Samsung Chromebook Review ($249 ARM-based model)
The Samsung Chromebook XE303 is one of the thinnest, lightest, and least expensive laptops available today. It’s the third Chromebook from Samsung, which means it’s a laptop designed to run Google’s Chrome OS operating system. The $249 laptop is also the first Chromebook to feature an ARM-based chip instead of an Intel processor, and one of the first devices of any sort to be powered by an ARM Cortex-A15 processor.
That’s a lot of superlatives. But here’s the bottom line. The new Samsung Chromebook is remarkably light, surprisingly responsive, and offers a pretty great laptop experience — if you don’t mind an operating system that only really runs one app: a web browser.
While it may have been tough to justify spending $350 or more on earlier Chromebooks based on that limitation, at $249 the latest Samsung Chromebook costs less than most Windows notebooks, offers a better keyboard or display than most netbooks, and boots and resumes from sleep in virtually no time at all.
In terms of performance, the new Chromebook is nearly as fast as an Intel-powered model. And if you really don’t like the idea of running a browser-based operating system, developers are already working to port Ubuntu to run on the little laptop. It will probably never be able to run Windows, but with Ubuntu it becomes possible to install desktop-style apps that may provide a better experience than web apps for creating and editing audio, video, documents, or performing other tasks.
Google loaned me a Samsung Chromebook for the purposes of this review. You can pick up a WiFi-only model for $249. If you’d prefer a model with 3G, Samsung also offers a $330 Chromebook 3G which works with Verizon’s network and offers 100MB of free data each month for 2 years. Customers can also pay extra for additional data.
A Chromebook is basically a laptop that runs Google Chrome. If the only app you really need is a web browser, that means the new Samsung Chromebook is probably the thinnest, lightest, quietest laptop you can find for under $300.
But if you rely heavily on desktop apps such as Photoshop, iTunes, Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, you may have a hard time adjusting to life with a Chromebook. There are web apps that let you edit photos or audio, but they may not be as powerful or easy to use as desktop apps. Chromebooks are also designed for use with the internet.
If you’re on a airplane or in another place where you can’t get online, a Chromebook suddenly becomes a lot less useful. Google has been taking steps to enable offline support for apps such as Google Docs and Gmail, and you can listen to music or watch videos stored on your solid state disk or on an SD card without an internet connection. But to get the most out of a Chromebook you need to be able to get online.
So why would anyone want a computer that does less than a typical Windows, Mac, or Linux laptop? Because Chrome OS lets you do some things better. Sometimes.
Since Chrome OS is designed to support a single application, it’s a very light-weight operating system that boots very quickly, resumes from sleep instantly, and runs that one app (the browser) very well. This particular Chromebook model boots in just 10 seconds if you ever bother to turn it all the way off. And if you just close the lid, it will spring back to life instantly the next time you open the laptop.
You’ll also probably never get a virus or other malware since Chrome OS runs web apps instead of native apps. There’s virtually no way to accidentally download and install a program that will maliciously attack your computer because there’s really no way to download and install apps at all. I suppose a rogue browser extension could wreak some havoc, but Google has some security measures in place to minimize that risk.
Also, since Chrome OS synchronizes data with your Google account, you can access all of your Google Chrome browser bookmarks, extensions, and apps moments after the first time you sign in with your username and password.
Chrome OS can also synchronize your open browser tabs. So you can open a few web pages on your desktop and pick up where you left off on your Chromebook.
Chromebooks download software updates and install them automatically in the background. All it takes is a quick reboot and the latest features, bug fixes, or security updates are installed in a few seconds. And any “apps” that you run will be web apps, which means that updates are rolled out automatically and your software will never be out of date.
Since almost no data is stored only on the laptop, if your Chromebook is lost, destroyed, stolen, or otherwise impaired, you won’t lose any data. You can just login to another Chromebook — or the Google Chrome browser for a PC — and you’ll be able to access all your data as if nothing had happened.
That helps explain why the Samsung Chromebook has just 16GB of solid state storage. You can store some files locally, but Google would prefer if you used Google Drive or some other online file storage system.
The new Chromebook also features 2GB of RAM, an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel display, stereo 1.5W speakers, 802.11a/b/g/n WiFi, a microphone and VGA webcam.
