It’s been nearly two years since Google introduced its vision for a new kind of operating system centered around a web browser. In November of 2009, Google unveiled Chrome OS and promised that it would eventually herald a new type of netbook with larger displays and touchpads and super-fast 7-second boot times. It’s taken more than 18 months, but today the first Chrome OS laptops, (or Chromebooks as Google likes to call them) are scheduled to hit the streets.
The Acer AC700 is available for $380 and up while the Samsung Series 5 has a starting price of $430. For $500 you can also pick up a 3G capable model with 100MB of free data per month for two years from Verizon. Samsung loaned me Series 5 Chromebook for the purposes of this review. Although I’ve been a big fan of the Google Chrome web browser for the past few years, the Series 5 is the first device I’ve used which is designed specifically to run Chrome OS and nothing else.
If you look at the Samsung Series 5’s spec sheet it actually looks like a lot of other notebooks on the market. It’s powered by a 1.66 GHz Intel Atom N570 dual core processor and GMA 3150 graphics. But while most Windows 7 netbooks have 10 inch displays and 1GB of memory, this Chromebook has a 12.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel display and 2GB of RAM. It also has 16GB of solid state storage in lieu of a hard drive.
You can play local music, movies, and pictures on the Chromebook. There’s a built-in file browser and support for USB storage devices or SD cards. But the media players that are built into the OS are pretty basic. Ultimately the Series 5 is designed for use with web apps and you’ll likely have a much better experience if you think of Chromebooks as devices for accessing the web and little else.
That’s harder to do than you might think. While I spend most of my waking hours sitting in front of computers with web browsers open, there are some tasks that are still much easier to accomplish with native apps. While online image editors such as Picnik, for instance, offer most of the features I need for cropping, resizing, or retouching pictures, it just doesn’t feel right to have to download an image from the web, upload it to the web, edit it, download it again, and then upload it to WordPress in order to post it on my web site. I’m not even going to try to do the same thing with a 2GB video file.
Eventually we may live in a world where internet connections are so fast and web pages and web apps load so quickly that the difference between web apps and native apps is academic at best. But we’re not quite there yet. So it feels a bit odd that yesterday Google held an event to talk about how the company is making the web faster with features such as Instant Pages for Google Chrome, but today the first Chromebooks hit the streets and remind us that some things are just painfully slow when you try to do them on the web.
Does the Samsung Series 5 do everything Google promised? Yes. It boots in under 10 seconds. It offers quick access to the web. It synchronizes all of your data with your Google account so that if you’re a Chrome or Google user the Series 5 will be configured just the way you like it the first time you login. But the laptop is also saddled with a relatively slow processor, inconsistent multimedia performance, occasional crashes due to memory issues, and other problems that make me wonder if it’s worth paying a higher than netbook price for a device just because it has a larger screen and faster boot time when it arguably does a lot less than a netbook. After all, there’s little you can do in Chrome OS that you can’t also do on a Windows, Mac, or Linux machine simply by installing the Google Chrome web browser.
Still, if you’re sold on Google’s vision of a cloud-based future where your data is stored online and it almost doesn’t matter which laptop you use because switching from one machine to the next is as simple as signing out and signing in, the Samsung Series 5 is certainly worth checking out.
At first glance the Samsung Series 5 looks a lot like any other notebook with a 12.1 inch display. It might be a little slimmer, since there’s no battery bulging out of the back or bottom. But if you didn’t spot the Google Chrome logo on the lid, you could be mistaken for thinking this was a Windows notebook. In fact, there’s no reason the hardware shouldn’t support Windows, OS X, or most forms of Linux. You’d probably sacrifice the super-speedy boot times if you replaced the operating system though.
It’s when you open up the Chromebook and look at the keyboard that it becomes clear this is no normal Windows machine. There’s no Caps Lock key. Instead there’s a search button where you might expect to find one. There are also no Windows or Fn keys, but there are two Ctrl and Alt buttons.
Along the top of the keyboard you’ll find shortcuts for adjusting the volume and screen brightness, but also shortcuts for going back or forward in a web browser or for refreshing a web page or toggling full screen mode.
