Editors' note (October 18, 2012): In addition to the Chromebook reviewed here, Samsung now offers a newer $249 model.
What is a Chromebook? One year after the debut of the first wave, most people still don't know what it is. The concept sounds cutting-edge: instead of Windows or Mac OS, just run a light browser-based "operating system" that offers access to the full range of cloud-based applications and services, including those of Google's own capable ecosystem (Gmail, Google Docs, Google Drive, Calendar, and the like). And do it all on a thin and light 12-inch laptop that swaps features (no hard drive, no CD drive) for good battery life.
Indeed, the name "Chromebook" comes from the fact that the laptop is running the so-called Chrome OS -- basically an embedded version of Google's Chrome Web browser. If you've used the Chrome browser on Windows or Mac, you know that it asks you to log in, and then it syncs your bookmarks, Google identity, Google Docs, and Google Drive files. The Chromebook works the same way, except there's no way out of that browser. Apps can run on a Chromebook, but they're Web apps; they load through the browser.
That's not to say the Chromebook can't do anything offline: it can read files and play movies and music anytime. And Chrome OS has gotten better at file compatibility PowerPoint, Word docs, Excel files, ZIP files, and PDFs all load well and look great. You can't edit documents without first uploading to Google Docs, though. Photos can be viewed and even lightly edited with brightness and contrast adjustments, rotation, and cropping. The files can be resaved or uploaded to Picasa.
Our experience with the
A year later, the new Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550 has slightly improved hardware and improved Chrome OS software, but its price -- a whopping $449, or $549 with a Verizon 3G wireless antenna -- is flat-out crazy.
Here's the biggest problem with the Chromebook: the hardware's fine, and the simplified Web-based OS is clever, and even versatile if you don't mind its limitations. Still, it's a radically reduced subset of what you can get on a Windows or Mac laptop...or even an iPad or Android tablet, for that matter. Yet, it costs more than a new
If the Chromebook were $99, this could have been a revolutionary product. As it currently stands, it's merely an invitation to pay a lot of money to be part of a Google experiment. And you're the test subject.
|Price as reviewed / starting price||$549 / $449|
|Hard drive||16GB SSD|
|Operating system||Google Chrome OS|
|Dimensions (WD)||11.25x8.3 inches|
|Screen size (diagonal)||12.1 inches|
|System weight / Weight with AC adapter||3.1 pounds / 3.7 pounds|
Chrome OS and its interface
Chrome OS has improved considerably since last year, resulting in an instant-on ecosystem that feels a lot more compelling than before. Booting up the first time is lightning-quick (about 7 seconds), and once you're logged in under your Google ID, your mail, docs, contacts, and any purchased apps are available to access or download. Our review version of the Series 5 550 Chromebook has Chrome OS 19.0.1084.50, the most recent version. The confusing numbering isn't as easy to understand as Android's candy shop-flavored updates, not by a long shot.
File support, a complaint we had from last year, is much improved, with the ability to handle more file types and even zipped files. That's no surprise to anyone who already uses Gmail or Google Docs, and the end result helps the Chromebook experience. Still, you're limited as to what you can do with those files. Downloading a Word doc to the Chromebook's internal storage gives you a read-only document. Same goes for PowerPoint and Excel. Images can be lightly edited.
Files stored on an SD card or USB flash drive get treated the same way. It's not easy to attach these files to an e-mail, either. Nor can you simply drag files across to an SD card, even when in the File Manager viewing window. Apple's iOS may not show you a centralized file storage system, but Chrome OS doesn't do anything with the opportunity. You can hit Control-C to copy and Control-V to paste files from internal storage to an SD card and vice versa, but it's not intuitive. Similarly, clicking on a document doesn't automatically import it into Google Docs: you can upload files from an SD card, USB drive, or internal storage via Google Docs and Drive (I was able to upload videos, pictures, PDFs, and Word and Excel docs), but you'd have to broker the upload via the Web app.
