Pros: Extremely-lightweight, excellent battery-life, blazing browser-speed, nice form factor, great keyboard, ridiculously inexpensive
Cons: no native software can be loaded, limited offline capability, keyboard lacks backlighting
For several months my 5-year-old Gateway laptop has increasingly been experiencing annoying to serious performance issues. Among the annoying issues is the sticky key situation. Several letters and characters require a very deliberate (and slow) depression to register.
On the serious end of things have been the shut-downs and “fatal errors” necessitating me to run Gateway Repair to restore Windows Vista to operating condition.
Considering I spend a minimum of 5 hours a day pounding away on my keyboard, this Gateway owes me nothing. But it’s been obvious for some time now that I needed to replace it. So I’ve been looking at everything available, from desk-top replacement machines, Ultra-books, MacBooks and finally Chromebooks.
I’ve been following the development of Chromebooks for a couple of years now. For those not familiar with Chromebooks, we’re talking about a small-form notebook computer that runs on Google's Chrome OS rather than Windows or Apple’s OSX. In use it appears to be the Chrome browser that most of us are familiar with, on steroids.
Instead of relying (or requiring) native software such as MS Office, Photoshop, Anti-virus software, etc. be loaded and maintained on the machine, the Chromebook gives (limits) its user access to cloud-based apps (and storage) to get things done. Essential in this equation is access to the Internet. Without it, the functionality of a Chromebook is greatly diminished.
So, my early impressions of Chromebooks were they were far too limiting especially when their prices were those of a mid-tier Windows laptop. But when late last fall, Samsung introduced its ARM-powered wi-fi-only 11.6” Chromebook for just $249 I started to take note once again. Within the first couple of days both Google Play and Amazon were sold out. I apparently had some time to think about the ways in which I use my computer and read some of the earliest reviews on this new Samsung Chromebook model, and of course wait.
It occurred to me that over the last few years my use of my laptop free of the Internet was virtually nil. I’m a writer for several Internet sites. On a few occasions I can recall opening up MS Word during an Internet outage and writing an article or essay. But the only time I could specifically remember was a period of 4 days sometime in 2009. Other than visiting the Internet sites for whom I write I do a fair amount of online shopping, online banking and bill paying. I’m a voracious reader of Google News and comment frequently on articles I’m led to. And while I have somewhat dated Photoshop software living on my laptop I can’t recall the last time I opened it offline.
A couple of years ago, one of the sites I work with started to make use of Google Docs as a means of updating and sharing spreadsheets of editorial assignments and progress reports. Early on I was frustrated by Google Docs but over time as I got more acclimated to it and Google consistently enhanced it I grew more comfortable with its use. With my resident software getting older (MS Office 2007 and Photoshop 6) I was starting to anticipate costly upgrades of my software. Could I be just the type of user Google had in mind for a Chromebook?
During the wait I had several philosophical and practical conversations with some of my geekiest friends. “But dude, you have to be connected to the Internet to use it.” was one of the most common reactions I received. So when I asked the last time they were on their laptop offline, they themselves were somewhat stunned by their responses that usually started out something like “...Uhhhh”. Since the wait seemed to go on forever, I started to think deeper thoughts.
If at the dawn of the PC age, we had the kind of high speed Internet we have today, would there have been a need for native software residing on our hard drives? Before I could put my brain in an endless loop pondering the question, Samsung Chromebooks were again available. They were in stock through Google Play, Amazon and Best Buy. By this time I had pretty much decided to at least give the Chomebook a try. But first, I wanted to get at least a brief “hands-on”. I called my friend at Best Buy. No, they didn’t have any in stock for sale at the store, but they did have a “training unit” there that I could play with.
Samsung Chromebook at a Glance
The Chromebook predictably operates on Google's ChromeOS, a browser-based operating system. It features an 11.6" LED/LCD screen with a maximum resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels, powered by a Samsung Exynos 1.7Ghz 5250 Dual Core Processor, 2GB DDR3L RAM and a 16GB SSD. Additional local storage can be added with an SD, SDHC or SDXC card up to 128GB in size.
