As Chromebooks have matured and Chrome OS has become more than “just a browser” that some have claimed it to be for years, the landscape of Chromebooks has changed as well. In the early days, Chromebooks were largely thought of as secondary devices and by extension needed to be cheap. If it couldn’t function as your primary computing device, it couldn’t really command a high-end price. Here and there a Chromebook would get released with a nicer build, better internals, and a higher price tag, but they were generally anomalies.
With devices like the first two Chromebook Pixels from Google, no one really took the expensive Chromebook too seriously. As time went on, however, Chromebooks grew in their abilities, more schools deployed them, and more consumers became aware of their utility and existence. As this happened, manufacturers started to see opportunity where there wasn’t before, and we began to see more thoughtful Chromebook designs. It was slow going, but devices like the Samsung Chromebook Plus/Pro, ASUS Flip C302, and the original Pixelbook come to mind as devices that started to think about Chrome OS as an operating system worthy of better hardware.
As we moved into late 2018 and 2019, manufacturers got on board with higher quality Chromebooks across their lineups. Each offered at least one device that had faster internals, a better screen, and better build materials than what we generally saw in Chromebooks before. This brought us Chromebooks like the HP x360 14, Dell Inspiron 14, Lenovo Yoga C630, Pixelbook Go, ASUS Flip C434 and others. At this point, it was clear that quality had arrived on the scene, but along with it came a stretch in pricing.
Still hundreds of dollars cheaper than comprable Windows laptops, Chromebooks still felt affordable. Instead of the bargain-focused machines they once were, we now had a wide range of devices from $200 all the way up to $1000. With regular sales, those on the higher end of the price spectrum constantly fell to reasonable and very-attractive prices with great regularity before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Since then, demand has gone up, inventory is low, and all those great deals we saw on the high-end Chromebooks (up to $250 off MSRP at times) have all but gone away, leaving the market with elevated prices on Chromebooks across the board.
The unforseen affect of this is the rise in price on the lower-end machines as well. Devices with largely plastic builds, less-than-stellar screens, and small core Intel processors have quietly crept up in price as the mid-range and high-end devices took center stage. Take the pretty decent Lenovo C340 for example. It’s a cheap device with a ton of trade-offs, but it used to be on sale all the time for under $250. It’s MSRP was somewhere in the low $300’s and it was still a decent deal for that money. However, with the deals we used to see on great devices like the Dell Inspiron 14 for $400, it was hard to ever justify buying the C340 at MSRP. Most of our recommendations, then, were formed around sale prices that seemed to constantly be in play.
It may be a while before that reality is in front of us again, so we’re starting to look at Chromebooks at their MSRP, and with that comes some tough choices. Low-end Chromebooks don’t get all the passes they did when they could be found for under $250 and we start nit-picking them a bit more when their better configurations can cost as much as $300-$400 when you opt for a bit more RAM or storage.
Into that space and that reality Lenovo has launched the mostly-excellent Flex 5 Chromebook (full review coming very soon) and Duet tablet at prices that are staggering. I’m typing this on the Flex 5 with a 10th-gen Core i3, 4GB of RAM, 64GB of internal storage, a 300-nit 1080p IPS display, WiFi 6 and Bluetooth 5. Oh, my fingers are also poking away at a keyboard that is backlit, flanked by speakers that are upward firing, and above a nice, clicky, and generously-sized trackpad. I may be spoiling the review a bit, but this thing is great.
Take that list of goodness and then realize the MSRP – not the sale price – is $409 for this model. Now compare that price to the non-sale MSRPs on other budget Chromebooks and you quickly begin to realize that many of those devices are going to struggle mightily to keep up with this Chromebook. How can you even remotely consider a budget-minded, low-end Chromebook for $300+ when something as good as the Flex 5 exists for a bit more. Never mind the Celeron versions that will come in at $359 to start. If I’m peddling a low-end Chromebook right now, I’m getting pretty nervous.
Then we take the mostly-excellent Chromebook Duet and its staggeringly-low price tag ($279) and you have a tandem from Lenovo that is putting the Chromebook industry on notice. Why buy a $600 Chromebook when this $409 one is better at nearly everything in that price range? Why buy a chunky, flimsy budget Chromebook when the well-made Duet 2-in-1 is better and cheaper? These devices from Lenovo are completely changing what is possible in their respective price brackets and if Lenovo can get supply chains under control for the Duet and keep inventory up for the Flex 5, I see no other recourse for other Chromebook makers than to rethink their pricing and build quality.
Just a year ago, I would have told you this Flex 5 device I am using right now would cost about $550 based on the state of the Chromebook market at the time. Between the build quality, the screen, the processor and the keyboard, I think Lenovo would have been within their rights to ask a lot more for this Chromebook. The same goes of the Duet: I would have priced it at $399 without thinking twice about it. The fact that both are so affordable at their MSRP only means they’ll be even more competitive when/if the Chromebook market gets back to the standard on-sale-most-of-the-time mentality. I’m blown away by both of these devices at their current prices, but can you imagine shaving another $50-$75 off? It would be insane.
And this is why I think Lenovo has changed the game in 2020 with these Chromebooks. As long as they can build enough of them, I don’t see why anyone would buy anything else at this juncture. I know there are tons more devices coming and there are some high-end Chromebooks that are very nice to look at and use, but they aren’t even close to being twice as good to use. More importantly, as more of the 2020 mid-range Chromebooks show up, I think the $599+ pricing will likely have to go away or those other manufacturers will simply be swallowed whole by the Flex 5. I always felt like the $600 price bracket was a tad high for the quality of Chromebooks we’ve had over the past couple years. It seems like Lenovo has come to change that, and I think it will be for the betterment of the entire Chrome OS ecosystem.