The absence of a Fn key doesn’t mean that certain items on the keyboard don’t play double-duty though. They do. It’s just harder to figure out how to perform certain actions because there are no labels. Here’s a brief cheat sheet, but you can find more details at the Chrome support site:
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It’s nice that there are ways to perform almost any conceivable action using keyboard shortcuts. But I’d much rather have a dedicated Del key. I also often found myself struggling to remember the difference between the shortcuts for Home and Page Up. Having to remember which shortcuts require a tap on the Ctrl key or Alt key is hard enough. Throw the occasional Ctr+Alt into the mix and the learning curve is kind of ridiculous for a machine that’s supposed to be easy to use.
This would all be fine if Chromebooks were meant to be used as primary computers. But as web-only devices they’re currently targeted either at customers who only need web access and nothing else, or at folks who are looking for a secondary machine. Using the Chrome keyboard on a secondary device feels a bit like trying to speak one language at home and a second language at work or school. If you grew up in a multi-lingual household that might not be a problem, but if you’ve spent years figuring out where the PageUp key is by looking at the label on the keyboard, then welcome to your French immersion lessons.
The 74-key keyboard does feature nice large flat keys that are well spaced. I’ve been comfortable touch typing on the laptop, and I’m only thrown off when I need to hit a special unmarked key combination. There’s a bit of flex in the center of the keyboard, but not enough to bother me.
The touchpad also takes some getting used to. Google has asked Samsung, Acer, and other Chromebook manufacturers to go with a large clickpad. There are no buttons, just a nice big wide surface to slide your fingers across.
You can scroll by placing two fingers on the touchpad and moving up or down. In order to click on a link, browser tab, or other item, you have to press down on the clickpad. A light tap won’t do anything. That’s good in one respect. I’ve used buttonless touchpads before and if your palm accidentally swipes against them as you type the cursor can jump or you can end up accidentally clicking on something. That doesn’t happen with the Samsung Series 5. On the other hand, you have to press a little harder than you might be used to in order for anything to happen.
Fortunately if you prefer tap-to-click functionality, you can enable it by delving into the Chrome OS system settings.
You can click and drag on items by, well, clicking and dragging. The touchpad also supports “right clicks,” but you have to place two fingers on the pad and click.
If you’r used to an old-fashioned touchpad with separate buttons, you can kind of get away treating the Series 5 as if it had one. I frequently found myself using my right hand to move the cursor and my left to click. But there’s no escaping the fact that you need to use two fingers to right-click. Well, two fingers or a USB mouse.
Fortunately the laptop has 2 full sized USB ports and it recognized my USB travel mouse the instant I plugged it in. That’s more than I can say for most Windows laptops I’ve used, which take a few moments to think about whether they want to accept the mouse before I can start using it to move the cursor to and fro.
The laptop measures 11.6″ x 8.3″ x 0.8″ and it looks awfully slim. But it’s actually kind of hefty for an ultraportable, weighing in at 3.3 pounds. It’s still pretty light compared to a full sized laptop, but it’s not quite light enough that you’ll forget it’s in your backpack.
The 12.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel display is big, bright, and sharp compared with a typical 10 inch netbook display. It’s also a matte display, which means it doesn’t look like a mirror as soon as you open the laptop in a bright, sunny room. But I can’t help but feel like the screen resolution goes to waste most of the time since aside from a few pop-up notifications, everything that happens on a Chromebook happens in full screen mode. There’s no way to run apps (or browser windows, really) side by side.
I was also underwhelmed by the viewing angles. While it’s pretty easy to read text while looking at the display from the left or right sides, the colors look awful in photos or videos when you look at the tablet sideways. Things are even worse if you tilt the screen backward. Fortunately that’ snot a problem you’ll encounter all that often since the screen doesn’t actually tilt back very far.
Above the display is a 1MP webcam. There’s also a built-in microphone for voice or video chat.
On the left side of the notebook you’ll find a power jack, headset jack, and a plastic door which covers a USB port and a tiny port which you can plug a VGA display adapter into.
The right side has an exposed USB port (which makes me wonder why the other one is covered up), and a door hiding the SIM card slot.