The primary storage for the Samsung Chromebook is the 100GB (free for 2 years) cloud storage on Google Drive.
This "laptop" has 2 USB ports (2.0 & 3.0), Bluetooth 3.0 and HDMI output. At less than 2.5lb and about the size of a regular 8 1/2" x 11" piece of paper and only .7” thick, the Chromebook is about as mobile as an iPad or similar tablet. It connects to the Internet via built-in dual band Wi-Fi 802.11 a/b/g/n. It features a full-sized 74-key keyboard (chiclet-style) optimized for the web. Power is supplied by a 2-cell 4080mAh Lithium battery rated at 6.5+ hours.
The Samsung Chromebook also provides a 0.3MP VGA web-cam, microphone and stereo speakers that provide loud, but predictably less than full spectrum sound.
To give me the full Chromebook experience we restored the Chromebook to factory settings and replicated as best we could the unboxing/set-up experience. Yeah, I know it seems overly generous on Best Buy’s part, so I guess this is where I should tell you that I negotiated a very generous discount and agreed to purchase the unit at an open box price, but registered as a full retail purchase complete with a new full warranty and a 30 day return period.
After powering up the Chromebook for the first time, the Chrome logo appeared on the screen and I was prompted to select a language, keyboard and finally select a network. A network connection is necessary to complete the set-up. After accepting the terms and conditions, the Chromebook checked for updates. Since it had been restored to factory settings there were updates waiting and it took about a minute to get the latest version of ChromeOS.
Since I am already a Google User I entered my account and password to sign-in. I was greeted with a well executed Getting Started Guide and a tutorial introducing me to my new Chromebook. Opening the browser I found all of my bookmarks, apps and preferences, mail synced with my other Chrome using devices. In this case, my Gateway laptop and my HTC Rezound Phone. Start to finish set-up time took just 7 minutes.
Operating Characteristics & Impressions
From a cold start, the Chromebook boots in 7 - 8 seconds. This compares to one of our laptops running Windows 7 that normally takes between 45 seconds to just over a minute for a full boot. Comparing it to my Windows Vista machine is simply cruel. A cold start on my Vista machine usually affords me an opportunity to make lunch and brew a pot of coffee, but you probably knew that.
Clicking on the Chrome icon brings up a new tab on the browser. Chrome browser users will feel at home. The cursor is controlled by a highly responsive trackpad. Perhaps not Apple responsive, but among the best I’ve used on Windows based systems. I’m not a fan of trackpads, but I can say I didn’t hate the experience. Still I lost no time connecting my Dell 5-button Bluetooth Travel Mouse.
Already having a collection of Chrome Apps, I called up Google Drive and all my Docs, Spreadsheets, Pictures and Music was there. Opening up an existing Doc I was able to go to work on it utilizing Google Docs directly from the drive. I say drive, but really we’re talking about cloud storage. At this point only my documents were also being stored locally on the 16GB SSD. I had yet to install my 64GB SDXC card. While working in Google Drive your work is saved continuously. Add a character and it’s saved in 2 seconds and synced to all devices logged into your account.
The 74-key keyboard is full-sized, nicely spaced chiclets with excellent responsiveness. At first glance it appears to be identical to the typical Windows keyboard. A closer look reveals no Function Keys along the top row. In their place are “web-centric” controls. Back & Forward Keys, Page Refresh, Full Screen, Next Window, Dim Screen, Bright Screen, Mute and Volume Control Keys. In place of the Cap Locks key, a Search key is present. Caps Lock can be accomplished by hitting Alt./Search or by “re-programming” the key in Advanced Settings. The Search Key seems a bit redundant since a search can be launched directly from the URL bar of the browser.
As a writer, I rate this keyboard very highly. Whether you’re an accomplished touch typist or a six finger typist like me, this keyboard is a joy to use.
