Google’s Chromebook Plus Laptops Are Now Even Cheaper and Have More AI

You want more AI features and Google’s Gemini, right?

A 2024 HP Google Chromebook with AI features
Photograph by Raymond Wong

Last fall, Google drew a line in the sand — no more sucky Chromebooks. At least, not with the beefier Chromebook Plus lineup of laptops running ChromeOS. By requiring a baseline of specs for the CPU, RAM, and storage, Chromebook Plus laptops were up to two times better than regular non-Plus Chromebooks, while starting at an affordable $399.

Barely seven months later, Google is upping the ante with Chromebook Plus yet again. Devices from third-parties now start at an even lower $349, while keeping the same Intel Core i3 (or higher) or AMD Ryzen 7000 series CPU, 8GB of RAM, 128GB of storage, a 1080p IPS display, and a 1080p webcam.

The new Chromebook Plus hardware itself is less interesting (though the 16-inch Acer Plus 516GE that’s made for gaming piques my interest) than what’s new to ChromeOS. If you guessed AI, specifically Google Gemini, give yourself a pat on the back, because Google is pushing AI even harder into Chromebooks. If you’re rolling your eyes at the prospect of AI being shoved into Chromebook Plus laptops, ChromeOS is also getting a few non-AI features that might sate your productivity and entertainment needs.

More AI, Whether You Like It or Not

As expected, Google is loading up Chromebook Plus laptops with its new AI darling, Gemini, as well as a handful of other generative AI features such as Magic Editor (a signature Google Pixel and Photos feature) for editing pictures and “Help me write,” an AI that helps you write everything from blog posts to tweets. How well the AI runs on Chromebook Plus devices will require us to actually spend some real time with them, but I did get a sneak peek of what’s in store, and most of it's pretty good.

Generative wallpapers are cool, right?

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Let’s start with my least favorite: generative AI wallpapers and video call backgrounds. I guess if it was 2020 and we were all still stuck at home with nowhere to go, the idea of generating a Google Meet, or Teams, or Zoom virtual background would be remotely interesting given all the time we had at home. You type a prompt; you get a wallpaper. Google helps with prompting suggestions, but the feature is pretty dull for AI. But if this sounds fun to you, who am I to poo-poo all over your dreams?

Chromebook Plus are the only laptops with support for Google Photos’ Magic Editor feature.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Magic Editor is also kind of meh to me. I’ve used it on Pixel phones and tablet, and the one difference now is that Chromebook Plus devices are the only laptops to get the feature — bigger screen and all. I’m not big into moving or resizing subjects in a photo (I prefer to get the shot right in camera instead of fixing it in post) and I think Magic Editor is more miss than hit when it comes to generating new objects or filling in backgrounds, but again, if this sounds exciting to you, have at it.

“Help me read” can read what’s on a web page. You can then ask for a summary or questions about the text.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

The one non-Gemini AI feature that perked me right up was “Help me write.” The AI feature essentially lets you select text and right-click it to start a chatbot prompt. In one demo, I was shown how a Chromebook Plus could read a Wikipedia page and then I could follow up with questions. I could ask for basic AI stuff like a summary or more information on a selected text. Think of it as like a friend or a teaching assistant. I foresee a lot of lazy students using it quite often.

Gemini Advanced is built into Chromebook Plus task bars and is free for 12 months, after which it’ll cost $20 per month.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

But it’s Gemini that could potentially reimagine Chromebooks and ChromeOS. For one, Gemini lives right in the dock/taskbar (Google calls it a “shelf” but I refuse to call it that) so that it’s always within reach. Click the app and a Gemini window pops up and you can enter a prompt. Google was surprisingly guarded with letting media try it out, but I managed to get a few prompts in to see how contextual it was.

I started by asking Gemini to find me some events in New York City’s Union Square area to do during Memorial Day break. It suggested going to the farmer’s market, a popular bookstore called Strand, or doing a food crawl. I followed up with “I’ll need some lunch after” and Gemini suggested a few nearby restaurants; I prompted, “And drinks after that” and got suggestions for decent bars that I’ve been to; I ended it with, “I need to go to Central Park as a final stop” and it pulled up Google Maps with directions and how long it’d take to get up there. I was impressed!

This is how contextual AI should work. Of course, I need to throw harder questions at it, but for planning a day out, I found Gemini more useful than getting anxiety than looking all of these things up separately on Yelp, Google Maps, or via Google Search.

Little Bit of Gaming and Other Quality of Life Upgrades

The Game Dashboard has a way to map touchscreen controls to the keyboard and mouse.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

According to Google, one in four Chromebook users plays games on their laptop, either playing Android games or streamed games via Xbox Cloud Gaming or Nvidia GeForce. I don’t know a single person who plays games on their Chromebooks, but if that’s what the data shows! With gaming on Chromebooks supposedly on the rise, Google’s adding a Game Dashboard.

Game Dashboard has features like screen recording your games with voiceover, which you can then quickly and easily upload to YouTube or another service or Android app (WhatsApp, Line, etc.) It also has a setting that lets you map touch-based controls to a mouse and keyboard.

Android games that have on-screen controls can be assigned to keys and mouse clicks with a few taps. Games that use swipe or tilt controls (i.e. Fruit Ninja or a racing game) that don’t have alternative on-screen buttons aren’t supported. I saw one 2D sidescroller remapped to the keyboard and it worked exactly like you’d expect.

Other ChromeOS additions worth highlighting: Google Tasks integration, which adds to-dos to the calendar in the taskbar, and GIF screen recording.

Google has more features coming to ChromeOS, but those aren’t dropping at launch time with the new Chromebook Plus laptops on May 28. I’m looking forward to seeing face and gesture tracking for hands-free controls, focus modes for specific tasks, and a “pick up where you left off” overview screen that shows you all of your open apps, tabs, and windows (it sounds like Mission Control in macOS).

AI Comes With A Price

Tons of new Chromebook Plus devices to choose from.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

Okay, so you buy a new Chromebook Plus. It’s got good specs and it’s affordable. But the AI, specifically Gemini Advanced, won’t be free. The non-Gemini AI — comes with the Chromebook Plus laptops. And regular Gemini, which lets you do basic prompting, is also free. But Gemini Advanced (the smarter AI that you want) comes with a price... after 12 months. Chromebook Plus buyers will get 12 months of Gemini Advanced for free, but after that it’ll cost $19.99 per month as part of the Google One AI premium plan. That gets you access to Google’s smarter AI, Gemini in Gmail, Google Docs, and more, and 2TB of cloud storage.

I don’t love this aspect of AI — splitting it up into tiers — because it makes it all the more confusing for consumers to figure out what the AI they get for free can do and what the paid AI offers as extra. Setting aside this annoyance, I’m looking forward to putting Chromebook Plus and the new AI features through the wringer and seeing how it fares.

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