Laptops running on Google’s Chrome OS, a Linux-based Operating system that revolves around one thing: the Chrome web browser. If you are unfamiliar with the concept, the idea is that every application that you run with Chrome OS is web-based (a website) and runs in the Chrome browser. Google fundamentally believes that this is a great alternative and a more secure way of computing because everything is inherently isolated, so there’s less chances that your computer may be compromised.
The Chromebook Series 5 550 notebooks go on sale Tuesday, at $450 for the Wi-fi-only version and $550 for the same laptop with 100MB per month of free 3G broadband from Verizon as part of the price (There’s also the Chromebox, a miniature desktop PC, which we’re reviewing separately).
By the specs, Samsung’s second-generation Chromebook is hugely underpowered: 1.3GHz Intel Celeron 867 processor (dual-core); 12.1-inch matte display (1280 x 800 resolution; 300 nit); 16GB solid-state drive; Intel HD graphics; 4GB SDRAM; webcam; two USB ports; DisplayPort; WiFi N; 3G (one some models); Gigabit Ethernet; 4-in-1 media card slot; and Chrome OS. The operating system stack supports Bluetooth, which therefore can be added by dongle.
Chrome OS is now a year old, so it’s fitting, perhaps, that Samsung’s Chromebook has grown more serious with age. In fact, Google reps have suggested that the new design is meant to appeal to the buttoned-up schools and businesses already using Chrome devices. For starters, this includes the addition of some more office and classroom-friendly features like a built-in Ethernet jack and DisplayPort (no dongle needed).
That, and the design is more staid. Like the prototype we saw at CES, the 550 we have before us trades the semi-gloss for a decidedly less playful matte gray finish. Even the Chrome logo is less conspicuous than before. For the most part, the chassis is constructed from plastic, as you’d expect from a $449 machine, though the palm rest is now made of inlaid metal, which makes the palm rest, at least, feel sturdier. At 3.3 pounds (1.48 kg), it’s slightly heavier than the last-gen model, which weighed 3.26. Either way, it’s on par with some 13-inch Ultrabooks we’ve handled, which means nobody should be complaining about its bulk — especially when this thing costs half the price.
All told, it looks more somber than the last-gen model, though Samsung at least erred on the side of tasteful. With the exception of some thin chrome trim around the touchpad, there are no superfluous flourishes, and the finish is fingerprint- and scratch-resistant, to boot. Even the power button is built into the top row of the keyboard, adding to the general cleanliness of the design.
Given that Chrome OS isn’t your typical kind of operating system, the list of associated sockets is short, and our tour around the device will be brief. On one side, you’ll find the AC port, a USB 2.0 socket, a DisplayPort, a headphone jack and that newly added Ethernet connection. On the other, there’s an SD reader, Kensington lock slot and a second USB 2.0 port. Simple stuff, for people with simple needs. If you’re looking to connect your trusty wireless mouse, the Chromebook supports Bluetooth 3.0, though you’ll need to plug a dongle into one of those two USB ports. (The Chromebox has native Bluetooth 3.0 support, in case you were wondering.)
The 1.3GHz processor seems fine most of the time, more demanding games aside, and played downscaled 1080p video perfectly adequately. It’s certainly a faster experience than last year’s Chromebook, letting you have more windows open at once and swap between them easily. Benchmarking wasn’t readily available, and wouldn’t be comparable to a Windows laptop or iPad anyway.
As for battery life, Google promises 6.5 hours and, indeed, the Chromebook lasted a full day with pretty typical use. The need for Wi-Fi means you won’t usually be far from a plug, but you should be able to get at least a couple of movies’ worth of use on a transatlantic flight.
While hardware modestly improves over original Series 5, the software dramatically changes. Google introduced new window manager Aura with Chrome OS 19. While the browser motif dominates the desktop, it’s not the only landscape. There is a bottom toolbar that is something of a cross between those available on OS X and Windows 7, plus there’s a desktop now. OS X and Windows fans looking for a reason to diss Chrome OS should enjoy changes easily characterized as a big fail for the browser OS concept.
The changes aren’t so much concession as extension. The full-screen browser remains, but simply as option. Users can have it both ways, while gaining something else: Better multitasking, a capability the tabbed motif limited. Separate windows allow users to work more freely. In theory. I find the desktop motif to be superfluous. Tabs work just fine for me.
