If you're looking for a solid all-around laptop for roughly $500, the new Samsung Chromebook Pro should at or near the very top of your candidate list. Sure, there are plenty of Windows laptops and tablets in that price range (or lower), but none that I can think of offer this combination of a decent design, mostly metal construction, lag-free performance, long battery life, better-than-HD touchscreen, built-in stylus and a hybrid hinge that transforms the system into a tablet.
Despite the hybrid design, this is still a laptop first and a tablet second. For the opposite approach, an iPad plus a snap-on keyboard would cost about as much.
I know what you're thinking: "But wait: Chromebooks use Google's weird browser-only operating system. They won't run any of my must-have software, and they're useless when you're off Wi-Fi." And you'd be right about some or all of that -- if it wasn't 2017.
Yes, Chrome OS -- while significantly evolved over the past few years -- is still essentially the Chrome web browser with a laptop wrapped around it. But, Samsung and Google are using this new model, and its sister system, the Chromebook Plus, to showcase an important new Chrome OS feature coming to all new 2017 Chromebooks, as well as a handful of older models. These new systems are compatible with the Google Play Android app store, allowing you to download, install and run millions of Android apps, much as they would on any Android phone or tablet (with a few exceptions).
It's a twist that changes the entire nature of Chromebooks for a huge swath of people, giving the platform access to a universe of software, from games to office tools to social media apps. In practice, it's not as universally useful as it looks on paper, but it's also incredibly satisfying in surprising ways.
That, plus the touchscreen, hybrid and stylus features and decent performance and battery life are why the Chromebook Pro feels like a very smart buy at $549, which is admittedly on the high end for a Chromebook. There's no official UK or Australian pricing yet, but that works out to roughly £440 or AU$720.
The Pro is coming in the next few months, but a less expensive version, called the Chromebook Plus, is shipping in mid-February. It costs $449 (about £360 or AU$590) and the main difference between the two systems is that the Pro has an Intel Core m3 processor, while the Plus has a non-Intel ARM processor. (That's not necessarily a bad thing, but we won't have head-to-head benchmarks until we get our hands on the Plus.)
Both have 2,400x1,600-pixel touchscreens, dual USB-C ports, 32GB of internal storage and a microSD card slot. And both have a keyboard by default -- something you have to pay extra for with iPads or Surface Pro tablets.
|Price as reviewed||$549|
|Display size/resolution||12.3-inch 2,400x1,600 touchscreen|
|CPU||Intel Core m3-6y30|
|Networking||802.11n wireless, Bluetooth 4.0|
|Operating system||Chrome OS|
The metal body isn't going to make anyone think this is a MacBook, but it still feels sturdier than the plastic laptops that usually cost just as much. The system, while very slim, has an oddly squared-off look to it, because the 2,400x1,600 display has a 3:2 aspect ratio, while most laptops have a wider, shorter 16:9 screen (the same as an HDTV).
That feels a bit like a throwback to older laptops of the prewidescreen era, but it also gives you more screen real estate for some things like books or presentations, and feels more like a drawing tablet when using the included stylus. (It's worth noting that Microsoft has standardized its Surface line on the same aspect ratio, while Apple has stuck with the even more squared-off 4:3 ratio for iPads.) The downside is that HD video content gets bigger black bars across the top and bottom of the screen.
There's a passive stylus included, which tucks into a slot on the right edge -- both big pluses. When pulled out from its home, the system presents a quick pop-up menu, offering to let you grab a section of the display for a screenshot or launch Google Keep to draw or take a note.
Other stylus-friendly apps, such as ArtCanvas and Autodesk Sketchbook, offer more fine-tuned drawing options, and it feels a lot like drawing on the Microsoft Surface (where we've used the Windows version of Sketchbook).
Typing was acceptable, but not a real selling point, with smallish keys and especially tiny backspace and tab keys that threw off my rhythm. The touchpad was similarly just OK, and one of the more budget-feeling aspects of the system. Two-finger scrolling worked fine, but to tap-and-drag as one would on a Windows laptop, you have to find a semihidden checkbox to enable this feature. To find the checkbox (which took me a long time), launch the settings menu, search for "accessibility" and you'll see it.
Finally, the accelerometer that flips the screen between portrait and landscape modes feels poorly tuned. It's too sensitive to the slightest movement, especially when you have the system folded into its tablet mode, leading to some jarring visuals as the screen shifts orientation back and forth rapidly.
Diving into the Play Store opens up a world of possibilities. It's almost too much to take in right away. As with most app ecosystems, curation is an issue, but some of the low-hanging fruit is very appealing.
