Google’s Chromebooks received a lukewarm reception on release last year. Can Samsung’s refreshed model bring the concept to the boil?
Google’s Chromebooks are designed to do one thing and one thing only: run its browser-based Chrome OS. Samsung’s refresh of the concept adds a bespoke processor, USB 3.0 connectivity and HDMI-out while reducing the price. But is it enough to take on Microsoft and Apple’s dominant operating systems and ultra-thin notebooks?
Compared to Samsung’s previous Chromebook, the new incarnation has a better screen. It’s slightly smaller at 11.6-inches, but it packs in more pixels with a 1366 x 768 resolution. Colours are slightly dull, but black-on-white contrast is crisp and clear. It’s let down by poor viewing angles - from any perspective other than straight-on you’ll witness a negative version of whatever’s on screen.
Its 11.6-inch form factor is just right: it’s small enough to shove into a backpack or manbag, but the screen doesn't induce Clint Eastwood levels of squinting. It keeps going all day, too, saving battery at every opportunity by sleeping when not in use and waking up instantaneously.
The Chromebook’s look is a lawsuit-bating “homage” to Apple’s MacBooks, with an expansive trackpad and black-on-silver chiclet keys. The keys are nice and clicky, and the trackpad’s far more usable than the postage-stamp sized ones we’ve seen on netbooks. It feels like a laptop that costs twice the price.
Samsung’s Exynos dual-core processor is perfectly suited to light web tasks and offers incredible amounts of battery life. Adjust the screen’s brightness and the remaining battery stats are automatically updated, and we managed to get nine hours of Chroming between charges. Amazing.
Samsung’s Chromebook leaves most other computers in the dust in terms of start-up times. Thanks to its inbuilt SSD and the low requirements of the Chrome OS, this Chromebook is able to boot to the log-in screen in less than 10 seconds. Once you’ve logged in the browser’s up and running in eight seconds. It’s so fast that you wonder if everything’s OK. There are no moving parts, so it’s eerily silent too.
Media, apps and games
The Chromebook includes USB 2.0 and 3.0 ports, HDMI-out and an SD card slot. Outputting it to an HD TV worked surprisingly well, but it still has trouble understanding anything that’s going in. Media playback is abysmal in Chrome OS. 10 megapixel photos took a little while to appear, it rendered SD AVI files so poorly that we gave up and the speaker's music playback went from muffled to crackly with nowhere in between. The exception to this is Google's own YouTube, which rendered HD videos with decent clarity.
You can't install any programs per se on the Chrome OS – Google expects you to stick with its native applications. You can grab a few essentials (Tweetdeck, Angry Birds) from the Chrome Web Store, but it's severely limited compared to Windows or Mac operating systems. Of course, we wouldn't expect to be playing Assassin's Creed III on a similarly-priced netbook, but at least you can enjoy the charming nostalgia of the original GTA or Red Alert.
can it work offline?
Although a Wi-Fi connection is a necessary part of Chrome OS, the Chromebook can just about function without it. Google Drive, Calendar and Gmail all include offline functionality, and automatically upload any changes you've made the next time you reconnect. Many apps in the Chrome Web Store will also work offline.
While the Chromebook concept is better on paper than it is in practice, we still admire the fact that Samsung and Google have made a usable, well-built laptop for $449. The astonishing battery life makes it ideal for workers on the go, and its relatively cheap price and walled-garden OS is attractive to parents. But stick to Windows or Mac computers if you want anything more.