Something else: there’s an app launcher, which presents applications in grid-like fashion, reminiscent of Android. The launcher is unexpected, since these are web apps after all. But the motif works and makes the experience more familiar to everyone that has used popular mobile or PC operating systems. In the lower right-hand corner is a clock behind which there are some pop-up settings presented, and they take visual cues from Android 4.x. Actually, many of the UI changes subtly remind of Ice Cream Sandwich. Perhaps there is yet a future where Google combines Android and Chrome OS, something I would recommend.
Chrome OS now syncs your tabs with whatever you have open in your mobile Chrome browser. Google+ is now baked into Chrome OS, and a dedicated Hangouts app makes video chatting easier than on previous versions of the software, which left you with the video calling feature built into GChat. A new version of Chrome Remote Desktop lets you reach into any Mac or PC you may have left at home, so long as it’s on. Equally lovely: you can access remote PCs not just from Chrome OS devices, but from anything running the desktop-grade Chrome browser. (Note: you’ll have to install some software on the host computer to make this work and then set a PIN, which you’ll enter on your Chrome OS device whenever you want to log in.)
Keyboard and trackpad
The chiclet keyboard on offer here actually has some bounce to it. The slightly deeper keys and even the quiet sound make it easy to settle in for hours of web surfing, email and story writing.
Google says its improved the trackpad experience to make it more precise. Whatever fine-tuning it did seems to have worked: cursor navigation feels controlled, and we also had no problem pulling off gestures like pinch-to-zoom and two-finger scrolls. What’s more, the clickpad itself is easy to press — something far too many laptop makers get wrong. If you happen to disagree, you can always use the keyboard’s built-in backward, forward, full-screen and refresh buttons to minimize clicking.
Google does provide this functionality with Google Hang Out, a feature of the Google+ social network. Hang Outs offer very good video calls and screen sharing capabilities, in addition of free multi-party video calls, a paid feature on Skype. Obviously if you network is already signed up with Skype, it may be hard to convince them to go yet to another service, but chances are that they already have a Google account for GMail, so the jump may not be too hard. Honestly, we still use Skype, mostly because everyone is on it.
Samsung left good enough alone and once again went with a 12.1-inch, matte screen. That 300-nit screen — the same brightness level you’ll find on a $1,000 Series 5 Ultrabook — means you can use this outdoors in the sunshine. (The non-glossy finish helps here, too.) That’s all particularly useful on a mobile machine like this, whose 3G radio allows you to get online almost anywhere. As for the resolution, we might, under normal circumstances, pooh-pooh the 1280 x 800 pixel count, but the truth is it’s sufficient for an OS that only allows you to open two windows at once anyway.
The volume is dim, even at the highest setting, and we often found that the speakers went silent for a second or two as we started to crank the decibels up or down. As you adjust the sound, you might see the onscreen volume bar move before you actually hear louder sound. If you’re impatient, then, you could easily pump the volume close to the max before you actually hear anything coming out of the speakers.
Whereas the first Series 5 had a 10-hour battery, this one’s expected to last no more than six hours. With light usage (read: web surfing and Gmail) you should be able to achieve that, though if you plan on watching a movie you’ll want to have the charger nearby. In our standard battery test, with a video looping, WiFi on and the screen brightness set to 65 percent (in this case, 10 out of 16 bars), it lasted three hours and 23 minutes.
It is fair to say that Google has vastly improved the Chromebook user experience. From a web standpoint, I find this new version to be much more usable and fast. It does fell like a “normal”, “decent” computer, and not like a cheap Netbook.
The web services and “apps” that Chrome OS rely on have evolved nicely as well. While I still find Google Cloud Print to be inconvenient, I think that Google Drive is a great storage option. I would like to see more third parties build a Chrome extension for their own web services. Google+ also plugs a few holes that can effectively make the absence of Skype livable. It’s not perfect, but that’s a real and efficient solution to audio and video chat for personal and professional activities.
Though Chrome OS has improved over the past year, it still seems ambitious of Samsung to price its newest Chromebook at $449 and up. This seems like a lofty figure, given how relatively little devices like this can actually do. What’s more, that price seems to exist in a vacuum — a place where tablet apps aren’t growing more sophisticated, where Transformer-like Win8 tablets aren’t on the way and where there aren’t some solid budget Windows machines to choose from. If all you wanted was an inexpensive device with a physical keyboard to write emails and surf the web, you could get the new ASUS Transformer Pad TF300 and accompanying keyboard dock for $530 — eighty bucks more than this Chromebook. And remember, the last-gen Series 5 with better battery life is just $350. Those are just a couple of examples, but hopefully you can see where we’re going: while Chrome OS is getting better, and while Samsung knows how to make a solid PC, the Series 5 550 and devices like it aren’t likely to take a big bite out of the consumer market until someone decides to trim the price.