These devices, which look like a Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows or an Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) laptop, run the search giant's Chrome OS. They offer much of the functionality of a traditional computer but have limited on-board storage and computing capacity. Instead Chromebooks rely on Google's Web infrastructure, such as its word processing and spreadsheet apps.
Chromebooks are heavily Web-based and are less useful when not connected to the Internet. They're not full-fledged computers but they work fine for their intended purpose. As a Web-browsing machine that can access a limited, but useful, family of apps the devices work well. Add in the fact that they generally cost less than traditional laptops and they're a great value especially in the education market or as a secondary, nonwork machine.
Now, Google has expanded its Chrome-based computer line to include the Chromebit, a device from Asus (NASDAQOTH:AKCPF) that resembles the company's Chromecast streaming video stick. It's a bold new design profile for a computer which opens up all sorts of possibilities.
The Chromebit is very portable
As you can see above the Chromebit looks like a slightly hefty USB flash drive. It's actually a full computer inside a tiny package that plugs directly into an HDMI port on any monitor. You'll need to supply your own keyboard and mouse, but the tiny stick has the same innards as a standard Chromebook.
The Chromebit comes with 2GB of RAM, Rockchip's 3288 processor, and 16GB of storage.
"By simply plugging this device into any display, you can turn it into a computer," Google engineer Katie Roberts-Hoffman wrote in a blog post. "It's the perfect upgrade for an existing desktop and will be really useful for schools and businesses."
The idea of a computer that slips into your pocket is not completely unique -- Intel showed one at the Consumer Electronics show this year -- but Google's has the potential to establish the category as viable.
"Asus actually really pulled off a marvel of engineering here, squeezing everything into this size," said Caesar Sengupta, Google's product management vice president said during a press event announcing the product.
Chromebit also has a USB port that can be used to power and connect peripherals like a keyboard or a mouse. It also supports Bluetooth 4.0.
It's one of the cheapest computers sold
Chromebooks, which can be purchased for as little as $149, already lowered the price people would have to pay for computer-like functionality. The Chromebit, which Google has only said will cost "less than $100," will be one of the cheapest fully functional computer devices being mass marketed to the general public.
The only really comparable devices are sub-$100 Windows 8 tablets like the HP Stream which has a seven inch version with a list price of $99.99. That device however is a tablet and while it runs Windows 8 and can use Microsoft Office, it's not marketed as a computer due to its relatively low-powered processor.
Chromebit (and Chromebooks in general) are sort of tweener devices. They have limited processing power but Google has engineered the experience to make them work in a computer-like fashion.
It can turn your TV into an entertainment center
While Google did not push this in any of its announcements, the Chromebit is a cheap way to turn your television into an Internet connected entertainment center. The tiny device has a fully functional Chrome browser that can be used to access most websites.
"One potentially interesting scenario is to use one of these stick computers as a home theater PC, streaming online content to a big screen while staying out of sight," wrote CNET. "Streaming media sticks from Roku, Amazon and others are another way to add streaming media to a TV, but those solutions lack the native Web browsing ability of something like the Chromebit and its ability to use any cloud-based service, website or app."
Chromebit makes it easy to turn your TV into a computer-like device that has benefits beyond those offered by pure streaming video players. In addition to the entertainment possibilities, you could also check your email or even use your television as a secondary computing device.
Google is delivering a new form factor which offers convenience and a ton of flexibility at a price that makes it worth trying even if its full potential has not quite been discovered.
Daniel Kline owns shares of Apple and Microsoft. He will almost certainly buy a Chromebit even though he has no use for one. The Motley Fool recommends Amazon.com, Apple, Google (A shares), Google (C shares), and Intel. The Motley Fool owns shares of Amazon.com, Apple, Google (A shares), and Google (C shares). Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.