Samsung Chromebook Series 5 Review
Google aimed to upend the laptop industry with the introduction of ChromeOS, an operating system that basically removes everything but the Web browser. The first generation of what the company calls Chromebooks, basically laptops with ChromeOS, certainly buck many trends and offer new ideas for how we interact with computers, but is it enough to make the Chromebook a good buy?
Google ChromeOS is supposed to simplify the user experience by removing all the fluff and technical details we've grown accustomed to over recent decades and just allow the user to live online. You don't install programs; you just use Web apps. You don't save files to a hard drive; you store them in the cloud.
It requires a new way of thinking about computing, one that might be difficult to accept at first. Old habits die hard. The Chromebook is an excellent experiment in new methods of connecting, but it might be a little ahead of its time and too pricey to make many converts.
Here’s a look at how the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 stands up to the competition.
The Samsung Chromebook Series 5 showcases Samsung's attention to solid design. The Chromebook features a 12-inch display with 1200 by 800 pixel resolution. It's certainly not mind-blowing, and the viewing angles seem a bit tight, but it's bright and clear.
The rest of the device looks completely unremarkable compared to most laptops. There are two USB ports, an SD card slot for memory expansion, a headphone jack and a SIM card slot for the 3G model. The design is all very clean and rounded, with no hard lines to speak of.
The keyboard is a refreshing sight. It's very minimalistic, owing to Google's requirements. ChromeOS's revolutionary paradigm (more on that later) doesn't require all the buttons we've become accustomed to, so there are fewer than normal — no function buttons, no caps lock, no numerical pad, etc. Instead, Google has included keys that are more important to a browsing experience, such as a key that immediately brings up a search field, dedicated forward and back keys for the browser (brilliant!) and the more common brightness and volume keys.
The trackpad, on the other hand, is a complete mess. Tap-to-click, which is a universal feature on all laptops, isn't automatically turned on. It can be found in the settings menu, but that seems like a silly and unnecessary step for such a standard feature. The trackpad itself feels inaccurate and doesn't always register touches and swipes the same way. There are no buttons. Instead, the entire trackpad can be depressed. It makes a satisfying clicking sound, but it doesn't always work, especially near the top of the trackpad. Overall, the trapckpad is easily the biggest weakness of the Chromebook Series 5 design.
Inside, the Chromebook is much more similar to netbooks than laptops. The Chromebook includes a dual-core Intel processor, 1.66GHz N570, that is on par with current netbooks. There is 2GB of RAM and only 16GB of storage, which is very low for a laptop-style mobile device (in fact, smartphones are consistently selling with more storage than that).
The battery life is quite impressive. It's officially rated for 8.5 hours of continuous use, but with more normal patterns of use — in other words, using it for smaller stretches of time — it's quite easy to go nearly two days before needing a charge. That's with lighter tasks such as email and document creation. If you play complex Flash games or use Flash-heavy sites too much, it can use up the battery in closer to 6 hours.
On the whole, the hardware of the Chromebook Series 5 feels very solid and serviceable, but definitely not groundbreaking. That's because all the magic is in the software.
Google ChromeOS is amazing because it really does cause users to rethink how they use computers, something long overdue considering how ponderous computer operating systems have become. ChromeOS flouts the idea of storing anything on the device itself and instead views the Chromebook as simply a conduit to the Internet, where all users' needs are met.
Think about it: What do you buy a netbook for? There's no optical disc drive, so all the content is downloaded and installed from the Internet. They're generally not powerful enough to play blockbuster games, but they are perfect for lightweight Flash and online games. Users may type up documents, but there are plenty of services for creating and storing documents online.
In essence, netbook users (and a large portion of laptop users, for that matter) are already living in the cloud. ChromeOS simply takes the idea a step further by focusing on Web apps for productivity and services and limiting storage on the device itself. There is a rudimentary file system, but it's very limited and clearly meant to be used sparingly.
Anyone who has used the Google Chrome browser will already know what the ChromeOS interface looks like. It's the same thing, except you never exit the browser. That's it.
In this way, ChromeOS is a huge breath of fresh air. It simplifies the computing process immensely. No worrying about menus and dialog boxes and long lists of settings. There are a few small things to tweak if you like, but everything else is even simpler than a Web browser. ChromeOS takes away all the hassle and background technicalities that frustrate computer users.
The vastly simplified system makes everything quicker too. Booting up takes around five seconds, but it's hardly ever necessary. Because of how ChromeOS works, closing the lid effectively shuts off the device, and upon opening it instantly picks up where you left off. It's quite surprising after becoming accustomed to a lifetime of computers and laptops that take minutes to boot up or even wake up from sleep mode. The lightweight operating system works wonders for extending battery life, too.
Sometimes oversimplifying can be just as confusing as too much complexity. The Chromebook Series 5 certainly takes some getting used to. Instead of thinking in programs and saved files, the user has to think primarily in websites and account passwords.
Google even manages to confuse the issue a little by creating an "app store" for users. At first glance it looks like a haven for app lovers because so much of it is free. Only later does it become apparent why. For the most part these aren't pieces of software; they're simply glorified bookmarks that take the user to a ChromeOS-optimized version of websites they can visit on any computer.
Here's the most confusing part: It's not really a problem … until it is.
There are Web apps that can do just about anything you need, and Google actually provides many of them — Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, etc. However, the Chromebook runs into a major roadblock when it can't find a Wi-Fi signal. Google has promised "offline" modes for many of the Chromebook apps, making it possible to continue working on a project even while away from the Internet and then upload the results when a connection is reestablished. The problem is that few Chromebook services — including the most important, Google Docs — don't have offline modes yet. Angry Birds is, unsurprisingly, one of the few apps that currently have offline functionality. So you won't be able to finish that document for work, but you can console yourself by blowing up some chartreuse swine.
It's true that there are Internet connections all around, especially if you buy the 3G version of the Chromebook Series 5. However, it's still not quite ubiquitous enough to be truly reliable on the go, and 3G networks just aren't fast enough for the average power user. If you plan to stay mostly on a home Wi-Fi network, it's fine, but it's much more risky to use the Chromebook as a traveling device, especially before offline modes become more reliable.
For all its amazing traits and innovative methods, the single biggest problem with the Samsung Chromebook Series 5 has to be the price. The Wi-Fi only version is $430 and the 3G version is $499 (and will still require a data plan). It's not exorbitant pricing, but it's very easy to find a decent (Windows) laptop that can do everything the Chromebook can do and more for the same price. And netbooks, which still do everything the Chromebook can do and more, are usually $300 or less.
The appeal of the Chromebook is a stripped down and simplified experience, but unless the price is similarly stripped down, consumers are much more likely to stick with what they know and choose a laptop or netbook with Windows.
The Samsung Chromebook Series 5 is a solid product with a lot of great qualities to recommend it. It's sleek, portable and makes the computing experience fast and simple. But it's still going to confuse many users who aren't comfortable living the in the cloud, and it will be a hard sell at the current price point. It's a wonderful adventure if you want something new and don't mind the price, but it's probably not the right choice for your next powerhouse device.