Samsung’s latest Chrome OS laptop might be one of the company’s best to date. The Samsung Chromebook 2 with a Bay Trail processor hits a pretty sweet spot between price, performance, and portability… although it does have a few quirks.
This $250 laptop runs for up to 9 hours on a charge, packs enough horsepower for most common computing tasks, and has compact design, measuring about two third of an inch thick and weighing about 2.6 pounds.
It’s not the fastest Chromebook around, nor does it get the longest battery life. But it has a good, non-glare display, decent build quality, and a few nice touches including USB 3.0 and 802.11ac WiFi.
The new model also gets better battery life than the Samsung Series 3 with an ARM-based processor I reviewed a while ago. Its closest competition is probably the Asus C200 Chromebook, which is also a bargain at $249. But Samsung’s new Chromebook has a few things going for it that could make it a better choice for some folks.
Samsung loaned me a Chromebook 2 to test for a few weeks for the purposes of this review.
Samsung was one of the first companies to launch a Chromebook, and over the past few years the company has updated its line of Chrome OS laptops several times, initially offering with more powerful hardware, and then models with longer battery life and other improvements.
In 2012 Samsung also launched the first Chromebook featuring a low-power dual-core ARM-based chip instead of an Intel processor. It was a slim, light, and affordable laptop… albeit one that offered less-than-stellar performance.
ARM-based Chromebooks aren’t exactly uncommon these days, but Samsung stepped up its game this year by launching new models with octa-core processors and 4GB of RAM, including a 13 inch model with a full HD display.
The Samsung Series 2 Chromebook with an Intel Bay Trail processor featured in this review is part of the same family as those octa-core ARM-based models with Samsung Exynos chips. It’s the same size and weight as the 11.6 inch model and features a similar case design. But the Intel version sells for $50 less than the cheapest of the new ARM models.
This Chromebook features an 11.6 inch, 1366 x 768 pixel matte display, an Intel Celeron N2840 dual-core Bay Trail processor, 2GB of RAM, and 16GB of solid state storage.
It has 2 watt stereo speakers, a 720p webcam, 802.11ac WiFi, 1 USB 3.0 port, 1 USB 2.0 port, HDMI output, and a microSD card slot that’s covered by a plastic door.
The Samsung Chromebook 2 measures 11.4″ x 8.6″ x 0.66″ and weighs about 2.65 pounds.
A note about Chrome OS
In case it’s not clear by all the mentions of “Chrome” so far, this is a laptop that ships with Google’s Chrome operating system. It’s basically an operating system built around the Chrome web browser and the idea is that you run most apps inside a web browser.
That doesn’t mean you need an active internet connection to get anything done. Chrome OS has come a long way in recent years and there are a number of apps in the Chrome Web Store which work whether you have an internet connection or not. You can download and install productivity apps, games, image editors, and even email apps for offline use.
Adobe has even come up with a way to let you run Photoshop on a Chromebook.
Chrome OS still might not be the best choice for everyone. With just 16GB of built-in storage, there’s not a lot of room on a Chromebook for your documents, movies, or other files. It might not even be enough space to install the growing number of offline apps for Chrome.
There are some apps that also still don’t work in Chrome. You can use Microsoft’s Office Web Apps (or Google’s web-based alternatives to Excel, PowerPoint, and Word), for instance. But if you want access to the full Microsoft Office experience, you’ll need a Windows or Mac computer.
Still, as someone who spends about 90 percent of my computing time interacting with a web browser whether I’m using Windows, Ubuntu, or Chrome OS, I find Chrome OS to be pretty useful. It’s a light-weight operating system that boots almost instantly, resumes from sleep even more quickly, and runs securely since the operating system is updated automatically as are apps. And since apps run in a sandboxed environment they’re generally pretty safe from malware – you can run Chrome OS without an anti-virus software.
In some ways the small amount of local storage is also a good thing: as with most Chromebooks, when you buy a Samsung Chromebook 2 you get 100GB of Google Drive cloud storage for free for 2 years. And if you save most of your data online, you won’t lose it if you misplace, lose, or damage your laptop or if you just leave it at home and need to log onto another computer.
At first glance, the Samsung Chromebook 2 looks like a laptop with a solid metal unibody frame. Actually, like a lot of portable notebooks these days, it looks a lot like a Macbook Air.
