Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550 review: Is less more?
Chrome OS is an operating system designed to run one app: the web browser. As such, there is virtually nothing you can do on a laptop running Chrome OS that you can’t also do on a Windows, Mac, or Linux laptop with the Google Chrome web browser installed.
But that’s beside the point. The point of a Chromebook like the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550 is that for many people the web browser is the single most important app on any computer. So why waste system resources supporting anything but the browser?
The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550 boots in less than 10 seconds and resumes from sleep nearly instantly. The keyboard features keys designed specifically for web browser functions. Why press F5 to refresh a web page when you can just hit the refresh key?
Samsung’s second Chromebook features a faster processor, more memory, and generally faster performance than the original Series 5 Chromebook I reviewed in 2011. Chrome OS has also changed quite a bit in the past year. Google has added a taskbar and desktop and made it possible to view multiple browser windows side by side.
I’m still not sure Chromebooks are ready for prime time — but the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550 is certainly a lot more ready for early adopters of the cloud computing paradigm than the Samsung and Acer Chromebooks released in 2011. It’s faster, doesn’t freeze or crash as often, and feels more like a full-fledged laptop.
It also helps that there are more web apps offering desktop app-like functionality every day.
You can’t run Adobe Photoshop or Microsoft office on a Chromebook. But you can run web apps such as Aviary or Google Docs instead. There are a growing number of web apps that work like desktop apps — but since they’re hosted online you’ll never need to install an update. And your files and documents are stored online, so you can access them from any computer.
A Chromebook is also less vulnerable to malicious attacks than a Windows computer — because you never download and install any software on a Chromebook at all (unless you count operating system updates downloaded directly from Google).
There are a lot of things to like about a Chromebook like the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550. And if you spend most of your time on a computer using a web browser, it might be worth taking a leap.
But Chromebooks aren’t ready for everyone just yet. They’re little more than paperweights when you don’t have an internet connection handy. Printing is more complicated on a Chromebook than on a more traditional laptop. And with a starting price of $450, it may be hard to justify spending money on a computer that does less than a Windows, Mac, or Linux laptop… even if in this case, less is supposed to be a feature, rather than a bug.
Google and Samsung loaned me a Chromebook 550 to use for a few weeks while preparing this review.
A WiFi-only version of the Chromebook is available for $450, while a 3G model which comes with 100MB of free data from Verizon Wireless costs $550.
The first time you hit the power button on the Chromebook a screen will appear asking you to connect a wireless network and enter your Google user name and password, or create a new account if you don’t already have one.
Even the first boot only takes a few seconds and you can start using the Chromebook right away after logging in.
If you’ve used the Chrome web browser on a Windows, Mac, Linux, or Android device, logging in is all it takes to import your history, bookmarks, extensions, apps, and other settings. The first sync can take a few minutes, but you can go ahead and start surfing the web even before it’s finished.
When Chrome OS initially launched, there was nothing to see in the operating system except the web browser. It took up the full screen and the only difference between Chrome OS and the Chrome browser on other platforms was the inclusion of clock, wireless, and battery indicators in one corner.
Now those indicators have been moved to a taskbar at the bottom of the screen. It fades away when you’re not using it, but you can bring it up just by scrolling your mouse cursor to the bottom edge of the display.
You can tap the indicators to bring up sliders for screen brightness and volume, a wireless connection manager, and other tools.
The taskbar also shows a list of currently open browser windows, with favicons for each window letting you know which page is open in that window.
There’s also an Applications icon you can press to bring up a full list of available apps. It looks a lot like the app drawer in Android or an iOS home screen, with apps arranged along a grid.
You can tap any icon to launch an app, or right-click to pin an app to the launcher or access other advanced options.
On the left side of the taskbar there’s a space for you to a space for your pinned apps in the launcher area.
While the taskbar is one of the biggest changes Google made to Chrome OS this year, the company has also made a small but very important change: You don’t have to run the web browser as a full screen app anymore. You can open two or more browser windows and view them side by side, cascade them, or arrange them any way you like.
When I talk about apps, what I really mean are web pages. But these are web pages which you’ve saved to your account for easy access. Some of these apps also take advantage of special features in the web browser such as the ability to download information for offline access.
For instance, you can sync your device with Google Calendar so that you can view your calendar even when you don’t have an active internet connection.