The Samsung Chromebook XE303 measures 11.4″ x 8.1″ x 0.7″ and weighs just over 2.4 pounds. Like many ultraportable laptops, with the lid open, it looks a lot like a Macbook Air, with a silver/gray case and a black island-style keyboard. But unlike the Macbook Air, Samsung’s latest Chromebook is designed to be a $249 device — and it has a case made of plastic rather than aluminum.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but while the Chromebook feels extraordinarily light, it doesn’t feel as sturdy as a premium ultraportable laptop. There’s a bit of flex in the keyboard (although you’ll only notice it if you press down hard in the center), and if you tap the screen or bump the laptop, the lid will wobble a little bit.
And while the 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel LED display looks better than the screens on many netbooks, the viewing angles aren’t all that good. Colors start to look distorted when you view the screen from the side or when you tilt the screen back too far.
But seriously, what did you expect for $249? A gold-plated, diamond-encrusted case? For a cheap laptop, the Samsung Chromebook is pretty well built. And since the low power ARM-based processor and solid state disk don’t generate much heat or take up much room, the Chromebook has a fanless design. That means the only noise you’ll hear when using the laptop will come from the speakers or the sounds of keys clicking as you type.
Under the hood, the notebook features a 1.7 GHz ARM Cortex-A15 processor, one of the first on the market. It’s one of the fastest ARM-based chips available, but look at what that means in the performance section.
On the left side of the laptop there’s an SDXC card which you can use for removable storage. Since there’s only 16GB of built-in storage, you can use this slot to store movies, music, or other files, or just to quickly and easily transfer files to and from the device. There’s also a headset jack next to that port.
That’s it for ports or openings on the sides of the laptop. There’s a panel on the back which houses 1 USB 2.0 port, 1 USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port, power jack, and what looks like it may be either a SIM card slot or a microSD card slot. On the demo model Google sent me, this slot is filled with a small rubbery card that’s difficult to remove.
There’s no VGA port, but Samsung says you can use an external dongle to connect a VGA display.
It’s kind of unusual these days to find all the important ports on the back of a laptop instead of the sides, but aside from the fact that a friend of mine tried to plug the power cable into the headphone jack, there aren’t really any major disadvantages to this layout.
It also allows Samsung to keep the base of the laptop very thin. The hinges that connect the lid to the base of the computer actually rest in front of that rear panel, so the rear of the notebook (which is big enough for full-sized ports) can be as thick as the base and lid of the laptop combined.
Keyboard and Touchpad
Samsung’s Chromebook has a keyboard with 74 keys. Most of them are the same keys you’d find on any laptop, including number and character keys, backspace, shift, enter, and arrow keys.
Above the number row there’s also a row of shortcut keys that let you do things like refresh a web page, maximize or minimize a window, adjust brightness or volume, or move forward or back through your web browsing history.
Sure, most laptops have Fn keys, but because a Chromebook is just designed to run a web browser, it can have browser-specific function keys.
There’s also a search button in the spot where you’d normally find a Caps Lock key. Honestly I find myself just ignoring this key most of the time, because it’s not particularly hard to find a search box to type in. But I also rarely use Caps Lock, so I probably would have ignored that area anyway.
If you really want a Caps Lock key, you can always adjust your Chrome OS settings to turn the Search key into one… or an extra Ctrl or Alt key. You can even disable the key altogether.
What takes much more getting used to are the absence of physical keys for more common functions such as Del, PgUp, PgDwn, Home, or End. You can perform all of those functions, but you have to memorize a hodge-podge of keyboard tricks such as holding down the Alt+Backspace keys in order to delete the characters to the right of your cursor instead of the items to its left, or pressing Alt+Up for Page Up and Alt+Ctrl+Up for Home.
For the most part I find typing on the Samung Chromebook to be a very pleasant experience. The keys are well sized and well spaced, and I can type just as quickly on this laptop as on any other I’ve tried. But after spending more than a week using the Samsung Chromebook, I still find myself struggling to remember which key combination to use to jump to the beginning of a sentence without accidentally scrolling up a whole page.
Beneath the keyboard is a wide touchpad with support for multitouch gestures such as two-finger scrolling (place two fingers on the touchpad and move up or down to scroll through a web page). There are no physical buttons, but you can push down on anywhere on the touchpad to click.
