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Samsung Chromebook is interesting but incomplete

The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is ready for your life on the Web, but that's about it.

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For anybody who loves tech and gadgets, it's not hard to see the appeal of the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook. It's a small, good-looking, affordable laptop the whole purpose of which is to keep you connected to your life online. It's even more attractive to those of us who have stopped using programs like Microsoft Office in favor of Web-based apps like Google Docs and Gmail. Add in the promise of all-day battery life (all workday, that is), built-in security, invisible OS and app updates, and instant-on performance and it all sounds pretty good.

Even turning the Series 5 on for the first time was cool. Open the lid and the screen lights up. The start-up process is nearly as brief: connect to Wi-Fi, accept the OS terms, sign in to your Google account or create a new one, pick an image to associate with your account or shoot one with the Webcam, and you're done.

There's a brief touch-pad tutorial, but that's it and you're ready to start using the Web. Since everything is Web-based there is a refreshing lack of bloatware. Clicking the Home button in the browser brings you right to your collection of Chrome Web apps, which are just bookmarks to sites. The experience is actually enjoyable, especially if you already have a Google account set up. Because everything is synced, your stuff just shows up.

Should someone else want to use your Series 5, you just log out and that person can either work as a guest or sign in with his or her own Google account. Users can be removed as easily as they're added, too, so there's never any fear of someone else looking at your personal files or sites.

After a little use, though, the Chromebook's shine starts to wear off. For us it started when we needed to open a ZIP file and were greeted with an unsupported file format error. That left us searching for a Web site that would open compressed files. Something that on a Windows or Mac system takes a couple of seconds to do, on a Chromebook requires finding a site, uploading the file, waiting for the file to be processed, and then downloading the file. We then needed to edit a photo, which yet again required uploading to a site, waiting for the photo to be processed, editing the photo, and downloading it from the site.

And then there's the issue of needing an Internet connection for just about everything. Yes, there are offline apps in the Chrome Web Store, but many of them are games (bad ones at that). As of right now, Google Docs is online only and other options like Zoho Writer need the unsupported Google Gears to work offline.

So what happens if you lose your Internet connection in the middle of working in Google Docs? Well, nothing, really. As long as you don't close the tab you're on, you probably won't lose your work. As soon as you regain a connection it will automatically save. Still, you won't be able to keep working while offline. Part of this is solved with a Verizon 3G mobile broadband service included with the $499 Series 5 (the Wi-Fi-only version is $429). You get 100MB a month of data service included for two years. You can also get unlimited access for $9.99 a day or 1GB for $20, 3GB for $35, or 5GB for $50 a month.

Talking solely about the hardware, the Series 5 is a nice little Netbook. Thin, reasonably lightweight, and attractive, it's no better or worse than most Netbooks we've tested. Powered by an Intel dual-core Atom processor and backed by 2GB of memory, integrated graphics, and a 16GB solid-state drive (SSD), the system does what it's designed to do.

There's an SD card slot in front, a USB 2.0 port on each side, a VGA port for connecting to an external display or projector (though it requires a dongle), and a headphone/mic jack. There's no Bluetooth for connecting a wireless headset for voice or video chat. The Series 5 measures up well against its Acer competitor; the Acer has an HDMI output, but no SD card slot.

The Series 5 also has a slightly larger, higher-resolution screen than the Acer. Samsung's 12.1-inch wide-screen LCD offers a 1,280x800-pixel native resolution. It's a matte screen, so there are no distracting reflections when working in bright lighting or outdoors. However, off-angle viewing is pretty bad; you'll need to be sitting directly in front of the screen with it tilted just right to get a solid picture. The screen is very bright--as promised--but it also automatically adjusts brightness; that's great if you're completely stationary, but less so if you're commuting on a bus with changing light conditions.

The keyboard is large and comfortable with dedicated keys for Web navigation. Instead of a Caps Lock key, for example, there's a Search key; there are also keys for paging forward and backward, refreshing, going full-screen, and switching browser windows. We wouldn't mind having a Home key, too, to take you to the main apps page, but all in all it's a good layout. The touch pad is equally nice.

As for performance and battery life, we're still testing those things and we'll have a full review once those tests are complete. We can say that battery life is impressive so far and, as promised, the Series 5 boots remarkably quickly and resumes near instantly.

We had no problems streaming music (the speakers sound really good for the Series 5's size) and YouTube clips played fine, too. On the other hand, we tried playing some HD clips shot with a minicamcorder and, well, let's just say it didn't go well. Also, there's currently no support for Netflix streaming (it's in the works), which is a big negative for us, and Hulu streaming resulted in out-of-sync video and audio. We suspect the more sites we visit, the more slowdowns and roadblocks we'll hit, just as you would with any Netbook. Being limited to one browser doesn't help, either.

Worth noting, too, is that currently the only file systems supported are Fat32, Ext2, and Ext3, and the Series 5 doesn't seem to recognize anything larger than 1TB. If you were thinking you'd connect to network-attached storage, you can't.

We keep seeing people comment that the Samsung Series 5 or any other Chromebook will be a good choice for nontechie people. Maybe eventually, but today there are just too many holes in the experience. Plus, trying to explain to nontechies that everything they do is now online and asking them to trust that it'll be there whenever they log in might be not be that easy. Forget about explaining things like not being able to connect the Series 5 directly to a printer.

In the end, there are a lot of things you can do with a Windows or Mac laptop (or an Android tablet or iPad), but right now there are just a lot of things you can't do with a Chromebook.