Google’s first operating system is finally here. But let’s get one thing straight: The Chromebook is not really about the hardware.
The Samsung’s Series 5 notebook is the mere physical vehicle for Google’s cloud-based vision of the future. It’s a world where users aren’t bogged down by needless accoutrements like cumbersome operating systems, optical drives or high-capacity local storage.
Which is why Chromebooks don’t come with any of that stuff.
full review after the jump…
Want to store your digital photos? Use the Chromebook’s SD card reader to upload images to Picasa, Google’s photo storage site. How ’bout a hankering for music? Google Music (now in beta) stores all your music on its servers, streaming songs directly to your many Google devices (Chromebook, Android phone or otherwise). The same goes for documents (Google Docs), calendars (Google Calendar) and most other things you could think to use on your notebook. Want some web-based games or more specific apps? Go to the Chrome web store. Everything happens within the confines of Chrome, Google’s own web browser.
Samsung’s Chromebook was unveiled a month ago at Google’s I/O developer event, and other manufacturers, beginning with Acer, will produce their own similar models this year.
The idea of a computing environment based entirely around web-based apps and storage has been on Google’s map for years. Even with looming fears of vendor lock-in, corporations, consumers and developers alike have all shown interest in the cloud model. Microsoft has its own cloud-based Live services, and most recently, Apple threw its chips onto the table with iCloud. But Google’s ecosystem, with its dozens of well-tuned apps, remains the most familiar and fully-baked.
Still, directly out of the box, it’s somewhat disorienting. Searching for a minimize button that never appears, countless vain attempts to alt-tab to my Twitter client, grasping at straws for an external (that is to say, non-browser-based) media player — all of which I’ve been trained to do after spending years on Windows and Mac desktops.
But after a short while, life in the browser-based environment became familiar. I’ve enjoyed using Chrome since the browser’s debut, and eventually welcomed the interface as my only means of control. Some essentials, like a file manager and pop-up media player within the browser window, are included. They’re easy enough to get a handle on, though a bit rudimentary.
The device is, however, susceptible to strain in other ways — namely, power-browsing. Opening multiple tabs running different types of pages (Flash games, videos, and text-based sites) left the Intel Atom dual-core chip struggling under the weight of too many tasks occurring at once. On several occasions, I had to kill off unresponsive tabs in the browser’s
Otherwise, the Series 5’s overall profile is admirable. At just under three and a half pounds, carrying a Chromebook around doesn’t feel like a rock in a bag on your hip. It’s lighter than the MacBook Pro I’m currently using by more than a pound, and it felt fine as I schlepped it around San Francisco during my workday. The Series 5 is also fairly thin when closed — 0.79 inches, to be exact. Obviously not MacBook Air-levels of thinness, but it won’t cost you a grand, either.
It’s sleek, too. The Series 5 comes in two finishes, Arctic White or Titan Silver — both plastic, and both offset nicely by the Chromebook’s black innards. Despite the notebook’s mostly plastic construction, it doesn’t come off as chintzy. Lightweight resin composition? Yes. Cheapo kid’s toy feel? Definitely not.
Much unlike Apple’s toasty laptops, the Chromebook didn’t set my crotch on fire after extended use. That’s a big plus, and certainly positive for any future children I may happen to father.
The Series 5 has a full-sized keyboard, so it’s not cramped and feels just like a regular laptop keyboard. Non-essential keys are gone, including the F1 through F18 keys, which are replaced by media controls. A Search key replaces Caps Lock. It opens a new tab in your browser when you press it. Hit it again and the tab disappears. If you miss Caps Lock (crazy!) you can re-map the keyboard to your tastes.
Samsung claims it takes eight seconds to power up, from the point of being completely off to seeing a usable browser window. When we tested this, it actually took only seven seconds to start up and be ready for use. It’s a seemingly trivial point, but think about what the device is used for: instant access to the web, e-mail and simpler tasks. You want something fast, not a rig that requires minutes to fully boot up.
Which gets at the heart of the device’s utility, and Google’s vision for us: simple, stripped-down browsing driving the majority of our computing experiences. For that purpose, but for that purpose alone, the Chromebook is a worthy vessel.
GOOD Ideal for dedicated Google apps users. Battery affords 7.5 hours of surfing time, even with the bright 12.1-inch screen at full bore. Built-in developer mode lets you tinker with the bare-bones Linux guts underneath.
BADToo many open tabs test the Chromebook’s resources. Only 100 MB of free monthly 3G service most likely means signing up for a new data plan. $500 leans towards the high end for a web-only notebook. Selection of web apps in Chrome web store leaves a lot to be desired.