Since there’s no right button, you can simulate one by tapping the touchpad with two fingers at once. This lets you bring up context menus that, for instance, let you open links in background windows. Unfortunately your timing has to be just about perfect — I’ve frequently found myself opening a link in the current window instead of bringing up a context window.
The Chromebook supports some USB peripherals though, so you should have no trouble plugging in an external mouse if you’d prefer to use one.
Over the past decade or so the web browser has become the most important app on many people’s computers — but it’s one you don’t think about very often. That’s because it’s basically an app that runs other apps… web apps like Gmail, Google Maps, Flickr, Facebook, and YouTube, just to name a few.
Of course, it’s also a portal to a world of information from news sites, blogs, Wikipedia, and millions of other sites.
So here’s the idea behind Chrome OS: Why bother booting a big, bloated desktop-style operating system if you’re probably only going to run one app anyway?
The Chrome OS operating system hasn’t changed much since I reviewed the Samsung Chromebook 550 this summer, so I won’t spend a lot of time repeating features I’ve already covered. If you want a more in-depth look at Chrome OS, check out my review of that laptop.
In a ntushell though, here’s how Chrome OS works: The first time you boot the operating system, login with your Google username and password. If you use the Chrome browser on a Windows, Mac or Linux PC it should take just a few minutes for a Chromebook to synchronize your bookmarks, settings, extensions, and apps. Once that’s done you should feel right at home — you can even view a list of web pages that are open on other devices from your New Tabs page.
The user interface basically consists of a toolbar with icons for web pages and apps you’ve pinned on the left side, a settings area on the right which you can click to view wireless settings, the battery gauge, or options for more advanced settings, and a desktop which doesn’t do much but provide a wallpaper that you can look at when your web browser isn’t in full-screen mode.
Every time you open a new browser window you’ll see thumbnail icons for the pages you visit most often. You can also open any web apps you’ve installed by hitting the Apps button in the toolbar at the bottom of the screen. This brings up a menu with a Google search box and a list of apps.
Install is kind of a strong word for some of these apps. Basically you can go to the Chrome Web Store and search for apps that let you do everything from edit photos to play Angry Birds on a Chromebook. Some of these apps are little more than glorified bookmarks, while others will install a little code on your system in order to add features.
You can also install extensions that add functionality to Chrome. For instant, the LastPass app is a password manager that can automatically log you into various websites and synchronize your passwords across devices, while the Pocket app lets you save web pages you want to read later or share them with another computer or mobile device.
There are also a few apps built into Chrome OS such as the Files file manager, an image viewer which lets you do some basic editing such as cropping or rotating pictures and a media player that lets you listen to audio or watch video in supported formats even if you don’t have an internet connection.
Google also includes a camera app for the front-facing camera, a calculator app, and a few other apps.
For the most part the emphasis is on web apps though. If you want to watch videos, you can use YouTube. If you want a more full-featured image editor you can use Aviary or iPiccy. And if you want to edit documents you can use Google Docs, Microsoft Office Web Apps, or Zoho Office.
Part of the reason Chromebooks can boot in just 10 second is because they don’t need to load all the software to support native apps that you get with a Windows, Mac, or Linux computer. That’s why you can’t simply run the full desktop versions of Microsoft Office, Adobe Photoshop, iTunes, or other software. Of course Firefox and other web browsers are also out of the picture.
A Chromebook isn’t going to be much use to someone who doesn’t think the browser is the most important app, for anyone who doesn’t have a nearly constant internet connection, or for anyone that needs to run software that works best offline.
As a blogger, a Chromebook offers 99 percent of the functionality I need from a laptop. I can quickly and easily conduct research, edit photos, write articles, and share data over email or social networks.
There’s one thing I need a laptop to do that a Chromebook is virtually useless for though: Video editing. If you’ve ever taken a look at my YouTube channel, you’ll know that I don’t often spend a lot of time editing videos. Instead I try to shoot them in one take and upload them… but instead of uploading the 2GB raw video files my camera shoots, I prefer to compress them to H.264 video files before uploading them. I can’t do that using Chrome OS.
Google is working to fill in some of the gaps in functionality you might experience when using a Chromebook. For instance, you can’t just plug in most printers and expect them to work. But you can use the Google Cloud Print service to send print jobs to internet-connected printers that support the service.
And if you absolutely need to run desktop apps you can use Chrome Remote Desktop to login to a Windows, Mac, or Linux computer (as long as that computer has the Chrome browser and remote desktop extension installed… and as long as that computer is on).