Chrome OS supports ZIP, TXT, PDF, HTML, MP4, M4V, M4A, MP3, OGV, OGM, OGG, OGA, WEBM, WAV, and "most image file types" according to Google. That proved true in my tests. External drives can be read as well, with Ext2, Ext3, Ext4, FAT, UDF, HFS Plus, ISO9660 (read only), and NTFS file formats supported.
The Chrome Web Store, where any apps are downloaded from, is also improved in offerings from a year ago. You can get a surprising number of apps here: games, entertainment, and productivity apps can be downloaded, many for free, but they all launch from within a browser frame...because they're all essentially Web apps. Some can be used offline, like Angry Birds, which launched fine with Wi-Fi off, once the game had been downloaded for offline use. The offline experience, as a whole, is still best defined as a mixed bag. The Kindle's Cloud reader claims an ability to locally download and "pin" a book for offline reading, but sometimes the Chrome app didn't open again when I went offline. An included Scratchpad app for offline note-taking sometimes loaded offline, and sometimes produced an endless spinning wheel.
Some Chrome apps didn't run on this Chromebook even when it was online. Ubisoft's From Dust, a much-heralded game, has a Chrome Web app. It's meant for laptops and desktops with dedicated graphics, though: running it on this Chromebook gave me a "cannot run" error message. In the future, it would help if the Chrome Web Store at least delineated which apps are meant to run on Chrome OS devices. From Dust might be a lone exception, but it's indicative that Chrome, as an ecosystem, has its sights set on the browser market as much as the Chromebook/Chromebox space.
Apps can unlock the power of an otherwise somewhat closed-off Chrome OS, but getting them to do exactly what you want is hit or miss. Technically, that's the same situation you'd face on iOS with its App Store -- finding an app that helps unlock a feature you desire -- but the App Store, like Google Play, has a lot more options to choose from.
The whole Chrome OS user interface keeps trying to make you feel like there's a real set of windows and a desktop (there's a customizable background image), but this mostly amounts to opening and adjusting Chrome windows, which all function like Chrome browser windows. Tabbed windows can be split apart, and windows can be snapped into a grid or minimized to the bottom dock bar. Trying to suss out which tabbed windows are Web pages and which are apps can get confusing, and for me it sometimes led to accidental closing of open programs.
It's worth noting that Chrome OS in its current form still doesn't handle being offline all that well, nor does it offer any integration with Google Drive, Google's recently launched cloud storage ecosystem. Chrome OS version 20 is meant to include offline Google Docs support and Google Drive integration. Both should help make a Chromebook better to use, but we can't review what doesn't exist yet.
I applaud Chrome OS and its simplicity, but if you want a taste of it, here's my advice on how to get it for free: download the Chrome browser on your computer, and then install your choice of apps from the Chrome Web Store. There, you're done.
Samsung's actually made an attractive little 12-inch laptoplike device here, down to a crisp, matte 12.1-inch 1,200x800-pixel-resolution screen, a comfortable, wide keyboard, and a large multitouch clickpad. At 3.1 pounds, this Chromebook feels like a lightweight ultraportable, or a thicker ultrabook. It's easy to slip in a bag, but it's not nearly as small or light as an iPad. Silver plastic covers the exterior and interior, but the build is solid and flex-free.
The island-style raised keyboard features some keys you'll never see on a regular Windows or Mac laptop; a magnifying-glass icon opens up a new tab for Google search, and dedicated buttons for screen brightness, volume, page back/forth/reload, and full-screen toggle line the top. Google's documentation shows a frightening number of keyboard shortcuts, should you be inspired to learn them.
