For nearly a decade, Chromebooks have existed on the outer rim of the PC market. While they accounted for an appreciable number of yearly sales, they weren’t exactly lighting the enthusiast market on fire with their value proposition. The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic has supercharged the need for laptop deployments across the United States, and Chromebooks have been flying off shelves as manufacturers try to meet demand.
When we covered the PC market’s growth in Q3 2020, we noted that Chromebook shipments had spiked particularly high. IDC now reports 90 percent growth in Chromebook shipments year-on-year, compared with a 15 percent growth rate in all PCs. Volume-wise, Chromebooks accounted for 11 percent of total PC shipments last quarter.
The threat of market loss to Chromebooks, in my opinion, is at least part of what’s driving Microsoft’s push to move Minecraft players over to Microsoft accounts. For 25 years or more, Microsoft has been able to count on the fact that most users would be exposed to Windows as children and grow up in the Windows ecosystem. Even the explosive growth of mobile and Microsoft’s failure to gain market share didn’t threaten that, because the majority of people still had a computer, and that computer ran Windows.
Chromebooks represent a particular threat to Microsoft because Chromebook introduction starts when children are young. If Microsoft can’t count on the education system to effectively serve as a familiarization and training routine for most of its eventual customers, it has to build support and brand inclusion in other places. By making Microsoft accounts a requirement for gaming or Office 365 and expanding the ways in which you can use them, the company is trying to build brand presence around a future that isn’t necessarily Windows-centric.
Microsoft has had a service called “Windows Virtual Desktop” for several years that runs an OS instance on Azure and gives you a virtual desktop in the cloud to work with. Windows is still critical to Microsoft’s finances and business model, but the company is moving away from the idea that Windows is something you have to run on local hardware as the primary operating system.
What About x86 vs. ARM?
I couldn’t find any recent information on whether x86 or ARM has the larger share of the Chromebook market, but a survey of Dell, HP, and Lenovo shows far more x86 devices than ARM products. If I had to guess, I’d guess that x86 Chromebooks are more popular in the United States, while Asia-Pacific companies are likely to be more focused on systems with MediaTek chips.
Pricing is all over the place, in more than one sense. First, Chromebook prices start around $250 and range as high as $800-$1,000. Second, it’s important to pay attention to specs to make sure you’re getting a decent deal. Lenovo, for example, has the 10e Chromebook tablet at $269, with a recent eight-core MediaTek MT8183 (4x Cortex-A73, 4x Cortex-A53) CPU, 10.1-inch screen at 1920×1200, 4GB of RAM, 32GB of eMMC (ouch!), and a Mali G72 G3. Cost, if it was in stock? $269.
Alternately, you could buy a Lenovo 300e Chromebook laptop based on a five-year-old CPU with half the cores and built on 28nm HPM as opposed to TSMC’s 12nm process. The MediaTek MT8173C is, on average, 77 percent as fast as the MediaTek MT8183 mentioned above based on data from Notebookcheck.net. (Note: Some of the Notebookcheck.net results claim that the MT8173 and MT8183 literally performed identically, which is unusual for a benchmark run. This data is suspect, but where actual numbers exist, they show a consistent advantage for the MT8183. Its newer process node, with 2x the core count of the MT8173, make this a realistic possibility.
The MT8173 falls particularly short in the graphics department, where the MT8183 is sometimes twice as fast as its predecessor. Now it’s true that on the laptop you get an actual keyboard and a slightly larger screen (11.4 inches, 1366×768), but you’re stuck with a significantly slower CPU, slower RAM (LPDDR4X-1866 instead of 3200), and the exact same storage and RAM restrictions (4GB soldered / 32GB eMMC). The tablet supports Bluetooth 4.2 while the laptop uses 4.1. What you’re paying for, basically, is the hinge. Price? $429. The $269 tablet supports a laptop connection via pogo pin.
I’m not throwing shade on Lenovo for throwing mud at the wall and seeing what sticks, but you have to be careful about these kinds of issues when shopping for them. If what you care about is buying a PC to last the longest time possible, the $269 tablet with a supported keyboard is going to blow the $429 laptop out of the water, especially when there are $499 Chromebook laptops with much better CPUs.
Chromebooks don’t necessarily put pressure on AMD or Intel, so long as either company is capable of building chips to compete in the space with the latest ARM designs. Microsoft, on the other hand, could be in some trouble if this trend continues.
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