On the front there’s a full sized SD card slot.
When you flip over the Chromebook you’re greeted with a single large sheet of plastic. There’s no access panel for removing or replacing the memory, storage, or the 8280mAh, 61Whr battery. Fortunately the laptop gets decent battery life, with around 6 and a half to 7 hours of run time in my tests. But all batteries start to lose their kick over time and it would be nice if there was a way to replace the battery that didn’t involve sending the Series 5 back to Samsung for repairs.
On the one hand there’s not much to say about Chrome OS because it’s basically the Google Chrome web browser with a clock, battery meter, and wireless signal meter in the upper right corner. On the other hand, there’s a lot to say about it, because have you ever tried running an operating system that offers nothing but a web browser before? It might not be quite what you expect.
In general I’m a big fan of the Chrome web browser. I like the way it’s designed so that menus, tabs, and the navigation bar take up as little screen real estate as possible. I like that it’s about as fast as any other browser at loading web pages quickly. And I like that it does a great job of auto-completing addresses I type into the location bar. In fact, I don’t use my bookmark manager nearly as much now that I’m a Chrome user as I did when I was using Firefox full-time, because it’s often faster just to start typing the URL of the page I want to load.
Initially I also kind of liked that Chrome didn’t support plugins or add-ons, because I thought it helped with speed. But over the last few years the browser has come along way and not only does it support extensions, but there’s a Chrome Web Store for third party add-ons. The browser still feels fast.
You can also opt to associate your browser with your Google ID so that bookmarks, apps, and other settings are synchronized between the Chrome browser on multiple computers. That includes Chrome OS machines. So the first time I joined a wireless network and entered my username and password on the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook it grabbed all of my data and presented me with a very familiar setup in a matter of seconds.
The web surfing experience on a Chromebook is exactly the same as it would be in any desktop operating system with a web browser running in full screen mode. The difference is that you can’t resize a window or display multiple windows side-by-side. You can flip between open browser tabs, or even create a new window to populate with extra tabs. But each window runs in full screen. You can’t run two next to one another.
That doesn’t mean you need to go to a separate window every time you want to send an instant message though. Chrome OS supports a handful of pop-up window types, including chat windows. These pop up from the bottom of the screen and hang out on top of your browser window until you minimize them.
Other windows that would normally be partial-screen pop-ups behave the same way. For instance when I went to stream music from Radio Paradise, a pop-up window anchored itself to the bottom of my screen.
If you’re wondering if Chrome OS supports incognito mode (which allows you to surf the web without saving any data locally, allowing some users to surf the seedier areas of the internet, and others to hand over the laptop to a spouse without worrying about being logged out of Gmail), the answer is yes.
You can hit the Ctrl+Shift+N shortcut to open an incognito window. While in a desktop browser this would bring up a whole new browser windows, in Chrome OS your current browser slides to the left until it’s off the screen and you get a new incognito window to work with. You can shift between them by hitting the window button on your keyboard or in the notification area. Just close the window when your’e done and you’re back to normal browsing mode.
While Chrome OS is basically a web browser, the operating system also has a built in file browser and media player. If you plug in an SD card or USB flash drive the OS will scan your device and open a browser tab showing the contents of your storage device. The file browser will also show thumbnail previews for some content types in a window on the right side of the screen.
Not all file formats are supported, but Chrome OS can handle text, PDF, and HTML files, most common image files including JPG and PNG, and a handful of audio and video file types including MP3, MP4, OGG, and WAV. I had no problem playing a few MP3 files from a USB flash drive in yet-another-pop-up window which happened to be a very simple media player. But the laptop simply wouldn’t recognize any Xvid, WMV, or WMA files I threw at it.
Photos open up as a slideshow in a new browser tab — even if you’re only viewing a single photo.
The file browser also comes in handy if you want to download a picture or document from the internet or upload one from your device. But there’s one key file type that’s currently not supported — ZIP. I tried to download a ZIP archive someone emailed me so I could open it up and view the photos. But when I tried to click the file I got a message letting me know that it was an unknown file type.