But one of the biggest challenges presented by Chrome OS is the fact that most web apps aren’t available when you can’t access the web — and even those that are may not work properly if you haven’t synchronized your data first. A Chromebook is clearly designed to be used first and foremost with an internet connection, and will be of limited use in a subway, on an airplane, or in another environment where you may not have reliable internet access.
That said, I was surprised at just how much I was able to accomplish while using the Series 5 Chromebook 550. A few years ago I might have found it difficult to get any work done on a computer without Irfanview, GIMP, Microsoft Office or LibreOffice, and other tools I use for work. Today there are web apps that meet most of my needs — and Chrome OS even has a very basic image editor built in (as does the WordPress web app, so between the two of them I can crop and resize pictures without even relying on a third party web app).
If I still worked as a radio producer, a Chromebook might not be a great laptop replacement, since editing audio would be a bit of a headache. And I’m not sure I’d want to use a Chromebook to upload 1GB videos to YouTube when it would be faster and more efficient to use a Windows PC to transcode them to 100MB MP4 files first.
But during the few weeks that I’ve had a Chromebook around, I’ve found myself often grabbing it when I need to write a blog post, do some quick web browsing, or even watch some online video — because it’s the fastest, most responsive device in the house at the moment which has a decent keyboard.
It turns on almost as quickly as an Android tablet, but I can type about 100 words per minute on a Chromebook, while I’d be lucky to tap out 20 words in a minute on a tablet or phone with an on-screen keyboard.
Samsung’s $450 Chromebook has an all-plastic case with a metallic gray finish. The lid and palm rest area look like they’re covered in brushed aluminum, but that’s just a textured finish on the plastic.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The plastic case helps keep the price down, and the laptop is still reasonably thin, light, and attractive — although there’s a bit of flex in the keyboard area if you’re the sort of person that likes to hammer down hard on your keys.
The laptop measures 11.5″ x 8.5″ x 0.83″ and weighs just over 3 pounds. That makes it a hair thicker than a typical ultrabook, but if you placed the Series 5 Chromebook 550 next to an ultrabook you’d be forgiven for having a hard time telling the two apart.
Like an ultrabook the Chromebook has a sealed bottom panel — there’s no easy way to upgrade the memory or storage, or even replace the 51Whr battery.
Fortunately the laptop gets reasonably good battery life, with between 6 and 7 hours of run time. And unlike the original Samsung Series 5 Chromebook which had just 2GB of RAM, the new model has 4GB which seems to be more than enough for everyday computing in Chrome OS.
The laptop has just 16GB of storage thanks to a relatively small solid state disk — but that’s because you don’t need disk space to install files and Google wants you to use web storage for your documents, music, and other files.
Samsung’s new Chromebook is powered by a 1.3 GHz Intel Celeron 867 dual core processor with Intel HD 3000 graphics. It’s not exactly a speed demon, but it’s fast enough for web browsing — and offers a huge performance boost over the Intel Atom N570 chip that was used in last year’s model.
The laptop has a 12.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel display matte display. Samsung is one of the only PC makers that seems to make laptops with matte displays, and while they might not look as good on the store shelf (because they’re less shiny), they look a lot better outdoors or near a bright window (because they’re less shiny).
Unfortunately the viewing angles leave a lot to be desired. Colors wash out and the screen gets hard to see if you tilt back the screen more than a few degrees. Maybe that’s why the laptop lid doesn’t open very wide at all.
Viewing angles are much better from the side, which means you can probably watch a video with the person sitting in the seat next to you — as long as they’re about the same height. If their eyes are much higher or lower than yours, the screen will be practically invisible.
On the left side of the Chromebook you’ll find a power jack, a full-sized Ethernet port (with a little plastic hinge that drops down to accommodate an Ethernet adapter, a DisplayPort, USB 2.0 port, and headset jack.
The DisplayPort is the only video output, so if you want to connect an external monitor you’ll need to either make sure it supports this relatively new standard or get an adapter.
On the right you’ll find a second USB 2.0 port and an SD card reader which is covered by a little plastic door. Instead of popping open the door though, all you have to do to use a flash card is push it right into the door, which slides inward to make room for the SD card.
There are stereo speakers and several vents on the bottom of the laptop. The fans can get a bit loud at times, especially when you’re watching videos or performing other tasks that tax the CPU.
The speakers are reasonably loud and clear — but they’re laptop speakers. If you really want decent sound, plug in some headphones.
Around the back of the laptop you’ll find a SIM card slot on 3G capable models.
