Yesterday's formal introduction of Chromebooks marked yet another category of portable computing gadget in a landscape that's starting to feel overrun.
For $499, the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook has its work cut out for it--namely, because tablets and "high-end" 11- and 12-inch laptops and Netbooks (some with faster processors) have already occupied the same landscape.
It's a question we've been pondering for a while now, writ again: what truly constitutes the perfect small-screen portable? Suddenly, instead of one or two OSes to consider, there are four: Windows 7, Apple's iOS, and Google's Android and Chrome.
While the high end of the computer spectrum remains relatively stable (desktops, laptops), the increasingly fertile (or, perhaps, unstable) ground between laptops and smartphones has bred a variety of tech forms that all, in some way, are portable. Options have never been more diverse, or confusing.
Which one would you rather spend about $500 on? Well, let's see what you get.
Chromebook: Samsung Series 5 (3G)
Screen: 12.1 inches
Processor: Dual-core Intel Atom N570 (1.66GHz)
Storage: 16GB SSD
Weight: 3.3 pounds
Upside: Thin (0.79 inch); quick bootup (8 seconds); built-in 3G with an included 100MB per month of free data for two years; SD card slot; solid-state storage.
Downside: Browser-based OS reliant on Google's to-be-determined app strategy and offerings; extremely low amount of onboard storage compared with laptops; slower Intel Atom processor; not really a bargain next to comparable Windows laptops; requires near-ubiquitous broadband access.
Outlook: Slim size and quick boot time could make it a MacBook Air alternative, but a cheaper price tag and more versatile feature set would help it stand out from excellently valued Windows Atom-powered Netbooks.
Laptop: HP Pavilion dm1z
Screen: 11.6 inches
Processor: AMD E-350 dual-core (1.6GHz)
Storage: 320GB hard drive
OS: Windows 7 Home Premium
Weight: 3.4 pounds
Upside: Faster-than-an-Atom AMD E-350 processor; runs Windows 7 Home Premium; large, fast 7,200rpm hard drive; all the benefits of a laptop at a smaller size; SD card slot; HDMI port.
Downside: Slower bootup; no 3G; Windows 7 is full-featured, but comparatively clunky; the heaviest of the four devices.
Outlook: Getting what amounts to a complete laptop for less than $500 makes the Pavilion dm1z the most efficient use of your money, but it offers no quick-start apps or benefits that tablets and other devices offer, and it's bulkier than any of the other options.
Read the CNET review of the HP Pavilion dm1z.
iPad: Apple iPad 2 (16GB, Wi-Fi)
Screen: 9.7 inches
Processor: 1GHz dual-core A5
Storage: 16GB flash
OS: iOS 4.3
Weight: 1.32 pounds
Upside: Incredibly thin (0.34 inch); long battery life; huge library of apps, plus Apple iTunes media store; solid-state storage; crisp IPS display; multitouch screen; front- and rear-facing cameras.
Downside: Doesn't run Flash; iOS limited to apps in the App Store; expensive peripherals are required for SD, USB, and HDMI compatibility; 3G and larger flash storage bump up the price; no hard keyboard; extremely limited peripheral connectivity.
Outlook: Nothing can beat the iPad 2 on its ultraportable form and impressive app library, but you have to work within the limitations of the iPad's hardware and iOS.
Android Tablet: Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1
Screen: 10.1 inches
Processor: Nvidia Tegra 2 dual-core
Storage: 16GB flash
OS: Android Honeycomb
Weight: 1.24 pounds
Upside: About as thin as the iPad 2, and even lighter; bright IPS display; customizable Google Honeycomb OS; runs Flash; access to Android's extensive apps; multitouch screen; better camera than the iPad 2.
Downside: Android's Tablet Market offers fewer apps than Android Phone Market and iOS App Store; same lack of ports as the iPad 2; the tablet experience, by nature, has its limits.
Outlook: Android offers a more complete app experience right now than Chrome, but any 3G Galaxy Tab offering will likely be considerably more expensive than the equivalent Chromebook.
Final verdict: Right now, I'd go with either the iPad 2 or the HP dm1z, simply because they're both excellent pieces of hardware and they use operating systems that feel fleshed out. Without a doubt, Android smartphones are a force to be reckoned with; when it comes to Android tablets, however, products feel a little less well-defined. And Chromebooks...well, until we see one in person, it's pretty hard to judge.
Another consideration: would it be worth your while to spend even less? Chromebooks actually start as low as $349 (the Acer Chromebook), as do Windows laptops (your average $299 Atom Netbook) and Android tablets (such as the Archos 101). The iPad 2 starts at $499, but you can always get a refurbished first-generation iPad for about $349, too.
What about you--what would you spend your $500 on? Or, would you rather get a smartphone or a cheap, larger laptop? Respond to our poll above, and share your comments below.