Remember netbooks? They’re back, and called Chromebooks. They run Chrome OS (see panel, right) – Google’s vision of a computer that works almost universally through a browser window. And they’ve arrived in the midst of a touchscreen tablet revolution. That’s like turning up to a black tie do in a toga. Only slightly more embarrassing.
First out of the gate (discounting Google’s own Cr-48 prototype) is Samsung’s Series 5 Chromebook, a comfortably rounded slab of black or arctic white plastic in which you’ll find a 12.1in matt screen and full-size chiclet keyboard.
The Series 5 is woefully short on headline specs. The WXGA display is a world away from the blaze of glossy HD glass topping the latest tablets. It fails to dazzle even at full brightness, a setting that washes out the fine lines of Google’s freshly redesigned Calendar and – worse – those of its freshly launched social network, Google Plus.
The keyboard and multi-touch trackpad are both great. The former clacks along solidly, firm and responsive under your fingers. Yes, the search key (where you’d normally find caps lock) takes a bit of getting used to and you could argue that the Ctrl and Alt keys on the left hand side of the keyboard are too big, but it’s a killer ‘board whatever small complaints you might unearth. A top line of browser nav keys, volume and brightness controls is ideally suited to a laptop capable of one thing only – accessing the internet.
Up to speed
Despite basic specs it’s very good at accessing the internet. From cold, our test model reached the login screen in under eight seconds and took only seven to display a web page from there. Assuming you can type your password quickly, there’s nothing stopping you reaching the internet in under 20 seconds.
Back to the 90s
Plug anything into the USB ports and you’re in for a change of decade. A piece of operating system that was rejected from the Windows 95 build appears in your bottom left corner to tell you that a removable device has been detected. This is soon replaced with the file browser, which would have been rejected from Windows 3.1 on asthetic grounds.
You can also access the Chromebook’s file browser via a keyboard shortcut (Ctrl + M), though it’s not mentioned in the bundled Quick Start Guide.
Movies and music
The good news is that there’s broad image format support and Chrome OS will also play most music codecs (although the pop-up media player is another unsightly piece of operating system furniture). You can view text files and PDFs, but not Microsoft Word documents (these can be opened in Google Docs). But video’s the real sticking point. There’s support for MP4, and .mov files, yet ask your Chromebook to engage with popular .avi or .mkv codecs and it returns a blank stare.
None of these things is directly the Samsung Series 5’s fault; they can all be fixed with a wave of Google’s coding wand later on, but aside from its lightning fast boot time Chrome OS looks and feels light years behind.
Can Samsung’s Series 5 find its niche in a tablet-mad world? At half the price, the Chromebook would be an attractive second PC, something you could let the kids loose on, a useful addition to the table that houses your remote-control collection. But with its comparable levy on your wallet and lack of offline apps, it’s going to be a tough sell.