Samsung Chromebook Series 5 review: Samsung Chromebook Series 5

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.

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.

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