Are you ready to use Google’s cloud-based “Chromebook” computer? Better yet, is the Samsung Series 5 ready for you?
Google dreams of a world in which people are free from the limitations of a “computer.” It’s a world in which people take cloud computing to the highest level and rely on only an Internet connection to accomplish their tasks. Rather than tying all your documents, photos, or applications to one device, users make the web their computer. The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook is one of the first products that attempts to realize that dream.
Available with a white plastic covering or a Titan Silver coloring, the Samsung Series 5 is a new class of device known as Chromebooks. They are much like the less-powerful-than-a-laptop netbooks, but rely almost entirely on Google Chrome OS. Using a mix of sophisticated web apps, HTML5, and and a higher-powered version of the Chrome browser, Chrome OS aims to be a fast and sensible operating system.
Start time is measured in a few seconds rather than the minute or two that you might wait for Windows or Mac to boot. Because everything is done online and the average computer user spends most of his or her time on the web, that is Chrome’s primary focus. This speed proves handy, but is it enough?
Hardware: A healthy helping of “meh”
The Chromebook experience, by design, cannot make users forget about their mighty desktops and top-of-the-line laptops. Anyone seeking to replace their latest Macbook or Windows laptop will be disappointed to learn that the Samsung Series 5 bears the specifications of laptops they used a few years ago. Do not look to this as a laptop replacement; look to it as a netbook replacement. After all, the point of a netbook is to be portable and perform tasks swiftly. Thus, Chromebooks are for people who live inside the web. This is for people looking to read the news, post on Facebook, watch online video, and access other cloud services.
Chromebooks are the gateway to the cloud, but it still would have been nice of Samsung to make the internals of the Series 5 as favorable as the company made the outer-shell. The Chromebook is amazingly light at only 3.3 pounds and 8 inches thick, so it will tuck nicely into your carrying case. Other specs of this portable device include:
- 12.1-inch non-gloss screen looks bright and beautiful at 1280×800
- A meager amount of storage space (16GB) and memory (2GB)
- 1.66 GHz dual-core processor
- Up to 8.5 hours battery life
- HD Webcam for video chat, built-in digital microphone and stereo speakers
- Two USB ports capable of charging mobile phones and accessories, connecting digital cameras and media storage devices
- Removable media cards (SD, SDHC, MMC) for photos, videos, music and documents
Data-entry can be a joy most of the times, though it’s sometimes vexing. The keyboard has an excellent design with shortcuts for navigating back or forward, performing web searches, going into full-screen, or launching new tabs with the click of a button. The shortcuts are a welcome change from the complicated and packed keyboards I’ve relied on for years. However, the trackpad can be unresponsive and do a terrible job of responding to gestures or right-clicks. Users must immediately dive into the settings and adjust sensitivity until they find the right set-up for them, but that’s still no guarantee for success.
Software: It’s sort-of super
So why use a Chromebook if the hardware doesn’t exactly keep pace with other options on the market? Well, because Chrome OS can be liberating. Reliance on the web means that users have a simpler experience in most regards. Have you grown tired of the long process of setting up a computer, figuring out which pre-installed software is slowing you down and can be deleted, downloading virus software, and downloading drivers?
Chrome OS is the opposite of that entire process. Power on the computer, which loads in seconds, enter your Google credentials, and then you are on the Internet ready to take charge. There are no pre-installed software or belabored questions. Why download drivers when your printer can be set-up with Google Cloud Print and other newer peripherals are likely to be compatible in the USB slot? (Bluetooth devices are not supported and not all USB devices will be compatible.) If you’re someone who tires of constant update requests from Mac or Windows, worry not; Chrome OS updates automatically and frequently to improve the experience.
The Series 5 also extends the reach of the thousands of applications in the Chrome Webstore. Within Chrome on a desktop, most are just scripts that make the browser better. Within Chrome OS, many of those apps include code that make them accessible offline and serve as the lifeline for many computing needs:
- Easily edit photos (Picnik) or browse them (Picasa)
- Read or write documents (Google Docs)
- Master notes and tasks (Springpad)
- Play games designed specifically for the platform.
There will be times when you wish for the comforts of your familiar desktop experience. Media playback can be troublesome depending on which sites you visit, and some web services you frequent may lack the necessary plugins to function. Consumers will starve for a quality video editor and the file browser is limited in comparison to its desktop rivals, but Chrome OS may serve as a good-enough platform for the average user. The average user will have to abandon some old habits for that to happen. The limited storage space means that they will have to rely on Facebook/flickr/Picasa for storing and sharing photos, and embracing Rdio or Slacker will be a must if you care to listen to music.
Chrome users also need abandon the familiarity of a dock or Start Menu. In its place will be a list of tabs and the ability to switch between windows by tapping a button, so there is an element of multitasking to be had. Those who embrace Google services will also get an always-alert experience because Notifications pop-up when new Gmail or GTalk messages arrive. (You can also auto-sync bookmarks, history, and more from other devices.) I find this to be a more than fair trade because there’s far less effort in switching between tasks when I need only press a button rather than look to the screen and reach for a mouse. Moreover, the full-screen mode proves handy when it comes time to focus on one task and remove distractions.
Conclusion: Are you ready for Chrome OS?
It takes a special breed of person to use Chrome OS. Any seasoned computer vet or power user attempting to make this their primary computer may discover that a Huffy cannot replace a Mercedes. The Series 5 asks the user to sacrifice many of the comforts that have become standard in Mac OS and Windows 7, only to offer web-based solutions that are not nearly as elegant or swift.
The Series 5 will start faster than the average netbook and is able to keep pace in the most basic of tasks. However, it’s hardware limitations and comparatively expensive price make it difficult to recommend. For the $429 US dollars that Samsung asks consumers to pay for a Series 5 Chromebook, someone could spend a little more and get a low-end laptop. (The price will be adjusted for Canadians.) The buyer could also get a decent netbook for that price if portability is still the primary concern. That laptop would not be able to match the Series 5’s 8 hours of battery life, and the netbook couldn’t match its simplicity, but both would be able to outpace current generation Chromebooks in other areas.
So who is left to gobble-up all of those pretty Series 5 Chromebooks? Someone free of the old ways of computing; someone who wants the web and just the web; someone who values portability and speed above all else. I could picture many of my friends and families embracing the Series 5 because they do not need to store gigs of music, edit video, or find a PhotoShop alternative like I do. All they require is a solid machine to check their email and browse the web for a few hours.
I’ve heard people ask “Are you ready for Chrome OS?” Consumers should ask “Is Chrome OS ready for me?” The answer will only be yes if you are willing to give the current generation of Chromebooks a light load to bear. Anyone seeking more than a speedy, enhanced web experience will receive a disappointing reply.
Disclosure: the Chromebook I used to write this review was given to me for free by attending Google I/O 2011. That had no bearing on the objectivity of the review.