A power button on the right boots up or shuts down the Chromebook quickly. You're always logged in under your Google ID, but you can log out or choose a Guest mode. Booting up takes just seconds, faster than any ultrabook or smartphone I've ever used. In 7.4 seconds I reached the log-in screen, and a couple of seconds after that was fully online. It's as close to instant-on as a mobile device can be.
|Samsung Chromebook Series 5 550||Average for category [Netbook]|
|Audio||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone combo jack||Stereo speakers, headphone/microphone jacks|
|Data||2 USB 2.0, SD card reader||3 USB 2.0, SD card reader|
|Networking||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, optional Verizon 3G||Ethernet, 802.11n Wi-Fi, Bluetooth|
Samsung's latest-generation Chromebook offers 4GB of RAM, up from 2GB a year ago, and 16GB onboard SSD storage. Two USB ports, a headphone jack, a DisplayPort (compatible with DVI, HDMI, and VGA with a dongle), an SD card slot, and even a dedicated Ethernet jack with a pull-down hinge make their appearance, just like you'd expect on a regular 11- or 12-inch ultraportable laptop. The USB port easily supported a two-button-click mouse I had lying around, and my iPhone could be plugged in and charged, although Chrome OS, to no great surprise, wouldn't import my photos. (You can import photos from an Android device.) Oh, and a small but annoying fact about that SD card slot: an inserted SD card juts out instead of lying flush, which hurts the concept, at least aesthetically, of using a high-capacity SD card to boost your internal storage.
Wireless management is easy, and a simplified pop-up window of wireless settings helps manage networks. I tried hopping off Wi-Fi and using the Verizon 3G data connection (built in to the $549 version of the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook, but not present on the $449 Wi-Fi-only model) to set up "free" 3G wireless, and the process was generally painless. Verizon's page never asks for a credit card, but you're limited to 100MB of free data a month for two years under the terms of the deal provided with this Chromebook. You can buy extra 3G data as needed. You can burn through 100MB easily if you're doing anything more than bare-bones e-mail and document editing. Also, this "free" data isn't free; as mentioned, you're paying $100 just to get the privilege of that option to access Verizon broadband. It's a nice extra, but if you're spending up for that always-available 3G connection, you're likely to be find it very frustrating compared with a more traditional data plan.
An onboard HD Webcam worked well with Gmail's onboard video chat, and with Google+ and its Hangout feature for multiple simultaneous chats. Video quality looked as good as on a mainstream laptop. Google's notification system for incoming Web chats is a little odd, though; I never received any pop-up notifications or sounds as you do with Apple's FaceTime or on a laptop using Skype.
The onboard Intel Celeron processor isn't clearly labeled or documented on any of the Chromebook's spec sheets; it's called an "Intel Core" processor in our review documentation. While it's better than the last Series 5 Chromebook's Atom processor, it doesn't fall far from the tree. It's hard to judge something like performance on a Chromebook because what you're doing on a Chromebook boils down, largely, to advanced Web browsing. On the whole, it's a better and faster experience than on last year's Samsung Chromebook. The processor and the added RAM allow more windows to be open at once and better handling of documents and files: 1080p video can stream smoothly,albeit at 1,280x800 pixels, and some basic Web-based games run passably. Also, Web sites like Netflix now run on Chrome OS, too. Swapping between programs is easy, but with beefier game downloads I saw some bog-down between apps.
A word on battery life: it wouldn't really matter if this Chromebook had a million hours of battery life. It wouldn't improve my opinion of the product, because I can't use it as a true go-anywhere device. Its inability to handle offline functions in any useful core capacity makes this more of a thin-client terminal than a portable computer. And, in those places where I can find Wi-Fi, I'm likely to find a power outlet. We couldn't get our standard battery drain test to work on this Chromebook, but Google claims 6.5 hours of battery life. My use of the Chromebook over a full day matched that claim.
The bottom line
There's no good reason to buy a Chromebook at this price. You can buy a small-screen tablet like the
Price would be one factor. If the Chromebook were $99, or even $199, its price would make it an instant consideration as a Netbook and tablet alternative. (Indeed, the Chromebox, the Chromebook's mini desktop sibling, initially seems more tempting at $329, but the cost advantage disappears if you don't already have a monitor, keyboard, and mouse to attach.) Convenience is another, but Chrome OS, while being easy to use, isn't really "easy." Too many apps don't work offline, and the limited design of Chrome OS makes it an experiment you have to be willing to buy into.
At this point, there's simply no reason to.