Samsung has been making 11 and 12 inch laptops for a while, so the company knows how to make a decent keyboard. The Series 5 Chromebook 550 has an island-style keyboard with flat black keys floating in a sea of grey plastic, with a little space between each key. I found typing to be reasonably comfortable and didn’t have any problems typing at full speed.
Something that sets a Chromebook apart from a typical laptop though, is the browser-specific keys. There’s no row of F keys above the row of number keys, for instance. Instead you have single-function keys such as forward, back, refresh, and full screen. There are also keys for adjusting the volume and screen brightness in this row.
On the left side of the keyboard you’ll also find a dedicated search key. This laptop does run an operating system designed by a search engine company, after all.
Unfortunately there are a few keys that aren’t on the keyboard which you might miss. There are no Page Up, Page Down, Home, End, or Del keys.
There are keyboard shortcuts for each of those functions. But they require far more keystrokes than seem absolutely necessary for keys that are so commonly used when surfing the web or writing documents or email messages.
Here are a few of those shortcuts:
- PgUp: Alt+Up arrow
- PgDn: Alt+Down arrow
- Home: Ctrl+Alt+Left arrow
- End: Ctrl+Alt+Right arrow
- Del: Alt+Backspace
You can also grab a screenshot by pressing Ctrl+the Windows key in the top row which normally lets you switch between browser windows.
Chromebook Forum has a much more detailed list of keyboard shortcuts – many of which don’t seem to be documented by Google or Samsung.
Below the keyboard is a large touchpad without any physical left or right buttons. You can use the entire surface to control a mouse cursor, and tap gently on the touchpad to click… sometimes. From time to time, I had to click repeatedly before anything would happen, and some actions only seem to work if you actually press down on the touchpad until you hear an audible click.
You can scroll up and down by placing two fingers on the touch surface and moving up or down. Two-finger side-to-side scrolling also works.
To emulate a right-click, you use two fingers to tap the touchpad. This lets you bring up context menus to open links in new tabs, pin apps to your launcher, or perform other actions.
For the most part two-finger clicking works reasonably well, but sometimes if both of your fingers don’t hit the touchpad at exactly the same time, you may end up triggering a left click instead of a right-click — and that can mean open a link in the current browser tab instead of a new tab, which can be kind of annoying.
While it took a little while to get used to the buttonless touchpad, I have to say that now every time I pick up a tablet with dedicated left and right buttons, I find myself wanting to place two fingers on the surface to right-click. It’s not a perfect system, but it makes it much easier to use the touchpad with one hand without moving your fingers as far.
The Chromebook instantly recognized a USB mouse when I plugged one in, and had no problem detecting left and right click actions from the mouse.
What a Chromebook can do
Chrome OS may be little more than a web browser, but there are a few key advantages to the way Google’s operating system works.
First, operating system updates are incredibly simple. When an update is available, Chrome OS will automatically download it in the background when you’re not paying attention. Eventually you’ll notice a little up arrow in the settings panel indicating that the update is ready.
The next time you shut down the laptop and turn it back on again, you’ll be running the latest version of Chrome OS. It doesn’t take significantly longer to reboot after an update than it does to perform a normal reboot. The one time I noticed an update install on my review unit, the whole process took less than 20 seconds.
The second big advantage is a case where less is more: because there’s little local storage and almost every app you’ll ever run on Chrome OS has a web component, you don’t have to worry about backing up your device.
It’s always backed up by default — because your apps, history, settings, and preferences are all synchronized with Google’s servers. If you lose your Chromebook you can pick up exactly where you left off by grabbing another Chromebook — or by simply logging into a Chrome web browser on a Windows, Mac, or Linux computer.
The operating system is also generally safer from malware. Since you’re not actually installing anything to the local device even when you add an app to the launcher, it’s tough for a malicious hacker to do anything really dangerous.
Of course, some folks would call an operating system that stores most of your data on someone else’s server less secure since you have no control over it. Personally I think Google engineers are probably better prepared to protect my files and information than I am, but they also clearly represent a bigger target.
If you’d rather handle your own data backups and other security measures yourself, Chrome OS probably isn’t for you.
On the other hand, if you spend most of your time on a computer in a web browser, or if you’re looking for a device with the instant-on qualities of an iPad or Android tablet, but a standard keyboard, a Chromebook might be all you need.
Since the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550 doesn’t run Windows there are many apps it cannot run. But you’d be surprised just how many web-based alternatives exist.
