Samsung Chromebook review: The one we've been waiting for (at least in price)

Aiming the Chromebook at people who want another device around the house, though, makes those shortcomings not necessarily be major drawbacks. There are plenty of times when all you need to do is check e-mail, read some news, load a recipe, make a bank payment, click around YouTube, or spend time on Facebook. For that, it's a very economical device. Its fast startup speed is conducive to flipping it open for a few moments and then plopping it down on the counter or coffee table again when you're done. (Its Wi-Fi is very fast to reconnect, too.)

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And of course ordinary Web pages work as they would on any other machine. For apps, including games, you can visit the Chrome Web Store for freebies and purchases. You can pin apps and Web sites you like by right-clicking (err, two-finger-tapping) on the tab, at which point it becomes narrow and stays put.

If you're wondering whether to get this or a tablet, though, you'll have to assess your priorities. Tablets have a wealth of entertaining apps and better battery life (in our tests the Chromebook got up to about 6 hours). But when it's time to type, I find Chromebooks much more agreeable than using my iPad and Kensington Bluetooth keyboard or my Transformer Prime with its own keyboards.

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One other factor that could help tip the balance: the Chromebook has 3G networking capability. For $80 more, you can get this model with Verizon 3G service. You're limited to 100MB of free data a month for two years under the terms of the deal provided with this Chromebook, but you can buy extra 3G data as needed.

Straining to keep up
My biggest area of complaint about the Samsung Chromebook is performance. In short, it struggles under a load, especially when there are many browser tabs open.

For example, text sometimes arrived sluggishly in a long Google Docs word-processing document, and paging up and down through even simple, moderately long documents could be excruciating. Another problem: a YouTube video playing a song in the background paused when I tabbed away to another task. Another video stuttered while I was scrolling in Google Docs.

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My current favorite browser torture test, panning across my nine columns of Twitter feeds in the TweetDeck Web app, could be slow on the Chromebook. And something I hadn't seen before: initiating a new tweet often took the Chromebook 5 or 6 seconds before a window appeared where I could type. You can forget about doing any serious photo or video editing, as well.

The Chromebook must reload older tabs that haven't been used in a while. That's a fair strategy for devoting limited memory to the task at hand, but it happens more often than I'd like -- when revisiting The New York Times or Hipmunk sites after just a half hour away, for example.

Closing down tabs to keep it to a half dozen seemed to help, though. And I have seen firsthand that Google really does improve the operating system steadily with its six-week update cycle, so today's problems could ease with future releases of the operating system.

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Really? No right-Delete key?
I'd like to share a couple of comments here on Chromebooks in general, which I generally use for more than 10 hours a week for work and personal tasks. Perhaps I'm a relic from a bygone age, but I really miss the right Delete button so common on Windows keyboards but missing from Chromebooks and MacBooks. I certainly type text more than the average person, so maybe I feel this pain more acutely, but even with e-mails and Facebook posts it's very handy not to have to position your cursor exactly right to delete text.

I also wish there were a way to set the keyboard repeat rate and the delay (too long for my tastes) before a key held down will start repeating. And for a company as global as Google, it's a shame there's no way to get accented characters through a long press, a feature I love in OS X or using the SwiftKey Android keyboard.

Keyboard fans also should learn that Page Down and Page Up keys can be simulated with the Alt-down-arrow and Alt-up-arrow combinations, and you can move the cursor to the beginning or end of a line of text by using Ctrl-Alt-up arrow and Ctrl-Alt-down arrow.

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There's no Caps Lock button, and you probably won't miss it. In its place is a search key -- this is a Google device, after all. Pressing it will pop up the grid of icons in the apps launcher. You can arrow around the grid to launch an app, or if you start typing it behaves like Chrome's Omnibox, which is to say it will open a Web page or launch a Google search. (You can change the default search engine if you prefer Bing or other alternatives.)

Confusingly for people who are used to Windows 7 and Windows 8 or OS X's Spotlight function, Google Drive documents don't show in the search results list. Perhaps that'll arrive in a future update, though -- Google has just begun a field trial in which Google Drive documents appear in Google search results.

Overall, the Samsung Chromebook is a solid device for the price when used for occasional Web tasks, especially for Google-centric people.

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