June 11, 2012, 1:46 PM — A year ago, I wrote that the first Chromebooks felt more like a science project than a strategic product. They were interesting but of little practical value. A lot has changed since then, and while I wouldn't say that Google has developed a truly compelling device, it has shown that the Chromebook and its underlying Chrome OS are evolving.
Chrome OS is Google's attempt to create a new class of Web-based operating system, designed to work on special devices, the first of which were last year's Chromebooks. Since then, Google has refreshed Chrome OS (the actual version number is 19) and with partner Samsung has introduced both a new Chromebook and a desktop device called Chromebox. After using both for the last few weeks, my impression is that Google did a nice job of polishing Chrome in ways that help it shine much better than it did a year ago.
The new Chromebook, called the Series 5, has a 12.1-inch display and 16GB of built-in flash storage. You can add a Verizon Wireless 3G radio, with 100MB free per month for two years. There's a much-improved trackpad (the trackpad on the first Chromebooks was all but unusable), and the device is now powered by an Intel Celeron processor, which dramatically improves performance, especially for things like streaming high-definition video. Pricing is $449 for the Wi-Fi-only version and $549 for the 3G models.
The Chromebox Series 3 is a small, sleek box that takes some design cues from the Mac Mini. It has the same CPU and memory as the Chromebook. It doesn't include a monitor, keyboard or mouse, but it has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth support for keyboards and mice, along with DVI and HDMI output. It costs $329.99.
Both devices are good-looking and solid pieces of hardware, though I'd argue that 3.3 pounds is too much weight for a laptop that isn't really a laptop at all. I could give you more specs, but specs don't have that much to do with what you're buying here. What really matters is the updated Chrome OS experience, and the newest version shows just what a difference a year makes.