flip’s touchscreen capabilities a lot more useful. And Chrome OS now includes Android’s virtual keyboard, so if you need to enter some text while using the Flip in tablet mode you won’t have to turn the computer back around into laptop mode. It’s smart enough to not bring up the virtual keyboard when you’re using it as a touch-enabled laptop, as well.
There’s one other new addition coming to Chrome OS soon that’s worth nothing — the "app launcher" in the lower left corner of the screen is being replaced. Now you’ll see something very similar to the Google app on Android when you click it. You’ll get a search bar, your most recent apps, and a full view of your Google Now cards. If you want to see every app you have, there’s a button to bring them all up next to your recent apps. It’s a small change, but one that brings Chrome OS and Android just a little bit closer together.
To keep the Flip running without fans and to keep battery life long, Asus has gone with an ARM-based chipset — the Rockchip 3288. It’s based on the quad-core Cortex-A17 architecture and runs at up to 1.8GHz. It has 2GB or 4GB of RAM and a 16GB hard drive, while the touchscreen is an IPS display with a 1280x800 resolution — slightly better than most other 11-inch Chromebooks out there. How exactly the Rockchip will stack up to other fanless chipsets like those from Intel and Nvidia remains to be seen — we’ll need to put the machine through some extensive testing before we can say for sure.
The Chromebook Flip doesn't really have a direct competitor
All in all, the Asus Chromebook Flip seems like it could be a solid option for those looking for a small Chromebook with better construction than other models currently on the market — or if you’re a big fan of the touchscreen and think Android apps on Chrome could be useful for you. And at $250, it’s right in line with the price of most other Chromebooks, and there’s no doubt it looks better than most of the black or white plastic models we’ve seen. Google says it’ll be available sometime in the next six to eight weeks.
The Flip wasn't the only intriguing new Chrome OS hardware Asus is working on, however — the company appears to have taken inspiration from the Chromecast to built a tiny dongle called the Chromebit. It takes essentially the same hardware found in the Flip and crushes it into the dongle; from there you can just plug it into basically any screen with an HDMI port and get a Chrome OS computer running. There’s only one USB port, but it has Bluetooth for keyboards and mice. There’s no battery; you’ll need to plug it in with micro USB for power.
Google says the $99 device is aimed at making it easier and cheaper for educational institutions to deploy more computers, particularly in an international setting. The company also envisions it being used in kiosks or by anyone who might want to throw a tiny computer in their bag while traveling. It’s definitely a cool and unusual idea, but again we’ll have to see how well it runs before we can judge whether it’s worth owning. The Chromebit is scheduled to be available sometime this summer.
Beyond the Asus hardware Google showed off, the company also introduced some new products that are available for pre-order today: new Chromebooks from Chinese manufacturers Hisense and Haier. Unlike the Chromebook Flip, Hisense and Haier are each introducing their own pretty standard take on the 11-inch Chromebook. Both have the same hardware as the new Asus models, including the Rockchip processor, but these machines at least come in at a very affordable $149.
Laptop handles are back
I got a chance to try out the Hisense Chromebook more extensively, and while there’s not much of note in the hardware, it did provide an opportunity to see how the Rockchip processor holds up — and my first impression is that it was pretty solid. I threw Slack, Google Music, and a whole host of more standard Chrome tabs at it without any noticeable slowdowns. It was certainly an unscientific test, but one that left me hoping that using the Flip (with its significantly nicer display and design) could be a pretty solid experience.
The Hisense Chromebook is available for pre-order today from Walmart while the Haier Chromebook 11 is available on Amazon; they'll be on Google's new hardware store soon as well. Haier is actually offering two models -- the standard Chromebook 11 as well as the Haier 11E, specifically for the education market. It's more durable, has a spill-proof keyboard, a removable, user-replaceable battery, and includes a strange little handle built right into the body, as well. The education model is only being sold through institutional channels, but both Haier and Hisense's new Chromebooks are available for pre-order now.