Google Chrome OS computers updated with faster processors

Chromebook Series 5 The new hardware will be limited to online sales and a limited number of stores in the US and UK

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Google has announced new computers running on its Chrome operating system.

The Samsung-manufactured laptop and desktop PCs include processors based on Intel's Sandy Bridge technology, addressing criticism that the launch models were underpowered.

Chrome-based computers run all their applications through the firm's web browser and store their files online.

Google has not released sales numbers for the previous range, but analysts said demand had been very low.

Tech consultants IDC said that 50,000 Chromebooks had shipped in the US in the first three months of the year in a market that had absorbed about 10 million laptops over the same period.

An earlier study by Gartner suggested there would be fewer than 300,000 Chromebooks sold worldwide this year.

Google Drive

Google says software updates had helped boost the computers' speed so that they ran 2.5 to 3.5 times faster than before. Improvements include greater use of the machines' GPUs (graphic processing units) and tweaks to ensure the system runs Javascript more efficiently.

An upcoming software release will also enable the firm's Google Drive cloud storage service to act as the computers' file system, making it easier for users to manage their documents.

Chromebox Series 3 Google says the new Chromebox will appeal to cost-conscious firms that can attach existing monitors

It will also allow users to edit Google Documents files when offline. The files will subsequently be synchronised when a network connection is restored tackling complaints that the machines were of limited use when not on the internet.

The search giant's decision to build in a limited 16 gigabyte hard drive has helped it keep costs relatively low.

The Chromebook laptop is marketed for $449/£379 while the desktop Chromebox is $329/£279.

Low maintenance

The firm highlights the fact that the devices need "zero administration" because files are stored in the cloud, system updates are controlled by Google and the computers have virus protection built-in.

Chrome versus Android

When Google launched Chrome OS last year some tech watchers wondered whether it would end up battling Google's other Linux-based operating system for supremacy.

Chrome OS was designed for PCs and Android for mobile devices, but there was speculation that the two sectors would merge over time as smartphones and tablets became capable of running more powerful software while PCs adopted touch-based interfaces .

Google acknowledges the issue but plays down the idea of an internal power struggle.

"I don't think it will necessarily be one winning out, but I think you'll see a slow convergence over time," said Chrome engineer Linus Upson.

For the time being, he added, Google was concentrating on getting its Chrome browser running on Android in full.

"Microsoft demonstrated quite convincingly earlier this century that if you try to take one environment and jam it across all devices it wasn't going to work," Mr Upson said.

"So now I think you see a lot more caution - Apple doesn't try to smash its two [environments] together and we're not trying to do the same, but over time we want to have a seamless user experience across all environments."

Mr Upson also confirmed that his team was "not working on a Chrome OS right now".

Linus Upson, Google's vice president of engineering, told the BBC that this had already encouraged more than 500 schools across 41 US states to "deploy" Chromebooks to their students. He said he hoped businesses would now follow.

"From a security standpoint just about every major corporation in the world is under continuous attack by various governments around the world as well as criminal enterprises," he said

"Probably the single most important thing companies can do to secure their network is to secure the PCs that their employees use because that's normally the way in.

"Everything from a phishing email saying 'hey install this thing' to exploiting flaws in browsers or plug-ins. At Google we see deploying Chromebooks broadly as being one of the best ways we can protect our user data."

He admitted that the computers were not suitable for people wanting to use traditional software packages such as Photoshop and Microsoft Office. But he suggested such programs were "legacy" products that would "decline over time" as users opted for the type of browser-based software available via the Chrome Webstore.

Mixed reactions

David Daoud, personal computing research director at IDC, is sceptical about the platform's prospects.

"The issue with Chromebook is the fact that it is in a sort of grey zone," he said.

"It has neither the power of a laptop in the productivity world, nor the appeal of an iPad or an Android tablet.

"It is confined to a web environment that may not be so appealing in emerging economies where the wireless infrastructure may be limited. In such environments, characterised by tight budgets, consumers do not see why they would spend some $400 on a system that does not fully deliver on a more comprehensive user experience."

Chrome Store Google says the applications, games and utilities on its Chrome Web Store offer an alternative to traditional software packages

But Frank Gillett, principal analyst at Forrester Research, said he believed there was a niche for the machines: first-time users looking for a low-cost simple device.

"It's cheap, good enough for most of the things you want to do when you're starting out and it's just less complicated to figure out than alternatives out there," he told the BBC.

"This is the first interesting version of the product - the launch models were more proof of concept. The Google Drive capability clears the bar to making Chrome-based computers useful to enough of the population to keep it going."

Google says the computers will go on sale in the US and UK, adding that devices would come to other European markets "soon".

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