There’s also no way to copy files to a USB flash drive or SD card. If you take photos or shoot video with the webcam, or take screenshots on the Chromebook by pressing Ctrl and the Window key at the same time, the only way to get them off the notebook is to upload them to Picasa. Seriously, that’s the only choice Google provides.
One of the things I spend a lot of time doing in a browser is composing blog posts using WordPress. As I’ve mentioned, I find it disconcerting that I need to download a file, upload it to a web-based image editor, and then re-download and re-upload it to add it to a post. But the thing that really bugs me more than that is the fact that I can’t view two browser tabs at the same time in Chrome OS.
I like to do research in one window while writing in the second window. The best way to do this is with a dual-monitor setup or a very high resolution display. But a 1280 x 800 pixel display really should be wide enough to have two windows side by side if you want them. Unfortunately there’s no way to do that in Chrome OS without using a hack like the Google Chrome Dual View bookmarklet.
Another dirty little secret is that Chrome is still not king of the browser hill, which means that if you decide to use a laptop that only runs Chrome, some web pages simply won’t work. There are still a handful of web sites that only support Internet Explorer and Firefox, for instance.
Some sites that do work with Chrome don’t work perfectly with Chrome OS. For the life of me, I couldn’t adjust the date in Google Analytics for instances. That’s right Google Analytics. The calendar/timeline widget loads in an instant when I use Chrome on my desktop computer. It simply wouldn’t load properly on the Series 5.
Netflix doesn’t currently support video streaming on Chrome OS. That’s not a huge surprise, since the desktop version of Netflix relies on Microsoft’s Silverlight platform which isn’t available for Chrome OS. Netflix promises that Chrome OS support is in the works, but there’s not telling when it will be available.
Hulu does support Chrome OS, but video playback is a mixed bag. Movies and TV shows look decent when you play videos at 360p or 480p resolutions in a small window in the web page. But when you blow videos up to full screen playback starts to look choppy. In full screen the 360p videos don’t look too bad, but 480p videos are borderline unwatchable.
Not surprisingly, YouTube content looks much better on the Series 5 Chromebook. I watched a 720p HD movie trailer from YouTube and aside from a few buffering issues toward the beginning, I didn’t have any complaints. Amazon Instant Video also looks pretty good, although 720p HD video playback is choppy in high motion scenes.
There are web apps today that let you do everything from creating and editing office docs to listening to online radio (or your personal music collection) to converting file formats in the cloud. A company called Aviary even offers an impressive suite of image, graphics, and music editors that are all web apps. Some of these tools offer features you wouldn’t get from a desktop app, including the ability to quickly share files and projects with other users or collaborate on your projects by inviting them to help you edit. But an operating system like Chrome OS which doesn’t have its own built-in editing tools requires you to seek out web-based solutions and you have to wonder from time to time whether it makes sense to upload every image, document, or audio file to the web before you can start working on it.
There’s also the ever-present question of what happens to all your stuff when you don’t have an internet connection. Google promises that it will add offline capabilities to Google Docs and bring it back to Gmail so that you can get some work done on an airplane. But it’s not like Google is going to let you download and sync all of your documents or messages. You’d run out of space on the Chromebook’s 16GB solid state disk pretty quickly if you could cache every web-based file you might ever need to access offline. The truth is that a Chromebook is designed for web access, and it’s always going to be a bit less useful offline than a laptop with a more general purpose operating system.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t some advantages to using a Chromebook. Your software will never be out of date, because Google pushes system updates automatically, and because as soon as there are new features in any web apps you use, you’ll get them. You don’t have to remember to check for updates in all of your desktop software if you’re not running any desktop software.
The system is also more secure in some ways because very little code runs natively. That makes it hard for anyone to push any serious malware to your device. And if you do need to switch to a new computer, just login and you can pick up where you left off. Some folks will argue that storing all of your important data online where it may be vulnerable to hackers makes it less secure, but in Google’s view there’s nothing less secure than having only a single copy of your files and settings. Both sides probably have a point.
While the Samsung Series 5 has the same low power Intel Atom N570 found in any number of Windows netbooks, the laptop boots up more quickly than most netbooks can resume from sleep. That’s because Chrome OS can skip a lot of the hardware checks and other features built into Windows and just get to the good stuff more quickly.