But while the computer has a metal frame, it has a plastic case and a fake leather lid. It sounds tacky… but honestly, the lid looks better in person than I thought it would when I saw K T’s hands-on post earlier this year.
While I don’t think anybody will confuse the Chromebook 2 with a high-quality laptop as Samsung suggests,the textured plastic lid doesn’t collect fingerprints the way glossy plastic laptop lids often do.
The 11.6 inch matte display looks pretty good when viewed from the front or even from the sides. But if you tilt the screen back too far, colors start to look washed out so that images or videos start to look like photo negatives.
Even on the highest brightness setting, the Samsung Chromebook 2 screen isn’t all that bright. But it’s certainly bright enough for basic tasks, and its matte screen doesn’t reflect glare so the laptop’s easier to use outdoors or directly under a light bulb than a model with a glossy, shiny display.
On the left side of the notebook is a USB 3.0 port, an HDMI port, and a microSD car reader. There’s a USB 2.0 port and a headset jack on the right side.
Like most Chromebooks, the laptop has a keyboard with dedicated keys for back, forward, refresh, and other Chrome functions above the number row, where you’d normally find Fn keys on a Windows laptop. It’s a full-sized, comfortable keyboard but if you do push down near the center you can feel a bit of flex.
Below the keyboard is a large touchpad which supports multitouch gestures including two-finger scrolling and clicking.
The stereo speakers are on the bottom of the computer, near the front where the case curves up a bit so that they won’t easily be covered when the laptop is on a table or on your lap. They’re not bad sounding for laptop speakers, but if you’re going to watch a lot of videos or listen to a lot of music, you might want a pair of headphones or an external speaker.
I paired the Chromebook 2 with a Bluetooth speaker (the Logitech UE Mini Boom) and streamed music for a few hours while working and didn’t experience any problems.
The laptop’s Intel Celeron N2840 processor is a low-power chip with a 7.5 watt TDP. It doesn’t generate a lot of heat, allowing Samsung to use passive cooling. There are no vents in the case, and no noisy fans. But while the bottom of the Chromebook 2 can get a little warm, the notebook never got particularly hot while I was testing it.
The Samsung Chromebook 2 boots in a few seconds, resumes from sleep even more quickly, and connects to the internet almost as quickly as you can open the laptop’s lid.
Once you’re online, web pages open quickly and I’ve had no problem surfing the web with a dozen or more browser tabs open. I was also able to stream HD video from YouTube, Netflix, and other online video sites.
Chrome OS provides a pretty zippy experience even on entry-level hardware, so the Chromebook 2 doesn’t feel particularly slow… until you compare it with a device with more powerful hardware.
The Acer C720p Chromebook, for instance, outperforms this model in benchmark tests thanks to its faster (and more power-hungry) Intel Celeron 2955U Haswell processor. And the Acer C720 with a Core i3 Haswell chip or the Google Chromebook Pixel with a Core i5 Ivy Bridge processor are even faster.
That doesn’t necessarily mean those models can run apps that the Samsung Chromebook 2 cannot… they’re just generally a little more responsive. The Chromebook 2 feels pretty fast. Those models feel faster.
Not surprisingly, the Samsung Chromebook 2 with an Intel Celeron N2840 processor scores a little higher in benchmarks than the Asus C200 Chromebook with a Celeron N2830 chip… but the differences are pretty small.
Both chips are are low-power, dual-core 64-bit processors that use around 4.5 watts of power during normal use. The main difference is that the processor in the Samsung Chromebook 2 has slightly higher burst speeds for CPU and graphics performance.
Generally if you get a Chromebook with an Intel Bay Trail or Haswell processor, I think you’ll probably be pretty satisfied with the performance offered by Chrome OS.
The same might not be true if you opt for a model with an ARM-based chip. The 2012-era Samsung Chromebook and the more recent HP Chromebook 11 both feature Samsung Exynos 5250 dual-core ARM Cortex-A15 processors and while they’re fast enough for basic tasks, they can feel sluggish at times, especially if you’re doing a lot of multitasking.
I haven’t personally tested the newer Samsung Chromebooks with Exynos 5 octa-core processors or Acer’s new Chromebook with an NVIDIA Tegra K1 processor, so I can’t really speak to those models.
Samsung says the Chromebook 2 with Bay Trail should get up to 9 hours of battery life, and in my tests it seems like the laptop really is good for around 8 to 9 hours of run time under normal conditions.
