Editors' note (October 18, 2012): In addition to the Chromebook reviewed here, Samsung now offers a newer $249 model.
What is a Chromebook? One year after the debut of the first wave, most people still don't know what it is. The concept sounds cutting-edge: instead of Windows or Mac OS, just run a light browser-based "operating system" that offers access to the full range of cloud-based applications and services, including those of Google's own capable ecosystem (Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive, Calendar, and the like). And do it all on a thin and light 12-inch laptop that swaps features (no hard drive, no CD drive) for good battery life.
Indeed, the name "Chromebook" comes from the fact that the laptop is running the so-called Chrome OS -- basically an embedded version of Google's Chrome Web browser. If you've used the Chrome browser on Windows or Mac, you know that it asks you to log in, and then it syncs your bookmarks, Google identity, Google Docs, and Google Drive files. The Chromebook works the same way, except there's no way out of that browser. Apps can run on a Chromebook, but they're Web apps; they load through the browser.
That's not to say the Chromebook can't do anything offline: it can read files and play movies and music anytime. And Chrome OS has gotten better at file compatibility PowerPoint, Word docs, Excel files, ZIP files, and PDFs all load well and look great. You can't edit documents without first uploading to Google Docs, though. Photos can be viewed and even lightly edited with brightness and contrast adjustments, rotation, and cropping. The files can be resaved or uploaded to Picasa.
Our experience with the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook last year left us underwhelmed: it had smoothly running hardware and a clean operating system, but with such a limited set of uses compared with Windows, a high sticker price of over $400, and the requirement of being online to use most apps like Google Docs, the Chromebook didn't add up to a logical choice for anyone other than a Google cloud devotee.
A year later, the new Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550 has slightly improved hardware and improved Chrome OS software, but its price -- a whopping $449, or $549 with a Verizon 3G wireless antenna -- is flat-out crazy.
Here's the biggest problem with the Chromebook: the hardware's fine, and the simplified Web-based OS is clever, and even versatile if you don't mind its limitations. Still, it's a radically reduced subset of what you can get on a Windows or Mac laptop...or even an iPad or Android tablet, for that matter. Yet, it costs more than a new iPad 2, a thinner, keyboard-enabled Android tablet like the Asus Transformer Pad, or a fully featured 11-inch ultraportable laptop like the AMD-powered HP dm1z.
If the Chromebook were $99, this could have been a revolutionary product. As it currently stands, it's merely an invitation to pay a lot of money to be part of a Google experiment. And you're the test subject.
|Price as reviewed / starting price||$549 / $449|
|Hard drive||16GB SSD|
|Operating system||Google Chrome OS|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.25x8.3 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||12.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.1 pounds / 3.7 pounds|
Chrome OS and its interface
Chrome OS has improved considerably since last year, resulting in an instant-on ecosystem that feels a lot more compelling than before. Booting up the first time is lightning-quick (about 7 seconds), and once you're logged in under your Google ID, your mail, docs, contacts, and any purchased apps are available to access or download. Our review version of the Series 5 550 Chromebook has Chrome OS 19.0.1084.50, the most recent version. The confusing numbering isn't as easy to understand as Android's candy shop-flavored updates, not by a long shot.
File support, a complaint we had from last year, is much improved, with the ability to handle more file types and even zipped files. That's no surprise to anyone who already uses Gmail or Google Docs, and the end result helps the Chromebook experience. Still, you're limited as to what you can do with those files. Downloading a Word doc to the Chromebook's internal storage gives you a read-only document. Same goes for PowerPoint and Excel. Images can be lightly edited.
Files stored on an SD card or USB flash drive get treated the same way. It's not easy to attach these files to an e-mail, either. Nor can you simply drag files across to an SD card, even when in the File Manager viewing window. Apple's iOS may not show you a centralized file storage system, but Chrome OS doesn't do anything with the opportunity. You can hit Control-C to copy and Control-V to paste files from internal storage to an SD card and vice versa, but it's not intuitive. Similarly, clicking on a document doesn't automatically import it into Google Docs: you can upload files from an SD card, USB drive, or internal storage via Google Docs and Drive (I was able to upload videos, pictures, PDFs, and Word and Excel docs), but you'd have to broker the upload via the Web app.
Chrome OS supports ZIP, TXT, PDF, HTML, MP4, M4V, M4A, MP3, OGV, OGM, OGG, OGA, WEBM, WAV, and "most image file types" according to Google. That proved true in my tests. External drives can be read as well, with Ext2, Ext3, Ext4, FAT, UDF, HFS Plus, ISO9660 (read only), and NTFS file formats supported.
The Chrome Web Store, where any apps are downloaded from, is also improved in offerings from a year ago. You can get a surprising number of apps here: games, entertainment, and productivity apps can be downloaded, many for free, but they all launch from within a browser frame...because they're all essentially Web apps. Some can be used offline, like Angry Birds, which launched fine with Wi-Fi off, once the game had been downloaded for offline use. The offline experience, as a whole, is still best defined as a mixed bag. The Kindle's Cloud reader claims an ability to locally download and "pin" a book for offline reading, but sometimes the Chrome app didn't open again when I went offline. An included Scratchpad app for offline note-taking sometimes loaded offline, and sometimes produced an endless spinning wheel.
Some Chrome apps didn't run on this Chromebook even when it was online. Ubisoft's From Dust, a much-heralded game, has a Chrome Web app. It's meant for laptops and desktops with dedicated graphics, though: running it on this Chromebook gave me a "cannot run" error message. In the future, it would help if the Chrome Web Store at least delineated which apps are meant to run on Chrome OS devices. From Dust might be a lone exception, but it's indicative that Chrome, as an ecosystem, has its sights set on the browser market as much as the Chromebook/Chromebox space.
Apps can unlock the power of an otherwise somewhat closed-off Chrome OS, but getting them to do exactly what you want is hit or miss. Technically, that's the same situation you'd face on iOS with its App Store -- finding an app that helps unlock a feature you desire -- but the App Store, like Google Play, has a lot more options to choose from.
The whole Chrome OS user interface keeps trying to make you feel like there's a real set of windows and a desktop (there's a customizable background image), but this mostly amounts to opening and adjusting Chrome windows, which all function like Chrome browser windows. Tabbed windows can be split apart, and windows can be snapped into a grid or minimized to the bottom dock bar. Trying to suss out which tabbed windows are Web pages and which are apps can get confusing, and for me it sometimes led to accidental closing of open programs.