Google tries again with a more PC-like Chrome OS

New version of Chrome jettisons the browser-based approach in favor of a more traditional apps-centric UI

Samsung will launch this week two new Chrome OS-based computers, a laptop and desktop that have been designed to be significantly faster and more versatile than previous models. The new Samsung models will be available online today in the U.S. and May 30 in the U.K., and they will be for sale also at select Best Buy stores in the U.S. in June.

Along with the new Samsung computers, Google is announcing enhancements to Chrome OS and Google Apps, including tight integration with Google Drive and -- something previously promised -- the ability to edit Google Docs documents offline.

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Chrome OS-based machines began shipping commercially about a year ago from Samsung and Acer. Although the machines haven't exactly taken the PC market by storm, Google is satisfied with the progress so far.

"We're very happy with where we are. We strongly believe in the vision we articulated last year," said Caesar Sengupta, product management director, Chrome OS.

Referred to generically as "Chromebooks," these computers  and the Chrome OS were designed to be used primarily while connected to the Internet and for online applications. Few people have bought Chromebooks, which were criticized for lack of offline capabilities and limited applications

According to Sengupta, Google and its partners haven't pushed Chromebooks aggressively, so they have been bought primarily by early adopters, whose feedback has been closely listened to.

"We're at a point where, from the user-experience point of view, we're starting to be happy with it and we're now ready to take the next step in this journey," he said.

That next step includes broadening the roster of hardware partners, as well as making the machines more widely available. The new Samsung models will be available online today in the U.S. and May 30 in the U.K., and they will be for sale also at select Best Buy stores in the U.S. in June.

At the software level, the new machines will feature what Google calls an "apps-centric user interface" that will feature, for example, a simplified app launcher, the ability to have multiple windows open for multitasking and support for screen sizes ranging from 11 inches to 30 inches.

Coming later will be a tight integration with the Google Drive cloud storage service, as well as the ability to edit Google Docs documents when the machine is offline. When available, this Google Docs offline editing feature will be available to all Google Docs users, not just people who buy these new Samsung machines.

Other new features include a more sophisticated media player, as well as a native photo editor and uploader, and enhanced video streaming options for YouTube, Netflix and other such sites.

Forrester analyst Frank Gillett said the combination of the Chrome OS update, the improved devices from Samsung and the integration with Google Drive amounts to "a credible basic computing offering."

"The new Chromebook and Chromebox are now capable enough to meet the needs of individuals and employees that need access to browser-based services and applications for use cases such as schools, retail, call center, and temporary field sites in range of mobile data or Wifi," Gillett said via email.

The Chrome OS machines will not displace existing computers quickly, but they will gain increasing consideration from individuals and businesses as they make their next buying decisions, he said.

"With Apple and Microsoft both delivering new operating system versions this year, buyers face more choice in PC OS experiences than ever. The simplicity and low costs of Chrome OS devices will be appealing to enough buyers with narrow needs that Google will continue to develop and invest in Chrome OS," Gillett said.

An open question is whether hardware manufacturers will be happy with producing relatively low-priced products that probably deliver thin margins, he said, speculating that Google is likely to be providing some kind of financial guarantees to ensure the OEMs are happy with revenues and profits on these devices.

Samsung's Chromebook Series 5 550 laptop has a 12.1-inch display (1280x800) and weighs 3.3 pounds, and its battery lasts for six hours of continuous usage, or six-and-a-half days in standby mode. It has an Intel Celeron 867 dual-core processor running at a clock speed of 1.3GHz, 4G bytes of RAM and a built-in, dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n antenna and a Gigabit Ethernet port. A 3G modem is optional.

The machine, which will also have two USB 2.0 ports, a 4-in-1 memory card slot and a DisplayPort++ Output compatible with HDMI, DVI and VGA, will cost $449 for the Wi-Fi-only version and $549 for the 3G models.

Meanwhile, the desktop, called Samsung Chromebox Series 3, has an Intel Celeron B840 dual-core processor running at a clock speed of 1.9GHz, 4G bytes of RAM, a built-in, dual-band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n antenna and a Gigabit Ethernet port. It also features six USB 2.0 ports, a DVI single link output, a 2x DisplayPort++ Output compatible with HDMI, DVI and VGA, and compatibility with Bluetooth 3.0 technology. It costs $329 and doesn't include a monitor, keyboard or mouse.

Compared with the first-generation Chromebooks, the Samsung laptop is two-and-a-half times faster, while the desktop is three-and-a-half times faster, according to Google. They boot up in seven seconds and five seconds, respectively. First-generation Chromebooks use Intel Atom chips.

Beyond the consumer market, Google and its partners also pitch Chrome machines to businesses and educational institutions. So far, more than 500 schools have bought Chromebooks, while business customers include retailer Dillard's and Mollen Clinics.

In their first iteration, these machines have been sold to schools and businesses using per user/per month pricing, but now they will be sold under the more conventional per-machine, one-time payment model, plus a one-time fee for the online IT management console, around-the-clock phone technical support and hardware warranty that are provided to these customers.

Thus, business and education customers will pay the suggested retail price for each machine, plus a one-time fee of $150 (businesses) or $30 (schools) per machine for the management console, support and warranty. The IT management controls have been enhanced with new features like auto-update controls and new reporting capabilities.

Juan Carlos Perez covers enterprise communication/collaboration suites, operating systems, browsers and general technology breaking news for the IDG News Service. Follow Juan on Twitter at @JuanCPerezIDG.

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