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Cheap vs. Good Value

Cheap vs. Good Value

Chromebook and Chromecast are the former, not the latter

Different year, same problem: Consumers who purchase cheap technology products will often find that they don't meet their needs and are generally frustrating, and that's true whether you're talking about the netbooks of 2007 or the Chromebooks of 2014. But there are always good values to be had in personal computing so don't get stuck with the junk.

This discussion comes in the wake of a new generation of personal technology partisanship that is rising up with Google's cheap Chromebook and Chromecast products, where people are confusing something cheap with something that is a good value and then are violently defending their opinions by trashing others who don't agree with them. I don't quite get the emotion around either of these products, frankly.

More to the point, I don't personally feel that Chromebook or Chromecast are good values, generally speaking, at all. Neither exists to fill a need that users have, but rather (in this case) to fill a need that Google has, which is to make inroads in new markets (for them, that is) that are either dominated by other players (the PC market, by Microsoft) or offer a mishmash of solutions in which no clear winner has emerged (living room entertainment).

Chromebooks are cheap, and most can be had for roughly $300. But they're not a good value today since the system is just hardware wrapped around a web browser with limited local computing capabilities. They basically require an always-on broadband connection. And if you actually use Chrome in a PC—a cheap new PC or that same PC you've been using for years—here's a shocker: It offers more and better functionality than the version in a Chromebook.

But then I would say that, right? I'm some partisan PC hack with an agenda, as I'm occasionally told.

Here's the thing. Google sells another product, the Nexus 7, which is a tremendous value. The base version of the Nexus 7 mini-tablet costs just $229 and it is the ideal cloud computing device because it has been designed from the outset, unlike Chromebook, to work perfectly well offline. It's not directly comparable to a Chromebook, of course, since it's not shaped like a traditional laptop with a hardware keyboard. But we're speaking generally here. Most people don't type a lot. Nexus 7 is a better value, and generally speaking it's a better solution for most.

The people who complain about my dissing of the Chromebook and Chromecast either don't know—because they don't actually read my site regularly—or conveniently fail to mention that I have consistently described the Nexus 7 as the best mini-tablet on the market this year. They also, for the same reasons, would have you ignore that I absolutely adore the Nexus 5 smart phone as well. So there's my partisan agenda.

But let's take it another step further. Microsoft's original Surface RT is also not a good value. Designed, too, for Microsoft's needs and not for the real world needs of actual users, it only became cheap retroactively—it was initially too pricey at $500 and up—and I still don't recommend it. The Surface RT suffers from rampant performance problems that were not fixed by Windows 8.1 and can never be fixed because of the weakness of the underlying chipset. The Surface 2 fixes these issues nicely, yes. But at $449, it's also a bit expensive for this conversation. If it were $400 or less, I might have made the argument that a Surface 2 is a better value than a Chromebook. For now, I'll just say that it's better, but more expensive.

The Chromecast is also cheap. But this device is no replacement for a Roku 3 or Apple TV—both of which are inexpensive and good values—instead requiring you to first own an Android-based tablet or smart phone so you can "cast" (i.e. "stream") content from that device to your TV. It's not even a standalone device. Why you'd want to use this when better and simpler devices are available, with their own simple remote controls, superior interfaces, and much deeper range of content choices is unclear. Especially when those other devices aren't even that expensive. Rokus cost $50 to $100, and the Apple TV is also $100. (All come complete with a remote.)

Well, it's not completely unclear. There is exactly one reason why you might choose to augment a superior Roku 3 or Apple TV with a Chromecast, no matter how complicated the thing is. And that's that there is no otherwise inexpensive way to access Google Play content on your HDTV. So if you've bought into the Google ecosystem—which, given the popularity of Android devices, can't be all that uncommon—I get why you'd want to access that content in the living room.

Adding a Google Play channel to Roku—which Roku would welcome with open arms—would be about 1000 times better, as would adding Google Play capabilities to Smart TVs. But again, Google doesn't make Chromecast to help you. It makes Chromecast to help Google, and Chromecast keeps you from thinking about that terribly expensive $50 to $100 Roku device, I guess.

It shouldn't. A Roku is a good value. But the Chromecast is just cheap. Just like a Chromebook.

To recap. Nexus 7. Nexus 5. Roku 3. Apple TV. I recommend them all. None of them are made by Microsoft. Some are made by Google. My complaints about Chromebook and Chromecast have nothing to do with tech partisanship and everything to do with trying to recommend products to readers that actually meet real needs. Yes, my opinions are my own, and you're free to disagree. But my agenda is all about helping people, not about promoting any company's products, especially when they're not the best option for most people.

So if you're going to disagree about these products in particular, you're going to need to do better than argue that they're cheap. They are cheap. And that is exactly the problem.

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