One shortcoming of the keyboard, particularly given the extreme mobility of the Chromebook is the lack of backlit keys. But, given the $249 price tag, the absence is easily understood.
The 11.6” LED HD Screen has a maximum resolution of 1366 x 768 pixels. Text is crisp and easy to read even outdoors thanks to the matte finish of the screen. While resolution matches that of the 11.6” MacBook Air or entry level Asus Ultrabooks, colors seem a little washed out at maximum brightness in screen to screen comparisons. But viewing the Chromebook by itself, most users will have little to complain about. Compared to my old Gateway MT6840, the Chromebook screen shines particularly when being used outdoors.
Since the Chromebook doesn’t run resident native software such as MS Office, OpenOffice, Photoshop, etc. it relies on Apps in much the same way as our Smartphones. The Chrome Web Store currently has over 10,000 apps that fall within the categories: Business Tools, Education, Entertainment, Games, Lifestyle, Productivity Social & Communication and Utilities. Some apps are developed by Google while others are third party apps. While the great majority of apps are meant to be used while the Chromebook is connected to the Internet, there are now hundreds of apps that provide at least limited offline functionality.
For those users who are hesitant to rely on Google Docs for their word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation work, ChromeOS offers a Skydrive App for those more comfortable with MS software.
The earliest Chromebooks were powered by Intel Atom and Celeron processors. The new Samsung Series 3 Chromebooks were designed to use Samsung’s Exynos 1.7Ghz 5250 Dual Core Processor. A small percentage of the original Apps (most notably Netflix) were incompatible with the ARM architecture of the Samsung processor. Samsung and Netflix promised a fix and I’m happy to say that as of yesterday morning Netflix is fully functional on my Chromebook.
Since Google’s Chrome OS lacks even basic drivers for printers, printing can be handled in one of two ways. The easiest is to purchase a printer that supports Google’s Cloud Print. Earlier this year I bought an inexpensive Brother MFC J430w to augment our Brother HL-2270DW B&W Laser Printer for those times when my daughter needed a color printer. At the time I hardly noticed that the MFC J430w featured Cloud Print. Since both the printer and Chromebook reside on the same network, the Chromebook readily found the printer and wireless printing is a snap.
Our Brother HL-2270DW, our workhorse printer, while wireless doesn’t directly support Google Cloud Print, but as long as it’s online and connected to a printer on the same network as the Chromebook I can direct a print job to it by selecting it from the Google Cloud Print Dialog Box. With four other computers in the house, all equipped with the Google Cloud Print App, it’s a sure thing that at least one of them is online and capable of directing a print job to the HL-2270DW.
My Experience (A Summary)
During the month that I’ve been using it, this Samsung Series 3 Chromebook has become my primary computer for daily use. On only one occasion, when trying to log into a ZDnet Podcast did the absence of Silverlight cramp my style. So I switched to my wife’s computer for that activity. A small price to pay.
In general I’m impressed with the system performance. Even now with 12 tabs opened on my browser the system doesn’t lag. My need to backup my computer’s programs and files has been eliminated. That’s a good thing too, because I’ve never been terribly attentive to backing up. Finally, after suffering a disk failure a couple of years ago I began subscribing to Carbonite to automatically backup my computer. With the Chromebook, there’s no need to part with the $59 annual fee.
There’s no need for me to purchase and keep up-to-date any anti-virus/malware software, another savings. Nor does my Chromebook become bogged down by this resource hungry software.
Is the $249 Samsung Chromebook for everyone? No. This isn’t the machine for true power-users and hard-core gamers who have need of resident native software. But for the overwhelming majority of laptop owners, the Samsung Chromebook might do very nicely for most if not all of their computing needs.
Its combination of a first class keyboard, small and light form factor, all-day battery power and lag-free performance for less than the cost of your next on contract 32MB Smartphone make it a compelling buy. I recommend it.