Here are a few web of the web apps I use the most, and the desktop apps they replace:
- Trillian instant messenger (instead of Pidgin or another desktop chat app)
- Google Drive/Docs/Calendar (instead of Microsoft Office and Outlook)
- Google Music, Rdio, and Pandora (instead of Windows media Player)
- Aviary (instead of Irfanview/GIMP for editing pictures)
Aviary also has a web app called Myna that you can use to edit audio — with my background as a radio producer I find this intriguing, but I find the idea of uploading uncompressed audio, mixing it, and then downloading it to be a little odd.
And that’s not counting all the apps for web-based service that I use regularly including Gmail, Google Reader, Netflix, Facebook, and YouTube.
That’s not to say that Chrome OS doesn’t include any native apps. There’s a simple file manager which you can use to find and open files on your device or cut, copy, rename, or delete files.
There’s no way to access the root file system. Basically all you get is a Downloads folder, unless you insert an SD card or USB flash drive or hard drive. Then a second drive opens up in the panel on the left, letting you switch between your Downloads folder and external storage.
Oddly there’s no search function in the file manager, which seems funny for an operating system designed by the makers of the world’s most popular search engine.
Chrome OS also includes a basic media player that lets you watch movies and listen to music without an internet connection, a photo viewer and simple image editor, and a document viewer.
When the Chromebook review unit arrived at my door a few weeks ago, it came with an SD card filled with files to try out. I was amused to discover that I couldn’t open the included Microosft Word, Excel, or PowerPoint documents without an error message. But a few days ago Google pushed out a Chrome OS update and now those documents open without a problem, whether the computer is connected to the internet or not.
Since Chrome OS is basically just a web browser, documents open in a browser window. Videos play in a full screen browser window. And a music player pops up in a small browser window that you can minimize when you want to play audio files.
The image editor built into the operating system is pretty basic, offering you the ability to crop a picture, adjust brightness, or rotate an image. If you need any more advanced features you’ll have to use a web-based editor such as Aviary.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see Google add more functionality to the image editor in the future. The company did buy Aviary competitor Picnik a few years ago. Even though Google shut down Picnik as a standalone service this year, the company clearly has the expertise to build a decent image editing service using nothing but web standards.
Chrome OS lets you print web pages or other content in two ways. The simplest is to print a page as a PDF. You can then save this for later or copy it to a flash drive or email it to yourself to print on another PC.
Or you can use Google Cloud Print. If you have a supported printer connected to the internet, you can send print jobs directly to that printer from the Chrome web browser. If you don’t have a shared printer you can install a Cloud Print app on your PC to turn a printer connected to that computer into a printer that you can use with Chrome OS or Android.
But to be honest, it’s kind of a headache, and I suspect if you’re seriously considering buying a laptop that doesn’t run native desktop apps, you might already be the sort of person that doesn’t use a printer very often anyway.
If you absolutely need to run Windows apps on a Chromebook, Google offers a Chrome Remote Desktop app that lets you remote control any Mac, Linux, or Windows computer that has the Chrome browser installed.
Of course, that only works if you’re using your Chromebook while your PC is already running… so I kind of have to wonder why you don’t just walk over to your PC. But I suppose it could come in handy if you need to login to your work network to access some files on a PC that you leave running 24/7 for some environmentally unsound reason.
Although Chrome OS is based on a Linux kernel, at least one important website that doesn’t normally play well with Linux works perfectly with Chrome OS. You can stream videos from Netflix even though the website usually only works on computers that can run Microsoft’s Silverlight plugin.
What Chrome OS can’t do
OK, so it turns out an operating system built around a web browser can do a lot. But there are some things that it can’t do that could be a little disconcerting for long-time Windows, Mac, or Linux users.
The most important difference between Chrome OS and other operating systems is that a Chromebook becomes about 2000 percent less useful when you disconnect from the internet.
Yes, you can still view photos, watch movies, or listen to music stored locally — but Chromebooks only have 16GB of storage for local files. You won’t be carrying around your entire video collection on this laptop (unless you have a nice collection of very large SD cards).
Chromebooks are clearly meant to be used with active internet connections. Google and third party developers are taking steps to make them more useful without internet access by building offline capabilities into a number of apps.
You can find a few hundred apps with offline features in the Offline Apps collection in the Chrome Web Store. But most web apps still don’t work offline — and many of those that do are useless unless you have the foresight to sync or cache your data before disconnecting from the internet.