That’s not quite as good as the 12 hours offered by the Asus C200 Chromebook, but it’s a lot better than the 4.5 hours I squeezed out of the HP Chromebook 11.
The biggest question is whether it’s enough better than the 7.5 hours I managed to get from the Acer C720p Chromebook to justify opting for a Chromebook with an Intel Bay Trail processor rather than a more powerful Haswell chip. I’ll leave that for you to decide… but if you’re a fan of Samsung’s designs, this might be as good as it gets for now: the company doesn’t currently offer a Haswell model.
Notes for advanced users
Find Chrome OS a little too limiting? No problem. It’s pretty easy to load Ubuntu (or Debian, or other operating systems) on the Chromebook 2.
First you’ll need to enable developer mode. You can find instructions for doing that at the Chromium website (the steps for the Bay Trail Chromebook2 are the same as for the ARM-based model).
When you first switch to developer mode the Chromebook will wipe any data in local storage. But the beauty of Chrome OS is that once you login with your Google account, the Chromebook will automatically grab all of your apps, search history, and preferences from the cloud and you’ll be back to where you were in no time.
Once developer mode is enabled you can open a command shell by hitting Ctrl+Alt+t and typing “shell” without quotes.
From here you can enable support for booting from a USB or run other commands. Unless I’m mistaken, it doesn’t look like this Chromebook supports legacy boot mode, so the simplest way to install Ubuntu or Debian is to use a script such as crouton which loads Ubuntu alongside Chrome OS.
This lets you run Chrome OS and Ubuntu simultaneously and switch back and forth between environments by hitting the Ctrl+Alt+arrow keys.
Since Crouton installs Ubuntu using chroot, the operating system borrows all of its graphics, wireless, and other drivers from Chrome OS. This means you don’t even need to re-enter your network password to connect to the internet from Ubuntu. Once the operating system’s installed, just launch it and you’re already online.
You can find more detailed instructions for doing all of this at the github page for crouton.
When I tried installing Ubuntu 14.10 with the Unity desktop environment I ran into some problems with the system crashing or freezing from time to time. So I wiped that chroot and tried again with Ubuntu 14.04 and the LXDE desktop environment. That worked perfectly, allowing me to load the GIMP image editor, LibreOffice suite for editing documents, and even the Firefox web browser.
If you prefer some native desktop apps to their web-based equivalents, installing Ubuntu on a Chromebook lets you have the best of both worlds.
Want more memory or storage? Tough. Well, probably.
Intel’s Celeron N2840 processor supports up to 8GB of RAM, but Samsung doesn’t make it easy to open up the case. There are 9 screws holding the bottom of the laptop together, but when you take them off there’s a series of plastic clips which holds things pretty firmly in place.
I wasn’t confident I could open the case without breaking something, and since I have to send this notebook back to Samsung when I’m finished I gave up. But if the Samsung Chromebook 2 looks anything like the Asus C200 under the hood, there’s a chance the RAM and/or storage might be soldered to the motherboard which would make it almost impossible for users to perform upgrades by themselves.
Samsung’s Chromebook 2 with an Intel Bay Trail processor is a small, inexpensive, and speedy-enough-for-casual-use laptop with a fanless design for quiet operation.
It has a matte display, which some folks will consider a plus, but it has limited viewing angles and doesn’t get as bright as some other laptop displays.
The notebook gets great battery life, running for nearly 9 hours on a charge.
Overall, I’m pretty impressed with this laptop… but it’s worth noting that the Asus C200 Chromebook offers very similar specs, longer battery life, and nearly-as-fast performance for about the same price. In fact, since the Asus model has been on the streets a little longer, you can already find it on sale from time to time for as little as $199, which makes that laptop about $50 cheaper than the Samsung Chromebook.
Samsung’s Chromebook 2 is a bit thinner than the Asus C200 (0.66 inches rather than 0.8 inches), but it’s also a little heavier (2.65 pounds, compared with 2.4 pounds). The differences are small enough that you probably wouldn’t notice them unless you put the two machines side-by-side.
All told, I think both laptops are pretty great options. If you want a thinner machine with a matte, non-glare display, choose the Samsung Chromebook 2. Want longer battery life and a display that’s shinier, but also brighter? Choose the Asus model.
Think you might need a faster processor or a system that’s easier to upgrade? Check out the Acer C720 Chromebook with a Celeron or Core i3 Haswell CPU.
It’s nice to be spoiled for choice.