Chrome OS also has a nifty way of remembering which browser tabs were open when you powered down the laptop, so a cold boot really does feel a lot like resuming from sleep. The difference is that the computer uses no power at all when it’s shut off, while in sleep mode most laptops continue to drain the battery.
When you do just close the lid on the laptop, the computer goes to sleep so quickly you might not even notice it happening. Likewise, when you lift the lid, the computer comes back to life almost as quickly as the light bulb taunting you on the other side of your refrigerator door.
Unfortunately these magic tricks aside, the laptop doesn’t really feel all that fast. Most web pages don’t require a super-speedy CPU to run properly. But the fact that the notebook can’t play high resolution videos from Hulu and Amazon shows that the graphics and CPU capabilities of the Series 5 aren’t all that different from any other budget netbook. The fact that YouTube videos play a little better is a testament to the fact that Google has been optimizing its video technology to play well with low power computers, which is nice, but until the rest of the web follows suit, it doesn’t really help all that much.
Because the Chromebook is designed to run web apps and little else, odds are you’re going to have at least a few browser tabs open simultaneously when you use the laptop. In my tests I usually kept Meebo, TweetDeck, Gmail, and Google Reader open all the time and devoted a few more tabs to other activities.
Most of the time I was able to run as many as 8 to 10 tabs without any noticeable slowdown in performance. But every now and again a browser tab simply crashed. You can pull up a task manager to see which browser tabs are using the most system resources by clicking the wrench icon and then choosing “Task Manager” from the Tools menu. But unless you’re constantly checking the task manager, you might not have any warning before a tab crashes.
This would be a bigger problem on another operating system though. Chrome actually does a great job of keeping processes separate from one another, so when one browser tab crashes it doesn’t bring down any others. That said, sometimes if you run out of memory Chrome will start shutting down extensions one by one. When trying to crash a browser tab intentionally so I could get a screenshot, I accidentally wound up kiling my ToodleDo and Xmarks extensions.
If you’re the sort of person who surfs the web with only a few browser tabs and doesn’t expect to use web apps to do crazy things like edit videos, you can pretty much ignore all of these complaints. The Series 5 is perfect for Facebook, reading the paper, playing some casual games, watching YouTube, and even creating and editing documents. But it’s not quite ready to replace a high end machine… or even possibly a low end netbook with the same basic hardware but a more general-purpose operating system.
You also might want to invest in a pair of external speakers or resign yourself to using the included headset if you plan to listen to music or watch videos frequently. While the built-in speakers provide decent, clear sound, they’re not very loud.
If the Samsung Series 5 Chromebook had a starting price of $99 it would be an amazing machine. Unfortunately it has a starting price of $430 and since it probably costs at least a few hundred dollars to produce there’s little chance Samsung will drop the price much lower. But from a consumer standpoint, it’s hard to justify spending more than $400 on a device that feels more limited in many ways than a traditional netbook.
Sure, there are a few things that make the Series 5 unlike any Windows or Linux netbook you’ve seen so far. It boots in 10 seconds. It has a 12.1 inch, 1280 x 800 pixel display. The notebook is less vulnerable to malware and it stores most of your data online where you can access it from many machines.
But the security and quick booting features would be much bigger selling points if the Series 5 Chromebook could reasonably be used as a primary computer. For most users, I just don’t think that’s going to be an option though. It’s too slow. Web apps aren’t as good as native apps at some tasks and some web sites and web apps simply don’t play well with Chrome. Uploading everything to the web just isn’t practical in some instances and the laptop becomes little more than a 3.3 pound paperweight when you don’t have an internet connection and/or the foresight to cache some of your data locally.
At best, the Series 5 makes an interesting companion to your primary computer. It could be the machine that you take with you to the coffee shop when you don’t want to lug a full sized notebook. It might even be feasible to use a Chromebook like the Series 5 as your only laptop if your primary machine is a desktop computer. But for $430 and up, I’d expect a user experience that’s undeniably better than what you get from a $300 netbook and unfortunately that’s not something this laptop offers.