It's now easy to get the full Instagram experience on a laptop, including the ability to take and post photos. Other apps just didn't work right on a nonphone device. For example, Snapchat downloaded, installed and launched fine, but I could never get past the login screen. Uber got me past the login screen, but I was unable to enter any location or destination info, rendering it useless. Big Android games, including Pokemon Go and Fire Emblem Heroes, gave me a noncompatible device error message.
There were plenty of games that did work -- Google specifically recommended I try Asphalt 8, a car racing game that works with the system's built-in accelerometer and a hack-and-slash RPG called Sacred. Both worked fine, although the racing game was a little choppy at times. You're just not going to get the kind of deep, involved gameplay you get from PC games, or access to major game stores like Steam.
I did run into some pleasant surprises along the way. An emailed Excel spreadsheet was causing me a little agita. I figured it would need to be opened in Microsoft's browser-based Office Online tool, which is sluggish and hard to use, or translated to work in Google Sheets, where it might lose some formatting and functionality. Instead, I was able to pop it right open in the free-to-download Android Excel app, which looked as good as Excel does on a Windows laptop.
Some apps, such as Autodesk Sketchbook and Netflix, were optimized for the laptop-like display. Others appeared in phone-sized windows, but one could run multiple apps simultaneously and reposition them across the desktop, which is a lot more flexibility than you get with Android or iOS devices.
Of course, whenever people moan about not being able to install apps, especially on a Chromebook, they always bring up Adobe's Photoshop. I'm dubious that most of those people actually use Photoshop, but as a semiregular user since the mid-1990s, I can at least claim to occasionally need the full-fledged "real" version.
That's one issue where even having access to the Google Play Store doesn't fully satisfy. You can get the Photoshop Express mobile app, or Lightroom and a bunch of other Adobe apps, but none of them are a substitute for the real thing. Photoshop Express is mostly photo filters, color correction and cropping. For serious photo and image editing, you'll have to go back to a Windows or Mac system, or try a tool like Pixlr.
As cool as being able to run all these apps is, it does add a layer of complexity to the previously dead simple Chrome OS universe. What's more, it opens up concerns about security and malware, which are top-of-mind issues for Android phone and tablet users.
Two things put me a little more at ease about this. First, the Google Play Store, while still teeming with shady knockoff apps and programs that are greedy with permissions, has been cleaned up of its worst offenders. The real danger now comes from lookalike and unvetted apps that may not play it straight with your user data, or that don't store your login and personal information securely. Still something to watch out for, as in the recent brouhaha over the Meitu app.
Second, the Android apps here run in their own "container," a walled garden within the system, deliberately quarantined from the main Chrome OS. Essentially, the Chromebook is running a virtual Android device, locked in its own universe. There's some interesting detail about this and the process of getting Android apps Chrome-ready here.
With an Intel Core m3 processor, versus the Atom or ARM chips found in less expensive Chromebooks, the Pro was a reasonable contender in our Chrome OS tests. But other recent Chromebooks are adding Intel Core m5 or even Core i5 CPUs, and those systems were even faster. That comes at a significant cost, however, and the Core i5 and Core m5 versions of the Lenovo ThinkPad Chromebook and HP Chromebook 13 we tested were both more than $800 as configured. At that price, I'd still default to something like a MacBook Air, iPad Pro or Dell XPS 13.
This model hit a good middle ground between price and performance, and more importantly, it felt speedy and responsive in everyday use, much more so than budget Windows laptops usually do. On one recent morning, I knocked out four quick news articles on the Chromebook Pro, including researching and writing, grabbing art, and producing and publishing the pages via a content management system. That's not a task I'd normally trust to a budget laptop, at least not if I wanted it done quickly and without lagging browser windows and slow system response.
My one caveat is that the Chromebook Pro only has 4GB of RAM, and running multiple browser windows and multiple Google Play apps will slow it down. This system can multitask, but only to a degree. I got into the habit of shutting down my browser pages before running games and other heavy apps.
Battery life was another pleasant surprise. The Pro ran for 8 hours 57 minutes in our streaming video playback test, which is very good for a laptop at any price, but not as long as some of those more expensive Chromebooks, and not even close to the category-leading Acer Chromebook R 13, which uses a very low-power chip but runs for a very long time.
For the price, it's hard to name a competing product that offers comparable features and performance, although I suspect 2017 will be a big year for Chrome OS and we'll see a lot of very capable machines that can take advantage of the Google Play Store.
It's partly because we've moved to a cloud and browser-based world, where very little really needs to sit on our local hard drives, and partly because these machines have evolved from $200 plastic throwaways to laptops built to be your full-time computer. But after five years of evolution, the Chromebook concept finally feels ready for prime time.