I’ve sat on this post for quite some time, but with the news coming out over the weekend that Acer is now in the mini-Chromebox game with a device of their own, my mind couldn’t help but wander to something I’ve thought about for a very long time: why do we not have small-core Intel-powered Chromebook tablets?
What you need in a tablet
When I look at the most successful Chromebook tablets (basically, the last two made by Lenovo), there’s a core reason those devices have stood the test of time and continue to be relevant in the overall Chromebook conversation. Sure, they have solid build quality, really nice screens, and the keyboard included in the box, but there’s more to the equation than that. And a big part comes down to these tablets having pretty competent processors inside.
No, the Snapdragon 7c Gen 2 (found in the Lenovo Chromebook Duet 3 and Duet 5) isn’t the fastest thing out there, but it gets by pretty well and is still the fastest silicon we have in any Chromebook tablet available to buy right now. But there’s room for improvement, there. While we’re very hopeful that the upcoming MediaTek MT8188 tablets make a nice move forward in the performance department for new Chromebook tablets on the way, I still sit here a bit shocked that we’ve never seen a Chromebook tablet with small-core Intel silicon inside.
What about the Pixel Slate?
Before we think about this much more, I’m sure some of you are wondering if I’ve forgotten the ill-fated Pixel Slate. I have not, and I’d argue that device makes a bit of my argument for me. Though the lower-spec versions of the Slate were rough around the edges, two things have changed in a very big way since that device launched: Intel’s chips are far more powerful/efficient and ChromeOS tablet mode is insanely better.
Take the scores on a current small-core Intel chip for instance like the 12th-gen N100. While not wildly fast, this chip is quite solid, and sees Octane scores of 46,000. Even the Core i5 version of the Pixel Slate only hit 32,000 on a good day. And with that i5 inside, the Pixel Slate was pretty nice to use once Google got the software ironed out a few months too late. So, on paper, even the most affordable small-core Intel chip would be plenty of power for a Chromebook tablet.
All the pieces for a great device
And that brings us to today, where we’re seeing another mini Chromebox being announced with last year’s small-core Intel chips inside that will honestly run quite well. And all I can wonder when I see another of these fanless devices is why we have yet to see one of these types of chips in a Chromebook tablet.
With their battery-sipping performance, Intel’s small-core SoCs have become great for ChromeOS across the board, and the N100, N200 and N305 chips are among the best we’ve seen from Intel in the Chromebook space to date. While they won’t rival the insane battery life of an ARM-powered Chromebook tablet, they could get pretty close and outperform the current offerings by a wide margin.
As many of you know, I’m taking the original Pixelbook through my workload for a few days as a side experiment, and of all the things I love about this Chromebook, I think the wonderfully thin, fanless design is still at the top of the list. I’m once again amazed by how this device can be so minimal and light while having such power under the hood.
And that same power with a fanless design is even more possible these days with Intel’s latest small-core chips. It feels like it would be no problem whatsoever to slap one of these SoCs into a tablet form factor, giving us the ultimate combo of efficiency and desktop abilities. Would it make for the fastest desktop experience in the Chromebook world? No, but it would be fully serviceable, and the tablet experience would instantly become the best available in the ChromeOS space.
And that’s not to mention moving to the higher-powered N200. We don’t have one of those in the office to test, but the bump in performance would surely push the benchmark scores up even further while keeping solid battery life numbers and retaining the fanless setup that is required by tablet form factors.
But alas, there’s no hint of a device like this on the horizon. Trust me, I’ve looked. Chromebook manufacturers are making a lot of ‘Nissa’ devices (12th-gen Intel Alder Lake-N), but none of the coming wave of these Chromebooks look to be a detachable variation. I’m unsure why that is, but I wish it would change. While I’m all for ARM chips in fanless Chromebooks, I also think Chromebook makers are missing a great opportunity to provide a tablet solution that could be a fantastic overall user experience. If it doesn’t happen with this generation of chips (which looks highly unlikely), maybe we’ll see one on the next.