There’s no way around it. You know it. I know it. 2020 was a rough year all around. And while there’s no reason to keep talking about all the mess that was part of the last 12 months (we’ve all talked a lot about it), right at the start of a fresh, new year, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at how mid-range Chromebooks took center stage amidst a year full of potential manufacturing delays, bottlenecks, and shipping difficulties. Somehow, in all the madness, Chromebooks had a big year and sales were better – by far – than they’ve ever been. And in the center of it all, mid-range Chromebooks separated from the pack in some big ways.
A quick 2020 rewind
This whole conversation has to begin with CES 2020. We rode out to Las Vegas with high expectations around two new premium Chromebooks: the Samsung Galaxy Chromebook and the ASUS Chromebook Flip C436. At $800-$1000, these were to be the new flagship Chromebooks for 2020 and, frankly, the kinds of devices I was accustomed to drooling over.
After all, for years I’ve been a premium Chromebook guy. I like the devices with less trade-offs and caveats. I like solid build materials, good screens, backlit keyboards and fast internals. My favorites in the past have included devices like the Chromebook Pixel, Pixelbook, and the Pixelbook Go mainly for their awesome attention to detail, great feel, and solid overall user experience.
Prior to 2020, there was simply a huge gap between mid-range Chromebooks and the ones at the top of the price range. Sit a Pixelbook Go and an ASUS C425 next to one another and tell me you don’t immediately notice a massive disparity. Prior to 2020, the gap was large and if you wanted a Chromebook with very few trade-offs and caveats, you knew you had to plunk down the cash to get it.
With that in mind, I was very excited for the new top-tier Chromebooks and, honestly, I was pretty excited by them while we were at CES. The showroom floor does a good job of hiding flaws, and we left both ASUS’ and Samsung’s booths impressed by these expensive Chromebooks. They were nice, attractive, and felt good to the touch. What’s not to like?
The Lenovo surprise
Then we went to Lenovo’s booth, and things would never quite be the same after that visit. You see, the now-popular Chromebook Duet tablet was unveiled there along with the Flex 5, both devices that brought far more to the table than their asking prices indicated. We honestly expected the Duet to be flimsy, cheap, and slow. And we expected even less in the Flex 5. Both devices, however, showed that they were ready to start a new trend in the Chromebook game, and as we expected after handling them, they helped shift the entire industry in 2020.
You see, devices like the Flex 5 flew in the face of what we’d always expected. It has a good IPS screen, convertible form factor, a backlit keyboard, a solid trackpad, upward firing speakers, USI stylus compatibility, fast internals, and enough RAM and storage for most users. Oh, and it debuted at $409 as the MSRP and stuck with that all year.
It became very clear, very quickly that it was going to be exceedingly hard to recommend $800 Chromebooks to most people after this. When all the things you look for in a high-end Chromebook start appearing on $400 devices, what is the point of the high-end devices? And all this was exacerbated when the excellent Acer Chromebook Spin 713 and the HP x360 14c both hit the market. HP’s build, keyboard, trackpad and fingerprint scanner are nearly all the things you want in a premium Chromebook, and the Acer’s brilliant 3:2 QHD screen, aluminum build, backlit keyboard and glass trackpad are the types of things that have kept this device in my backpack for almost the entire year.
Premium Chromebook failures
As we rolled into the latter parts of 2020, it became clear that mid-range Chromebooks simply got a lot better over the last year. The things we used to pine for in our Chromebooks all of the sudden were within grasp without having to spend nearly as much money, and at the same time the high-end was failing. The Samsung Galaxy Chromebook never mended it’s atrocious battery life and overheating issues and the ASUS Flip C436 was simply never in contention; at least not with our staff. With the two shining examples of high-end Chromebooks not really making a case for why they should be considered over the mid-range competition, it became a one-sided fight.
Even as the year wore on and high-priced Chromebooks like the Dell Latitude 7400 and HP Elite c1030 Chromebooks arrived, it made little difference. Those types of devices are premium and are fantastic machines, but there’s little about them that truly sets them apart from a device like the Acer Spin 713. The gap has simply become so small that the excellence on offer in the $400-$600 range of Chromebooks is absolutely smothering the high-end devices as we move into the early stages of 2021.
Premium Chromebook future
Does this all spell gloom and doom for high-end Chromebooks? Nope. Not at all, honestly. With added features like GPUs, Windows apps via Parallels and Steam gaming via Borealis all on the roadmap this year, I actually think the high-end Chromebook may have a full-blown resurgence. I just don’t think it will happen apart from the continued dominance of mid-range devices. Let’s face it, for most users not dabbling in Windows applications or trying to run games on their Chromebooks, we can all get by with far less computing power. I, for one, am deeply interested in the arrival of devices like ‘Coachz’ that will give me all sorts of operational flexibility even though the processing power may not be class-leading.
And this is how the mid-range Chromebook took over in 2020. Enough of the premium features came down to the mid-range to make most of us not really lust after those high-priced devices quite as much. Can I appreciate the build of a Pixelbook or HP Elite c1030 as better than my Acer Spin 713? Sure, those devices simply feel better assembled with tighter tolerances. Is that enough to spend hundreds of dollars more for a functional device I use to get my work done? Not anymore. And that is why the mid-range Chromebooks are the definitive Chromebook experience as we enter 2021. We’ll see what shakes out as the avalanche of new Chromebooks arrives in this upcoming year, but for now, the mid-range rules.