The remote desktop app is actually pretty impressive and gives you full control of a remote computer. You can even use your Chromebook to listen to music or watch videos streaming on that PC… but audio and video quality isn’t all that good.
Remote desktop is most useful when you want to share your screen with another user or login to someone else’s computer to offer technical support. But in a pinch, you could also use it to run desktop apps on a Chromebook… sort of.
The Samsung Chromebook includes Adobe Flash Player, which means that you can view Flash video, play Flash games, or upload content to websites that use Flash-based uploaders.
One thing that this particular Chromebook doesn’t yet support is Netflix. That’s because Netflix relies on Silverlight instead of Flash to stream content to Windows and mac PCs… but doesn’t offer support for Linux yet. Netflix does offer a Chrome OS app, but it relies on Chrome’s NaCL (Native Client) feature, and doesn’t yet work on Chromebooks with ARM-based chips.
So while Netflix looks great on the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550 with an Intel Celeron processor, all you’ll see if you try to stream a video from Netflix on the $249 Samsung Chromebook is an error message. That’s expected to change soon, but for now you’re going to have more luck with Amazon Instant Video, Hulu, YouTube, and other online video sites.
Speaking of Hulu, you don’t need to be a Hulu Plus subscriber to access that online video site. Any content you can stream on other PCs for free will also play on the Samsung Chromebook, and videos look great in full-screen mode.
In fact, Flash-based HD video plays more smoothly on this machine than on many computers with Intel Atom processors that I’ve tested.
Samsung’s $249 Chromebook is surprisingly powerful for such an inexpensive device. I’ve already mentioned how quickly it boots and resumes from sleep. But in day-to-day usage, you’d never know that you were using a laptop with a smartphone-class processor.
I regularly found myself opening up 8 or more browser tabs while using the Chromebook and it never missed a beat. Even with a dozen pages open and music streaming over the web, the computer feels responsive while switching browser tabs or windows, launching new apps or performing other activities.
It might not load all of those web pages quite as quickly as a more powerful computer. But unless you put the Chromebook side by side with a faster computer you probably wouldn’t notice much difference.
The only time the Chromebook started to feel sluggish was when I really tried to treat it like a desktop computer… literally. I connected a 1080p display to the HDMI port and hooked up a wireless mouse and keyboard.
I can’t tell if things slowed down because it took more processing power to work with a higher resolution display, or if the Chromebook is always a little slower than I think — and it was just more noticeable when I set it on my desk and tried to use it exactly the same way I typically use a desktop PC. But switching between tasks and launching new apps started to feel a little slow in this setup.
Technically you’re supposed to be able to mirror the display so that you see the same content on the 11.6 inch screen and an external monitor. I tried this on both a 1080p monitor and a 720p television and it didn’t work in either situation. In both case I had to disable the laptop screen in order to see anything on the big display — and on the 720p TV, the Chromebook mistakenly tried to display 1920 x 1080 pixel graphics. I couldn’t find any way to change that.
There also doesn’t seem to be any way to use Chrome OS for a dual-display setup — at least not yet. Google is always adding new features to the platform, but I’d be surprised if that sort of power-user feature is high on the priority list.
So while the Samsung Chromebook does support peripherals including external displays, keyboards, and mice, your results may vary depending on the devices you’re using.
As you’d probably expect, the Chromebook was the slowest of the three… but the difference between the Intel Celeron and Samsung Exynos-powered models aren’t as great as you might expect. And the new Chromebook does better in those benchmarks than any Android phone or tablet I’ve tested to date.
You can thank the 1.7 GHz Samsung Exynos 5250 dual core processor for that… as well as the Chrome OS operating system. The Exynos processor is the first chip based on an ARM Cortex-A15 design which offers significant gains over the Cortex-A9 chips that have dominated the market for the past few years.
But Google has also been able to continually improve the performance of the Chrome web browser and Chrome OS operating system over time as well. I ran my tests on the Celeron-powered Chromebook this summer, but GigaOm’s Kevin Tofel ran the same tests more recently and recorded much better scores using the same hardware.
In other words, in some ways the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook 550 is faster today than it was when it was released this summer, and there’s every reason to expect the same thing to happen with Samsung Chromebook XE303.
