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.
It's worth noting that Chrome OS in its current form still doesn't handle being offline all that well, nor does it offer any integration with Google Drive, Google's recently launched cloud storage ecosystem. Chrome OS version 20 is meant to include offline Google Docs support and Google Drive integration. Both should help make a Chromebook better to use, but we can't review what doesn't exist yet.
I applaud Chrome OS and its simplicity, but if you want a taste of it, here's my advice on how to get it for free: download the Chrome browser on your computer, and then install your choice of apps from the Chrome Web Store. There, you're done.
Samsung's actually made an attractive little 12-inch laptoplike device here, down to a crisp, matte 12.1-inch 1,200x800-pixel-resolution screen, a comfortable, wide keyboard, and a large multitouch clickpad. At 3.1 pounds, this Chromebook feels like a lightweight ultraportable, or a thicker ultrabook. It's easy to slip in a bag, but it's not nearly as small or light as an iPad. Silver plastic covers the exterior and interior, but the build is solid and flex-free.
The island-style raised keyboard features some keys you'll never see on a regular Windows or Mac laptop; a magnifying-glass icon opens up a new tab for Google search, and dedicated buttons for screen brightness, volume, page back/forth/reload, and full-screen toggle line the top. Google's documentation shows a frightening number of keyboard shortcuts, should you be inspired to learn them.
A power button on the right boots up or shuts down the Chromebook quickly. You're always logged in under your Google ID, but you can log out or choose a Guest mode. Booting up takes just seconds, faster than any ultrabook or smartphone I've ever used. In 7.4 seconds I reached the log-in screen, and a couple of seconds after that was fully online. It's as close to instant-on as a mobile device can be.
|Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550||Average for category [Netbook]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, SD card reader||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, optional Verizon 3G||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Samsung's latest-generation Chromebook offers 4GB of RAM, up from 2GB a year ago, and 16GB onboard SSD storage. Two USB ports, a headphone jack, a DisplayPort (compatible with DVI, HDMI, and VGA with a dongle), an SD card slot, and even a dedicated Ethernet jack with a pull-down hinge make their appearance, just like you'd expect on a regular 11- or 12-inch ultraportable laptop. The USB port easily supported a two-button-click mouse I had lying around, and my iPhone could be plugged in and charged, although Chrome OS, to no great surprise, wouldn't import my photos. (You can import photos from an Android device.) Oh, and a small but annoying fact about that SD card slot: an inserted SD card juts out instead of lying flush, which hurts the concept, at least aesthetically, of using a high-capacity SD card to boost your internal storage.
Wireless management is easy, and a simplified pop-up window of wireless settings helps manage networks. I tried hopping off Wi-Fi and using the Verizon 3G data connection (built in to the $549 version of the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, but not present on the $449 Wi-Fi-only model) to set up "free" 3G wireless, and the process was generally painless. Verizon's page never asks for a credit card, but you're limited to 100MB of free data a month for two years under the terms of the deal provided with this Chromebook. You can buy extra 3G data as needed. You can burn through 100MB easily if you're doing anything more than bare-bones e-mail and document editing. Also, this "free" data isn't free; as mentioned, you're paying $100 just to get the privilege of that option to access Verizon broadband. It's a nice extra, but if you're spending up for that always-available 3G connection, you're likely to be find it very frustrating compared with a more traditional data plan.
An onboard HD Webcam worked well with Gmail's onboard video chat, and with Google+ and its Hangout feature for multiple simultaneous chats. Video quality looked as good as on a mainstream laptop. Google's notification system for incoming Web chats is a little odd, though; I never received any pop-up notifications or sounds as you do with Apple's FaceTime or on a laptop using Skype.
The onboard Intel Celeron processor isn't clearly labeled or documented on any of the Chromebook's spec sheets; it's called an "Intel Core" processor in our review documentation. While it's better than the last Series 5 Chromebook's Atom processor, it doesn't fall far from the tree. It's hard to judge something like performance on a Chromebook because what you're doing on a Chromebook boils down, largely, to advanced Web browsing. On the whole, it's a better and faster experience than on last year's Samsung Chromebook. The processor and the added RAM allow more windows to be open at once and better handling of documents and files: 1080p video can stream smoothly,albeit at 1,280x800 pixels, and some basic Web-based games run passably. Also, Web sites like Netflix now run on Chrome OS, too. Swapping between programs is easy, but with beefier game downloads I saw some bog-down between apps.
A word on battery life: it wouldn't really matter if this Chromebook had a million hours of battery life. It wouldn't improve my opinion of the product, because I can't use it as a true go-anywhere device. Its inability to handle offline functions in any useful core capacity makes this more of a thin-client terminal than a portable computer. And, in those places where I can find Wi-Fi, I'm likely to find a power outlet. We couldn't get our standard battery drain test to work on this Chromebook, but Google claims 6.5 hours of battery life. My use of the Chromebook over a full day matched that claim.
The bottom line
There's no good reason to buy a Chromebook at this price. You can buy a small-screen tablet like the
Price would be one factor. If the Chromebook were $99, or even $199, its price would make it an instant consideration as a Netbook and tablet alternative. (Indeed, the, the Chromebook's mini desktop sibling, initially seems more tempting at $329, but the cost advantage disappears if you don't already have a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to attach.) Convenience is another, but Chrome OS, while being easy to use, isn't really "easy." Too many apps don't work offline, and the limited design of Chrome OS makes it an experiment you have to be willing to buy into.
At this point, there's simply no reason to.