For example, Google Calendar works offline — but only if you sync your calendar before going offline. If you haven’t opened Google Calendar recently or haven’t enabled offline access, opening it while you’re on an airplane will either result in a blank screen or an out-of-date calendar.
This should go without saying, but another thing you can’t do with a Chromebooks is run apps that aren’t available on the web.
Want to run Adobe Photoshop, Microsoft Office, Stata, Final Cut Pro, Diablo III, or Portal 2? Tough. There are plenty of online apps that offer similar features — Microsoft even has a web-based version of Office. But if you want to run those apps specifically, you’re out of luck.
There’s also no support for Microsoft Silverlight, an Adobe Flash alternative. I don’t see that as a big problem because the only website I’ve ever regularly used that requires Silverlight is Netflix… and that works with Chrome OS anyway. But if you need Silverlight, a Chromebook isn’t going to cut it.
As mentioned above, you can connect a Chromebook wirelessly to a printer using Google Cloud Print, but unless you have a supported printer, it’s a bit of a headache to set up.
Likewise, you can connect an external display. But for some reason Samsung included a DisplayPort jack instead of a VGA, HDMI, or DVI port. If your monitor doesn’t use DisplayPort (and most older monitors don’t), you’re going to need an adapter.
Normally this would be the section where I would run a series of benchmarks to test CPU and graphics performance. But my usual set of tests are designed for Windows computers, not Chrome OS.
I ran each test on three different devices: The Series 5 Chromebook 550 with an Intel Celeron 867 CPU, an HP Pavilion dm1 notebook with an AMD E2-1800 Brazos 2.0 processor, and a Dell Inspiron 537S desktop with an Intel Core 2 Duo E7400 processor — the most powerful PC in my house at the moment.
As you might expect, the Chromebook was outclassed in the SunSpider test… but it wasn’t that far behind the others. Most of the Android tablets I’ve tested, for instance, have scores of 2000 or higher — and lower scores are better in this test.
Things got even more interesting with the Peacekeeper benchmark — where the Chromebook came out well ahead of the HP Pavilion… but still behind the 3-year old Dell desktop.
OK, but these benchmarks test performance under artificial conditions. What’s it like to use a Chromebook on a day to day basis?
Last year’s model may have had a netbook processor, but it managed to boot, resume from sleep, and generally run faster than a typical netbook due to its streamlined operating system.
But the Intel Atom N570 processor and 2GB of RAM started to show their limitations when you tried to stream HD videos over the internet or open more than 5 or 6 browser tabs at a time.
Those problems have disappeared with Samsung’s second Chromebook. I had no problems streaming 1080p HD video from YouTube, HD video from Netflix, or full-screen video from Hulu. And the laptop never slowed down no matter how many browser tabs I had open at once — although to be fair, I don’t think I ever really tried more than a dozen or so.
I think Google, Acer, and Samsung were on the right track when they released the first Chromebooks with Intel Atom powers… but they missed the mark a bit. You don’t need a blazing fast CPU or an enormous amount of RAM to run Chrome OS effectively.
But you do need something a bit faster than a netbook, and the Chromebook 550 with its Celeron 550 processor and 4GB of RAM delivers.
The Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550 isn’t for everyone. For $450 or more you can buy a decent Windows laptop, install the Chrome web browser, and do almost everything that you can do with a Chromebook.
But you can do many of those things better with a Chromebook if the web browser is your most important app. The Chromebook 550 boots more quickly than a typical laptop, resumes from sleep nearly instantly, and generally offers the kind of responsiveness you’d expect from a good Apple or Android tablet, not a notebook.
You also never have to worry about updating your operating system, apps, or virus protection software.
Chromebooks might be a good solution for business or enterprise settings where IT managers can hand out a series of notebooks configured to only run web apps, allowing users to login to corporate websites to run specific apps for email, document collaboration, payroll management, or other functions.
Since Chromebooks keep data backed up online, if you lose or breaks a laptop, the IT department can issue a new one and get you back up and running as soon as you enter your user ID and password.
As a consumer product, it would be easier to recommend a computer like a Chromebook which does less than a typical laptop if it cost less. But you can buy an HP Pavilion dm1 Windows 7 notebook with similar features for less money.
But in some ways, less is more, and if you’re sold on the web app-driven future, a Chromebook could make a decent substitute for (or compliment to) a traditional laptop.