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Samsung Chromebook Series 5 review: Samsung Chromebook Series 5

Samsung Chromebook Series 5

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Joshua Goldman
Joshua_Goldman.jpg

Joshua Goldman

Managing Editor / Advice

Josh Goldman helps people find the best laptop at the best price -- from simple Chromebooks to high-end gaming laptops. He's been writing about and reviewing consumer technology and software for more than two decades.

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8 min read

Editors' note (October 18, 2012): The Samsung Chromebook reviewed here has been replaced by a newer $249 model.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 (Wi-Fi, silver)
5.9

Samsung Chromebook Series 5

The Good

The <b>Samsung Chromebook Series 5</b> is a small, attractive Netbook with long battery life, true instant-on Web access, and enough computing to use the Internet.

The Bad

The Series 5 is expensive for its features and abilities, and using it can be frustrating depending on your wireless signal strength.

The Bottom Line

Despite solid hardware, great battery life, and fast startup, we can't recommend the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 until and unless Google improves the Chrome OS.

Editors' note: In late August 2011, Google enabled offline support for Gmail and Google Docs. After hands-on testing of these updates, however, we can verify that the upgrades are not nearly robust enough to change our opinion of the Chromebook at this time. Read New Offline Gmail, Docs won't save Chromebooks.

For anybody who loves tech and gadgets, it's not hard to see the appeal of the Samsung Chromebook Series 5. 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), seamless 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 is 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.

Price as reviewed / Starting price $499 / $429
Processor 1.66GHz Intel Atom dual-core N570
Memory 2GB, 1,333MHz DDR3
Hard drive 16GB solid-state drive
Chipset Intel NM10 Express
Graphics NM10 Graphics Chipset (integrated)
Operating system Windows 7 Home Premium
Dimensions (WD) 11.6 x 8.6 inches
Height 0.8 inches
Screen size (diagonal) 12.1 inches
System weight / Weight with AC adapter 6.2/6.9 pounds
Category Mainstream

And that goes for anyone who uses the Series 5. Should someone else want to use it, 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 now defunct and unsupported Google Gears to work offline. Google says Docs, Calendar, and Mail will all be available this summer, so that's something; we'll re-evaluate this review when this offline support rolls out. But for other tasks that require or simply work better when installed on the computer, you're out of luck. For more information on the ins and outs of using the Chrome OS, check out our full review.

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, and as soon as you regain a connection it will automatically save. Still, you won't be able to keep working while offline, which, if you're traveling, can lead to a lot of downtime. Verizon 3G mobile broadband service is included with the $499 Series 5 (the Wi-Fi-only version is $429), so you do have that as a backup (not very helpful if you're in a spot without coverage, though). 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. There's no contract, so if you need more or less data one month to the next, you can change it or just stop all together.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 Average for category [Netbook]
Video VGA VGA
Audio headphone/microphone jack headphone/microphone jacks
Data 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader 2 USB 2.0, SD card reader
Expansion None None
Networking 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, 3G mobile broadband Ethernet, 802.11 b/g/n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth
Optical drive None None

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. It is mostly plastic, however, which might turn some people off. 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--run the Internet. Still, how enjoyable your Web experience is, is dependent on your hardware. We know the idea was to keep the price low and the battery life long, but for a first effort, Samsung probably should have used a more powerful processor/graphics combination. By the way, the memory is soldered to the motherboard; you get 2GB and that's it--no upgrades.

As for connectivity and ports, there's an SD card slot in front (it supports SD, SDHC, SDXC, and MMC cards), 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. The Wi-Fi radio is quick to lock on to a signal, as is the mobile broadband receiver. Oddly, though, there's no Bluetooth for connecting a wireless headset for voice or video chat. Spec for spec, the Series 5 measures up well against its $349 Wi-Fi-only Acer competitor, though the Acer gets points for having an HDMI output.

On the other hand, the Series 5 has a slightly larger, brighter, 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.

Worth noting, too, is that currently the only file systems supported are FAT32, Ext2, Ext3, Ext4, VFAT, UDF, and NTFS; the Series 5 doesn't seem to recognize anything larger than 1TB. If you need to connect to traditional network-attached storage drives, you can't. Using something like Pogoplug should work, though.

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 in all, it's a good layout. The touch pad is equally nice.

A long battery life is one of the big promises of Chromebooks, and the Series 5 did provide. Samsung quotes 8.5 hours of continuous use as determined by an internal Google battery test. That test combines Web browsing, e-mail, using Web apps, and watching videos while using the screen's default brightness and Wi-Fi--all with no idle time. We ran a video playback test and came back with an average of 6 hours and 25 minutes, so it's fair to say less demanding use with idle time will get you up to a full day. (By the way, the body is sealed making fast battery replacement impossible.) The Series 5 boots remarkably quickly: from off to login was 8.4 seconds in our tests and another 3.9 from login to browser. As promised, it resumes nearly instantly, too.

Performance is mixed. We had no problems streaming music (the speakers sound really good for the Series 5's size) and YouTube clips played fine, too, even while we worked. 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 choppy, 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; if Chrome doesn't support something, you're stuck.

However, one of the most attractive things about the Chrome OS is that your Chromebook's performance can get better overnight. Google will continue to enhance and refine the OS, which should, in turn, make the Series 5 more capable.

Conclusion
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 not be that easy. Forget about explaining things like not being able to connect the Series 5 directly to a printer. But, really, that's all on Google and not Samsung. The Series 5 works as promised and looks good doing it. However, for its price you can buy a more capable Windows Netbook or laptop--even if you just want something for couch use. You can do a lot of things with one of those (or a smartphone, an Android tablet, or iPad for that matter). Right now, though, there are just a lot of things you can't do with a Chromebook.

Samsung Chromebook Series 5 (Wi-Fi, silver)
5.9

Samsung Chromebook Series 5

Score Breakdown

Design 6Features 3Performance 4Battery 8Support 6
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