By contrast, most Windows computers tend to get slower with time as you install more apps, write more changes to the system registry, and add more files.
I also ran Sunspider on Samsung’s first Chromebook (with an Intel Atom N570 processor) last summer. It scored 1496, but Chrome OS has come a long way in the last year, so that score isn’t particularly reliable. AnandTech ran the test more recently and got a score of 1034.
The new Samsung Chromebook has a 30Whr battery and gets almost exactly 6 and a half hours of battery life when surfing the web over WiFi and streaming music over the internet.
If you opt for the 3G model I suspect the battery will run down more quickly if you’re using cellular data. And theoretically I suppose you could get better battery life by disabling WiFi — but that would kind of defeat the purpose of running a web browser-based operating system.
This Chromebook gets slightly better battery life than the model with an Intel Celeron processor, which runs for about 5 to 6 hours on a charge. If you were expecting a huge boost in battery life from a model with an ARM-based processor, you’ll be disappointed.
But there are a few key advantages to this model. The battery is about about half the size of earlier Chromebook models. Not only is the new laptop about half the price of earlier Chromebooks, it’s also thinner, lighter, and quieter.
While the Chromebook 550 measures 0.83 inches thick and weighs 3 pounds, the new model is less than 0.7 inches thick and weighs 2.4 pounds. Since the Exynos 5250 processor doesn’t generate much heat, Samsung didn’t need to include a fan to keep the system cool, so the system is nearly silent.
Sure, a slightly bigger battery that would offer even longer run time would be nice. But 6.5 hours is pretty good — especially considering how easy it is to suspend the laptop by closing the lid and picking up where you left off a split second after opening the lid. Basically you get all day computing from this laptop if you have an 8 hour work-day, an hour-long lunch break, and a few bathroom breaks.
Unfortunately the battery isn’t designed to be user replaceable. So if you start to notice battery life decreasing after a few years, it’ll probably be cheaper to buy a whole new Chromebook than to send this model to Samsung for a replacement.
Samsung’s Chromebook XE303 is one of the cheapest laptops you can buy. But it’s an incredibly capable little machine for a $249 laptop. It’s thin, it’s light, and it feels very fast — even if it doesn’t actually have as much raw processing power as many laptops on the market.
If you need to run desktop apps such as iTunes, QuickBooks, or Photoshop, the Chromebook might be a compliment to your primary computer, not a replacement for it. But if you’re happy with Google Music, QuickBooks Online (or FreshBooks), and Aviary, you really might be able to replace a traditional PC with this Chromebook.
While there are some advantages to running Chrome OS (quick boot speeds, synchronizing data between devices), the high price of early hardware made it hard to recommend a Chromebook. Why spend $450 for a Chromebook when you could just buy a decent Windows laptop and install the Chrome web browser?
At $249, the new Samsung Chromebook offers a much better value proposition. It’s priced like an Android tablet rather than a Windows laptop… and while it doesn’t run Android apps there are plenty of games and web apps that you can run in a browser. The large screen and full-sized keyboard and ports also make the Samsung Chromebook feel more powerful than a tablet, since you can use it for long-form writing. In fact, this entire review was written on the Chromebook.
At the same time, the Chromebook’s light weight and instant-on capabilities make it feel tablet-like. During the two weeks I’ve had this laptop in my house, it’s become my go-to device for responding to email messages, checking Facebook, or writing quick blog posts when I didn’t want to wait for a PC to boot.
I still grab my smartphone first, but the Chromebook feels more useful than any of the tablets sitting on my desk (although I prefer those devices for reading books or long articles on the web).
A browser-based operating systems seems like a really weird idea… until you use a cheap, fast notebook that runs one app really, really well. The Samsung Chromebook XE303 is what Chromebooks should have been all along, and it’s pretty much the first model that I think is truly worth the asking price.
Even if you hate the idea of Chrome OS though, there’s another reason to consider this laptop. The operating system is actually based on Gentoo Linux and if you enter developer mode you can actually install some third party softrware. It’s also possible to boot Ubuntu, OpenSUSE, or other Linux-based operating systems from an SD card, or even install a desktop operating system to a partition on the Chromebook’s 16GB solid state disk.
Any apps or data installed outside of Chrome OS won’t be synchronized with your Google account… and if you muck with the system too much you might cause problems. But Google provides software that lets you restore a Chromebook to its original factory condition.