The landscape of the Chrome OS world is changing and evolving at a rapid pace. New devices are being developed with never before seen features for Chromebooks. What used to be the norm for mid-range and high-end Chromebooks is taking on a new look with faster chipsets and new form-factors have completely uprooted what was once the standard fare in a Chrome OS device.
Each year or two, chip manufacturers roll out new generations of processors in order to compete, capture or maintain their fair share of the PC market. Companies such as Intel, RockChip, MediaTek and now AMD, each bring their own strengths to the table to Chrome OS but for the most part Intel has dominated the Chromebook market in the area of plain old number of chips in devices.
This isn’t a bad thing. Intel, until the inception of Android Apps, had everything a Chromebook needed to handle all the tasks it was meant to do. We’ve seen a plethora of mid-level, Braswell-based devices released in the past two years that not only handle web-based computing with ease but do it at a very affordable price. The Acer Chromebook 14 is a prime example. When I take my Gold beauty to the coffee shop, there’s not much of my workload that it’s not going to handle and it looks really, really good doing it. At a distance, you might even think I’m sporting a MacBook or a top-dollar ASUS Zenbook. Some might even be a bit shocked when they find out I’m working from a sub $300 machine.
This is all well and good but I would propose that Intel may have become a bit too comfortable in the entry-level and mid-range Chromebook market. Sure, when it comes to top of the line, it’s really Core M or nothing. I really don’t know if that will change anytime in the near future and that’s ok. For the every day user however, I think Intel may be on the verge of losing a bit of its grip in the consumer market.
ARM of the past
Prior to last summer you would be hard-pressed to have found any ARM-based Chrome OS device really worth its weight with the exception of the original ASUS Flip and let’s be honest, it’s not winning any performance awards. Don’t get me wrong, the Flip is in a class all by itself. One of the very few devices to have Android Apps currently in Stable, the Flip set a precedent for what was to come in the next generation of Chromebooks.
Now we are beginning to see a wider range of Chromebooks built on the mobile-centric ARM architecture and I wanted to touch on why that is a good thing for users and possible a not-so-good thing for Intel. In 2015 you had the original RockChip RK3288 found in the Flip and a few other low-budget devices, the Nvidia Tegra K1 which will be seeing the end of its Chrome OS life sooner that later and the Samsung Exynos which, really, just needs to be forgotten. Seriously, I picked up an OG Samsung last summer for like $25 and it could barely run three tabs without crashing. Thank you Samsung for opting to use the RK3399 in the Chromebook Plus. You saved us all some embarrassment there.
ARM, the new generation
Fast forward to today and the list of ARMv8 or aarch64 devices are slowly but very steadily expanding. In September of last year we saw the release of the Acer Chromebook R13 equipped with the MediaTek MT8173C processor with its new big.LITTLE architecture giving it 4 cores that can all run full throttle at the same time while retaining independence of each other in some regards. This is where ARM is going win the battle in the middle weight fight for supremacy. We have seen in the repositories and in real world performance that the ARM architecture may take second place on paper to the once Braswell now Apollo Lake chips but when it comes to handling Android Apps and juggling between them and standard computing ARM wins.
Side-by-side, the widely used Braswell chips like that in my Acer Chromebook 14 consistently score in the mid to upper 8,000’s on Octane tests while the MediaTek and RockChip found in the Samsung Plus are peaking around 9700. The performance of the Play Store and Android Apps, however, is night and day. The ARM chips outperform hands down and it’s just the nature of their design.
Don’t get me wrong, the latest batch of Atom chips from Intel are no slouches. According to zipso.net, the newest lineup from Intel found in devices like the HP Chromebook x360, ASUS C213 and Acer Spin are pumping out a solid 11,700 on the Octane scale and that is more than enough to tackle most users needs. But, the x86 architecture of the Intel chips still struggles to optimize a device for the Play Store and that’s something ARM chips do very well. Hence why there’s a good chance the mobile phone in your pocket has an ARM processor in it.
Then there’s the price. The newest Apollo Lake Chromebooks are nice but with a chip cost of almost $100 they are not going to be cheap. Word on the street is that an entry-level EDU model is going to start in the mid $300 range. That’s a lot of cheddar to dish out for the bare minimum. I know what you’re thinking, “the Samsung Plus is $450.” True, but it also has a super high-res display and an on board stylus, not to mention it is all metal. (By the way, you can grab one for $419 or less right now, just saying.)
Throw that same chip into a device that’s 13.3″ or even 14″ for that matter with a decent 1080 HD display, 4GB of RAM and even a partially metal-clad chassis and you’re talking a $250 device that chews through Android Apps, can handle moderated computing and the battery lasts 9+ hours. Heck, now that I’m talking about it, put a RockChip or MediaTek in my Acer 14 and call it a day.
There are still very few ARM devices on shelves at the moment but believe me they are coming. Samsung, Acer and Lenovo have joined the bandwagon and just recently Korea’s Poin2 has announced an upcoming 11.6″ convertible with the MediaTek as well. As I mentioned at the beginning of this rambling, the landscape has changed and manufacturers have an opportunity to take advantage of ARM chips strengths. Leveraging the Play Store could mean a major shift in market and Chromebooks as we know them may say so long to Intel and embrace ARM chips as the new standard for consumer devices.
The immediate impact of ARM chips on the Chromebook world is more than minimal but they definitely have their work cut out for them. The devices coming in the next few months will play a big part in whether or not ARM can be a true contender in the mid-range Chromebook market. If the release of the Play Store brings stability to Android Apps on Chrome OS and ARM processors can make the best use of this new environment it will be a big win for everyone. Well, except maybe Intel. Sorry guys, we’ll still by your Core M products.