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$249 Google Laptop vs. $499+ Windows 8: Fight!

on October 19, 2012

On the day of its most exciting product announcement ever, it becomes the victim of one of stock market history’s most infamous “fat finger” events.

Google’s unveil of its revolutionary $249 fan-less laptop comes only a couple of days after Microsoft announced pricing of its line of Surface tablets/laptops, and they will both be available next week.

With Microsoft’s Windows 8 machines starting at $499, are they worth paying anywhere from two times and (way) up, compared to the Google laptop?

Round 1: Heat and Noise

Windows 8 RT and Google’s newest laptop have one thing in common: They have both abandoned the kinds of x86 chips that have powered PCs to date. Made by Intel (INTC) and AMD (AMD), they generated so much heat that a PC required one or more fans to blow out the scorching heat, often straight onto your private parts if you were using the laptop in your lap. Perhaps Intel and AMD are responsible for more male sterilizations than a 1930s genetics experimentation program.

These fans, in turn, drew so much power that the battery life suffered. It was an evil circle.

What Windows 8 RT and Google/Samsung now have in common is that they are ditching Intel and AMD in favor of ARM chips — Samsung has its own, and Microsoft is using Nvidia (NVDA). This means that these new machines run cold, and there is no need for a fan. As a result, they are quiet, resilient over time, and require a smaller battery for the same performance. This reduces cost and makes for a much better user experience.

Verdict: A draw. Google/Samsung and Microsoft are now taking a spectacular leap forward in computing technology, at the expense of Intel and AMD. The winners are Samsung itself, as well as Nvidia and Qualcomm (QCOM).

Round 2: Display/Screen

Microsoft’s Surface tablet/laptop is 10.6 inches, compared to Google/Samsung’s 11.6 inches. 10.6 inches is perfectly fine for media consumption — the iPad is 9.7 inches — including reading, but it does not work if you want to be productive, at least for me. 11.6 inches is the absolute bare minimum for “part-time work.” To use as a primary computer, at least I will only be happy if the screen is 12.1 to 13.3 inches, and obviously something larger works too.

The size of the screen also has something to do with the size of the keyboard, but I’ll get to that below. In the meantime, the verdict is resoundly in Google/Samsung’s favor.

Round 3: Keyboard and Trackpad

The Google/Samsung hardware is as close as it’s possible to get of being a copy of the Apple (AAPL) MacBook Air 11.6 inch, so the keyboard and trackpad are outstanding. Basically, as good as they get on any 11.6 inch laptop, bar none.

The Microsoft Surface RT represents Microsoft’s vision of the convertible tablet/laptop format. Microsoft accomplishes this with a flexible rubber/gel-ish “cover” which snaps on with magnets. This seems very elegant at first.

However, once the conceptual novelty value of Microsoft’s visually beautiful solution has worn off, a set of questions arise. I’m saying this with the disclaimer that the Surface RT hardware has not yet shipped (will do so in a week from now) and that the journalistic preview was very limited. I have not spent any quality time with it.

  • A. The rubber-ish keyboard looks like it needs a hard and flat surface to work in a reasonable way. If you have your laptop in your, well, lap — it seems to be a non-starter. Want to type while you’re waiting for your flight, or otherwise don’t have a flat table? Too bad.
  • B. Related to (A) above, the keyboard doesn’t support the screen, so the screen has a separate stand, in turn requiring mostly flat and additional tabletop real estate. It seems to make for a sensitive setup.
  • C. As for the Surface RT keyboard+trackpad itself, I obviously have not been given the opportunity to type on it yet, but it looks to be a very bad experience compared to even a mediocre “regular” keboard+trackpad, let alone Google/Samsung’s outstanding hardware. If you see a review from someone else claiming otherwise, let me know!

Verdict: The Samsung/Google gets an A, and the Microsoft Surface RT has an inherent handicap that looks difficult to overcome.

Round 4: Software

There can be no clear “right or wrong” on this count. Neither OS is objectively better or worse than the other in this case. Both are excellent for what they are and seek to do. Instead, let me tell you about the misconception between the two.

The main objection to Google’s Chrome OS is that “it’s just a browser.”

However, you can do almost everything in a browser. Some people want to run “Office” but don’t realize that Google Docs/Drive is essentially a free and mostly compatible version with much of Microsoft’s Office suite. I converted all of my user behavior away from Office in a jiffy, and I couldn’t have been happier as result.

There are, of course, some things you can’t do on a Chromebook. You can’t run Photoshop, Skype or other specialty applications. For something such as Skype, Google has a perfect substitute, but perhaps not for something such as Photoshop.

People make these kinds of arguments in the automobile world as well. For every review of a small economy car, someone objects saying that it won’t tow his boat or won’t haul his 20 hogs on the truck bed. No one product fits all, okay? That heavy-duty Ford F-350 pickup truck also gets 15 MPG and loses against any car in terms of going to Safeway to pick up a pint of milk.

There are seven billion people in the world. There may be fewer than seven million people in the world requiring some esoteric specialty app that Google doesn’t match. Fine. Seven billion vs. seven million?

Okay, then — If you are one of the seven million, don’t get a Google PC — but if you are one of the other 99.9% of the world’s population, the Google PC is likely for you — and not just for being less than half the price.

As Steve Jobs said, PCs are trucks and iPads are cars. Except that you could also say that a Windows PC is a truck and a Google PC is a car — much easier to operate, at a fraction of the cost.

Verdict: Inconclusive, but basically more people than you think should consider the Google OS. Its Chrome OS is suited for the mainstream — not the other way around.

Windows 8 RT could out-sell the new $249 Google laptop, even though its starting price is twice as high, with the potential to go much higher. At least initially. But… that will more likely be a reflection of very poor consumer awareness of Google’s new computers.

Almost nobody among the “general consumers” today know they even exist, let alone that you can now buy what is in many ways a superior computer for only $249.

If Google and Samsung prove they are as good at marketing as they have now shown to be in delivering a superior PC at a dramatically lower price, they could strangle Windows 8 in the cradle and achieve almost overnight world domination. But that’s a bet on the Google marketing department I’m not willing to make — not right now anyway.


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