Battle lines drawn as Chromebooks, Windows PCs renew rivalry at CES

Windows 10 PCs and Chromebooks are heading into battle in a faceoff of on laptop features and usability

Microsoft wants a go-to Chromebook competitor, and it may be getting one in upcoming Windows 10 PCs with ARM chips.

Those Windows 10 laptops and tablets could look something like Samsung's latest Chromebook Pro and Plus announced at CES. The attractive 2-in-1s have 12.3-inch screens and are targeted at those who do most of their computing online.

In a way, Samsung's new Chromebooks share some features with new Windows PCs announced at CES. They have cool features like 2400 x 1600 pixel touchscreens and USB-C ports, which are also in the latest Windows 2-in-1s with Intel's Kaby Lake chips.

While Google plots a Chromebook attack on Windows 10, Microsoft could be using Chromebooks as a blueprint for its "cellular PCs," or thin and light laptops that are always connected to the Internet.

The new category of laptops will have Qualcomm's new ARM-based Snapdragon 835 chip, which was also announced at CES. Microsoft and Qualcomm last month announced they would work on building the cellular PCs.

The Snapdragon 835 chip will give Windows 10 laptops a bevy of features so users can do most of their computing online, much like on Chromebooks. The Snapdragon 835 boasts integrated Wi-Fi 802.11ad, integrated LTE and Bluetooth 5. Those features aren't integrated in x86 chips.

Snapdragon 835 also marks a return of ARM chips to Windows PCs. The most recent outing with Windows RT was a disaster, but Microsoft has since refined its approach. Windows RT was targeted at iOS and Android, and ARM-based Windows 10 PCs are aimed at Chromebooks, analysts said.

Chromebooks and ARM-based Windows 10 devices will share many traits, said Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research.

The first ARM-based Windows 10 PCs, which are due later this year, will be entry-level systems for basic applications and online services. You won't be able to do run intense applications, which still require the more powerful x86 chips, McGregor said.

Windows 10 laptops with Snapdragon 835 will be thin, light and offer long battery life, said Cisco Cheng, a Snapdragon evangelist at Qualcomm. It'll run the full fledged Windows OS, and offer the connectivity options never before seen in PCs, Cheng said.

For now, Windows 10 on ARM seems a big improvement from Windows RT, which was plagued with usability and application compatibility issues. Microsoft and Qualcomm learned from their mistakes, and tried to rectify the issues.

But a larger question remains whether an ARM-based Windows 10 laptop will offer the price and usability compared to Chromebooks, said Jack Gold, principal analyst at J. Gold Associates, in a research note.

Many Chromebooks are priced under US$200, and the first ARM-based Windows 10 device may not be that inexpensive. That's because the Snapdragon 835 is an expensive chip, Gold wrote.

Nevertheless, Microsoft wants to compete on equal terms with Chrome OS and Android in both mobile and PCs, and a Windows 10 laptop with Snapdragon 835 is one way to do so, he wrote.

PC makers haven't announced Windows 10 laptops with Snapdragon 835, but want to test the hardware. There's some caution after the failure of Windows RT tablets, but PC makers find ARM-based Windows 10 PCs intriguing as more data moves to the cloud and the lines blur between laptops and mobile devices.

Microsoft tried to replicate the Chromebook model with Intel-based x86 chips by offering free versions of Windows 8 -- called Windows 8.1 with Bing -- to PC makers a few years ago. PC makers built low-cost laptops with basic processors and minimal storage, much like Chromebooks, but the strategy failed.

Google also has positioned Chrome OS as a replacement for Windows, but that hasn't worked out so far. Chromebooks are more effective when connected to the Internet, and have limited offline capabilities. Windows, on the other hand, is a full-fledged OS.

It was smart of Microsoft to extend the Windows 10 to ARM, Gold said. Putting all eggs in the x86 basket was dangerous for Microsoft, and with ARM as a partner, it has more flexibility in how to conduct business.

Chromebooks already run on both ARM and x86 chips. Samsung's latest Chromebook Pro has an ARM processor, while Chromebook Plus has an x86 chip.

For ARM, being both in Chromebooks and Windows 10 will expand its footprint in devices. Its dogged focus on mobile is paying off, McGregor said.

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